Archive for 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!