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Thoughts from the coal face

1. Smartphones are not yet there as word-processing platforms. Tantalizingly close, but no banana.

2. Writing a novel in the second person present tense is surprisingly easy. Ditto reading it, after the first ten minutes of extreme cognitive dissonance. What you do end up with is the same set of tiresome headaches you get with omniscient third-person — only more so.

3. Because it's an "intrusive" voice, you don't want to put words into your protagonist's heads that are likely to dump the reader out of their willingness to imagine themselves thinking those thoughts. So there's a tendency to leave the interiorization out altogether, or to paint it using delicate watercolour tints rather than vibrant saturated oils.

4. If your characters are looking over here there's no way to sketch in significant details over there.

5. The near future is frustratingly like the present, only different. I'm surrounded by electronics and media today that would have been bizarre and exotic back in 1986, never mind 1976 — but I'm still basically sitting in an office chair at a desk, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, typing away with some rock'n'roll on the stereo. Difference from 1996: there's a download going, the progress bar is ticking away tens of megabytes instead of tens of kilobytes, and the music's playing via streaming MP3s rather than CDs. Difference from 1996: back then, the word processor had a green screen and a 10Mb hard disk, and the music was playing on cassette tape. But the organizing parameters were the same — this is a writer in his study writing. How do you signal that the story is set ten years in the future, without succumbing to spurious futurism?

6. History inserts itself into our lives, seamlessly. When did you last get through a day without hearing some kind of off-hand reference to 9/11 or the Iraq war? Kids these days are learning about Margaret Thatcher in history lessons at school. In ten years time there'll be some other iceberg-like intrusion of History into the zeitgeist: the question is, what? (My money's on something energy or environment related, and big.)

7. Trying to get into the head of a 28-year-old British professional circa 2016 — the people this novel is about — is an interesting exercise, even though people of this generation are easy enough to track down right now: the trouble is, if I ask them questions now, I'm asking a bunch of 18 year olds. Whereas what I'm interested in is what they'll be thinking when they're 28 ...

You were one year old when the Cold War ended. You were thirteen when the war on terror broke out, and eighteen or nineteen when Tony Blair was forced to resign as Prime Minister. You graduated university owing £35,000 in student loans, at a time when the price of entry into the housing market in the UK was over £150,000 (about 4-5 times annual income; the typical age of first time buyers was 35 and rising by more than 12 months per year). Unless you picked the right career (and a high-earning one at that) you can't expect to ever own your own home unless your parents die and leave you one. On the other hand, you can reasonably expect to work until you're 70-75, because the pension system is a broken mess. The one ray of hope was that your health and life expectancy are superior to any previous generation — you can reasonably expect to live to over a hundred years, if you manage to avoid succumbing to diseases of affluence.

For comparison, when I graduated university in 1986, I had no student loans, first homes cost £30,000— or about 2-2.5 times annual income — and the retirement age was 60-65. So it should be no surprise if the generation of 1988 has very different expectations of their future life from the generation of 1964.

8. Agatha Christie once said, "when I was young I never expected to be so poor that I couldn't afford a servant, or so rich that I could afford a motor car." Yet these were the prevailing parameters from 1945 to the present. I might equally well say that when I was eighteen I never expected to be so poor I couldn't afford a four bedroom house, or so rich that I could afford a computer. What terms of reference will these people use to define their relative affluence and poverty? Motor cars and domestic robots? (Too facile.) Children and immortality treatment? (Too crudely obvious.) Privacy and ubiquity? (Too abstract.)

To be continued ...

62 Comments

1:

In paragraph 5, the seoond "Difference from 1996" should be "Difference from 1986".

2:

@5: That is because literature, which is what you are doing, is a constant feature of civilisations that have writing. There was a bloke in Sumer, on his day off from the Daily Cuneiform, doing 'zackly that on the Epic of Gilgamesh, his book on the Mesopotamian war of the day. He, like you, could look forward to a beer or three at the end of the day, because they had beer there. And he was worried about keeping his tenses straight, and whether anyone would read the damn thing.

@7,8: I'm a 25-year old current British professional, and my bet for the key zeitgeist is exasperation. I do not expect to own property, and I fully expect to work until I drop in my tracks, and I am increasingly certain that British politics is going to get no better. Everybody in your scenario will be on Prozac or whatever comes after it, except when they're on recreational drugs...the only exceptions, I think, will be the small remaining working class. They all look happier with the world than most people in my demographic classification - a trend that will keep up, I think, as the skilled trades shortage will only tighten and drive up wage, especially when major renewables/green tech retrofitting begins. Also, you're easier to keep under surveillance in an office.

3:

Relative generation size might have noticeable effects.

I was born between the US baby bust generation (Depression) and the Baby Boom generation. I remember a teacher looking out on the first day of class and saying she'd never had a class that large. I don't know what she said later, when the really big classes came along.

There were more students than schools were prepared for, up through university level, for a while. Boomers were able to rise higher in stock brokerages because there were fewer people in the previous generation in their way -- one effect being stockbrokers likely to have less accumulated experience.

4:

A point that I don't think anyone in the current UK government has noticed is that the cost of raising children is inflating rapidly beyond the means of ordinary folks. Two factors add a lot to it. Firstly, in the UK today, to add an extra bedroom on the price of a house typically costs around £40,000. (Go back two decades and it would be about £5-8,000.) Secondly, there are those bills for tuition, boarding, and so forth, in higher education.

University used to be (a) free, and (b) a minority pursuit (with only about 15% of the population graduating). Today, college or university is near-mandatory for any clerical job, with 50% of the population going into it. Students in the 1980s had a grant -- subsistence only,but enough to live off -- and tuition was free. Today, you pay for tuition and you still have to be able to find somewhere to live.

Between these two huge expense centres, I figure the real cost of raising a child from age 1-21 has probably risen by about £80,000 to £100,000 more than the inflation index would suggest, since 1986.

