The Future of My Trick or Treaters

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 31, 2014

Tonight while I sat near my front door waiting for the kids to come begging for candy I read The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. This is a very slight book, only 105 pages, that costs $6.31 for the Kindle edition. I read it so fast that I felt it should be priced like a Kindle Single, probably at $1.99. However, what it has to say should make you do at least $6.31 worth of thinking. If I reread it several times I’ll probably get a hundred bucks worth of thoughts out of it because it does present a tremendous amount information to think about. It condenses many heavy-duty ideas into powerful phrases and concepts.


Oreskes and Conway are known for their brilliant Merchants of Doubt which explains how conservative politics corrupts science to achieve its goals. Their new book is a kind of science fiction story, set in 2393 and told from a future Chinese historian about how the failure to heed science’s warnings led to The Great Collapse of 2093. It accuses science and scientists of being too timid in it’s statements about climate change.

As I frequently got up from six o’clock to nine, to give handfuls of candy to little kids in their Halloween costumes, I imagined their futures. Many will live to see 2093. If Oreskes and Conway are right, they will see more upheaval and misery than we saw in the 20th century. The Collapse of Western Civilization is the scariest horror book I’ve ever read on Halloween. It’s too bad I couldn’t have filled their sacks with science books, instead of sugary addictions.

Oreskes’ and Conway’s main points boldly states our political ideology and economic theories are outdated for dealing with climate change and the current mass extinction. We are doomed, we know how and why, and we choose to do nothing about it. Human life will not come to an end, but the effects of carbon pollution will be devastating.

Climate change deniers shout that science hasn’t offered enough proof is ridiculous. Oreskes and Conway claim science has the proof, and accuse scientists of being too timid to promote their results. The authors assert that scientists feel that unless they have 95 percent testable certainty they shouldn’t speak out. But if you were told you had a 10 percent change to contracting Ebola you’d panic. The collective results about climate change is often 95-100%, and yet we ignore it. If you were told going to a shopping mall or flying in an airplane involved a 1% chance of catching Ebola you wouldn’t go. Yet, science is confidently saying our children have a 95-100% chance of having a catastrophic future and we ignore it.

After reading The Collapse of Western Civilization I started The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2014. Reading the introduction to the collected essays I knew if I took the time I could list 1,000 examples of how climate change is impacting us now. One of the first essays I read was how animals species all over the world are mixing with their cousins to produce hybrid species because of changing habitats caused by climate change. This is not new or unnatural, but the frequency is. One example they give is the mating of grizzly bears with polar bears. I could probably list 1,000 different hybrids to get to my 1,000 example count, or I could use it as just 1 of 1,000 and still find 999 articles about other specific examples of climate change happening now.

It is insane to deny climate change. To promote ones self-interest over the future of mankind is a crime against humanity. The Republican Party has a good chance of taking back the Senate in this week’s mid-term election. Their political religion is the exact wrong solution for saving the Earth. But Obama and the Democrats have done nothing significant to help either. The free hand of capitalism will always ignore the future. Choosing a smaller government and deregulation is sticking our heads in the sand and our asses up in the air. The trouble is every citizen of this country, of this world, must change the way they live. We need to go cold turkey on our wasteful way of living.


How Science Fiction’s Futures Changes For Every Generation

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, October 23, 2014

If you are old, has the future you imagined in childhood unfolded during your life? If you’re young, what do you hope to see happen in your lifetime?

I grew up in the 1960s with my visions of the future inspired by 1950s science fiction. Flying cars were not what I hoped for, but evidently many people from my generation expected them and are disappointed we aren’t living in a Buck Rogers future. No, what I expected to see as I grew old was the colonization of the Moon and Mars, and the manned exploration of the solar system. I wasn’t optimistic enough to expect Star Trek like interstellar travel in my lifetime, but I assumed it would arrive after I died. It’s so disappointing to spend a lifetime watching humans never leave orbit. What are we waiting for?

I did expect large flat screen televisions, and they did come to pass. Didn’t see the internet coming even though I was majoring in computer programming in 1971, nor did I imagine smartphones. I guess I lacked the imagination, but so did everyone else it seems. I’m also disappointed we don’t have intelligent robots, or sentient AI machines. After space travel, robots were the biggest tech breakthrough that 1950s SF promised.

Although I hoped we’d have visitors from other star systems I never really thought it would actually happen. I did think we’d make SETI contact by now.

Contemporary science fiction often feels obsessed with apocalyptic visions of the future, and we had those too when I was growing up. But kids today seemed enchanted by future teens fighting oppressive dystopian governments. I can dig that, back in the sixties challenging authority was very popular. I guess blows against the empire never go out of vogue.

