I have been trying to formulate a detailed grounds for a science fiction story, and I have realized that I am out of sync with the current run of science fiction authors, because I am fundamentally an optimist about the future. I would consider science fiction without any attempt at accurate (or at least credible) social forecast to be somewhat silly, and my optimism about the future has been a major reason why I consider all the currently popular dystopian stories to have poor quality as stories.
We understand more and more about the consequences of our actions and the way our minds work. Big Data as we’re calling it now is teaching us things we never were able to test before. People have access to information and are becoming harder to deceive. When access to information is withheld from people, their ability to effectively use and allocate resources is so impaired that any society which withholds it is at a disadvantage immediately. On pain of its own decay into nothingness, societies cannot sustain such deprivation in the long run.
We are learning more and more science, including “hardening” what used to be called soft sciences like psychology and sociology and climate science to the point where they cannot be credibly ignored when formulating policy. We are more and more able to forecast complex systems, and we are more and more able to be aware of our environment and what we’re doing to it, as well as more and more able to be aware of other people and what we’re doing to each other. And it all adds up. It enables us, when we are motivated to do a better job than we’ve done in the past – that is, when we want to do good – to do it.
And most people? I firmly believe that most people are good. Of course the ones who seek power (including wealth) tend to be self-selected for self-interest, which when it is too extreme goes against that general trend. But that really doesn’t matter. The reason why it doesn’t matter is because the most effective allocation of resources, which will consistently outcompete other systems of allocation, is one that embodies a set of ideals and ideas that are consistent with fairness and moral good.
So, although robber barons will set up inequitable systems whenever they’re able, probably reinstituting slavery (or at least wage slavery) from time to time, and would-be utopians will attempt and horribly mismanage planned economies just as badly as the communists and socialists did from time to time, and racist or theocratic assholes will occasionally perform genocides and ethnic cleansings just as horrific as those perpetrated by the Nazis, in the long run those events won’t – can’t – give their form to the development of our culture.
There will always be competitors to those inequitable systems who are doing better than they are in terms of allocating resources in genuine service of the public good and advancement of those societies. When the competition is doing a better job, tyrants will always eventually be deprived of their control of resources, and with it the power to influence the future.
So In the long run the little twisted dystopias that such tyrants set up, even if not immediately and actively destroyed by good people who abhor them, will fade, becoming the footnotes in a history that documents the growth, spread, and economic domination of a fair and just society. And in the long run, when a particular nation turns its reins of power over to its tyrants, to those who believe they own other human beings – that society begins to rot away, and its resources will eventually be managed, whether in a short time after a war or in a longer time after slowly declining power, by a society that does better.
I call this principle “Right Makes Might.” If a government manages its society and allocates its resources in such a way that the people are empowered, informed, prosperous, and safe, with effective use but not diminishment of public goods, those people will outproduce any set of people governed by a system which does not, and the system that empowers, enriches, and informs them will, by virtue of being more productive, gain control of more economic resources faster. If the advantage is sustained, then non-equitable systems become increasingly irrelevant to the future direction of our culture, because their economic base, and inevitably their population base and resource control fade away.
So, in the long run, if you want to be mighty, if you want the economic power that will secure the blessings of the future for your people and your nation and your way of life, you achieve that by doing the right thing with respect to those people and that nation. Not for just the wealthiest few industrialists, and not for just the cronies of the politicians, and not just for the people of one favored religion or race or whatever, because such divisions always divide a nation against itself causing waste and destruction. But for the whole body of the people of that nation.
And Right Makes Might is, IMO, the fundamental principle underlying any sound government. To the extent that any government allows itself to be diverted from the course, playing favorites to any group, its people suffer and in the long run, even the ones to whom the favoritism is shown are weakened, as the context in which they are favored inevitably fades into irrelevance.
Which brings me to my vision of the future. I don’t know where it’s going to come from on Earth – what nation, what government, what people – but I can tell you right now that in a thousand years, the vast majority of humanity will be living in a context or system that maximizes the degree to which they are informed, empowered, prosperous, and safe, and minimizes the destruction of public resources – because everything else we do will get ruthlessly eliminated as people and nations compete with one another.
I can tell you that we will experience some pain in the next century or so as a result of the destruction of public resources (climate, ecology, fossil fuels) that we are now engaging in. But we will learn to stop that destruction. Because, bluntly, that’s going to become a matter of survival, and no matter who is making a profit this week or who is paying off legislators next week, when the problems become acute, a planet full of good and honorable people will care enough to put a stop to it.
There will still be mobsters and there will still be tyrants, and there will probably be cons and slavers and pirates and genocides and criminals of types we haven’t even been able to imagine yet. Nothing is too horrible to imagine tyrants doing at some point, but in the long run the systems that produce such destruction or risk empowering such tyrants are doomed, simply because that very destruction of value is inevitably a drag on the system that does it. I have no doubt that such people will be regarded as criminals, that their behavior will be an aberration rather than an indication of what’s normal, that ubiquitous information will allow them to be swiftly detected and caught, and that the vast majority of society will be run and sustained by the efforts of good and honorable people who are honestly doing their best for the whole.
I expect that war itself will become obsolete and that the number of starvations, deaths due to diseases, deaths due to homicides, and violent crimes per million population per year will continue to decline, just as it has for the last thousand years or so, to levels so low that we would consider them mindboggling.
Nevertheless, people will still be aware that those atrocities, however diminished in number, continue, and they will never consider the state they have achieved to be a utopia of any kind. It is not in our nature to be satisfied with our achievements, and that is good because that is part of why we keep striving to do better.
What’s open to speculation? I don’t know exactly what form the system takes. What set of principles will be the ones that emerge, to maximally empower the people, to keep them informed and prosperous and safe? It may not be what we expect. Some things we think are essential to avoiding tyranny, like privacy, may turn out not to be. Some things we think are irrelevant or not within our rights, like the ability to know exactly what someone spent money on and when, may turn out to be essential. Some things we think of as fundamentals of existence, such as identity and mortality and age, may become extremely hard to define, or irrelevant. Some concepts like family will inevitably change almost beyond recognition. Sooner or later we will have to make decisions about the creation or duplication of intelligences, and/or lifeforms, and/or people, and I have no idea what those decisions will be.
I believe that from here on it gets better. I believe that crime will continue, but that criminals will be caught ever faster. I consider it likely that war will become obsolete. I believe that the system we eventually settle into will maximize prosperity, safety, empowerment, and access to information. But I don’t know what form that system will take, because it will have to take form in the light of knowledge and decisions about things and possibilities we’ve never yet had any experience of. People will have the civil rights that turn out to be important, but we have only the vaguest of guesses yet which civil rights those will be.
So, yes, I guess there’s plenty there to write about. You just have to get used to the idea that you’re not going to be starting with a standard all-encompassing science-fiction dystopia, nor with what we 21st century humans would recognize as politics as usual. Nor, for that matter, with what we 21st century humans would necessarily recognize as people.