This is not an announcement that I’ve gone fishing. (Ah! You guys know how cold it is on the rump end of the Rocky Mountains, right now? Some people might be dedicated enough fishermen to go out in this but I – while fully appreciative of what one could call the contemplative aspects of fishing; or what I can sitting near the water with a nice book – have issues with the part of fishing in which you grasp a squirming, slimy creature and try to remove it from the hook without dropping it and/or spearing my finger on the hook.)
Rather it is a post on how things happen. Individual things – like how you end up doing the things you do in life – but also societal things: what really moves and shakes the world, the limits of government power, and what is ultimately and always in our own hands.
When I was in ninth grade, the person I admired most in the world had her entire life planned to her retirement age: what degree she was going to take; where she was going to live; what she was going to work in.
I saw no reason to doubt she’d do exactly as she planned. To begin with – if one believes in talent. We were fourteen, and she might have done a lot of learning before I met her – she was talented at everything from sports, to art to academics. And second, even though we’d just gone through a revolution, there was a certain feeling of rockbottomsolidness to the way of life in Portugal, possibly coming from each person not only being able to name several ancestors, but being able to tell you they’d all lived here and there, and their general life histories. Governments and revolutions passed, but people ended up in a similar position to that of their ancestors, and, tech notwithstanding, the way of life didn’t change that much.
I looked her up – I think five? – years ago. Let’s say her life didn’t go exactly as planned. I had some indication of that already, because I knew she’d switched majors halfway through her second year in college and also, concurrently, was admitted to the conservatory for a music degree that was no part of her plans.
In fact the last time I talked to my best friend from childhood, the girl who shared my desk (it’s a two-person thing, in Portugal) in first grade, and from whom I’ve diverged and with whom I lost contact (It wasn’t my fault. Not guilty yer ‘onor! She married a Frenchman!) she said I was the only one of us who could even vaguely claim to be doing exactly what I meant to. Since at the time I thought my career was pretty much over (2003, the Annus Horriblis – and if you think that means the year of the horrible ass, it’s also not far off, considering how editors were behaving. And agents, too) I thought that was a fairly sad statement.
But I am still doing more or less what I intended to do in Elementary. I was going to grow up, live in Denver (hey, I’m STILL working on that) and write books for a living.) Later on, in middle school, I decided I was going to be a journalist (and if you squint sideways you could say I’ve made some forays in that direction.) And later still, in High School, I aspired to being a political gadfly and having every vile prog in the world get indigestion at the sound of my name. (Working on it. Like Denver, it’s a long term project.)
When you consider that at the time I formed this brilliant idea I had no idea where Denver was – I think I had it confused with Dover, since I thought it was by the sea – spoke no English (and had less idea how to publish in Portuguese than in English. Still do. It’s a problem, because daddy would like to read my mysteries, and he doesn’t read English), had no contacts in North America, and the internet as we know it, (which is allowing me to make strides towards those last two goals) was only a glimmer in its daddies eyes… it’s not bad.
So… How did I get here? Well… Not any way that made sense.
Last summer, at Liberty Con, Glenn Reynolds attended the Baen authors’ party. Someone (I think Dr. Les Johnson) asked him how he’d got to where he was. “How did you become the blogfather?” or something to that general intent.
The answer – like Pratchett’s answer on how he wrote, which gave me permission to pantse books – was a relief to me. “Like everything in my life,” Glenn said. “More or less by accident.”
And that is how I ended up here, and as close to my childhood dream as makes no difference, when you consider the dream came from an eight year old Portuguese girl, in a village of no consequence, writing out her letters with a quill pen in a one-room school house. At the time I’d come up with that plan, neither of my parents (or my brother) had ever flown in an airplane. Those of my family who had immigrated had gone as workers, and often illegal (sorry, it’s a fact of life. No, I don’t agree with our laws being violated. We just can’t stop it. We need to get rid of perverse incentives, to get rid of illegal immigration. Well, the current REVERSE incentives might do it too.) My chances of coming over and living here, let alone being a professional author were pretty close to zero. Maybe less.
So… how did I get here? More or less by accident. If I hadn’t run into a poster for an exchange student organization in a location that was not one of my usual; if I hadn’t been intrigued enough to try to figure out what the organization was; if I hadn’t been selected; if I hadn’t been placed in the states; if I hadn’t then met my husband…
Being a science fiction writer, I can very well imagine a hundred parallel futures, none of which ends with me here. In most of them, I suspect, I’m now retiring as a public school teacher somewhere in Portugal. This was the path of high improbability. That it also more or less fit what I wanted to do is… not exactly a coincidence.
How could I have planned for this? Back in elementary, how could I have sat down with a pad of paper – like my friend did in high school – and put dates to my dreams: 1984, fall in love with an American. Ensure he falls in love with you. Sending him Heinlein books might help. 1985, marry said American. 1986… How could I? What sense does that make? And that even without taking in account the more improbable steps on the way to where I am now: 2001, make sure that literary fantasy series flops, so you can go on to write what you really want to, and actually have a career. Trust me on this, literary fantasy will never be enough to life from. Or 2008, make friends with guys at PJM so you can publish the occasional non fiction article.
