Global to Local
- 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Now available: _The Unspeakable and Others_
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News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:
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