Four Short Stories for Digital Constitutionalists

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Following up on Yeliz Döker’s movie recommendations, today Marco Almada recommends a few short stories for readers interested in digital constitutionalism and/or science fiction in general. Stay tuned for upcoming lists and share your thoughts on the comments and social networks!

In this post, I write a bit about each of the four stories. Given that the comments are likely to contain spoilers, here is the list for those readers who want to preserve the element of surprise:

Ray Bradbury, ‘There Will Come Soft Rains’ (1950)

Ray Bradbury is probably one of the most mainstream writers in sci-fi, as books such as Fahrenheit 451 and short stories such as I Sing The Body Electric! have been widely read beyond the niche usually occupied by the genre. In this list, I want to highlight a minor story of his, originally published in the Martian Chronicles. Set in the (then) far future of 2026, the story follows the last days of a ‘smart house’: a nexus of automation tools that perform various domestic tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and other aspects of housekeeping. Long devoid of any inhabitants, the house continued to perform its tasks until one day it no longer could do so.

Without giving away too much of the story, I consider a few aspects relevant for the technology-minded reader. One of them is the importance of maintenance work, given how the various machines begin to break once they are no longer repaired. Even when automation does not break down, some tasks are reduced to mere mechanical movements without effect; for example, the house continues to perform its after-dinner cleaning work even though there is no food to serve or nobody to eat it anymore. Resilience is also an important theme in the story, as not every system breaks at once. Instead, some parts of the ‘smart house’ attempt to compensate for failings elsewhere. Last but not least, this story creates a vivid image of the empty house and the world it exists in. So, this short story—or at least its animated version—is a very interesting read, though perhaps a bit dark for the current state of the world.

Arthur C. Clarke, ‘Superiority’ (1951)

Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, this short story presents a galactic civilization defeated in a war against a rival of similar stature. There is nothing unusual about this setup, except for the twist of telling the story of the war through the eyes of the defeated people adds a slight twist to the theme. However, what makes this story interesting for The Digital Constitutionalist is why the war was lost. In the words of the narrator:

We were defeated by one thing only – by the inferior science of our enemies. I repeat – by the inferior science of our enemies.

At the beginning of the war, the defeated polity had a considerable technological advantage over its opponent, which only increased as its scientists attempted to develop new technologies for crushing an enemy that refused to accept its defeat. But this technological advantage was accompanied by logistical problems, and some of the most experimental technologies backfired in catastrophic ways. Consequently, the narrator’s armed forces could not convert their technical superiority into military success and were defeated in the war.

The story itself is quite conventional in its narrative style, but it highlights a few important aspects of technology. It reminds us of the instrumental character of technologies, as the ‘old’ technologies of the enemy turned out to be better for their purposes than the innovative tools available to the narrator and his compatriots. ‘Superiority’ also illustrates the gap between science and engineering. There is a difference between the scientific knowledge that allows us to do something and the engineering knowledge needed to do that thing reliably. Finally, the story shows how seemingly small technical issues can have devastating effects in practice. These reminders are very useful for anybody engaging with digital technologies, so I feel comfortable recommending this story to the Digi-Con community.

N K Jemisin, ‘Those Who Stay and Fight’ (2018)

Back in 1973, Ursula K Le Guin wrote a short story that became a classic, titled ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’. This story presents us with a view of a city called Omelas, which is full of joy and wonder. However, all these good things come at a price. The prosperity of Omelas and its inhabitants requires a sacrifice: a child that must live locked in a room, being forced to live in a condition of ‘abominable misery’. Every inhabitant of Omelas learns about the existence of this child when they are old enough for understanding the situation, and most of them accept its suffering as the price to be paid for the good life everyone else lives. But some people refuse to accept this situation and leave the city, never to return.

N K Jemisin’s short story directly responds to Le Guin, arguing that leaving is not enough of a protest. As an alternative, Jemisin tells the story of Um-Helat, another utopic city, in which people also live their lives to the fullest. In Um-Helat, just like in Omelas, children are exposed to a secret once they are old enough to understand it. But the secret of Um-Helat is not foundational oppression, but rather the fact that the universe is not as egalitarian and free from need as Um-Helat itself. Indeed, the city itself was once based on injustice, and keeping this injustice from returning requires a constant effort to prevent ‘contamination’ from oppression. Leaving is not enough to get rid of evil.

I am not exactly fond of Jemisin’s utopian vision, and the philosopher Eric Schliesser has made interesting posts about this story and ‘Omelas’. Nevertheless, ‘Those Who Stay and Fight’ is beautifully written and it provides much food for thought about society and institutional design. Read it — and Le Guin’s story, too, if you have not read it yet.

Ken Liu, ‘Excerpt from Theuth, an Oral History of Work in the Age of Machine-Assisted Cognition’ (2021)

Ken Liu is a science fiction writer famous for his work on fiction and science fiction. He recently contributed to a book collecting various short stories of philosophical science fiction, each one of which accompanied by a commentary by the author. While most of the stories from this book—and the editorial insertions on how to philosophize through science fiction—are very interesting, Liu’s contribution is one of the high points of the entire endeavour.

In this short story set in the near future, the protagonist is a lawyer beginning his career at a big law firm. By the time the narrator graduates law school, cognitive augmentation implants become widespread, and the protagonist jumps into this bandwagon. At first, the brain implants seem to bring only advantages, boosting the narrator’s career. Still, after a certain point, various unexpected consequences threaten to upend his lifestyle and autonomy as a professional.

To write ‘Excerpt from Theuth’, Ken Liu drew from his professional experiences as a computer programmer and a lawyer. The result is a narrative that provides grounded speculation about how technology might impact individual professionals and the organization of the legal professions themselves. Like many other stories mentioned here, this one also does a good job of imagining subtle but potentially critical side-effects of seemingly positive technologies. So, this is not only good science fiction but one of the kinds of things we would like to foster at the Sci-Fi side of Digi-Con.

Your turn!

What did you think of this list? Are there any works that you want to recommend to the Digital Constitutionalist audience? Feel free to share your suggestions with us @The_Digi_Con on Twitter, on LinkedIn, or in our comments!

Suggested citation

Marco Almada, ‘Four Short Stories for Digital Constitutionalists’ (The Digital Constitutionalist, 04 March 2022) <https://digi-con.org/four-short-stories-for-digital-constitutionalists/>

Researcher at European University Institute | + posts

AI regulation PhD researcher @EUI, working on the relationships between the law and software architectures. Resident mustelid enthusiast.

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