Monday, October 6, 2014

Techno-Paleo Retro Utopias

I wanted to make a few follow-up points on my previous post, and illustrate a little where it came from.

I got this idea in my head when I visited Los Angeles earlier this year (and where I will be again this week and next). I was really taken with the beauty of the land and climate, but the things that make Los Angeles unlivable in spite of its climate and beaches are 1.) the crushing population, 2.)The expense of paying for things like housing and transportation, and 3.) the difficulty of getting anywhere. All of these are interrelated of course. Topanga, where I stayed, was once a place where you could build a home with your own two hands and raise some chickens and goats away from the city. Now there are houses worth over two million dollars there. When I was walking around Venice, I saw a lot of places for sale, but it’s impossible to buy anything in the area for under a few million dollars. That also hit home with this article in the Times:
This was the state that embodied the middle-class American dream: Move west, acquire a small slice of property, perhaps with a palm tree or two.

For decades, comfortable suburbs like this one just south of Los Angeles boomed with new housing tracts designed to attract the latest arrivals. When space started to come at a premium, developers moved inland, building more homes for people who could not afford the more expensive coastal areas.

But now, cities across the state are grappling with a dwindling stock of housing that can be considered affordable for anyone but the wealthiest. In much of the state, a two-bedroom apartment or home is virtually impossible to acquire with anything less than a six-figure salary.

“It’s hard to imagine how all of California doesn’t become like New York City and San Francisco, where you have very rich people and poor people but nothing in between,” said Richard K. Green, an economist and director of the Lusk Center for Real Estate at the University of Southern California. “That’s socially unhealthy and unsustainable, but it’s where we are going right now — affordability is its worst ever, and we’re seeing a hollowing-out of the middle class here.”

“I talk a lot of buyers out of sticker shock,” said Linda Ginex, a real estate agent in Orange County. She routinely steers clients to suburbs they might not have initially considered or, for people who insist on living in the most desirable cities, into condominiums instead of houses. “A lot of people who grow up here think they can afford what their parents had, but that’s not always realistic,” she said.
A California Dream: Not Having to Settle for Just One Bedroom (New York Times)

Now imagine Los Angeles with only a quarter as many people. I ran across this on a good post worth reading in full about Ponzi schemes:
My family moved from Maine to California - literally - in 1961 and settled in the San Francisco Bay Area in the East Bay. At that time there was still some open land between towns, and you could still see a little of what California might once have been like. The population was about to overtake New York's , but at 18 million, it was only half of today's. My guesstimation is that the perfect time to have lived in California was right after World War II, when personal mobility was good, real estate prices were sane, and even Los Angeles was pretty livable (although its first serious smog episode came in 1943). The population in 1945 was about 9 million, a quarter the present size.

I don’t know about you, but it sure fills me full of nostalgia. Whenever I am there I can’t help but imagine what it was like back then.

This got me thinking about a mostly depopulated Los Angeles, and what would happen if you were one of the survivors. The reason doesn’t matter. Everyone could have a house on Venice Beach! Everyone could have a house in Malibu! No traffic on the freeways. No smog. No beggars. Plentiful housing. Vacant estates just ready for you to move in. In a post-apocalyptic scenario, things like electricity and food in stores might be touch-and-go, but remember, you don’t need to keep up with such huge population so there’s more to go around. I would imagine in California solar panels would quickly be deployed and people would head into the Central Valley for produce. Trawlers might even head back out to sea for fish.

To me it feels like a permanent vacation, or perhaps for those of you in the Midwest, like a “snow day” that never ends. There’s probably no reason to work, since growth would no longer be a possibility. People would just be focused on meeting their needs from day-to-day, which would probably not include cubicle work, office politics, Excel spreadsheets or development deals. People would probably spend a lot of time camping out on the beach and surfing once the 40-hour grind goes the way of the dodo. Now only the rich can afford to do that.

So to me, this would be a utopia! And that got me to thinking that the utopias promoted by Neal Stephenson and his fellow science fiction authors of more population, more technology, more growth, etc. would also lead to more competition, more work, more stratification, more pollution, more stress, more struggling to keep up as everything gets bigger and more expensive. In contrast, that doesn't sound very utopian to me. The elites would be able to exercise even more control over our lives and monitor us even more than they already do (I wonder if employee tracking plays into any of the stories?). It’s getting to the point where I see every new technology as hammering down a dystopia even further rather than solving it. Sure, they always say technology is neither good nor bad, but we’ve seen the reality with our own eyes.

