What is going to amuse our bouches now? (bumbaugh) Mon 31 Dec 07 11:50
We ring in the new year with our ninth annual visit from Bruce Sterling, in which we review recent events, gaze into the future, and generally discuss the state of the world. Bruce Sterling, author, journalist, editor, and critic, was born in 1954. Best known for his eight science fiction novels, he also writes short stories, book reviews, design criticism, opinion columns, and introductions for books ranging from Ernst Juenger to Jules Verne. His nonfiction works include THE HACKER CRACKDOWN: LAW AND DISORDER ON THE ELECTRONIC FRONTIER (1992) and TOMORROW NOW: ENVISIONING THE NEXT FIFTY YEARS (2003). He is a contributing editor of WIRED magazine and a columnist for MAKE magazine. During 2005, he was the "Visionary in Residence" at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and is currently the guest curator for the SHARE Digital Culture Festival in Torino, Italy. He has appeared in ABC's Nightline, BBC's The Late Show, CBC's Morningside, on MTV and TechTV, and in Time, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Fortune, Nature, I.D., Metropolis, Technology Review, Der Spiegel, La Repubblica, and many other venues. Our interlocutor with Bruce is Jon Lebkowsky, an authority on social media and online community and, like Bruce, a longtime member of the Well. Jon writes about culture, technology, media, sustainability and other topics for various publications, and has been blogging regularly since 2000. In 1991 he cofounded the pioneering online company FringeWare, Inc., the first company to attempt e-commerce. The company published the influential magazine FringeWare Review, which had an international distribution. He worked with bOING bOING (as associate editor for the original paper zine), HotWired, The Whole Earth Catalog, Electric Minds, and many other web and cyberculture projects and endeavors during the World Wide Web's first decade. In the late 90s, he was actively involved in the creation of various e-commerce and community initiatives for Whole Foods Market (and gained quite a few pounds, for obvious reasons). So, guys, how *are* things? What's going to hell in a hand basket? About what can we be optimistic? How is this New Year's different from all other turnings of the calendar?
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 31 Dec 07 13:08
Everything's peachy, with a few exceptions... the economy of the USA is crumbling, of course, and the U.S. government's bleeding dollars (as well as real American blood) in Iraq. Climate change is accelerating, polar ice caps are melting, whole species are disappearing. Developing nations want their chance to be the next USA, and they're not especially interested in hearing that it's not possible for everyone to leverage the same increasingly limited resources. What happens when we pay everybody in the world a living wage, and give 'em all a chance to own an SUV and a house in the suburbs? How many worlds would it take to float that boat? How pissed are they going to be when they realize "lifestyles of the rich and famous don't scale," in fact the lifestyle of the typical middle-class American is not sustainable. I'm writing from a quiet neighborhood in Texas where everybody's preparing for New Year's Eve. They'll celebrate like always, drink more than they should, ogle the street performances and art at First Night downtown, watch fireworks like it's the fourth of July, Tomorrow they'll watch football and eat a spoonful of black-eyed peas for luck. Nobody's freaking out yet, but they're shaky. And well they should be. I'm not worried. I see via Boing Boing that I can buy moldable moon sand and pancakes in a can. I'm okay, as long as the RIAA doesn't catch me copying a song from a CD that I supposedly own to a computer that I'm pretty sure I own. Or maybe I don't own anything; maybe I'm just renting - licensing - all my surroundings. I hope they don't repossess that candle before it burns out... At least I'm not living in Kenya, where all hell's broken loose after the latest election. I'm not living in Pakistan, where Bhutto was martyred last week, assassinated, no doubt, by some Pakistani Lee Harvey Oswald. Politics in the U.S.A. is safe, right? We're completely civilized. In the geek circles that Bruce and I both know so well, there's no real sense of urgency about the state of the world, at least that I can see. I wonder about that. So my first question for Bruce: how's Torino?
