Saturday, October 11, 2014

Science Fiction and our Dreams of the Future

dystopian-science-fictionAn essay in Wired: Is Dystopian Sci Fi Making us Fear Technology? ponders the pandemic plague of cheap dystopias and apocalypses and feudal fantasties that have metastacized and infected science fiction. Michael Solana muses that a certain amount of dire warnings can be a tonic, but it becomes poisonous in the kind of excess that we are now seeing, in which the fundamental rule seems to be “never show any possibility of a better world.”
“Fiction is capable of charting our human potential—with science fiction the most natural and forward form of this—so anything less than a push toward good through the medium is not only overdone at this point, but an incredible opportunity squandered. Every fiction is an illusion, of course. The very real danger here is man’s tendency to look to his illusion for inspiration, which is the foundation on which we build society. “
DYSTOPIA-WORD-CLOUDI make essentially the same point in a dozen places, across the last 20 years, but especially here, where I describe why modern film directors and authors are inflicting a tsunami of despairing tales upon us… not because any but a few of them actually believe it, but out of storytelling laziness, pure and simple. The “idiot plot” syndrome, in which it is just a lot easier to put your characters in dramatic jeopardy if you start with the assumption the civilization is useless and all our neighbors are foolish sheep.
Solana approaches the whole problem from more of an artistic plaint. But he concludes: “Our dystopian obsession has grown up in our nightmares as a true monster, which can only be countered by something truly beautiful. Simply, we need a hero. Our fears are demons in our fiction placing our utopia at risk, but we must not run from them. We must stand up and defeat them.”
Or, as Nick Bilton writes in the New York Times, perhaps "we need to imagine the nightmare so it doesn't become real." Certainly Orwell's 1984 and other science fiction novels offered us the self-preventing prophecy -- warning us away from their dark visions.  As Ramaz Naam reminds us -- In Defense of Dystopian Science Fiction -- “Dystopian fiction has also helped us pass down important mores about the freedoms we find central, and helped rally people against injustice."
The argument over what I have called a “plague of dystopias” in fiction - especially science fiction - is taken a step forward in this philosophical musing my my young friend, the New York artist John Powers, who counters Solana: "..the problems we face as a society today are problems that require us to act as a society," not by a "hero facing his fears." Powers goes on, "But dystopias are allowing our powers of problem-solving imagination to go flabby."
Powers concludes, "The project is to imagine a future society with problems, but not a future in which society is the problem." 

Indeed, nothing says "hope" better than expressing a belief in our ability to solve problems.

==Alternate Visions of the Future==
Can we imagine a brighter future? Science Fiction has frequently tried to do so...
And now, Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future is an anthology that brings together "twenty of today’s leading thinkers, writers, and visionaries—among them Cory Doctorow, Gregory Benford, Elizabeth Bear, Bruce Sterling, Geoff Landis and Neal Stephenson (not to mention me)—to contribute works of “techno-optimism” that challenge us to dream and do Big Stuff. Engaging, mind-bending, provocative, and imaginative, Hieroglyph offers a forward-thinking approach to the intersection of art and technology that has the power to change our world. " 
Sample a free excerpt on Scribd.
I've spoken elsewhere of the tedious obsession with dystopia that allows so many writers of producer/directors to be plot lazy.  It also spreads a poison, undermining our confidence that dystopia can be avoided, through hard work, good will and innovation. Well, Hieroglyph brings back that can-do spirit that once filled science fiction with a sense of adventure and wonder!
machine-stopsHow did writers of the past imagine the future? "The Machine Stops" is a science fiction short story by E. M. Forster. Published in November 1909, Forster's chilling story describes a future in which most humans have lost the ability to live on the surface of the Earth. In isolation, individuals subsist underground in 'cells', cared for by an omnipotent, global Machine. Communication takes place via a type of instant video-messaging machine. It is through this speaking apparatus that people pursue the only activity available to them -- sharing ideas and what passes for knowledge. Read it here:
In a brilliantly cogent essay, the wondrous Nancy Kress explains why her novels so often deal with genetic engineering. And why she almost never does the reflex tech-loathing thing, but tries to show both the good and bad possibilities that have come from every technology since fire.
Which SF books have had the most impact today? io9 offers one reviewer’s list of “21 of the most influential science fiction and fantasy books.
great-movies-sfAnother list: Ten (Potentially) Great Movies that Failed...with The Postman at the top!
This Kickstarter aims at creating an anthology of age appropriate stories that all kids can identify with. “We have great stories, from a wide range of writers and a diverse set of characters – girls, boys, robots… everyone belongs here! Of the stories we've accepted so far, 80% have female main characters. We don't have girls who are prizes to be won, or waiting to be rescued. All of our heroines and heroes are on their own adventure, not a side note in someone else’s.”
My story “Chrysalis” has appeared in the latest issue of ANALOG Magazine. It portrays a pair of Nobel winning biologists — once upon a time they had been married — exploring the “hidden genome” to find a bizarre discovery… traits that the ancestors of all mammals gave up - possibly for good reason (!) - 300 million years ago.
Civilization-beyond-earthIf I had the self-copier from Kiln People, I would definitely play Civilization V and its coming new offshoot, Civilization: Beyond Earth! See the review on io9. Alas, limited lifespan! So, get thee behind me, Satan…
Plug: For that long summer drive. The audio version of EXISTENCE used Audible’s three best narrators! I helped assign roles and transitions. It is one of the best audio books out there.
Have you heard about Amazon's new e-book subscription service? If you subscribe, be sure to turn at least 10% of the pages of every book you get so that the author gets a royalty. Please SHARE to benefit your favorite writers! — (Passed along from Ransom Stephens)
==The 'Rebel' Genre==
slusser-eatonHere’s a fascinating interview about the underpinnings of science fiction as a literary form. During George Slusser‘s 25-year curatorship, the Eaton Collection at the University of California, Riverside, became the greatest archive of science fiction and fantasy in the world. It contains more than 100,000 volumes, ranging from the 1517 edition of Thomas More’s Utopia to the most recently published titles in all languages. The collection also includes journals, comic books, and 300,000 fanzines.
This interview elucidates many ways that SF remains a “rebel” genre in the halls of academia. Indeed, even in those places where SF is studied and appraised by scholars, it seems that just a few authors - maybe a dozen - are deemed acceptable.
SCIENCE-FICTION-REBEL-GENRE(Aside: at one point George suggests that “…writers like David Brin, Gregory Benford, Robert A. Heinlein are rejected on “politically correct” grounds.” Which I find amusing, since I have probably canceled Greg’s vote in sixteen out of the last twenty elections! (For the last few, Greg has seen the light and now rails against the party of Fox-n-Bush.) Indeed, my politics and overall zeitgeist coincide roughly with those of Kim Stanley Robinson! Though yes, I admit I throw in a Heinleinian libertarian zig and an anti-PC zag or two. As a contrarian, I don’t like polemical prescribers of any ilk. So yeah. That probably accounts for it.)
If literary SF matters do interest you, and you feel centers of excellence like the Eaton Collection are important, then you might read with dismay what SF-author Nalo Hopkinson says about recent attempts to undermine the Eaton and possibly eliminate it.
==SF and the Military==
All three of the US Army’s competing prototypes for the replacement of the Humvee (the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle) bear striking resemblance to the design that our team came up with in one of the pilot episodes for the 48 hour design challenge show The Architechs… a great program that the History Channel gave a pass on, during their ill-fated transition to becoming the Bigfoot Channel.
ARCHITECHSI wish you could see the “Humvee Episode” but that one never aired! (Perhaps some brash person will post it anyway — in this case, no one’s economic interests will be harmed.) Four star general Paul Kern (ret) took the episode with him, though, and I hear it was watched closely by all three current design teams.
Our other pilot — coming up with a dozen new ways in and out of burning buildings, was even better!
Ah, but the Army is already thinking science fiction for the next generation. They need … The Architechs!
== Space is also for dreams ==
A lot of the stuff on Daily Kos is — well — left-wing tendentious. But this story - if true - is worrisome: “Teacher Incarcerated For Writing Science Fiction.”  Okay, his self-published novel was about a school shooting, 900 years from now. And the Kos story tells us nothing about the details: e.g. whether the scenes might be perverted enough to indicate an unbalanced mind. Still, on the face of it, this sure sounds like something truly silly is going on.
SixWordStoryI’ve written many varieties of super-short stories, e.g. those that are precisely 250 words. My six-worder was the lead story in WIRED’s spread of 6 word tales. (It had three scenes, action, conversation and pathos!)
Now see a site offering chilling Two Sentence Horror Stories! 
(Here are the six-worders:
Watch out next year for DARK ORBIT by the up and coming talent Carolyn Ives Gilman.


