This highly recommended talk by Jeffrey Bleich, former US Ambassador to Australia, frames the context of a political upheaval that is almost too vast for any one person to comprehend. His words are carefully measured, orchestrated and intertwined with the rhetorical expertise of a ranking ambassador. I hesitate to quote any particular excerpts, because you need to read all of it.
The gist of Bleich’s address is that the world faces turmoils similar to what our immediate ancestors encountered a century ago. During the Second Industrial Revolution, roughly 1875–1915, the world experienced unfathomable degrees of disruption — fully in the Silicon Valley sense. Profoundly difficult for cultures and governments of that time to grasp. Responses world wide were both brutal and enabling.
Coming from a family of writers, I can just barely glimpse how challenging Bleich’s talk may have been to pen. My grandmother wrote romance stories, living off the grid on a prominent cattle ranch in Western Colorado. Arguably a bastion of conservative views, where our family proudly used a one-letter brand. Her dad had been an elected official there, carrying (and using) a six-shooter as part of his job up in High Country. My grandfather on the other side wrote texts about constitutional law, having been one of the relatively few people in the 20th century with hands-on experience developing a national constitution. My dad was a Persian mathematician who trekked to San Francisco during the Beat Generation. He’d spend hours each week beside a rocky shore known as the Gibraltar of the Pacific, writing heartfelt poetry in cadence with the pounding surf. The writer thing feels familiar.
About 100 years before me, my gg-grandfather and his brother where born roughly during the US Civil War and lived into the medial of the 20th century. Their lives followed that arc of the Second Industrial Revolution, of which Bleich spoke. They rode the Open Range from Canada to Mexico, even serving as scouts for a US President who traveled the West on horseback. Toward the end of their lives, they visited Europe and witnessed first-hand the brewing storm of WWII.
The rarities stack atop my dresser includes my gg-grandfather’s copy of his brother’s book, The Open Range and Bunkhouse Philosophy. Frank Dobie used that book as a cornerstone when he launched the famous Southwest Literature program at UT. Life experiences of those two brothers — so largely defined on horseback out in a vast, wild frontier — spanned from the introduction of railroads in the West, out through the startling invention and rapid spread of telecom, electric machinery, mass production lines, automobiles, aircraft, etc., and world wars.
Sometimes I wonder about the bewilderment and wonder in their lives’ arc, their sense of “dystopian near-future” translated a century earlier. The brothers Rush descended from “noble” family origins — a line which played notable roles in the founding of the US, including one signer of the Declaration of Independence and one of the most famous expeditions to explore the West. Coming down the line to their lives, they experienced incredibly hard work and humble quotidian routines. Ergo the aforementioned bunkhouse philosophy. Even so, their experiences spanned considerably more territory and rampant change than their better known kin. They were not entirely thrilled about what they’d seen, nor what they foresaw.
It’s clear from Bleich and nearly every other political expert of substance that almost no one understands what’s ahead for us. I’ll place bets on Science Fiction to provide more guidance than existing political institutions. In particularly, I highly recommend The Peripheral by William Gibson — which seemed surreal when it was published in 2014. Now the novel almost borders on journalism.
In a 2016 interview, Gibson described the pace of upheaval — echoing his tweets about how difficult it’s become for Science Fiction writers to project a novel future, when we live in a continually unimaginable present:
The level of freakiness we have experienced in 2016 is so far off the charts, I am having to go back and crank up the weirdness in parts of the book I have already written.
I urge you to read The Perhipheral — it does such fine work to show possible trajectories from our present. Notably “The Jackpot” around which the story revolves, so to speak.
Everyone needs hope. What we really don’t need is a Jackpot, some anthropomorphic extinction event that takes centuries to play out, with so much utter devastation. Unfortunately that’s where many in power are trying to steer us.
Staying hopeful, a few lessons pass down from my gg-grandfather, aside from his penchant for turning fruit juices into tasty alcohols… I’ve written a set of shorts stories to imagine a precursor to Gibson’s story. A few stories in that cycle are published here on Medium, namely: 虚幻世界 / Xūhuàn shìjiè, Sweet Home Al-Obama, and Hylburt-Speys. To paraphrase from one segment, one cannot prepare for that which one does not imagine. I’d written the outline for Sweet Home Al-Obama as a “what-if” exercise in 2010, feeling almost embarrassed about the title and subject. Not imaging how it could edge toward the transreal just a few years later.
Not entirely clear where those are headed, perhaps they’re merely Black Mirror envy. Or perhaps I’m taking cues from The Open Range and my ancestors a century prior, back when the world faced palpably similar turmoils. Writing from a vantage point in the midst of Silicon Valley and AI transformations — from which our looming Jackpot appears to emanate — here’s my suggestion for one avenue of approach out. One way to steer us beyond the conflict and deadlock, intended as a “real-world” antidote for the issues explored in this fiction: A modest proposal.