teaching alternative futures with “the centenal cycle”


The following guest post by Rick Searle is part of a series on sociology and science fiction.

“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.” – Ursula Le Guin

The idea that part of the role of an advanced education is for the student to be able to escape the stranglehold of assumptions passed on by whatever particular society she happens to be born into can be traced at least as far back as Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.”

At the heart of all the human sciences that have avoided being seduced by the false certainty of quantitative models (here’s looking at you, economics) lies the recognition that the multitude of societies, cultures, systems of economy, and governance in which human beings live are all historically contingent, the product of some particular population of people being shaped over time by their complex interactions with the world and with one another.

What’s difficult for educators is that they must convey this very contingency while simultaneously providing their students with an in depth understanding of the world as it actually is. At the same time this extensive background knowledge needs to be tempered with the due recognition of the limited extent we even understand something as complicated as a society composed of empirically slippery human beings who resist any effort to reduce their lives into behavior, a lifeless model.

Great science-fiction is particularly good at showing us the world we live in needn’t necessarily be so, and it does so with real, messy and multilayered humans (or their alien analogs). Some of these imagined worlds are dystopian- taking what is usually some widely held or ascendant social assumption to its nightmarish logical conclusion. Others are utopian- imagining a world where the social problems evident in our own are successfully resolved. Lastly, some of the best works of science-fiction not only imagine alternative models to our own society that address some of its primary contradictions, they also attempt to grapple with the likely pitfalls of that alternative’s own solutions. These latter works present us with a more honest rendering of any still recognizably human world, neither fully dystopian nor fully utopian, but composed of flawed creatures capable of transcendence and fall, which is the closest to a definition of “human nature” to which we might ever come.

Malka Older’s Centenal Cycle is an excellent, recent example of this neither utopian nor dystopian type of imagining, attempting to render a plausible version of a future society which in solving some of the problems of our own times encounters dilemmas of its own.

Two of the planned three books of the Centenal Cycle have been already been published with the third novel scheduled for release sometime this year. The world Older imagines in the first two novels of the trilogy- Infomocracy and Null States depict an alternative, global political order. Most of the world’s states have been replaced by what Older calls  “micro-democracy”, globe straddling polities built from “centenals” (political units of 100,000 individuals), who are tied together along ideological lines. The group that possesses the most centenals becomes what she calls the “Supermajority” a position which, though it powers are ambiguous, nevertheless has the advantage over other groups of promoting its own ideology over its political rivals.         

Which ideological group control centenals, and ultimately possesses the Supermajority, is decided through elections held every ten years. In charge of establishing the factual truth of the rhetoric surrounding these elections (and other forms of speech beside) is an organization named “Information,” a kind of politicized version of the tech giants of our day.

Published before the 2016 election, the first novel of the Centenal Cycle seems eerily prescient. Older herself has pointed out that this has less to do with her Nostradamus-like powers, than the fact that “fake-news” was easily identifiable as a problem well before the Trump campaign, clearly present in the “Swift-boat” conspiracy used to discredit John Kerry in his race against George W. Bush.

Nevertheless, Older managed to identify, offer solutions for, and grippingly novelize issues at that would become the center of political and social debate, in both academia and beyond, today. The most important problems in this context being: in an era when the cost of production for communication nears zero, how is one able to distinguish truth from falsehood? During a period when nation-states appear to be increasingly ineffective (in part because many of our problems and interactions are now global), and representative democracy is perceived to be unresponsive, what form of governance could replace it that might re-orient politics to be both more local and more global in scope at the same time?

Older’s imagined system of global micro-democracy where the truthfulness of speech is policed by a single organization presents a plausible solution to these problems, however unlikely such a world order is in reality. Centenals made up of 100,000 people brings political participation closer to the individual than at any time since the polis of ancient Greece. At the same time these centenals are aligned on a global scale- a much better reflection of our contemporary capacity for travel and communication than the world of “great walls”, now being touted by those who dream of restoring the lost sovereignty of states over a particular territory and people.

The idea of an organization whose task is to police the world’s propaganda anticipates calls after the 2016 election for giant internet platforms- Facebook, Google, Twitter – to take on editorial responsibilities for the content of their sites and services and purge fake content in the same way they now censor pornography or material that violates copyright infringement. In the Centenal Cycle, Older combines something like this internet policing with organizations promoting transparency in governance, such as Accountability Lab to which she donated a portion of the proceeds from her novels.

