The current books I’m reading while having meals or waiting for an appointment are a series of medieval mysteries that I’m 90% sure are very badly researched. There’s just this air of “I’m bsing this part” about them, but it’s not my time period (before the Black Death) and as such I don’t know details, so nothing has jumped up to bite my nose. And the stories are pleasant enough with interesting and human characters. Oh, yeah, and they’re included in my KULL membership, so even though when I had all the appointments I was reading two a day, they’re free. (Also they’re nine or ten of them, which is useful when you want to not work very hard at getting into another series. So, for the indie authors out there, yes, volume matters.) Before that I read a couple other (indie) series of medieval mysteries. You see, Amazon recommends one after the other, and since these are my “fill in the blank space” books, I don’t work too hard at finding something else, unless the book I’m reading kicks me out (which is why a couple of other recommended series didn’t last more than three pages.)
Being immersed in medieval mysteries has got me thinking about the scale of polities. Oh, sure, the electors had something to do with it too, because their function is part of the scale of society and of technology.
In fact, even with electors “to carry the vote of the people” I doubt if a country on the scale of the United States would have been possible a couple of centuries earlier. It would be unthinkable earlier than that. The combination of technology and the ability to project force to keep the roads clear of danger were the gating features of previous empires. And the ability to rule a large empire was implicitly the ability to rule only “in the important things” and let local customs do the rest.
All previous large-scale empires (well, in the sense that it’s a conglomerate of sovereign nations/states, and that we’re supposed to have some sort of central governance though local rule is SUPPOSED to prevail — we won’t go into how it doesn’t — we could sort of consider the US an empire without an emperor, certain recent presidents nowithstanding. That the idea of local governance is decaying is also a matter of technology. When people move around so much during a life time, it’s hard to believe in citizenship of the state and in local rule. And since you might move to another state tomorrow, you care about how the other states are governed too.)
Look, I’m not a dialectical or any other kind of materialist. Most of the time I believe in a spiritual realm (look, it’s a struggle, okay. Some of us are born people of very little faith. But I work at it. And recently I’ve had reason to realize I’m not as deaf to the spiritual as I tend to think I am. And no, it’s not any of your business.) But all of the time I believe in the human spirit. And humans for good and — often — for ill are quire capable of overcoming material impulses and conditions, and make their society something completely different from what you think material conditions dictate.
Even given the ability to project force, etc, the idea of empires before about the 18th century should be bonkers.
You see, not only is the past another country, but that country is very small, and restricted to the travel time of human feet and those domesticated animals we can get to pull carts and carry a rider. And yet with that technology and the ability to sail, our species created nations that encircled the globe, and a trade network that spanned it. Because we’re clever monkeys and restless ones.
But the technology does influence the scale of life and dreams of most people. I keep being stopped, in these medieval mysteries, when distances are mentioned. Fifty miles as a trip that would take maybe a week on foot, and three days or so on horseback. (And I think they might be optimistic, when talking of the state of roads in medieval Europe.) A peddlar who works two or three villages might be traveling maybe 20 miles in a week. The village ten miles over is another world, necessitating a peasant on foot almost the whole daylight of a day to get there, and that at a brisk pace, not suitable for women and children. Two villages over is another world, where a man who say left a wife in your village can present himself as a bachelor, start a whole new life, and never be revealed.
It shouldn’t surprise me, because I grew up with the fossilized remains of such a type of scale. My grandfather came from maybe five miles down the road. Can’t have been much more than that, because when I was five, he’d have me put on my best hat, and we’d walk, hand in hand, for the feast days of his native village. (Mostly to hear the band perform. Grandad liked band music.) Then walk back at the end of the day. Heck, might only be two miles. I never measured. BUT in local parlance it was talked of as another world, with their own strange customs, their bizarre ideas, and very definitely a different “tribe.”
In the same way, when my uncle who came from a little farther afield, started courting my aunt, the local boys gave him a couple of friendly beatings, to try to discourage him from poaching “one of our girls”. The sense of a different place entirely was there.
But I grew up between worlds. In my dad’s day there were coal trains, but the tickets were too expensive for frivolous travel. Most of their distances and social associations were measured on shanks’ pony spans. “How far can you walk in a day?” There were buses too, and those were cheaper, though, which is why dad poached mom from half an hour away (by trolley) and my uncle “poached” my aunt from about the same distance away.
In my brother’s day (just a little before mine) the cost of bus fare was reasonable and besides students had a pass for the bus, which made it very reasonable, so his courting my sister in law who lived (in a better area of the region) about where mom came from was unremarkable. In fact, he had friends he hung out with who came from much further regions.