locumranch said...

Since the inspiration for all SF springs from feelings of social alienation -- what Suvin would call 'cognitive estrangement' -- any distinction between dystopia and utopia appear largely arbitrary, excepting that former (dystopia) connotes a 'bad place' while the latter (utopia) connotes a nonexistent one.

As coined by Thomas Moore, the term 'utopia' is 'not a place' or (literally speaking) a 'no place', providing a consequent-free medium to allow for social parody, commentary & criticism, which only a fool could mistake for either an endorsement of ideality or a description of reality, bringing us back to the dystopia.

Literally defined as a 'Bad Place', a dystopia is the unpleasant realisation of any ideal, the curse of getting exactly what you (desire) wish for, only to discover that the fulfillment of our desires leads to their extinction (a very 'bad place', indeed) and a return to cognitive estrangement.

An item of enumeration follows:

'The Transparent Society' is a nightmarish dystopia of a shame-based society where there are no secrets, no lies, no exemptions & no chance of redemption, the only chance of escape being either the (unrealistic) rejection of modern technology & social media or the (more likely) rejection of shame-based Judeo-Christian morality, leading to social anarchy.


SteveO said...

"Since the inspiration for all SF springs from feelings of social alienation -- what Suvin would call 'cognitive estrangement'..."

Wow locumranch, that is a mighty certain absolute you post there...

For me science fiction is unrelated to social alienation and is, to me, really more about expanding the potential experience base of humans and then seeing what happens. It is "good" if it makes me think in unaccustomed ways (while being entertaining). It differs from fantasy in that it is forward looking, often non-zero sum, and often breaks traditional social conventions.

Alex Tolley said...

Since Virginia Postrel was used to support an earlier post, here she is dismissing Hieroglyph. I think she is largely wrong, if only because she doesn't appear to know the influence SF has on young future scientists and engineers. I would argue that Hieroglyph was one of the higher points SF publishing in 2014, with some standout stories of what the world could be. In particular, Karl Schroeder's story about how technology can change how hard problems can be solved and a community that blind sides the established power of the Canadian government (and not a piece of mega-engineering in sight).

Greg Hullender said...

You left out a link to Mez's article:

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Dr. Brin, looking at this quote, I think your buddy Powers has hit on one of the key differences between the "left" and "right" in our society.

