Friday, February 09, 2018

Present Future: Nothing to See Here

Does it bear repeating?  We're in bad shape.

And I'm not even talking about today's news.

Let's do the inventory anyway.  Here's what we need to face contingencies, disasters, major challenges of the near and farther future: capacity, redundancy, resilience.

As I'm thinking again about World War II, it becomes even clearer that the side that was going to win was the side that had the greatest capacity: the largest industrial base, the easiest access to the greatest amount and quality of resources, and the skills and organizational ability to use those assets.

Both sides had organizational ability and skills, close enough to cancel each other out, with a few crucial exceptions (radar, breaking codes and that Germany never developed an atomic bomb.)  But though both sides had formidable industries and resources, the United States just had more.

All that was used in the most insane way imaginable, which was to build thousands of complex devices and send them out to be blown up, sunk or shot into the air or through the water.  All created to destroy people and things, including themselves. The side that could keep on building them would win.  It's why we won.

The next crisis, or the next war, won't be precisely like that.  But it will take all those elements and we are short in key areas, and losing capacity by the day. Our manufacturing base is a fraction of what it was, and skills in all manner of making things (with the possible exceptions of smartphones and cardboard boxes) are being lost.  We don't make things anymore.  China makes things.  They have capacity, and ours is dwindling.

Another crucial area of capacity is food production, and judging from where and how far the food from the grocery comes from, we're getting in trouble there as well.

Without capacity, we are vulnerable to any disruption in transportation, for any reason: technical, political, environmental.  It's one thing to get goods across a contiguous expanse of land.  It's quite another to get stuff halfway around the world across oceans, in the quantities and frequencies our population requires.

Capacity also means the resources, including human resources and skills in identifying problems and delivering solutions.  These are resources that often only government can muster and deploy on a large enough scale.  Once again, capacity is thin and getting thinner--as tragically proven by what should be a national scandal regarding the federal response to hurricane devastation in Puerto Rico.  Or (as now documented) in Texas.

Puerto Ricans responded the way people all over the world respond to situations that make living in their homes and communities impossible: the ones who can leave, have left.  Puerto Rico is emptying out.  But sooner or later, we run out of places to abandon, and to go.

Capacity includes leadership, and in every crucial area in which we depend on federal leadership, we're obviously in trouble.  Congress can allocate money, but how it is spent is crucial.

Which suggests another area of capacity: information.  Apart from government's information gathering and dissemination, the capacity of independent media reporting is crucial.  That capacity is also dwindling.  Apparently with the resources the news media can now deploy, Puerto Rico may as well be the moon.

The internal infrastructure of this country--needed to transport resources and products, for example--is falling apart, and all Washington is doing is trying to figure out who can make money from it.  That's the infrastructure we need to respond to disasters and emergencies, to keep the country from splintering and falling apart.  Especially since resources for life--food and clothing--aren't close by anymore, almost everywhere in America.  Once the remaining stores empty out, of course.  Or you run out of gas.

Redundancy means more than one system to perform functions necessary to survive.  So in your home you don't want to totally depend on electricity, or totally on gas, or totally on batteries you can't replace anyway.  We're losing redundancy in almost everything now: communications, transportation, food, and increasingly, information.  That's a biggie.  Right now the satellites go out, the Internet goes down, and it's just about game over, because the alternatives have been starved to death.  Government used to think about these things.  Nobody seems to care anymore.

Think also how about how we're becoming more and more dependent on access to stuff from long distance: clothing, food and other things it would be hard to live without.  It also seems so easy, click click, and the truck shows up.  What could go wrong?  It would take very little to go wrong in this system to prevent it from working.  And with physical stores driven out of business because of this dependence, we're very quickly out of stuff and out of luck.  The redundancy in the consumer supply system-- several kinds and sizes of physical stories plus mail order from afar--is much weaker and is quickly disappearing.  No Amazon, no Fedex for a few weeks, and we're screwed.

Resilience is a buzzword in certain quarters these days, but it basically means the ability to take hits and keep going.  In the big picture, resilience (beyond individual character) comes from nature, where it's being destroyed.  It comes from community, which is destroying itself, although at least some spirit of "you'd do the same for me" persists.  It comes from families and individuals, but they can't do it alone.

It comes from institutions that are themselves resilient.  It used to come from businesses, but there are fewer local businesses anymore, with local ownership and resources.  It even came from corporations, when they identified themselves with the community, or even with America.  They mostly don't anymore, except for PR purposes. Do they even exist anywhere, when their faceless ownership is in another state and the only people who will talk to you are in another country? Their only allegiance is to their own greed.  I'm talking about you, Suddenlink and AT&T.