And in my day, with pass, it was very rare for me to stay in the village for the whole day after about 11 or so, when I went to Preparatory (for highschool, think of it as early middle school) school in fifth grade. Even though I lived in, and had my roots in a rather small place, I spent most of my days in the second largest city in the country. I knew the coffee shops, the delis, the places to buy paper or books, all of it in the big city.
My grandmother, in contrast, born and raised in the same village, had been to town a handful of times in her lifetime. She knew where to shop and how to maneuver the necessities of life in the village, but when you took her to the city she behaved like she was in a foreign land. Because at her time, and given the transportation and communication abilities of the time, it was a foreign land, and also one she had no necessity to go to.
I don’t live in Portugal right now, so this part is speculative. When I was growing up, Porto (objectively I think 10 kilometers away as the crow flies, but really much farther away in terms of winding roads) was easy to reach (about 20 minutes by train. An hour or so by bus) but to cross the country to Lisbon or Algarve, in the Southern-most coast, was a chore. The first few times we drove there took the whole day, and was exhausting too, as most of the trip was at 30 miles per hour on winding mountain roads. You stopped at roadside fountains to refill your bottles. You carried food, because there might not be any type of restaurant. It was an “endeavor.” (My dad tended to make short work of these by driving over night, so most of my recollection of cross country trips in my youth was of sleeping in the back seat while dad drove.)
However around when Robert was born, so about 20 some years ago, they put in a highway system. It is now maybe all of three hours (or less, if traffic is good) to Lisbon. I would not at all be surprised if when mom is looking for something particularly outre, say imported food, or a specific type of fabric, she makes dad drive her to Lisbon and back in one day, something UNIMAGINABLE even thirty years ago.
My thought processes thus tend to be mixed up on the matter of scale. I am at the same time someone who grew up with an almost medieval scale of things, including local governance, someone for whom travel by train was easy and cheap, which means I had an early 20th century mental scale and idea of travel — how long it took to get somewhere often depended on train connections and layovers, more than distance — and a woman who has lived in the US for almost 35 years, and who, therefore, tends to think of 100 miles as “no big, we can drive there in an hour and change.” Sure, not something you want to do every day (though we did last week, for doctors’ appointments) but also not something that will daunt us if there’s something we want to do, say a doctor or, when we lived in the Springs, a trip to Pete’s Kitchen (in Denver) or to a museum. Sure, we try to group the things we need to do in the other city (doctors’ appointments were a chance to visit with younger son or go to Jade Dragon, for instance) for convenience’s sake, but whether we’re in Denver or the Springs, it wouldn’t be the first time that on a beautiful summer night, we’re sitting around and go “Hey, you know what would be fun?” then proceed to go to the other city.
Perhaps because of this, I am aware of how that scale, the ease of “travel and communication” shapes how we think of ourselves and how we govern ourselves.
Take the electors. Yesterday at National Review (!) I found a columnist boliviating on how he believed in electors voting their conscience. [Facepalm.] This would be a lovely idea if we had chosen electors for their conscience and their probity and our trust in their intelligence. If I got to vote for Bob the elector over Joe the elector, if the campaign was all about Bob or Joe’s probity and intelligence and knowing history, this would be great. Because then I would trust Bob or Joe’s conscience. And it would be a representative system.
But electors are merely a fossilized system, from when the country was much more difficult to traverse or communicate across (not this is not the same as saying that we should abolish the electoral college. It is more saying that at this point “electoral votes” from various states need not be carried by a PHYSICAL person. Their existence is necessary, to save us from being ruled by the corruptocrats of California. BUT physical, animated, human “carriers” of those electoral votes are a relic from a time when tech was very different.) They are picked merely to “carry” the will of the people. Yes, I know they have some latitude, something particularly necessary when life was far more uncertain. Say a president-elect died before assuming power, the electors could make the necessary adjustments, while respecting the will of the people of the states who sent them.
This is to say that the electors, while in theory able to change their vote are not, and should not be, able to circumvent the will of the voters in the states that deputized them. To do so would make our elections moot and also p*ss off a bunch of very well armed people, something the weasels currently trying to subvert the election should remember, lest this all end in blood.
However, that digression aside, a lot of what is plaguing us, including the growth in power and reach of the Federal government are part of how technology has changed since the founding. As in, in their time it was more plausible that each person would be born, live and die in the same state. Therefore, citizenship in a state made perfect sense. (Heck, in many cases, citizenship in a town made perfect sense.) And you really didn’t have much say in how other states governed themselves, because what business was it of yours? You were not likely to go there, much less live there.
