Sunday, September 18, 2016

A World Without Borders

It sounds lovely. A world without borders—those imaginary lines which we also think of as barriers. A world where people can travel without the intrusions of government interfering with a person’s right to go where he or she wants and do whatever suits his or her needs—and for “intrusions” read pieces of paper, arranged and signed ahead of time, inspected by men with guns, and the inevitable waiting period, usually in a room with a door that locks. If we could only eliminate borders and barriers, then we could eliminate the paperwork, the men with guns, and the locks. Then people would be free to pursue their dreams.

But you would then also necessarily have a world in which no one would be able to hold onto a fixed address. It would be—or rapidly become—a world with no stable form of government, no organized rules of commerce, no property rights, no right of ownership to anything that can’t be carried in your pockets. It would be a world with no assurance that people and their families who have stayed in one place for generations would not become homeless by next week.

Why do I say all this? Because a world where anyone can go anywhere without restrictions, where a person who just walked across an imaginary line is just as good—that is, has just as many rights and just as much say in outcomes—as the people who have lived there for generations and invested their time, effort, and wealth into building up the infrastructures, trading patterns, and cultural values of the place, is a world without the natural and obvious distinctions between builders and drifters. In such a world, people will tend to form ad hoc, temporary associations to gain power and possessions for their group’s members at the expense of anyone else who gets in their way. Ultimately, the boldest and the bravest—usually those most willing to give up what they have always known in their search for something better—will prevail.

In short, you would return to the world of the homeless wanderers that existed before about 3,500 BC, before people began settling in the Indus, Tigris, Euphrates, and Nile river valleys, staking out fields for plowing and sowing, arranging ditches and gates for irrigation, learning to read and write, starting up a civilization, and learning to be comfortable under its rules and restrictions. You would return to the world where the biggest gang, the collection of the toughest and most aggressive individuals, gets to sit down wherever it wants, sleep in armed camps wherever their leader chooses, and eat whatever comes to hand.

A world without borders is a world without a functional civilization. It is a world without citizenship, of people who owe allegiance to no nationality or culture—except some vague and unresponsive “brotherhood of man,” or perhaps to a distant and squabbling, self-proclaimed organization like the United Nations or the European Union, which is full of good ideas for how everyone else should live but with very little practical experience on the ground.

I know that’s not the ideal. The vision of a world without borders was created in the 20th century after two horrendous wars that seemed to be virtually without borders themselves. First came the League of Nations in 1920, arising out of the Paris Peace Conference that ended the 1914-18 European war. And when that organization proved ineffective, the United Nations arose to prevent another conflict like the 1939-45 war, which engulfed pretty much the whole world. The idea was that if all the nations of the Earth could come together peacefully to discuss and resolve their differences, humankind could eliminate the need for war.

But the question was always one of sovereignty. For such an organization to be effective, to enable it to establish and enforce its mandates, the member states must give up some—if not all—of their separate rights and responsibilities, just as single human beings give up some of their personal rights and responsibilities in order to claim the protection of a state or nation. The proposition for creating such a worldwide government is that nations are analogous to—and not essentially different from—individual people, just on a larger scale. But is this true?

A person—at least one whom society considers to be in possession of his or her faculties—has a single identity and the ability to form fixed intentions and follow through on them. By the time they are adults, people as individuals can have fully formed ideas that they are unlikely to change as they age further. A person can decide to be—and remain, for the rest of his or her natural life—a good citizen, a reliable father or mother, a hard-working employee, a steady church goer, or a loyal party member. Circumstances may change, calling for the individual to try out new ideas and test new values. But the person usually remains true to one set of ideas, values, and commitments for most of his or her working life. Exceptions exist, of course, but they do not disprove the general nature of human psychology.

Nations are not necessarily like this. Neither is any large group of people who have come together over time. Putting aside issues of “national character,” which are usually impressions and stereotypes about a culture gained by outsiders—Italians are excitable, Germans are sober and dour, Frenchmen are passionate—the nature of any group is fluid. People as individuals may have relatively fixed ideas and values, but as groups they tend to discuss, disagree, and influence one another, and they can form only a slippery and temporary consensus. That consensus may represent a government in power, making laws and creating institutions that have the appearance of an individual’s fixed commitments. But governments fall from power and their commitments change over time—relatively slowly and peaceably in the representative democracies, suddenly and harshly in oligarchies and dictatorships.

A single person might commit to join a nation and live under its laws. But a nation—the collective and changeable will of a large group of individuals—cannot make such promises.

