Lessons From Black Swans

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, March 18, 2020

We always learn something from black swan events, such as the 9/11 attacks and the 2008 financial collapse. First, we’re always shocked by changes that many predicted and see the obvious warnings in hindsight. With the current pandemic, we’re now realizing just how many books and movies imagined an event like this one, and we asked ourselves “Why weren’t we prepared?” There were those who warned us about terrorist attacks and economic bubbles but we didn’t listen to them either.

Basically, people are hopeful. Or at least, they need to turn a blind eye to fear of the future. After the black swan lands, we become so fearful of another similar landing that we become paranoid for decades. We’ve spent trillions on worrying about terrorism since 9/11, and whenever Wall Street got the sniffles we’ve freaked out worrying about another giant economic downturn. Singapore was better prepared for COVID-19 because it had already experienced a SARS outbreak. We do learn, it just takes a big kick in the head first. On the other hand, some groups like Boomers and the Faithful are still living in denial about the current black swan. And preppers are having a big “I told you so” moment.

It now looks like this pandemic will hurt more Americans than terrorisms and wars, and damage the economy far more than any shenanigans of big business. We hope the coronavirus will clear up in weeks, but it could change the country for decades, just like other black swans. Events like this pandemic will also identify the grasshoppers and ants in society. Aesop’s fable told us not to always party and put away for tomorrow. This plague is going to sicken more people financially than medically. Far from everyone heeded the advice to set aside six months of living expenses, but really, how many ever imagined they would be told to stay home for months? I expect the lessons learned from surviving this pandemic will affect how people live for decades to come. And that too could affect the long term economic outlook. And I bet getting vaccinated for everything offered will become a lot more popular.

You’d think we’d start learning how to handle black swans. We’ve known for a very long time that if some people eat bats in China or monkeys in Africa diseases that previously only existed in animal reservoirs would jump the dam to dwell in us. We’ve had decades of experience containing these pathogen breakouts, knocking them back, and knowing if we failed the disease would become part of our regular lives. Every year cold and flu viruses flare up and travel around the world because so viruses are entrenched in us. If we don’t contain the coronavirus it could house itself permanently in Homo sapiens and either become an annual flareup or a chronic problem like TB. We don’t know enough yet, to say which.

For the year 2017, the CDC said these were the leading causes of deaths in the U.S.:

  • Heart disease: 647,457
  • Cancer: 599,108
  • Accidents (unintentional injuries): 169,936
  • Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 160,201
  • Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 146,383
  • Alzheimer’s disease: 121,404
  • Diabetes: 83,564
  • Influenza and Pneumonia: 55,672
  • Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 50,633
  • Intentional self-harm (suicide): 47,173

If the coronavirus isn’t contained, and it looks like it won’t be, it could become another regular item on this list. The $64,000 question is where it will rank. Until we develop herd immunity and the experience of many years of living with mutated versions of the SARS/coronavirus, we won’t know. Eventually, it might become no more deadly than the other annual influenzas. But if it is truly ten times more deadly than the flu, it will come in at #3 behind heart disease and cancer. To handle that will require a complete transformation of our medical system. My guess is coronaviruses won’t be that deadly once humans develop natural and vaccinated immunities, but it will rank above Influenza and Pneumonia, or it will expand that category greatly.

What we have to do now is learn how to avoid COVID-19 until a vaccine can be developed. That means avoiding people for the next one to two years. I’m not sure we’re prepared to do that. But it also means learning to live in a new way — a much more germ conscious way. Should we allow so much airline travel if it confers such potential danger? So many economies depend on tourism. China has already announced bans on eating wild animals, but can they make hundreds of millions of people give up a multi-billion dollar industry that people have relished for centuries?

Can we invent personal bunny suits that protect us from diseases? Ones that are reusable, machine washable, and even fashionable? Can we invent vaccines that anticipate new diseases? Do we really need to congregate by the thousands? Will we just accept a certain level of death in society for the activities we love? We embrace cars knowing that 1.25 million people are killed by them every year — so maybe we’ll embrace gathering in sports arenas for ball games and rock concerts and just accept the related fatalities. Who knows what we will decide.

