Srulik (ymarkov) wrote,
Srulik
ymarkov

A Response to Fukuyama, part 1

This essay was written at the close of the 20th century, but still reads pretty fresh.


A Response to Fukuyama
By Kirill Yeskov
10/22/2010

"The end of history?" You should live so long!

"All attempts to make a detailed prediction of the future appear ridiculous if not pathetic a posteriori."
Boris Strugatzky


It's really amazing how the magic of a surrepticiously approaching round date affects the minds of apparently sane people like yours truly, prompting them to truly strange actions. I'd never imagined I'd be writing down my opinions on the future of human civilization, a sort of "soziologische-futurologischen Uebungen," if you pardon the expression...
Наш ответ Фукуяме
Кирилл Еськов
22/10/2010


("Конец истории?" -- "Не дождетесь!..")

Все попытки как-то детализировать облик грядущего выглядят aposteriori смехотворными, если не жалкими.
Борис Стругацкий

Нет, удивительно все-таки, как магия подкравшейся на мягких лапках круглой даты воздействует на умы вполне вроде бы здравомыслящих людей, вроде вашего покорного слуги, понуждая их к поистине странным поступкам. Вот уж никогда бы не подумал, что сподвигнусь на печатное изложение своих взглядов на будущее человеческой цивилизации; эдакие, извиняюсь за выражение, "soziologische-futurologischen Uebungen"...

"There are many kinds of fools. Now, will everybody please sit still until they're called upon specifically to rise? I had been all kind of fool except one." I have to interrupt the quote at this point because it's not treasure hunting (which is what O. Henry's character was about to engage in) that deservedly requires the dunce cap with bells as a uniform, but rather predicting the future.
"Дураки бывают разные. Нет, прошу не вставать с места, вас пока не вызывали! Я бывал дураком всех разновидностей, кроме одной..." -- но на этом месте справедливость требует прервать цитату. Ибо отнюдь не кладоискательство (коим надумал заняться герой О'Генри), а именно прорицание будущего заслуженно числится крайним в ряду тех поприщ, где в качестве спецодежды потребен колпак с бубенчиками.

Anyone surveying the pictures and sketches of the future will be more amazed by the authorship of some of them than by their almost universal incogruence. Mendeleyev, who thought that the biggest technical challenge of the impending 20th century would be how to deal with huge amounts of manure (since the population of horses was going to grow at the same rate indefinitely, of course); Einstein, who claimed that it was at least a hundred years before any practical use of nuclear energy about a dozen years before Hiroshima; Bernard Shaw, who envisioned the future map of Europe thusly: "France? Germany? These queer old geographical expressions which you use here from old family habit do not trouble us. I suppose you mean by Germany the chain of more or less Soviet Republics between the Ural Mountains and the North Sea. France, by which I take it you mean the Government at New Timgad, is too busy in Africa to fuss about what is happening at the ends of your little Channel Tube." This list can be continued ad infinitum. If the most brilliant minds of their time keep missing the target in their predictions of the future, what can a fool like me count on?
Любого, кто отправится на ознакомительную экскурсию по маршруту незабвенного Луи Седлового, поразит не столько даже несуразность буквально всех картин (и набросков) Описываемого Будущего, сколько авторство некоторых из них. Менделеев, полагавший самой сложной технической проблемой следующего, двадцатого, века утилизацию огромного количества навоза (ведь поголовье лошадей, ясное дело, будет и дальше прирастать прежними темпами); Эйнштейн, заявивший, буквально за дюжину лет до Хиросимы, что до практического использования атомной энергии дело дойдет лет через сто -- никак не раньше; Бернард Шоу, видевший политическую карту будущей Европы так: "Франция и Германия? Это устарелые географические названия... Под Германией вы, очевидно, подразумеваете ряд советских или почти советских республик, расположенных между Уральским хребтом и Северным морем. А то, что вы называете Францией -- то есть, очевидно, правительство в Новом Тимгаде, -- чересчур занято своими африканскими делами...". Список этот при желании можно продолжать до бесконечности. И уж если в своих попытках предугадать будущее постоянно попадают пальцем в небо даже самые блестящие умы своего времени -- на что тут рассчитывать дураку, вроде меня?


