Snow Crash vs Star Trek

“[C]yberpunk sci-fi of the 1980s and early 1990s accurately predicted a lot about our current world. Our modern society is totally wired and connected, but also totally unequal,” writes Noah Smith (What we didn’t get, Noahpinion). “We are, roughly, living in the world the cyberpunks envisioned.”

I don’t find that surprising. Cyberpunk writers were looking at ongoing trends and extrapolating about the near future. We are living in that near future.

Considering inequality in the US began growing several decades ago when cyberpunk became a genre, it wasn’t hard to imagine that such inequality would continue to grow and play out within technology itself. And the foundations for present technology were developed in the decades before cyberpunk. The broad outlines of the world we now live in could be seen earlier last century.

That isn’t to downplay the predictions made and envisioned. But it puts it into context.

Smith then asks, “What happened? Why did mid-20th-century sci fi whiff so badly? Why didn’t we get the Star Trek future, or the Jetsons future, or the Asimov future?” His answer is that, “Two things happened. First, we ran out of theoretical physics. Second, we ran out of energy.”

That question and answer is premature. We haven’t yet fully entered the Star Trek future. One of the first major events from its future history are the Bell Riots, which happen seven years from now this month, but conditions are supposed to worsen over the years preceding it (i.e., the present). Like the cyberpunk writers, Star Trek predicted an age of growing inequality, poverty, and homelessness. And that is to be followed by international conflict, global nuclear war, and massive decimation of civilization.

World War III will end in 2053. The death toll will be 600 million. Scientific research continues, but it will take decades for civilization to recover. It’s not until the 22nd century that serious space exploration begins. And it’s not until later in that century that the Federation is formed. The Star Trek visionaries weren’t starry-eyed optimists offering much hope to living generations. They made clear that the immediate future was going to be as dark or darker than most cyberpunk fiction.

The utopian world that I watched in the 1990s was from The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. Those two shows portray the world 250 years from now, about the same distance we have to the last decades of the American colonial era. It’s unsurprising that a pre-revolutionary writer might have predicted the invention of the cotton gin at the end of the 18th century, just as unsurprising that he couldn’t have predicted the world we now live in. That is why I would argue it’s premature to say that no further major advancements in science will be made over that time period.

Scientific discoveries and technological developments tend to happen in spurts — progress builds incrementally, which is what makes Star Trek compelling in how it offers the incremental details of how we might get from here to there. We can be guaranteed that, assuming we survive, future science will seem like magic to us, based as it would be on knowledge we don’t yet possess. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were those who predicted that nothing significant was left for humans to learn and discover. I laugh at anyone who makes the same naive prediction here at the beginning of the 21st century.

To be fair, Smith doesn’t end there. He asks, “These haven’t happened yet, but it’s only been a couple of decades since this sort of futurism became popular. Will we eventually get these things?” And he adds that, “we also don’t really have any idea how to start making these things.”

Well, no one could answer what the world will be like in the distant future any more than anyone in the distant past was able to predict the world that has come to pass. Nothing happens yet, until it happens. And no one really has any idea how to start making anything, until someone figures out how to do so. History is an endless parade of the supposedly impossible becoming possible, the unforeseen becoming commonplace. But it is easy to argue that recent changes have caused a rupture and that even greater changes are to come.

Smith goes on to conjecture that, “maybe it’s the authors at the very beginning of a tech boom, before progress in a particular area really kicks into high gear, who are able to see more clearly where the boom will take us.” Sure. But no one can be certain one is or is not at the beginning of a tech boom. That can only be seen clearly in retrospect.

If the Star Trek future is more or less correct, the coming half century will be the beginning of a new tech boom that leads to the development of warp drive in 2063 (or something akin to it). And so following it will be an era of distant space travel and colonization. That would be the equivalent of my grandparents generation growing up with the first commercially sold cars and by adulthood, a half century later, experiencing the first manned space flight — there being no way to predict the latter from the former.

As a concluding thought, Smith states that, “We’ll never know.” I’m sure many in my grandparents generation said the same thing. Yet they did come to know, as the future came faster than most expected. When that next stage of technological development is in full force, according to Star Trek’s future historians, those born right now will be hitting middle age and those reaching young adulthood now will be in their sixties. Plenty in the present living generations will be around to know what the future holds.

Maybe the world of Snow Crash we seem to be entering into will be the trigger that sends us hurtling toward Star Trek’s World War III and all that comes after. Maybe what seems like an endpoint is just another beginning.