At first, I thought we were overreacting to the coronavirus. Everything is shutting down in my city which has only two infected people. I worried that thousands of people will be crushed financially. But the more I read about how European hospitals are being overrun by pandemic patients, and what it’s like to need a respirator to survive, that I now worry that we’re not panicking enough. I also assume if political leaders are freaked out enough to do all the things they are doing, then it’s probably going to be much worse than I feared. Political leaders aren’t known for quick action.

The die has been cast. Our society has committed to sheltering in place. Some people are thinking it will be for three weeks, but I don’t see how that’s possible. If the disease disappears with summer, I can see us getting a reprieve until next winter, but that means we need to hunker down for three months. Then we can run around for four months before taking shelter again. The goal is to wait it out until a vaccine is tested and distributed. Can we shelter in place for that long?

What if vaccines aren’t ready until Fall 2021? It means we have to learn a new way to live. How do we do our food shopping? How do people work and get paid? How do you go to the dentist or get your car repaired in the middle of a pandemic? If you need non-critical cataract or prostate surgery do you still go? It’s not going to be as bad as living through the Blitz in London or surviving Stalingrad, but it might be as challenging and inconvenient as living in America during WWII.

That’s the shocking thing about black swans — normalcy is suddenly disrupted — but we adapt. At least the people in history have. I’m already skilled at staying home for days at a time, so I don’t see learning to do it for weeks or months being a problem. But I do know most people might go crazy with cabin fever. And I worry about all my single friends. Sheltering at home for long periods by yourself might be deeply psychologically damaging. Many of my single friends also sneer at Facebook, but it might be a great social outlet during the plague months.

I’m lucky Susan moved back home last year after working a decade out of town. I’m also lucky that I have a wide-ranging set of internet friendships to keep me socially active. And I’m further lucky in that I have a long list of things I’ve been meaning to do. I generally ignore my to-do lists in favor of socializing, so maybe I’ll actually get some of the things done from those lists.

The most fascinating thing is we don’t know how this will change us. It’s another black swan about to land.

JWH

 

 

How To Prepare for the Pandemic

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, February 28, 2020

I’m getting more worried about the coming coronavirus pandemic and have been meditating on what we need to do. I’ve been doing a lot of reading and it looks like they won’t be able to contain it. It also looks like they won’t have a vaccine for another year or two. That means we have to dodge the disease, minimize the effects of getting infected, but ultimately be prepared by finding the best way to handle getting the infection.

The death rates for the coronavirus varies with age. It appears children under 10 aren’t usually dying, but older people are. The overall average for all infected people is 2-2.5 percent dying. That’s much higher than the annual flu but far less scary than things like Ebola. However, that rate rises to 8-10% for elderly people or people with compromised lungs. From what I’ve read, the disease is harder on men and smokers. Women have a more active immune system, but they are also more prone to autoimmune diseases. Smokers have compromised their lungs.

Most countries have been having people stay home in areas where they’ve found an infected individual. That works to a degree. However, the coronavirus can be infectious before symptoms show. Most people get a mild cold-like infection which tends to help spread the disease because people don’t think they are infected with the coronavirus.

I’m sure everyone knows about how not to spread germs – thoroughly washing hands, not touching your face, sneezing into your elbow, and staying away from other people. But if the pandemic arrives will we all stay home until it disappears? How long can you last in your house without needing to go out for supplies? How long can you not go to work?

Getting the virus probably means acquiring a natural immunity if you survive. However, there have been some rare reports of recovered people getting the disease again, or it flaring up for a second time. Now that’s scary.

Healthy people probably have much less to worry about. However, if you’re old, or have any kind of problems with your lungs, it’s time to worry. This population often ends up hospitalized. If you’re part of this group you need to make sure you can get emergency care quickly. But your first line of defense is to avoid getting infected until they come up with a vaccine. That means staying isolated when the infection hits your town. We also need to learn how to go to the hospital when we do think we’re infected.

There’s is hope the coronavirus will die down in the warm months like the flu, or even die out on its own. But if it spreads in the Southern hemisphere now that won’t be a good sign.