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Tue 1 Jan 08 04:07
Well, we were off to a rocking start here in Torino when New Years Eve was cancelled for 2008. Instead of fireworks, booze and public hijinks, the Mayor commissioned a solemn march of mourning for seven laborers who have died in a local industrial accident. So I was out on the streets last night... they were eerie. The only people hitting the bottle and partying were the local Arabs, who were blasting rai music and throwing glass and fireworks out of their tenement windows... There were also a few puzzled tourists who didn't seem to get the last-minute bulletin. The rest of the population seemed to fall in line as one with the wishes of the Mayor and the Archbishop. They just shuttered the show, end of story. You always hear tell from other Italians that the Turinese are a solemn, reserved and disciplined lot.... I wrote that story off because, by American standards, it's hard to find any fraction of the Italian populace that comes across as genuinely solemn and reserved. But to cancel New Years -- even cancel *private parties* -- is really a surprising and impressive gesture. So: instead of starting 2008 with some bubbly orgy of prosecco and lambrusco, I went home and I started work on a new short story. This is the only time in my 53-year lifespan that I spent New Years' Eve working. And you know, I think I may be better off for it. Here in Italy, I learn something new every day.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 1 Jan 08 07:08
I visited your blog and saw the Torino cancellation post (http://blog.wired.com/sterling/2007/12/torino-suddenly.html), but what caught my eye was the later post of the Hollywood Church of Religious Science marquee (http://blog.wired.com/sterling/2007/12/another-spectac.html), which says "Nothing changes if nothing changes," which you call "another spectacular insight into 2008." What should change in 2008, and what critical changes can we actually expect, from your perspective?
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Tue 1 Jan 08 08:13
Well, it's an American election year. At the far-away end of it, anyhow. I don't doubt we'll see a few 'critical changes' in 2008, but I'd be guessing they don't arrive through any power-player's focussed intent. They will be dreaded changes that are predicted, and watched in detail, and impossible to avert. The political and economic landscape in 2008 is full of spinning, tottering Chinese plates poised on tall pool-cues. Wild-card stuff like currency collapses and international financial panics and loose Pakistani nukes. I wouldn't have guessed this, but in 2008 it looks like even Al Qaeda has finally lost its dance-beat. They used to kill whole airliners and embassies and dance clubs and skyscrapers full of aliens and unbelievers. They had the world set on its ear. But if you look at what they're up to lately, they're almost entirely obsessed with killing Sunni Moslems nowadays. They're killing so many Sunni Moslems that all the other parties who used to enthuse so about killing Sunni Moslems are losing interest. Because if Al Qaeda slaughters crowds of Sunni worshippers in Sunni mosques on major Sunni holidays, what can the rest of us do to keep up? I'm sure that, in the jehadi camps, there's a lot of backpatting this holiday season over getting a Lion of the Resistance to liquidate Benazir Bhutto. Still: wouldn't it have been vastly more effective to assassinate, say, Angela Merkel the female Chancellor of Germany? Or kill Putin, maybe? They used to think so big! If Angela Merkel had been killed by a suicide bomber the Europeans would be in fullscale antiterror lockdown right now. Whereas destabilizing Pakistan is like.... it's doable, but what gives there? Millions of pious Moslems die in a civil war in the birthplace of the Taliban? And this advances the general cause of piety in what way, exactly? Pakistan could very easily smash to bloody pieces in 2008. If it does, nobody anywhere is gonna try and stitch Pakistan back together. Pakistan has a bigger population than Russia. It is just too big for any of the other power-players to handle. So if it ignites, it'll burn. So they'll just blow up the local missile sites (if they can), and then watch in grim disbelief. Some people still think that there's an "Islamo-fascist tyranny" somewhere that hates our freedoms and can organize Islam-dom into a coherent fascist state... There's just no way. Al Qaeda and the Taliban aren't true "fascists." Fascists can at least make trains run on time. Even Communists were better-organized. The mujihadeen have no organized army and no industrial policy and they don't know where to find any. Because God was supposed to handle all that for them. You're supposed to die nobly in a crowd of unwitting strangers, and then God's supposed to make that all better. That's the big plan. But when you blow up the china shop, God doesn't reassemble the plates for you. Being faith-based doesn't trump reality. It's pretty good news that Al Qaeda is getting tired and losing its charisma. They've held center stage more than long enough. I think "we" in the largest sense, planetary civilization, world culture or whatever, we're closer to a consensus idea of futurity than it's been since, say, 1997. It's a green futurity. People don't like it much, but they know it's coming anyway. Ten years ago, there was a little Belle Epoque era of good feeling there