The notion that, over time, a world government will emerge and the individual states which currently meet and debate in the United Nations or European Union will wither away from useless redundancy is fanciful. The idea is just as fanciful as the notion in economic Marxism that, once communism has been firmly established and people are peaceably trading their personal labor for goods and services, the revolutionary state which established this condition will simply wither away from having nothing else to do. But that is not human nature. History doesn’t come to an end, and people don’t give up their personal interests and political advantages, just because they can’t think of what to do next.

Perhaps, with our current world’s continuing developments in technology, with global and instant communications, with a fairer distribution of natural resources and the fruits of education and science, and with institutions and infrastructures which will equitably provide goods and services to all the peoples of the Earth … perhaps then we will see national distinctions fall away and people on every continent become citizens of the world. It’s a nice idea, but I doubt it will happen. In just one area—global communications, represented both by networked broadcast services, which send common ideas and values out to the mass of people, and by networked social media, which allow people to exchange and discuss their reactions to those ideas among themselves—the proposed unity has not developed. Instead, social media have allowed new groups of like-minded people to form. These groups may no longer be bound by geography and personal acquaintance, but they still coalesce around shared real-world experiences. It’s a nice idea that people will think globally, but they will continue to act locally and in relation to what they know, think, and believe.1

I can imagine only two conditions that would support a global association of humanity under a single world government. The first would be when our descendants form colonies and associations on other planets in the Sol system and out among the stars. This is well described in James S. A. Corey’s Expanse series. When Luna, Mars, and the Belt all have their own governments, shared cultures, developing languages, and genetic drift, Earth will, in response, come together as a single political entity. The second condition would be our discovery that human beings are not alone in the universe. This is a standard theme in science fiction: when the aliens come down from the stars, either as peaceful traders and teachers or as ravaging conquerors and usurpers, the distinctions among human-type people will fall away and we will, in response, become one culture, one civilization.

In the meantime, who benefits from promoting a “world without borders”? I mean, apart from the naïve idealists who live with their heads in the 23rd century?2

The first kind would be the people who have their own borders well secured, thank you very much, but would like a stake in the land behind yours. Back during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China both imagined that their chosen system of government had the destiny of conquering the world, various sympathizers and fellow travelers promoted the ideal of a world without borders. They looked forward to world peace at the price of submission to an ideology that came from beyond the borders of Western civilization.

The second kind would be people who despise the civilization they see around them—perhaps because they have not been successful in it, perhaps because they want to shortcut the political process—and want to see it gobbled up by a wave of foreign invaders. They imagine these invaders will provide the instability and the political liquidity to dislodge the power structure which they despise but their fellow citizens are too dull and stupid to throw off themselves. They want a revolution but lack the guns, the organization, and the numbers to bring one about. So they believe that encouraging immigration en masse will create better conditions for their purposes.

Neither of these motives is one that I admire or subscribe to. At heart, I am something of a libertarian, believing people should be allowed to go where they want and do what they need. But I also know that human beings, like all the great apes, are social beings. We need and want to find our own place, among people with whom we can find agreement and common cause. We want to build something that we can preserve, protect, and pass along to our children. And we value those children as the product of our own genes and extension of our own lives, rather than as vaguely deserving “citizens of the world.”

Maybe one day—with enough enlightenment, technology, and freely available goods and services provided through unlimited energy resources and automation—we can walk across those invisible lines and settle anywhere we find that’s pleasant and accommodating. But that day has not arrived. And it may not until the 23rd century.

1. In this, I am reminded of two more examples. The first is the drift of languages, as described in John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language. Over time, human languages tend to develop differences among speaker groups. A powerful political influence, like the Roman and British empires, can temporarily bring people together to speak a common language. But when that influence falters or wanes, as did both Rome and Great Britain, people will go back to creating their own local dialects, word usages, and shared colloquial meanings. McWhorter points out that Italian, French, and Spanish are nothing but Latin that has been left alone in different and relatively isolated places for speakers to develop their own idiom. And each of those languages that we think of as unified wholes—again, Italian, French, and Spanish—are actually a collection of local dialects, like langue d’oc and langue d’oil in medieval France, which over time will develop into separate languages of their own.
       In similar fashion, large human associations with developed trade routes and easy movement among disparate cultures, like the Mongol Empire, can mix up the gene pool and over time create a heterogeneous population. See, for example, the wide spread of Genghis Khan’s Y chromosome. But let that empire fall and the associations wither, and people will go back to socializing with their near neighbors and second cousins. And then individual variations, like red-haired Scots and blond Scandinavians, will emerge from the mix.