I’m hoping the people in charge of every nation will come up with practical solutions to keep people off the streets during breakouts. Fighting the pandemic will depend on both good government and good citizens. It might be possible to avoid getting infected with some proper planning now. Being able to stay at home for long periods will help a whole lot. Sequestering older folks away from younger people will be vital. This year might not be a good time to travel — unless you have a deserted hideaway in the mountains or the desert.

JWH

 

Thinking About the Future Without Making Resolutions

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, January 2, 2020

This year I didn’t even try to make New Year resolutions. I can’t make myself do things just because I think I should do them. I can’t lose weight. I can’t stop wasting time. I can’t be more productive. I can’t want to go to the gym. I can’t make myself write that science fiction novel. I can’t make myself be a better person.

I’m reading a depressing book for a book club, The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells. Even though Wallace-Wells claims to be optimistic we’ll deal with climate change his litany of statistics and predictions are soul-crushing. The world has clogged arteries, COPD, an A1C of 9.3, and is grossly overweight, but like me, it can’t stick to any New Year’s resolutions either. There’s no chance humanity will give up excessive eating, drinking, smoking, and start exercising.

Even though we’re on the Titanic and see the iceberg we can’t alter our course. Does that mean the future is set in stone? Is it hubris to think we can pilot our personal and collective destinies?

I spent a good bit of time last year trying to understand Republicans. We can’t make any decisions about the future if we’re polarized by two views of reality. I’ve concluded there is a total failure of communication between liberals and conservatives, and like New Year’s resolutions, I should give up trying.

Now, this might all sound like I’m depressed, but I’m not. Even though I’m an atheist, I’ve always loved the serenity prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

The trouble is I keep thinking I can change more than I can. I guess that’s why they say wisdom comes with old age because I’m starting to realize the difference.

What I love doing is reading. I love figuring out how things function. I will continue to do that. I can easily study how things work while giving up trying to make them work differently. I need to swim with the current rather than against it.

I can change little things in my own life, but I think I’ve finally found the wisdom to know I can’t understand, communicate, or influence Republicans, which means we can’t do anything about climate change. I give up. Climate change is theirs, they own it.

For the rest of my life, I’m going to feel like those strange visitors from the future in “Vintage Season” by C. L. Moore who came to watch a terrifying event in our present. Readers always wonder why those visitors from the future don’t alter our fate, but if you reread the story enough…

JWH

When The Future Has Become the Past

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Back in 1965, I read The Door Into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein. The story is about a guy named Dan Davis who invents a robot vacuum cleaner. The setting of the story begins in the year 1970 but the story itself was first published in F&SF in October 1956. So Heinlein was assuming a lot would happen in 14 years. Well, two things. One, household robots would appear in 1970, and cold sleep would be perfected so people could pay to be put into suspended animation. In 1965 when I read the book I thought both of these were still futuristic but hoped a lot would happen in five years. I wanted that future.

Not to spoil the story, but Dan decides to take cold sleep and wakes up in the year 2000 when his patents and investments should have grown into a magnificent pile of wealth. This lets Heinlein extrapolate and speculate even further into the future. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out as planned by Dan. In his future, Dan invents Drafting Dan hoping to make another fortune.

What’s funny is I read The Door Into Summer in 1965 when everything in the book was set in the future and I’ve lived long enough so that the book is now set in the past. That’s very science fictionally existential. Essentially Heinlein imagines the Roomba and Autocad back in 1956. And the 1959 Signet book cover artist imagines we’ll be wearing spandex and capes. And even though some people do wear such garb today, it’s not an accurate guess about average Americans in the future. Wouldn’t it have been hilarious if that artist had imagined everyone wearing hoodies, shorts, t-shirts, and flipflops?

I remember back in the 1960s having so much hope for the future. It’s mind-blowing to me that next week I’ll be living in the year 2020.

There’s one thing I’ve learned from experience – the future is everything I never imagined. It’s almost as if I imagine something being possible that the act of thinking it cancels out the possibility.

There is no predicting the future. Science fiction writers never claim to have crystal balls, but sometimes they accidentally get things a tiny bit right. People are always thrilled at that. But imagine if Robert A. Heinlein had written a novel that perfectly captured the Donald Trump years and published it back in 1965. How would readers have reacted? Could they have believed it? Most people would have just brushed it off as crazy science fiction.

