Ted Chiang talks about magic, AI, capitalism, and superheroes

I'm not a regular listener to the Ezra Klein Show, but I tune in for the occasional interesting guest — so I assumed that the Ted Chiang episode was not one to miss, and I was right.

Chiang is the author of the speculative short fiction like the collection Stories of Your Life and Others, and is critically acclaimed by writers and reviewers alike for the way he combines hard sci-fi and heartfelt explorations of humans living in society. And that's basically what Chiang and Klein talk about for an hour.

Here are a few excerpts I particularly enjoyed, like this observation about magic vs. science:

When people quote the Arthur C. Clarke line [about sufficiently advanced science being indistinguishable from magic], they're mostly talking about marvelous phenomena, that technology allows us to do things that are incredible and things that, in the past, would have been described as magic, simply because they were marvelous and inexplicable. But one of the defining aspects of technology is that eventually, it becomes cheaper, it becomes available to everybody. So things that were, at one point, restricted to the very few are suddenly available to everybody. […]

Magic is something which, by its nature, never becomes widely available to everyone. Magic is something that resides in the person and often is an indication that the universe sort of recognizes different classes of people, that there are magic wielders and there are non-magic wielders. That is not how we understand the universe to work nowadays.

This leads into a cool examination of alchemy and religion.

He also offers his thoughts on superheroes:

Most of the most popular superhero stories, they are always about maintaining the status quo. Superheroes, they supposedly stand for justice. They further the cause of justice. But they always stick to your very limited idea of what constitutes a crime, basically the government idea of what constitutes a crime.

Superheroes pretty much never do anything about injustices perpetrated by the state. And in the developed world, certainly, you can, I think, make a good case that injustices committed by the state are far more serious than those caused by crime, by conventional criminality. The existing status quo involves things like vast wealth inequality and systemic racism and police brutality. And if you are really committed to justice, those are probably not things that you want to reinforce. Those are not things you want to preserve.

This is slightly ahistorical — Superman was originally created by two Jewish men in poverty who wanted a hero to rail against the the landlords and bankers and other corrupt representatives of a system that didn't care for them; and Warren Ellis vividly explored the fascism of that exact hypocrisy in Stormwatch and The Authority, which were wildly successful (and which Klein does bring up). But Chiang expands on his theory about the anti-Egalitarianism of superheroes, which coincides with his criticisms of the unequal distribution of magic, which leads into some of his other observations about things like capitalism and artificial intelligence:

I tend to think that most fears about A.I. are best understood as fears about capitalism. And I think that this is actually true of most fears of technology, too. Most of our fears or anxieties about technology are best understood as fears or anxiety about how capitalism will use technology against us. And technology and capitalism have been so closely intertwined that it's hard to distinguish the two.

The whole conversation is absolutely worth an hour of your time.

Ezra Klein Interviews Ted Chiang [Ezra Klein / The New York Times]

Image: Arturo Villarrubia / Flickr (CC-BY-SA 2.0) and Irn / Wikimedia Commons (CC 4.0)