/me expects a demographic deficit to show up over the next decade, partially concealed by the deferred first child pattern that affects other European countries (basically, women deferring their first childbirth from early 20s to early 30s so as to have a career).

Expect the politicians to begin panicking some time around 2010-2016 ...

5:

I live in Los Angeles and the concerns are similar for the people of my generation (early 30's). I finally have a job that pays well enough but am now priced out of the Real Estate market. A typical 2 bedroom, 1000 square foot home in a decent area (meaning gang-banger free), starts around $500,000 US. The cost of decent health care for a family of three, $600 US. Even with both parents working it's hard to keep your head above water. Something's gotta give.

6:

House prices will give. The carry trade (meaning that Banks could borrow money at roughly 0% from Japan) has come to an end and the ability to easily borrow money will slowly disappear.

The same thing happened circa 1989. In 1989 houses in a street I know sold for �55 to �60,000. Those same houses sold for �35-�40,000 in 1994.

7:

Re "so poor I couldn't afford...": between rising international tensions, paranoid security measures, and the cost of oil, I've recently started wondering how long us affluent Westerners are going to continue thinking of international air travel as something routinely available to everyone.

8:

Ben, dunno about the US housing bubble -- it's not really my concern in this context -- but here in the UK there was indeed a housing crunch in 1989-94 ... but it took prices down by about 10% across the board, and they're now up something like 300-400% over 1995. Somehow I doubt prices are going to drop back by 50%, which is what they need to do in order to relieve the social pressure caused by young people being locked out of the housing market.

9:

Hmm. I think the big thing about not being able to afford a servant is not simply that something got more expensive; it's that the playing field levelled. There are no longer many people in Western countries who earn enough to be able to pay a whole middle-class wage to a personal servant. Obviously only a small proportion of the population can be able to do this, so when the playing field levels, this has go give.

It seems to me that the slowly increasing wealth in third-world countries may lead to a similar phenomenon. So stuff that simply cannot be extended to a large enough fraction of the world population seems like a likely candidate for "I never thought I wouldn't be able to afford..." Air travel does seem like a possible candidate, although I don't know any numbers about limits to it, and I have no thoughts at all on the time frame for something like this to take effect.

Being able to afford a motor car, on the other hand, seems more like an effect of technological development and technology adoption. I'm starting to get the impression that flat-rate mobile Internet and phone calls are in range. I'm not sure how exciting that sounds to anybody, though.

But my hunch is that what we're going to do with the Internet that we aren't doing with it now is going to be vastly more interesting than stuff we can't afford today that we'll be able to afford then.

10:

In the long run, I think the high price of housing solves itself. As people have fewer children because of the expenses involved, house prices will fall as the older, larger generation dies off.

Just figure how many older homeowners are going to die int he next 10 years, all of those homes will be on the market.

In the US, things are a little different because rising prices lead to new development in previously rural areas. Florida is filling up because land and homes are so much cheaper there compared to the North East. For instance, my parent's home in Orlando has doubled in value since they bought it in 1994, but it's still less than half the cost a of a similar house in the part Connecticut I live in. Wages are about 25% less in Florida, though.

It's sort of a trade off. In Connecticut I can afford a newer car, a couple nice computers, a lot of "toys", we can eat out several times a week, etc. In Florida we'd have a bigger home or pay less, but we'd have to give up other things.

11:

I think one sign of affluence in the future that is an extension of what we have now is plastic surgery.

People focus on the potential for things like stem cells and organ printers and cloning to solve serious medical conditions.

What I see happening, however, is that instead of facelifts people will have entire face grafts. Fresh skin lab grown, biologically young and new. Or cloned hair grafts for balding men.

The cosmetic potential of stem cells and organ printing is very high. Whether or not we'll see it in 10 years, I'm not sure. It would certainly be an expensive proceedure when first introduced, in 2016 it might be something of a fad for the wealthy.

12:

Ross: Air travel isn't something that's routinely available to everyone right now. It's available to more people than it has been since the early 70s, but it's still a luxury. Otherwise I'd be in Berlin a lot of the time ;)

13:

5. The near future is frustratingly like the present, only different. I'm surrounded by electronics and media today that would have been bizarre and exotic back in 1986, never mind 1976 — but I'm still basically sitting in an office chair at a desk, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, typing away with some rock'n'roll on the stereo. Difference from 1996: there's a download going, the progress bar is ticking away tens of megabytes instead of tens of kilobytes, and the music's playing via streaming MP3s rather than CDs. Difference from 1996: back then, the word processor had a green screen and a 10Mb hard disk, and the music was playing on cassette tape. But the organizing parameters were the same — this is a writer in his study writing. How do you signal that the story is set ten years in the future, without succumbing to spurious futurism?

I don't know how a writer in 2006 signals that his character is actually living in 2016--but I do know how the writer in 1996 signals that the character is in 2006.

First, he has to get the character to stop working and start procrastinating. As you say, the character/writer in 2006 doesn't look much different from the writer in 1996. He's just sitting and typing on a computer keyboard.

But consider how he might procrastinate. He can read some blogs (hey!--that's what I'm doing right now!--and I'm supposed to be working, too! Life imitates art!). He can go fiddle with his TiVo. He can take or make a call on his ultra-thin Motorola Razor cell phone. He can clean out his spam trap. All of these things would be science-fictiony to a reader in 1996, but just another part of day-to-day life in 2006.

If the blogs he reads are a political, that opens the doors to introducing lots of background about geopolitics and how the world changed in the past 10 years.

Of course, the 1996 science-fiction writer would have to convince the readers that we Americans in 2006 were stupid enough to elect George W. Bush president, not once but twice. That might require more suspension of disbelief than the entire works of Philip K. Dick.

14:

The 1994 midterm elections gave Republicans control of both houses of Congress, so postulating a Republican President elected in 2000 wouldn't seem that far-fetched.