RAH-Future-History-chart

However, back in the early 1940s, Heinlein imagined the United States going through what he called the “Crazy Years” and later on experiencing religious fanaticism that leads to a theocracy. Quite often in the 1950s science fiction writers imagined the United States falling apart because of religious revivals convincing people to reject science. Doesn’t produce a tiny bit woo-woo soundtrack in your head?

Science fiction is never right about the future, but sometimes it feels a little eerie. Just enough to hear The Twilight Zone music. In 2019 I’ve been reading a lot of science fiction from the 1940s and 1950s. Those stories had a lot of hopes and fears about the future, a future that is now my past. That’s very weird. But it’s also strange how often they get just a little bit right. Just enough to put a little zing into the story.

By the way, The Door Into Summer is an entertaining novel I recommend and features a wonderful cat character, Pete, short for Petronius the Arbiter. Heinlein loved cats, so do I. Here’s how he said he got the idea for writing the story:

When we were living in Colorado there was snowfall. Our cat — I'm a cat man — wanted to get out of the house so I opened a door for him but he wouldn't leave. Just kept on crying. He'd seen snow before and I couldn't understand it. I kept opening other doors for him and he still wouldn't leave. Then Ginny said, 'Oh, he's looking for a door into summer.' I threw up my hands, told her not to say another word, and wrote the novel The Door Into Summer in 13 days.

And here is a 1958 ad for the book that is fun to read today when we can look back to when they were looking forward.

Door Into Summer ad page 1

Door Into Summer ad page 2

Yeah, I know it’s bizarre that I’m recommending you read a book set in the past that was supposed to be our future. However, it still features the sturdy standbys of storytelling, love, betrayal, greed, revenge, and of course, a cat.

Merry Christmas — JWH

Playing Fair in the Game of Life

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, November 15, 2019

Imagine a poker game with one person winning every pot. Eventually, all the players but that one winner will become tapped out unless someone else starts winning. This is a good analogy for wealth inequality.

The challenge to the 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls is making rule changes to the game we all play. Warren and Sanders want to make drastic changes to the rules to quickly make our society fairer to all, but that scares both the conservatives and the older well-to-do liberals. Biden promises to just tweak the rules a bit which enrages the extreme liberals who want significant change sooner.

We’re all playing this game of economic life whether we realize it or not, even when we think we’re not participating. Our economy is a game that everyone plays and the rules are decided by politics, laws, and voting. We like to think we’re a democracy and we all decide how the game is played but that’s not true. The winners of the game keep altering the rules so they can keep winning.

What would society be like if the game was played fair? What if everyone had an equal say in making the rules of the game, how would society differ from how we play the game now? Would wealth start circulating amongst all the players? Or will the winners refuse to ever change the rules? Maybe losers don’t want to change the rules either. Maybe they hope to be winners someday? How many players have to be wiped out before they realize their true odds of becoming a winner?

Right now a majority of our citizens believe everyone should work to make a living, and if you fail you should suffer the consequences. If you doubt this read “The American Right: It’s Deep Story” by Arlie Russell Hochschild. Hochschild had come up with a little story she tells people that’s a Rorschach test for conservative thinking. Read it to see how you react, then read her article for how she interprets your reaction.

You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line leading up a hill, as in a pilgrimage. Others besides you seem like you – white, older, Christian, predominantly male. Just over the brow of the hill is the American Dream, the goal of everyone in line. Then, look! Suddenly you see people cutting in line ahead of you! As they cut in, you seem to be being moved back. How can they just do that? Who are they?

Many are black. Through federal affirmative action plans, they are given preference for places in colleges and universities, apprenticeships, jobs, welfare payments, and free lunch programs. Others are cutting ahead too – uppity women seeking formerly all-male jobs, immigrants, refugees, and an expanding number of high-earning public sector workers, paid with your tax dollars. Where will it end?

As you wait in this unmoving line, you’re asked to feel sorry for them all. People complain: Racism, Discrimination, Sexism. You hear stories of oppressed blacks, dominated women, weary immigrants, closeted gays, desperate refugees. But at some point, you say to yourself, you have to close the borders to human sympathy – especially if there are some among them who might bring harm.

