I was reminded of this post by Tom Foss by my brother when I talked with him about writing stuff about Ayn Rand. I was glad to see he ported over his old posts, so I might review some old thoughts. I also left a decent comment I considered copying and pasting as a new post.
When I noticed Tom mention that Anthem was short, I considered enduring it myself, though that might have to wait. My brother once had a copy, but it’s either missing, or it got sold while he was cutting down on space. He says he only had his copy because he was collecting dystopian literature.
In one part of my comment, I discuss Prometheus discovering lost technology and science literature. This really wrecks my ability to take the “moral” of the story seriously and see it as applicable toward the world we live in. We don’t live in a Scavenger World.
There’s no advanced lost technology to dig up and reverse-engineer. Our society’s advancement depends on an altruistic scientific community: A scientist researches the community’s output, develops his own hypothesis, gets a grant (often from the government), tests his hypothesis, and publishes the results. Other scientists then build on that work. We live in an age of science where all the “obvious” stuff has been discovered, and what’s left is working out the fine details. A lone genius simply can’t make breakthroughs just on his own effort. Far from suppressing an exceptional genius, the altruistic nature of the scientific community empowers him: He doesn’t have to waste time reinventing the wheel. If he hits a brick wall, he’s got other scientists to help him brainstorm solutions. If his ideas are untenable or contradicted by existing evidence, someone doing the peer reviews will likely let him know, thus allowing him to move onto more productive lines of inquiry instead of remaining frustrated and trapped in a false idea.
The other problem I see with the Scavenger World trope is that it reinforces a rather distorted view of science and technology: The myopic business view, to see technology as something to exploit in the short term. It’s only valuable to a myopic scavenger if it has immediate, practical use for making survival easier. It’s only valuable to a myopic CEO if he can make money selling it. Scientific research isn’t for people who expect a profit within a given period of time. Science is a gamble, and sometimes the result is that what you want simply won’t work.
It’s something of a paradox, but our society is built on a stable knowledge base that was born of countless reckless gambles. Only the few ideas that survived the crucible of scientific scrutiny remain. An altruist wants to expand that truth because they want everyone to benefit, including future generations. A selfish person would be more easily discouraged from investing because of the failure rate of new hypotheses.
If he does invest and the result is a failure, he may be motivated to “reinterpret” the results as a success so that he can market a failed product for a profit. “Alternative medicine” in particular is very attractive to this sort of mindset, especially since it’s got a community of consumers primed for self-deception. If selfishness is your guide, deception becomes an attractive tactic and from there, parasitism becomes an attractive lifestyle. Even if you’re arguing for a type of rational self-interest that discourages parasitism, you have to realize that there generally aren’t as many sufficiently rational people out there as you’d like.
Another aspect of the Scavenger World problem is simple logistics. The TV Tropes page provides some common sense observations:
In a modern society, everything is so interconnected that any product is the result of that entire society. People who put products together, people who got the materials the products are made of, people who run the machines that generate the power required for those things… et cetera. Even the things people tend to forget or disassociate with the production of a product: people who write the manuals, people who act as “gofers” for all the other people, middle-management, etc.
Then consider all the people behind the construction of the tools required to do each of those things, and then who make the tools required to make those, and so on, and so on.
Suppose a large majority of mankind and its infrastructure were to be suddenly wiped out? There would be huge holes in the knowledge of how to produce things. Sure, someone might know how to fix the engine of a car, but if there’s no one who knows how to make spark plugs, one is forced to hope they can find workable ones in the debris left After the End. And then there’s the need for gasoline. Heck, unleaded gasoline for that matter. And tires, and antifreeze and… well you get the idea. And even if someone does know how to make those key components all that knowledge is little more than useless trivia if the raw materials can no longer be supplied. Such knowledge would quickly be forgotten as humanity focused on more important things, like finding enough food to keep from starving.
I find it amusing that Tropers, who spend their free time analyzing and critiquing fiction, seem to have a better grasp on how the real world works than the Randroids I’ve met so far. A genius may have the potential to be a jack-of-all-trades, but without cooperating individuals providing a large number of services and resources for public use, he’s effectively forced to be one if he wants to be self-sufficient. Division of labor is only possible in a cooperative society. Having specialists doing their jobs to widespread benefit means that a genius has much more choice in how he spends his time and energy. Every public service means one less unnecessarily redundant job he needs to do for himself. For that reason, altruism, which encourages cooperation, is much more likely to empower exceptional individuals to new heights.
Granted, it’s possible to imagine a dystopia that takes altruism to enforced extremes, but I find it hard to imagine such a society would be more likely than the dystopias of selfishness and tribalism. The slope towards extremist altruism just doesn’t seem to be nearly as slippery.