John Powers, who counters Solana: "..the problems we face as a society today are problems that require us to act as a society," not by a "hero facing his fears." Powers goes on, "But dystopias are allowing our powers of problem-solving imagination to go flabby"

Conservatives tend to see all things from the perspective of the individual. They mistrust society, and so mistrust anything that smacks of being "social." Thus the idiot plot, in which civilizations are incompetent at best, more likely Orwellian, makes perfect sense to them. More forward-thinking lit like Star Trek strikes them as pie-in-the-sky Pollyana nonsense. They don't like the cultural mingling of the Federation, and they especially don't like the idea that government can bring peace (though there has always been an element of warfare in the show, so they didn't create an completely peaceful future "utopia").

locumranch pointed out that the word "utopia" literally means "no place," not the opposite of dystopia, as per Thomas Moore, the originator of the word. If we stuck with the Greek roots, the way most people use the idea it should be "eutopia" which would mean "good place." I wonder how much of this dystopian angst is a legacy of the Bomb - a technology that really could destroy everything, while people watched "Leave It to Beaver" on that other all-reaching invention of the mid-Twentieth Century? The contrast must have set some memes going.

I'm writing this as my daughter is in full rant mode over Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel "Oryx and Crake," which strikes me as an interesting synchronicity - though maybe it only demonstrates how pervasive the dystopian dialogue is (and I can just imagine what you would say about this novel).

David Brin said...

Paul SB I shall certainly ponder "utopia" and probably steal it! Remind your daughter that zero sum thinking is pretty puerile and vile, no matter whether Them-vs-us straw man dichoticmies are promulgated by Fox of by Atwood. WHo is smart, but an utter ingrate toward the real forces (including science) that liberated her. The "scientists" she portrays BETRAY science.

Anonymous I'll pass on your suggestions!

Interesting assertions by locum : "Since the inspiration for all SF springs from feelings of social alienation.." Notice the most pushy word is "since". Um that is an assertion. It is the axiom that merits proof on its own and is, indeed, on the face of it, absurd. Many of my own stories are simple if-then extrapolations that reflect just one thing -- a prefrontal cortex that is capable of doing its job.

Oh, I will posit that there is probably some alienation and "cognitive estrangement" in my own works - some of them. It makes sense, given my question-everything reflex. But the same words could be thrown at those who frantically refuse to use their prefrontals for the function that they blatantly evolved to serve -- pondering the "other" via either empathy for other minds or else other possibilities of place and time.

Ah, but then Locum makes all crear with this diametrically opposite-rant: "
'The Transparent Society' is a nightmarish dystopia of a shame-based society where there are no secrets, no lies, no exemptions & no chance of redemption"… that bears zero overlap with my actual words or works, is zero-sum straw manning and shows he's off his meds. badly.

Don Gisselbeck said...

Much of my fear of the advance of technology is that there seems to be a concerted effort to devalue any human activity that does not involve sitting at a computer. The activities I find most pleasurable are: skiing the backcountry (not watching a computer simulation), playing trombone (not making flawless trombone-like sounds on a synthesizer), fixing bicycles (not watching the so far nonexistent bicycle fixing robot fix them), fixing skiis (not putting them in the ski fixing machine), turning wood (not watching the CNC turn it), etc. From this perspective, the predator class and the technoes who willingly enable them look like they are out to destroy what gives our lives meaning.

Tim H. said...

Good point Donald, how technology is deployed will have a lot to do with whether or not we get a (Worse than we already have.) dystopia. However, if the tech gets us a free hub with a reliable helix and cone drive instead of pawls, to coast silently, I'll take it.

David Brin said...

Donald Gisselbeck, sorry, but you win the "historical myopia" award. Given that outdoor activities generate more billions in revenue every single year, that vast sums of ads are aimed at ever increasing numbers of activity aficionados, and that the activities you love used to only be available to the very rich, I have to ask, do you now anything about the last 10,000 years… at all? Do you ever ponder the human past… at all?

SUre, as a DIRECTION that merits further encouragement, you are welcome to JOIN the many tens of millions of enthusiasts who are urging their chubby neighbors to punctuate facebook with getting out there! That is wisdom. Calling yourself a member of an in the know elite is not.

The snobbery of your missive was efficiently conveyed, but, alas, silly.

Laurent Weppe said...

"'The Transparent Society' is a nightmarish dystopia of a shame-based society where there are no secrets, no lies, no exemptions & no chance of redemption"… that bears zero overlap with my actual words or works, is zero-sum straw manning and shows"

Come to think of it, there is a book which depicts a shame-based society where there are no secrets, no lies, no exemptions & no chance of redemption: Unless I'm confusing the titles, It's Mortelle, by Christopher Frank (although I don't know whether there's an english translation), and it does depict a transparent society where transparency is taken to a childish extreme and becomes an object of quasi-religious worship enforced with mule-headed zeal by the authorities... It's... a weird novella, to say the least, with a large chunk of the story dedicated to depicting in minute details a crush/discovery of sexuality between two teenagers ending badly, with very few elements allowing the reader to get to have a larger view of the society where it happens. But it was an interesting read nonetheless, especially the way it takes the process of a given principle to become over time little more than an empty custom justified by shallow maxims and enforced through institutional violence and depicts its final steps: here we see decadence not through the usual over-indulgence, depravity and sybaritic lifestyle of the ruling-class (whose members never appear) but through the apathetic pretense of contentment forced upon the ordinary folks.

David Brin said...

Laurent, you are also describing THE CIRCLE... a recent best-seller by Dave Eggers, which I reviewed and criticised about five or six blog postings ago.

Indeed, to clarify, in The Transparent Society, I do explore the pssibility that - while reciprocal transparency saves us from Big Brother - that the result might be an oppressive "village" dominated by shame -wielding bsybodies and conformity-enforcing "little brothers" - part of a despicably oppressive majority.

Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is about that world and I dread it.

But any one who actually READ the Transparent Society, instead of using its title as an excuse to craft an insipid/puerile strawman, would know that I show why that Little Brother outcome does not seem to be what is happening.

Instead, tolerance of diversity and eccentricity and "leave each other alone" morality appears to strengthen, with each augmentation of light.

Jumper said...

