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January 13th, 2012

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02:51 am - Musings on the Future
I recently read Charles Stross' musing on 2032 and 2092. I found the ideas for 2032 both likely and fairly optimistic. It's obvious that we're going to be surprised by events 20 years in the future. In 1992, many people understood that cellphones would be ubiquitous in the 2012 developed world, but I'm guessing almost no one knew that most of the people on the planet would have cellphones or that many of them would have access to the internet. I was also interested in various comments I've seen both directly to this post and elsewhere. A great many people either seem to find Stross' ideas too optimistic or assume that the actual results will be fairly dire.

When thinking about this post, I was struck by the following passage by Walter Jon Williams blogging about writing his cyberpunk novel Hardwired in 1983, when cyberpunk was new
My new editor was Harriet McDougal, with whom I got along very well indeed.... I really sold the hell out of that book. She was dubious about buying a bleak, near-future dystopia, but agreed to look at the proposal.
The last sentence is a sadly laughable statement when viewed from a modern perspective. Anyone who even remotely keeps up with modern SF has seen that bleak near-future dystopias are one of the largest and most popular genres of modern SF.

I think that much of what is going on is that our dreams of the future are finally coming true and they scare lots of people. Most people have cellphones, we have computers winning Jeopardy, self-driving cars that work on commercial roadways, and I (and many other people) now use a robot to do my vacuuming. However, all of these come with unintended consequences. In the 1970s, the US switched from an economy where most people worked in manufacturing to where most people worked in offices. Even ignoring global outsourcing, advances in computers and software mean that the future of work is going to be very different from the present, and honestly none of us can say how different. I think it's now far easier to imagine a bleak dystopia than what's more likely to occur, because we know what ruined or oppressive dystopias look like, we have absolutely no idea what a world that has about as much good and bad as ours but has 20 more years of scientific and technological advancements will look like. For at least the last 50 years, we never have, but I think this fact is far clearer.

Also, much SF is written and read in the US, and it's now quite clear that in 20 years the US will no longer be a lone superpower and no more than a decade or two after that will be a second or third tier nation that has been surpassed by the new superpowers of the day. Lacking anything remotely resembling patriotism, I celebrate this idea, both because I hope the US will become more sane if it's clearly not a leading nation, and also because I doubt any other major nations will do any worse on the world stage than the US has.

In any case, these sorts of technological, social, and political changes clearly scare a lot of people. I'm both fascinated and hopeful, but also recognize that there's going to be both good and bad. On the positive side, the global middle class is growing rapidly, and tyrants in the developing are being overthrown as I write. I look at 2012 compared to say 1982 or 1992, and the good clearly outweighs the bad by a large amount, but there's going to be both in 2032.
Current Mood: contemplativecontemplative

(5 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:January 14th, 2012 05:23 am (UTC)
The US probably reached its peak of relative power around 1945, and has been declining ever since.

The mid 60s to the early 70s were the height of US economic power, and that power had a serious global impact.

I'm not sure the US is a lone superpower, because I think there need to be at least two superpowers -- so each can offer to defend other nation-states against the other.

From around 1990 until somewhere in the early-mid 00s, there was nothing else that could be called a superpower. China is arguably one now, but it certainly wasn't one in 1998.

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