Really? How could I plan that back in 1970? Unless I were psychic. (Something I’ve never been accused of.)
And this – you knew I had a point, right, other than the one on top of my head? – is why I object strenuously to all forms of government planning, from monetary supply to the more abstruse forms of involvement with professional training (like the US limiting the number of doctors who can graduate every year.)
Because politicians and economists and all the people who are supposed to be the great panjandrums of planning are no more psychic than I am. Worst, like everyone who is trained in a narrow specialty, they are often worse than the average Joe at knowing what is coming down the pipe. They get tunnel vision. My husband, for instance, is brilliant at developments in his field and even secondary impacts – he told me eighteen years ago that the long distance telecom business was as good as gone, and had maybe another two or three years before the implosion started – but he spent years telling me that my spending my days on the blogs was a waste of time, because it wouldn’t last.
My friend who planned her whole life failed to take in account that at fourteen she wasn’t even done growing: she had no idea what her mind would become, or what would interest her later. She couldn’t have enough information.
The government planning it for her, wouldn’t have done any better.
Let’s imagine the benevolent statism of some of Heinlein’s juveniles. Say, an Earth authority, who really wants to keep things running the best they can, to provide for a swelling (eh. Even the best predictors fail!) population. Ten years ago, the planners would still have been going “We need x number of journalists.”
Technology changes, the world changes, plans change. Some of the plans and tech and the world change in response to laws which think they’re going to control some portion of the world but which, instead, just make it go a different direction. (No? Obamacare – the end of full time employment as we know it.)
If an individual who is most concerned in it can’t plan his own individual life, because of the way it intersects with everyone else, what kind of being can plan the life of a nation or a world? You’d have to be sort of a god, standing above it all, wouldn’t you. As we know, and some other people are finding out, no such beings exist in the world of Earthly politics.
Oh, don’t misunderstand me – governments can and do change the course of things, only rarely the way they anticipate. Think of the left’s long crawl through journalism, entertainment media, government and education, all with the purpose of establishing full control and full narrative control, so people could be living in 1984 and think it was paradise and that the people keeping boots on their necks were liberators… All undone by a tech that for the beginning of its popularity was mostly used for disseminating porn and which is now still a haven for kitten pics and Heinlein flamewars. (And if you think it’s not been undone, imagine what we’d know, and what we’d think without the net. At least now we have a fighting chance.)
The individualists fail to organize. The collectivists are fond of planning. At least our side is aware our penchant is a shortcoming. Their side… hoist on their planned petard comes to mind. Couldn’t have happened to nicer statists.
Not that they don’t have power. They still have power. Mostly, they can cause most of us to die in horrible ways through revolution, war, famine or targeted mass killings. Governments throughout history have excelled at all of those. I doubt they’ve lost the knack. (Though the sheer organization of the industrial age might be passing from this world – thank G-d.)
BUT if we survive, they can’t do much for planning how we live – and certainly not for helping us get where we want to go. It’s not what it’s meant for. Even if the people in government were saints, and motivated by the best possible wishes, it wouldn’t work. They mostly are motivated by self interest and a will to power, and it definitely won’t work.
The law of unintended consequences is like the law of gravity. You can’t avoid it while on Earth and dealing with corporeal humans. The idea of control is an illusion. Humanity organizes in a chaotic system. Step on a butterfly and you might start up squid farms in Asia, or kill Martian colonies in the twenty second century.
So – supposing you want to get somewhere – if planning doesn’t work, how do you get where you want to go?
Why… by accident. Or not. It’s more like Zen archery. You don’t aim, but you know where the target is, and you stay lose, and you intend to reach it. And then, instead of planning how to get there, you stay alert for possible opportunities to get where you want to go. See an opportunity to work at something you always wanted to? Give it a chance. See something that needs doing and doesn’t pay? Try it. Who knows? It might start to pay suddenly. Stay open to chaos and make use of it.
Or maybe it’s like fishing. You can stake out the perfect cove, put the right bait in the water, wait. But if the fish slept late that day, you might come home empty handed. On the other hand, start a bunch of rods going, with different bait, and you might have to dine on frog’s legs, but you probably won’t go hungry. Or even better, get a boat, a net and trawl that lake. Throw back what you’re not interested in.
As the man said, the game is rigged, but if you don’t bet you can’t win. And, as with the lottery, the more bets you place, the greater the chance you’ll win SOMETHING.
It is the secret to surviving in times of catastrophic technological change, the secret to surviving the unintended consequences our “planners” throw at us, the secret to staying alive and getting (more or less) where they want to go.
Keep moving. The terrain changes constantly and there are rodents of unusual size (we call them politicians!) Keep a buddy at your back to tell you what’s going on there. Pick up your fallen comrades and carry them along as you move towards your destination.
It’s a chaotic world. The non-planners have the advantage.
There’s a different post on over at Mad Genius Club.