Though a war in Iraq would probably seem to predictable and cliche, especially with the President being the son of the last President to fight a war there. :)

Sometimes reality seem less realistic than fiction...

15:

Postulating a Republical president in 2000 is entirely believable.

Postulating George W. Bush as president ... well, you might as well postulate Carrot Top.

16:

Hows about
"I never thought I'd have enough money to run my own multinational (Fair - its a distributed virtual company that me and a bunch of folk off my 'friends list' run...but we make cash)."
As information transfer gets faster for less, more becomes possible. Although I'd prefer the terribly exciting zany stuff - it always seems that what humanity is best at doing is using the most amazing tools to do the most mundane things in slightly different ways.


and

"I never though I'd not have enough money to buy a new plastic chair."
Oil - appears that stocks are, if not low, being choked. Prices are rising and - unless mine really awful memory betrays me (again) - plastic is a by product of cracking oil.
Unless we start carting organics in from local space rocks...we might have to turn back to natural fibres and rely on recycling of plastics for those that can really afford it!

17:

I don't really see plastic becoming expensive. Besides converting coal into oil and then into plastic, you could make plastic from plants.

Also, if stuff like that becomes valuable enough, we could open up landfills and mine old garbage.

It would also be economical to recycle it on a large scale, for profit. Now most people don't bother to recycle if they don't have to, but if there was money in it...


One thing we might see in the near future that's unexpected will be that for the first time the majority of crops will not be intended as food or animal feed. If things like ethanol, bioplastics, GM pharming, etc take off there might be more cropland devoted to that than to food.

18:

Agriculture for industry--ethanol, plastics, large scale production of plantstuff not for human consumption--is something that was being talked about four or five years ago, by farmers. Plantstuff for power generation, even longer.

They're still requiring set-aside, and the UK government is still hell-bent on smashing agriculture: destroying the skill-base.

But most urban folk aren't going to notice the difference. Oilseed Rape stands out because of those bright yellow flowers. Apart from fuel crops, such as miscanthus or coppiced willow, there's nothing obviously different that I can think of, nothing that would stand out from the train or the motorway.

(But you might get some useful ideas on uk.business.agriculture if you ask there.)

19:

Remember the Ukraine? Former breadbasket of the USSR? I'll betcha the Ukraine is queueing up for EU membership soon -- and Tony and co will be urging them on from the sidelines, with visions of cheap Ukrainian communal farm workers running Tesco AgriFactory™ plants for minimum wage.

(The destruction of the British farming sector is, I suspect, a deliberate and vindictive act of party political policy by the 100% urban Blairites, in exactly the same way that Thatcher's attacks on the miners was politically motivated. "Those folks don't vote for us, so let's fuck 'em.")

20:

If I had to guess what would distinguish technological progress for a writer as the decades go past (since as you point out, they are effectively luddites and insist on keeping largely the same working environment), it would be the nature of the interruptions.

B>

21:

Well, okay, here.

I was five years old when the Cold War ended. I was seventeen when someone flew an airplane into each tower of the World Trade Center, a set of buildings that I had vaguely heard of before. It triggered a worldwide reorganization of priorities and paranoia eventually culminating in the War on Terror, through which I attempted to figure out what the hell I was doing in a society that had an economy based on the flow of information despite the fact that they were just figuring that out now. I went to university for two years, got $20k CAD in student loans and other debts, and then wandered around the US for two years staring at it and trying to decipher what was going on, and why anyone ever lived there. I'm a professional programmer and software designer now, and my American friends tell me that buying a house is what they want to do, but it will cost them $400,000 for anything, and they monitor their retirement savings accounts and social security accounts but all it says is "down" and all they can think of is getting out of the United States before their money and savings are worthless to them.

Despite the fact that we all know these things, and we're trying to take them into account, the easiest things and the most enjoyable things involve ignoring all the problems, travelling, and partaking of intoxicating substances. We make more money than our parents did, we make more money than we need, we can't buy houses, but it's easier to travel now than it's ever been in the history of humanity, and making friends (temporary or permanent) on the other side of the world is hardly a big deal. The vast majority of the successful relationships I'm familiar with all started via internet, I'm probably a bit strange that way, but the percentage rockets upward every year. Everything is transient, optional, and easy, except for the far (to us) future where everything is a broken pile of shit and four out of every ten people are over 65. You're always conscious of the fact that you have to be moving up, up, up, your income should be growing at a rate that would be undreamable to the previous generation, because if you don't you're going to get fucked, hard. It feels like the final form of semi-anarchic capitalism, we're all just dots on a sea of internet-connected bullshit with no loyalty to any company and no guarantee of anything, ever.

... If that helps, which it might not, but it was fun to write.

As for your #8, thinking back to discussions with my friends I don't think there is anything we can reasonably tell ourselves that we can never afford. Things move too quickly, everything happens at once, and you have to keep rolling with it or you get run over. This sounds like I'm writing for and from the perspective of affluent white capitalist America, I know, but I actually grew up with very little, I'm Canadian, and I have (what seems to me as) pretty socialist views on things. This is just how it seems to be. Perhaps I'm a grandiose and naive asshole, I don't know. I've been thinking a lot about it all recently.

Although perhaps I will end up saying that I never expected to be so poor that I couldn't buy my own house someday.

On catching up with the comments quickly, having a child is probably the biggest single giant flashing neon [EXPENSE] sign in my future. When I think about it, I don't expect that I will be able to afford having a child until at least 26 or 27.

Oh, here we go: I don't think I'll ever be rich enough to afford to save any money.

22:

That was long. Sorry.

23:

(This is intended as tounge in cheek, but who knows....)

Here's something we don't expect, but that future generations could see as obvious once it happens:

The US annexs Canada sans Quebec after loosing the southwest to a hispanic separatist movement.