when the "Washington Consensus" held its sway... and the thought among opinion-makers of the time was, you know, let the dot-com Long Boomers run that show. Everybody knew that what they were saying and doing didn't make much sense -- but at least there was plenty of pie there for the Formerly Free World. Now the Americans have clearly lost the thread... the Americans are really just horribly out of it, they're like some giant fundie Brazil, nobody takes their pronunciamentos seriously or believes a word they say... Whereas the world is much more seriously global now. China and India are real players, they're part of the show and they matter. Serious-minded people everywhere do know they have to deal with the resource crisis and the climate crisis. Becaus the world-machine's backfiring and puffing smoke. Joe and Jane Sixpack are looking at four-dollar milk and five-dollar gas. It's hurting and it's scary and there's no way out of it but through it. Everybody's reluctant to budge because they sense, probably correctly, that they have to wade through a torrent of mud, blood sweat and tears. Maybe, then, they emerge into the relatively sunlit uplands of something closer to sustainability. So: I don't expect too much to happen in 2008: except for that intensified smell of burning as people's feet are held to the fire. "Nothing changes if nothing changes." But if nothing changes, then more and more china is going to flat-out shatter and break. THEN they'll move. If they see somebody making money at it, they might move pretty fast.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 1 Jan 08 11:59
I suppose regime change in the U.S. could improve its standing and influence in the world community, but who will lead in the 21st Century? I suppose New York and Los Angeles will seem quaint, somewhat tired communities next to Shanghai, Moscow, and Dubai?
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Wed 2 Jan 08 06:46
I'd be guessing there's a pretty good chance that cities will lead. Nation-states seem bewildered by the contemporary political and economic climate. Still, there are lots of urban areas that seem lively. New York looks downright dynamic. There are a lot of words to describe Los Angeles, but "quaint" certainly isn't one of them. Here in Italy the national government is the despair of the populace (to judge by the press coverage), but Torino's got a lot going on as an urban center. They're not going to lead in national politics -- at least, I don't *think* so -- but in terms of grabbing an aging, vacant, screwed-up industrial infrastructure and retrofitting it successfully for new conditions, Torino really *does* lead. Torino's full of opportunity. I don't think anybody wants to become a Chinese Communist any more -- except for a few cocaine-crazed Maoist weirdos in the Andes -- but there really does seem to be a Chinese model-of-development now. In the Balkans, in Europe, you can see it at work. It's very street-level, very under-the-legal-radar -- it comes out of car trunks and off the backs of bicycles, and the labels are dodgy and its all sold for the "china-price." Torino's got the biggest outdoor market in Europe, a place called the "Porta Palazzo" -- Chinese, Rumanian emigres, Arabs, a few Nigerians and Eritreans and such... the economic vitality there is awesome. Turin is a chilly, Alpine-foothill kind of place... and there are a lot of poor people here, mostly the emigres... yet *nobody is cold.* Nobody's blue and shivering. Because they're all warmly dressed, in new, cheap, Chinese clothes. Boots, hats, gloves, mufflers, they're crazily cheap. Ragged clothes were the signature of poverty for centuries. That former reality is just gone now. The fancier clothes here are also made in China, but with more IP protection. I don't know if that's "leadership" -- but it sure is transformative. My guess is that, among your list, Dubai has got the best chance to be called "quaint" one of these years. It's built on oil and autocracy.... its got a phantom-like, Fatehpur Sikri feeling to it, like a Las Vegas desert dream. Maybe it can thrive as an offshore colony for India. In much the way that, say, Vegas seems really sexy and sophisticated to someone from Omaha. We expect somebody to "lead" by acting all conventionally leaderlike -- Putin "leads." Sarkozy would like to "lead." Bush imagines that he "leads." But it's entirely unclear where these guys think they're leading people: they lack much in the way of any explicit societal vision, and if they made that explicit, I don't think people would much want to live there.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 2 Jan 08 12:43
Conspiracy theories abound; I hear occasional theories about shadow governments and stealthy wealthocracies that are engineering a future that works for them, if for no one else. The economic reality you describe sounds very laissez-faire, decentralized, and out of control (in the Kevin Kelly sense). Given the "bewilderment" of nation-states that you describe, are we evolving away from monolithic government entities? What about the scattered pockets of already-built WMDs, organized and disorganized armies, other instruments of lethal force? And where are powerful corporations in this? Are they, too, bewildered? Are we going to see a massive unraveling of force in the world, similar to the unraveling of the USSR, if only because no entity can afford to pay the increasing costs of control?