2. A place I’ve been known to go and visit from time to time.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Cruel Fate

It has long been observed that evolution is no respecter of individuals. The process has given us quadrupeds both as graceful as horses and as sturdy as elephants; invented flight numerous times with species as different as dragonflies, hawks, and bats; brought lungfish to walk on the land and whales and dolphins to swim in the ocean. Evolution in one way or another has created everything you can see on this planet, including the contents and colors of the sea and the sky. Evolution is the engine of creation, but it cares not a bit for the individual of any species. It works on the flow of genes but it lacks direction—except toward what works and survives. And along the way, that flow will discard a hundred, a thousand, a million failed attempts—all of them individual beings with otherwise developed potential.

This is a hard thing for most people to understand. We instinctively want a creator which—or, in most minds, Who—cares about us. Not just the human species as a curious kind of experiment along the way from monkeys to post-apocalyptic apes, but humans as some peak of attainment. We want to see our kind as rising toward a level of genius, awareness, independence of thought, and freedom of action that was prophesied back when the first microbial cell divided and differentiated in the primordial, comet-fed seas. This yearning for attention is part of our mammalian and human heritage, based on our being born as helpless, half-formed embryos with enlarged primate skulls too wide to gestate fully in the womb and then pass through the narrow primate birth canal. We are totally dependent in our earliest years on loving parents to feed, protect, and teach us. And when mother and father themselves prove to be all too human and fallible, we look to the sky for a loving bringer of order and to the earth for a nurturing presence.1

Moreover, we look for a creator that had us, ourselves, our own personhood, in mind when we were born. With our random gift of self-awareness, we humans each believe that we, as individuals, as the person following the particular life course we’ve chosen, with the dreams of childhood behind us and the ambitions of adulthood still driving us forward, have a unique place in the creator’s purpose. We want to be loved. We want a force stronger than ourselves to tell us that we will win the race, achieve our goals, obtain the love and respect of our family and peers, that we matter in this life.

The notion of that creator as the engine of evolution, which randomly hands out helpful or harmful genetic mutations before we are even born, which often dumps us into environments that may be both physically and—for us now, with our bigger brains and calculating self-awareness—psychologically productive and sustainable, or not, and which dooms a large fraction of our peers to random accidents, diseases, and death … we find that notion hateful. The universe is not supposed to work this way. Our mothers assured us we would be safe. Our fathers fought to make us safe.

The truth is even worse than that. Life itself and the history in which we place such intellectual store are both crapshoots.

Think of our great philosophers and teachers—Pythagoras, Aristotle, Buddha, Christ. Think of our brightest minds—Newton, Goethe, Einstein. Think of our history-changing leaders—Moses, Caesar, Genghis Khan, Napoleon. All of them are accidents in the sense that they happened to be born with the right kind of intellectual or emotional capacity, placed in the right familial and societal environments, either encouraged or simply allowed to develop and exercise those personal gifts, and survived long enough to begin applying them successfully.

Certainly, in an army as large as Napoleon’s—more than half a million men in the Grand Armëe at its peak—there must have been four or five other men with the native charisma to inspire those around them, the organizational capacity and memory to know the quality and current status of hundreds of fighting units both during the march and on the battlefield, and the imagination and vision to conjure up campaigns for them to pursue and strategies that would enable them to win their battles. But of those four or five other men, who will never be named, they were either born into humble homes and never attained an officer’s rank and training, or they died of wounds—or more likely dysentery—in their first or second campaign. History has given us a Napoleon and a Wellington. There might well have been other and better men. We will never know.

Something of this kind actually happened in the late 17th century, when the English physicist Sir Isaac Newton and the German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz independently came up with mathematical systems that became our modern system of calculus.2 They began working on their ideas at different times and, although each man left manuscripts or published papers at different dates, there is no indication that one copied from or even knew about the other.

Interestingly, a third mathematical system was created much earlier but only survived in a Byzantine manuscript that copied out the works of Archimedes of Syracuse—a parchment that was later overwritten with Christian theological texts. Once the religious material was scraped away, the manuscript underneath showed that the ancient Greek had come up with a “method” for solving physics problems for which we now would use calculus. Who knows what advances human engineering and technology might have achieved far ahead of their time if this method of calculation had spread and been used so much earlier in history. The fact that the Archimedes method was written down and survived only once, and then not rediscovered until the early years of the 20th century, is simply a matter of cruel fate.

If human intellectual and creative development is a crapshoot, so is the history in which it operates and which we take to be somehow foreordained and immutable.

