An Online Cartoonist’s Commentary on Capitalism?

Most people, at least in the United States and Canada, are familiar with comics such as “Garfield” and “Peanuts.” But most have probably never heard of “Freefall.” That’s because it’s not a syndicated comic in newspapers, but an Internet comic. There are many thousands of comics on the Internet, drawn by people not for money but because the artist had a story to tell. “Freefall” is a science-fiction webcomic drawn by Mark Stanley, a nuclear engineer from Wisconsin. For about twenty years, he’s drawn three strips a week of three characters on a frontier colony world: Sam, an alien con artist turned freighter captain whom when he isn’t trying to get his ship fixed (or later on doing a run) is plotting some scheme or petty theft, Helix, a cheerful simple minded robot whom has become Sam’s sidekick, and Florence Ambrose, a genetically engineered humanoid canine called a “Beomans Wolf” whom has been hired on as Sam’s ship engineer. A reoccurring theme is that in contrast to Sam’s simple-minded cons and schemes, Florence is highly intelligent and honest. It’s more than a little frustrating for them, especially for Florence as Sam has a way of missing the point of her advice.

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Over the course of numerous plots, the three have gotten into numerous adventures, and mishaps. Over the past two decades, the strip has gone from simply getting the ship repaired and operational to more detailed plots with many additional characters added. Although the details have gotten a little more complex over time, and occasionally gets a little serious, Stanley almost always finds a way to conclude each three panel strip with a punch line.¬† Among the main plots, the planet’s seemingly quirky robots are actually intelligent and conscious. When the humans of the planet can no longer deny this has happened, they have to make a decision about what to do with them. But besides the issue of robotic intelligence and of the rights of intelligent machines, Mark has slipped in others. One of which might be a commentary on capitalism.

For those who have yet to read the comic, the following contains some “spoilers,” so don’t blame me if you read on and it spoils some of your mystery.
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A few years into the comic, the three main characters come across Mr. Kornada. At first, he was just a joke about middle management: a simpleton who can’t come to grips that he has to evacuate himself and his robots due to a hurricane because “it’s not part of the program.” The kind of guy readers of “Dilbert” would be all too familiar with. As selfish as he is dense, when he gets what he wants from the characters, he quite literally gives them the boot.

Later on in the comic, Stanley reintroduced Kornada as the villain in a plot to steal the money in the robots’ bank accounts by means of a “failsafe” program that essentially worked by lobotomizing a robot’s electronic brain. His henchman, or rather his henchbot, would then be able to rewire the money into different departments, causing his stock to go up each time. This scheme would make him the richest man on the planet, at the cost of devastating the planetary economy. It wasn’t always easy to know whether he was too stupid to realize the destruction he’d cause, or just didn’t care, though certain comments of his, notably “It’s not only about how much I have, it’s also about how much you don’t.” suggests the latter.

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In a sense, Kornada represents a cross between “Dilbert’s” dumb pointy-haired boss, and the stereotype of the 19th century robber baron. He had no true loyalty aside from his relatives, and even with that it was because of their obligations to him as family. Whenever he had gotten what he wanted from someone, he’d fire them or otherwise throw them away. And he didn’t want to just get rich. To him the ideal situation was him having all the money while everyone else was poor.

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But Kornada was in a sense more dangerous than a robber baron as his scheme wouldn’t just enrich himself at the expense of everyone else, but cause a global calamity that would have jeopardized¬† everyone. His actions were a danger to himself as well. He didn’t realize his scheme was likely to damage to the planet to the point his money wouldn’t be much good. He thought he could simply use his money to protect himself. But with the robots rendered effectively nonfunctional without constant human supervision, the quality of life would plummet, and he’d be in danger of being strung up by a lynch mob. While the robots would otherwise have stopped this, in their lobotomized mode they wouldn’t lift a finger.

While Sam, who fancies himself a con artist, has some admiration for Kornada for pulling off a scheme on such a massive scale, he feels the human missed the obvious flaw. “You don’t kill the people you’re stealing from,” he stated, “You want them alive and productive so you can steal from them again and again.” Kornada’s plot, he felt, was not a “sustainable business model.”

As it turned out, Kornada had only gotten in the position he was due to being hired into a lower leadership position due to family ties, and once his supervisors discovered how incompetent he was they found it easier to just promote him and make him someone else’s problem rather than make the effort and expense (in time) to have him fired. Eventually it got to the point his nephew by marriage, Mr. Ishiguro, put him in a “make work” position where he thought he couldn’t do any harm. But when Ishiguro left the planet to take care of some business, Kornada through deception turned his nephew’s robot servant, which had access to a number of important files and codes, into what should have been his robotic helper into a “force multiplier for stupidity.”

Stanley would introduce Ishiguro as a character well into the comic. At first glance, he seems to be a stereotypical businessman who doesn’t care much for his workers. But eventually it’s revealed he’s not only much more intelligent than his uncle, he actually has a sense of responsibility and compassion. If for no other reason, he feels it makes good business sense to make sure the area a company does business in shares in the prosperity, “I want my grandkids to be taking money from their grandkids.” He feels allowing the robots to be free (but nonvoting) beings would both free the company of any legal liability of any screw-ups they make and at the same time they can write off the loss of the value of the robot’s as a tax deduction.

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In a sense, Ishiguro is a model businessman.¬† As one other character puts it, he’s “clever, smart, and a little bit evil,” a description he himself agrees with. Doing good actions out of a sense of enlightened self-interest. Kornada’s scheme he felt in the end would have ruined everyone in the end, including Kornada, “It’s okay to have steak when there’s a chicken in every pot. But if you’re eating steak and the majority have nothing, it doesn’t take long for you to look like a chicken.” He also feels a sense of responsibility when things go wrong. Finding out it was his robot Kornada deceived and used to almost issue in the catastrophe, he genuinely feels some shame and remorse.

Perhaps Stanley was just trying to simply create a good story. But he’s also shown us two very different kinds of capitalists. We often think of them as selfish, more than a little dumb, and when in the wrong place at the wrong time can do a great deal of damage to the country. Ideally, they’re intelligent individuals whom feel it’s in their interest to make others prosper as over the long term it benefits them and their children. In probability, most are somewhere in the middle. Hopefully the majority are closer to the latter.

And in these days of capitalism being the subject of political debate. yours truly comes from a family that doesn’t think capitalists were necessarily more or less moral than socialists, just that socialism doesn’t work.

In any event, feel free to catch the further adventures of Sam, Helix, and Florence at http://freefall.purrsia.com/. Hopefully Mark Stanley will “keep on Freefalling” for many years.

Murray M. Lee

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