Much of that analysis of SF could be equally applied to the western genre, making me view most of its fabulations as not well thought out at all, just a half-interesting spew.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Dr. Brin, if you are going to ponder & perhaps steal utopia, I hope that means you are working on Uplift Trilogy Three. There's a few loose ends I am anxious to see unraveled.

Jumper, I suspect that there are many genres where these same themes are played out (especially genes that tend to appeal to men more so than women). The memes are deep in our cultural superstructure. It's especially disturbing that what has often been a very forward-thinking genre has become a haven for paranoia hacks.

Don Gisselbeck said...

David, you rightly point out that there are many people who prefer active recreation to computer simulation. You did not address the problem of the active devaluing of those of use who work with our hands. I hope you are not one who has contempt for people who finish a work day with dirty hands, many have such contempt.

David Brin said...

Why in the world would you imagine that I think that, Don G? I am often at my happiest doing such work.

Tony Fisk said...

It occurs to me that the romantically minded, looking back upon a better past, would be naturally inclined to assume the the future to be cloudy with a chance of dystopia.

Speaking of nostalgia, I just happened across 'Star Trek Continues', a series of amateur (ish) productions of how the original five year mission might have developed if the plug hadn't been pulled (have we covered this here? I don't recall...)
Impressions based on the basis of one episode of the three made so far? Once I got over the dissonance of familiar characters played by unfamiliar actors, I admit to being seriously impressed.
Not only does the production capture the feel of the original series, but the plot is actually better than a good few of the official episodes.
Okay, the cynic might say that neither of these achievements are particularly difficult. Even so, it is refreshing to see a future society depicted as being so confident of itself that even the past hubris of Ancient Gods may be treated with magnaminity.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Don Gisselback,

Just outside my home town was a little workshop where they made dulcimers, beautiful folk musical instruments. No two were alike and each was a thing of beauty. The men and women who made them were good, interesting people - people who worked with their hands.

The notion that people who work with their hands are inferior to those who supposedly work with their brains is an ancient tool of class warfare, and it's just as insidious as the opposite prejudice.

There was a book I read in college that you might find very interesting, if it's still in print. It is called "Craft and the Kingly Ideal" by Mary Helms. You might enjoy the surprising things it has to say about craftsmanship.

matthew said...

Of the top ten smartest, most educated individuals I've known nine work with their hands a great deal either in career or leisure. The tenth had ALS while I knew him, so he gets a pass too.

The standard trope of the successful intellectual that never gets their hands dirty bears no resemblance to reality. Of course, I am defining "work with their hands" to include semi-pro or pro musicians, so if you think that the 10k+ hours of practice don't count as work then that is your outlook.

Heck, even the most successful lawyer I know builds his own gorgeous furniture.

An exception to this rule can be made for MBAs. Those parasites seem to only exist to make good companies fail for extremely predictable reasons.

Tony Fisk said...

Paul, I think Don is in agreement with you.

The notion that artisan handiwork is a demeaning occupation is as big a trap to dissolute nobility as it is to the downtrodden masses.

- Tony Fisk (MBA/2)

Don Gisselbeck said...

Sorry, I allowed the chip on my shoulder to interfere with my thought process. I am still worried about the devaluation of highly skilled artisan labor. We are seeing highly skilled musicians in film scores and musical productions replaced by sampling programs. Few churches would now get a tracker organ (built by artisans), an "appliance" is much cheaper. Skilled welders and carpenters are being replaced by robots. I am more worried about the devaluation of ordinary "semiskilled" labor. Running a drillpress or an air wrench on an assembly line could once have provided a middle class life. Judging by pay, a bicycle mechanic's work is pretty thoroughly devalued. I will still maintain that, for most of the predator class, the goal is a return to the Gilded Age where workers are either starving on the streets or working 90 hours a week for bad room and board and a growing debt to the company store. (Thank you David for your work against that nightmare.)

David Brin said...

DG, there is nothing wrong with progress, per se. I remember when the trend to factory made wallboard was resisted by the trade guild that took out radio ads touting the superiority of "genuine lath and plaster." A 12,000 year old craft that was replaced by a superior industrial product.

In that case... and most but not all ... we need to shrug and accept. But that endangers us of course, with losing old skills AND with losing the knack of handworking that would enable us to take up such skills, if needed.

Fortunately, it seems that amateur craftsmanship is a huge "thing" right now Look at all the TV shows that focus on it. Many of my neighbors have one craft or another, from wine or beer crafting to carpentry to urban food gardening.

The Age of Amateurs is an expression of sanity and health. I portray it extending much farther, in EARTH and in EXISTENCE and in "The 4th Vocation of George Gustaf." It is not without faults! But --

1) Amateur science societies are now vibrant.

2) EVERY great scientist I ever knew had an artistic hobby, and so do many other folks.

Isn't this the end game? If we build a cornucopia civilization? Isn't that where we wind up, instead of being lazy or lotus eaters?

Tim H. said...

And if a cornucopia civilization is shaped with some progressive influence, it may result in a larger pool of amateurs, who, in compliance with Sturgeon's law, will output about 10% wonderful and useful.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Tony, I hope there isn't any misunderstanding here, but I was agreeing with Don. Not everything I write is contentious. I do agree with my fellow hominids once in awhile, and I try to support them when I do (thus the story and the book recommendation). And I entirely agree with his more recent comment about today's robber barons.

Of course, now I'm going to eat those words, as I have a fairly trivial bone of contention with Don. I was too busy getting my son to school to go into it this morning, and if it did not contribute in some small way, I probably wouldn't bother. But I get irked when people assume that electronic musical instruments are nothing but cheats around learning to play a "real" instrument. I have utmost respect for anyone who has grown enough lobes to sit through the hours it takes to learn an instrument (and slide trombone is not an easy one at that). Back in the early 80's there were a lot of third-rate pop bands who used synthesizers to imitate instruments they did not know how to play, but this is not what they were invented for.

