Yesterday someone asked about my post “upside down” and why cheap data processing and storing and communication would affect our social structure.
What I answered with was an example from my field and I’m going to repeat it here, and then we’re going to explore some other things.
My field is, of course, the area I know best how this worked.
If I am to believe memoirs, the field was fully taken over by the left in the forties. This would explain the rather gratuitous (and quite mind-twistingly bizarre) occasional political-diatribe paragraphs in things like Agatha Christie.
I once read a biography of a post WWII publisher, and it was obvious as the author of the bio was talking about “socially conscious publishing” or some such rot that it was when “we’ll publish what is good for you and you’ll like it.”
And people did. I mean, by and large. After all, what else was there? Even the classics had to be re-bought and the same houses published them and they cost money. And besides, you know, these books were getting very good reviews in the newspapers, were bought to make movies from, and precisely who wanted to go against the tide of what everyone knew was the best current literature?
The blanket of left-coverage and of presenting left ideas as sane was fairly pervasive. It extended to the press, academia, publishing, art and any kind of mass communications. The result was that the overton window made communism simply a fast and extreme way of pushing what EVERYONE KNEW were good ideas. Ideas like central planning, or “progressive” education that minimized love of country and trust in technocratic, multinational elites (“our best men.”) and an idea of social life that ditched all traditional restraint, and an equality of the sexes that seemed to maximize women’s utility as corporate gears.
This “dream” was being busily sold in the science fiction of the period, too. At some point a few years ago, an older colleague reminded me of it when she said in the future we were all supposed to be eating at state owned cafeterias, weren’t we? In fact, from such books as I remember (Heinlein only glanced off it) all of family life had been off loaded to “public” functions, which if you’ve ever read The Communist Manifesto was right up there. The individual had to become an indistinguishable/genderless cog of the all pervasive state. It was this efficiency that allowed the planned economy to outstrip all of this disorganized capitalism. And we knew this for sure because soviet press told us how the Happy People of Brutopia er the Soviet Union had no poverty and no unemployment, and hell, we saw them all happy at May Day parades. It was just that they had used brutal methods to achieve that paradise too quickly, and we were going to do it slowly, with brainwashing, I mean social engineering, so that when that perfect future arrived where the state was your mother and your father, and you were used to the greater glory of the state while being made perfectly happy and taken care of, (from YOU according to your ability and to YOU according to your needs, which the perfect, benevolent state knew, anyway) you’d greet it with joy. After all it was perfectly logical and all your sources of information told you so.
Perhaps I saw this more clearly because I grew up in Europe, where they took less care to disguise what they were doing. Everyone KNEW the future was socialist. Everyone knew that was the best thing. And everyone knew the US was a failed, rump experiment in individualism which succeeded only in fostering the inequalities and decadence of Rome, and which, like Rome, would be swallowed up any day now.
It became obvious when I first came to America that both major parties believed this too. It was just a difference in how fast they wanted to get there. Which is why Ronald Reagan was a shock to their system. Even previous Republican presidents had ASSUMED it was a matter of speed, not of destination.
And Reagan was where the blanket thrown over everyone’s minds started to unravel. Not as fast as it should, mind. I mean in any rational plot, in any novel written about this, the revelation of how spectacularly unpleasant, poor and just ridiculous (300 baby shoes was the same as 300 shoes of assorted sizes to supply the population) the USSR was would have put paid to the idea that communism was better. In any world with a modicum of decency “communist” would be a greater insult than nazi, because one killed over a hundred million and the other only seven? twelve million? Mind you both are mind bogglingly awful and both should be insults because they’re both short hand to “power hungry mass murderer” but communist is orders of magnitude worse. (And no, as my younger self tried to exculpate this nonsense “at least the communists had good intentions” doesn’t wash it. The Nazis did too. By their lights. According to the best scientific theory of the time. Don’t believe me? Read the Green Man from Greypeck, where the man laments that eugenics weren’t followed and so the race isn’t fit to survive. And this btw was based on ideas from H. G. Wells. And the author was not a communist, or a Nazi, just a middle class Englishman. (In case you wonder, yes, it used to be worse. Which is the whole point of this essay. Mostly.))