Of course, why we'd let the southwest seceede, and why Canada would let us annex them are a mystery.... :)

24:

Dunno, Mike. I'm only a couple of years older than you, and American, and it looks a little bleaker for me than it does to you, I think. I've already got my BA from one of the most rigorous undergrad institutions in the States, I came from a well-to-do family, I'm able-bodied and have an IQ in the neighborhood of a hundred and sixty, and my first year out of college the best I could beg for was driving a dump truck full of trash. I live in one of the cheapest cities in the country, and unemployment is massive. I know accredited chemists and biologists who can't even look at the private sector without crying. Right now I'm temping as a secretary for barely more than minimum wage, I'm nowhere near my own trained field, and I'm only just scraping by. I told my partner, when she proposed, 'not yet'--mostly because we can't afford any of what goes along with marriage. I don't ever expect to be able to own my own home, though I'd love to, and right now I don't have the means to move to another city anyhow.
I'm going into teaching and hopefully writing, but as to expectations for the future? I never thought I wouldn't be able to support my parents in their dotage, I never thought health insurance would be beyond my expenses, and as a kid who grew up well-off-enough to expect to go to a good college and who was a teenager during the big tech boom of the 90s, I never expected to be eating out of other people's garbage to get by. I'm hopeful because hope is the only option I've got, and I'm far, far better off than everyone who -didn't- start out with my advantages.

The key to understanding our generation, I think, isn't just that we're coming of age in these conditions; it's that we were kids and teenagers during an age of--in the US at least--incredible prosperity and optimism, mixed with a whole lot of people expecting the world to end in a couple of years, and just as we stepped up to grab a handful of it, it turned to dust. Just as most of us were casting our first votes or getting old enough to really think about it, Bush v. Gore made our democracy look awfully bad. And all of us know someone or at least someone who knows someone who's getting shot at in Iraq or Afghanistan right now. We're the children of the Great Bait and Switch.

25:

Perhap's I'm unusual for an American of my age (27), but I haven't really had the problems I hear others complaining of. My friends and I from highschool and college mostly seem to be doing well, unless they're hiding things from me.

In my case, I graduated college with no debt. Tution at Florida state colleges was only a couple thousand a semester, so my parents paid for that and I lived at home. It probably cost less than $10,000 total for my degree.

After college I got a job at a bookstore for two dollars above minimum wage and was promoted to management within 3 months, as was my best friend. It wasn't really something either of us wanted to do for a living though, and we both ended up moving in with our girlfriends in New England.

In my case I worked at her parent's flower shop for a couple months until I got a nice job at Yale. I probably could have gotten one sooner, but I wanted to hold out.

The next two years were pretty tough, because Yale was in a prolonged contract dispute with their unions, and our salaries were stuck at the 2000 level until 2003 or so.

Once that was corrected though, things were much better for us.

We got married a few months ago, which set us back about $10,000 (It would have been more but we got about 15k worth of work done for free by her parent's flower shop).

Right now I'm paying off my credit cards in order to improve my credit so I can buy a house at a good rate. What I'm trying to decide is if I should have children in the next year or two, or if I should go for a house first.

Housing prices are pretty steep here, so it will probably take me a bout 2 years to get the downpayment I need on a modest home.

My good friend who's a year older already owns a condo in Pheonix and has a daughter, and my other good friend is looking to buy a house back in Orlando.

26:

It wasn't all cheery, little light, it was more supposed to be a comment on how we're all charging into the future knowing full well we're fucked, and the income gap is widening all the time, so either you've got a job that pays you a stupid amount of money in a purely information-based industry, or, you're getting shit on. Some very good friends of mine in the US, the more creative less techy ones, are getting shit on, and I'm pretty unhappy about that, and hopefully I'll be able to help them out somehow.

But either way I think most people who try to do any long-term financial planning or thought about their future realize that things are in serious trouble. Not so much in Canada, I have it easy, but I lived in the US for a couple of years, and I know the UK isn't doing so well either.

One thing that I didn't hit on that a UK resident might is the surreal ubiquity of surveillance there. One for every 14 people. It freaks me out even from 7000km away.

27:

Mike, take heart: the UK is only a couple of years further out along the curve of proliferating surveillance than the US. Every time I visit -- to big cities, admittedly -- you've got more and more cameras everywhere.

They're just not talked about, because American politicians can't get mileage out of them as a public safety measure without pushing all kinds of unpopular buttons.

(I could go on about how the USA today resembles the UK in 1906 -- a superpower in gradual decline, one that hasn't quite noticed where it's going yet but no longer feels comfortable with itself -- but I won't. Wrong kind of comment thread.)

Andrew G: if I were you I'd keep a careful eye on the housing market. Watch out for signs of collapse. Remember, you want to buy after the collapse, not before it! (The US housing market's hugely over-inflated right now -- part and parcel of the consumer credit bubble that's got you paying off your cards -- and sooner or later something's going to give way. Probably sooner rather than later.)

28:

Fortunately or unfortunately, Connecticut's housing market looks pretty stable. The area close to NYC is probably inflated some, but the rest of the state is unlikely to see a big fall in prices when the bubble burts.

The state's population isn't growing as fast as the rest of the country -- we've only seen a growth of about 10% in the past 30 years. Compare that to states like Florida where the bubble is biggest -- a 300% increase. It took a century for Connecticut to grow that much...

29:

"Perhap's I'm unusual for an American of my age (27), but I haven't really had the problems I hear others complaining of."

You aren't unusual. I haven't had any problems either. As long as we're swapping anecdotal evidence, I'll put one more in for the side that isn't addicted to misery. I've got a house, I've got a family, I've got a job that uses the skills that I attended college to acquire. Where did I go wrong, that I missed out on the misery-addiction that all these people seem to be having?

"Of course, the 1996 science-fiction writer would have to convince the readers that we Americans in 2006 were stupid enough to elect George W. Bush president, not once but twice."

