There Are Some Things You Can’t Change
It’s the New Year again, well, almost. You can’t begrudge me a couple of days late (I had to do a bit of research for this one). 2015 is opening up in front of us like the maw of a giant sarlacc that WILL swallow us all whether we want it to or not.
And, with 2015, we’re looking down the barrel at things that you can’t change.
The biggest possible “we” there is. All of the human race. As a species, we’re like a BASE jumper that’s just taken his first half-step off of Half Dome and having that moment of “maybe I shouldn’t” just after it’s too late to do anything about it. We’re committed to the ride we signed up for–and that means there are some things we can’t change anymore.
We’ve had moments like this before. Once upon a time, one of the quadrupedal fish that crawled out of the pond to find food or escape from being food actually decided to make a habit of it, and found it could survive better on land. From that point forward, the land–every square inch of it, everywhere–was going to be populated. Nothing within the control of those creatures (or their descendants) could change that, ever. No matter what happens, until the universe takes this planet out, there will be life on the land. The era of empty land was over.
In 1492 when Columbus hit the Americas, he wasn’t the first European to do so. There is good reason to suspect that Romans had once maintained some kind of trade relationship with Brazil, and the Vikings tried several times to settle the East Coast of North America. However, each of these contacts, however solid, was lost as either the Americans got rid of the invaders (in the case of the Vikings) or the alien culture declined to the point where it was unable or unwilling to bear the risk of pan-Atlantic travel (in the case of the Romans). Columbus did not discover America, at least not in the traditional sense. What he did do was come back to America for good. The moment the boots of his rag-tag crew of refugees set foot in San Salvador, there was no going back. It changed the diets of every person on the planet, it changed the disease burden of every person on the planet, and it meant that there would never again be a time when goods and people did not cross the Atlantic regularly and in large numbers. The old world, at that point, was over (even in the “new world”).
Whether good or bad (almost always they’re a mix of both), change like that happens because something fundamental has shifted underneath the surface when the world wasn’t looking. That fundamental thing could be the ability to metabolize free oxygen, or it could be a collision with an alien world.
So, to kick your New Year off with a bang, here are ten things that are over, that we can’t change anymore:
- Indigenous tribes are over
The one item on the list that gets me a little misty, because I have deep family history in working with indigenous peoples in South America. Those of you who care about this one need to (either personally or by proxy) get their stories, their traditions, and their languages written down and documented as soon as possible. Stragglers aside, indigenous tribes’ traditional way of life is 20-60 years from gone forever. The few stragglers that will remain aren’t going to be good sources of information–they will have the same relationship to their culture of origin that hillbillies have to ancestral Scottish folk culture.
- “Manufacturing” is over
Not that things won’t still be manufactured, or that making things won’t continue to be a big deal, because it will. It’s that manufacturing as a major labor sink is over. Even now, a factory that, ten years ago, would have taken over a thousand people to run now takes a tenth of that>. That curve is steepening.
The necessity and rationale of factories in general is also changing irrevocably–a significant chunk of the consumer goods sector is already over-the-tipping-point to shift towards print-at-home. The ISS is already printing its own spare parts and tools from emailed CAD files. Because of this technology, vast swaths of the market in solid-state consumer goods will shift online.
The kinds of things that we used to need factories for, we just don’t need factories for anymore.
It’s only a matter of time, now, before desktop manufacturing does to the consumer goods industries what desktop publishing is currently doing to the printing and publishing industries.
- “Corporations” are over
Don’t mistake me, I don’t mean that there won’t be any corporations. I mean that the notion of the all-powerful corporation that lasts for decades and weilds immense power is an artifact of a 20th century reality. Once upon a time, a well-run Fortune 500 corporation could expect to survive about 68 years. Now, a good run is fifteen. Sure, there are outliers that manage to last a long time, but those are few, far between, and uniquely vulnerable to the kinds of disruption that are fast-becoming a permenant fixture in the 21st century economy–and, even in the third world, children at science fairs now have the tools (literally) to disrupt, derail, dematerialize, and demonetize entire industries. And they’re using them.