Stanley Moog and many others were looking for a way to create totally new tone colors as yet unimagined in the repertoire of conventional instruments. There are creative, talented musicians who use the things as they were intended, but like any technology, there will always be those who use them badly. I could go on, with examples, but I doubt anyone wants to sit through a 10-page essay. Technology is a two-edged sword. If used well, it enhances creativity, but used badly, it stifles that same creativity.

Duncan Cairncross said...

This business of calling electronic instruments "cheats" is nonsense,
Is it a "cheat" when I use a MIG welder rather than heating up a forge and hammer welding?
(Damn difficult on a car panel)

Or when I use my lovely planer rather than my old plane?

And I don't think I need to be using them in a way that the old tools couldn't work
It is absolutely fine to use them simply because they are more convenient or faster

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Don, agreed.

Sorry for the rant, it's an old peeve of mine. I have been scoffed at for decades about this.

Maybe we can move on to weightier issues. The book I recommended points out that in very small scale societies craftsmanship is often considered a prerequisite to leadership. A person who cannot create beautiful and/or functional things is thought to not have the habits of mind necessary to be a good leader. (Her fieldwork was in Africa, but she uses examples from around the world.) But soon after leadership became an inheritance, leaders stopped being craftsmen and craftsmen became vassals of leaders. (You could argue that many kings were skilled strategists, though the craft of war produces little of beauty or functionality.) Today the world has fewer kings than democracies, but where do our political leaders come from? By and large they are either recruited from the legal profession or the business community. What habits of mind do these people derive from their professions? How to win/profit at any cost? It is little wonder people trust our leaders so little, and dystopias haunt our imaginations. Maybe we could use some real craftsmen in leadership today, since democracy can counter our former feudal traditions (and I don't mean professional wrestlers).

Midboss said...

Long time reader, first time poster.
Paul makes quite a good point there. I think that the saturation of dystopias is not just due to lazy writing. I think people, including authors who are also human (as far as I know), have been so conditioned to associate leadership with deviousness, craziness, corruption and uselessness that they are simply unable to conceive the idea of a society governed by sanity.
Yup, working leadership is more ludicrous to people than FTL travel, fire breathing dragons, laser weapons and catgirls.

Paul raises another good point here about craftsmanship being a prerequisite to leadership. China, for all its faults with freedom, is at least administered somewhat efficiently. What sort of degrees do their leaders have ? Engineering degrees. Angela Merkel, the one competent chief of state in Europe ? Physics and chemistry degree. I think he may be onto something here.

raito said...


On the effect of SF on the young, I offer this:

For those who won't go read it, here's the salient point:

"It’s simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls."

David Brin said...

raito, look for the best Sci Fi from China in 2000 years, this fall THE THREE BODY PROBLEM.

Midbos, you sound like the sort we like around here. Courteously ready with opinions! ;-)

Though I think it is important to recall that Suspicion of Authority is preeched, heavily, in American mythology especially Hollywood. So the IMPRESSION of failed western leadership may be (and is) much greater than the fact.

Rob Perkins said...

The *current* Chinese regime has had its problems with people innovating for positive change.

Historically, they've not had that impediment. The Tang and Song dynasties were full of inventiveness and curiosity.

There's nothing fundamental about Chinese culture that denies its people a resurgence of inventiveness. If nothing else, they're capable of taking such a long view of things that we Westerners, with three month and five year time horizons, are mayflies in comparison.

Don Gisselbeck said...

One more point, it matters what the new technology is used for. Is it used to make workers lives better, or to provide leverage to force their wages down, worsen their working conditions and disempower them? I will admit that most of the technology I work with is in the former category. A skilled welder forced to become a part-time dishwasher by a robot is in the latter.

Jumper said...

I agree with David about the awful takeover by dystopian fiction. But I have to stick up for Margaret Atwood. So I have to frame it so: don't read dystopian books but if you do, make it an Atwood!

I'm into the new Jumper books (of course!) now. They emerged as YA books so it's not weighty. I like how Gould takes old tropes and dives deeper into the ramifications. A lot of thought went into them.

Alfred Differ said...

A skilled welder isn't forced to become a part-time anything. They are out-competed in the market for the service they provide. It isn't about forcing wages down. It is about our robots being cheaper to operate than the human being is to pay.

Some people take the competive pressure on them far too personally. It is rare there is anyone in particular to blame when one loses the competition, but we want there to be one anyway. It is much easier to be angry if we can attribute our loss to the malice of another.

I'm a software engineer and have had to stay nimble over the last 20 years. Sometimes I help knock others out of the market. Sometimes I am the person who gets pushed aside. About 10 years ago I was experiencing wage pressure H1B imported labor here in the US. That usually meant people from India who were willing to take about 1/3 the wage I wanted. I could have complained about cheap CEO's, but focused instead on teaching my competitors what they were actually worth in the US market. It really helped, of course, that they weren't robots. 8)

Alfred Differ said...

Regarding craft work by skilled labor, I like to use a Bradbury analogy. I know a number of people with what appear to me to be useless, ancient craft skills, but to them, those skills define a part of them. It's as if they are the book they wish to preserve. Once I realized that connection, I realized I was doing it too. In a world of GPS satellites and smartphones all equipped to use them, my name is Foxhunt. Do you know my story?

locumranch said...

Don's fears about technology -- especially the ongoing devaluation of music, art and craftsmanship -- are entirely reasonable and, if he believes anything our resident technophiles have to say on this matter, he's bought a 'bill of goods': Music, as we once knew it, is dying and almost dead; Art has become a mass-produced parody of itself; Craftsmanship has become a quaint and unprofitable (heavy emphasis on the 'unprofitable') little hobby; and the so-called 'Age of the Amateur' means that creative-type artists everywhere can no longer make a living with their product because (by definition) 'professionals' receive payment for their labours but amateurs do not.

