Saturday, 8 June 2019

Against the glorification of weaponry

I reread Iain M. Banks’ marvellous Excession recently and one paragraph really jumped out at me. The warship Attitude Adjuster is musing on its own nature and shortcomings and it turns into a very elegant argument for the moral argument against the glorification of weaponry.

Geek culture has a tendency to admire the coolness of many weapons, both real and imaginary. We tend to look at an F-15 fighter and just admire it from an aesthetic point of view. We lovingly describe the high-tech weapons in our SF, and go into detail amongst the swords and other medieval weapons in our fantasy. (And, of course, who amongst us hasn’t been known to make lightsaber noises with a stick?). But when it comes down to it, these are instruments designed for no other reason than to kill and maim. And Banksy absolutely nails it:

It was a warship, after all. It was built, designed to glory in destruction, when it was considered appropriate. It found, as it was rightly and properly supposed to, an awful beauty in both the weaponry of war and the violence and devastation which that weaponry was capable of inflicting, and yet it knew that attractiveness stemmed from a kind of insecurity, a sort of childishness. It could see that – by some criteria – a warship, just by the perfectly articulated purity of its purpose, was the most beautiful single artifact the Culture was capable of producing, and at the same time understand the paucity of moral vision such a judgement implied. To fully appreciate the beauty of a weapon was to admit to a kind of shortsightedness close to blindness, to confess to a sort of stupidity. The weapon was not itself; nothing was solely itself. The weapon, like anything else, could only finally be judged by the effect it had on others, by the consequences it produced in some outside context, by its place in the rest of the universe. By this measure the love, or just the appreciation, of weapons was a kind of tragedy.

Iain M. Banks — Excession

I think the money quote here is: The weapon was not itself; nothing was solely itself. The weapon, like anything else, could only finally be judged by the effect it had on others. This is why I feel slightly uneasy as I look over tech stats for some cool piece of kit, or get caught up in the descriptions of really cool space battles. All this technology has to, in the end, be judged by the effect it has on others.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

The meaningfulness of life

I’ve just finished reading this arc from the lovely and excellent Dresden Codak webcomic and it got me thinking.  The short version is that in the far future, the remnants of humanity live in a virtual paradise created for them by an AI that they no longer understand.  A group of these humans rebel because they are no longer relevant and their lives have no meaning, and war is inevitable.

Thinking of this, and all the other SF that has riffed off the same sort of idea, I find myself wondering how I would react if my life was completely irrelevant.  The thing is that I’m already an atheist and broadly believe that life has no meaning except that which we give it.  So to me, I don’t feel that there’s anything special about my being alive or that my life has any “higher purpose” (not that I want it to stop any time soon, mind you), so I’m half way there already.  If we create a new, artificial life form that is better than us, then I think I’ll be happy (so long as it doesn’t turn on us in a Terminator-esque rampage to destroy humanity) and not be dissatisfied with my life.  If our greatest achievement is in passing on the torch of intelligence then that’s wonderful!  I’ll retire to my virtual paradise a happy man, knowing that we have created something greater than ourselves.

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