I have been offline with these musings for the past three months. That is partly the result of having nothing much new to say after more than ten solid years of weekly blogging—and finding myself having returned to and reinvented several sets of ideas more than once. It is also partly because one theme in my blogs deals with “politics and economics,” which I consider different aspects of the same human endeavor. And the politics and economics of the past year or so have defied description. As a writer, I could not conceive of a scenario to rival all that has happened: it would be too unbelievable.1
I mean … well, I won’t go into details. Anyone who has been watching the news for the last four years, and then the accelerating conundrums and catastrophes of the past three to nine months, will understand what I mean. If you believe that the current state of our politics and economics is normal, then we don’t have much to talk about. I doubt we even live on the same planet.
The only way I have managed to stay sane is, first, by staying away from the keyboard. I knew that if I wrote about what I was really thinking, I would probably alienate half my friends and family, and I would draw the attention of the national authorities as a probable domestic terrorist. Second, by reminding myself that, as a science fiction writer, I have always tried to take the long view, the consideration of centuries if not millennia, while the human circus rides through my town. In times of stress, I think of this as the view from 2300 AD.
This does not mean I try to calculate, foresee, or envision the world of 2300 AD. I have done that—and beyond—in several of my novels, but it has always been with a “tweak” to create a certain imagined effect. I don’t know what the accelerating advance of technology2 will bring in the next three hundred years, but it will be fantastic.
When I was growing up, everyone thought that by now we would have flying cars—and those, like sustained nuclear fusion, are always ten years away, for good reasons having to do with basic physics, energy transfer and storage, and average human reaction time. But no one considered that we would have a device no bigger than a pack of cards that was also a camera; a stereo system, television, and movie theater; a link to every library, news source, and technologically connected person in the world; with access to every book, movie, and record ever made; immediate access to our banking, retail stores, and personal services; and a modern form of telegraphy—as well as a telephone. (Not to see that coming out of digital versus analog recordkeeping was just a failure of imagination.) Add to that information advancement the current advances in biology and medicine, driven largely by our new understanding of genetics, and you will see a complete redefinition of disease, disability, human health and capability, and perhaps even death itself.
But we also have before us various chimeric visions that simply are not going to occur without a whole lot of either scientific naïeté or scientific advancement beyond imagination.
As to the latter, consider the Star Trek vision for the 23rd century, which is a utopia of dedicated and happy people fulfilling their personal lives in communal cooperation without an economic care in the world. This vision is only made possible, of course, by turning economics on its head and eliminating the laws of supply and demand and the effects of scarcity on necessary and desirable commodities. The Star Trek universe achieves this through unlimited energy supply, made possible by matter-antimatter reactions, and unlimited material abundance through molecular replication of foodstuffs and other goods, driven by that inexhaustible energy supply. In the real world, pattern replication by energy-to-matter conversion would involve a physics far beyond what we understand today, as would a “warp drive” that somehow bends the “fabric” of space. And matter-antimatter conversion will never be practical.3 Personally, I’m not holding out for utopia.
As to the former, consider the current concern4 about anthropogenic global warming or, more recently, “climate change.” The climate is always changing and has been changing throughout recorded history, although previous civilizations lacked the technological tools to record local and global temperatures with much precision or to project the weather a hundred years into the future based on a few key variables. Sea levels have been rising steadily if slowly since the last Ice Age, 12,000 years ago, and temperatures have been rising steadily in the 22-year cycles of sunspot activity since the last Maunder Minimum, 400 years ago. The valuable coastal property that is now so in jeopardy—at least here in the San Francisco Bay Area—was mostly marshland a hundred years ago and may be marshland a hundred years from now. But whether the global temperature rises by two to five degrees centigrade or falls by that amount, the change will be so gradual that people will adapt. And a robust technological civilization—one which will certainly spread its knowhow to the far corners of the “developing world” by the time these effects take place—will be able to counter most of the changes. And anyway, the whole fraught scenario is based on computer modeling, projections made by selecting various parameters out of an astounding mix of variables and making certain assumptions about feedback loops and “forcings.” Personally, I’m not worried about global catastrophe.5
I don’t know what the future will bring, not in the next hundred years, let alone three hundred. There will be dislocations, local and personal catastrophes, as well as opportunities for immense civilizational and personal growth. I won’t be there to see it, but I know it’s all coming. That’s the perspective of the long view.
In the 19th century, the majority of Americans worked in agriculture, just trying to feed the nation. The steam engine was only then coming into common use, and applications of electric current—the generator and electric motor, the telegraph and telephone—were still in their infancy. In the 20th century, those technologies, along with the internal combustion engine and the vacuum and cathode-ray tubes, started the mechanical age that led to the urbanization of the American worker and the dissemination of a national culture. The latter half of that century also brought into being the transistor and the computer, which changed the face of knowledge—its storage, manipulation, and control. The mechanically oriented factory workers of the 20th century became the intellectually oriented “symbol manipulators” of the 21st century. And now, the extension of computer technology into artificial intelligence; factory, supply chain, and financial automation; and what I call Gutenberg manufacturing6 is threatening the jobs of both factory and knowledge workers. But I do know that a hundred years, three hundred years, from now there will still be a society, with both politics and economics, and it will serve the interests of human beings and not robots or progressive policy wonks or philosopher kings.
In the 1st and 2nd centuries, the Western world was dominated by the Roman Empire, and it was a calculatedly brutal place, although life in other “civilized” regions like India and China was not much better. In the two thousand years since then, the benign teachings of Christianity and the rationality of the Enlightenment have made the average person more refined, gentler, and more amenable to learning about both other cultures and the physical world. And in just the sixty years since the passage of Civil Right legislation, America has become a more inclusive and mindful place, with a better life for all its citizens and residents. I don’t believe human nature changes much, but I do believe that civilizations can deflect some of the savagery of life and adapt the baser instincts with which people meet it. I do know that in a hundred or three hundred years, life will still have its stresses, injustices will still regularly occur, and that people will meet them with attitudes that embody the latest philosophies with a measure of kindness and hope.
So the last three months, the last four years, while still bizarre, inane, and distressing, will eventually pass into history. I believe I will go on for another two decades or so—with any luck—in a state of hope and expectation. And my car still won’t fly.
1. Or, as I have said in other contexts, “truth is stranger than fiction, because fiction must be realer than truth.”
2. See, for example, Two Different Worlds from September 24, 2017.
3. Matter we have in abundance. It’s the antimatter that’s hard to come by. It doesn’t exist naturally in this universe, so you can’t mine it or refine it from existing materials. It can be made in particle accelerator at a huge cost in energy. The output of antimatter at the CERN accelerator in Europe—which is powered by conventional means like coal, nuclear, or now partially wind and solar energy—is 1x1015 antiprotons per year, or about 1.67 nanograms. At the operating cost of this facility, that would make a gram of antiprotons worth about $62.5 trillion—not something you’re going to burn in a “warp core” to get a cup of Earl Grey from your food replicator.
4. I would write “hysteria,” but that would only make half my friends mad and attract the attention of those national authorities.
5. Remember, I am part of the generation that grew up with tales that the world would end in nuclear holocaust, so we learned to duck and cover, followed by nuclear winter. Then it was Malthusian predictions of overpopulation and eventual starvation. Then we had global cooling, quickly followed by global warming. And finally, we had the Y2K bug, which was going to crash all the world’s computers back to Stone Age. Every millennium, the end of the world strikes fear into the heart of the populace. And yet, here we are.
6. See, for example, Gutenberg and Automation from February 20, 2011.