- Mass culture is over
This one really is over, not just soon-to-be-gone. The common currency of a cultural background is now a historical relic. At this point, it’s almost facile to point out, but it has a few interesting implications. For example, the kinds of moral crusades precipitated by moral panics throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries are increasingly less successful. As hysteria rises, access to information that counters the hysteria rises too. The net result is that the high tide mark of the fevered pitch is smaller. Media and cultural bubbles are more insular, but they’re also smaller. The culture beneath is fracturing, becoming less tolerant, but also more individualized and tailorable. Whatever happens from here, one thing is beyond dispute: There will never again be a common, ubiquitous culture shared by almost everyone in a given country.
- Disability is over
Cybernetic implants, artificial limbs, printable organs, regenerative medicine, and 3D printing all mean an end to disabilities from amputation to deafness to blindness to ALS. Even dogs are getting in on the action. All of these technologies are now in human trials, and their applications are only just being explored–some of them can rebuild you from the ground up with new parts grown from samples of your own skin cells (so starting the process is as simple as a handshake), while others can already give you replacement parts better than the real thing (so much so that the Olympics is already having trouble deciding whether or not to allow disabled atheletes, on the grounds that they have an unfair advantage over atheletes who have only their own meat to work with.
All of these technologies are now past the tipping point and far too late to prevent mass adoption, even if that were desirable–they are embedded in a web of other interrelated technologies that our civilization already depends upon for its survival (such as computers, agriculture, and sensor tech).
- Scarcity is over
The brute fact that there isn’t enough of anything for everyone to have as much as they want is the baseline condition of all life on earth. Scarcity is one of the two blades of the natural selection knife (the other is variety). But scarcity, it turns out, is not a brute fact of nature. It is a contingent fact of nature.
In the 20th century, we learned that all matter and energy are changable, sustainable, and made up of the same particles, prompting one particular science-fictional prophet to declare “Wherever there is power and mass to manipulate, man can live.” (Robert A. Heinlein, The Rolling Stones, 1952).
In the 21st century, we’ve learned how to realize that proposition. We now make plastics, medicines, flavorings, and fuels from artificially-engineered yeasts instead of from petroleum, plants, animal organs, and hydrocarbons. This revolution has been underway for a while now–but it’s now on your store shelves, in your food, and in your medicine. This is the first wave of a series of waves built up by the interaction of a number of technologies mentioned in this article.
In the early 21st century, we heard a lot about resource wars–water wars, peak-oil wars, famine wars, rare-earth wars–all sorts of wars were about to doom us all to a depth of conflict and misery unheard-of in modern history.
Now, none of those are even a remote danger. The other looming resource crises (peak phosphorous, for example) no longer look like crises–they’re just engineering challenges.
And the fundamentals are such that this will remain the case even if the worst climactic scenarios prove accurate.
- Royalty is over–so is dictatorship
Feudalism–at least in its most primitive form of the reigning warlord in a tribe–might seem like the natural condition of the human race. It is, after all, the same social arrangement we see in almost all social mammals in the natural world.
But, like all socio-political structures, this arrangement is an adaptation to other realities (aggression of neighborhoods, scarcity of resources, etc.)–and involves its own set of tradeoffs that are a good deal in one set of circumstances and a bad deal in others.
Kings have been going out of fashion for a while, because maintaining a monarchy and aristocracy is very difficult at the best of times. It’s not a stable system of government even when it’s the best one available to manage and distribute scarce resources.
This one’s been in progress for a while, but the end of royalty planet-wide is now well within sight. Hereditary entitlement is not compatible with open markets, free speech, and a flattish social structure, and those three things are now sensible concepts in corners of the world where it was previously thought impossible.
There’s a lot of fear in some quarters and a lot of hope in others that we might be on the cusp of a resurgence of hereditary aristocracy, if not monarchy–rising inequality within nations over the last decade make such fears seem reasonable. But plausible is not reasonable, and intergenerational economic mobility remains at or near long-term highs, throughout the developed world.
It may take another century or so, but monarchy is already on
history’s dust heap–and dictatorship with it. Aristocracy may persist for a while yet, but it, too, is on its way out. The social forces that make all of these arrangements desirable, and the tools that make them sustainable (such as secrecy, truly privileged access, control over communications, unassailable firepower, and hidden leverage) simply do not exist anymore.
- Representative Democracy is over
Representative democracy exists because there was no way to measure the will of the people when kings started to go out of fashion. It’s a compromise between the ideal of self-government and the unruliness of horse-and-cart based travel over vast distances.