What is going to amuse our bouches now? (bumbaugh) Wed 2 Jan 08 13:19
Is this anticipated "leadership of the cities" the herald of the decline of the nation state? Or has that ship sailed? (And, for those following along on the World Wide Web: by e-mailing the hosts at firstname.lastname@example.org you, too can join the conversation with Bruce Sterling on the state of the world.)
Jamais Cascio (cascio) Wed 2 Jan 08 14:11
Hey Bruce. You've lived in Europe for a few years now, and this year you moved to a genuine "old Europe" EU/NATO country. How has that shifted your view of The Future?
Cogito, Ergo Spero (robertflink) Wed 2 Jan 08 15:27
Any comment on the affect of the growing entertainment (broadly considered) industry in 2008? I mean something other than increased obesity due to lack of exercise. Perhaps a profusion of imagination?
John Payne (satyr) Wed 2 Jan 08 18:43
This, in <4>, stood out for me... > I think "we" in the largest sense, planetary civilization, world > culture or whatever, we're closer to a consensus idea of futurity than > it's been since, say, 1997. It's a green futurity. People don't like > it much, but they know it's coming anyway. What's up with people not liking a green future? Are they equating it with deprivation? Do they imagine themselves raising their own food with shovels and short-handled hoes? Are they thinking about gas rationing? Water rationing? Whatever happened to the notion that a green future might be more fun?
QUESTION FROM DEAN LOOMIS (davadam) Wed 2 Jan 08 22:39
Dean Loomis writes: Your latest novel, The Zenith Angle, seemed to me to be a regular Clancyesque techno-thriller, with similar chances at best-sellerdom. William Gibson, writing stuff set in the recent past, has actually made it on to the NY Times' list for his most recent two efforts. The Nebula Awards seem to be dominated by fantasy rather than SF. The Sci-Fi Channel on TV shows Extreme Championship Wrestling. Mainstream authors like Cormac McCarthy write books that would not raise an eyebrow if included in SF collections. Gibson has been quoted as saying that the critical event of the "technological singularity", where the future becomes unforeseeable, has already been passed. Nobody would have believed that the fabled "Northwest passage" ice-free from the Atlantic to the Pacific was a realistic event, yet it was there last summer. Is there any point to SF as something to be taken seriously rather than as a branch of the "young adult" section of the bookstore? Cheers, - Dean
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Thu 3 Jan 08 06:02
*Conspiracy theories are for saps. I mean, yeah, the Cheney energy camp that decided to logjam Kyoto and invade Iraq was a "conspiracy," but that's not a "theory." *On to the commentary: This, in <4>, stood out for me... > I think "we" in the largest sense, planetary civilization, world > culture or whatever, we're closer to a consensus idea of futurity than > it's been since, say, 1997. It's a green futurity. People don't like > it much, but they know it's coming anyway. What's up with people not liking a green future? Are they equating it with deprivation? *Yes. That, and a vast, thick, ear-buzzing swarm of regulatory inspectors. Do they imagine themselves raising their own food with shovels and short-handled hoes? *If they can still afford a suburban back yard, yeah. Are they thinking about gas rationing? *That'll be fun. Actually, what happens nowadays is that guys like Putin just shut off the natural gas lines, cunningly timing that for maximum political impact. You can see guys like Chavez and Ahmedinajad giving each other medals while the plan to crash the dollar... they're still using faxes, those oil boys, but when they mull over what Enron did to Silicon Valley back when Bush loved them, wow, the sky's gotta be the limit. Water rationing? *You got Atlanta, you got Australia... if it doesn't rain, what else do you do? Whatever happened to the notion that a green future might be more fun? *Well, green would be a LOT more fun in that green actually