The culture will simply be that which is best at reproducing itself

Monday, March 12th, 2018

Amazon Studios recently announced plans to adapt the first novel of Iain M. Banks’ Culture Series, Consider Phlebas.

Philosophy professor Joseph Heath offers an appreciations of Banks’ Culture:

In this context, what distinguishes Banks’s work is that he imagines a scenario in which technological development has also driven changes in the social structure, such that the social and political challenges people confront are new. Indeed, Banks distinguishes himself in having thought carefully about the social and political consequences of technological development. For example, once a society has semi-intelligent drones that can be assigned to supervise individuals at all times, what need is there for a criminal justice system? Thus in the Culture, an individual who commits a sufficiently serious crime is assigned — involuntarily — a “slap drone,” who simply prevents that person from committing any crime again. Not only does this reduce recidivism to zero, the prospect of being supervised by a drone for the rest of one’s life also serves as a powerful deterrent to crime.

This is an absolutely plausible extrapolation from current trends — even just looking at how ankle monitoring bracelets work today. But it also raises further questions. For instance, once there is no need for a criminal justice system, one of the central functions of the state has been eliminated. This is one of the social changes underlying the political anarchism that is a central feature of the Culture. There is, however, a more fundamental postulate. The core feature of Banks’s universe is that he imagines a scenario in which technological development has freed culture from all functional constraints — and thus, he imagines a situation in which culture has become purely memetic. This is perhaps the most important idea in his work, but it requires some unpacking.

The term “meme” was introduced by Richard Dawkins, in an attempt to articulate some cultural equivalent to the role that the “gene” plays in biological evolution.2 The basic building-block of life for Dawkins, one may recall, is “the replicator,” understood simply as “that which reproduces itself.” His key observation is that one can find replicators not just in the biological sphere, but in human social behaviour. In many cases, these “memes” produce obvious benefits to their host, so it is not difficult to see how they succeed in reproducing themselves — consider, for instance, the human practice of using fire to cook food, which is reproduced culturally. In other cases, however, cultural patterns get reproduced, not because they offer any particular benefits — in some cases they are even costly to the host — but because they have a particularly effective “trick,” when it comes to getting themselves reproduced.


Historically, in this process of competition among cultures, a dominant source of competitive advantage has been the ability to promote a desirable social structure, or an effective system of cooperation. Consider the enormous influence that Roman culture exercised in the West. The fact that, one thousand years after the fall of Rome, schoolboys were still memorizing Cicero, the Justinian code remained de facto law throughout vast regions, and Latin was still the written language of the learned classes of Europe, is an extraordinary legacy. The major reason for imitation of the Romans was simply that their culture is one that sustained the greatest, most long-lasting empire the West has ever seen.

Similarly, Han culture was able to spread throughout China in large part through the institutions that it promoted, not just the imperial system, but the vast bureaucracy that sustained it, along with the competitive examination system that promoted effective administration.

Societies with strong institutions become wealthier, more powerful militarily, or some combination of the two. These are the ones whose culture reproduces, either because it is imitated, or because it is imposed on others.4 And yet the dominant trend in human societies, over the past century, has been significant convergence with respect to institutional structure. Most importantly, there has been practically universal acceptance of the need for a market economy and a bureaucratic state as the only desirable social structure at the national level. One can think of this as the basic blueprint of a “successful” society. This has led to an incredible narrowing of cultural possibilities, as cultures that are functionally incompatible with capitalism or bureaucracy are slowly extinguished or transformed.

This winnowing down of cultural possibilities is what constitutes the trend that is often falsely described as “Westernization.” Much of it is actually just a process of adaptation that any society must undergo, in order to bring its culture into alignment with the functional requirements of capitalism and bureaucracy. It is not that other cultures are becoming more “Western,” it is that all cultures, including Western ones, are converging around a small number of variants.5

One interesting consequence of this process is that the competition between cultures is becoming defunctionalized. The institutions of modern bureaucratic capitalism solve many of the traditional problems of social integration in an almost mechanical way. As a result, when considering the modern “hypercultures” — e.g. American, Japanese, European — there is little to choose from a functional point of view. None are particularly better or worse, from the standpoint of constructing a successful society. And so what is there left to compete on? All that is left are the memetic properties of the culture, which is to say, the pure capacity to reproduce itself.


Now consider Banks’s scenario. Consider the process that is generating modern hypercultures, and imagine it continuing for another three or four hundred years. The first consequence is that the culture will become entirely defunctionalized. Banks imagines a scenario in which all of the endemic problems of human society have been given essentially technological solutions (in much the same way that drones have solved the problem of criminal justice). Most importantly, he imagines that the fundamental problem of scarcity has been solved, and so there is no longer any obligation for anyone to work (although, of course, people remain free to do so if they wish). All important decisions are made by a benevolent technocracy of AIs (or the “Minds”).

