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  • Dan Clore
    News & Views for Anarchists & Activists: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/smygo http://www.locusmag.com/2004/Features/09_ShirleySocialFuture.html Friday 10
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 11, 2004
      News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:

      Friday 10 September 2004
      Global to Local:
      The Social Future as seen by six SF Writers:
      Cory Doctorow, Pat Murphy, Kim Stanley Robinson, Norman
      Spinrad, Bruce Sterling and Ken Wharton
      Organized and with commentary by John Shirley

      Some questions are hard to formulate -- but you carry them
      around inside you, like Confucius overlong in the womb,
      waiting for a way to ask them. I wanted to know about the
      quality of life in the future. I wanted to know about our
      political life; the scope of our freedom. I wanted to know
      what it was going to be like on a daily basis for my son and
      my grandson -- I wanted to know if perhaps my son would do
      better to have no children at all. Those are general
      yearnings, more than specific questions. The questions I
      came up with still seem too general, and approximate. "I
      think it helps to use Raymond Williams' concept of 'residual
      and emergent,'" Kim Stanley Robinson told me, ". . . and
      consider the present as a zone of conflict between residual
      and emergent social elements, not making residual and
      emergent code words for 'bad and good' either." Residual and
      emergent: yes. But what will reside and what emerge? From
      here, the future is just that unfocused. So I simply I asked
      the only questions I had . . . and six science fiction
      writers answered.


      1) In the past you've written science-fictionally about the
      social future. What's changed in your estimate of the social
      future since then? Do you have a sharper picture of where
      we're going, socially?

      Ken Wharton: "I've been pondering psychohistory lately --
      not Asimov's big sweeping trends, but how large groups make
      decisions on single issues. Those with money and power are
      approaching Hari Seldonesque abilities, gradually steering
      public opinion using knowledge of how groups think, and I
      only see that trend increasing as basic human instincts are
      incorporated into more realistic game theory models.
      Individuals, on the other hand, often don't have the time
      and/or inclination to dig into any particular issue for
      themselves -- meaning that many people will tend to make
      decisions using the very instincts that are most easily

      Considering the revelations in the documentary Outfoxed,
      about right-wing control of news content on the Fox channel,
      it's a timely comment. It seems to dovetail with Kim Stanley
      Robinson's: "It also helps me to think of us as animals and
      consider what behaviors caused our brains to expand over the
      last two million years, and then value some of those behaviors."

      Norman Spinrad: "The biggest change, one which I didn't get
      at the time, was the rise to dominance of the American
      Christian fundamentalist far right. Where are we going? If
      Kerry should be elected, back to the Clintonian middle. But
      if Bush is re-elected, straight into the worst fascist
      shitter this country has ever experienced. We're on a cusp
      like that of the Roman Republic about to degenerate into the
      Empire. Though in many ways it has already."

      Pat Murphy is thinking more about our health risks, the
      burdens we may have to carry: "I don't know if it's sharper,
      but it's definitely bleaker. Here are two of the trends I'm
      currently watching: The emergence and spread of certain
      diseases -- fostered by human activity. Consider the rapid
      spread of the SARS epidemic by international travelers, the
      emergence of Mad Cow Disease (which spread when sheep
      by-products were put in high-protein livestock), the role
      that global warming may play in increasing the geographic
      range of mosquitoes that spread malaria. The increase in
      children with Asperger's syndrome and autism. Though
      generally described by the medical establishment as
      'disorders,' both Asperger's syndrome and autism are caused
      by a neurological difference. Affected individuals think
      differently, particularly with regard to communication."

      Cory Doctorow is thinking about control of information and
      technology as the deciding factor -- leading to a new
      colonialism: "As you'd expect, I think the social future is
      tied up intimately with copyright, since copyright is the
      body of law that most closely regulates technology (copying,
      distributing, and producing are all inherently technological
      in nature and change dramatically when new tech comes
      along). Copyright also has the distinction of being the area
      of law/policy that deals most copiously in crazy-ass
      metaphors, such as the comparison of copying to "theft" --
      even though the former leaves a perfectly good original
      behind, while the latter deprives the owner of her property.
      Finally, copyright is the area of law most bound up with
      free expression, which makes it a hotbed of socio-technical

      "Property law deals with instances of ideas -- a physical
      chair -- while "Intellectual Property" law deals with the
      ideas themselves — a plan for a chair. Increasingly, though,
      the instantiation of an idea and the idea itself: a
      electronic text, an MP3, a fabrication CAD/CAM file.