* * *

About predictions, I am amused by early 20th century proclamations that all or most great discoveries and inventions had been achieved. The belief was that the following century would be limited to working out the details and implementing the knowledge they already had.

People at the time had just gone through a period of tumultuous change and it was hard to imagine anything further. Still, it was a time of imagination, when the earliest science fiction was popularized. Most of the science fiction of the time extrapolated from what was known from the industrial age, from Newtonian physics and Darwinian evolution. Even the best predictions of the time couldn’t see that far ahead. And like cyberpunk, some of the predictions that came true in the following decades were dark, such as world war and fighting from the air. Yet it was hard for anyone to see clearly even into the end of the century, much less the century following that.

The world seemed pretty well explained and many felt improvements and progress were hitting up against a wall. So, it would be more of the same from then on. The greater changes foreseen tended toward the social rather than the technological. Otherwise, most of the experts felt certain they had a good grasp of the kind of world they lived in, what was possible and impossible. In retrospect, such confidence is amusing to an extreme degree. The following passage describes the context of that historical moment.

Stranger Than We Can Imagine
by John Higgs
pp. 17-19

It appeared, on the surface, to be an ordered, structured era. The Victorian worldview was supported by four pillars: Monarchy, Church, Empire and Newton.

The pillars seemed solid. The British Empire would, in a few years, cover a quarter of the globe. Despite the humiliation of the Boer War, not many realised how badly the Empire had been wounded and fewer still recognised how soon it would collapse. The position of the Church looked similarly secure, despite the advances of science. The authority of the Bible may have been contradicted by Darwin and advances in geology, but society did not deem it polite to dwell too heavily on such matters. The laws of Newton had been thoroughly tested and the ordered, clockwork universe they described seemed incontrovertible. True, there were a few oddities that science puzzled over. The orbit of Mercury, for instance, was proving to be slightly different to what was expected. And then there was also the issue of the aether.

The aether was a theoretical substance that could be described as the fabric of the universe. It was widely accepted that it must exist. Experiments had shown time and time again that light travelled in a wave. A light wave needs something to travel through, just as an ocean wave needs water and a sound wave needs air. The light waves that travel through space from the sun to the earth must pass through something, and that something would be the aether. The problem was that experiments designed to reveal the aether kept failing to find it. Still, this was not considered a serious setback. What was needed was further work and cleverer experiments. The expectation of the discovery of the aether was similar to that surrounding the Higgs boson in the days before the CERN Large Hadron Collider. Scientific wisdom insisted that it must exist, so it was worth creating more and more expensive experiments to locate it.

Scientists had an air of confidence as the new century began. They had a solid framework of knowledge which would withstand further additions and embellishments. As Lord Kelvin was reputed to have remarked in a 1900 lecture, “there is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.” Such views were reasonably common. “The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered,” wrote the German-American physicist Albert Michelson in 1903, “and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote.” The astronomer Simon Newcomb is said to have claimed in 1888 that we were “probably nearing the limit of all we can know about astronomy.”

The great German physicist Max Planck had been advised by his lecturer, the marvellously named Philipp von Jolly, not to pursue the study of physics because “almost everything is already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few unimportant holes.” Planck replied that he had no wish to discover new things, only to understand the known fundamentals of the field better. Perhaps unaware of the old maxim that if you want to make God laugh you tell him your plans, he went on to become a founding father of quantum physics.

Scientists did expect some new discoveries. Maxwell’s work on the electromagnetic spectrum suggested that there were new forms of energy to be found at either end of his scale, but these new energies were still expected to obey his equations. Mendeleev’s periodic table hinted that there were new forms of matter out there somewhere, just waiting to be found and named, but it also promised that these new substances would fit neatly into the periodic table and obey its patterns. Both Pasteur’s germ theories and Darwin’s theory of evolution pointed to the existence of unknown forms of life, but also offered to categorise them when they were found. The scientific discoveries to come, in other words, would be wonderful but not surprising. The body of knowledge of the twentieth century would be like that of the nineteenth, but padded out further.