You’re a compassionate person. But now you’ve been asked to extend your sympathy to all the people who have cut in front of you. You’ve suffered a good deal yourself, but you aren’t complaining about it or asking for help, you’re proud to say. You believe in equal rights. But how about your own rights? Don’t they count too? It’s unfair.

Then you see a black president with the middle name Hussein, waving to the line cutters. He’s on their side, not yours. He’s their president, not yours. And isn’t he a line-cutter too? How could the son of a struggling single mother pay for Columbia and Harvard? Maybe something has gone on in secret. And aren’t the president and his liberal backers using your money to help themselves? You want to turn off the machine – the federal government – which he and liberals are using to push you back in line.

Strangers in Their Own LandTo go deeper into what Hochschild is revealing with her “Deep Story” test, read her book Strangers in Their Own Land. She finds that conservatives identify with this story. In past decades I’ve known many conservatives that have told me variations of this story. But their resentments and prejudices keep us from making society fair. What I find ironic is many of the people who resonate with Hochschild’s Deep Story claim to be Christians, but isn’t her story an anti-Gospel?

We don’t have to examine the whole economic system to see how it’s unfair. Just look at companies like Amazon and Uber as samples. A few people in each company make billions while most workers barely make a living, yet each company would collapse without the low-paid participants in their shared game. Why do thousands of employees have to work their asses off so one guy gets rich enough to have his own space program? Why do Uber drivers put in all the millage but don’t get their fair share of the fares? Why is Trump so desperate to keep his tax returns secret? Is it because he doesn’t want us suckers to know he’s rich without paying his fair share of taxes?

What if labor got a fairer share of the rewards of our economic game? Somehow we’ve decided the owners of a company deserve more money than the people who punch the clock. Is that how we really want to play the game? Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders want to make the game fairer by taxing the winners and use the government to redistribute the winnings. This is one way, but is it the only way, or the best way?

If you don’t understand the long history of capital v. labor I highly recommend reading Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty. Before the industrial revolution wealth was mostly in owning land, and the landowners used slaves, serfs, peasants, and tenant farmers to make themselves wealthy. When industrialization came along those with capital shifted to owning businesses and letting labor do all the work to make them wealthy.

The reason why capital has always been at war with labor is capital didn’t want to share the rewards of the game. They have always fought unions because of greed. They have always embraced automation because of greed. If they could completely eliminate labor they would. Just see how hard Uber wants to develop self-driving cars, or Amazon to add robotic book pickers. If we extrapolate these trends into the future we’ll have a game with very few winners owning a lot of robots and mostly jobless losers.

Our present economic system is rigged to produce fewer winners. We think because unemployment is low most people are still in the game. But is that really true? The economy doesn’t have a finite pot of money, wealth is always being created. But it appears the 1% are acquiring all the old wealth and new wealth at an increasing speed. Liberals have a history of creating safety nets to keep players in the game. Conservatives even begrudge this level of wealth redistribution. If Warren or Sanders is going to win in 2020 they need to convince a vast majority of players there’s a genuine need to redefine the rules to keep the game from collapsing.

Capital needs consumers with money to spend. That means labor must stay in the game. That’s why we’re hearing talk of guaranteed incomes. If the rich aren’t willing to share their wealth now I doubt they will in this future scheme. This means the present game will end when the very few have corned all the chips and the economy falls apart.

Capital is against universal healthcare because they profit from limited healthcare. Republicans and conservatives are passionately fighting any changes to the game. They see any proposal to redistribute wealth as an attack on the existing game rules that favor them winning. Is there a way to change the game to be fairer to everyone that doesn’t involve redistributing the wealth?

Can the 99% create their own wealth without interfering with the 1%? I recently read an article that said the lower 50% has already been drained by the 1% and now they are working to drain the other 49% percent. Wealth transfer to the wealthier even effects millionaires. For Bill Gates to have $100,000,000,000 means 100,000 people aren’t millionaires. And for every 1,000 billionaires, we don’t have a 1,000,000 millionaires.

