America, the future, empire in decline, Byzantium vs. the USSR, and all that

Tom Marcinko @ 13-08-2010

Experience teaches that writing a convincing near-future sf story is not easy–let alone convincing editors that you are not writing satire–but this really struck a writerly nerve: “Most Americans can’t imagine a future that’s not pretty much like the recent past, maybe with a few wind turbines and solar panels added.”

Jon Talton used to write for The Arizona Republic. Now, as Rogue Columnist, he writes stuff his old bosses wouldn’t tolerate. (He’s published a decent series of crime novels set in AZ, too.) His columns sometimes read like jeremiads, but in the spirit of a couple of Paul’s recent posts about the future of the American empire, here are some snippets from Jon’s latest.  What the hell; it’s Friday the Thirteenth.

I can see a few other outcomes:

1. The man on the white horse. When chaos reaches a certain level most people will eagerly embrace, say, Gen. David Petraeus. He’s shown little MacArthurism in him. But if both political parties and most institutions have lost legitimacy, the military might be forced by events to step in. Or the elites, desperate to save their bacon, might draft this universally admired soldier as president. The move might gain further power as thousands of discharged combat veterans drive the streets of America unable to find work. This will be our Rubicon moment….

[Blogger’s rude interruption: I’m reliably informed that Americans love it when John Wayne rides in to save the day, and in fact many believe it happens on a regular basis, perhaps recently.–Desultorily Philippic Tom]

3. Devolution. This would be another orderly way for a bankrupt and hamstrung federal government to accept reality, particularly if faced with ever greater instability and gridlock. Keep control of national defense, foreign policy, the constitutional basics. And leave the rest to the states, including most taxing and regulatory authority. If Arizona wants to be a law-of-the-jungle toxic dump where the devil takes the hindmost, see how that works out….

4. War with China. …China is happy to watch America exhaust itself in the Muslim world, hoping that will do the trick, leaving America to do a sudden global withdrawal as Britain did. But conflict is not impossible to imagine. If it happened, any of the above scenarios might face a losing America. A greater, if fleeting, imperial moment might await a winning America. But it won’t be the America we once knew.

5. Muslim revenge. The longer we intrude in the Middle East and Afghanistan, keeping armies there, depending on oil from dictatorships, allowing an intransigent Israel to do as it wishes, playing with fire in Pakistan and ignoring all those millions of angry, unemployed young men — the closer we get to a horrific reckoning.

None of this may happen. I certainly don’t want it to happen. But these outcomes are no longer out of the question.

Agree or not, Jon raises issues that sf might arguably and legitimately deal with. Hmm, what was the exact date the world began to look towards China, rather than the U.S., for leadership out of the recession? Am I just a jingoistic ignorant might-as-well-be-a-klansman for even asking if that’s a good or bad thing?

Things are changing pretty fast, has anybody noticed? The author of Russian Spring, with its early cover painting of the Lenin statue greening over, might do a William Windom Star Trek turn: “Don’t you think I know that?!?!” How would a book like Stand on Zanzibar, which I read till it fell apart in my turbulent twenties, read today? (I’ll let you know if I ever track down a copy.) It would be interesting to see stories about how some of Talton’s speculations can be avoided.


From King’s Cross to Beijing by rail

Paul Raven @ 16-03-2010

I love to travel by train, me. Though a habit born of necessity in my case (I never took my driving test), there’s so much to recommend it over cars or flying. Especially flying. [image by Let Ideas Compete]

Well, the far edges of my potential-destinations sphere is going to grow considerably in the next ten years or so. Did you know China are the world leaders in high speed train technology? Well, apparently they are, and they’re involved in serious talks with neighbouring nation-states aimed at linking the Chinese rail system to the European one and extending it down onto South East Asia, with China footing the infrastructure bills. Once it’s all done, you could ride from London to Beijing without once needing to take a car, boat or plane… and that’s a journey I’d love to do*.

Interestingly enough (though not surprisingly) there’s more to China’s plans than some sort of idealistic Victorian-era notion of rail travel as symbolic of progress and industrialisation. Indeed, it’s something far more blunt: in exchange for adding considerable value to its partners’ rail networks, China is cutting preferential deals with them on raw materials that it can’t source locally. Remarkably capitalistic thinking for a nominally Communist nation, eh? Talk about moving with the times… might as well make hay while the sun shines, especially if everyone else is waiting out the rain.