Societies don’t work that way. The people who’d long marched to the top of all mass communications weren’t about to roll over and admit they’d devoted their lives to a lie. (We’re still seeing the rump action of this contingent in politics. McCain for instance, is typical of the “of course the all-pervasive state is better, but we have to herd the peasants there slowly.” So is Vichy Mitchy.) So we slowly, after frantic re-grouping, got the narrative that socialism and communism aren’t all bad. It’s just that the wrong people were in charge. And after all, Russia, such a backward country to try this in. The fact the ridiculous ideology only “took” in backward countries is an interesting narrative. Hungary, if I remember, rivaled Germany and Austria, for culture and art, and hey, look at what communism did to half of Germany. Even the other half, plunged deep in socialism, like all of Europe, is better off. But hey, it is only a matter of “the right people” and America will do this better because it’s such a wealthy country.
Anyway, so the narrative persisted, and still persists in every possible quarter.
But here’s the thing. I’m not sure what we’ll call the beginning of the unraveling was all Reagan. Sure it was him when he arranged the breakup of the Bell system. When I was in the states in 80/81, calling the next city a couple of times cost $50. I know, because I had a boyfriend in the next city and didn’t realize the charges, so I had to reimburse my host parents. This meant friendships over say fifty miles were difficult, unless you were willing to write each other letters everyday.
Everyone lamenting the decline of letter writing reminds me a bit of ladies my grandmother’s age lamenting the demise of long skirts. Sure, they were lovely for dressing up on occasion, but anyone who’s worn costume knows how difficult it makes everyday life: climbing a bus, going to the bathroom, going up stairs, etc. Sure, fun every once in a while — like letters — but cumbersome to live with.
Four years later, my husband courted me by phone, with a call every week, and yeah, okay, it cost a few hundred dollars, but it was not as prohibitive as four years before. Not by a long shot. Like a ten times larger long shot.
I’ve come to the conclusion that 1984 was written at the only time it could be written, and the only time it could work was that time with a small increase in tech.
Very pervasive, intrusive regimes require being able to not just see everything, but also to control everything people see.
The real world of 1984 would be different. There would always be black market tech to make it look you were perfectly innocent, and there would be underground markets (many) and there would be underground news sources too. There always were. BUT in terms of what was acceptable behavior, and what people thought was sane, 1984 was about right, so long as they controlled all forms of communication.
Let’s remember that part of what brought down the soviet union was… typewriters. Just the ability to make fast copies of something and disseminate it widely opened cracks in the totalitarian information they were being fed.
By the mid eighties when I came over, not only was phone way cheaper, but fax machines were all the rage. When I had an honest job, office workers would fax each other cartoons and jokes. We also talked a lot across offices. I remember it seemed magical to me to talk to my counterpart at our company’s branch in Columbus Ohio and ask how the weather was. Wow, instant information across the country, and no intermediates. Wow.
Since then it’s been a break neck race in… ah, disintermediation of information and getting out of central gatekeepers. And from information to politics and the arts.
The thing is, most people aren’t even aware of changing their political opinions, for the reason most people never think about politics. I do, but that’s because I was bitten by politics when I was a wee little girl, and I carry the scars.
Most people aren’t aware of their opinion changing. It’s more that when we all got all our info from daily news, we’d have been subjected to a barrage of news telling us how successful and wonderful Obama was and how prosperous the country. And we’d have believe it. Even the WSJ joined in the chorus through the first summer of recovery at least. Probably because they thought the chorus was, of course, going to be successful and they didn’t want to sound crazy.
But it never took. Even eight years ago, right after the election, it never took. They managed to sell their shiny package of Obama with talk of women fainting and how smart he was, but that was it. People could talk to aunt Mimmi in Miami and uncle Hank in Cleveland and they knew that they too were struggling. So it never took. In moments “Summer of recovery” became a joke.
Two thousand and twelve was a triumph of fraud plus putting a cone of silence on the Republican candidate. As uninspiring/soft as Romney was, a lot of us knew by then that we needed anyone but Obama. But things like the massive rally in Denver where more than ten times the people in the stadium were turned away and every road in CO was stopped up with people trying to get to the rally were cone-of-silenced.
Also for the smarter people, the ones who of course, still trusted gatekeepers (it takes more than smarts to go against pervasive narrative. It takes being an odd. The people who want to fit in and be popular, the “nice kids” even when adults, just buy what seems to be “everyone says”) there was a narrative that the measures Obama had taken were JUST about to pay off. This made perfect sense to those (mal) educated in our institutions, because the measures Obama had taken had been sold to them as “sensible” and “logical.”
Unfortunately the media didn’t realize they were blowing their last powder charge. Well, unfortunately for them, but good for the nation.
By the time 16 came around, they redoubled their efforts. In a way they had to, because the harp– Hillary is such a d*mn uninspiring candidate. Though at least the democrats in charge understood she was saner than crazy uncle Bernie, a Jewish man in his sixties who declared himself a “National Socialist” without a qualm.