      "Traditionally, new nations have exempted themselves from IP
      regulation (as the US did for its first century,
      enthusiastically pirating the IP of the world's great
      powers). When you're a net importer of IP, there's no good
      economic reason to treat foreign ideas as sacrosanct
      property. Indeed, piracy and successful industrialization go
      hand in hand.

      "Today, though, the developing world has been strong-armed
      into affording IP protection to foreign ideas, usually by
      tying IP enforcement to other trade elements ("If you give
      us fifty more years of copyright, we'll double our soybean
      quota!"), which is working out to be a disaster. No one in
      Brazil or South Africa can pay American street-prices for
      pharmaceuticals -- or CDs, or DVDs, or books, or software. A
      guy in Maastricht worked out that if every Burundi copy of
      Windows were legitimately purchased, the country would have
      to turn over 67.65 months' worth of its total GDP to
      Microsoft. This is the impending disaster, a new form of
      colonialism that makes the old forms look gentle and
      beneficent by comparison."

      But Bruce Sterling's thinking that the leading trends are
      coming from outside North America: "I used to think that the
      USA, being an innovative, high-tech polity, would be
      inventing and promulgating a lot of tomorrow's social
      change. I don't believe that any more. These days I spend a
      lot of time looking at Brazil, China, India, and Europe.
      Japan and Russia, interestingly, are even more moribund than
      the USA."


      2) The world seems dangerously chaotic; the spread of
      nuclear technology, unmonitored fissionable materials, WMDs
      and so forth, might be an argument for a powerful
      centralized global government. On the one hand this has
      fascist overtones, or it risks something dictatorial; on the
      other hand one could argue it's the only way to prevent
      significant loss of life. Can one defend greater
      governmental control for the future, in this increasingly
      overpopulated world?

      Pat Murphy: "I am not convinced by any argument for
      increased governmental control. In fact, I would be more
      inclined to look in the direction of increased personal
      responsibility. I see this as a direction in opposition to a
      more powerful government. I feel that the more powerful the
      government is, the less people take the personal
      responsibility. And what we need now is more personal
      responsibility, not less."

      Several interviewees mentioned the European Union in this

      Kim Stanley Robinson: "I like the UN, the European Union,
      and other aspects of trans-sovereignty, but I don't like
      globalization as the massive emplacement of capitalist
      injustices, so I don't know what to say about 'greater
      governmental control'."

      Ken Wharton sees nuclear power as resource that could help
      us handle global crisis: "Actually, I could make a strong
      global-warming-based argument for more spread of nuclear
      (power) technology. It's ironic that our courts have decided
      a 10,000 year nuclear waste depository doesn't take a long
      enough view, while on most issues our society can't seem to
      look beyond a decade or so. On century timescales, you can't
      stop large groups from getting just about any weapon they
      want. And while stomping on personal freedoms might slow the
      acquisition of those weapons, it will probably only increase
      the probability that they'll actually be used."

      Norman Spinrad too is skeptical of global control systems
      but sees a break-up of the old nationalisms: "Way back when,
      I sort of liked the idea of a world government. Then I heard
      Lenny Bruce say: 'If you want to imagine a world government,
      think of the whole world run by the phone company and
      nowhere else to go.' On the other hand, I think that the
      concept of absolute national sovereignty is on the way out
      and good riddance. The European Union is one model. My own,
      as in Greenhouse Summer, is some form of syndicalist
      anarchism -- 'anarchism that knows how to do business' -- no
      national governments per se."

      Cory Doctorow doubts the efficacy of big control and again
      sees information as the key: "The Stasi -- the East German
      version of the KGB -- had detailed files on virtually every
      resident of East Germany, yet somehow managed to miss the
      fact that the Berlin Wall was about to come down until it
      was already in rubble. Tell me again how a centralized
      government makes us more secure? September 11th wasn't a
      failure to gather enough intelligence: it was a failure to
      correctly interpret the intelligence in hand. There was too
      much irrelevant data, too much noise. Gathering orders of
      magnitude MORE noise just puts that needle into a much
      bigger haystack, while imposing high social costs.
      Fingerprinting visitors to the US and jailing foreign
      journalists for not understanding the impossibly baroque new
      visa regs makes America less secure (by encouraging people
      to lie about the purposes of their visit and by chasing
      honest people out of the country), not more."

      Bruce Sterling speculates that big global government might
      take new shapes: "I had a brainstorm about this very problem
      recently. What if there were two global systems of
      governance, and they weren't based on control of the
      landscape? Suppose they interpenetrated and competed
      everywhere, sort of like Tory and Labour, or Coke and Pepsi.
      I'm kind of liking this European 'Acquis' model where there
      is scarcely any visible 'governing' going on, and everything
      is accomplished on the levels of invisible infrastructure,
      like highway regulations and currency reform."