Between 1895 and 1901 H.G. Wells wrote a string of books including The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man and The First Men in the Moon. In doing so he laid down the blueprints for science fiction, a new genre of ideas and technological speculation which the twentieth century would take to its heart. In 1901 he wrote Anticipations: An Experiment in Prophecy, a series of articles which attempted to predict the coming years and which served to cement his reputation as the leading futurist of the age. Looking at these essays with the benefit of hindsight, and awkwardly skipping past the extreme racism of certain sections, we see that he was successful in an impressive number of predictions. Wells predicted flying machines, and wars fought in the air. He foresaw trains and cars resulting in populations shifting from the cities to the suburbs. He predicted fascist dictatorships, a world war around 1940, and the European Union. He even predicted greater sexual freedom for men and women, a prophecy that he did his best to confirm by embarking on a great number of extramarital affairs.

But there was a lot that Wells wasn’t able to predict: relativity, nuclear weapons, quantum mechanics, microchips, black holes, postmodernism and so forth. These weren’t so much unforeseen, as unforeseeable. His predictions had much in common with the expectations of the scientific world, in that he extrapolated from what was then known. In the words commonly assigned to the English astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington, the universe would prove to be not just stranger than we imagine but, “stranger than we can imagine.”

 

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From New World to New Worlds

The ‘discovery’ of the New World made it possible for Europeans to imagine new worlds. It also allowed Europeans to see themselves in new ways. They now were ‘Europeans’, in a way they weren’t before. This had diverse consequences, good and bad. It was the beginning of both utopianism and racism.

* * *

Lies My Teacher Told Me:
Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong
by James W. Loewen
Kindle Locations 1390-1414

Columbus’s voyages caused almost as much change in Europe as in the Americas. Crops, animals, ideas, and diseases began to cross the oceans regularly. Perhaps the most far-reaching impact of Columbus’s findings was on European Christianity. In 1492 all of Europe was in the grip of the Catholic Church. As the Encyclopedia Larousse puts it, before America, “Europe was virtually incapable of self-criticism.” 80 After America, Europe’s religious uniformity was ruptured. For how were these new peoples to be explained? They were not mentioned in the Bible. American Indians simply did not fit within orthodox Christianity’s explanation of the moral universe. Moreover, unlike the Muslims, who might be written off as “damned infidels,” American Indians had not rejected Christianity, they had just never encountered it. Were they doomed to hell? Even the animals of America posed a religious challenge. According to the Bible, at the dawn of creation all animals lived in the Garden of Eden. Later, two of each species entered Noah’s ark and ended up on Mt. Ararat. Since Eden and Mt. Ararat were both in the Middle East, where could these new American species have come from? Such questions shook orthodox Catholicism and contributed to the Protestant Reformation, which began in 1517.81

Politically, nations like the Arawaks— without monarchs, without much hierarchy— stunned Europeans. In 1516 Thomas More’s Utopia, probably based on an account of the Incan empire in Peru, challenged European social organization by suggesting a radically different and superior alternative. Other social philosophers seized upon American Indians as living examples of Europe’s primordial past, which is what John Locke meant by the phrase “In the beginning, all the world was America.” Depending upon their political persuasion, some Europeans glorified American Indian nations as examples of simpler, better societies from which European civilization had devolved, while others maligned them as primitive and underdeveloped. In either case, from Montaigne, Montesquieu, and Rousseau down to Marx and Engels, European philosophers’ concepts of the good society were transformed by ideas from America. 82

America fascinated the masses as well as the elite. In The Tempest, Shakespeare noted this universal curiosity: “They will not give a doit to relieve a lambe beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian.” 83 Europe’s fascination with the Americas was directly responsible, in fact, for a rise in European self-consciousness. From the beginning America was perceived as an “opposite” to Europe in ways that even Africa never had been. In a sense, there was no “Europe” before 1492. People were simply Tuscan, French, and the like. Now Europeans began to see similarities among themselves, at least as contrasted with Native Americans. For that matter, there were no “white” people in Europe before 1492. With the transatlantic slave trade, first Indian, then African, Europeans increasingly saw “white” as a race and race as an important human characteristic. 84

Notes:

