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Yesterday, at an ordinary get together between friends, we found that we were all waking up in the middle of the night with cold sweats. Now, this being the type of gathering it was, most of our cold sweats centered on the election and since most of them do for a living this non-fiction thing I do sporadically and more intensely right now, we’re all dead-tired, hollow-eyed and walking into walls as is.
But there were enough people in other fields and who aren’t as intensely political present, that the sense of unease and discomfort, the sense that we’re standing on thin ice is not just politics. “Something is going on here.”
What is going on here – and the reason I’m having cold sweats over the election – is ultimately the same thing that is going on in publishing. It’s good and it’s bad, it’s exhilarating and terrifying, and the people who are terrified have declared war on it, and even those of us who’ve embraced it are scared. Very scared. You see… the future is not what it used to be. In fact, it never was.
It’s impossible now to read the golden age of science fiction without getting two things: the confidence and the hopefulness.
The hopefulness I can fully get behind, but the confidence, the certainty that they knew what the future held – that baffles me. Oh, not absolutely. I’ve read enough of history and of the nonfiction writings of the first half of the twentieth century to realize they thought they had it all figured out. (The only thing that confuses me is how they didn’t know how it had worked in the past. I’m guessing they thought their technology was so extraordinary it made what had failed in the past possible. Or perhaps it was simply the Soviet Union’s propaganda, making it look like it worked THERE.)
It is clear, even from Heinlein’s juveniles that they expected a world-wide government with tighter controls over people’s private lives than even we have managed to inflict on ourselves. And it works because… because… because… Science!
In Heinlein’s books, because the man was aware of history, there was a hard science of psychology and also one of politics that made all this possible, if not desirable. (Even in the early books, his characters strive to escape other people’s plans for them.)
People travel around the world, they fly to the stars, and all of it is overseen by variations on FDR’s regime – more or less benevolent – which makes the whole thing work.
I guess when the USSR had apparently pulled a medieval kingdom into the 20th century in a couple of decades – as far as the information coming out, at least – this made sense.
Of course, there was also how rapid and visible progress had been, and how we BELIEVED we had everything under control now.
Let’s say the USSR was very short of an advertisement and that any regime that tried to apply that to the whole world would be a sad, mad, fractured regime. Let’s also say most of us know that now, at some level.
In many ways the wars of the 21st century so far have been wars against global communication. Those who resent their people’s ability to see that they aren’t the brightest/bravest/most civilized in the world turn to religion and bitter, limiting beliefs and try to erase that which “offends” them by showing them their inferiority. And I’m not JUST talking about Muslim countries.
It boggles the mind to read early 20th century books where travel across the globe was cheap and almost instant and there was no resistance to this modernity, this change. Even the handwavium of “hard science psychology” can’t quite but leave us baffled.
We’re aware now that there’s more difference between cultures and religions than that. (We’re also trying to claim those are genetic – well, not us, but the other sect of Luddites bedeviling us. Never mind. Jean Jacques Rousseau’s fault. If I had only one bullet, and one time machine… Never mind.)
Part of this was of course that the two generations before ours had seen their world change enormously – from horse and buggy to intercontinental flight – and embraced it, and couldn’t imagine anyone NOT.
But what they’d embraced was… a physical change. Yes, machines could spin faster than humans, and that meant no childhood labor, but machines were still making the same goods in the same way. They still had to be transported over distances. You still had to go in to work every day. Etc. etc. etc.
And their projections of the future, those things they so confidently embraced and foretold, were more of the same: people worked across the globe, but they went in to a physical location to work; they flew spaceships by being members of the astrogator’s union; and writers would maybe fax their work in, but books were still printed or somehow encoded in a physical form.
Turns out it didn’t work out as advertised. Might it have? Well, part of it was, I think, impossible from the beginning. Like… the world cultures all effortlessly becoming a sort of ersatz 50s America for instance with their different customs so much décor. (Weirdly I think that’s how most people who preach multiculturalism see it. Part of this, of course, is that the future comes – always – from America and being a nation of immigrants who willingly abandoned their culture and keep only the… scenic portions, we fail to get that culture as a group experience is different. I recommend one reads the parable of the crab bucket.)