      3) What do you think people in the future will regard as
      being the greatest overall mistakes made during our time?

      Pat Murphy: "I'd say that our worst blunder has been the
      destruction of the environment -- particularly as it relates
      to our consumption of fossil fuels. Over the next few
      decades, I believe that we will increasingly experience the
      consequences of global warming in the form of extreme
      weather (heat waves, drought, severe storms), new patterns
      of disease (West Nile and the Hantavirus are just the
      beginning), rising sea levels, extinctions due to climate
      change, catastrophic weather in the last 100 years. For more
      on all this, check out http://www.Exploratorium.edu/climate ."

      Bruce Sterling's response is in the same ballpark: "Ignoring
      the Greenhouse effect and neglecting public health measures."

      Kim Stanley Robinson's response is related. Our greatest
      mistake, he says, is: "The mass extinction event we are

      Indeed, according to Natural History magazine: "Human beings
      are currently causing the greatest mass extinction of
      species since the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million
      years ago. If present trends continue one half of all
      species of life on earth will be extinct in 100 years."

      Some of that die-off is a result of sheer human sprawl. This
      connects with Ken Wharton's answer regarding our biggest
      mistakes: "The worldwide population explosion. Being in the
      middle of it for so long, it's hard to remember that
      exponential growth can never sustain itself forever. 50-100
      years from now population will have mostly stabilized at
      something, and that number will be the primary determinant
      on what sort of long-term future is in store for humanity.
      In hindsight, will there have been a way to stabilize at a
      lower number? Probably . . . and someday we might be viewed
      as criminal for not doing just that."

      Norman Spinrad, though, thinks our biggest mistake is
      political, with all of politics' fall-out. For him, the
      greatest mistake of our time is: "The election of George W.
      Bush. Second, the disappearance of the Soviet Union, leading
      directly to an unopposable American hegemonism. Not that
      they aren't related."

      Taking that concern to the next level, Cory Doctorow: "I
      think the Ashcroftian terrorist witchhunts, coupled with the
      fiscal irresponsibility of massive tax-cuts and
      out-of-control cronyist military adventurism will be
      regarded as the world mistake in this part of the American
      century by debtor generations to come who find themselves
      socially and economically isolated from the rest of the
      world. When the US dollar starts to drop against the
      laser-printed post-Saddam occupation Dinar, an unbacked
      currency, you know that your economy is in the deepest of shit."

      Question four inevitably abuts question three…but prompts
      more specificity.


      4) Are we in danger, serious danger, environmentally? Why or
      why not? If we are, what are the social consequences?

      Kim Stanley Robinson's response echoes concerns about the
      population: "Life is robust, but many biomes are not. We
      could damage the environment to the point where it would be
      difficult to sustain 6 billion people, in which case there
      would be a scramble for food and other resources, meaning
      many wars etc. I think that danger clearly exists."

      Ken Wharton sees the danger but also sees chances to
      moderate it: "Danger? We're changing the planet's climate,
      and the odds are it'll be for the worse, but I don't think
      anyone knows what the precise consequences are going to be.
      Society will deal with all the problems as they arrive, as
      we always do. The frustrating thing is that right now
      there's not an obvious solution (short of a massive nuclear
      fission initiative). Twenty years from now there will be
      alternatives -- solar power is plummeting in price, for
      example -- but that won't be in time to avert the first
      fundamental climate change since the last Ice Age.
      Fortunately, it will be in time to bring things back into
      balance before we obliterate the biosphere."

      Norman Spinrad: "We sure are, mainly because we don't know
      what the hell we're doing, and this is not primarily a
      matter of malice or greed, though there is that, but because
      the science just isn't there. Global warming has surely
      arrived, but the local results are unpredictable, for
      example, if the warming destroys the Gulf Stream, the north
      of Europe and North America could get colder, not warmer.
      And as things get worse, we'll try to fix them ourselves,
      again without sufficient scientific knowledge, making the
      global system, already made more chaotic by the increase in
      total energy input even more chaotic."

      Bruce Sterling summarizes simply: "Yes, the climate is
      changing and will change more, and we're going to suffer a
      great deal for it."

      Something close to a consensus, there . . .


      5) What's the most significant current social trend? It's
      hard to say for sure, of course, but off the top of your
      head . . .

      Bruce Sterling: "I think it's the influence of stateless
      diasporas empowered by telecommunications and money
      transfer. It's amazing that Al Qaeda, a ragtag of a few
      thousand emigres, have led the US around by the nose for
      four solid years. Offshore Chinese and non-resident Indians
      are the secret of India's and China's current booms."