How can Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk have their own space programs? How many underpaid workers does that take to build that science-fictional dream? Is the game really fair when some winners in society can afford to play NASA and millions of losers are without homes? Even if we rationalize losers don’t deserve anything because they don’t work, does anyone in our rich society deserve to have so little? Bezos and Musk cannot have their space programs without the whole society supporting them.

Isn’t what we want is a fair society that rewards hard work but is passionate toward those who can’t compete? Don’t we also want a society that is ecologically friendly and sustainable? How do we change the rules to get that if the greedy want to keep playing the existing game?

The game requires everyone to play, even when they don’t work or vote. I’m sure conservatives would love to ship off all the unemployable to another country. A certain percentage of the active economy generates wealth by taking care of people who can’t. If they didn’t exist, these caretakers would be out of a job too. We’d have to exile them. But then that would put more people out of work. See the snowball growing? All activity in the economy goes into generating the total wealth of the economy. And yes, building private space programs do create jobs, but how much more economic activity would our economy have if average workers were paid more?

I’m not saying billionaires shouldn’t have their rewards, but couldn’t the rewards of a successful company be spread around fairly? Why do the owners and shareholders get all the profits? Because labor has always been the target of cost reduction. It’s so ingrained that it’s a religion with business. But if the wealthy don’t want to have their taxes raised they should consider raising the wages of their employees so society won’t have to raise taxes on the rich to help the poor.

The trouble is people who have gained seldom want to give back. Of sure, they become famous philanthropists, but that’s not really giving, is it? It’s just another expression of being a winner.

I don’t know why I keep writing these essays. Striving to describe how things work does not change anything. I’ve been reading about Plato lately. He had lots of insights into how things work. And over the centuries society has changed. That’s hopeful. Everyone has way more than what everyone once had. Besides more material wealth, we have more peace and personal health than our ancestors.

Yet there is still so much poverty and sickness in our world today. Can’t we change the rules of the game to help them? Aren’t there more billionaires today because there are more workers getting ahead? Wouldn’t universal healthcare stimulate the overall economy? Would giving the homeless homes stimulate the economy? Doesn’t raising the living standards for the 99%, create more wealth for the 1% to chase?

I see the 2020 election as a referendum. It’s not really about Trump, he’s only the face of greed. Voting for Trump is a vote for maintaining the plutocracy. Voting for a democrat will be a vote to change the rules.

JWH

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Predicting the Future: 2065

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 25, 2019

This week’s NOVA “Look Who’s Driving” is about self-driving cars. Most people are scared of the idea of getting into a car and letting it drive. I know I am, and I’m a science fiction fan. Just think about it for a moment. Doesn’t it feel super eerie? On the other hand, what if they could actually make driverless cars 100% safe? I’m getting old and realize at a certain point it will be dangerous for me and others if I keep driving. A driverless car would be perfect for older folks, and by 2065 there will be a lot of old folks. And in the documentary, they mentioned that driverless cars should mean fewer cars and they showed aerial views of how cars cover our city landscapes now. Imagine a world with far fewer cars and parking lots. That would be nice too.

I’m sure folks in the late 19th century felt scared of the idea of giving up horses and switching to motor vehicles. And can you imagine how people felt about flying when aviation was first predicted for the future? Perfect driverless car safety has almost been achieved in ten years, so imagine how reliable it will be in another ten years.

I’m working on a science fiction short story that’s set in 2065 and trying to imagine what life might be like then. I assume war and poverty will still be with us, but there will be as much change between now and 2065 as there was from 1965 and now. I have to assume driverless cars will transform our society.

We feel dazzled by progress. And we feel it’s accelerating.  But can inventors keep giving us gadgets that transform our society every five years? Smartphones and social media aren’t new anymore. Self-driving cars should become common by the late 2020s and they should shake up the way we live. But will people accept robotic chauffeurs? This year we’re freaking out over the Boeing 737 Max 8 having flaky computers. However, what if the safety of AI cars, trucks, planes, ships, and trains becomes so overwhelmingly evident that we turn over all the driving over to robots? Can we say no to such a future?