Those of you with historical savvy will recognize the historical precedent – the Black Death in Europe. The lucky survivors experienced a rise in living standards as there was more to go around. Inheritances went uncollected as the rich fell as well as the poor, and the ill-gotten gains of the rich were apportioned among the survivors rather than passed down in perpetuity. The poor ate like the rich of a generation earlier and were more mobile. Serfdom fell by the wayside and wages rose as landowners fought over labor. You could even say it laid the grounds for the Renaissance, humanism, scientific inquiry and the Enlightenment.

So, is the road to utopia paved with robots and space technology? Or rather does it look like a world with less people and a more laid-back lifestyle, while still holding on to the best of modern technology and scientific knowledge?

And then I began to wonder what such a story would look like in novel form, and how this could contrast with Stephenson’s views. And the precedent that came to mind was William Morris’ News From Nowhere as a template for the “different” kind of utopian novel than what we’re used to.

What fascinates me about NFN is how different it is from most modern utopian scenarios. NFN paints a world of handcrafts, laid-back lifestyles, no money, and ivy crawling up abandoned buildings. But mostly it’s a utopian scenario of less technology and more autonomy at a time when technology was almost universally seen as the salvation of the human race. That was pretty easy to believe in 1880 or 1900, or even 1960. No doubt the World's Fairs did much to reinforce this. But today it’s looking pretty tarnished. China is full of empty cities and there are hundred-mile long traffic jams in Brazil.

But mostly, I notice that the people who are promoting these techno-utopian narrative are the people on the pinnacle of society. The Elon Musks, the Peter Thiels, the Richard Bransons, the Peter Diamandises, the Matt Ridleys, and the entirety of the economics profession. These people are richer than ever before, but why do we listen to any of them? The World's Fairs are gone, but TED talks keep the faith, and it's worth noting that TED is a shmoozefest for the rich and powerful.

Another example of the idea that the post-apocalyptic world of less population and no growth might not be such a horrible place is this Japanese example that Ran Prieur noted a few years back (ironically, Stephenson is also referenced on that page):
March 4. It's been about four years since I read a piece of fiction I loved so much that I didn't want it to end. The last one was Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines series, and this one is a Japanese comic, Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou. That link goes to the Wikipedia page, and here are links to read it online and download it. If you've never read any Japanese comics, you need to know that the panels are read from right to left.

The setting is decades or centuries in the future. The oceans have risen, there are overgrown ruins everywhere, and the human population is greatly reduced. The central character is Alpha, a human-like robot who runs an isolated coffee shop, and gradually explores more of her world. What sets this world apart, not only from other postapocalypse fiction, but almost all other fiction, is that there is no conflict! The characters are all nice people, and nothing really bad happens. It's all just beautiful and dreamy, and a bit sad. There's a popular idea that a world without evil would be boring, but clearly we just weren't imagining it well enough. The only thing I've read that's at all comparable is Richard Brautigan's In Watermelon Sugar. Also of interest to transhumanists: the "robots" are not like machines but more like spiritual beings.

I’m intrigued by this concept, and I think it might be a good idea to write a utopian novel not with more technology, or a dystopia where all technology goes away and we are reduced to living at some “primitive” level of existence and fighting each other, but one in which a dramatically reduced population partitions out the ruins of the industrial economy (everyone gets a Hollywood mansion!) and lives happily in the ruins with a laid-back leisure culture centered around a Paleo lifestyle, Permaculture gardening, outdoor adventure sports, peer-to-peer networks, and with just enough technology (electricity, running water, communications, medicine, trains, bicycles) to be comfortable but not restrictive or numbing. That would be something I’d love to see authors explore rather than more spaceflight or robots.


  1. I second that. I think the innovations that are needed in sci-fi are relationships related, not technology related. As you already noted elsewhere. :-)

    I have a feeling there is real hunger out there for viable futures in enjoyable novels. Hey, maybe you could make a living that way? You could start it online and we could all pitch in, the way Greer did it with Star Reach.

    1. Of course I'm writing this mainly to myself :-). I received a lot of ideas on my latest trip in California.
      I knew Star's Reach was published on a blog before it was released, but I didn't know that readers had any input. Was it via the comments or something? Interesting. I wonder if collaborative novels are the wave of the future.


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