By L. Neil Smith
Exclusive to Freedom's Phoenix Magazine
Over the last couple of centuries, science fiction writers have acquired something of a reputation for making predictions about the future that can be startlingly accurate, but just as often ludicrously inaccurate.
Thanks to the Internet and Skype, for example, we finally got the videophones we were supposed to have back in the 1970s. But for the most part, in everyday life, people don't like them, because who wants to shave, change his t-shirt, take her hair out of curlers (do women still use curlers?) and straighten up the living room just to order a pizza?
Being a duly-certified science fiction writer myself, I guess I could predict an alternative: an interactive cartoon version of you, woven from your real CCTV image and fancy software, that nods and shrugs and moves its mouth when you do. People would see that instead of you (while you look at interactive cartoons of them), tidied up and smartly dressed, sitting in a cartoon room straight out of House Beautiful.
That's pretty much the way it works, at least for this science fiction writer. Keep in mind, none of us are oracles, soothsayers, or prophets. I seldom start out deliberately to make predictions. Armed with whatever knowledge of history and human nature I have managed to collect, I look at the world around me. People need things; people want things; people do things. They succeed or fail. If I were more cynical, my predictions might be gloomier, or I could go the other way.
I'm probably best known for three predictions I've made in my novels, the first being the then-imminent collapse of the Soviet empire. I made it because, as the son of a Cold War military man, I knew Marxist civilization was essentially a fraud. During the Berlin Airlift (look it up) they'd lined the corridor to West Berlin with tanks that bobbed in the prop-wash of aircraft passing overhead. They counted parts in storage (tanks again, and other things) as completed war machinery, and untrained men to whom they'd issued military overcoats as soldiers. Interestingly, Robert Heinlein reported at the same time that Moscow only had about one tenth of its advertised population.
The last nail was driven into the Marxist coffin when I learned that Soviet scientists were forbidden, for reasons of security, to communicate freely with one another. They could only find out what was going on by visiting with one another during scientific conferences in other countries. Science, for civilizations if not for individuals, consists of little else besides communication. I knew the Reds were doomed.
Since U.S. science has been subject to increasingly severe limits of the same kind since 9/11, unless we change things, we've had it, too.
My first novel, The Probability Broach (which I began writing on a typewriter -- how quaint! -- in 1977), predicted the Internet as we now know it, and associated technology such as the device Star Trek later called the PADD, the wireless keyboard, wall-sized monitors, and computer-aided forensics that we didn't begin to see elsewhere until the advent of CSI. I was able to do it, not because I'm Karnak the Magnificent, but because my characters needed stuff like that to solve their problems -- and I thought it would be nifty to redecorate a room at the touch of a button. Today, on your screen, they even call it "wallpaper".
One regret is that, in the late 60s, in a series of short stories rejected by every SF magazine of the day until the manuscripts were destroyed in a flood in 1997, I predicted the rise of .40 caliber handguns. It was easy: ballistically, I knew "the lines all crossed" at that point, where a handgun would offer optimal stopping power in exchange for pressure and recoil. Today, most cops and many civilians carry auto pistols (something else I predicted) and most of them are .40s.
Another regret: in Forge of the Elders, I predicted that, just As the rest of the world was shrugging Marxism off, intellectuals and politicians in America would embrace it and pull the rest of the world down the communist rat-hole again. I was right -- that's what the entire Obama regime is about -- but I may have been wrong about its tenacity. Events in the year 2012 will probably settle the question forever.
Now, as Holmes observed to Watson, instead of being astounded by my wonderful powers of prognostication, you may just yawn and say, "How elementary". But let's risk it, and together see what we can see looming ahead in the murky future. The principal feature of our age -- unprecedented in over eight thousand years of human history -- is the end of the Age of Authority, brought about by the rise of lateral communications.
At one time -- for most of the period that humans have been around -- the communications that brought order to society, and made history actually happen, were imperatives, strictly vertical and operating in only one direction, downward. The perfect example is the church bell, institutional, cumbersome, expensive, and extremely low bandwidth, capable only of saying, "Come now! Do what you've been conditioned to do!"
Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson identified the phenomenon guaranteeing that vertical communications only go in one direction. They called it the "SNAFU Principle", which mandates that bad news never travels upward in a bureaucracy, and that excrement only travels downstream.
Although they didn't say "excrement".
The history of communications in general has been one of greater bandwidth, falling costs, increasing portability, and passage from the hands of power into the hands of the people. Think of feature motion pictures, which began as silent black-and-white presentations which could only be seen in an auditorium, and can now be watched in the palm of your hand in full color, stereo, and, more and more, in three dimensions.
But there's more than entertainment involved. At this point -- in a startling variety of ways -- I can speak personally with virtually any individual on the planet, and even to a small handful in orbit. The material, technical barriers are all gone. All that remain are the "gatekeepers".
Because, more and more, all of the truly important communications are lateral, between everyday, ordinary individuals (and vertical communications are increasingly disregarded as annoying and pointless) more and more of those everyday, ordinary individuals understand what their rights are and where they come from; more and more of those everyday, ordinary individuals understand how the political system actually works (or consistently fails to); more and more of those everyday, ordinary individuals understand how the financial system works, and whom it was designed to enrich and at whose involuntary expense.
What were once regarded as great and august public figures are now seen clearly as what they've been all along, petty, grasping, crooked, and perverted little men and women, little more than moral and mental midgets.
Those who have derived their wealth and power from institutions of authority are going to have to learn -- for the sake of their own survival -- that you can't make hamburger back into a steer, you can't uncook the soup, and you can't cram the genie back into the bottle. Human civilization is undergoing what might be termed a "quantum change".
What does all of this tell us about the future? The first thing, in the light of history and human nature -- what Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe called our "intelligence guided by experience" -- is that some fools will attempt to hold onto what they've got and resist the change.
A perfect example is Arizona Senator John McCain, whose tiny mind and shriveled soul force him to protect the old, vertical way of doing things. His latest folly is a law that -- blatantly violating the Bill of Rights -- will declare all of America a battlefield, and give the military the power to arrest and molest civilians pretty much as it likes.
The lateral way will find a way to fight back. It will be revealed that McCain's record as a prisoner-of-war in Vietnam is less heroic and exemplary than was previously advertised. The men he served with are growing older now, closer to death, and have less reason every day to keep their secrets from the Internet. Ultimately, McCain will be exposed -- and hauled from his office in a straitjacket, gibbering and screaming.
A good friend just suggested today that neither party really wants the Presidency, along with the blame for what they think the nation will have to go through to survive and recover. Accordingly, they're likely to let someone like Ron Paul have the White House. They believe he'll be destroyed by their mishandling of the economy he'll inherit. (Newt Gingrich would probably suit them better, but the more the public sees of him the more obvious it becomes what a fascist idiot he is.)
The bad guys won't realize their mistake until it's too late. Elvis Costello will play "Peace, Love, and Understanding" at the Inaugural Ball.
Meanwhile, Barack and Michelle Obama will seek a kind of stylish exile in Europe -- where they'll be celebrated everywhere as martyrs -- the way that New York mayor Jimmy Walker and his girlfriend did, back in the 1930s, and if we're lucky, Bill and Hillary will go with them.
America's historically unprecedented degrees of peace, freedom, progress, and prosperity are all rooted inextricably in individual liberty, an outlook on life and society that the rest of the world still doesn't comprehend. A quarter of a century ago, I declared that Japan -- with no tradition of individualism -- offered no real threat to our economy or sovereignty. For exactly the same reason, neither does China today. And already, the rapidly-rising world of Islamic fundamentalism has reached the top of its historic curve and begun to decline.
To those who worry that the Soviets didn't really collapse, or that Putin's somehow going to put it back together, I say that all the fundamentals that spelled their demise are still in place, unlikely to change.
Don't save your Marxie Cups, boys, the USSR isn't going to rise again.