Fuck you. I can easily counter that with "the 1990 science-fiction writer would have to convince the 2000 science-fiction reader that not only would we not re-elect George Bush, but that his successor would get a blowjob in the Oval Office from a woman who was not his wife, and he would lie about it on national TV and get caught, and that he would NOT be thrown out of office."

"...the income gap is widening all the time, so either you've got a job that pays you a stupid amount of money in a purely information-based industry, or, you're getting shit on."

My industry has very little to do with information. I haven't been working for five years, yet I own a house. How do you figure that?

"I've already got my BA from one of the most rigorous undergrad institutions in the States..."

In what field? There aren't many areas of study where a BA is much more than half an education.

"I'm a professional programmer and software designer now, and my American friends tell me that buying a house is what they want to do, but it will cost them $400,000 for anything..."

Lemme guess: You "wandered around" the San Francisco Bay Area. Right. Well, I can see how you'd get a pretty warped idea of the American housing market from looking in a built-out area.

"How do you signal that the story is set ten years in the future, without succumbing to spurious futurism?"

I'd say that you don't. Ten years is so close that the changes will only be in very minor details, other than political or social changes that will be completely different. I mean, what is out there that exists but is not yet ubiquitous? Maybe you could add more autonomy to daily lives--smart houses, smart cars, robot delivery trucks--but that's really not going to drive the kind of grand, sweeping social change that you want. (And "autonomous house that goes crazy" has been beaten into a paste already.)

"Agatha Christie once said, 'when I was young I never expected to be so poor that I couldn't afford a servant, or so rich that I could afford a motor car.'"

I'm not sure how you would replace the items there, because--despite what the earlier posters would have you believe--modern first-world people think less and less about cost. Aside from housing, of course, but other than that--when did you think "I can't afford that particular class of item" and mean it in any way other than inconvenience? Perhaps you could say "I never would have imagined that I would be too poor to live near the place I work, but rich enough that I didn't have to leave the house." Or maybe "I never would have imagined that the number of men who had married other men would surpass the number of unmarried women."

"partake". Jesus Fucking Christ. This word does not make you seem witty and educated. It makes you look like a pretentious twat.

30:

I said:

"Of course, the 1996 science-fiction writer would have to convince the readers that we Americans in 2006 were stupid enough to elect George W. Bush president, not once but twice."

DensityDuck:

Fuck you.

As Dilbert said to Wally: You talk pretty brave in cyberspace, flameboy.

I can easily counter that with "the 1990 science-fiction writer would have to convince the 2000 science-fiction reader that not only would we not re-elect George Bush, but that his successor would get a blowjob in the Oval Office from a woman who was not his wife, and he would lie about it on national TV and get caught, and that he would NOT be thrown out of office."

He wasn't thrown out of office because it's not important, DensityDuck. It just doesn't matter.

I can't get too worked up defending Clinton. He was a weak, minor president. He accomplished very little while in office--arguably, nothing at all. Moreover, while on his watch, some grave threats to America festered, including the scandals on Wall Street and militant Islamic fascism.

Although, to be fair to Clinton, he did try to fight Islamic fascism--only to be thwarted by the GOP. People who thought that a presidential blowjob was more important than upholding their sworn Constitutional duty to defend America from its enemies, foreign and domestic. People who were, themselves, cheating on their wives, even while hypocritically persecuting Clinton for doing the same thing.

Still, Clinton presided over eight years of peace and prosperity. He did not laugh off the threat posted by Osama bin Laden, he did not suspend the Constitution, he did not institutionalize torture, he did not bumble and lie into war, he did not lose an American city to natural disaster, and he did not attempt to impose his religious convictions on the American people. He did not run on a small-government platform and proceed to spend the U.S. from a substantial surplus into a debt that our grandchildren will be paying off.

You should have stuck with "Fuck you." It was your best argument.

31:

Lemme guess: You "wandered around" the San Francisco Bay Area. Right. Well, I can see how you'd get a pretty warped idea of the American housing market from looking in a built-out area.

Housing costs vary a lot from that to state.

For instance, housing is 41% cheaper in Tulsa, OK than it is in New Haven, CT. However, housing in San Francisco is 114% higher than it is in New Haven.

You get the same standard of living with $32k in Tulsa as $42k in New Haven, and $62k in San Fran.

32:

Charlie - What did you find to be the problem using your smartphone as a word-processing platform?

I've written a bit on a smartphone. I've found that it's OK for writing drafts, not so great for revising. The screen is too small to get a good overview of what you're reading--which is essential to revising--plus it's hard to move the cursor around when you're using a detachable keyboard. And you need to use a detachable keyboard when writing on a smartphone.

33:

Andrew G: yup, it's the same here. Prices vary from region to region. I'm in Edinburgh, the capital city of Scotland and a desirable place to be -- if I moved thirty miles out into the boondocks I could swap this three bedroom apartment for a six bedroom manor house with a large garden. (On the other hand, I'd go nuts inside a week, and the petrol bill would be scary.)

Mitch: size of screen for context is a big problem. The Treo 650 is too small to edit on. The HTC Universal is big enough, but the available software has major drawbacks (Pocket Word is too feature-poor, TextMaker 2002 is buggy on PocketPC 2005, and the OS in general does its best to get in the way). Don't get me started on the Nokia 9300i. I'd have better luck on a traditional PDA like my current Tungsten TX, and indeed I am doing some work on the novel on the TX.

But in general, smartphones are either good phones or good PDAs; a smartphone that's a poor phone is no use; and a smartphone that's a poor PDA is no use for writing on.

34:

That's more-or-less my experience with smartphones--and PDAs too for that matter.

They're good for writing drafts. When I do that, I don't even correct typoes as I go; I just sit and write. It's barely one step removed from typing with my eyes closed. Then I upload the text to my PC and correct it later, on that platform.