The Centenal Cycle offers an action packed, cyberpunk intro to otherwise dry questions around media accountability, the present and future role of internet platforms in deciding what information is easily available to the public, and issues surrounding government accountability and responsiveness to citizens.

Especially when it comes to the question of governance, the system Older imagined in the novels is not mere fantasy but a logical conclusion of trends already in evidence, which have been probed by thinkers on both the right and the left of the political spectrum.

Take, for example, Benjamin Barber’s 2013 book If Mayors Ruled the World, where the author meticulously traces how, as the nation-state proves increasingly incapable of addressing the political needs of its citizens, the world’s cities have stepped into the breach, crafting ad hoc coalitions to tackle issues such as global warming. Barber’s proposal that these case-by-case alliances be formalized into what he terms a “global parliament of mayors” whose policy prescriptions would be non-binding bears a strong resemblance to Older’s imagined Supermajority. Indeed something like the Centenal Cycle’s micro-democracy can be seen today in political experiments from places as removed from one another (and removed from the traditional centers of democracy) as Taiwan and Spain.

Even in light of the fact that Older has a clearly expressed philosophy, her novels thankfully avoid being didactic and leave room for questioning the very system she has proposed. Especially in Null States, where Older deals more concretely with governance under micro-democracy, we are given a window into the system’s imperfections.    

If the characters running Information are presented as engaged in a heroic struggle against falsehood and sinister efforts to undermine micro-democracy, the reader can’t help but wonder how such powers might be wielded by far less benevolent forces. Freedom under the ever watchful and ubiquitous eye of Information can feel like its opposite. As Roz, the main protagonist in Null States, admits:

“Information is widely hated around the world, for any number of reasons: its power, its ubiquity, its terrifying and useful array of knowledge.” (124)

Likewise, Null States touches upon the question of privacy, for if the only road we have to fact based political discourse is via an all seeing organization like Information, then very little of our current notion of privacy can survive, yet isn’t our very freedom predicated on a commitment to just such privacy?

At least one character in the book, Maria, seems to think so with the very name of the small political group (possessing only two of the world’s centenals) she belongs to –  Privacy = Freedom – stating it unambiguously. Maria’s centenal constrains the power of Information by not allowing total transparency. This means forgoing some of the benefits of surveillance society – such as cars able to drive themselves secure in the knowledge they know where all the other cars are going – for the political ideal of not being constantly spied upon, or having their every interaction monetized because, as Maria puts it “Data is money.” (256)  The citizens of Privacy = Freedom are Luddites in a world where luddism means relying on trained journalists for news and not designing blind intersections.

Other potential pitfalls with the system of micro-democracy Older has envisioned, which Null States at least touches upon, are matters of the weakness of the Supermajority as a governing institution. Centenals are committed to a shared method of elections and little else. No set of robust rights or constitutional principles are enforced.

At one point in the novel, a young person from China (part of which remains a traditional territorial state, separate from the system of micro-democracy) observes to an undercover Mishima (the protagonist in Infomocracy and a major character in Null States) that centenals can exclude from their territory black people, or white people, or Chinese people. It’s a rumor Mishima blandly confirms with the line “There might be some places that end up like that.” (355)

Micro-democracy is not a liberal order, though it does uphold a set of minimum requirements for human rights. In this sense it seems as capable of exasperating current social divisions based on race, class or religiosity through the very way it solves the problem of our current non-responsive, representative, yet thankfully liberal, states. It is the deliberately designed weakness of the Supermajority that makes the kind of strong rights-policing role we find in current nation-states under representative democracy impossible. Such weakness also makes it impractical for the Supermajority to demand something like minimum mandatory environmental standards. It is “Through elections and relatively free immigration policies” that policies are set rather than via regulation. (52) One wonders whether such a system could actually solve global problems such as climate change given that it would clearly be vulnerable to tragedy of the commons, free rider problems, and regulatory arbitrage.

Perhaps Older will address or solve some of these issues in the last novel of her Centenal Cycle. There are even places towards the end of Null States where she suggests micro-democracy might just be an interregnum on the road to something that resolves many of its own contradictions in the same way that system would resolve some of the contradictions of our own. Yet we still live in a world distorted by these initial contradictions. Given that it is today’s students in fields such as sociology, political science and economics who will be tasked with solving the problems of computational propaganda and unresponsive states in an era of global politics, The Centenal Cycle is among the most engaging ways to teach young people in these fields that the world, as it is, need not be, and can still be made different than our own.

Rick Searle is an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET and blogs at utopiaordystopia.com.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

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