Diablo Cody: How would religious people react to life on Mars?

If a bunch of freaky-looking extraterrestrials actually made contact with us, I think that might blow a few minds. Can you imagine the reality show? ‘What happens when this Kansas family befriends a sassy Uranian? Here Comes Beezeltron XV14.’

A few weeks ago, I was wide-eyed and wired at 3am. As the mother of a toddler who shrieks in the night as new molars breach his virgin gum tissue, being awake at this hour is not terribly unusual for me. However, on this night, I was Out (which is terribly unusual for me).

I was sitting on the terrace of a hulking Italianate McMansion with a friend of mine, a Nasaemployed doctor who invented a prosthetic hand that sends actual sensory input to the wearer’s brain. Obviously, I’m much more impressive than he is, since I write movies. I mean, I guess the godlike ability to replicate nerve impulses is OK, but it’s no Jennifer’s Body.

My friend and I were, appropriately, looking at the stars. Not the actual stars, but fake laser galaxies that were projected on to the walls and floor of the terrace via a contraption from the mailorder gadget firm Hammacher Schlemmer.

The universe swirled around us, illuminating the gaudy ironwork and Venetian plaster that made the house look like a theme-park pavilion. The real stars were reduced to background players, winking dimly in the polluted California night. Two storeys below us, a group of revellers soaked in a colour-changing Jacuzzi, passing a wet cigarette back and forth and laughing about something.

My friend suddenly turned to me and said: “Do you know what event would completely change the world?”

I thought hard. “If someone brought us another round of vodka-grapefruits?”

“Well, yeah, that would be great. But really, there would be a huge mass consciousness shift if only we had proof of life outside earth,” my friend said, getting all Nasa on my drunk ass.

“Sure,” I said. “If a bunch of freaky-looking extraterrestrials actually made contact with us, I think that might blow a few minds. Can you imagine the reality show? ‘What happens when this Kansas family befriends a sassy Uranian? Here Comes Beezeltron XV14.’”

“I don’t even mean a full-on alien invasion,” my friend said. “I mean just proof that they exist. Even though most people can intellectualise that there are planets in the sky, the mere idea that something exists beyond us could trigger a spiritual revolution.”

I got what he was saying. In earth’s most popular religious traditions, the concept of God is wholly human-centred.

As a Catholic, I was raised to believe that God created me in His image; if you think about it, this teaching infers that God has nostrils, ear wax, tibiae and fibulae, a butt, and so forth.

That’s pretty arrogant. How would the world’s believers reconcile the idea of God with, say, a sentient vapour from Mars? Or the idea that we’re not the “perfect creation” we believed ourselves to be, that there are 200ft star-gods who stalk Alpha Centauri Bb?

I’m not even comfortable with the existence of Angelina Jolie, let alone a throbbing telepathic brain stem from the outer edge of the solar system. I need to feel that I am a superior being, not a primitive, stinking flesh-poppet from a stupid mudball called earth.

I write movies, after all.

Diablo Cody is a screenwriter, producer and director who wrote “Juno” and “Jennifer’s Body”

Diablo Cody. Image: AFP/Getty

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

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New Times: David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

The digital revolution has had two profound effects on how power is distributed – both of which squeeze the state's power.

Left-wing political parties exist to use the power of the state to rectify unjust distributions of power in society. What has gone wrong with this project? First, the political parties bit. Established parties everywhere are struggling to seem relevant to most people’s everyday concerns: they look increasingly like the tired relics of a more hierarchical age. The exception, of course, is the current Labour Party, which has opened itself up to become the biggest mass-membership party in Europe. But the trade-off has been to move away from seeing the acquisition of power as its primary purpose. These days parties can only really draw people in by offering to be vehicles for the expression of political resentment and disenchantment. But that is no way to rectify the causes of their resentment; neglecting the challenge of power usually ends up making things worse.