But because they knew they had a problem on their hands, they pushed the least likely to win Republican candidate possible, and didn’t cone of silence him. D*mn it all, the things he said were so stupid and repulsive. Surely the people would laugh at him.
And then election night came. You had to have a heart of stone not to laugh like an hyena.
I’ve seen this before. I’ve been watching it slo-mo in publishing over the last ten years or so from “We control all the books you get to see, and the least repulsive/political will sell the most, but don’t worry, because we’re starting to take over even romance.” and “The lower sales are just the result of people reading less, but look, they still love our soft porn, feminist romances! Look how they sell!” Or “They still love our social justice fantasies/mysteries/science fiction, look how they sell.”
They sold because they were the only thing available. The dogs might hate the food, but if the alternative was starving, they’d make an attempt. (And, btw, for some of us games and movies aren’t an option. Hell, for a lot of us, we still need print even if we game and watch movies.)
But the communications/data revolution progressed. BTW we are a fairly unusual country. The same tech is available other countries, but it didn’t go into the same channels. I think it’s because, bad as we are, we are less socialist than even other Western countries. People trust “the proper authorities” less.
My mother says Portugal badly needs news blogs. And it does. But if there is something like instapundit there, I haven’t seen it. Which is in itself interesting, since in the seventies there were all sorts of unauthorized radio stations, which you’d think were more work.
I know newspapers are struggling because I have friends who work in journalism. Or used to. Or are riding that puppy to the ground in a race between the industry’s bankruptcy and retirement age.
I have my ideas about traditional publishing. I think one house in my field will survive. And no cookies for which house. BUT I also think even that is going to get really fraught. Because I won’t lie to you, with no promo except my efforts on this blog, Witchfinder made me double the money my traditional books make me. Now, that’s at me getting 75% of the take, of course, but still. No effort. No publicity. And money does speak loudly.
Almost every indie I know who is professional and puts out at least two books a year, without interruption, is making a living. When I was in their position, I was making maybe 10k a year and, depending on the vagaries of payments, sometimes 5k, which was good for kid’s shoes and one or two vacations, but not a material input.
Right now the money is in indie. But more importantly, indie is giving the lie to the things we were told by the blanket control of the gatekeepers. Turns out that no, space opera isn’t dead. In fact it’s pushed by some indies as a “get rich quick” scheme. Turns out mil sf isn’t dead (something Baen had proven, but the blanket-media never mentioned Baen) turns out cozies aren’t dead (the very SILLY Dipped, Stripped and Dead has made me, on re-release more than I made in royalties from it.)
Turns out they lied to us. Which is what cheap communications and data has been telling us for years. As someone put it in comments “hottest summer ever” is hard to sell when friends and acquaintances around the world are talking about how late and cold spring was. And how summer is just meh.
Most people don’t think about politics, or the veracity of gatekeepers, and the Gell-Man amnesia (where you know the media is up its own behind on something you know personally then believe it on other things) is a thing.
But there is this Portuguese proverb “Soft water and hard stone, if the water hits long enough it will make a hole.” The soft water started as a drip, drip, drip. The number of occasions the gatekeepers were wrong, or bizarrely wrong, accumulated. There followed a running flow through the hole, and right now it’s a torrent.
How long did it take for “fake news” to be turned around?
And why did they think they could pull it off? Because they’ve got away with it for so long. Because it had to work. It had to.
Just like publishing houses, feeding off the remnants of people who need to be “real” writers are getting them really cheap, and doing nothing for them, because it’s always worked.
I hope they enjoy the glut, because this going on is not the way to bet. And I hope the media enjoys the few “fake news” it can get in, because not only is that not the way to bet, but it loses them credibility the more they try.
Selling socialism as paradise only works when you control all the means of pushing it at people, from education to mass reporting.
The blanket only works while it’s all pervasive, because even those that see the holes won’t say anything. After all, everyone knows the world is dark, and warm and smells vaguely of sweat.
Once the blanket is pulled off, you can’t get it on again, because people run in all directions, to all of the known world.
(I wish Sweden luck with their denial of rape-by-refugee, and their newly discovered agreement with China that their citizens forays on the internet must be limited so they don’t hear of such shocking things. People have cell phones. Right now they might be afraid to voice unpopular opinions, but the drip drip drip has begun. It has begun EVERYWHERE.)
Sure the world outside the blanket is confusing, and some of our brethren will willingly crawl back to be smothered. But they’re, increasingly, a minority.
They’ll never blanket us again. And the future isn’t with them.