One hundred years ago, every small city, most towns and many villages possessed their own craftsman, musicians, scientists, orchestras, theatres & vibrant art scenes until technology, with it techniques for out-sourcing, rapid recording, reproduction & dissemination via industrial press/album/radio/tape/film/disc, forced all of those marginal creative types 'out of business', turning the select 5% into professionals while marginalising the remaining 95% to unpaid amateur status.

In truth, this technological approach did work for a time; competition did create a virtual 'cornucopia' by the elimination of both the marginal producer & their marginal products; but, now that those marginal producers & products have been eliminated, the remaining producers of everything (music, art, science, clothing, crafts, etc) have little or no incentive for product improvement because it is easier and cheaper to simply discourage the reentry of the 'amateur' in the name of 'professionalism'; and these is especially true in the halls of Academia, Politics & Science.

Philistines like Duncan (Is it a "cheat" when I use a MIG welder rather than heating up a forge and hammer welding?) could care less because they confuse the end-product with the actual creative process; writers like David can afford to wax poetic about 'The March of Progress' until they (too) get replaced by computerised 'Silver Egghead' like wordsmithing programs; and everyone else (myself included) is too worried about themselves to care about the marginalisation of the artistic other until 'they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me'.

Up until now, most of our technological advances have been about 'dehumanisation' because humans cost money. Workers demand a living wage; the professional musician expects payment for his professionalism; the craftsman expects to get paid for their expertise; the bourgeois middle demand their 'piece of the action'; and we have looked to technology (especially Scientific Management) to streamline this entire process in order to create this virtual cornucopia of ours by 'eliminating the middleman'.

Unfortunately, we have also eliminated ourselves in the process -- or, at least everything that we once valued -- including art, music, creativity and, most possibly, our humanity.


Duncan Cairncross said...

Philistine - Yes probably

"they confuse the end-product with the actual creative process"

I will go along with that
I am "Task Focused"
What counts is the product,
You may enjoy the "creative process" but if it doesn't produce anything you may as well have stayed in bed

TheMadLibrarian said...

A good plumber, electrician, or stonemason is a thing of beauty and to be valued. Anyone remember the Arts and Crafts movement, or Bauhaus, where form follows function? "Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful." ~~William Morris

I frequently do my own repairs around the house. If it is something about which I feel shaky, like gas plumbing or high voltage, I will defer to those with licenses. Often I find it more satisfying to do my own, and occasionally of better quality. I've installed a dishwasher, laid a tile floor, countertop and backsplash, replaced walls, and installed a new water pump on my car. Functional? Check. Beautiful? Depends on your definition. Working plumbing is definitely beautiful!

If you haven't read it yet, I highly recommend you read Andy Weir's The Martian. It's a man in a tight spot, who uses ingenuity to survive. Not in the least dystopian, and downright hopeful for anyone who thinks we are all becoming turnips.


locumranch said...

Duncan continues to confuse ends and means, so much so that he may as well 'stay in bed' because 'getting up' in not an end, nor is it a product. Neither are 'striving', 'trying', 'caring' or 'hoping'.

Ends are indeterminant; means determine; ends are product, outcome or result; and means are agency, instrument or art.

Means matter more than ends because means (as in 'meaning') imply significance while ends and outcomes terminate.

Success is the End of Hope


Tim H. said...

The question of technology vs jobs looks to be a done deal, the answer is jobs will be eliminated as fast as technology allows. The next question is "Can survival be disconnected from labor?", if so, can the transition be gentle? The ongoing devaluation of labor that's not easily mechanized is another matter and seems to be just more one-sided class warfare.

David Brin said...

Zero-sum thinking, always and forever! Our resident platonist decries "ends" as meaningless. But what about seeking the goal of a civiization that empowers all people with a vast array of means? To seek a myriad, diversely positive ends? Is THAT end goal an.... end?

Forest for the trees. To romanticize the past is utterly dopey. 99% of people never discovered that they had any talents at all. Those who did not die or become crippled from grueling labor spent their lives in a single trade-craft in which - perhaps - they developed some sublime skill...

...But only within a narrow range of prescribed actions, tools, methods and products, rigidly enforced by guilds and lords and hyperconservative society, perhaps sharing one new tweak with peers or apprntices, per decade....

... and when you discovered a new trick you kept it secret, because it was the only way (for 10,000 years) that an innovator could benefit from his innovation. Resulting in LOSS of so many innovations! Heron's steam engines, Baghdad batteries, anthekithera devices...

What utter bull. There is ONE reason why artists don't seem to stand out from the masses, the way they used to. Because for the first time kids with talent are OFTEN discovered and encouraged, and so we have so vastly MORE ART than ever that it is impossible to stand out as much. You go about your days awash in it, drowning in it... ignoring it.

Except music. Sure. i will grant that one. Us boomers USED UP ALL THE MELODIES! A limited resouce. nostra culpa

sociotard said...

Now here's an article that's right up Brin's alley:
"7 Creepy Ways Corporations are Turning You into an Addict"

It even mentions rage addiction.

Alex Tolley said...

@locum Art has become a mass-produced parody of itself

That is exactly what artists were saying in the C19th and early C20th, resulting in new art styles - abstract, cubism, etc. I find it hard to imagine that we've "run out" of ideas to express ourselves.

Literary people have been worrying whether we've run out of ideas for novels too. More likely, the sheer volume of output is noise swamping the signal of freshness, especially when publishing is in the hands of relatively few publishers who tend to be risk averse.