Which brings me to Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer, a science fiction anthology of positive science fiction. It was inspired by the essay “Innovation Starvation” by Neal Stephenson, at the World Policy Institute, in which Stephenson proposes, The Hieroglyph Theory,

Good SF supplies a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place. A good SF universe has a coherence and internal logic that makes sense to scientists and engineers. Examples include Isaac Asimov’s robots, Robert Heinlein’s rocket ships, and William Gibson’s cyberspace. As Jim Karkanias of Microsoft Research puts it, such icons serve as hieroglyphs—simple, recognizable symbols on whose significance everyone agrees.


The list of stories can be found here, with links to discussion and research.

The Hieroglyph anthology offers strangely different visions of the future than the ones I grew up with, and sadly, I don’t find these new futurist vistas all that appealing. Many of these futures seem to come out of Wired Magazine. In the introduction we’re told that young people today are all too often embracing a dystopian science fiction view of tomorrow, and that science fiction writers should offer a positive alternative. I think that’s missing the point of those YA stories, which are exciting adventure stories symbolizing growing up, and not visions of tomorrow.

Actually, the opposite of dystopian is utopian, and none of these tales in Hieroglyph are about perfect societies. I think everyone has gotten over the naive notion that the future will bring us peace and happiness. The real question is can the future always offer us more sense of wonder? This might reveal my jadedness, but this anthology doesn’t show me it will.

Although I’m embarrassed to admit this, I’m nostalgic for my old futures. Hieroglyph seems more inspired by 3D printers, the internet, giant towers that climb into space, mining the asteroids, social media possibilities, smartphone apps that make us empathetic, etc. Many of the stories are quite engaging as stories, but they aren’t inspiring like the science fiction I grew up with. Now that will be an unfair criticism if young readers do find a sense of wonder in them.

It might be because I’m 62, and these stories lack a sense of wonder to someone with so little future.  Yet, even if I don’t have much of a future, I’m not sure I’d want to live to see these futures come to be? I’d love to know if kids 12 or 22 reading these tales do find them wondrous?

There are millions of people around the world still hoping to build interplanetary colonies and conquer the final frontier, but there are billions of people on Earth that don’t see that future anymore, or maybe never did. Anyone who has embraced science more than science fiction knows faster-than-light travel is about as realistic as time travel, and that living on the Moon or Mars will be closer to cruel and unusual punishment than finding greener pastures to homestead.

Many of the stories in Hieroglyph did capture the struggle of humans surviving. They are  more grown-up than the fictional adventures I took in my teens. I did love Vandana Singh’s “Entanglement.” It was about technology being used to increase empathy. So does “Elephant Angels” by Brenda Cooper.  “By the Time We Get to Arizona” by Madeline Ashby seems far more savvy about the grit of the future, and the misuse of technology. And Karl Schroeder’s story, “Degrees of Freedom” suggests that there are new frontiers of democracy for us to explore. The stories of billionaires conquering outer space didn’t impress me. And although I loved the character development of Cory Doctorow’s “The Man Who Sold The Moon” a great deal, 3D printing leaves me limp. Bruce Sterling’s story about a man and his horse got me until it became science fiction.

All to often the best science fiction is about being human, and not spacemen, even when the characters live in outer space.

Overall, I’m left with the impression that the women writers in Hieroglyph have thought more about how technology could be good for us than the men. Now that I’m living in my childhood future, I imagine a much different future that might come to be after I ceased to be. It’s not about space adventures but solving our problems, both as individuals and as a species. It’s like an old man I saw in a documentary when he said, “If you’re the problem, and you go somewhere else, you’re still the problem.”


Is There A Tech Solution To Solving All Crime?

Imagine if a tiny device was implanted in every human at birth that reported its identity and location to a central network.  How could criminals get away with crime if we knew who was near anyone when they were assaulted, kidnapped, raped or murdered?  If you wanted to snuff out your mortal enemy you’d have to wait until many people were near your victim and then hope to prove it wasn’t you, or kill at a distance.  Such a device would aid law enforcement to solve most crimes, probably deter most criminals, and make mystery novels very hard to write.  It would also make it hard to rob banks, burglarize houses, commit arson, steal cars, etc.


And what if everyone also had an embedded device, like a tiny third eye, that videotaped everything they did – so we’d have almost perfect evidence of people’s actions and who was doing what to them.  All crime would have to be committed by drones and robots.  Any science fiction writers reading this? Here’s a free idea for a futuristic whodunit.