What about other uses of robots? If we keep automating at the same pace we’re on now, by 2065 will anyone have a job? Should my story imagine a work-free society, or will we pass laws to preserve some jobs for humans? What kinds of jobs should we protect and which should be given to robots? We usually assume boring and dangerous jobs should go to machines, and the creative work should be kept for us. But what if robotic doctors were cheaper, safer, and gave us longer lives? What if it reduced city budgets and provided greater public safety to have robotic cops and firemen? And would you rather send your children off to war or robots? What if the choice is between paying a $1000 robot lawyer or a $1,000,000 to human lawyers in a big case?

What if by 2035 we have general-purpose robots that are smarter than humans but not sentient? Would you rather buy a robot for your business than hire a human? And if robots become sentient, can we own them? Wouldn’t that be slavery? I’m reading The Complete Robot by Isaac Asimov, and he spent his entire writing career imagining all the possibilities robots could create. Sadly, I think Asimov mainly guessed wrong. I believe science fiction has lots of room to reimagine what robots will do to our society.

Generally, when we think of science fictional futures, we think of space travel. Will we have colonies on the Moon and Mars by 2065? I’ve been waiting for 50 years for us to go to Mars. I’m not optimistic that more years will get us there. I predict there will be another Moon rush, with several nations separately, or cooperatively setting up Lunar bases like the scientific stations that exist in Antarctica. Beyond that, I bet robots will become the main astronauts that explore the solar system.

I can imagine robots with high-definition eyes tramping all over the various planets, planetoids, moons, asteroids, and comets sending us back fantastic VR experiences. But how many humans will actually want to spend years in space, living in tin cans that are incredibly complicated machines designed to keep them alive, but with one teeny-tiny failure, vacuum, radiation, cold, or heat will horribly kill them? We’ve been without a dryer for three weeks because my new dryer died after three months and so far no one can fix it. Isn’t space travel safer and cheaper for robots? Space is a perfect environment for machines.

If robots become the preferred solution for all jobs, what will humans do? I have to believe capitalism as we know it won’t exist. What if robots are so productive they can generate wealth for everyone?

Then there’s climate change. Will we solve that problem? I bet we won’t. It would require human psychology to change too much. I must assume people will not change, so I have to predict a future where we’re consuming the Earth resources at the same accelerating rate we are now and polluting at the same rates too. We’ll probably get more efficient at using those resources and find better solutions for hiding our garbage — probably due to robots. We’ll have a lot more people, far fewer wild animals and cars, and a growing overpopulation of robots. Although, I think there might be room to predict a back-to-nature movement where some people choose to live close to the land, while others become even more hive-mind urban cyborgs. A significant portion of the population might even reject robots and automation.

That means by 2065 we might have a two-tier society. Liberals living in high-tech robotic cities, while conservatives live in rural areas and small towns with far less technology. That might make an interesting story. What if the future becomes those who ride in driverless cars and those who reject cars altogether? (If robots become 100% safe drivers, would it be practically to allow human drivers?) Could new kinds of rural economies develop that shun technology? I wonder this because I wonder if a robotic society will make some people back-to-nature Luddites. And I don’t mean that term that critically. Back-to-nature might be more ethical, more rewarding, and more human.

If you think this is all wild crazy ideas, try to comprehend how much we’ve changed in the last half-century. In the 1960s people looking for work found two categories: Men Wanted and Women Wanted. Women weren’t allowed to do most jobs, and many of them stayed at home. Think about how much we changed in just this one way. Then multiply it by all the ways we’ve changed. Is it so wild to imagine driverless cars and robotic doctors?

JWH

 

 

Book Shopping in the 21st Century

by James Wallace Harris, September 22, 2019

It’s early Sunday morning. My wife isn’t up. The stores are closed. And I’m book shopping. I just bought Those Idiots From Earth by Richard Wilson, an author I don’t even remember. I just loved the cover and title. Book shopping is so different from how it was back in the ancient times of the 20th century.

In the 21st century, I perused thousands of booksellers from around the globe in a fraction of a second. From the time I decided I wanted this book till the time I pressed the order button was about 25 seconds. Of course, I’ll have to wait several days for Mr. Wilson’s collection of SF stories to show up in my mailbox.