First of all, a fool shouldn't play with smart people on their field and under their rules - that's futile. But should he attempt something foolish instead, there may be an interesting result. Remember the joke about a drunk looking for his lost keys only under streetlights, because it's lighter there? If you think about it, his search strategy is not as dumb as it seems, since he can't find a key where it's dark anyway, even if it's there... So to begin with, let's define the "dark spots," where searching is fruitless and "lit spots," where the result is a matter of luck.


Attempts at a Socio-political Forecast
[Nearly untranslatable rhymed aphorism omitted]

One has to conclude that both science and fiction have demonstrated their total inability to forecast the major traits of our century's social make-up. Sometimes they get some details right, but those coincidences only underscore the glaring dissonance between the real and foretold future. Perhaps you remember Kabakov's anti-utopia Non-returnee, once a sensation, now almost forgotten? The author managed to predict sapper shovels and avangardist Schnitke's official recognition as a classic, but nothing else of importance.

How will the 20th century be recorded in history books? First and foremost, it was a time when the socialist idea was realized in the totalitarian regime form. Totalitarism had appeared independently, many times, on very different national and economic foundations - from mature capitalism in Germany to pure feodalism in Korea. (Therefore, I can't credit the idea of "a tragic chance coincidence" of Lenin arriving in a sealed railcar to be blamed for the Russian revolution - there was an objective worldwide trend.) All those regimes went through a quick boom followed by a quick bust. Note that no one managed to predict either the former (the very appearance of totalitarism) or the latter (the swiftness of its demise).

I can hear you clamor indignantly: "What about Zamyatin? What about Orwell?" Nothing - their works are irrelevant to our subject. To be more precise, they are only relevant to the extent they go beyond a pure sociological prediction. And while the story of Cincinnat C will move people while fiction exists, Orwell's propaganda piece will most likely suffer the fate of another "bestseller of the century" - What's To Be Done: after three decades, when those Europeans who had to read 1984 in school die off, no one will remember the Great Anti-utopia beside scholars. How so?

It's fairly obvious that the anti-utopias of the 20's appear like warnings only after the fact. In reality they were an extended (beyond any reasonable measure) polemic with the technocratic utopias of the departed 19th century. Please tell me what relationship those automated sterile worlds of cold rationality bear to the actual Stalin/Kim-Ir-Sen squalor of peasant serfs and rationed boots? Rather, Zamyatin and Huxley were engaged in a virtual debate with Herbert Wells, not relating it to the contemporary social processes. This is not a criticism - they were going about their own business, which did not include social analysis of the real totalitarian regimes in statu nascendi. Whereas the leitmotif of the next generation of anti-utopias was the absolute imperviousness of totalitarianism: "The boot on the face of man is forever." Attempts to defeat totaltiarianism with the help of a Deux ex machina (like in The Hour of the Bull) only intensified the feeling of helplessness. But there were important nuances.

I first got my hands on 1984 when a student in the 1970s. It was less than a decade till that date and it was already clear that the author had missed the mark in his prediction. As I remember it, the novel made the biggest impression on girls: Room 101 and the inability to have sex without the Party's permission was a combination of horrors that worked flawlessly on them. Meanwhile it was obvious to sceptics and pragmatics like me that the Angsoc homunculus that Orwell had painstakingly grown in the jar of Western stereotypes was a totally non-viable creature; once exposed to brutal reality, he'd die just like Wells's terrible Martians.

