Sunday, July 09, 2006

Thoughts on the Near-Future

You know when you leave one of those really long comments, and you're so proud of it that you can't bare to leave it buried at the bottom of a long thread on someone else's blog? So I'm reproducing one here, written in response to a post of Charles Stross' over at his Diary, in which he discusses various issues and problems that have cropped up in his latest project, a near-future scifi thriller.

So, the comment:

On a slightly more blue-sky basis, consider the possible fallout of RepRaps. The project is slated for completion by the end of the decade, and given the nature of a self-replicating manufacturing technology, it should spread - and evolve - quite rapidly. After all, the Net achieved massive penetration in something like 1/4 the time television took; it doesn't take a lot of imagination to see desktop manufacturing (even the crude non-nanotech kind) spreading in 1/4 the the time it took the Net to spread, ie, half of all households have one within two or three years.

A lot of people have pointed out that the prevailing zeitgeist, at least amongst the twenty-something professional set, is likely to be one of general exasperation. I can sympathize; I'm feeling that right now, to a certain degree. I'm a 25 year old university grad, B.Sc. Physics, currently teaching English in Japan because it was a better option than doing crappy temp-work, which was all I could find in Toronto.

But, let's say we've got a situation where home-ownership and children are both simply too expensive; where politics is increasingly divorced from reality due to its domination by boomers, few of whom understand the 21st century, to say nothing of the destructive effect of a half-century of politicians doing everything in their power to dismantle real democracy; where the official economy is ever-more restrictive and predatory; where the legitimate options of people within the System are increasingly unpalatable.

We're talking about probably the best-educated, most technology-empowered generation in history here. If the system as currently constituted doesn't appeal, well, why stay in the system? You've got your computers, the use of which is second nature; just a few years ago, you got your reprap (or fab or whatever you want to call it). Between global comms and desktop manufacturing, the potential is there to just say, screw it, let's build a different system.

I call that one the Hippy Option. Another option is simple migration: let's say John, who went deep into debt to study computer science, sees his job outsourced to India. Now his only options in his home country consist of low-paid temp work, doing clerical stuff in the office, or various service jobs; all of them dull, none secure, and all ensuring he'll spend the rest of his natural life paying for the education that was supposed to guarantee future prosperity (and never mind owning a home or having kids.) Then John thinks, now wait a minute, what's more important to me? Getting paid in British pounds? Or doing work I enjoy and getting a decent standard of living besides? Put that way the choice is obvious; John scrapes together the cash for a one-way to India, gets a job as a programmer at 1/20 the salary he earned back home, and starts to make a new life for himself which is much more comfortable than the one he left behind (as that 1/20 stretches a hell of a lot further than the equivalent in Britian.)

As for the political zeitgeist, well, I'd see too biggies, both related to population. First, the pension/healthcare crisis, in which an aging and sickening population acts as a great sucking maw for tax dollars (a situation exacerbated by a combination of dropouts and expatriates, both groups leaving the whole thing behind like rats fleeing a sinking ship). Second, the birthrate crash. I can see things getting a lot more draconian in order to deal with the two of them. Some possibilities:
- making passports much more difficult to get
- predatory taxation to prevent capital flight
- protectionist trade regimes, in order to guard against globalization
- 'three-child' policies, in which women are legally required to reproduce

Not that any of these would be exactly helpful, but then hysteria has a tendency to be counterproductive.

Despite all this I'm an optimist. As a previous poster said, every generation has faced big problems, usually caused by the stupidity, greed, selfishness, and/or lack of foresight of their parents. As a general rule we solve them, more-or-less, (and in the process manage to foul things up for our own kids.) Somehow everything manages to shamble along, the standard-of-living continues its upward trend, technological progress races forward, and life goes on.


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