 And it comes from government, from the public sector, which is currently being destroyed from within in Washington, as well as looted on a massive scale.  So when it comes time for the federal government to save us all, as it did in 2009, the cupboard is bare, and the morons in charge won't know what to do anyway.

So, with suicidal policies in Washington, homicidal attitudes in the country, and a population with their heads buried in their screen toys, we seemingly haven't noticed that we don't know how to make anything or do anything, and don't have the means to do it anyway.

So no, we're not in great shape.  But let's move along.  Nothing to see here.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Past Future: It Comes and Goes

“The future is an integral aspect of the human condition. Man survives, uniquely, by his capacity to act in the present on the basis of past experience in terms of future consequence. By assuming a future, man makes his present endurable and his past meaningful. Pasts, presents, and their alternative futures interweave in the anticipation and prediction of his future actions.”

Opening paragraph of the The Future of the Future by John McHale (1969)

"Dr. Memory, do you remember the future?"
" Forget it!"

Firesign Theatre LP I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus (1971)

To remember the future, anticipate the past.

While people think about their future all the time, it's true that "the future" isn't always a conscious or fashionable subject.  The future comes and goes.

In various ways the future was prominent for several decades of the 20th century.  At times it was a symbol of hope and at others a focus of dread.  It defined dreams and aspirations, and at times it guided policy and action on a large scale.  And for awhile it was the focus of intense and widespread study that seemed to offer possibilities for a unifying guide to policy-making, education, and action: a science of the future itself.

 For example, it was a conscious source of hope and guidance in the Great Depression of 1930s America.  In The American Clock, Arthur Miller’s play about this decade, a character recalls: “Then and now, you have to wonder what really held it all together, and maybe it was simply the Future: the people were still not ready to give it up.”

It was a remarkable time to be focusing on the future. The 1930s in America was a decade of multiple and bewildering crisis. The Great Depression was deep and long, calling into question the dominant institutions of finance, business and government.

 According to various surveys, more than half of American families were living in poverty in the early years of the decade, and nearly 30% of the population had no income at all. Farm families (a quarter of all Americans) were destitute, and in the mining areas of Appalachia, up to 90% of school children suffered from malnutrition. Hunger was a widespread fact of life.

Dire poverty was lessened as the decade and the New Deal progressed, but as late as 1937 President Franklin D. Roosevelt referred to “one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.”

Meanwhile Americans were warily watching the rise of European dictatorships, particularly Hitler in Germany, who began armed conquests aimed at accumulating mineral and other resources for endless weaponry, and fertile farmland to feed an ever-growing military.

Yet there was material for hope. Americans saw the federal government together with private contractors engaged in building the physical foundation for the future. The Tennessee Valley Authority and the massive Hoover Dam were two of many hydroelectric projects in the West and South that brought electricity to entire regions. (Fewer than 5% of farms had electrical power.)

The federal Works Progress Administration and other New Deal programs built and repaired thousands of roads, bridges, schools, and libraries. The Golden Gate Bridge, Rockefeller Center, the Empire State Building, La Guardia Airport and New York’s George Washington Bridge were among the landmark structures erected in the 1930s. Much of the infrastructure still used in the 21st century, including national and state parks, was built in this decade.

Though these New Deal programs were most immediately employment projects, they were deliberately designed for the future, and not just in terms of physical buildings. “By using the new materials of social justice,” FDR proclaimed in his second Inaugural Address, “we have undertaken to erect on the old foundations a more enduring structure for the better use of future generations.”

But even providing employment had long-term consequences. These projects maintained and trained a workforce for the future. That included professionals such as scientists, architects and artists who found support to learn and practice their crafts.

At the very end of the decade, an immense vision of the future arose just outside the city: the 1939 New York World’s Fair, with the theme Building the World of Tomorrow.

This huge and hugely popular fair, spread over 1216 acres outside New York City, hosted pavilions and exhibits from more countries than any world’s fair before it, yet was planned to be more than an international trade show or patriotic pageant (though it was both of those.) It had a purpose: to make the future physical.  It carried on the 1930s spirit of building on a big scale into the transformative future.

Akin to an impossibly large Art Deco science fiction film set, the Fair as a whole as well as individual buildings and exhibits were the work of some of America’s best designers. Hundreds of gleaming buildings demonstrating technologies no one had seen before were carefully arrayed in a spacious landscape, permeated by fountains and greenery, with the Lagoon of Nations at its center.