But in the Western World we might certainly have had the population multiplying wave, and the strength of mind and purpose to NOW have colonies in the solar system. Only… we didn’t because of the peculiar nature of the Boomer generation. (Are you blaming the boomers again, Sarah? No, not blaming. But that they were in many ways the first generation in which even the poor were well off by other generation’s standards, that they were massive in numbers, and that they were the target of soviet agitprop made a difference. How could it not. And no, I’m not one of them. Nor is anyone really after somewhere in the mid fifties. That idea is a fiction they created to remain relevant. Born in 62 I “got here afterwards” and to an extent at least early on defined myself in opposition to them. To paraphrase P.J. O’Rourke, my generation turned its back on the sit-ins and love-ins, cut our hair and got jobs. Someone had to.) They not only didn’t have children early but they also went hook line and sinker for luddite nonsense rising to the levels of religious hysteria. They turned on their own species, though I don’t think they were aware of that, and decided we shouldn’t leave this planet, because like Lord Byron we were “mad bad and dangerous to know.” They, in fact, decided theirs was the pinnacle of achievement, and that life should be frozen just like this, with perhaps a little decay and population reduction, but never below the tech of the thirties, or above the tech of the sixties. (I still think, btw, all this was Soviet Agit Prop.) They would preside over the turning point into gentle decay, and the human race would live ever after like a contented dowager, taking up increasingly less room and reminiscing on her youth.
Only… change doesn’t work that way. Nor does technology. The bright minds who might have designed a better kind of rocket, finding themselves thwarted went into computers. This was allowed because, after all, it was just improving what already existed.
Only it wasn’t. And the people who are scared of technological change, of societal uncertainty, caught on too late. In the nineties they scrambled to talk down the computer revolution, to pile on on online commerce as soul destroying, to guilt us into abandoning email and AIM. The government, ever as clued as big publishing houses, lumbered around doing the bidding of the people who believed government was the future (because they are the ones who go into government careers, by and large) and kicking over sand piles with lawsuits against various tech companies.
And they were oh, so horribly inefficient. They’re still trying. The current front in this battle is the “Amazon is evil” moaning and beating of chests.
They won’t succeed. And the quake of technology of which we’re feeling the first rumbles is going to make the industrial revolution seem like a storm in a teacup.
No? Think. What we’re seeing happen in publishing will happen in education and it will happen in every other field too. Except for a very few jobs, jobs will get uncoupled from a place. Now, instead of choosing from the best qualified candidate in your city, you can pick worldwide. Outsourcing? You ain’t seen nothing yet.
What will it do? Even my mind boggles. I think overtime all skilled people around the world will become comparable in salary, but that’s okay because cost of living will equalize too.
The way there will be …. Horrible in many places, and unsettling in the best of them. BUT on the other side there’s a society where how far you get is limited only by how hard you’re willing to work.
I think the change that’s coming, and which my grandchildren might see the end of (though I’ll tuck away a hope that increased longevity will allow me to see the middle of it) will refashion the way individuals the world over think of themselves. It might at that bring the triumph of the American way of life – once the present generation of doubters shuts up or disappears – because a constitutional democratic republic is the best way to manage a diverse and pugnacious society.
BUT my guess is what it will birth will not be a worldwide regime, but something far more complex, fractured and interesting. People might at long last really be able to experiment with forms of government they believe in, (even if they are stupid, yes) by living near other like minded people, regardless of what they do or what natural resources the area has.
At the end of this I suspect we’ll have a sort of federalism writ large. And the savings in time and manpower – from not having to fly containers of data around, for one – and the improvements in science from around-the-world instantaneous communication and better education-at-will; and the loosening of the grip of governments on economies (through distributed workforces) will usher in an era of prosperity that WILL propel us to the stars.
I can see it. It’s so close I can taste it.
So can the luddites. Which is why they’re screaming and thrashing around like banshees and making use of 20th century communications tech to TRY to keep the future at bay. It annoys me, because if they succeed the transition will be unnecessarily painful, unnecessarily bloody, and I might not live to see the other side.
What makes me wake up in the middle of the night is the fear that the land I love, and my children born here, will not live as an entity to see the other end of this either.
But that’s a personal and minor quibble. Technology and knowledge, once they reach a certain point, cannot be wholly stopped. You can change their course from what seems logical. But eventually, to quote Leonard Cohen, “Things are going to slide, slide in all directions, Won’t be nothing you can measure anymore.” And then… they’ll settle in a new pattern. And move on.
Whether the future continues to come from America or someone elsewhere picks up the flag; whether it’s now or five hundred years from now – a more free world is coming, one that allows for more individual definitions of happiness and satisfaction… for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
And the people now trying to stop it will be bumps on the road.