      Pat Murphy thinks it's more to do with street-level
      conditions: "I'd have to look to the bleakest science:
      economics. With increases in the costs of housing and health
      care, with the increase in single parent households, with
      changes in the job market, the middle class is being
      squeezed -- possibly squeezed out of existence."

      Ken Wharton: "Has it been long enough since the dot-com
      boom/crash that I can say the most significant trend is the
      expanding use of the Internet, without sounding either silly
      or old-fashioned? I doubt it -- but it's true, nonetheless."

      Norman Spinrad: "I'd say the Jihad; there is one, you know.
      There isn't any 'war on terrorism'; terrorism is a tactic;
      the war is Islamic fundamentalism versus 'the Crusaders,'
      aka 'the Great Satan,' aka the United States, aka the
      'West,' aka the 21st Century. The Jihad has been openly and
      loudly declared by the jihadis, and as far as Islam is
      concerned, Bush has openly declared the other side in Iraq.
      This will affect everything. It already has. It's a holy war
      that's been going on for 1400 years or so, and this is only
      the latest and most dangerous phase. Osama bin Laden, after
      9/11, said that he would destroy civil liberties in the
      West, and in the US he's already succeeded. What he didn't
      understand was that he was feeding energy into the
      fundamentalist Christian right, Bush's allies, and in effect
      creating the Great Crusader Satan of his paranoid fantasies
      that hadn't existed before, or at least not on a mass level.
      Years ago, and I paraphrase loosely, William Burroughs said
      that if you want to start a murderous brawl, record the
      Black Panthers speaking, play it for the Ku Klux Klan, play
      their reaction back to the Panthers, etc. . . . Voila,
      Jihad! Destroying civil liberties, indeed civil society
      itself, on both sides. Wherever you go, there we are."


      6) Will there always be war? Is it becoming like Haldeman's
      'The Forever War'? What are the trends in war?

      Pat Murphy: "Will there always be war? I hate to say it, but
      probably so. For trends in war, just look at Yugoslavia,
      Afghanistan and Iraq. Technological advances make amazingly
      precise bombing possible -- but the inevitable human error
      leads to mistakes like the bombing of refugees in Kosovo and
      the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Media coverage of war has
      become both more intimate and more global. And of course,
      war is no longer contained by the battlefield, as the
      continuing terrorist attacks demonstrate."

      Kim Stanley Robinson: "Disgust at the US's war on Iraq may
      make the idea [of war] unpopular for a while. But see
      question 4."

      Ken Wharton: "War will be around as long as human nature,
      I'm afraid. Trend-wise, I think Afghanistan is a lot closer
      to the future than Iraq, which will be viewed as a major
      anomaly (if it isn't already!). Thrusting overpowering
      military technology into the hands of local fighters, in the
      name of a foreign power that doesn't want to get their hands
      too dirty . . . that's the future of war. Soon you won't
      even need the back-up troops to accompany the weapons, and
      at that point one could conceivably have wars sponsored by
      corporations instead of states."

      Norman Spinrad: "I suppose there will always be war in the
      general sense, but not this 'War on Terrorism.' For one
      thing, the US is running out of troops. Low intensity
      continuation of the centuries-long jihad, though, I think
      will be around for a long, long time. And I think that's the
      trend in war for the foreseeable future, barring alien
      invasion. The US is just too militarily strong for anyone to
      even dream of a general all-out war against it, and as the
      planetary military hegemon, I doubt it would permit a
      general war between two other powers either. Nuclear war is
      well-deterred. But the above situations make it easier for
      small wars like the ones in Sudan, Chechnya, etc., to go on
      indefinitely. And militarily speaking, at least at the US
      level, we're getting too close to wars that can be fought
      entirely at a distance with robot planes, tanks, maybe even

      A consensus emerges that war is staying but changing shape.
      Bruce Sterling: "Well, if you gather in armies and raise a
      flag, the USA will blow you to shreds, so the trend is to
      strap a bomb around your waist or pile artillery shells into
      a car and then blow yourself up. The idea that a 'war on
      terror' is going to resolve this kind of terror by using
      lots of warfare is just absurd."


      7) To sort of top off a previous question: Is a real world
      government possible and could it be a good thing, on balance?

      (What can I say, I'm really interested in the question of
      world government and plan to write a novel on it someday.)

      Pat Murphy's response is succinct: "I don't think it's
      possible or desirable."

      Kim Stanley Robinson is equally succinct and he has exactly
      the opposite opinion: "It's possible, and if it happened it
      would be a good thing."

