Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Even on Anarres

There are few greater pleasures in life than chancing upon in the stacks of a second hand bookshop something hard to find  you'd forgotten you wanted. And so it was that few months ago I got half a dozen books by Ursula LeGuin. Among them was The Dispossessed. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend you track down a copy.
The Dispossessed is difficult to classify. Perhaps the best description of it is a science fiction socio political fable, but that doesn't do it justice. As an author of science fiction and fantasy, LeGuin stands out for her world building. The Dispossessed is admirable in this regard. It presents us with two societies based on a planet and its moon. The planet, Urras, is a complex, rich, highly unequal society of property ownership, and elaborate social hierarchy. It is place that is presented as both attractive and appalling, and very, very familiar. It is a society of plenty, but where access to that plenty is unequal. The moon Anares, on the other hand, is a political experiment, an anarcho-socialist society founded by idealist refugees from Urras, who follow the teachings of the political philosopher Odo. Urras is an almost barren world, the population low, and cooperation both a virtue and a necessity for survival. There is no ownership on Urras, and no hierarchy or state or economic compulsion. All actions are undertaken voluntarily, and the only accepted form of punishment is social exclusion by the immediate group. 
Our guide through the worlds and culture of Urras and Anares is an Anaresti called Shevek, who ultimately becomes the first of his people in 200 years to travel back to Urras. What is interesting is that Shevek is a theoretical physicist, and it is precisely because he is a physicist that he is able to communicate with the Urrasti, as physics is a shared universal interest between the two societies.Yet, as Shevek discovers, the political ideas, values and organisation of the two societies lead them to conceive of fundamental problems in physics differently. Thus he travels between the two worlds to synthesise their views. 
What is interesting to me as a scientist is that Le Guin uses the organisations and institutions of academic pursuit as our main way of understanding Urras and Anares. I don't think this is an accident. The university world of Urras is familiar to anyone who has visited a prestigious American or British university. It is opulent, high minded, cloistered and deeply steeped in hierarchy and social prestige. It is, in essence, indistinguishable from what we have here on Earth. There are prizes with large sums of money attached; there are prestigious publications; there are junior academics bowing the pressures of senior academics and administrators, and there are senior academics unused to being contradicted. 
Anarres is more interesting. The Anaresti philosophy is that each individual should seek of their own accord to fulfill his or her organic function, that is that role they feel is most useful to Anaresti society as a whole. Thus, people become scientists because they are drawn to it. There is no career structure, no hierarchy,  no expectation of work. Indeed, people drift in and out of science, as they drift in and out of all the possible jobs that one can do in Anaresti society. And yet, it is in Science that we first experience the corruption of the Anaresti ideal. Shevek goes to work with a great physicist in the capital, only to find that he is secretly communicating with Urras, and that all his great works are in fact Urrasti ideas that he plagiarised and passed off as his own because he alone could read Urrasti. Shevek suddenly finds that he cannot get access to the facilities that he needs without playing along with his new collaborator. Suddenly, Shevek is confronted with what is not supposed to exist on Anarres: ambition to dominate and control, institutional forces, the desire to own. It is in physics, what the Urrasti and Anaresti call the Noble Science, that the idealistic vision of  a society free of control, coercion and covetousness is found.
Thinking about Anarres has made me think that the problems of career incentives we face in science are far more deeply rooted than we often like to think. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I feel that a certain naivety attaches to the open access movement, or the post pub peer review movement. They pursue the idea that the pernicious incentives of prestige, status, hierarchy in academic pursuits can be defeated by these technical fixes. But expensive journals, the pursuit of glam, the addiction to personal and institutional status are not causes, they are symptoms of the fact that science is an exclusive, competitive pursuit existing in highly hierarchical, status obsessed societies.As Shevek comes to realise, the Urrasti university is completely anathema to Anaresti ideals.Yet Le Guin warns us that even on Anarres, personal ambition and institutional inertia can create an embryonic version of the academic system we are all fighting. 

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