Yes, Americans were always more mobile than, say, people in Europe, but there were still natural limitations on communication and travel.
The automobile and the telephone changed that, and we saw the natural and consequent growth of centralized government over an area that most Europeans still can’t conceptualize. The same forces drove Europe into a “union” with centralized government.
But things have changed, haven’t they?
We now have near instant communication, across the globe. And while I hate traveling by plane, we do that, across the country, at least three times a year for some reason or another. And we do it across the sea usually every three years (not the last five years, which have been difficult on ALL fronts, mostly because of my health, which is also an influence — alas — on our finances.) And we’re stay-at-home boring people, by any definition.
I can even see why early twentieth century writers through that this type of travel and communication would lead to one-world government. I can.
But that doesn’t seem to be the way we’re going. You see, sure, the facility of travel and more mobility, and better communications, push us into taking a far greater interest in other countries business.
At the same time this communication (and maybe some day the travel!) are more individualistic and atomized. The difference in communications right now, in relation to the early 20th century is like the difference between the US where individuals travel in their own cars and Europe where, until recently, they traveled in buses and trains, at others’ convenience and in a communal sort of way.
Even when I was young, communicating across the world depended on the post office of at least two countries. It depended too on the press, for the large scale sort of communication. It depended on what governments had negotiated for communication.
This is how we end up with Europeans thinking the US is a military regime, or Americans thinking every European lives in a quaint little kingdom with a castle at the center.
You can’t maintain those illusions (unless you really work at them) when some of your writing — or gaming, or reading, or music — buddies are across the glove in a completely different land.
Communication is now atomized and personal. Sure, we’ve lost the sense of community (bah, the people who lament that never lived in a real small community, and think it’s all flowers and butterflies) but we gained the ability to go nosing about where we want to when we want to, at least with our minds. (I spent sometime yesterday looking up plague pits in Portugal — it’s tangential to DSR and finding out that as far as anyone knows either there aren’t any or no one ever looked. I grew up with mass graves enough, but those were from the Napoleonic war or the civil war.)
And I suspect travel too will get easier and more individual in the next fifty years or so.
So, what do these developments mean?
Blamed if I know! As I said, it was perfectly logical and made perfect sense for writers of the early 20th century to think developments like ours would lead to one world government. It is logical for our crazy progressives to think that the world should vote in US elections.
But logical isn’t always how things happen. Logically, being born a very small, premature baby in a village where medical technology was … oh, 19th century or so, and having caught every illness that crossed the village or even waved from the road, I should have died oh, fifty years ago, or so.
And there are factors that those writers, who, by and large, were people who believed in the “benefits” of a large state and thought the larger the less corrupt, didn’t take in account. Near instant, individual communications, and the ability of anyone and everyone to grab a megaphone and address the world, means that we know a lot more about individual governments, and individual politicians, and we’ve learned the bigger they are, the more corrupt they are. We’ve also realized very sharply that the larger the polity, the more they ignore local/regional/ and in Europe even national concerns.
So we have Brexit as an harbinger of things to come, and it might come to fracturing much smaller than that, to the important polity being the neighborhood, where you can stop nonsense in a very immediate way.
It might also very well lead to extra-regional polities: conglomerations of people by interest across many regions or countries, to form a big enough group that can then pressure the governments of the areas where their members live for something or other. I can’t for instance think of any such thing all writers need, except maybe freedom of expression, but if the need arises in the future (and if my colleagues weren’t mostly of that “logical” persuasion that believes in “scientific” governance (that is to the left of Lenin) I could see such a polity of writers forming. Or of bloggers. Or of clothes makers. Or really… anything.
The fact is, I could argue for one, for the other, or for a combination. But the more I try to probe the future, the more I get the feeling it’s something we can’t even imagine, any more than a medieval man could imagine life in the US right now. It’s one of the things we have to get there to see.
I suspect “the singularity” is not an event, but a series of them, and we’ve already gone through several, though perhaps the one looming ahead is biggest of all, given how instant communication and easy travel are changing our life.
Whatever is ahead, it will certainly be interesting times. And I’m Martian (Heinlein — it’s a joke, son.) to want to be around to see it.
Sure, may you live in interesting times is a curse, but when things are trending towards more freedom and mobility for the individual, some of us would like to be around and at least see the beginning of it.
At least I would. After all, I can already sort of understand three of the mental scales of human life that have prevailed through the centuries. I’d very much like to see what these clever and restless monkeys will come up with next.