We like to believe that the great turning points, the decisive battles upon which the course of history swung like a bank-vault door on a jeweled point, were destined to come out that way. Think of Hastings and the success of the Norman invasion of England, which brought French language and manners to England, and involved the English royal family in French affairs for half a millennium. Think of Waterloo and the success of the English and German armies in stopping a resurgent Napoleon from the reconquest of Europe, and subsequently establishing a hundred years of relative peace on the continent. Think of Gettysburg and the success of the Army of the Potomac in stopping a Confederate march on Washington, DC, from the north, which might have forced an end to the American Civil War favorable to the South and its secession.

From my experience of fighting some these battles in both tabletop miniature and board games (see War by Other Means …)—the different days of Gettysburg at least four times, and Waterloo and other Napoleonic battles at least once—I can attest that the course of history was not so obvious. In the hands of different generals, and with even slightly different tactical approaches, these battles could have gone the other way. There are no sure things in history.

As a science fiction writer, I wrestle with these ideas. What does evolution look like on other planets? And how might our own planet have developed differently? What great minds might a cruel fate have subtracted from the human past—or added to it—to change the path of our intellectual, emotional, and political development? What turning points, which we see so clearly in our telling of history, might never have occurred, or resulted differently, to redraw the political map of the world?

It’s a fascinating imaginative playground—and one that I explored briefly in the novel The Children of Possibility and am now re-entering with its sequel, due out sometime next year, tentatively titled The House at the Crossroads. The only difficulty, for a writer, is that if one concatenates too many changes onto history, the human experience tends to become unrecognizable for the reader.

But like evolution and fate, a writer’s imagination can sometimes be cruel.

1. As I’ve noted before, the human conception of creation and deity would be very different if our species had arisen from the line of, say, sea turtles instead of the great apes. Hatched in the dry sand, with their first act destined to be a crazed dash toward the surf and the light of the full moon, being picked off twenty or a hundred to one by the waiting seabirds and then by the snapping fish in shallow waters, the surviving turtles would have a much darker notion of the creator’s purpose.

2. Calculus, for those who are as mathematically innumerate as I am, is a method for studying changes in a system, such as the area bounded by a continuous, smooth curve, or the effects of changing rates of acceleration on motion. The word is from the Latin for a small pebble used for counting.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

My GO! Button

It seems as if all my life I’ve been pushing on a button in my brain—perhaps linked to the startle response, perhaps to the pituitary gland and adrenaline release—which sets me up to do the things I must. From twelve years in school, and then through college, followed by forty more years in the business world, I have been responding to the needs of the outside world, the commitments I’ve made to meeting them, and to my own demands upon myself.

The alarm rings at four o’clock in the morning—push the GO! button to rouse myself, get out of bed, stumble through my get-ready routine, and sit at the typewriter for an hour or so to work on the novel I am trying to write before leaving for school or work.

When the clock edges up on seven—stop what I’m doing, push the GO! button again, and prepare for the morning commute. For the last ten years of my working life that meant putting on my riding gear, wiping off and wheeling out the motorcycle, and driving through traffic on the two worst commute-hour corridors in the country: westbound I-80 toward the Bay Bridge, then southbound I-880 through Oakland. San Leandro, and Hayward, with the San Mateo Bridge toll plaza jam-up and then its seven-mile, arrow-straight slog still ahead of me.

When I arrive at work, pour my first cup of coffee, sit down to log in at the computer, and while the machine is churning—push the GO! button to deal with an unknown number of voicemail messages behind the phone’s blinking light. These will have collected overnight because this is a global company with people calling or returning my voice messages from the East Coast, England, and Singapore. Ten minutes later, with every voicemail either answered or logged for subsequent action, push the GO! button again to enter the slipstream of overnight emails and deal with every new alert, request, and problem each one brings. Forty minutes later, I can take my second sip of cold coffee and begin the planned part of my day.

As the hour of each scheduled meeting or interview appointment approaches—push the GO! button to prepare my mind, psychologically and emotionally, for the meeting agenda, for the new information and directions the session will likely bring, and the pitfalls it will probably hide, or—equally stressful—for the questions I must ask my interview subject, the amount of blind probing I must do, and the unique personality I must deal with in order to get information for the next article I must write.

If the meeting is the quarterly internal business review with all employees, push that GO! button dozens of times in the weeks beforehand as I prepare slides for the various speakers, make arrangements for the meeting space and video connections, send out companywide announcements and reminders, and remember to order an assortment of refreshments—tempting but not too rich and costly—for the estimated number of attendees. And then one big push as the hour of the meeting approaches and the hall starts to fill.

