By Apuleius Charlton
Special guest blogger
I am not an O/optimist and I can't relate to a lot of this chapter. Before Wilson, one of my august teachers was Voltaire, who envisioned a better world but didn't trust mankind's baser instincts to make it so. That old attitude has set deep within my bones. I have noted, along with other writers, that part of what makes reading this book bittersweet is that many of its predictions are incorrect, and that is more glaringly clear in this chapter than any other we've covered in recent memory.
Two parts stood out to me in particular. Let me begin with: "The average Man or Woman of 1997 will be as obsolete in 2007 as a medieval serf is now." We could get into the ways that this prediction is both true and untrue, but I don't think there was as much difference between the world of 1997 and 2007 as there would be if we compared 2007 and 2017. While we could measure some advances in automation and technology between the late nineties and the later aughts, I am more interested in cultural differences.
I have been saying this since 2016 or so; while a time traveler from 2007 to 1997 could relate information that would make sense in the context of that past, a time traveler from 2017 to 2007 would have a much harder time communicating how life has changed in the intervening decade. The world began to vaporize somewhere around Obama's second term. Everything began changing so rapidly that previously unthinkable movements became reality which became policy. Threats thought long dead reared their ugly heads, flinging the bilge of our culture's undertow over witnesses. Concepts which would have been laughable in the late-twentieth or in the dawning of the twenty-first became deadly serious. The world is changing.
That isn't anything new, but it is changing at such an ungainly pace that, even if it is for the best, it resembles nothing so much more as festering and collapse. Towards the end of his essay "Is It O.K. to Be a Luddite?," Thomas Pynchon states: "It may be only a new form of the perennial Luddite ambivalence about machines, or it may be that the deepest Luddite hope of miracle has now come to reside in the computer's ability to get the right data to those whom the data will do the most good. With the proper deployment of budget and computer time, we will cure cancer, save ourselves from nuclear extinction, grow food for everybody, detoxify the results of industrial greed gone berserk -- realize all the wistful pipe dreams of our days." I disagree violently with the prediction that our information technology has allowed "the right data to those whom the data will do the most good," because so far it simply isn't true. Desirable progress is still achingly slow, useful technology and resources hoarded and mismanaged by fools and foes of the rest of the race (the so-called "wealthy" and "powerful" in case I'm not clear) and moreover, the Internet has allowed the wrong data to get to the wrong people. Perhaps this is just my pessimism and these are but the birth pangs of a new and better era; after all, I think most historians would point out that periods of transition are characterized by chaos and destabilization. But we aren't stabilizing.
Things are demonstrably worse in the United States since the beginning of 2022 e.v.; we have witnessed the unfathomable rise of evangelical fascism in America, which shows no signs of deceleration, and while we suffer from the very clear and present dangers of global warming, nothing (or not enough which is about as useful) is being done to mitigate it and reform the power structures that have allowed this issue, and again I say this issue of clear and present danger, to become seemingly intractable. The foundations of our society are being mangled and perverted in front of our eyes and it seems to this observer that we are powerless. The group of powerful people who are supposed to act as a counterspell to this tide of pro-stupidity and maliciousness are hobbled by their own investments in this rotting haul and are usually busy dithering over issues that couldn't be less important. Perhaps the world where progress was supposed to happen also depended on realizing that old paradigms cannot stay in place, and we have failed to act on that in a meaningful way.
And this brings me to the second passage, where Bob heaps a little scorn on my attitude from beyond the grave: "Our human world is so information-rich (coherent) that it is almost certain to 'collapse' into even higher coherence, not into chaos and self-destruction," and further "A note to confirmed pessimists: Prigogine's analysis is based on probability-theory and, hence, is not certain. Thus, if you have found these lyrical pages unduly alarming, take comfort in the thought that, although human success is highly probable, there is still a small chance that we can blow ourselves up or that your favorite apocalyptic scenarios might still occur, despite the general trend toward higher coherence and higher intelligence." And here I sit, unconvinced of any "higher coherence" emerging recently and thus condemned as a foul, brooding pessimist whose dearest wish is the fulfillment of my dire prophecies. Alas.
If you go onto the Internet, check out our modern forums of social gathering, look at the pages of the our newscorps and how they can't agree on foundational facts (also, what is considered a news source), see what good higher education is doing for most people and believe that this is "coherence," well...I might be able to interest you in joining a great business opportunity, so please get in touch and grab that checkbook!
I'm more than willing to hope and trust that there is a probability that humanity will strive on as we always have and that tomorrow will be better than today...I'm just not counting on it anytime within the next decade(s). Progress is neither inexorable, nor is it inevitable. Human culture, government and economics are not evolutionary processes, no matter how much we project that onto those structures. Please world, prove me wrong.