      Ken Wharton: "The only nice thing I can say about a world
      government is that there are some global problems that are
      best dealt with on a global level. As for it actually
      happening in a way that such problems can indeed be dealt
      with . . . I doubt it, but I'll be watching the E.U. to see
      how far the concept can go."

      Norman Spinrad: "As I said before, probably not a good
      thing. And probably impossible. Too many cultural and
      economic disparities. Even the recent expansion of the
      European Union east is not going to work too well for that
      reason. Even Germany has plenty of problems in its
      governmental union with the former DDR."

      Bruce Sterling: "Civilization is better than barbarism. I'm
      not sure I believe in 'real world government,' but global
      civil society attracts a lot of my attention. 'Globalism'
      used to be a synonym for 'Americanization', but nowadays
      it's starting to look a lot more genuinely global: Iranians
      in Sweden, Serbians in Brazil, global Bollywood movies
      filmed in Switzerland, a real mélange."


      8) Will the gap between the haves and the have-nots widen
      even more dramatically? If it does, what'll happen?

      Pat Murphy: "Unfortunately, I think it will. (See question
      5.) The rich will get richer; the poor will get poorer."

      Kim Stanley Robinson: "It can't get more dramatic than it
      already is, as the disparity in life expectancies and
      education constitute a kind of speciation already. What will

      Ken Wharton: "The ever-widening gap isn't so much the issue
      as whether or not the quality of life continues to improve
      for the have-nots. I think the Republicans have really lost
      sight of this in recent years, having effectively given away
      the country's hard-earned surplus to the one place where it
      would have the smallest possible impact on the economy: the
      have-more's bank accounts. Throw in the new estate tax laws,
      and the rich have less incentive than ever to trickle that
      money down to the rest of the country."

      Bruce Sterling's response is as trenchant as it is
      insightful: "Feudal societies go broke. These top-heavy
      crony capitalists of the Enron ilk are nowhere near so good
      at business as they think they are."

      A consensus amongst the respondents, there, too . . .


      9) What question should I have asked you?

      Bruce Sterling: "Something about demographics. Real
      futurists are obsessed with demographics. Something about
      the growth in the Indian work force, that would have been good."

      Ken Wharton: "Space access, hydrogen fuel, nanotech,
      computing power . . . Anything to which the answer would
      have been related to carbon nanotubes."

      Pat Murphy: "Trends are interesting but the most interesting
      shifts come from unexpected events and directions. You
      should have asked about those. Perhaps something like: how
      might the future take us by surprise?"


      Only half the writers chose to guess about the outcome of
      the coming Presidential election, and only Robinson was
      definite: "Kerry."

      Bruce Sterling said, chillingly: "Osama will get to decide it."

      And Ken Wharton sums up the situation: "It'll be decided by
      a million Red Queens: swing-voters who are so overburdened
      with busy lives that they're running just as fast as they
      can to stay in the same place. It's a big decision, with big
      implications, so you'd hope that these people will take at
      least a few hours to find relevant information that isn't
      spoon-fed from the campaigns. But with no time to weigh how
      hundreds of complex issues are going to affect their
      families, a big part of the final vote will come down to gut
      instinct. Instincts that may have served us well on the
      African savannah a hundred thousand years ago, but are now
      all-too-helpless in the face of well-financed Hari Seldons.
      And unlike Asimov's legendary character, I'm not convinced
      that these guys have our best interests at heart."

      Thinking about Pat Murphy's remark brings us hauntingly back
      to square one: How might the future take us by surprise?


      Norman Spinrad's The Druid King will be published in trade
      paperback by Vintage in the US and in mass market by Time
      Warner in Britain in August.

      Cory Doctorow's last three books -- two novels from Tor and
      a short story collection from Four Walls Eight Windows --
      were simultaneously released on the net with a license
      allowing for unlimited noncommercial distribution and
      copying (see craphound.com). His next book is Someone Comes
      to Town, Someone Leaves Town, due from Tor next spring.

      Ken Wharton is the author of Divine Intervention from Ace.

      Bruce Sterling's new novel is The Zenith Angle from Random

      John Shirley's newest novel is Crawlers from Del Rey Books.

      Pat Murphy's new novel is Adventures in Time and Space with
      Max Merriwell from Tor. Her great story "Inappropriate
      Behavior" can be read online at Sci Fiction.

      Kim Stanley Robinson's new novel is Forty Signs of Rain from
      Bantam Spectra.

      Dan Clore

      Now available: _The Unspeakable and Others_
      Lord Weÿrdgliffe & Necronomicon Page:
      News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:

      "It's a political statement -- or, rather, an
      *anti*-political statement. The symbol for *anarchy*!"
      -- Batman, explaining the circle-A graffiti, in
      _Detective Comics_ #608
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