Only a Western author could have failed to anticipate that the telescreens, that foundational element of the system of total control, would break down eventually, and - horrors! - there'd be no "decaying West" where new ones could be bought for oil. I don't have to explain how repair services function under socialism (whether Anglo or any other kind): they'd show up to fix the screen, break down the wall, and leave. Surely any normal person would bribe them to mark his telescreen down as fixed; and since there would be spare parts shortages while the home office would demand results, those bribes would be accepted to mutual satisfaction. Meanwhile, the more competent repairmen would moonlight by affordably connecting the hardier souls to the closed telescreen networks of the Party, to watch after-hours porn from Malabar (or wherever the war is on). Then it would surely turn out that even what spare parts for telescreens are available are manufactured - for all three empires! - in Malabar. Of course, there's no war there; there are, however, embassies, consulates, spy stations, and other such institutions that employ the entire population of the Party bosses' offspring...

Zinoviev's Gaping Heights and its anti-utopian sequels are a whole different ballgame. Goethe's Faust it ain't, but for sure it's a degree of magnitude more powerful than the British Socialist's globally over-promoted horror story. I have never encountered a more comprehensive and multifaceted analysis of "real totalitarianism." The wall Zinoviev had dispassionately erected in his books "to block the flow of world history" looked absolutely impregnable. Its blocks fitted together so perfectly that it didn't even need mortar; it was a solid job.

The most curious thing happened when that wall came crashing down right before our eyes, suddenly and without a visible impetus. The author was so offended (by history?) for his destroyed creation as to behave weirdly: he began prophecising that this was only a ruse (just you wait - soon communism will rise worse than before!) and started hanging out with Communists. Sure, he had proved so convincingly that this nightmare was humanity's unavoidable lot, and then this - it's annoying! Honestly, it seems like Zinoviev today would give his right arm (or even something more important) to wake to the sounds of the Soviet anthem out of the fixed radio tomorrow. Not out of any love for the model, but only so as not to acknowledge the failure of his super-convincing forecast.

So basically, while totalitarianism was in the making as a social model, no one saw it coming; when it did arise, everyone expected it to last forever. And the same thing happens with practically all social and political expectations! Who would've thought that Great Britain - the living embodiment of the "Let justice be done though the heavens fall!" principle - would be in the lead of the builders of a new world order, in which all foundations of international law are subordinated to so-called "human rights," interpreted narrowly under a double standard? It's not just the antics of a given Social-Democratic government that first arrests a legally arrived foreign senator with a diplomatic passport, and then intervenes against a European state with internationally recognized borders and a duly elected government in favor of a separatist rebellion. More important is that 90% of Englishmen, supposedly brought up (unlike us) on Dura lex, sed lex and Pacta sunt servanda, fully support these lawless actions: why, Pinochet and Miloshevich are bad guys!.. An England that decides to live by feeling rather than law - what can one say? (It was precisely NATO's aggression againt Yugoslavia that gave Russia its carte blanche for "the final solution to the Chechen problem," and the Western indignation today with Russia's operations in the Caucasus look ridiculous: "These people would teach us?!")

Or take another aspect. During the first half of the 20th century few doubted that if there were to arise a new economic powerhouse comparable to Western Europe, USA, and the USSR, it would be Latin America (see, e.g., Zweig's Brasil, Country of the Future). Indeed, Argentina and other leading states on that continent were growing like crazy back then. Who would've thought that after WWII, which only benefited them, they would lapse into a 50-year economic lethargy? As is clear now, a new non-Atlantic center of civilization did indeed arise, but in an unexpected location: Asia Pacific. It was the Eastasian countries that made a brilliant transition into the 21st century despite all the "objective hurdles:" neither having to rebuild Japan from radioactive ashes, nor the monstrous socioeconomic experiments that bled China for decades, nor even the lack of any sizeable natural resources, especially oil.

