I have been reading Iain M. Banks Culture series, about a half-dozen now, science-fiction novels as part of the New Curiosity. I am attempting to wean myself of a decade's worth of melioration of the cultural and political sensibilities and ideas of my generation of black Americans. Not that I have any shame in that work, rather that ultimately it defies my orientation as a scientist, or as I would rather put it, as a natural man. In that aim, having also contemporaneously consumed a fair amount from The Long Now, and TED symposia, I am getting a grasp on the future of technology and its implications. At the same time, having spent a fairly productive professional career building expensive and sophisticated applications of our highest information technology I am self-interested as an American upper-middleclassman in the preservation of the impetus to innovate as a cultural value. Moreover as a conservative and a Christian, I am quite interested in the inherent philosophical conflicts between Western values and those which oppose them. I must therefore be bound to test whether my concepts of liberty, which I have politically defended and justified the intervening and deadly forces of the American military, are worthy of defending to that extreme. I seriously doubt that I'll be found wrong, but stranger things have happened.
Iain Banks proposes implicitly and modestly a Culture ruled by super-intelligences which have evolved to the point of a super infrastructure which delivers justice on a galactic scale. In doing so he has, more than any writer I've encountered, established a sort of God which requires no worship or attending. It is almost a perfect libertarian society, one whose energies are sufficient to render a certain branch of human endeavor moot and useless - which is the endeavor of politics.
The ethos of the Culture is never explicitly spelled out, but it is certainly palpable and at this point in my reading, I know it when I see it. One might best describe it as a super liberal who is actually right 99.999 percent of the time. The Culture lets you do what you want to do and obviates the need for most dirty deeds. The exception to this is the dramatic force from which Banks books become compelling - Special Circumstances. In this galaxy, all are not citizens of the Culture and the Culture takes pride, like those who set the price for tickets at the greatest symphony orchestra performances, which civilizations should be privy to the delights of Culture'd life. The Culture has mastered weaponry and human physiology. Should Special Circumstances deem it required, they could equip a single human with enough power to take over a primitive civilization like our modern-day Earth. But if it were not your job or desire to fulfill such missions for the Culture, which resembles few things more than the Navy of Imperial Great Britain, you're much more likely to spend your three hundred odd years of life pursuing happiness.
It is expressed through machine intelligences. Imagine you had a cell phone that talks back to you and lets you know when you might be about to break a rule (of which there are very few). It is your designated driver, your bodyguard, your attorney, your accountant, you analyst, your priest, your physician, your factotum - a perfect servant and mechanical friend. Not there to control you, but to mind you and your best interests, even as you see them.
Does then the human nature instantly and automatically go towards sin? Or perhaps the better term is vice? How 'dirty' is our nature? Absent the restraints of scarcity, drawing firm but bouncy boundaries around law, where would we go? I have to imagine that in most cases, we would go towards the way of spoiled children, and I'm not sure that would be a bad thing. Perhaps our very nature has not yet been discovered - only our tenacity and adaptability. Because surely a man who lives on the Steppe and tends horses from his yurt most think a man like me to be pampered to the point of uselessness. And in his environment I surely would be. But does that make me further or closer to the true nature of human beings? Perhaps there is no singular, true nature.
In Banks' Culture, there is more drug-enchanced mood alteration than we have colors of scarves. And the use of these, in various combinations is no more unusual than dressing up.
Sex of all sorts for all sorts of reasons is entirely de riguer, and one generally expects, since it is easily accomplished, for individuals to change gender at least once during their very long lives.
If these are vices, they are vices because we subordinate various aspects of our bodily functions to economic constraints. In a society of manual labor, the man who writes poetry indulges his brain in defiance of the normal order of being useful. In a culture where lifespan is limited to 45 years old, the woman who doesn't bear children before the age of 25 is considered negatively. When work is required and health is threatened, the man who lies about stoned on marijuana is in moral disrepute. These values and behaviors, I say, are tied to the economics of the culture. In a post-scarcity society, such indulgences are not problematic.
One wonders whether or not Star Trek isn't a bit too martial. I think that if we paid attention to the lives of ordinary humans in the Star Trek universe if we would not be put off by their recreations. After all, when Federation planets are not under threat only Vulcans and Klingons be considered serious. Given Kirk's proclivities, you can imagine what a swordsman he'd be in peacetime.
Ambition. What is it really?