Technology and Social Inequality in “2312”

This summer, I intended to read all of the 2012 Nebula nominees, but I got distracted by other books like Gaiman’s “The Ocean at the End of the Lane.”  The 2012 Nebula Winner for Novel was “2312” by Kim Stanley Robinson.  In this novel, humanity has spread throughout our entire solar system, but there are still some familiar social problems.  Robinson elegantly and creatively describes what human life would be like on various planets and other places.  The prose relating to these settings was gorgeous.  I particularly loved his descriptions of Mercury and the technologies necessary to allow humans to live there. However, he also deals with deep philosophical and ethical questions.  The book led to reflection on topics like: what is the meaning of life?  At what point do robots gain sentience?  What would their experience of the world be like?  How much should people get involved in other nations’ or worlds’ problems?  He even takes a look at what a meaningful relationship is.

At times, the pacing of the book felt sluggish.  While I understand that Robinson was developing the solar system and preparing the reader to fully understand the plot, I did find it challenging to read at times.  Other times, the book engrossed me.

In terms of sociology, I thought that Robinson took an interesting look at what sociologists call dependency theory versus modernization theory. This video link will take you to a lecture that explains the basic differences between the two theories.  Today, these theories attempt to explain why some nations are wealthy while others are not and how to rectify these problems. Modernization theorists would argue that you need to change culture and technology of the low income nations to make them more like the thriving, wealthier countries.  This might include attempting to help populations with agriculture or controlling their populations.  Often, it blames the specific cultures for their position in the global hierarchy.

On the other hand, dependency theorists come from a social-conflict approach.  They argue that there are deeper structural problems.  These low income countries had their wealth plundered and literally shipped back to the colonizing countries for centuries.  Furthermore, the fruits of their labor also returned to the colonizing powers.  This means the colonizing powers have much more wealth (think GDP) than those countries that were plundered.  Dependency theorists would say that until we address these historical inequalities, we’ll never be able to move forward together.  Modern day capitalism perpetuates these problems.  The wealthiest countries want to stay wealthy and powerful.  They do not want the more impoverished nations to surpass themselves.  Thus, they will block less powerful countries from thriving.

In terms of Robinson’s book, those living off Earth, the Spacers, are perceived by the people on Earth to have abandoned them.  They are seen as the elite.  Earth was not able to be terraformed like the other planets because it already had so many inhabitants and to change much might risk the population. Due to all the tensions between nations and other organizations, it was nearly impossible to get anywhere on Earth to agree to the needed terraforming.  Therefore, Swan and her friend Wahram, among others, decide to take matters into their own hands since they think Earth (and the other planets) will never improve or be safe until the inequalities there are addressed.  For example, the animal species preserved in space, many living in the asteroids, were delivered back to earth.  The reception of these animals and those that reintegrated them Earth were highly controversial.

This is only a tiny sliver of the important sociological ideas incorporated in “2312”.  It also explores changing norms surrounding technology and the body.  Humans have different views of technology, and robots have begun to awaken to sentience.  This topic allows us to explore the ideas of what it means to be human.  How do we feel about the fast paced changes in technology happening in our own time period?  How comfortable are we with technology becoming integrated with the human body or brain?  Swan has an AI, a quantum computer, embedded in her brain.  Pauline stands as her own character, although she is not sentient.  On the other hand, Robinson does present the viewpoint of one of the awakened robots.  These sections in the book seemed jarring and flitted from observation to observation.  Although the passages felt different than the more linear viewpoints of characters like Wahram and Swan, I believe that any person that has tried meditation knows that our thoughts arise in less than organized ways.  Many of the characters judge people like Swan for being willing to have their qube incorporated into their brains.

This year, a media stir happened over the new google glass technology.  Here is a video discussing what it is actually capable of.  Many people are afraid of this technology, even though it is not incorporated into the body.  It reminded me of the fears that people had that Pauline was recording and spying on conversations.  Swan also allowed for herself to be modified with essentially “bird brains.”  As she and Wahram travel in a series of tunnels together after a disaster, they connect through music.  Wahram asks, “‘So was that the bird or you?’” and Swan responds, “‘We are the same.’”  Throughout the book, Wahram comes to accept and love the person that Swan is.  When he asks her to marry him, he actually asks Pauline first, meaning he understands how important the modifications are to Swan.  In fact, she wouldn’t be the Swan he loved without the modifications.  When she’s surprised that he asked Pauline to marry him and not herself, Wahram replies, “‘…I am not the first to observe that since you were the one that programmed Pauline, and continue to do so, she is a kind of projection of you—‘“

Wahram continues, “’—or, well, maybe she would be better described as one of your works of art.  They have often been very personal things.’”

Eventually, he compares Pauline to a ventriloquist’s dummy.  (The new, sentient AIs have their own agendas, a key difference.)  He has accepted Swan as the sum of her parts and loves all of her.

In conclusion, I highly recommend “2313”, although I do think that it was a challenging read.  The future implications of technology and inequality are fascinating, and the descriptions of settings are gorgeous.  If you enjoy detective stories, then you will likely enjoy this book.

1 Comment

Filed under Book Reviews, Science Fiction, Sociology, Technology

One response to “Technology and Social Inequality in “2312”

  1. As much as I would like to agree with you regarding Robinson’s insights, it is almost not worth the work. He’s got some truly awful sentences/paragraphs in 2312. Made me want to holler for an editor.

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