[ * – Seriously, if any publishers out there are willing to make a promise to buy the resulting work for a large four-figure sum plus research expenses, there’s a great book to be written once that network is complete, and I’m definitely the guy for the job. Market me as the new (and scruffier) Paul Theroux, perhaps – hell, I’ve got all the cynicism about human nature you’d need to fill his shoes. I might need to work on amping up my condescension toward other cultures, though… ]


Google threatens to pull out of China over hacking allegations

Paul Raven @ 13-01-2010

Well, this story’s everywhere this morning. After allegedly uncovering a “sophisticated and targeted” hacking attack, Google are now “reviewing the feasibility of their business operations in China”, which includes the controversial censorship systems they applied to Google.cn; here’s the official announcement, which is a beautiful example of legalese that says one thing, implies many others and leaves a lot of spaces uncharted. Chinese citizens are laying flowers outside Google’s Beijing office [via Jan Chipchase].

Beyond the glossy surface of the public announcements, however, we can’t be entirely sure what’s going on. The Wikileaks crew have tweeted a few revealing points:

gossip inside google China is gov hackers found infiltrating google source code repository; gmail attacks an old issue. #

Gossip from within google.cn is Shanghai office used as CN gov attack stage in US source code network. #

China has been quietly asking for the same access to google logfiles as US intelligence for 2-3 years now. #

Should be noted that Google keeps secret how many user’s records are disclosed to US intelligence, others. #

correction: the time of the Chinese requests/demands are not exactly known and are possibly in the last 12 months. #

Regardless of the exact causes and motivations behind Google’s threats to withdraw, it highlights the incredible bargaining power that a company of that size and influence has on the same stage as nation-states. It’s not entirely unimaginable to think that Google suspected something like this might have happened all along, and they were just waiting for the right moment to bring their leverage to bear – after all, China’s a big old market, and they’d probably far rather its citizens had full unfettered access to the web, if only so as to advertise to them more effectively. So why not agree to initial compromises, let the people get a taste for what they have to offer, and then threaten to take the toys home when the government makes an institutionally inevitable blunder?

It remains to be seen how seriously the Chinese government will take this threat – it’s not been a good few months for them as far as international publicity is concerned, and Google is a big economic player whose favour I suspect they’d rather not lose. But China’s people will be seriously miffed about it, and I that’s what makes me think that Google are far more cunning than they’re letting on. I’m not under the illusion that they’re interested in anything more than running a profitable business (though that whole “don’t be evil” thing is a pretty effective rule-of-thumb for achieving such), and bringing down totalitarian governments isn’t in their regular remit. But look at it this way: if you were running a business of that size and looking at a potential market that lucrative, and you saw a way to potentially open up the laws that currently restrict your business in that market by playing off the market’s citizens (and international public opinion) against the government, and you reckoned you could pull it off…

OK, so I’m hypothesising wildly here, but my point is that it’s by no means completely implausible. I’m reminded of Jason Stoddard’s points about the mythical bugbear of evil corporate hegemony:

A corporation doesn’t care if you’re living in a 300 square foot studio apartment or a 6000 square foot McMansion. They don’t want to wipe out the McMansion dwellers, or elevate the studio apartment owners. They only care about one thing: that you buy their stuff.

For everything they do, they’ll have justification. There’s no hidden business plan with a top-line mission statement of “Destroying Civilization As We Know It.”

But there will be hundreds or thousands of decisions, all based on maximizing profit. Substituting cheaper ingredients: maximize profit. Use low-income countries for labor: maximizing profit. Driving smaller competitors out of business: ensuring growth, which maximizes profit. Extending credit to anyone: maximizes profit.

If they can make a bigger profit selling you a “green” condo and a Prius rather than a McMansion and an Escalade, that’s exactly what they’ll do. If they think they’ll make an even larger profit renting you an apartment and leasing you a bike, that’s what they’ll do.

Google stand to make a lot of money if they can loosen the government leash in China, right? Right… so keep your eyes on the dollar signs. This story isn’t over yet, I suspect.


The next 100 years

Tom James @ 31-08-2009

Pivot_areaGeorge Friedman, writing in The New Statesman magazine, has an article up on the next 100 years, as seen through the theoretical prism of geopolitics. This is a doctrine that emphasises the importance of the permanently operating factors of geography in determining global dominance:

Thus, the question is how these geopolitical and strategic realities shape the rest of the century. Eurasia, broadly understood, is being hollowed out. China is far weaker than it appears and is threatened with internal instability. The Europeans are divided by old national patterns that prevent them from moving in a uniform direction. Russia is using the window of opportunity presented by the US absorption in disrupting the Islamic world to reclaim its sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union, but its underlying weakness will reassert itself over the next generation.