is a future, but the truth on the ground is that things are a lot browner than they looked. No ice in the Arctic in *five years*?! http://climateprogress.org/2007/12/12/an-ice-free-arctic-by-2013/ *Five years? There's just no way to cakewalk past a specter like that. That's not gonna be any fun. *On the plus side, I'm finding it kinda fun to be in a fossil-fuel car capital that's trying so hard to install trolleys and trains. For a science fiction writer, a lot more "fun" to imagine a green future than it is to live in a green present; a green present is mundane. The victory condition isn't a life when green is 'fun.' The victory condition is a world where green is all there is. Where brown is gone.
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Thu 3 Jan 08 06:17
"Is this anticipated "leadership of the cities" the herald of the decline of the nation state? Or has that ship sailed?" *People have been talking about the twilight of national sovereignty for as long as I can remember. The thing that's different now is those big, scary, non-integrating Gap patches where the Westphalian deal is just frankly dead. Beyond help. Failed states, non-states. People are getting used to failed states, or fake hollow-states. They are starting to talk seriously about a "failed globe." *The classic idea was that states would bow the knee to a new global order, but what if that's even more screwed-up than a nation-state? What then? *Well, there's nothing inherent about nations as an organizing principle. Nations could go away. Global government, that's never existed. It's a sci-fi idea. *It's kinda hard to imagine *cities* going away, though, short of a massive population crash. All the major cities in the Balkans are still there, even though the "nations" they conjure up have changed their flags, passports and currencies five or six times. *New York has a future. Chicago has a future. San Francisco is dynamic. Any place called a 'creative class city" is very attractive. Life in American heartland Red States is cheerless and imperilled and getting worse... I've been to places where nations lose their primary loyalties... in a globalized world, they just... leach out.
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Thu 3 Jan 08 06:23
Is there any point to SF as something to be taken seriously rather than as a branch of the "young adult" section of the bookstore? *Well, not a "genre," as some sacred aisle in the bookstore where you're supposed to feel all "serious..." This question looks archaic to me. Do you actually still go to bookstores? You don't just Amazon stuff? *I take works of fiction seriously when they deal seriously with serious issues. I think that's a matter of how things work out on the page. It's not a matter of genre or marketing, if it ever was. It isn't the New York Times bestseller list that validates SPOOK COUNTRY. It's more the sensibility that book invokes, some author trying really hard to battle with contemporary shadows. It reads like Soviet dissident literature, almost. Some of that stuff was quite whimsical and fantastic, yet it also felt about as serious as fiction is able to get.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 3 Jan 08 06:57
Here's a question Stefan Jones emailed to me... Twenty years ago, it seemed only Whole Earth Review readers were getting their organic hemp panties in a knot about sustainability and lifestyle footprints. Conservative pundits who needed fodder for an overdue column could sneer at Paul Erlich for losing that bet about commodity prices. Now the whole sustainability thing has gotten legit, amazingly fast. High scrap metal prices are driving tweakers to steal aluminum guard rails, catalytic converters, and the bronze plaques on war memorials. I've been in houses where every light socket has a wee florescent spiral. Do you think we can keep up the new frugality thing? (We meaning Americans of the USAin variety.) Put another way, do we have it in us to give up the fat and happy lifestyle for something better insulated and harder to chew?