If the interview subject is a company officer, press the GO! button a couple of extra times to deal with schedule changes, session interruptions, and the Shadow Kabuki–like play of his or her political and personal sensitivities. Even if the officer is known to me from past associations, and even if our past discussions have been cordial and even friendly, the subject itself will be new, and a whole kaleidoscope of novel implications will overlie the results from our previous dealings.

Then, when my schedule opens up and it’s time to write the next article, or prepare the next set of speaker slides, or pull together the next issue of the newsletter or the next refresh of the internal website—press the GO! button to steel my mind for diving into this set of details, driving toward this overarching message, and bending the arc so this story finds a strong, logical, and credible resolution in the reader’s or viewer’s mind.

Finally, when the five o’clock hour, or six o’clock, or sometimes seven or eight, comes around—press the GO! button once more to prepare myself, physically and emotionally, to swing my leg over the motorcycle again and face the reverse commute over that bridge and through those commute corridors from hell. Riding a motorcycle is usually exhilarating, and doubly so when I’m headed home and know there’s no scheduled arrival time for which I must push the travel envelope. Motorcycles in California are automatically entered into the carpool lanes, and if traffic in all lanes grinds to a stop, I can still split them to get through the jam—although that involves its own repeated pushes on the GO! button: look ahead, figure the available width, divide it for the size of my bike and clearances, watch out for that car wobbling in its lane, keep an eye on that semi crowding the line, and so on for mile after mile of jangling alerts.

If it’s raining that day, and I’ve chosen to drive the car rather than wrestle with my rain gear and deal with the stresses of wet tires on grooved pavement, the commute adds the dimension of sitting in stalled traffic, where I’m safe, dry, warm, and have the radio or a CD to listen to, but also trapped, staring at the bumper of the car ahead of me, counting the minutes as the flow creeps forward, brake lights winking, making excuses in my head for the meeting I’m going to miss on the work-bound commute, or the apologies I’ll have to make on the home-bound route.

Twenty times a day, a hundred times a week, for year after year, my brain has taken that shot of psychic energy and adrenaline.

It wears you down.

Now that I’m retired and working on the sort of writing I used to do at four o’clock in the morning, I have to push the GO! button a lot less often. I might have a doctor or dentist appointment to go to during the day, or a lunch with friends for which I don’t want to be late. Some Saturdays I might have a war game scheduled (see War by Other Means …), and the house of the gamer who’s hosting the event might be as far away as my old commute, but the traffic on Saturdays is usually light and the motorcycle ride is fun rather than nerve-racking. I still get emails every day, but they are usually chats from friends or commercial messages that I can safely ignore. I still get the occasional unprovoked phone calls and voice messages, but they are easily screened.

Curiously, one of the stressors I once experienced at work, plunging into the details of the next article or speech that would have to be completed on deadline and then sent for review with both the subject matter expert and other approvers—which usually entailed its own set of stressors returning through the voicemail or email stream—does not carry over into my fiction writing. Although I try to maintain a schedule with my writing, working to an outline, in order to bring out a new novel every year or so, the pace is at my discretion. And, unlike an article where the objective, the points to cover, and the details not to be missed are directed by somebody else, my own writing is under my control and that of my subconscious mind (see Working With the Subconscious from September 20, 2012). When I sit down to write fiction, it is because the story has been percolating through my brain, the pieces have started coming together, I’ve just thought of the opening line of dialogue, or incident, or sensory image to start the scene—and the keyboard draws me to it like an old friend. I don’t have to push any internal buttons because my mind is already flowing in that direction, eager to get these new ideas down in specific words, images, and plot structures, creating an experience that will feel real and concrete in the reader’s mind, where before there was only a blank page.

After all those years in school and then in the working world, I can wake up when the birds start singing and the dawn light shows in my bedroom window. I move through my morning routine out of unforced habit, taking a few extra minutes here and there if I want. I do my karate exercises (see Isshinryu Karate) before breakfast because the workout makes me feel better and lighter during the rest of the day. I read the newspaper with as much attention as I want while I eat, because I’m interested and not because it’s an assignment. Then I turn on the computer, pour my coffee, and see if my subconscious has sent me more of the novel to salt away as finished scenes and chapters. And if not, I can go sit in my chair and read a book. Or I can get on my motorcycle in the middle of the day and ride out across the countryside, picking my own route, enjoying the sun and wind, and not minding a schedule.

This is good because, after all those years of pushing, pushing, pushing, my GO! button is broken. My life is in my own hands at last.