All right, suppose we give up on global forecasting. However, it turns out that one can't make reliable predictions even in one's own professional specialty. In Strugatkys' Lame Fate the protagonist, writer Felix Sorokin, who keeps his most important novel in a Blue Folder deep in his desk, encounters Bulgakov's reincarnation. The latter had created a machine that can predict the success of any fiction text by determining its LNOR - Likely Number Of Readers. Bulgakov-2 first denies being the original: "How can I be him? The dead are dead forever, Felix Alexandrovich. It's a fact, just like manuscripts burning to cinders is a fact, no matter what He says." Then he suggests to Sorokin a possible fate of his manuscript that is so terrible as to never having even occurred to him: "The damned machine could display on its screen - no, not a seven-digit acknowledgment of my accomplishment, not even a proud single digit indicating that the world is not yet ready to accept the contents of the Blue Folder; the machine might display a round and solid 90,000, meaning that the Blue Folder will be duly accepted for publication, duly scheduled for printing, and the printing press will spit it out only to wind up on the shelves of local libraries next to other trash, leaving neither trace nor memory, buried not in the honorable sarcophagus of a writer's desk, but in warped covers of discounted cardboard."

I won't dwell on the fact that in today's networked computer age manuscripts really don't burn (whether for good or ill). I'll only mention that I still treasure, as a relic of the times, an "electronic calculator" (the word "computer" not having been in use then) printout of the Strugatzkys' Tale of The Troika made in 1982 - the same year they wrote Lame Fate, so one already could've guessed the potential ineradicability of manuscripts back then. It's much more interesting to consider those "round and solid 90,000" today. It's not just that the supposed "the most mass-reading country on Earth" has sank into oblivion together with its divorced-from-reality print runs. The very number is a memory of that naive epoch, when the notion of a bestseller (which is what LNOR is about) was, indeed, significantly correlated to the notion of "masterpiece," however weird it may seem. The Strugatzky brothers, raised like all of us on the Great Russian Literature, couldn't even imagine that in about a dozen years the Book will become a good just like Snickers, Pampers, and SU-27 fighter-bombers; that with enough marketing spend anything can be turned into a bestseller with awesome LNOR - some Crooked vs. Crazy II or Monica Lewinski's reminiscences of the taste of Clinton's secretions... By the way, can any decent modern Russian writer boast an audience of 90,000? Perhaps Pelevin, maybe Weller... any more?

Sometimes a prediction does come true, and those are interesting in their own way. For example, in his anti-utopia Moscow-2042 Voinovich brilliantly anticipated both the iconic figure of Father Starry, Major General of Religious Forces with general's stripes on his clerical robes, and the national idea so cherished by today's statists: "The components of our Pentanity: people, Party, religion, watchfulness, and state security." This was written way before Communists began attending church in droves before learning which hand to use to cross themselves (viz. comrade Lukashenko stating recently while accepting a religious medal in Jerusalem: "I'm a Russian Orthodox atheist!"), and before our Patriarchy, decorated with the Orders of Lenin and October Revolution, tired of selling duty-free cigarettes and blessing mobsters' fancy rides, started angling to fill the temporarily empty chairs in the Ideology Section of the CPSU... Anyhow, I will hazard a guess that Voinovich managed to guess right precisely because he was trying to put together not the most likely version of the future (like Orwell and Zinoviev), but the most absurd one: "Communists embracing priests, can you imagine such nonsense?"

To sum up: it looks like there's no percentage in trying to predict social trends. Whatever you predict, it will come out differently. It's actually fairly obvious why this is the case, but that's for later.


Attempts at a Scientific and Technical Forecast
Here the situation seems the same: forecasters get some (often colorful) details right and miss the big picture. Also, a lot depends on how willing we are to play along with an author - to speak plainly, whether we fit the question to an already available answer, ignoring the difference between analogies and homologies. One can claim that when Jonathan Swift described the attempts of scholars of the Laputian Academy to turn ice into gunpowder, he had anticipated both "cold fusion" and the so far futile and costly attempts to achieve controlled hot fusion - but let's agree that such interpretation would be too much of a stretch. Let's call a spade a spade: from the standpoint of physics a human flight to the Moon inside an artillery shell is no more realistic than Sirano de Berjerac's flight there on the wings of doves, even though Jules Verne had placed that cannon precisely at Cape Canaveral. The decision machine of the Laputian sages is not a computer, and the Wells' Martians' heat ray and Garin's hyperboloid are not lasers (we might as well say that Archimedes' legendary mirrors that supposedly set the Roman fleet on fire were lasers).