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 3 Jan 08 07:21
Riffing myself on some of Bruce's responses - more comments and question: *Conspiracy theories are for saps. I mean, yeah, the Cheney energy camp that decided to logjam Kyoto and invade Iraq was a "conspiracy," but that's not a "theory." jonl> In the FringeWare years we played with conspiracy theories as objets d'art. When I realized that some of our adherents were not in the least ironic, that they were true believers, I felt a chill... but it was interesting to think how their world-views developed from an attempt to build a reality around limited facts, with limited understanding. Actual conspiracies have significant social and political overhead and are practically impossible to hold together in a world where even simple partnerships tend to fall apart. How do we refocus energies currently devoted to conspiracy thinking, and conspire to survive? Do they imagine themselves raising their own food with shovels and short-handled hoes? *If they can still afford a suburban back yard, yeah. jonl> In Austin, there's a movement to farm every available bit of land. For instance, YouthLaunch has its "Urban Roots" program with a vision for "the urban farm" managed by kids 14-18: http://www.youthlaunch.org/programs/urbanroots.php "Is this anticipated "leadership of the cities" the herald of the decline of the nation state? Or has that ship sailed?" . . . *Well, there's nothing inherent about nations as an organizing principle. Nations could go away. Global government, that's never existed. It's a sci-fi idea. *It's kinda hard to imagine *cities* going away, though, short of a massive population crash. All the major cities in the Balkans are still there, even though the "nations" they conjure up have changed their flags, passports and currencies five or six times. jonl> I think it's more a question whether we see increasing decentralization - the forms of organization that follow might be urban, rural, whatever makes sense. Maybe counties and provinces are the basic level of organization. Does the nation-state go away? Or does it just become less relevant? And, as I asked before, what do we do with the various national repositories of WMD?
John Payne (satyr) Thu 3 Jan 08 07:51
> *Well, green would be a LOT more fun in that green actually is a > future, but the truth on the ground is that things are a lot browner > than they looked. We're awfully late off the starting line. If we'd read the writing on the wall back in the 60s, and taken it seriously, like a looming imperative rather than a pipe dream, the world would be greener today, and the way forward much clearer. As it is, we've done our best to ignore and deny that there might be any serious problems with business as usual, and so we still find ourselves heavily dependent on oil, much of it imported, including for food production, so dependent that it's difficult to imagine how to get from where we've blundered to that green future without going through a crash that brings the whole machine to a stop. Meanwhile, technology continues to progress and offer pieces to the puzzle of how to proceed, pieces we'll need to augment with changes in the way we do things for them to make much of a difference. For example, just about everybody realizes that dependence on oil for food production is a big vulnerability, so the question arises how else we might fuel the tractors, and people are hard at work on developments like cellulosic ethanol, which is a good thing in itself, but why aren't we hearing about substituting electric motors and photovoltaic arrays? So maybe it would either mean dragging a power cable or building tractors like hay wagons, with a large surface area, so what? Wouldn't either of those be far better than burning diesel refined from petroleum that had been pumped out of the ground thousands of miles away? The longer and harder we cling to business as usual, the worse the crash is going to be, when it comes.