And so what is left for humanity (or, more accurately, humanoids)? At the individual level, Banks imagines a life very much like the one described by Bernard Suits in The Grasshopper — everything becomes a game, and thus at some level, non-serious. But where Banks went further than Suits was in thinking about the social consequences. What happens when culture becomes freed from all functional constraints? It seems clear that, in the interplanetary competition that develops, the culture that emerges will be the most virulent, or the most contagious. In other words, “the Culture” will simply be that which is best at reproducing itself, by appealing to the sensibilities and tastes of humanoid life-forms.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    Virtually all animal societies have hierarchies. So, whatever the technological future, we will still have dominant and subordinate people, and the dominant ones will determine how people live and what they do. Banks has invented the technology for a perfect and immortal slave society.

  2. Graham says:

    I’m tempted by Bob Sykes’ thesis — the Culture has a hidden overcaste. Perhaps it’s just the AIs.

    Regardless, Banks’ Culture always struck me as a plausible illustration of the doctrine that one man’s paradise is another’s hell. But I guess if one is born into it, one adapts.

    Science Fiction terrifies me a lot more than it did 20 years ago. Fancy that.

  3. Uriel Alexis says:

    I guess the serious problem with Bank’s Culture is why the hell the Minds would even keep humans around?

  4. Kirk says:

    Here’s the thing about hierarchies, though: They only exist so long as they actually work. And, once they don’t work, they cease to exist because the substrate of individuals that they rely on ceases to exist along with them…

    So, a lion pride or wolf pack whose hierarchy ceases to be effective shortly breaks up, or dies off. Not so the human equivalent at the macro level, such as the bureaucracies we’ve generated.

    Now, it is somewhat arguable that the IRS could be likened to a hunter-gatherer band or wolf pack writ large, but the fact remains that it’s a human-created hierarchy, and as such, it’s a part of the continuum that stretches from the band to the nation-state superpower. And, it also is exquisitely clear that humans aren’t very good at doing these large-scale hierarchical organizations at all well over long periods of time. Which leads to the implication that maybe we shouldn’t be trying to create these things the way we are, and that standing up these huge hierarchical organizations that are so prone to what Jerry Pournelle termed “the Iron Law of Bureaucracy” is a huge mistake, in the first place. Humans lack the necessary quantity of self-sacrificing altruism that would be required for these things to actually work, over the long haul, and as we aren’t ants, it might be about time we quit emulating them. Although, admitting to ourselves that we’re a bunch of chiseling bastards might be painful, it would have the salutary effect of driving the development of some more workable schemes for organizing large groups of humans for some large-scale enterprises.

  5. Sam J. says:

    “…And, it also is exquisitely clear that humans aren’t very good at doing these large-scale hierarchical organizations at all well over long periods of time…”

    Maybe this is not true at all and I think it could be reasonably argued with great force and sureness that it is not. What kills Empires and large organizations? What killed Athens? Attacking Syracuse was what did them in. Whose bright idea was that and who talked them into it. It was Alcibiades that pushed the great idea of attacking Syracuse. The same Alcibiades went from city to city in the ancient world. In Sparta he was more Spartan than the Spartans. Changing his chameleon skin every time he moved somewhere else and betraying everyone he came in contact with. Alcibiades killed Athens with risky schemes to glorify himself. Alcibiades was to my mind no doubt at all a psychopath. Look what Plutarch said about him.

    Story of Alcibiades*.html

    “…He had, as they say, one power which transcended all others, and proved an implement of his chase for men: that of assimilating and adapting himself to the pursuits and lives of others, thereby assuming more violent changes than the chameleon. That animal, however, as it is said, is utterly unable to assume one colour, namely, white; but Alcibiades could associate with good and bad alike, and found naught that he could not imitate and practice. 5 In Sparta, he was all for bodily training, simplicity of life, and severity of countenance; in Ionia, for p65 luxurious ease and pleasure; in Thrace, for drinking deep; in Thessaly, for riding hard; and when he was thrown with Tissaphernes the satrap, he outdid even Persian magnificence in his pomp and lavishness. It was not that he could so easily pass entirely from one manner of man to another, nor that he actually underwent in every case a change in his real character; but when he saw that his natural manners were likely to be annoying to his associates, he was quick to assume any counterfeit exterior which might in each case be suitable for them…”

    I wonder if all Empires after consolidation into large units allow psychopaths to move up the chain of command until…the whole thing is so dysfunctional it falls apart in a heap of contradictions and risky foolish gambles the Spaths do to entertain themselves. Looking at our society right now, USA, see anything that might remind you of that?

    So saying “humans aren’t very good” I think is incorrect because I don’t consider psychopaths humans. They’re like really smart lizards.

  6. Graham says:

    Returning late to this one with a couple points nagging at me for a week.

    Though first, Alcibiades. HT to Sam J for the reminder. Highly recommend the novel The Tides of War by Steven Pressfield. I wonderful take on the life and times of Alcibiades, the great aristocratic desperado of his times. Villain, or hero of a sort? The novel is not as good as Pressfield’s Gates of Fire, which is a class of its own, but it’s very good and to my mind the second-best of his novels.

