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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 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 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 comparison.”

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


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

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

Several interviewees mentioned the European Union in this connection.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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 three…but prompts more specificity.


4) Are we in danger, serious danger, environmentally? Why or why not? If we are, what are the social consequences?
Kim Stanley Robinson's response echoes concerns about the population: “Life is robust, but many biomes are not. We could damage the environment to the point where it would be difficult to sustain 6 billion people, in which case there would be a scramble for food and other resources, meaning many wars etc. I think that danger clearly exists.”

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

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

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

Something close to a consensus, there…


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

A consensus amongst the respondents, there, too…


9) What question should I have asked you?

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Cory Doctorow's last three books — two novels from Tor and a short story collection from Four Walls Eight Windows — were simultaneously released on the net with a license allowing for unlimited noncommercial distribution and copying (see 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 “Inappropriate Behavior" can be read online at Sci Fiction.

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

© 2004 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.