Maybe I should jump back before I even knew about Those Idiots From Earth. I’m in a Facebook group The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction of the Year created by Paul Fraser. It’s devoted to collections and anthologies of science fiction short stories. I hadn’t posted in a while, so I wanted to find a unique old science fiction anthology that had a cool cover. I was using the Internet Science Fiction Database and searching on anthologies edited by Groff Conklin. Several of his paperbacks had cover art by Richard Powers, a favorite artist of mine. I then clicked over to look at books with covers by Powers. That’s when I noticed Those Idiots From Earth. Checking Richard Wilson’s entry showed a few novels and a lot of short stories. He was a writer I don’t remember at all. If you follow those links you’ll see just how truly useful ISFDB.org is for book shoppers.

Once I saw that cover and title I was intrigued. I’ve owned hundreds of science fiction magazines, so I’m sure I’ve seen the name before, and maybe even read a story of Wilson’s. I just didn’t recall anything this morning. So I got on Google and found a review of the collection by Joe. He gave four stories 5-stars, and the rest either 4-stars or 4.5-stars. I’ve never read any reviews by Joe before, but he did make Wilson’s stories sound like something I wanted to read. I love finding new SF authors with a different slant.

I wanted to test read the title story, but it was never published in a magazine. Luckily, the first 5-star story, “The Inhabited” was in the January 1953 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. I checked my collection of Galaxy but didn’t have that copy. But I do have a complete run of the magazine on digital scans. You can read the story on the Internet Archive.

The Inhabited by Richard Wilson

“The Inhabited” is about an alien mind coming to Earth to scout out our planet. Are we worth invading? The alien mind occupies a cat, two men, a boy, and a pregnant woman before ending up in the mind of an insane man. The alien ends up confessing to a psychiatrist. It’s a neat little story. I decided I wanted Those Idiots From Earth and went to ABEbooks.com and ordered a copy. The original paperback was in fine condition and cost $4 (plus $4 shipping).

It took me a pleasurable ten minutes to find out about the book, but only about 25 seconds to find and buy it on ABEbooks. I’m hoping you’re getting the power of the internet for 21st-century book shoppers. ABEbooks claims it has thousands of booksellers in 50 countries selling millions of books. There were three copies available from all those locations. Now that’s efficient book browsing!

I remember the first bookstore I went to back in 1964. It was a little hole-in-the-wall shop in a strip mall in Perrine, Florida. The shop was dark and dusty. I was twelve. It was before I earned my own money. Back then a used paperback was a nickel or a dime – candy money. I had no idea what I was buying, but it was exciting. I knew I loved science fiction, and I’d buy books based on how cool their covers looked.

As I got older I would go all over town looking through old book shops. Whenever I visited another town, I’d look up their used bookstores. There were books I searched for years in several states and cities before finding them. The hunt for a book used to be quite thrilling. Then in my late teens, I learned how to use mailorder rare book dealers, which had its own kind of fun. I could almost always get my book, but sometimes it took years. There were some books I never found until the internet and ABEbooks.

In the 21st-century it’s much easier to track down a used book, but not quite as fun. Without the internet though, I would never have heard of Those Idiots From Earth. I often surprise my friends when they mention a book they’ve been searching for years and I find it in minutes.

I sometimes wish the internet had never been invented. I’m not sure if living in the hive mind of social media is healthy. Nor do I love keeping up with data overload. It does let me find the few people that share my exact interests. But then I have those highly specialized interests because of the internet. I remember when there were only three TV channels, Top 40 radio, and the science fiction section was two shelves of books at the new bookstore. At school, we all talked about the same movies, television shows, and songs. Nowadays every friend seems to have their own favorite show, so there’s less sharing, even though on social media what we do is called sharing.

The internet lets me get up on a Sunday morning and search through millions of books in thousands of booksellers from around the planet in a matter of seconds. That’s pretty damn far out. It’s not the same as riding my bike down to an old shop and spending an hour looking through stacks of unordered SF titles trying to find just the right books to get the most for my quarter.

The times keep changing. I can’t imagine how we can go any faster. Maybe I should wonder how to go slower?

JWH