2020 Vision

2002-08-25

Sometimes I wish I could blithely float along on the tranquil surface of the sea of ignorance. Unfortunately, I'm not constitutionally capable of doing so. Instead, I alternate between soaring high above the surface to broaden my perspective on things, and diving far below to deepen my understanding of human experience. Lately I've been doing a little of both, mainly with regard to extrapolation of current trends into the not-too-distant future. And much as I would love to be optimistic (as is my wont), I find myself quite depressed about the direction of the world, and particularly my home-country, the USA.

To focus my thinking, I've been trying to imagine what life, especially American life, will be like in the year 2020. Only hindsight is 20/20, and prognostication is notoriously imprecise, but extrapolating from current trends may give us some clues. For example, barring extreme changes in social and economic organization, we will continue to benefit from the power of technological innovation, which if anything will become even more pronounced. I'm not about to make specific predictions regarding those changes (since even ten years ago no one except a few visionaries could have foreseen the rise and influence of the Internet), but I do know that nowadays twenty years is a long time, and that things like ubiquitous computing, nanotechnology, and genomic engineering won't stay hidden in laboratories forever. Perhaps the only certainty here is the old cliche: expect the unexpected.

Here is another near-certainty: changes in human nature are glacial compared to changes in technology. I don't discount the practical power of knowledge in more humanistic disciplines such as psychology, nor do I dispute that human behavior can change radically over time, even from one generation to the next. But human nature, that mysterious bundle of drives and instincts and hopes and fears, remains, I think, remarkably consistent. There will always be people who are lazy or irresponsible, people who lust for power, people who steal or even murder -- just as there will always be people who are honest, productive, respectful, peaceful.

What kinds of traits and behaviors predominate depends on the full context of laws, institutions, values, ideas, and practices in a certain society. That is an enormous context to grasp, which is why "sciences" such as history and sociology are so slippery. But I think one can attempt to understand such a context by carefully observing and immersing oneself in a society. To the extent possible in my busy life, I attempt to do that with respect to American society. Yet the more I see and reflect, the less sanguine I become about the future of the place Lincoln thought was the "last, best hope of man on earth".

More and more, I see laws that presume guilt over innocence, that are passed for the sake of large government and commercial interests at the expense of the individual, that encourage one person to lie about and snitch on another, that are just plain frivolous (but that thereby further tighten the web of increasingly arbitrary control); that are, in short, unbecoming of a free people. I see institutions that encourage a crushing consensus of conformity, a culture of dependence, and the loss of responsibility and self-reliance in all areas of living. I see not values but their antithesis, a kind of amorphous fog of apathy and disillusionment. I see not the healthy intellectual ferment found in a free marketplace of ideas, but pressure to swim in the mainstream lest one rock the boat by expressing a thought that could be taken to criticize "what everyone knows" about everything from the environment to relations between the sexes to international politics. And I see practices, especially among those in power, that increasingly resemble the words and deeds of socio-political movements that were once thought to have been relegated to the dustbin of history.

My favorite dictionary defines as follows the type of political system that seems to be on the way, and that in many respects has perhaps already arrived:

A system of government characterized by rigid one-party rule, forcible suppression of the opposition, the retention of private owneship under centralized government control, belligerent nationalism, and the glorification of war.

The word defined thereby? Fascism.


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