Today, it persists (where it persists) because it’s proved more robust than monarchy–more adaptable to change. But the underlying rationale for representative government is already obsolete. It’s only a matter of time before the institutions that once made it adaptable make it brittle instead. Large storms take a long time to turn, and a modern bureaucratic state is large indeed.
But, like large storms, when they turn they have a tendency to carve an entirely novel and unforseeable path through the landscape. Whatever it is we come up with next, it will leave a mark on history as large and profound as did monarchy and representative democracy. Whether we do it well remains an open question.
- Privacy is over
Privacy, as we understand it, is an historical aberration. It’s a byproduct of the anonymity created by industrial civilization. When everyone goes to work in gray flannel armor, drives the same cars, rides the same trains, lives in the same houses, it’s easy to get lost in the crowd. Movement in the industrial world is fast enough to get away from home, but slow enough that home can’t catch up to you. Information moves fast enough to unite a continent, but slow enough to allow authorities to censor things it finds offensive or inconvenient.
The uniformity of tastes and lifestyles, coupled with the just-right speed of thought, creates shadows in which those with power, however meager, can hide their sins.
But when information moves faster and breeds faster, when people become less regimented, when individuals can distinguish themselves and be seen doing it–when the cameras are smaller than a human eye, the microphones are smaller than a tic-tac, and the databases add more information year-over-year than the human race, as a whole, generated in its entire history up to the year 2009, containment is no longer an option.
Everyone has X-ray vision available to them (literally). Everyone has the access to more and better information that President Reagan used to play brinksmanship games with the USSR (literally). Everyone has the ability to eavesdrop covertly, on a level that would make the Stasi drool (literally).
And all the secrets we spend our lives protecting, and the laws and agencies and tradecrafts and cultures we built around that central concern–those are all over too. It is now only a matter of time–it is no longer avoidable. If the most powerful governments and corporations in the world can no longer keep their own secrets (and they can’t), how can you?
Of course, this highlights a theme on this list. Culture is the human response to environment (that environment includes history, economics, nature, other humans, disease, etc.), and the culture that you know is changing more profoundly than did European culture during the Renaissance and Age of Exploration, more profoundly than did Chinese culture after the Qing dynasty re-opened the ports, and more profoundly than did Australian Aboriginal culture with the arrival of the English on their shores. The unique cultures created by people with disabilities, kings, democracies, worker’s unions, tribal life, farms, and subsistence-threatening poverty are all ending–and there is nothing any of us can do to change that. What we can do is record what was, and delve deep into the creation we are participating in right now, whether we want to or not. The new cultures we’re making may be the most significant in history, because these cultures are giving birth to the last tipping point on this list.
- Earth is over
As the sole home of the human race, Earth is ending–and with it, all our assumptions about the continuity of civilization. The process is also, now irreversible. Some of you reading this will, at some point in your lifetime, look out your window and see a view like this:
It’s natural, tempting, even, to think that the current space race might be like those early Viking expeditions to North America, or the American adventure on the moon in the 20th century. We’ll stretch out our hand, lose interest, and fall back.
But I don’t think so.
We know that ignoring the skies means gambling with our future–an asteroid could silence every voice that ever spoke, every song that ever sang, and every hope that ever sprang. More than that, those asteroids contain wealth beyond the dreams of the most ambitious kinds of avarice–more platinum in a single rock than has ever been found on the planet, and more fuel than needed to push a thousand interplanetary space ships. When James W. Marshall found a gold nugget, the hope of riches was enough to get clever people (who had more money and gumption than good sense) to mortgage everything they had on the hope of striking it lucky in the streams of California—and that gold rush opened up the West. It is not a coincidence that the revolutions that set the stage for a gold rush into the cosmos were fomented in the towns built by the gold rush.
In other words, as of January 1, 2015, it looks like we’re not living in another version of 1969. Instead, we are living on the brink of our next Renaissance–and the last one we will have as the child-species of a single planet.
Take a deep breath—some of this is dark, some of it is grand, and all of it is a bit frightening, but we are going to win.
I’ll be in touch soon, with more stories and podcasts. May this be the year you reach for the stars.
-J. Daniel Sawyer