    Per another thread, I note Alcibiades has also been remembered for nearly 2500 years, though not as widely, so he is ranking near Alexander the Great in his own right and ahead of Herostratus. Since Herostratus only did the one nasty thing and in pursuit of memory, it seems a fair ranking. On the matter of novels of this sort of character, Justinian by HN Turteltaub [aka Harry Turtledove]. Well worth it.

  7. Graham says:

    A bit more on point. The Culture represents a far more thorough attempt to show a future civilization altered fundamentally by technology than Star Trek’s Federation. The UFP is recognizably a state or union of states doing things wholly recognizable to the humanity of the past few centuries. It can do things like operate on an interstellar level and has some numinous idea of the end of scarcity, but it glosses over a lot of things Banks draws out.

  8. Graham says:

    One other item, inspired by the anarchism of the Culture and a comment Kirk made. Long ago I read a SF short story in which Earth had been occupied by some sort of humanoid [ish] alien civilization that was a sort of grand anarchist/libertarian/technocapitalist allegory.

    The only remaining human government was Australia [no, this was not a Neville Shute story]. An alien spokesman was explaining to an Australian how things worked. The alien civilization was vast, but organized into various kinds of associations and cooperatives [business, research, family, whatever, even military professionals perhaps] never over 10,000 or so members. All higher organization was ad hoc and project-based. The alien was struck dumb anyone would operate in another way. He noted that organizations that try to get bigger or violate other rules were hit with an antitrust action. Most were legal actions, but he noted the biggest antitrust actions involved fleets of starships, so…

    But still organized ad hoc.

    So the Australian thinks he gets the gist, fearing the end of the last human-style social organization on Earth, and tentatively asks when he might expect an antitrust action against the Government of Australia. As this was also an allegory of colonization, the alien replies he need not worry, since Earth organizations were outside the system anyway. I think Earth was just owned by some trading association or some such.

    As so often, no idea what the story was.

  9. Kirk says:

    My own opinion is that the nature of the future is mostly going to be “ad-hoc”. The human instinct for large bureaucracies and state structures is going to be seen as perverse and ineffective–After all, how much of our economy is currently tied up in government bureaucracy? Which produces precisely… What? Paper? Red tape? Imagine the effect on the overall economy if all those government workers were actually doing something productive, aside from enforcing asinine regulations and all the other “essential government services” we’ve come to believe in?

    I’m not a big fan of libertarianism, anarchy, or any of the rest of the “isms”, but I will tell you this much: What we’re doing ain’t working. Past a certain point of complexity and size, the current methodology of human organization simply doesn’t work over the long haul. You can look at certain small and carefully curated examples of governance, like the Swiss Cantons, and see effective long-term organizational entities, but there is something going on that militates against these things from being more widespread. It’s cultural, to a degree.

    One of my favorite examples is actually Swiss; take a look at the Swiss Army NCO association, and then compare it to the presumably equivalent US Army version. The Swiss version is dramatically different, being an organization that focuses itself on professional standards and training, having published many professional military works that were taken up as doctrine by the Swiss Army. The US version, known as NCOA? LOL… It’s a damn mob of rat-bastard rent-seekers, mostly concerned with insuring that they get the most benefits possible out of the government and their fellow citizens.

    Similarly, there are massive differences between some European unions and the US version: In one case that I witnessed, a European union actually took actions against a member that resulted in said employee being black-balled from employment in that entire industrial sector, because he was stealing from the company he worked for. The other employees turned him in to the union, they held a tribunal, and the result was that he was fired and banned from employment in that entire industry in that region. Try that on for size, Detroit… You’d never see a US union doing something like that, upholding professional standards and requiring member responsibility.

    Funniest thing about that deal with the German union…? The owner of the company was beside himself–The idiot kid who was blackballed was an in-law, and he was going to have hell to pay at home because of the whole thing. He’d have happily kept the kid on, and eaten the amount he was stealing, but the other employees were like “Not happening…”.

    Much of what is wrong with our world boils down to dysfunctional and short-sightedness in our culture. Nobody takes the long view, nobody worries about whether or not that guy stealing from the company is contributing to the long-term demise of its ability to continue functioning… It’s all about the short-term, sadly.

  10. Graham says:

    I’m sympathetic to a lot of that but there’s a tendency to let the forms of organization take more of the weight than their due, sometimes. In Canada this is practically a mind-virus and infects our whole society.

    Sometimes it’s the culture itself that creates the problem. I could speculate about which European country you mean- it sounds like Germany or Scandinavia or the Netherlands more than any other, but let me not automatically assume it’s impossible to one of the others. It probably worked that way because that country is that country and America is America. Ditto Switzerland. If you have a country of Germans/Danes/Swiss/French/Italians/whatevers, you’ll have German/Danish/Swiss/French/Italian/whateverish problem sets and available solutions.

    AS to whether our current institutional forms will bring eventual disaster, yeah probably, but they’ll be reflecting the society at large. Every civilization falls eventually.

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