One hundred years ago, every small city, most towns and many villages possessed their own craftsman, musicians, scientists, orchestras, theatres & vibrant art scenes until technology, with it techniques for out-sourcing, rapid recording, reproduction & dissemination via industrial press/album/radio/tape/film/disc, forced all of those marginal creative types 'out of business', turning the select 5% into professionals while marginalising the remaining 95% to unpaid amateur status.

That threat has been a constant litany. Movies, radio, tv, the internet have all resulted in greater consumption, of higher quality material, but with a "winner takes all" model. Live opera, Broadway theater, NY philharmonic have become extremely expensive, affordable by the few. Yet we can enjoy their output at a remove by recording. I prefer that than the village music band.

Anything that can be mass produced cheaply with "good enough" quality will improve the economy. Yes, some people will be relegated to doing "art" for free as a hobby, but the vastly larger economy opens up opportunities that were not available before.

The issue today, is whether the rate of automation really will, this time, eliminate more jobs than can be created, resulting in social upheaval. We just don't know, because while we can see the jobs that get replaced, we find it hard to see the future work that will be created. I remain cautious, but optimistic.

Tacitus said...

Tony Fisk - Thanks for pointed out Star Trek Continues. Once I got past a Mythbuster on the bridge crew it was quite enjoyable.

For anyone who is worried about the job prospects of skilled welders, they are in very high demand. The world contains several hundred thousand things more deserving of your concern.

Maybe music is just reverting to a default "normal" situation. It was after all only a historical blink of the eye where performers could sell records without expectation of mass piracy. Before and after that the creative juices and the paychecks come from live performances. Wedding dances instead of Hit Singles? I think we are seeing more performing musicians. Better music? A matter of taste.


Midboss said...

Actually, my impression rather than been threatened by technology was that amateur or small scale artistic creators were experiencing something of a renaissance thanks to internet.

Steam gave indie game creators the chance to go and create something different from the increasing generic AAA market. Result: Minecraft, Amnesia the Dark Descent.

Kickstarter gave many new projects the chance to shine and are leading to many interesting and original ideas seeing the light of day.

PDFs have given amateur authors and tabletop rpgs the opportunity to get their work known to the public without the problems and costs that go with selling physical copies.

Deviant Art gives artists the chance to show their creations to the whole world and some even make money through commissions.

Even 4chan managed to created something good with Katawa Shoujo, a surprisingly (on account of it coming from 4chan) tasteful Visual Novel about life in a school for handicapped people.

We also have a new wave of self made internet celebrities who make a living thanks to their creations. That Guy with the Glasses is one example but others like the french Pen of Chaos and Joueur du Grenier also stand out.

So in fact overall, we're coming out ahead artistically in my opinion. The automation of work is another subject matter that indeed is going to soon require a very radical rethink in how to handle work and the economy. We're in the 21st century and still stuck using economic theories from the 19th.

On a purely different note, it seems we have good news on the energy side today:

Tim H. said...

"Used up all the melodies", not so much Dr. Brin, our generation is no longer a primary focus of young musicians. Styles have moved on and we can now wince at memories of our parent's opinions of our favored music, first generation metal can now be heard on oldies stations, Tim H., who still has his Black Sabbath albums.

matthew said...

I can speak to the quality and quantity of music currently floating around. I have been a professional both as a musician and as an recording / sound engineer, though I am not at this time. But I keep my finger on the pulse very closely.

Listen to me once, Boomers. The music made in the past is in no uncertain way any "better" than the music made now. Anything else is rearward-viewing nostalgia. Shut the hell up about how great the 60's and 70's were. I was there too (I grew up around a professional soundman, used to play with Pigpen, got stepped on by BB King as a baby, etc.) Any belief that there is ever a "golden age" of creative thought is simply ignoring what is going on around the listener. Or viewer. Or reader. It is only nostalgia or laziness or fear of the unknown that keep the very idea of a golden age alive.

Very few of the regular commenters here are lazy about their own modes of thought. It pains me to think of those same individuals saying that music was better when they were kids. What utter bullshit. You live in a time of wonders, like most times are.

"We used up all the melodies." is a total crock, David. Throw off the nostalgia and listen to some good (new) music.

Alex Tolley said...

Press marklew@Midboss - the Lockheed fusion announcement is little more than hype at this stage. Basically they are saying that they have a design idea that is very small, so that they can iterate experiments quickly to test out the ideas, which if proved correct, allows for a prototype in 5 years. But they don't have the knowledge yet, and are looking to hire experts. If it all pans out, NUCLEAR FUSION ENERGY. (Great for those flying S.H.I.E.L.D. carriers in "Avengers".) I wouldn't hold my breath until they can demonstrate that they have a working prototype, which would have effectively undercut all those $bns used for fusion research at ITER, and NIF. It's like the ever hopeful Polyweell reactor that never actually seems to get any nearer a proof of concept.

Lockheed video:
Lockheed fusion video

Unknown said...

@All:I find there is quite a lot of simplification of Archdruidical thought here. That is unsurprising as his essays are meant to provoke just this sort of reaction from people who hold what he calls the civil religion of Progress, much like evangelical Christians react to a slighting of Jesus.

Nonetheless, as a committed atheist and empiricist myself, I find the Archdruid one of the most acute and educated social commentators that I have ever read. His knowledge of history and philosophy is unparalleled, and his insights on the psychology of religion are invaluable – not to mention his treatment of, I kid you not, magic, which as a rationalist I found perfectly acceptable and incredibly illuminating.

He is also quite a firm opposer of simple binary thinking – there’s a good essay on his blog about that, if you care to look for it – so ascribing him simply to the category of doomers is quite mistaken when he spends an equal amount of time lambasting those who have rejected the Myth of Progress to embrace its mirror opposite, the Myth of Apocalypse.

I cannot aim to do his thought justice – having read his blog for over two years and with the advantage of a classical education I would still find it hard to properly summarize his ideas in a few lines, as they are so rich in innovative perspectives.