Elegant and otherworldly, playful and serious, hokey and inspiring, the 1939 World’s Fair was a future vision that people could walk around in.

And some 44 million people did, from all over the country and elsewhere in the world. Some 90% of American surveyed said they wanted to see it. Many who visited did so more than once—a third of those who attended in the Fair’s last months were there for at least the fifth time. Others (usually nearby New Yorkers) visited 20, 100, even 200 times over the Fair's two year life.

President Franklin Roosevelt opened the Fair, promising those who came that “they will find that the eyes of the United States are fixed on the future.” The opening was the first public event in America to be broadcast on television, though there were only 200 existing TV sets to receive it.

The two major exhibits were Democrcity, depicting the America of a century ahead, and Futurama in the General Motors building, which foresaw a 1960 future of superhighways, streamlined cities and quiet suburbs embedded in green landscapes. Visitors left the Futurama experience bearing a white button with dark blue lettering that said simply, “I have seen the future.”

These were visions for a 1930s America in which less than half the population owned a home or a car, and where even an uninterrupted four-lane highway was unknown (the first, a section of the Pennsylvania turnpike, would open as the Fair closed.)

So the Fair spoke on a personal level. An exaggerated version of the urbanizing, modernizing effect of this future was seen in an animated cartoon of the time by Max Fleischer. It depicted a rural couple that arrives at the Fair in a horse and buggy, and thanks to various automated processes, they leave as swinging cosmopolitans in a fast new car.

Apart from the usual technological wonders unveiled at a World’s Fair (in this case television, florescent lights, FM radio, new generations of aircraft and a long distance telephone system, as well as a robot and a rocket to Mars) the 1939 Fair directly addressed what else would have to change for a better future.

One exhibit showed four levels of income: subsistence, maintenance, “the good life”, and luxury. A third of the nation was indeed below subsistence (as FDR had famously proclaimed) and 90% of Americans were below the “good life” minimum income.

The exhibit asserted that to raise the income of the entire population to “the good life” minimum was no fantasy. “With modern technology and power production, it is no longer physically impossible...we need to discover a workable formula for its distribution to ‘Three-Thirds of a Nation.’”

For all its consumer hoopla and the self-serving future centered on superhighways for General Motors cars, the Fair aptly demonstrated a formula for building the future, as noted by columnist William Lippmann who came away from the Futurama show “feeling that men are right when they affirm the value of private enterprises and when the affirm the necessity of public enterprises: where they go wrong is in denying that both are necessary.”

As the Fair seemed to conceive it, the future required that combination applied to the opportunities provided by science and technology. “We were great believers in Science in the Thirties, the Depression time,” wrote Arthur Miller in his foreword to works by Czech science fiction author Karel Capek. “Our problem seemed to be that scientific objectivity was not being applied to social problems, like that of scarcity in the midst of plenty.”

“See the sun through the gray/the dawn of a new day,” went lyrics to the World of Tomorrow song, as belted out by Ethel Merman. In the anxious drabness of the times, the Fair was a sanctuary and an escape into a hopeful future. Those who created the Fair insisted it was realizable. “The tools for building the world of tomorrow are already in our hands,” said the Fair’s science director. “Action is our slogan...If the world is awry we can change it.”

But the world was becoming even more seriously awry. Because the Fair’s future seemed to become immediately obsolete when World War II broke out in Europe before it had even closed, it is often characterized as a naive Art Deco pipedream and a sadly ironic failure. Yet major elements of its vision proved out as blueprints for the future.

It especially seems to have captured a passionate interest in the future, in the midst of so much suffering. Historian William Manchester noted that, in contrast to their elders, the young in the 1930s had a different look. “There is an intensity to their expressions,” he wrote. “They are leaning slightly forward, as though trying to see the future. And they are smiling.”

Even through the intensity of World War II, the future remained a motivating focus. In searching for the purpose of enduring the most destructive years in world history, many looked to the effects on the future. Apart from preserving freedoms and independence, they found meaning in the cooperation of Allied nations and in the troops from many backgrounds working together. These were felt to be the living seeds of a more united world, and a prosperity more equally shared.

The unique and frequent wartime radio productions by Norman Corwin on the CBS network were particular conduits of these hopes for the future. Corwin was the best-known and most influential radio writer and producer of the 1940s, when radio was the primary mass medium. His popularity was based on a form of program he essentially invented. According to radio historian Gerald Nachman, they were one of a kind, “blending drama, history, journalism, verse, narrative, music and sound into a kind of radio tone poem, using the finest actors, composers, poets and special effects available.”