The most interesting thing is that a whole bunch of technical innovations had appeared in their hardware form much earlier than in fiction. We tend to forget that Fulton's Nautilus (sic!) preceded Jules Verne's Nautilus by 65 years. Care to guess when the first missile was fired from a submerged submarine? In 1837 (in Russia, by the way)... No, this is not a typo, this was the year's of Pushkin's death. Certainly the missile was no Poseidon and the submarine was no Trident, but this factoid had impressed me a lot more than the descriptions of Persian rugs and marble statues in Captain Nemo's underwater lair.

Or take mobile phones: they appeared in our pockets directly, bypassing any fictional prototypes. Do you recall how people communicated in older science fiction novels? Via full-color, stereoscopic, stereophonic, sometimes olfactory, but always stationary videophones. Those were installed in every apartment and every office, and in special street booths. Such videophones could be produced right now, but nobody needs them - rather, we need simple cheap cell phones. Not that nobody had anticipated personal mobile communication; they did, of course, but how? Take Beetle in an Anthill: at the cusp of a top-secret operation, with the fate of the planet at stake, the operatives of the secret service agree before heading out to "communicate via bracelet," and it's obvious from the context that even this kind of 22nd century professional uses that kind of communication very infrequently. And do you remember how long it took brave agent Kammerer to get a response to his query from the Big Planetary Informatory? Two hours! Tell that to any Internet-surfing teenager if you want him to LOL.

We could argue whether the heat ray was a prediction of laser until kingdom come and persuade nobody. Personally, I'm no more persuaded by the list of Verne et al's "predictions" than by the modern readings of Nostradamus, by which he had supposedly predicted not just Hitler, but even Saddam Hussein. (In the same vein, Baron Munhgausen's "predictions" are a lot more impressive: obviously the deer with a cherry tree growing from its head is a product of genetic engineering and the mad overcoat is the result of careless experiments with fossil DNA.) It's more productive to check which predictions have turned out wrong.

It's understandable that we haven't mastered instant transportation and anti-gravity, haven't built a time machine and haven't contacted an alien civilization - but then nobody really expected that. No androids are in sight (but who cares), nor does a nuclear war - knock on wood - appear in the works, although many people still try to exploit this formerly rich vein, mostly out of inertia. But had someone in the 60s dared suggest that there'd be no man on Mars by the new millenium, he'd be laughed at. In that day and age the slogan "Humanity has entered the space phase of its development" was on par with "Volga empties into the Caspian Sea" or "Communism is the future of all mankind." Alas, it looks like the tired Mir space station, about to be ditched into the ocean, will be the tombstone of the space era as it was understood then.

This doesn't mean the end of spacefaring - quite the contrary. Doubtless the global satellite communication network will continue to develop; it's also possible that humanity will have to shell out for a global anti-asteroid system with space-based components. There are some very interesting energy projects like turning the Moon into a giant solar panel or mining helium-3 from lunar regolite and the gas giants for the future ecologically clean fusion power industry. The degree of madness of these ideas is just right for success. Obviously, though, this has nothing at all to do with growing apple trees on Mars, "our footprints on the dusty trails of far-off planets," and either The Great Ring or Star Wars. (I remind you that the brave captains of interstellar cruisers, privateers and the like usually plotted their courses "from Earth to Beta..." using slide rules and such.)

Military history is very instructive in this regard. The First World War was preceded by an unprecedented leap forward in military technology - machine guns, long-range artillery, tanks, airplanes, and poison gases all appeared in less than fifteen years. The latter, having played almost no battlefield role (0.3% of casualties), have made such an impression on the public as to become a sort of a trademark of the First Imperialistic War. Not surprisingly, writers envisioned further development along these lines of more "weapons of mass destruction" - Bulgakov's "sun gas," Tolstoy's hyperboloid (his Garin didn't spurn poison gas, either), and all sorts of death rays and bacterial warfare. Nabokov had even come up with tectonic weapons. But the next World War was fought with good old machine guns, tanks, and airplanes, and the only real innovation - ballistic missiles - once again played a psychological rather than a real military role.