However I think it worth to explain one of the basic tenets that drives his outlook on the future. Quite simply he does not consider the current civilization to be qualitatively different from those that preceded it (that would be the real point of contention with Brin’s thinking). As such, it will likely follow the same path that all other civilizations before it followed: that of rise, apogee, and decline. A slow, punctuated decline quite unlike that preached by most believers in the Myth of Apocalypse, but a decline nonetheless. Accusing him of Hegelian teleologism is then quite a drastic misinterpretation of its entire system of thinking.

He does not though invoke simply sitting back and watching the decline happen. In fact, that is what he accuses most believers in progress of doing: recognising the challenges, and shirking away from them by saying “they’ll think of something”, “they” here being scientists in lab coats. If that isn’t a religious view interpreting scientists as priests building higher and bigger Pyramids to Quetzalcoatl as the jungle around them runs out of water, I don’t know what it is.

Instead, he asks each individual to take action, first personally, and then at a community level. To make changes to their own lives, not only in the direction of sustainability and lowering resource consumption, but also towards learning crafts and skills that would allow the conservation of some of the contemporary world’s scientific discoveries.

As much as the medieval monks alleviated the Dark Ages by preserving some of the Classical World’s knowledge in their monasteries for the benefit of future generations, so we should work to preserve as much of the current scientific knowledge as possible to make sure that the next civilization emerging from the ruins of ours will start from a much stronger base than would be otherwise.

Much as you might disagree with his vision for the future, I would still advise any self-respecting contrarian to read the Archdruid closely. He has much more to say and teach than you might imagine.

As a closing point, if you are interested in his reasoning for dismissing solar power as solution to maintain our current technological society (not any technological society), then you can read this essay and the two that follow:

Alfred Differ said...

Two hundred years ago every town and village had their own farmers and the supporting craftsmen that enabled the farms to work. Blacksmiths, carpenters, and all the people you need to keep horses and oxen alive and productive were kept busy so those farms could feed an expanding population. In Europe the weather had been mild for a time and people were breeding faster than the food supply. This was the time of Malthus. The rise of industry changed all that by beginning to mechanize the farms and transport of their commodities to market. From a world where the vast majority of people worked the farms or the supporting crafts, we moved to a modern world were we manage to produce much, much more with less than 2% of our people on the fields. The crafts themselves haven’t died, though, and due to the population explosion that occurred with all this new productivity, it is possible more people know them as hobbies than did in an age where they were necessary for survival.

Amateurs have other demands upon them they must meet for their survival making them professionals in those other skills, but those change fast in recent times. It wasn’t long ago that we needed people to make and fix 8-track tape decks, but there aren’t many of the devices left and labor demand has moved on. Will a future world have hobbyists who can still do it? Probably. We rarely drop a skillset while we have enough surplus time and population to maintain it.

LarryHart said...


Shut the hell up about how great the 60's and 70's were. I was there too (I grew up around a professional soundman, used to play with Pigpen, got stepped on by BB King as a baby, etc.) Any belief that there is ever a "golden age" of creative thought is simply ignoring what is going on around the listener.

"What do we need new songs for? Don't they know that rock and roll achieved perfection in 1974? It's a scientific fact!" - Homer Simpson

Jumper said...

So Druidism is a cult? Who knew? If it's all about gaining followers by brilliantly explaining how perpetual motion is impossible, I remain unimpressed.
As for declines of empires, perhaps Byzantium is something to consider. It sadly only lasted 1400 years.

raito said...

On music (though some of this applies to other arts)...

One thing to remember is that for the vast majority of history, there were no recordings. Even sheet music is fairly recent by that standard. It's only in the last century or so that century or so that we've been able to listen to music displaced in time and/or distance from the musician.

And while it's true that we are awash in music, technology has brought with it another aspect. Music made today competes not only with other music made today, but all music recorded ever (modulo some that's lost). And tomorrow's music has eve more temporal competition.

Which is why any discussion of when better music was made amuses me.

Imagine a world where a teenager, rather like the Brits discovering early 20th century blues, could rediscover any genre from any place and time.

David Brin said...

orry Ellen He, but your apologia-defense of the Arch-Druid grows ever weaker when you say things like: “it will likely follow the same path that all other civilizations before it followed: that of rise, apogee, and decline.”

Um, some examples please? Note that I am not even asking you to prove that this happened to ALL or even a MAJORITY of past civilizations. I’d like to see if you could support it for any. At all. It is Spenglerism and part of the silliness that I talk about here:

Sure, you’ll cite some cases like the fall of the Roman Empire… which did not fall in the richer, eastern half for another thousand years. Did nation conquer nation? Sure. But the model there is predation, not senescence. Please notice how you posited as a GIVEN AXIOM something that is not just without basis, but spectacularly false. So much for all the rest that is supported by the “axiom”.


I'll discuss further under the NEXT posting.


starwarsmodern said...

It makes me happy that someone still thinks of me as their young friend - Had a great time talking with students at Whitman college last week and one of the things we ended up talking about was the plague dystopias.

something else we talked about the art world concept of the "white box" - ie the presumption that the blank space of the gallery isolates art work from the outside world; provides it a neutral ground within which to appear (one wonders if anyone ever believed it, but now its just a punching bag idea).

But it lead to a discussion of the relative recentness of that idea. I argued that the white box was founded on the availability of cheap and easy wall board.

Any guess as to when you would have heard the plaster lath ad you mentioned?

Jumper said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jumper said...

n defense of plaster, it's not covered with paper which enables mold. Of course I have read they now have paperless sheetrock.

In defense of older music I will note the wretched MP3 and praise the old tube amplifiers, and real drums vs synthetics. And autotune. Granted, all those can be fixed and modern music does exist without those drawbacks.