Corwin wrote about the anonymous GI, the “little guy” who proved his mettle and judgment in the war, and who could do great things when given the opportunity. These soldiers deserved good housing, health and education when they returned.

International cooperation along with the nature of a world war broadened the horizons of those involved in it, as interdependence seemed a foregone fact of future life. “Before this war all of our countries were islands,” Corwin wrote in a broadcast script, “each one of us cut off in spirit from the rest of the world...But now we’re together...”

Corwin caught this attention to the future from more than American troops. He quoted an English officer who insisted that after the war “things are never going to be the same as they were...We’ve discovered that the idea of every-man-for-himself, that the old class distinctions have outlived their usefulness.”

Ordinary soldiers must insist, he said, “on a new life—by demanding that the same tremendous sacrifice and energy, the same resources of men and material that are put into a successful war be put into a successful peace.”

In England, a version of this desire was general enough to lead immediately after the war to such major changes as nationalizing the mining industry, enacting universal healthcare and other aspects of what came to be known as the welfare state.

In the United States, responses included the GI Bill of Rights, which supported returning troops and provided funds for their higher education. This provision was an immense success, enabling millions of men and women to attend college, who would not have otherwise had that opportunity. (The G.I. Bill, unlike some other postwar programs, did not discriminate on the basis of race.) This also changed higher education permanently, from serving only the elite.

But at the same time, much of Europe was in a shambles, its future in question. Between a half and two-thirds of the housing in major European cities had been destroyed. There were between 13 and 20 million displaced persons. Starvation and disease swept across Europe.

Much of the devastation was due to the bombing in civilian areas, more and more relentless towards the end of the war. Some cities and villages in Italy and other countries had been bombed repeatedly by the air forces of four or five nations on both sides.

 It something that World War II added to warfare. Whereas the casualties of World War I were 95% military, only a third of those killed in World War II were soldiers. Two-thirds were civilians. “There has never been such destruction, such disintegration of life,” wrote Anne O’Hare McCormick of the New York Times in 1945.

Seeing the present need but also the future implications, the United States under the direction of its wartime military leader, General George C. Marshall, undertook a massive program of aid to Europe, with the financial partnership of European countries. With popular support in the US, the Marshall Plan made a decisive difference in Europe’s survival and its subsequent prosperity, as well as creating the impetus for nations to cooperate, leading eventually to the European Union.

Marshall was the first military leader to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. The Marshall Plan can be seen as partial vindication for the war veterans whose motivations included fostering a framework for a more peaceful international future. The same might be said for the formation of the United Nations immediately after the war.

With their reflexive imagery of the Organization Man commuting from and to to his sedate (or sedated) suburb, the 1950s of President Eisenhower are not normally seen as particularly engaged with the future. But the gigantic federal highway program, together with federal loans and other housing programs, literally paved the way for the suburban expansion, as well as partially fulfilling those Futurama visions. These and other public investments were largely enabled by high tax rates on the wealthiest Americans, even with Republicans in power.

Meanwhile, the rapidly expanding American consumer industries were transforming pre-war innovations like television into new foundations of post-war life. New chemicals and plastics changed the substances of life, while the nation became linked with highways and faster airplanes.  The future was appearing, now named as the demi-god Progress.  The General Electric advertising slogan summed up this aspect of the 1950s: "...progress is our most important product."

The election of President John F. Kennedy in 1960 brought a set of more articulated arguments for focusing on the future as motives for present action. The Peace Corps, the space program’s goal of landing a man on the moon, the nuclear test ban treaty and Civil Rights proposals were among those actions that Kennedy justified with historical perspective, and with the future in mind.

Throughout the postwar decades, an enormous shadow had fallen over the future. The first atomic bombs that destroyed two Japanese cities in 1945, followed by development of nuclear and then thermonuclear arsenals in the US and the Soviet Union, with missile systems to deliver multiple weapons of unimaginable power in a virtual instant, severely darkened the human prospect.

The threat of nuclear Armageddon combined with the dour mood following President Kennedy’s assassination.  Together with the growing dissent and discontent over the Vietnam war, they fueled intense and sometimes desperate attention to the future.

 This included new interest in comprehensive and systematic approaches to the future in the late 1960s and especially throughout the 1970s. It was the golden age of futurism, of studying the future.

To be continued...

More information and photos on the Great Depression, the 1939 World's Fair and the Marshall Plan by following the links to posts on Soul of Star Trek.

Monday, February 05, 2018

Present: A Quotation

“When Pandora opened the fabled box and let sorrow and trouble loose in the world, she was still left with the spirit of hope, the possibility of visions.”

Fred Polak