Peter Hart-Davis (bumbaugh) Thu 3 Jan 08 08:36
from off-Well: Hi There If I may contribute. Once again an extremely interesting discussion. Thank You. "Nation-states seem bewildered by the contemporary political and economic climate." A fine turn of phrase, which I do agree, seems to sum up Nation-state's response to present global conditions. Even those Nation-states which appear to be in the pound seats at the moment. Over the last few weeks I have noticed a number of references online to the 'four horsemen of the apocalypse' in discussions on 'the contemporary political and economic climate' and out of the corner of ones eyes one sees the flickering of signs such as food shortages, H5N1, Pakistan or saber rattling about Venezuela or Iran. Could it be that the time is running out for conventional leadership to ride to the rescue and if so anybody have any ideas on what unconventional leadership might be? Peter
Henry Schroy (hankschroy) Thu 3 Jan 08 11:07
* Seems like the mindset that easily grabs on to conspiracy theories and clings to them like religion isn't too different from scripture-thumping fanatics. Both don't seem to allow much space for rational discussion and verifiable evidence to seep in. * With all the talk about the looming collapse of the U.S. Dollar, I was reminded of WG's "SPOOK COUNTRY" where he talks about the 100 bill being the de facto currency of the worldwide underground economy. Seems like nowadays there would be a better choice for such a standard ! (if this were in fact true.) * Having lived in New York for 16 years now, I like the idea that cities are and will become more and more sovereign entities - every New Yorker knows that New York ain't America... * There was also mention of Atlanta, another city that I've lived in, and Australia, as part of a comment about resource scarcity. What about Australia? It seems like there is much more of a culture of forward-thinking environmentalism there, even if the past x many years have been burdened by a Bush-lovin' conservative government. Isn't there a green future for those down under? And isn't Sydney one of those great cities of the future? * Any thoughts on the implications of the huge oil reservoir off of Brazil's coast?
John Roberts (bumbaugh) Thu 3 Jan 08 12:37
John Roberts writes: (From off-Well) Hi, Gang! Mind if I add a pinch of something to this punch-bowl? What spooks me about our future isn't so much the idea of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse bearing down upon us with fistfuls of H5N1, pricey milk, loose nukes, failed political orders and what-have-you. Nor am I particularly bothered by the inability of science fiction writers to correctly guess how tech will affect our future. Most of us grew up being spoon-fed The Apocalypse, whether it involved silly A-Bomb Survival Drills ("Ok, Class, now place your books over your heads, your heads between your legs... and kiss your asses g'bye..."), or your friendly neighborhood Christian Fundamentalist, ("It's written in The Book that all Hell's gonna break loose. God ain't sayin' exactly which day, but you'll sure know when it happens..."), or simply hearing President Reagan intone --I paraphrase, here-- "This current crop of youngsters may very well survive -- to see the End Of Days...", etc. Failed political orders? Man, I was born in '74. Y'know, the year of Nixon's Greatest Achievement (getting ridden out on a rail:)). What political order? After a few decades (Centuries?) of this sort of thing, is it any wonder that people can't seem to agree on a survival strategy when *actual* problems rear their heads? Who can keep up with it all? There's no question that we have some serious challenges ahead. What spooks me most is that quite a sizable chunk of the civilized world seems to have given up on even trying to envision the future at all. Why bother, when it most likely ends in fire or ice? What if instead of death by animal-to-human transmission of plague (ooh, I really hope it won't be pig-to-human; rhinitis would suck!) we find ourselves faced with all sorts of other Apocalyptic scenarios not mentioned in The Book: massive credit card debts piling up, millions of sub-prime loan home foreclosures, peak oil, etc.? Could it be that many of our troubles are rooted in Apocalyptic thinking? Mightn't it be necessary for us to bust a cap in those tired old "End of Days" horses before the bulk of the civilized world can become more forward thinking? It seems obvious that conventional political, business and religious leaders are not up to the task of solving our biggest future problems. One major reason for this is that the most successful of them are more opportunistic than visionary. The human equivalent of hammer-head sharks, happy to bite into any old thing they bump into, but not particularly interested in anything else. You wanna know who I think has the stuff to lead us into the future? Sci-Fi writers. Not because they are always right about the future, (ex: E.E. Doc Smith wasn't so far off, was he? I mean, we all know somebody who's in training to become a Lensman, right?), but because the chief value of Sci-Fi has more to do with it's ability to help us envision *any kind of a future*, than actually making realistic predictions. Are you game, Mr Sterling? --JR
pardon my amygdala (murffy) Thu 3 Jan 08 13:07
>Could it be that many of our troubles are rooted in >Apocalyptic thinking? It does seem like there are a lot of people who are sort of tapping their toes and checking their watches for that inevitable doomsday they know is just around the corner. Doomsday prognostications and dire scenarios seem to be a feature of the human condition. The nature of someone's particular doomsday appears to depend largely on their ideological stripes. Another feature is that when doomsday doesn't occur as expected, the non-occurance doesn't feedback in such a way as to make people question the kinds of thinking that lead to their doomsday predictions. They go on making them.