I have written finished, ready-for-publication copy on a PDA, but only in articles of 500 words of less. I shudder to think about doing finished articles much longer than that.

These days, I'd rather carry a laptop around with me--even when I'm at trade shows, and carrying my obese body on my poor, flat, Fred Flinstone feet much of the day--rather than rely on the smartphone or PDA for writing.

35:

I am essentially more optimistic than little light or Mike Gillis. I'm a 45-year-old American, and from what I've seen, every modern generation grew into its 20s thinking they'd inherited a world that the older generation has set on an irrevocable path to destruction.

When I was in my teens and 20s myself, we had recession, the energy crisis, the Nixon impeachment, the Ford and Carter presidency, a military that seemed incapable of doing anything, culminating in the Iranian Hostage Crisis and Reagan presidency. It seemed inevitable that we were all going to die in a nuclear war, or lose the Cold War to the USSR.

(You don't hear much about that zeitgeist, the zeitgeist of my generation, because I come from one of those silent generations, like the generation of Americans that fought the Korean War. We were only technically, statistically Boomers; we were too young for Vietnam. And we were too old to be counted in Generation X.)

Generation X inherited an enormous debt, believed all the good jobs were taken by Boomers, came of age during an economic downturn, and saw their futures as empty. If you don't believe me, read "Generation X" and "Microserfs" by Douglas Coupland.

I'm not trying to belittle your concerns, little light and Mike Gillis. They are real and valid. But so were the concerns of my cohort, and Generation X, and things turned out different than we thought they would. Better, thank goodness.

I am, likewise, more optimistic about the future of America than Charles Stross; I do think the America is on a dangerous course, but I'm optimistic we'll throw out the current band of idiots running the country, and eventually look back on the Bush Administration as a period of national stupidity, sort of like we now look back on 1970s clothing fashions.

I do think that America is going through a period like the year or two after World War II where we have no challenge to our international domination--we are, as the newspapers like to remind us, the "only remaining superpower" in the world. That's changing fast, I don't expect it to last the decade.

36:

C.S. - (b) a minority pursuit

B. F. - the playing field levelled

People are worth much more than they used to be. Things are worth much less. But, there is less room for each of us as there are more of us. Large homes, privacy, peace and quiet etc. are scarce and precious but gadgets are cheap.

Society spends less on children but more on old folks. They vote, and there is a demographic bubble working its way through western societies. Grey panthers, eating their children.

37:

Nice quote from Agatha Christie!

OTOH, servants have been steadily coming _back_ into style in the US. Where once they were an exotic luxury for the very, very wealthy, now the merely "quite affluent" have housekeepers and nannies again.

This is a quite startling change that nobody would have anticipated in the 80's.

The reason I don't do near-future SF (apart from not really being very interested 8-) is that it's impossible to do it and not look fairly silly in... the near future. You're a braver man than I, Charlie!

38:

One thing to look out for in near-future terms: declining populations.

Right now it's only a few countries (Japan, Germany, Russia, Moldova) but it's spreading fast -- well over half the world's population lives in areas with sub-replacement fertility.

By the 2050's, the _world_ population will be declining, and many areas (like, the whole of East Asia) will have demographics like Japan or Germany today.

This has implications at the personal level. It's a world without cousins, without brothers or sisters, and without uncles and aunts. A majority have no relatives except their ancestors.

The big exception is the US.

39:

A long-term effect of globalization is that the world labor market starts to move in synch, rather than as national and regional blocs.

More and more sectors can be done from abroad, so the wage level is set by _global_ competition.

Fortunately, one of the sectors where this is less likely to happen in the short term is English-language SF writing...

It's extremely difficult (not impossible, but very difficult) to write fiction in a language other than the one you learned in infancy. It's much easier to _read_ in a second language.

So we native-English-speaking writers get a continually bigger audience, without much extra competition.

25% of the human race can understand English now. It'll probably be around 50% in 2050, on current trends.

(The 'rise' of China means more Chinese learning English, frex, but very few non-Han learning Chinese.)

40:

We certainly have far fewer personal servants than people in equivalent economic straits did 100+ years ago.

But we outsource the work.

In my house, we don't have a maid or a personal cook--but we do have a cleaning service that comes in every two weeks, a freezer full of frozen dinners, and we get take-out or food delivered four or five nights a week.

41:

You've got a good point, Mitch. Au pairs are an exception, but a lot of servants are part of a service paid for by people, not their employees.

For instance, my inlaws have a house cleaner, but she is more like a contractor than an employee. She's become a friend of the family as well, she was even a guest at my wedding.

It's an entirely different attitude than it was during the last boom in servants. Either it's an impersonal service that likely employs recent immigrants, or it's someone self employed who's not that much different than you.

42:

My in-laws, who lived 1,500 miles away from us, used to have the same cleaning woman come in to clean for a very long time. My in-laws were very old, pushing 90, and my sister-in-law, who lives close to them, was concerned that the cleaning woman was not actually cleaning.

The tone of my sister-in-law's voice as she described this got me a little outraged that this crooked cleaning woman was stealing from my in-laws.

Well, the next time we visited the in-laws, I met this horrible, cold-hearted villain. She sat and chatted very nicely with my mother-in-law, and drank coffee and had some cake. She did very little cleaning, just pushed the dust around a bit. Then she left.

This had apparently gone on for a long, long time, and she was, indeed being paid. To sit around and chat! And drink coffee and cake! And not clean!

Oh, I forgot to say: The cleaning woman was herself around 80. She'd been coming to the house to clean--and, later, "clean"--for almost 50 years at that point. She was a very sweet old lady.

I do not usually involve myself in my wife's family's business, but this time I suggested, diffidently, that perhaps they should continue with the existing arrangment with the current cleaning woman, and then perhaps hire someone else to come in and actually, y'know, clean.

43:

Andrew G. - Au pairs are even less like servants than cleaning-women are.