I’m not sure if we’d ever accept such technology.  We abhor crime, but crave privacy.  Yet, as more people fear crime, it pushes them to embrace more technology to fight crime.  The gun has always been the great equalizer, allowing the meek to fight the mighty.  Surveillance cameras now spy on the sneaky.  Alarm systems warn us of home invasions.  We’re constantly applying technology to solving crime.  Would people vote for universal system of identity and location?  I’m sure parents would consider it essential to track their kids – probably there’s nothing more gut wrenching than missing children.  But would you give up your privacy to deter violent crime?

I’m sure we could come up with controls so adults could still sneak around on their spouses, and kids could have some freedom to do things without their parents knowing.  We could make laws so the device couldn’t be used unless their was a crime.  I think many people would love such technology, but I can’t help feeling that it would terrorize a large segment of the population.  It smacks too much of Big Brother and 666.

JWH – 9/19/14

If You Are Old, What Would You Tell The Young?

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” – Alan Kay

“It’s easier to invent the future than to predict it.” – rephrased by Jeff Bezos

“Study new inventions to anticipate the future.” – me

Teens aren’t open to advice from people other than their peers, but if I could influence them of anything, it would be to read nonfiction books about emerging trends that aren’t required reading in school, and think up their own advice.  We burden the young by making them catch-up on all the knowledge of the past, but I think their education needs to be more present and future oriented.  These are books young people could read that might give them an edge.  For example, I wished I had read and understood The Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell when I was in elementary school – although that wish would require a time machine, but if I had only known about early discipline, practice and mentors I would have had more success in life.

the outliers   

No one can predict the future, but many try.  According to Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee in their book The Second Machine Age we are on the cusp of new age of economic activity, but they are warning that society is going to radically change.  Like I said, people can’t predict the future, but we can study trends, both past and present, and generate something akin to a weather forecast.   What Brynjolfsson and McAfee are saying is the industrial revolution kick-started the biggest change in human history by machines giving us vastly multiplied muscle power.  They feel a second machine age is emerging because humans now have vastly multiplied brain power.

the second machine age

Unfortunately this will put a lot of humans out of work.  The industrial age transformed human society, and the second machine age will transform the world again, with even greater impact than the first machine age.  What Brynjolfsson and McAfee write about is how to prepare for that change.  This is going to be painful.  Like global warming and wealth inequality, most of what economists and futurists are saying about the future is bleak.  I heard the same bleak forecasts over fifty years ago when I was growing up when I read The Population Bomb, The Limits of Growth and Future Shock.  We can look back on those books and see the future became far brighter than what those writers imagined – yet they weren’t wrong either.

People don’t usually like getting advice, especially teenagers, but if you’re going to spend the first third of your life on education, and tens of thousands of dollars on college, it might be wise to consider some future trends.  More than ever “what will I be when I grow up” could be taking a very long trip down a dead-end path.  Evidently, there is no job that can’t be automated.

Humans can’t compete with machines, but they can coexist with them.  We could choose not to deploy machines, but that seldom happens.  If there’s money to be made, we never interfere with progress.  We will need to rethink capitalism and democracy.  People might nitpick Capital in the Twenty-First Century, but overall, Piketty’s data shows obvious trends.  The implications of this book go way beyond brilliance.  We can no longer support an economic and political system that rewards few winners and expects billions of losers to take care of themselves.


“Plastics” -  The Graduate (1967)

At one point in the film The Graduate, an old man advises the young college graduate, Dustin Hoffman, about the future with one word:  “Plastics.”  If I was to whisper one word to young people today it would be “Statistics.”  I was only so-so at math, and that held me back from my ambitions, and the branch of mathematics that I think is the most useful today for understanding the world, science, technology and change is statistics.  Science really is a statistical analysis of reality.  Understanding the rapidly unfolding events here on Earth requires a second language to comprehend, and that is statistics.

the black swan

In The Black Swan:  The Impact of the Highly Improbable the 2007 book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains partially why I whisper “statistics.”  Taleb explains how we constantly fool ourselves about reality by being hard-wired to create “the narrative fallacy” which is the system that we bullshit ourselves into believing all kinds of crap about reality, and constantly deceive ourselves about the future.  What current science is teaching us is we’re not who we think we are.  That our conscious awareness is only a small part of the whole of our mind, which leads me to the next book to read, Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.  Kahneman is a professor of psychology who won a Nobel Prize in Economics for this work.  That little fact should tell you a lot right there.

Thinking fast and slow

These books, The Outliers, The Second Machine Age, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, The Black Swan and Thinking Fast and Slow are just some of the books I’d recommend that savvy young people to read if they really wanted to prepare themselves for the future.  I’ve listed them here in the order of how hard they are to read and understand.

