[Paleopsych] Locus Online: John Shirley: Global to Local

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John Shirley: Global to Local
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 manipulated.

      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 dont know if its sharper, but its definitely
      bleaker. Here are two of the trends Im 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 Aspergers syndrome and autism. Though generally described by
      the medical establishment as 'disorders,' both Aspergers syndrome
      and autism are caused by a neurological difference. Affected
      individuals think differently, particularly with regard to

      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 storylines.

      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

      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

      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: Id 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 [3]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 causing.

      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 threebut prompts more

    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

      Pat Murphy thinks it's more to do with street-level conditions: Id
      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

      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 to
      close to wars that can be fought entirely at a distance with robot
      planes, tanks, maybe even footsoldiers.

      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 dont think its possible or

      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 happen?

      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

      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

      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 House.

      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 [4]Inappropriate Behavior" can
      be read online at Sci Fiction.

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


    3. http://www.Exploratorium.edu/climate
    4. http://www.scifi.com/scifiction/originals/originals_archive/murphy/
    5. http://www.locusmag.com/2004/Features/09_ShirleySocialFuture.html#top

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