Monthly Archives: July 2013

The Post-Scarcity World

Now, don’t take this the wrong way–this is not a “geekery” post, but I have to begin by saying this:

When I was a kid, I loved Star Trek.

I’m sure most of the appeal had to do with really cool-looking starships whipping through the black of space and blasting at nasty Klingons and such.

But at least part of the attraction of this space opera was that very special vision of creator Gene Roddenberry: a future of humankind at peace with itself.

One never-quite-explained facet of that utopian future was the fact that in the society of the 23rd and 24th century where Star Trek takes place, there is no money, per se. As Captain Picard says in the eighth film, “The economics of the future are somewhat different.”

Star Trek may have never taken the time to really delineate how that economic future would work, but other science fiction authors like I.M. Banks have carved out a niche by describing “Post-Scarcity” futures. Banks’ future “Culture” is a society ruled by leisure and self-improvement, much like Star Trek‘s Federation, where material needs no longer dominate human thoughts. Scarcity, the concept that drives all of our economic theories, is eradicated in these future scenarios.

The early twenty-first century doesn’t seem to be in much danger of graduating to such utopian heights any time soon…at least not at first glance.

Behind the veneer of rampant consumerism and Global Capitalism’s tendency to foster widening economic inequality as quickly as it generates wealth, there is something else taking root.

Take the simple observation from CNN that new “at-home 3D printers could save consumers thousands.” For the price of a few bucks worth of plastic, a 3D printer can now generate all manner of household items that previously would have required a trip to the store. As this technology matures, it has the potential to be immensely disruptive to the cash-cows of Global Capital. There are other technologies, though, that have even greater potential to reverse the trajectory of the modern world.

Imagine a future where you micro-gardened your own food hydroponically and grew fresh meat in an appliance in your kitchen. Environment and animal friendly food without contributing to climate change through shipping or packaging. You “printed” most of the household items you use, from shoes to spatulas. Wireless broadband soaks your life in constant on-demand information so ubiquitously that there isn’t much to speak of by way of costs. Medicine, too, is virtually unheard of, as nano-machines course through your bloodstream repairing damage–and replicating themselves without any pricey pitstops.

This is not a flight of fancy. All of these technologies are possible. In fact, many are almost within reach. This is a science-ficiton scenario that our children could live to see. Hell, we could see it…maybe even see it with genetically engineered replacement eyes.

The crux, though, is that a new world that doesn’t need economics as its engine needs something better. It calls on us to be something more. People won’t need to be compelled to work by harsh economic necessity. The power lever that has driven the story of civilization since the beginning–the haves and have nots–will make no sense anymore. How will our power-driven society adjust? For Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry imagined humanity figuring itself out–abandoning sexism, racism, and irrational conflicts in favor of the pursuit of our higher natures. His characters, though, were fictional. Can we do it in the real world?

Very soon the question won’t be whether we can create a perfect society.

It’ll be whether we can live there.

Jitters

the web
dotted by beads of dew
forms a net over the dome of the flat-leafed rubber plant
quivering inside,
waiting for,
needing
the movement
the shake and jiggle of a line,
the creature, the builder
cannot say for certain
what might cling to the fine silk fibers
cannot know
what’s to come
but must crawl out and see
all the same

No-brainer

He clicked the blinker to the right, swinging the car under the In-N-Out Burger sign.

Pavlovian drool puddled underneath his tongue as he took his place at the back of the drive thru line.

And he imagined for a moment, a tall, red-lined cup fizzing with Mr. Pibb.

But then her voice intruded on his daydream.

“No,” he said aloud to the empty car cabin. “You don’t need a soda. It’s better for the environment, better for your pocketbook, and better for your body.”

His mind respooled her words, “It’s a no-brainer.”

As he advanced, one car length closer to the squawking box asking for people’s orders, he repeated the words: “It’s a no-brainer… It’s a no-brainer… It’s a no-brainer.”

As he said it, he felt the warm calm satisfaction of compliance wash over him.

Engaged

“Victor, is that you?”