New powers will emerge. In the 19th century, Germany, Italy and Japan began to emerge as great powers, while in the 20th century global powers such as Britain and France declined to secondary status. Each century, a new constellation of powers forms that might strike observers at the beginning of the century as unthinkable. Let us therefore think about the unthinkable.

Friedman paints a rather pessimistic picture of a future of exactly the same kind of nationalistic war that took up most of the 20th century.

I’ve never been comfortable with tub-thumping nationalism/patriotism as something to dictate beliefs and action. To me the future of the people living on Earth is as much about cultures, attitudes, and society as it is about the fight for power between specific nation states [1].

But states will remain the single most powerful entity on Earth over the next few decades, and as such it is worth thinking about which of them might gain greater influence in the future.

The central conclusion of Friedman’s article is that “they that control the North American continent, control the world” as they will have access to both the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans as well as the vast wealth of the North American continent. As such he posits Mexico as a potential rival to US power. He also suggests that Japan might engage on further military ventures. Turkey may become the core of an Islamic sphere of influence in the Mediterranean and Middle East.

[1]: Inasmuch as particular states have particular cultures and attitudes (e.g. pluralism, rule of law, liberalism, democracy, individual freedom) I think that it is a mistake to support a nation state because of the attitudes it purports to value, rather than the reality of its actions. You support the people and the ideals first, the countries second.

[from the New Statesman][image from here on Wikimedia]


China, Green Dam and peer pressure

Paul Raven @ 01-07-2009

Chinese soldierThe Chinese government is backpedalling with all the terse dignity it can muster; its controversial Green Dam end-user censorware has received so much political criticism (and vendor footdragging) that its launch has been delayed:

Xinhua, the state news agency, reported the change of plan four hours before the software launch was due.

“China will delay the mandatory installation of the ‘Green Dam-Youth Escort’ filtering software on new computers,” it said in a terse statement attributed to the ministry of industry and information technology.

The authorities looked likely to miss their deadline for the rollout of the software that blocks pornographic, violent and politically sensitive content.

The Guardian struggled to find a single retailer who had Green Dam either installed or bundled with computers.

Adding to the mystery, Lenovo, Sony, Dell and Hewlett Packard refused to comment on whether their PCs are now being shipped with the software, as the government ordered them to do last month.

The government says the software is necessary to clear the Chinese web of “harmful content”. But critics say it is a misguided attempt to put the internet genie back in the bottle by a Communist party that now has to answer to about 300 million web users.

The appropriately-named Isaac Mao sees this as an epochal moment for the Chinese:

I think this is the tipping point between the people rising up and those in power trying to suppress them. The great firewall is overloaded and that is why the authorities are trying to move the focus of control to the desktop. But it has annoyed a lot of people. Not just liberals who want free speech but the young who see it as an intrusion into their personal lives.”

I rather suspect that commercial resistance has had as much of a part to play as political. Whether the Communist Party has shot itself in the foot by trying to control something inherently uncontrollable remains to be seen, but this is another example of the web appearing to break down geography and erode the power of nation-states. Revolution seems to be a popular pastime at the moment – maybe we’ll see the Red Dragon try to slip its chains soon? [image by Ed-meister]

Jeff Jarvis takes the opportunity to point out that big companies like Google and Siemens who have been known to collaborate with repressive governments actually have the clout to bring them to the bargaining table… and that as such, it behooves us as their paying customers to keep the pressure on them to play nice:

Technology companies from Cisco to Nokia to Siemens that have provided technology to enable censorship and tracking, and companies from Yahoo to Google that have handed over information about users to governments that use it to oppress citizens should be ashamed. And we need to shame them. We need to give them cover by demanding behavior that is not and does not support evil.

In a digital age, censoring the internet, stopping citizens from connecting with each other, and using the internet to spy on and then oppress citizens is evil. We shame companies that helped enable fascist regimes in the ’30s and apartheid in the last century. Is it time for technology boycotts? I’m not sure. But it is time for the discussion.

I’m not sure outright boycotts would work, if only because of the size and ubiquity of many of the companies in question.  But so far it looks like vocal objection and discussion is chipping away at the walls of the more monolithic states; perhaps it’s too much to hope for, but maybe totalitarianism’s time is coming to an end? Even the arch-realist Chairman Bruce suspects we may just not have it in us any more.

Of course, the possibility of sweeping away nation-states only to replace them with equally dictatorial multinational corporations is worth bearing in mind. I think Jarvis is right: we need to keep up the pressure on big businesses so that they don’t start eyeing up empty thrones. Vote with your feet, and with your pocketbook.


« Previous PageNext Page »