In my experience, an au pair is a young person, almost always a woman, who comes to American, usually from Europe, to provide help raising a baby. In exchange for the childcare she provides, she expects to receive room and board, a cash stipend, plenty of free time to see America, and a car that she has the use of.

It's all very much a linear descendant of Victorian arrangements--in Victorian language, she would not be considered a member of the servant class, she's a young gentlewoman and expects to be treated as such.

44:

Mitch -- good observation. I suppose Au Pairs are socially more like the Governesses that were popular for a time, rather than nannies or nursery maids.

S.M. Stirling -- you might not see more english language scifi writers, but you could see more translations as the english language market grows. Right now it's only the better authors that get translated into English, like Umberto Eco and Haruki Murakami. As there are more and more english speakers and readers, it might make economic sense to translate mid-level authors into english.

45:

As there are more and more english speakers and readers, it might make economic sense to translate mid-level authors into english.

-- in theory, but this doesn't seem to happen. Styles in non-English SF are very different; they just don't seem to translate well, much less so than say detective stories or even ordinary novels.

46:

Steve, I think it's a cultural thing. I'm very interested in the cultural origins of SF (in the Gernsbackian tradition), because I think it's highly specific to the social conditions prevailing in the English speaking world in the 1920s -- conditions which no longer apply. Indeed, SF as it was wrote back in the day no longer exists (or rather, we couldn't sell it if we produced it that way). And guessing which way we're going is kind of important, if I want to still be earning a living like this in the future.

Hmm. Maybe ought to write it up for the blog ...

47:

Charlie - I'd like to read that blog post.

So what were the social conditions prevailing in the English-speaking world of the 1920s? How is it different from today?

Some people would say that there's a difference in the attitude toward science and technology, that the people back then looked at science and technology as 100% beneficial, and now we're more suspicious. But that's not so. That was the era of the Scopes Monkey Trial in the United States; back then, like today, there were people who were suspicious of science and technology.

Moreover, I think that today--just like back then--the audience for science fiction is a a subset of society, a group of people who are enthusiastic supporters of science and technology.

Here's a couple of real differences:

- In the 1920s, the Age of Exploration had just drawn to a close. The last blank spots on the map were just being filled in. Science fiction was written and edited by people who remembered when African and Asian explorers were finding wonders in the jungle.

- In the 1920s, the English-speaking world was quite open in its belief that non-English-speaking non-whites were inferior beings, possibly not even human.

- Back then, science fiction was entirely a niche literature, for children. You didn't have the phenomenon where science-fiction movies and TV shows were mainstream bestsellers.

48:

Mitch: I'm thinking of the modernist ideologies that flowered in the post-1917-18 power vacuum following the collapse of the Monarchical System. The ones that get all the press today are Communism and Fascism, but there were others -- and Technocracy was the one most closely associated with Hugo Gernsback.

I think Gernsbackian SF was one component of the agitprop wing of a political movement that never quite matured to the point of being a serious contender, and largely disintegrated during the 1930s. Then WW2 happened, and modernist movements in general became ever so slightly unpopular. But because the Technocracy movement propaganda wing was marginally profitable (it churned out pulp propaganda amusements that people were willing to pay for) the house magazine marched on, other pulp publishers jumped on the bandwagon to service the market, and most of the people who wrote for them didn't really understand the ideology behind it: it had acquired a shambling post-mortem life of its own.

For an analogy ... imagine an alternate history in which Hitler got banged up for 30 years after the beer hall putsch, rather than 5. The German NSDAP withers on the vine and shuts up shop when a centre-right government takes power in 1933, but the hacks writing the fiction columns in Goebbels' party newspapers never get the message and keep going. During the Depression Germans want action-adventure stories set in strange places -- classic escapism. By the 1950s the ideologically impure non-Nazis have taken over, and there's a hugely popular market for Indiana Jones type two-fisted aryan adventurers battling an evil Jewish mastermind for control of central Asia. (It's a genre cliche, like bug-eyed monsters or ray guns.) Then a new generation arrives and starts inverting the genre tropes around 1960. In the end you have a new wave of Nazi adventure fiction written from the point of view of Jews who are (dark antiheroes or strong two-fisted freedom fighters -- take your pick of inverted stereotypes). Then you get Nazi cyberpunk. And so on ...

49:

I realize that's not a terribly flattering metaphor.

But I stand behind it.

The only reason technocracy is remembered today with the vague fondness reserved for anachronistic political eccentricities is because it never got a chance to build any pyramids of skulls. For which I am fervently grateful -- I get to play in the graveyard of technocracy's Big Ideas, rather than living in its fallout plume.

(Ideologies don't kill people: people who believe ideologies kill people.)

50:

I never heard of Technocracy before this discussion, but now I'm an expert.

We can certainly see Technocratic-like ideas throughout the science fiction of the 1940s and earlier--I mean, it's all over the place, it's a dominant theme of much of the science fiction we consider Golden Age stuff. Asimov's Lije Baley and Foundation stories seem to be infused with that philosophy. And I think a Technocrat was the villain of Heinlein's "The Roads Must Roll."

But was Gernsback actually a Technocrat, as you suggest earlier? His Wikipedia entry makes no mention, which of course means nothing.

Reading over that Wikipedia entry, I think that a biography of Gernsback would be a hell of a thing. Seems like a fascinating character. And a good biography uses the subject as a springboard to discuss his time, place, and the historical trends he was involved with--a Gernsback biography would be able to talk at length about New York in the first half of the 20th Century, Jewish immigrant culture at that time and place, science ficiton of course, the early history of radio and therefore 20th Century mass media, pulp magazines, and probably lots more that I'm unaware of.

51:

I've got a soft spot for Technocracy, it was a charmingly idealistic ideology. It had a blind spot for human nature, but it has some good parts too.

It would be interesting to see an alternate history where Technocracy took off, but Communism didn't. A North American Technate vs a democratic, capitalistic Russian Union.