However, this is just a symptom of the wider problem, which is the changing nature of power. Technology lies at the heart of it. The digital revolution has had two profound effects on how power is distributed. First, it has empowered individuals, by providing them with unprecedented access to information, tools of communication and the means of expression. This is power exercised as choice: we all now have multiple ways of registering our likes and dislikes that never existed before.

Second, the digital revolution has empowered networks, creating vast new webs that span the globe. Some of them, such as Facebook, are close to being monopolies. We end up joining the networks that other people have joined, because that’s where the action is. This gives a small number of networks an awful lot of power.

Both of these developments are deeply problematic for the power of the state. The proliferation of choice makes citizens much harder to satisfy. Many of us have got used to micromanaging our lives in ways that leaves government looking flat-footed and unresponsive, no matter how hard it tries. At the same time, states face global networks that they have no idea how to control. International finance is one of these: money is information and information now has too many different ways to flow. States are getting squeezed.

The paradox is that the same forces that are squeezing the state are also giving impetus to left-wing politics. There are huge imbalances of power being created in networked societies. The monopolists are hoovering up money and influence. Personal connections count for more than ever, now that networked connections have become ubiquitous. Education is turning into a way of pulling up the drawbridge rather than moving up the ladder. One temptation for the left is to assume that the evidence of injustice will sooner or later outweigh the disabling effects of these social forces on the state. That is part of the Corbyn gamble: hang around until people are sufficiently pissed off to start demanding social-democratic solutions to their problems.

I don’t think this is going to happen. There is nothing to suggest that popular dissatisfaction will find its way back to the state as its best outlet. It will be channelled through the networks that are making the life of the state increasingly difficult.

The other temptation is to think that the left can achieve its goals by bypassing conventional social democracy and channelling its own ambitions into network politics. This is the other side of the Corbyn gamble, or at least the view of some of the people who have attached themselves to him: a new politics is coming that uses digital technology to mobilise fleet-footed networks of activists who can generate change without going through the cumbersome and time-consuming process of winning general elections. That also looks pretty wishful to me. These networks are just another vehicle for expressing personal preferences. They don’t have any means of changing the preferences of people who think differently. You need to win power to do that.

The state’s power is being squeezed by networks of empowered individuals, but these networks don’t have the kind of power necessary to do the redistributive work of the state. What is the left to do? It needs to try to find value in the fact that the state is not just another network. The right does this instinctively, by talking up the state’s security functions and championing ideas of sovereignty and national identity. But that does nothing to address the deleterious effects of living in a modern networked society, where we are swamped by personal choice but impotent in the face of corporate and financial power.

Rather than trying to harness the power of networks, the left should stand up for people against the dehumanising power of Big Data. The state isn’t Google and should not try to pretend to be. We don’t need more choice. We don’t need more efficiency of the kind that digital technology is endlessly supplying. We need protection from the mindless bureaucratic demands of the new machine age: the relentless pursuit of information, regardless of the human cost. There are limits to what the state can do but it retains some real power. It still employs real human beings; it educates them and provides them with welfare. It should do what is in its power to make the work tolerable and the education meaningful, to provide welfare in ways that don’t leave people at the mercy of faceless systems. The left needs to humanise the state.

At the moment, too much energy is being spent trying to humanise the party. We are told that people are tired of robotic, careerist politicians; they want unspun versions of people like themselves. But robotic politicians aren’t the problem; the coming age of robots is. While the party tries to feel more comfortable with itself, the effects of a networked society are running rampant. Acquiring the power of the state is still the best way to fight back. It doesn’t matter if that has to be done in an ugly, mechanised, artificial way, by careerist politicians with whom we wouldn’t choose to spend our personal time. Better an ugly, artificial politics than an ugly, artificial world. 

David Runciman is a professor of politics and the head of the department of politics and international studies at Cambridge

This article is part of a New Times collection of the future of the left. Read the other pieces here.

 

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times