COMMENT FROM MORGAN KNAPP (davadam) Thu 3 Jan 08 20:49
From off-WELL: So what do you think of the hydrogen breakthroughs, the aluminum in water catalyst, and the sonic transponder on vials of seawater. Do you feel this has the necessary low-tech edge to break through the conglomerate hold on isolated people and towns, to allow self sufficency, and maybe save the last of the trees from firewood? A mom and pop hydro stand along the road to Darfur sounds pretty damn promising to me. ! Morganism
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Fri 4 Jan 08 02:46
"You wanna know who I think has the stuff to lead us into the future? Sci-Fi writers." *Yeah, Newt Gingrich thought that. Gingrich is a science fiction writer. *Y'know, you don't wanna go there. Not really. Science fiction writers are not as bad as apocalyptic conspiracy theorists (except for the ones who ARE apocalyptic conspiracy theorists), but they're not the kinds of personalities you actually want in positions of power and authority. Science fiction writers like amazing and wonderful and freaky and dreadful stuff. They get bored with the dull stuff, like making sure your kids have shoes and plumbing and your population has civil rights. Quite commonly their OWN kids don't have shoes and plumbing. Like in the lightbulb joke: Q. How many science fiction writers does it take to change a lightbulb? A. None; their wives do it for them. Actually there's a whole series of those. Q. How many feminist science fiction writers does it take to change a lightbulb? A. That's not funny. Q. How many literary science fiction writers does it take to change a lightbulb? A. Never mind the technical details; I want to know how he feels about it... I could go on.
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Fri 4 Jan 08 03:07
This is a rather doomy conversation... it has to be, because that definitely suits the period, it reflects the facts on the ground... but one of the ways to escape a sense of learned-helplessness is to postulate the opposite. Like: imagine a world in which Bush was one of America's greatest presidents. He was still Bush, believing everything he believes, but he was a statesman whose vision had overwhelmed his critics. For instance: Imagine that Iraq had been brimming over with nerve gas, secret missiles and even some homemade nuclear devices. Every grim thing that noted RAND futurist Donald Rumsfeld (remember him?) belived about the Iraq situation was keenly prescient and accurate. So a pre-emptive invasion was completely justified; even brilliant. We'd still be in Iraq right now. EVERYBODY would be in Iraq right now. The Coalition of the Willing would probably be in Iran, too, and aiming for Pakistan. There would be a military draft, and a world war of sorts, but what other choice would we have? Bush would be a military hero who had saved us from a nuclear Pearl Harbor. Imagine that the destruction of the middle class, the K Street strategy and crazy income disparities had led to a brilliantly solid American economy. It was Republican, yet technically innovative, with a sound dollar, a government surplus, Chinese-style ten percent GDP rates, and stock market boom conservatively based on radically improved productivity and genuine prosperity... Bushnomics would rule the world. Imagine that the Christian Right set America's social policies, and that they were Christian ladies and gentlemen. Imagine that they had so much moral authority through their good works and spiritual power that one felt ashamed in combatting them. They were not demagogic Elmer Gantrys who bashed gays, ambushed women and ruined the nation... instead, wherever their kindly shadow fell, the hungry were fed and housed, sinners were rehabilitated and made active members of the community, drug abuse was abandoned in favor of prayer, Martin Luther King's southern baptist dream vision was destroying the scourge of racism from sea to shining sea... The Culture War would be all over; the USA would be a theocratic state. But none of that happened. Instead, we have what we have. And the people who voted for that -- Joe and Jane NASCAR, with their variable-rate mortgages and their cousin in the Army -- man are they ever gonna catch it in the neck. The closet is full of skeletons, and that's bad, but the skeletons are there for good reasons; they're all skeletons of rotten policies that died horribly and deserved to die.
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