He shot around suddenly, startled-deer alert.

“Man, we haven’t seen you in forever. How’s it going?” His two friends–Josh and Alex–closed around him like sentries, hedging off any retreat.

“Um, fine…” he answered.

“How’s, eh, what’s her name?” Josh asked.

“Stephanie,” Alex added.

“Yeah, Stephanie. How’s she?”

“Fine…fine…” Victor answered.

“Yeah, you’re still seeing her?”

“Yes…actually…we’re engaged,” he said haltingly.

“What?”

“Engaged!”

“Why didn’t you tell us?”

“It, um, just sort of happened,” he told them.

“Just sort of happened?” Alex repeated in shock.

“Geez, when was this?”

“I guess about three weeks ago.”

“Three weeks? How long’s it been since we saw you?”

“Yeah, when did we see you last?”

“Was it at that girl’s party? What was her name?” Josh asked, turning to Alex.

“The one from the bar…yeah, what was her name…” Alex mumbled.

“I’m sorry, guys…I’ve got to go, okay.”

They protested, but he turned his back and hurried away.

 

 

When she opened the door to the apartment, he was scrunched against the wall–a small pile of hairs plucked individually from his scalp growing on the tile beside him.

She stooped beside him in a quick, jerking movement and clutched at his knee. Stuttering, she asked, “W-w-what’s wrong?”

“I have to tell you something,” he said to her.

“What? What is it?”

“I…I talked to someone else today.”

She exhaled heavily, sliding onto her knees before him. A lone tear slicked her cheek.

“It’s alright, Victor,” she said. “I did too.”

“Who?”

“My old friend Maddy from college. I saw her and…she wanted to talk. I didn’t know how to–” She began to tremble with grief.

“It’s alright,” he said, reaching for her. “It’s alright. We’re alright.”

They clasped at each other, and grim, permanent smiles crept across their faces.

Busy Night…

Attentive readers might have noticed that I haven’t been posting as much as usual lately (I’m considering a confessional essay as to why, but you’ll have to wait for that).

Maybe some are grateful for the relative paucity of posts.

So, for them:  Sorry to rain on your parade, but sometimes inspiration comes in waves. Tonight, you’ll be treated to a quick poem about first-day anxiety and two short, short stories about control in relationships. Enjoy!

Oh, and as always when this happens, sorry to my followers for the flood of e-mails.

You Don’t Say?

 

President Obama made an interesting declaration today.

He said that he intended to “use every minute of the remaining 1,276 days of my term to make this country work for working Americans again.” What’s more, he declared that the growing inequality in the distribution of wealth in this country was “morally wrong.”

That’s right. He’s admitted that the ridiculous disparity our system is propagating is morally wrong.

Wow. I’m taken aback. Shocked, even.

This is exactly the kind of bold, progressive vision that we needed to hear from President Obama…five years ago!

1,276 days, eh?

Well, Mr. President, I don’t know how much we can really expect from you during that time. Saddled with the most do-nothing Congress in all of American history, your hands are pretty much tied, which is precisely what the racist establishment of the conservative base wants for any Democratic president, but especially the first black president.

So, no, Mr. President, I don’t really blame you. I know you fought some good fights on a lot of fronts. I know you picked your battles in the hopes that you could win on a few of them. I know you tried. I know it.

But ultimately, history’s judgements can be harsh. Your record will say that you effected less change than Bush Jr. and that, at best, you held back the tide of corporatocratic hegemony rising against the American people at large for just a little while longer.

On the ranking scale of presidential greatness, that’s going to land you somewhat closer to Jimmy Carter than your idol Abraham Lincoln.

A Plausible Zombie Apocalypse?

It seems a shame that Comic Con is taking place and I haven’t written one geeky thing the whole time.

The end-of-the-world horror du jour seems to be all about the zombies. This pop culture zeitgeist has been building for a while, but definitely reached its apex with the rise of the Walking Dead TV series (and, one might say, jumped the shark with the Brad Pitt blockbuster World War Z).

