Science fiction isn't really science fiction at all. It's future fiction. Except when it's alternate history, but let's park that one. And there's far more that defines the future than science. Unless you count social science as science. Which I don't.
Not that I'm saying the social sciences aren't relevant. They're central to this argument. Science is just the T in a PESTLE
analysis, but a good strong cup of T at that. Two sugars, and make the spoon stand up.
What the future looks like depends as much, if not more, on the values we adopt and how we organise ourselves. Not just on when (when?!) somebody will finally get around to inventing hoverboots.
Recently, Bernie Sanders has been getting himself in hot water suggesting the state should ensure all Americans have jobs at $15 an hour
. It makes a lot of sense, unless you happen to be numerate. And think about it. There's no way that the plan could work
; indeed, by stifling productivity it's destined to make us all poorer.
But the criticism only makes sense if your paradigm is that economic, and therefore social, progress is defined by making the world more efficient, producing more with less, and that, on balance, makes life better.
Well, duh, I hear a lot of you say. A lot? Okay, everybody.
But consider this: surely progress has to mean things getting better for all, not just the lucky winners? If we're born with nothing and die with nothing, just surely it would be better to try to fill in the brief gap in the middle with lives that hold autonomy, mastery and purpose
I know the arguments. One man on a combine brings in hundreds of times more grain than an army in a field with scythes. It makes my cornflakes cheaper. It makes everything cheaper. And don't forget the people designing and making the combines, the supply chain that supports. If we reverted to blacksmiths making hand tools then China or Korea or someplace else would fill the gap and provide the world with the combines it wants.
And China or Korea or someplace else would give the world the cheap cornflakes it needs, because it would still be using combines.
And we haven't even got on to agrochemicals increasing yields so that rich white people don't need to starve.
The trouble is that, whilst the man on the combine or the people designing and building it are now highly skilled, highly paid professionals, the descendants on the army of scythe-wielding oiks are now on sofas consuming corn oil in various forms, watching TV. Their lives are empty, devoid of prospects, devoid of a meaningful future. So empty that occasionally they find the scythes at the back of the wardrobe and riot. (Can I find a way of dropping in Eric Hobsbawm
's phrase 'collective bargaining by riot
' - not sure how... oh, I already seem to have done so).
It strikes me that in our calculations we don't give enough weight to the social costs of progress. Not just the health costs of corn oil and cleaning up after the scythe-wielding riot or turning people to terrorism as a last resort, but the value of autonomy, mastery and purpose for each and every individual. Those things are not easy to measure, not like EBITA
I think there's a yawning chasm between those popping out for a latte around Silicon Roundabout
before brainstorming the monetisation of the gamification of healthcare, and those sleeping rough on real roundabouts, and no matter how much life gets better for the former, arguing that life has got better overall starts to sound churlish.
And, yes, I know that there are innumerable academic studies that are trying to analyse just those things, but I'm talking about a Kuhnian paradigm shift
towards us as individuals judging whether a change is welcome based on how it affects everybody. A shift towards a utilitarian hive mentality. In each of us. Which means changing how we view the world. Like, say, waiting fifteen minutes more for the taxi with a human driver than the driverless Uber. (Oh, I think I may have lost your sympathy there...)
Maybe, just maybe, the industrial revolution was the fresh faced child's watered down wine that turned out out be the gateway drug to us sleeping in doorways drinking something blue out of a paper bag whilst shouting at strangers. Metaphorically, of course, although literally for some of us.
It's no coincidence that I'm blogging this during Mental Health Awareness Week
; that guy in the combine, the one dong the job of a hundred with hand tools, chances are that he's leading a life of quiet desperation. Our wonderful workplace tools that allow us to never go home seem to be sucking away the balance of human happiness. Would he have been happier in a field with a scythe and a hundred fellows? Discuss.
I'm not advocating full fat Luddite extremism. I'm not going to smash the combines, nor pretend that they were never invented. We have to find a middle route. We don't need to get rid of healthcare and energy from renewables and life's luxuries. Mao's collectivisation
of the farms didn't work; I'm not suggesting it did.
I see a lot of science fiction that subscribes to the dystopian terminal of the journey we're on - I caught up with Elysium
the other week, which has a starving, sprawling human population, but also has humans building the robots, which struck me as naive - but very little with a Utopian world where we're happily scything away. Perhaps that's just what's needed.
At the same time as these thoughts have been flitting through my mind, I've been hearing the idea that our economy has evolved from agrarian to industrial to knowledge, and the next step is creative
. Sounds wonderful, but also sounds like so much more winner-takes-all economics, where the second best struggles to raise its head above EL James
and Dan Brown
(did I say best? I meant most popular). For my part, I'll be combing these two ideas by employing a couple of dozen locals to illuminate manuscripts of my next story rather than sending them out electronically.