After nuclear weapons made their debut the scenarios of future wars were not very diverse. Perhaps you remember the old joke of what a soldier is supposed to do during a nuclear strike? No, "don a white sheet and crawl to the cemetery" - that's for civvies; the Soviet Army soldier is to "firmly hold his AK-47 in outstretched arms, lest the melting steel burn through his Army-issue boots." But the realization that "the fruits of victory in a nuclear war will taste ashen" had gradually penetrated even the bronze brains of professional warriors. The resulting military doctrine, candidly called Mutually Assured Destruction, had achieved what all the pacifists of all times and places could not: "real" war was replaced by "cold" war - the arms race and competition of military technologies. It was as if Europe had reverted to the blessed time of the Ming Dynasty of China, where generals arranged their troops for combat and then met one-on-one and role-played the battle like a chess game - after which one honestly admitted defeat, and all soldiers went home. Or it was like a "no-touch" karate tournament where the blows are indicated rather than inflicted.

This "no-touch" fighting was so unusual that it seems that most of my compatriots still haven't realized the simple fact that the Third World War had already happened. In that war the Soviet Union fought alone against the rest of the world for over 40 years, exhausted its resources, and capitulated. (As a reminder, in a similar situation it took only five years to destroy Germany and Japan.) Under the terms of that surrender we lost all our colonies and a significant chunk of our own territory (the Belovezh agreement), put our army in such disarray that it still hasn't managed to subdue a handful of Caucasian bandits, and paid huge reparations - the $180 billion that had moved to the Western banks during privatization is a pittance compared to the value of hands and brains that left us for the West... Yeah, and what did you expect, having lost a World War?

We see that for almost a hundred years after first WMD appeared people were expecting the next war to employ them, only to miss the mark: WWII was conventional, WWIII was "cold", and the Kosovo campaign appears to have ushered in an era of virtual wars, in which the thing that matters is whatever ends up on CNN, rather than actual action. This is the typical fate of technological forecasts, because they're usually a linear extrapolation: if yesterday there was only one trigenkuator-based feedback sepuller in the world and there are ten today, then for sure there'll be a hundred tomorrow and ten thousand the day after...

This was the nature of that prediction by Mendeleyev about the planet covered hip-deep in manure. This was precisely how apocalyptic predictions were made - the ones that predicted humanity's demise from pollution by the end of the century in the 70s, and the ones that predicted tens and hundreds of millions of AIDS patients in the 80s. (Unlike the practical joker Mendeleyev, the masterminds of the other two PR campaigns had made a pretty penny on those scares, much like the PC guys did on the Y2K problem.)

This is why I have never taken seriously all those calculations of "peak oil" or "peak titanium" (for example, once we master the cheap energy problem, like with nuclear fusion, the oil problem will be solved once and for all, as exploiting the practically limitless reserves of oil sands will become energy-profitable). Or take the popular concept of "the Golden Billion," under which the developed countries' share of resource consumption will increase indefinitely, robbing the rest of mankind. That's the same rake on which the Marxists had tripped with their not entirely illogical projections of "permanent impoverishment of the proletariat under capitalistic development." Even if you don't allow for potential new resources (like the already mentioned helium-3 from space), it turns out that the energy density of GDP in the developed world is already decreasing thanks to information technology, and this is probably just the beginning.

Having writted down the above, I shivered - it's another linear extrapolation, there's no getting away from it. But, perhaps, it's not the principle that's the problem, but its implementation? Suppose we plot the curve using not just two data points (the present and the past), as in the above examples, but a more representative number? In other words, let's try to find a really long-term trend, provided that such trends exist in the history of human civilization at all. We won't care if it's progress or, conversely, degradation from a Golden Age, only that it be anisotropic.

Part 2
Tags: politics, translation
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