These walking undead beasties have evolved tremendously in the popular imagination from their origins as voodoo slaves. In some of the classic zombie movies of the fifties and sixties, it was radiation or toxic sludge that led to the bodies of the dead to walk the earth again. It’s a pretty silly scenario, but then, most science fiction is pretty light on the science. Sometimes it’s magic, but the most common solution to the “How’d that happen?” question in audiences’ minds these days is to answer: “I don’t know.”

In both Walking Dead and World War Z, the cause and origin of the undead pandemic is left unexplained. The dead just walk–live with it!

So what’s my point?

Last week, my son tried out a new game called The Last of Us on Playstation 3.

I noticed two things about this game as I watched him play: Firstly, it’s really graphic in both language and violence. I’m constantly having to comment on the profanity and the gory ways in which both the living and the undead are dispatched (Which is totally working. After grabbing one human bad guy and holding him as a human shield, my son asked, “Isn’t there a way I can just make this guy surrender?” There wasn’t, and he had to shiv the dude. But just that he wanted to spare this poor schlep shows that my counter brainwashing seems to be working.)

Secondly, though, I noticed that the writers of this game had chosen a different approach to their zombies. In The Last of Us, the zombie infection is caused by a fungus. In fact, my son and his non-player character companions in the game had to don gas masks as they navigated a spore-filled room with dead human bodies with fungal projections rising from their bodies. Very cool!

Why so cool? Because not only is this different from other zombie narratives, but it’s also kind of plausible.

You see, nature has already done it. In the jungles of South America, the fungal genus Ophiocordyceps infects insects and uses them as zombies to spread itself. Best known for the particular species that infects ants–each species pairs with a specific insect–the fungus rewires the brain of the ant, directing it toward a nice, cool location where it makes the ant clamp its jaws in a death grip on a leaf, and grows a fruiting body through the ant’s head to spore and spread itself.

So hats off to the producers of the game for cooking up a scenario that makes sense. After all, if a fungus can evolve to mind control ants, then why not humans?

Of course, as he played on, they had to go and ruin it by having the fungus turn humans into monsters that use echolocation and look like an extra from Pirates of the Caribbean 3, but for a minute it was really cool!

Flowering

Banksia_seed_pod

a feeling of lightheadedness, like reading a page where the words swim in themselves, and the heart shrivelshrinks like a pickled beet, that feeling that made the ancients think it was the seat of our emotions and not some limbic knob buried deep in our skulls, but you didn’t know you could get it when you’re not inout of love, that it could sneak up and attack you in the most mundane of moments, that the feeling could attach itself like a single louse bigger than the host, a living anchor that makes you reach into your sack, forlorn, brushing the ridges of burlap, finding nothing but the sour taste of easy success and beneath it all there’s the memory of a dream from years ago, the dream where you’d murdered someone and felt the dread paranoia of the unalterable interwoven into the sinews of you, like a new step on the ladder that you know will give way

Quality Control

My son put a new game into his Playstation 3 yesterday and guess what happened?

Right out of the box, he was prompted to download and install an update to fix the game before he could play it. This is pretty common these days. Sometimes, publishers discover a bug in the code after shipping and act quickly to rectify the oversight–but sometimes, publishers knowingly ship unfinished product, counting on UPS to buy them some time to fix it up because they know they can push a fix down the Internet pipeline to the user.

It wasn’t always this way in software, of course.

When I worked in retail in the early nineties, getting a bug patch was a hell of a production. Publishers would have to ship 3.5 inch disks out to buyers–an expense they were obviously motivated to avoid. The only other alternative, though, was to have users dial up some bulletin board with their baud modems and tie up their phone lines while a fix trickled in, a few 1s and 0s at a time. This was not the user experience people had paid for, and many would demand refunds.

Now, though, with ubiquitous Internet connections, programmers and publishers can count on being able to update their products. And update, they do. Anyone with an iPhone with more than a few apps installed can attest to the frequency with which product updates appear as little numbers in red circles on your home screen.

