David Brin: is America’s loss the world’s gain?

Paul Raven @ 30-11-2009

Marshall Plan propaganda posterY’know, I really like David Brin, even though I don’t always agree with what he says; he’s got a contrary stripe a mile wide, and he’s one of the few self-identifying conservative thinkers in science fiction who’s willing to break ranks with populism and call out the failings of his own side – something that is just as rare on the liberal side of the fence, IMHO.

Brin’s guest-blogging at Sentient Developments again, and his latest post is provocative reading, regardless of your personal politics. The thesis is roughly as follows: America may have spent itself into economic and political decline, but in doing so it leaves as its legacy a world lifted out of poverty thanks to the counter-mercantilist trade flows set up by the Marshall plan. [image by kafka4prez; orginal copyright status uncertain, so please contact for takedown if required]

You should go read the whole thing (there’s probably ten minutes worth of text there, so it’s one of his smaller rants), but here’s a few highlights for the impatient:

While Marshall crafted a historically unprecedented, receptively open trade policy called “counter-mercantilism” (I’ll explain in a minute), MacArthur vigorously pushed the creation of Japanese export-oriented industries, establishing the model of what was to come. Instead of doing what all other victorious conquerors had done – looting the defeated enemy — the clearly stated intention was for the United States to lift up their prostrate foe, first with direct aid. And then, over the longer term, with trade.

[…]

At the behest of Marshall and his advisors. America became the first pax-power in history to deliberately establish counter-mercantilist commerce flows. A trade regime that favored the manufactures of many foreign/poor countries over those in the homeland. Nations crippled by war, or by millennia of mismanagement, were allowed to maintain high tariffs, keeping out American manufactures, while sending shiploads from their own factories to the U.S., almost duty free.

Moreover, despite the ongoing political tussle of two political parties and sometimes noisy aggravation over ever-mounting deficits, each administration since Marshall’s time kept fealty with this compact — to such a degree that the world’s peoples by now simply take it for granted.

Forgetting all of history and ignoring the self-destructive behavior of other empires, we all have tended to assume that counter-mercantilist trade flows are somehow a natural state of affairs! But they aren’t. They are an invention, as unique and new and as American as the airplane, or the photocopier, or rock n’ roll.

[…]

Even if America is exhausted, worn out and a shadow of her former self, from having spent her way from world dominance into a chasm of debt, the U.S. does have something to show for it the last six decades.

A world saved. A majority of human beings lifted out of poverty. That task, far more prodigious than defeating fascism and communism or going to the moon, ought to be viewed with a little respect. And I suspect it will be, by future generations.

This should be contemplated, soberly, as other nations start to consider their time ahead as one of potential triumph. As they start to contemplate the possibility of becoming the next great pax or “central kingdom.”

If that happens — (as I portray in a coming novel) — will they emulate Marshall and Truman, by starting their bright era of world leadership with acts of thoughtful and truly farsighted wisdom? Perhaps even a little gratitude? Or at least by evading the mistakes that are written plain, across the pages of history, wherever countries briefly puffed and preened over their own importance, imagining that this must last forever?

I’m as guilty as the next man of casting American influence in a negative light, and Brin’s analysis provides an intriguing counterpoint to that nay-saying: an argument to the effect that history may remember that influence more positively than our proximity to it currently permits.

What do you think America will be remembered for in fifty years’ time? (And keep it cordial, folks; nation-bashing and racism will be deleted without hesitation, so keep a historical perspective, please.)


Legacy Locker – the new last will and testament?

Paul Raven @ 09-04-2009

safe deposit boxHave you ever wondered how you’d let your family and/or loved ones get access to your online presences in the event of your untimely demise? [image by William Hook]

No, me neither… but the people behind the LegacyLocker service obviously have. Adam Pash of Lifehacker explains their offer:

Web site Legacy passes on your “digital property” to your friends or loved ones should you die. At first blush, the idea sounds admittedly kind of absurd. But think about the hassle for your loved ones involved in finding contacts that should be notified of your death (email or Facebook), or the money sitting in your PayPal account with nobody around to claim it. None of this poses an insurmountable obstacle for your loved ones, but it’d all be a lot easier if the appropriate usernames and passwords were automatically handed over at your demise.

The service comes with several tiered accounts, from the free account—which will store and hand over 3 “assets” (logins) to one “beneficiary” and send out one “legacy letter” (a farewell message to your loved one) to the $30 annual account, which gives you unlimited everything.

Right now, LegacyLocker just looks like a kook project for folk who like their web2.0 a bit too much… but I think it’ll look a lot less odd in just a few years. A few decades down the line, it’ll probably be a huge business.

Think of all the digital media you will own, for a start: all the stills and movies and audio you’ve bought and made over the years, stashed on your own rented slice of cloud server somewhere where energy is comparitively cheap (and ambient temperatures low), waiting to be passed on to your kids and fed through legacy codec converters, like the future equivalent of the copyshops who work on restoring Victorian-era photographs for your grandparents; an archive of all the buildings you ever made in your favourite metaverse; a few virtualbox instances of your old autonomous software agents, their tiny but quirky personalities too surrounded by sentiment and nostalgia to simply erase…

And what about different forms of legal death? If legal existence becomes increasingly tied to citizenship of a nation-state (or corporation, if there’s any remaining difference by this point), what happens when you’re legally dead (or at least non-living) by that entity’s reckoning – be it sacked, excommunicated, expelled or AWOL? Your name drops off a database somewhere, and your LegacyLocker equivalent (quite possibly supplied by – or even made compulsory by – the afore-mentioned legal entity) blindly releases the passcodes and biometric keys for all your financial and governmental records to some predefined recipient, the contact details for which have (you hope) not been hacked, phished or foxed by digital pickpockets who like the easy pickings of a morgue foyer…

… so now I have about three new story ideas sat in my head, and no time to write them. Business as usual, eh?