80 – Marcel Dunan, ed., Larousse Encyclopedia of Modern History (New York: Crescent, 1987), 40.
81 – Crosby, The Columbian Exchange, 11-12. See also Calder, Revolutionary Empire, 13-14; Dunan, ed., Larousse Encyclopedia of Modern History, 40, 67; Crone, Discovery of America, 184.
82 – Morgan, Nowhere Was Somewhere; Marble, Before Columbus, 73-75; Calder, Revolutionary Empire, 13. Lowes, Indian Giver, 82, regarding Montaigne. Also Sanders, Lost Tribes and Promised Lands, 208-9. The direct influence of the anthropologist L. H. Morgan on Marx and Engels is described by Bruce Johansen, Forgotten Founders: How the American Indian Helped Shape Democracy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Common Press, 1982), 122-23. Sale, The Conquest of Paradise. See also Crone, Discovery of America, 184.
83 – Quoted by Peter Farb, Man’s Rise to Civilization (New York: Avon, 1969), 296. The Tempest shows Shakespeare’s own fascination: he modeled its Native character, Caliban, after the Carib Indians, who were cannibals, according to what the Arawaks had told Columbus.
84 – For that matter, Europe isn’t a continent, unless the word is defined Eurocentrically! Europe is a peninsula; the division between Europe and Asia is arbitrary, unlike the divisions between other continents.

 

Radicals & Reformers of Indiana

As I’ve been doing genealogical work, I’ve also been thinking about my studies of history and generations. Part of my lineage is German. In the US, German culture and history hasn’t received fair and equal treatment. This is for many reasons.

The Germans were the enemies of the US earlier last century and at that time propaganda was at times intentionally used. After WWII, Germany was a pawn in the Cold War. Before either of the World Wars, there was much cultural diversity and tensions including that of Germans. The 19th century immigrants included a lot of religious radicals and political revolutionaries.

The Republican Party was, in fact, the beginning of a more mainstream version of left-wing politics with its connection to European socialists such as Marx. Some of the revolutionaries became politicians and generals, some even having fought in the Civil War. Some of the European revolutions in the early 19th century were partly inspired by the American Revolution, even seen as a continuation of it as envisioned by Thomas Paine. So, these revolutionaries came to America with this attitude.

I was thinking of this because of a specific fact I came across in my genealogical research. A number of generations of my family (Clouses and Hawks) lived at Spring Mill in Indiana near Mitchell (now a state park). Spring Mill had a distillery and some of my family were stillers there at different times. There was also a tavern and an inn. Since it was along a stage coach route, it attracted many important guests including politicians. What interested me, though, was this tid bit (The Village That Slept Awhile, p. 7): “Quite often, the intellectuals from Indiana’s famous experimental colony at New Harmony stopped at the tavern.”

When coming across that, it immediately perked my ears because I was familiar with the name of that utopian colony, although I had to research the details. It was first started by German pietists who had a radical vision of religion that was more similar to that of the Quakers, Shakers and Amish. They believed in living every aspect of life according to religious principles. The Harmonists decided to leave the area and so sold the community to a Welsh utopian thinker and social reformer, a socialist to be precise. This was circa 1824 and the community didn’t last many years, although its influence remained as it attracted some scientists to the area which might be why George Donaldson, an eccentric explorer, later lived in Spring Mill. It was around the 1820s and the decades following that a Wesley Clouse, possibly in my lineage, was the distiller.

Anyway, the area that attracted my family also attracted many radicals and reformers, intellectuals and eccentrics. The early 1800s was when my family was moving back and forth between Kentucky and Indiana, not fully settling in Indiana until maybe the second half of that century. It’s quite possible my family interacted with the various people who moved to the area to live in or near the utopian community, either in it’s guise as religious or socialist or even later on as a community of intellectuals and scientists.

Indiana today may seem like a conservative state, especially Southern Indiana, but it wasn’t always this way. There is a reason some of the most major union strikes happened in Indiana. There is also a reason that Indiana was founded as a non-slave state. Lincoln’s family moved to Indiana (where he was raised) partly because of the slavery issue and Indiana supported Lincoln in his election. Later on, Eugene V. Debs was born in Indiana and grew up to become one of the most influential socialists in US history, specifically during the Populist and Progressive eras. Debs was a high school drop out who first worked for the railroads which could describe some of my own working class family in Indiana.

If you want to know what is the Heartland of America, this is it: radicals, revolutionaries, abolitionists, free soil advocates, socialists, labor unionists, and on and on. Big business has gone a long way in destroying the radical heart of America, but it still beats. No amount of revisionist history can make this go away.

