Apr 182020

This is about Banks’s The Culture series, but doesn’t really contain spoilers.

Within The Culture it is established that biological humans are nigh-immortal, but that nearly all humans eventually choose suicide after several centuries of life. When I first heard this I thought it was just typical Deathist BS. The same “Ho ho, living forever is terrible, no one would want to do it unless they’re an evil villain” crap we usually get. I failed in properly giving Banks the benefit of the doubt. (In my defense, I didn’t know anything about him yet, knowing only how immortality is portrayed by mainstream media).

Upon reading The Player of Games, I understood why humans in that society choose death. The Culture is explicitly post-human. Anything of actual importance that needs to be done on a galactic scale is done by the Minds. For humans to feel important, their only option is to be important to each other. Unfortunately, that’s also not really an option, because no one needs anything.

At first, this seems like a blessing. That’s the whole point of getting post-scarcity. To truly need something is to be in peril. If you need something and can’t make/grow it yourself, you’re at the mercy of someone who can. Your best option is to find something they want or need and trade it to them for what you need. But ideally, you want to need as few things as possible.

In The Culture, no one needs anything. Everyone is given all the food, health, entertainment, and resources they could possibly want. No one relies on anyone else for anything. No one requires someone else to get any need or want met. And while it’s nice to finally have the safety and security to know that “no matter what happens, I’ll be fine,” it also means that no person is needed by any other. I don’t want to need anyone. But for me to not be needed by anyone feels… empty.

The Player of Games does a great job of portraying that lack of connection to any other humans. All the relationships that the protagonist has are superficial, trivial things. There are no stakes to anything he does in his life, aside from the one mission he is sent on that we read about. Everything before that was killing time. Everything after that was trivial as well. Nothing really matters, it’s all just games he plays. When no one needs you and there are no stakes, you’re just killing time. Eventually you realize you aren’t killing time for any purpose. Maybe just skip to the end already.

Which makes me feel really weird, because deprivation and insecurity SUCK. We’re trying to build this glorious post-human future because we’re tired of the suckiness of life, and we want to fix it. I am now somewhat worried about creating a future were no one is needed for anything anymore, though. Not enough to stop striving for it. But… going full The Culture seems like another Failed Utopia.

  5 Responses to “On Being Needed”

  1. Yes!

    Banks does also state, if somewhat indirectly at times, that The Culture ‘pays’ for its Utopia thru its continued ‘good works’ for others. And – very tellingly – all of the books about The Culture (with maybe the partial exception of Look to Windward) are almost entirely about people living or working outside the safety and security of The Culture. Life inside The Culture is too boring to be worth writing about!

    I have similar Failed Utopia sentiments about communism/socialism or just the idea of post-scarcity societies. On the one hand, as you put it, “deprivation and insecurity SUCK”.

    On the other hand, some kind of deprivation and insecurity might be inevitable. The universe is dangerous! And in ways that humans haven’t had to directly face really at all in our entire history. There’s also an apparent adaptive treadmill that prevents us personally from properly calibrating against the historical depths of deprivation and insecurity possible.

    On the gripping hand, maybe facing deprivation and insecurity – and occasionally defeating it – is more satisfying than never being needed.

  2. The difference between the questions of eudaimonia and theodicy seems perilously nonexistent sometimes.

    The Player of Games is one of my favourite books because it addresses the “fascist promise of meaning vs milquetoast liberal ennui” question very directly and manages to convincingly pick the latter. But it is ultimately a false dichotomy rooted in the former philosophy’s conception of human nature, and I don’t think such a victory as The Culture would be so hollow as its detractors say.

  3. I don’t want to be needed and I don’t want to need others. It’s all zero-sum crap to me. It can’t be helped in our world, but there is nothing good about it.

    I’m all for suicide rights, in fact it’s one of the most important rights of all. But for me personally, the only reason to kill myself is to prevent my future suffering. Of course, even mild boredom or a sense of pointlessness is a form of suffering. But this is easily remedied in a properly outfitted utopia. Solutions like making all suffering voluntary for the sufferer, giving them full control over their inner experience, or designing experiences of synthetic meaning would easily to the trick for normal humans. At least, they would for me.

    I mean, if you really need people to need you, you could engange in synthetic mutual neediness that a properly outfitted utopia could implement. Make it so you suffer apart unless you’re together or something. Easy to make happen, but I for one have no use for such artificial scarcity garbage.

    Of course, our real problem aren’t the Failed Utopias where people have too much fun and aren’t needy enough, but the actual dystopias where you will be tortured and not allowed to die. (We still don’t have proper suicide and euthanasia rights in our world, by the way.)

    • > Make it so you suffer apart unless you’re together or something

      I think nature already took care of that one for us. :/

      > We still don’t have proper suicide and euthanasia rights in our world

      Agreed :(

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