It would be "interesting" to see the feedback of ideas between Technocracy and Fascism as well.

52:

Correcting my own post, earlier--Gernsback immigrated from Luxemburg (sp.?) and I don't know whether he was Jewish or not.

53:

Charlie, Communism failed because Leninist vanguard-partyism made it an inherently tyrannical movement, and because five-year-plan economics lacked a timely feedback mechanism. What exactly do you think are the failure modes for Technocracy?

54:

Commenters in Right Blogistan often blame Europe's low birth rates (which in their view will doom it to the Islamist jackboot) on European secularism. Your economic explanation seems more sensible, but why aren't Muslim birth rates in the West being cut by the same economic forces. Presumably Muslims are better able to manage without higher education - why might this be?

55:

George: failure modes for Technocracy include: vanguard-partyism and five-year-plans. (Remember, the techocrats envisage rule by an elite, and elitist movements are prone to the whole vanguard party syndrome; only it's studying engineering instead of studying Marx, in the case of the Technocrats. And they advocated a planned, rational economy with none of this market nonsense.)

As for Muslim birth rates in the west, I think you'll find that they are declining -- and the rate of decline is linked to how long the individuals or their families have lived in the west. "Better able to manage without higher education" is a correlation, not a causative effect: it may be that they don't have equal access to higher education due to discrimination, or they were encouraged to emigrate in order to fill low-paid (low educational attainment) jobs which nobody wanted, and so low-education people were recruited in the first place. I'd be very wary of assuming that anyone can cope better either with or without advanced education.

56:

Some thoughts on ten years from now:

Gadgets are seriously cheap, and the cost reduction curve is *very* steep, by our standards - perhaps a 50% reduction in cost per month or quarter, rather than per year. Which means that keeping up with the latest expensive fads is more time-consuming than now.

The rate of change in many things has sped up - put in a year where you'd put in 5 now; a month where you'd have put in a year.

The rate of change, combined with a global economy, means that fortunes for young, educated workers in a developed country could diverge extremely quickly - Joe enters a field which showed promise, but which turned out to be quickly globalizable in a way that left him unemployed, while Sarah's career path turned out to be globlizable in a different way, so she's reaping part of the fruits of a large, cheap third world labor force, and is on the fast track to wealth.

Due to the comodification of gadgetry, the only way to make money, after the initial month or two, is through the selling of services, or other 'hooks' through which the user ends up paying more. Given the complexity and rate of change, most people end up frequently getting hooked unexpectedly, for a lot of money. A twenty-something ten years from now should be more wary, and still scammed more often than now. Software hooks will have people pining for the old days of Microsoft and DVD's. Software will have frequent, jarring contrasts between open-source/free/inspectable and proprietary/uninspectable/prone to bite the user hard.

More organizations/businesses/social networks are transnational and virtual. For businesses, the problem will be that things which fit in best with virtuality will probably be most easily comodified and off-shored.

Health care - in the USA, it'll be very, very good, but very expensive, and most people can't afford that much (even if they're insured). In the UK, I don't know - it depends on how NHS goes.

Politics - in the UK, I wouldn't be surprised if formal politics have ceased to be a representative democracy. People will have to 'vote' through civil disobediance and rioting. Please note that Blair pushed through an unsuccessful war which was unpopular with the majority of voters, and kept office - the party didn't even have to sacrifice him to hold power.

57:

Gadgets are seriously cheap, and the cost reduction curve is *very* steep, by our standards - perhaps a 50% reduction in cost per month or quarter, rather than per year. Which means that keeping up with the latest expensive fads is more time-consuming than now.

The rate of change in many things has sped up - put in a year where you'd put in 5 now; a month where you'd have put in a year.

One side effect of his could be that consumer tech is obsolete by the time it hits the shelves. There's a limit to how fast the wheels of production, marketing, and distribution can work without a radical overhaul of the economy. You'd have a choice of buying a media player now, or waiting three months and getting one with twice the features. Of course, after that 3 months you'd see that something even better was coming out in another three months. The only people who would have cutting edge gear would be those who could get ahold of prototypes or units right of the assembly line from unofficial sources.

Politics - in the UK, I wouldn't be surprised if formal politics have ceased to be a representative democracy. People will have to 'vote' through civil disobediance and rioting. Please note that Blair pushed through an unsuccessful war which was unpopular with the majority of voters, and kept office - the party didn't even have to sacrifice him to hold power.

I've noticed this trend too, though from a distance. I don't know how serious it is, but it seems like more and more governance in the UK is being done by functionaries and technocrats. MPs might still be elected, but the real power could be in the hands of career beaurocrats in a decade or two.

58:

Some other thoughts - DRM, proprietary software/formats/'pipes':

Twenty-somethings will generally assume that any given search is censored, if they're at all streetwise. Having to replicate searches with different systems, sites, connections and operating systems will be the norm, for those who are clued in. What operating system/application software that you create something in will be critical, because export won't always be possible, and will frequently be illegal (even if not commonly enforced). That goes the same for paying for a web space - IIRC, Geocities had a rather sweeping claim of ownership to any intellectual property posted on there; I expect this to get worse, because sticking in such terms will rarely backfire, and occasionally yield some nice returns.

59:

This is a longish post; sorry, but I'm coming to the conversation late and there's a lot of good points to address.

So:

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.

60:

Charlie, sure the Technocrats advocated a planned economy, but what makes you think they'd imitate the worst mistakes of the Soviet Communists - isn't it more likely they'd go for the kind of computer-assisted planned economy you described here or here?

61:

Matt: "...to say nothing of the destructive effect of a half-century of politicians doing everything in their power to dismantle real democracy;... "

I figure that that's been more the case than the opposite; the sort of post-WWII democracy that we saw in the USA, UK and W. Europe was possibly a lucky fluke.

62:

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