Revisionist right-wingers speak of assimilation and use it as a tool to attack anyone who isn’t like them. They romanticize about the so-called Melting Pot where everyone was equal. The only problem is that this is just propaganda. My family comes from Germans and history shows that German-Americans didn’t passively accept assimilation. They fought against assimilation even back in the 1800s. German immigrants (along with other ethnic immigrants) and their descendents did their best to maintain their own culture. In early America, the largest non-English speaking demographic was the German population. They often formed communities together, particularly in the Midwest, where they not unusually taught in German in their public schools (prior to the federal government later on in the 20th century forcing all public schools to teach in English).

(As a side note, I came across another interesting piece of info. I live in Iowa City. It has a large Czech population. My co-worker is part Czech and her family has been in the area for generations. She was looking at her grandmother’s cookbook which was recipes put together by a locla Czech Catholic church. A note in the cookbook mentions that the Czech Catholic church was built because the other nearby Catholic church had its service spoken in German. The Czech church was built in 1893. This demonstrates that cultural assimilation was limited in the 19th century.)

Germans were among the earliest immigrants. The German language was even considered as one possibility for the official state language in order to fully separate American society from British society. Germans have fought in all of America’s wars. Germans have shaped America as much as any other ethnic group, including the British. Presently, Germans are the largest ethnic demographic in the United States.

Much of the German-American side of my family are working class conservatives. Like most Americans, they probably don’t know much about the history of their own people or of their country. They might not even realize that the American working class wasn’t always conservative. When they think of socialists, they imagine people from far off lands, not in ‘conservative’ states like Indiana. Such conservatives have no pride in their history because they don’t know it.

 * * * *

As a note of explanation, my main point was simply that I’m annoyed with revisionist history. When I came across this interesting historical data, I felt a desire to share and yet I realized that my conservative parents wouldn’t necessarily share my excitement. My mom, in particular, has no interest in left-wing social reform, much less socialism. Her interest in family history is limited to family itself. That her German ancestors may have not been conservatives is of little relevance to her mind.

That is fair. I have no inclination to force my interests on the uninterested. My complaint is just the fact that my parents are mostly unaware of this history.

I’ve heard my dad argue the revisisiont history of cultural assimilation. It seems that most historical revisionism comes from the right. I find it annoying, but I don’t know who to blame. My dad is a smart and well educated conservative. Where did he learn this revisionist history? When he was a kid in 1950s Indiana public schools, were they teaching this revisionist history? When he went to conservative Purdue University, were they teaching this revisionist history? Or did he only learn this later from right-wing media such as Fox News?

Just thinking about all of this, I felt frustrated. If we as Americans don’t all share a basic knowledge of our own history, then how can we accomplish anything as a shared society? I’m fine with people having their own opinions, but opinions shouldn’t be allowed to replace facts. Why is this such a contentious issue? How can anyone honestly claim an opinon about history is equal to verified historical facts?

The United States is and always has been culturally diverse. You can like that fact or you can dislike it, but it doesn’t change its being a fact. If you question my claim of this being a fact, I would recommend the two following books:

Albion’s Seed by David Hackett Fischer

American Nations by Colin Woodard

After studying the facts, if someone still has some disagreements with my interpretations and conclusions, then I’d be more than happy to discuss the facts. But any such discussion should begin and end with the facts.

 * * * *

11/29/11 – Since writing this, my mind has returned to it. I feel like I was being too critical in my frustration. I said I didn’t know who to blame and I still don’t. It’s not any single person or group who is responsible and the problem is very complex. As I often contemplate, we all are to varying degrees ignorant. The Melting Pot myth is indeed revisionist history. There was of course assimilation but just not to the degree that some would like to believe. Then again, we all have our favored myths that blind us to other viewpoints, other understandings, other information.

This makes me wonder what lies or misinformation have I learned in my own education/indoctrination. When I’m older, what will some younger person complain about in reference to older people like me? What will seem obvious to future generations that isn’t so apparent at the moment? It’s always good to be wary of righteous judgment toward others. None of us are without failure of one sort or another. None of us sees the whole picture perfectly. Revisionist history is simply what people want to believe because it gives meaning to their lives and justifies the world as they wish it to be.

My main complaint is more of a personal issue. Studying my family’s German heritage, why shouldn’t I be proud to be part of an ethnic group that resisted assimilation for about a century or so? Considering this, why should anyone of Germanic descent feel arrogantly self-righteous toward other ethnicities who have been resistant or slow to assimilate? It took Germans at least a century to even begin to assimilate. So, let’s give these new immigrants a century to assimilate on their own terms. Assimilation is good when freely chosen but is a system of oppression when forced.