There are two schools of thought on this shift in the market:

1) As programs have gotten more complex, it’s inevitable that more glitches and bugs should arise; we should all be grateful that it is possible to quickly and easily patch them and move on.

or 2) Knowing they can fix product after delivery has led to complacency, if not laziness.

Since I’m writing this, you can guess which side I tend to lean toward.

I know, I know. First world problems, right?

Except this tiny nuisance of twenty-first century life feels like it has more to it. I get the feeling that something is being said of the Internet generation via this microcosm. These are things we are buying and they’re unfinished. They’re broken. But are they? Are they things at all? We purchase them, but where do they tangibly exist? We own them not because they are in our possession somewhere, but because we have casually clicked “I accept” on some multi-page legal document. Software is like the aether of a new era. It flows around us and defines the rhythm of many of our daily lives, yet more often than not we must bend to its quirks and limitations rather than it adapting to us. And in the blink of an eye, with some “update,” it’s changed. A quicksand solution for the to and fro of our daily lives.

It’s as if nothing in this millennium is permanent, or ever finished…or real?

Losing a Culture War

Jeff Daniels, to whom I am apparently distantly related, plays an anchor on Newsroom. I’ve only seen a few clips of the show, but I looked up this spiel after reading about it recently:

Ideological purity, compromise as weakness, a fundamentalist belief in scriptural literalism, denying science, unmoved by facts, undeterred by new information, a hostile fear of progress, a demonization of education, a need to control women’s bodies, severe xenophobia, tribal mentality, intolerance of dissent and a pathological hatred of the U.S. government…

They can call themselves the Tea Party. They can call themselves conservatives and they can even call themselves Republicans, though Republicans certainly shouldn’t. But we should call them what they are: The American Taliban.

It’s an apt message for today’s GOP. Constantly, on numerous fronts, the conservative element of our political culture tries Taliban-like tactics, repressing freedoms and forcing adherence on those around them with maniacal bullying. Sensing their shrinking electoral power, the Republican party seems intent on using any and all means necessary to force their vision of America on a populace who, more and more, do not believe in their world view. Their support outside of aging whites has waned so considerably that their longevity is in serious danger, yet instead of changing their thinking, opening themselves to new possibilities for conservatism in the twenty-first century, they become more and more entrenched in their own alternate reality.

With control of the House that was won only through gerrymandering, the party has dug in its heels with relentless obstructionism. In Arizona, the GOP now wants all high school students to swear some kind of loyalty oath in order to graduate, that none-too-subtly ends with “so help me God.” Atheists, it would seem, need not apply. In Texas, despite unshakable precedent from the Supreme Court, the legislature has passed a back-door assault on access to abortion. And elsewhere across the country Republicans have pressed for voter ID laws to discourage urban minorities from reaching the ballot box.

They’re despicable, undemocratic tactics. Was Will McAvoy’s claim on Newsroom about the modern GOP being Talibanesque so off base?

As a counter example, I offer Orson Scott Card’s response to the gay marriage debate. As his classic science fiction novel Ender’s Game was being prepped for its big screen premiere in November, several gay rights’ groups cried foul, pointing to his record of opposing gay marriage. I have serious qualms about boycotting a movie because of the political beliefs of its author when those beliefs have absolutely nothing to do with the story in question, but many thought his views so toxic that they warranted a campaign against the film.

Card, though, responded like this:

With the recent Supreme Court ruling, the gay marriage issue becomes moot.  The Full Faith and Credit clause of the Constitution will, sooner or later, give legal force in every state to any marriage contract recognized by any other state.

Now it will be interesting to see whether the victorious proponents of gay marriage will show tolerance toward those who disagreed with them when the issue was still in dispute.

Granted, it’s not the most humble of acquiescences. Card doesn’t say he was wrong about gay marriage, but at least he admits that society can be something other than what he and his envisioned. At least he acknowledges that living in a democracy means you have to accept the rights and opinions of others–that you cannot force the entire country to live your way. He knows, at least, when he’s beaten and the country has chosen a different course.

It’s a lesson the rest of the country’s conservatives should take to heart.