JWH – 8/29/14

If You Could Time Travel to 1950 Could You Tell People What 2014 Is Like?

Over the the Classic Science Fiction Book Club Dwight proposed the following fascinating question:

If, somehow, you were confronted with a resident of 1950. (USA, large city). He/she would be a college grad working in a mid level management job. He/she would have a layman’s understanding of the state of science in 1950.

You have been given the task of explaining the present to this person. What do you think the hardest thing (Technological, social, political, and or environmental) would be to explain?

Explain, if you would, your assumptions as to the state of knowledge and experience that an adult might have had in 1950. Would you difficult items be different with a man or woman? Would race or religion matter? Would where they lived be an issue? Would their political/religious background be an issue as to what they would find hardest to accept/understand?

I find this to be a very clever question to stir up the book club discussion.  1950 is a very good year to choose too.  It’s before science fiction kicked in big time, but after WWII and the atomic bombs.  It was also after the 1939 World’s Fair where futurism  made a big splash and got people thinking about the world of tomorrow.  Having someone show up from the future would be understandable to them, although I doubt they would believe any time traveler without some substantial proof.


What if Klaatu had landed in Washington in his flying saucer, but it wasn’t from space, but a time machine.  The Day the Earth Stood Still came out 9/28/51, so it’s around Dwight’s target date.  Dwight imagined you or I magically talking to a person from 1950, but I’m not sure he figured out how that might happen.  If you were just dropped into the past, and could only verbally describe the future, I’m not sure anyone would believe you.

Let’s imagine on 1/1/1950 a big flying saucer lands in Washington DC and out pops a 2014 person.  They announce that they’ve come in peace to warn Earth about the future.  That inside the saucer  are twelve theaters, each showing a TV network in sync with one in 2014—CBS, NBC, ABC, PBS, HBO, CNN, FOX News, Discovery Science, MTV, HGTV, MSNBC, and Al Jazeera.  To make this equal to other cultures and languages, other flying saucers show up in their capitals with cable channels from their part of the world.  The time travelers tells each host site that the machine will be there for one year and the government can allow whoever they want to view the screens.  I think this is a sufficient scenario to assure that 1950 people will believe what they see.  Remember Klaatu’s ultimatum?  Our time travelers could give a similar warning.  They could say humans are consuming the Earth, destroying the environment, killing off all the other life forms, and dooming life on Earth.  They can brag that personal freedoms have never been more widespread and many have found material wealth, but we don’t know how live disciplined lives, and we’re breaking down into more and more polarized factions.

Now the big question is:  How will they react?  Will the white people of the United States believe there is a black President in 2014?  What will they think of women’s behavior, gay marriage and legalized drugs?  Could they even comprehend personal computers, the Internet and smart phones?  If they caught episodes of Breaking Bad, Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory, Shameless, etc. could they even understand the shows without freaking out?  What would they think of the nudity, bad language and ultra-violence in entertainment?  What about the music, visual art, computer animation, etc.?  What would they think of the rise of Geek culture?  Or the sexual revolution and The Pill?

Would they hate the future?  Or would they be dazzled.  Would they see the future as an extrapolation of the present, or a total surprise?

And what would they think about global warming?  Or the war on terrorism?  Or the rise of religious right.  The motto “In God We Trust” wasn’t adopted until 1956, and didn’t show up on paper money until 1957, or coins until 1964.  Would they even understand ecology and environmentalism?  Jim Crow and sodomy laws were the norm back then, as were all kinds of censorship.  If they watched Two Broke Girls or The View, or read an issue of Cosmopolitan would they be baffled by the change in women?  Would the women of 1950 cheer?  What would they think of food ads, and news stories about obesity?  Would they admire the science and technology, or fear it?  Would they get excited about all the new kinds of sports?  Would they be outraged by women’s fashions and surprised that men’s suits don’t look that much different?  Would they be amazed by our houses and how big they are compared to 1950’s houses.

Would they take notes about the destruction of the environment and enact laws to avert global warming?  Would they stop the invention of junk food?  Would they reign in the misuse of antibiotics?  2014 TV shows should show them how we evolved, but also show all the mistakes and suffering we went through to gain whatever wisdom we do have.  Could people from 1950 absorb the wisdom without paying the price of suffering?

This is a fascinating idea.  But it’s a fantasy.  What if we could see 64 years into the future, what would we do?  How many science fiction stories written before 1950 prepared the world of 1950 for our times?  Is there a chance that modern science fiction writers can prepare us for the year 2078?  Is that expecting too much?

JWH – 5/22/14

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