Thursday, June 10, 2010

A tale of a tale of a shareable future, part 2: Teaser

[Crossposted to]

Well, my original plan was to write next about my ambivalence towards capitalism, and how I ended up writing this series of blog posts, and whether the (implicitly modernist) short story of character, as a form, is still the correct vehicle for engaging a general audience in speculation about the future. And then I thought I'd write about open source.

But life continues to be hectic, so none of those thoughts are quite done, and in the meantime I've been working on the story, and amassing random notes and thoughts on it. And this was originally going to be a rough, unfiltered series of blog posts -- peeks over my shoulder while I work. If I try to make it a perfectly put together essay every time (with footnotes)... I may not post anything else until I deliver the story.

So maybe just jump in.

Here's how the story starts, at the moment:

There was a guy at the party who worked for money.
So naturally, Nera wanted to meet him.
None of her services knew if she would like him.

It's a little clunky, but I think it more or less works.

The story itself is up to 3157 words of rough first draft.

Here are some backstory notes from the file I've been keeping. They're rough notes, raw mind-riffs -- I haven't fact-checked the things I'm saying about history or technology; this is all just compost for my mental agriculture. (Feel free to offer corrections though!)

if this is 2060, Nera was born in 2018; her earliest memories of jobs and class would be from around 2023, say, five years old. That would be like my memories of 1974. Nixon, the space race, nuclear armageddon, men working in offices wearing ties, women entering the workforce, a wave of divorces, the oil crisis, Japan ascendant. Since then, startups happened, the rust belt happened, the web happened, jobs-for-life are gone; but there's not really much discontinuity in the global system. However consider someone born 1969 in, say, Prague -- for them everything changed. The wall fell in 1989, when I was 20. Let's say there was a major such event when Nera was 15 -- that's 2033. Epidemic, financial collapse, distributed fabrication, a fundamental shift in interpersonal and societal relations brought on by social networking. Between 2003 and 2033, social networking did for interpersonal relations what the industrial revolution did for the manufacture of industrial goods between 1810 and 1840, with results similar in scale to the revolutions of the 1840s. So 2033 was a revolution year all across europe, like 1848 or 1989/90; an anarchic revolution leading to a shift in the power balance between the triad of nation-states, multinational corporations, and "tribes" -- the new social groupings that are to (our) Facebook what a Ford production line was to the weaver's halls of medieval Flanders.

The divide "online/offline" is clearly a relic of an early era of computer-aided being -- the distinction only makes sense in reference to some connection impedance. In 1995 this impedance was physical -- you had to dial on your modem to get (your computer) online. Around 2005, for most middle-class knowledge workers in the rich West, the distinction between "being on your computer" (where "on" means not just "at" but "engaged with") and "being online" vanished, so online/offline is a distinction between two psychological worlds, the one we perceive when engaged with what's displayed on a computer screen, and the one we perceive when looking at other things. In (middle-class) 2010 where the screen is moving to the phone or pad, the distinction is one of glancing up or down; what's happening online is interwoven experientially with the offline already. By 2020 much of what's happening on your pad will be cued by the world physically around you. With widespread heads-up displays, etc., we get computer-enhanced reality... which is another way of saying just reality, for computer-enhanced us. We don't call it "online" any more than we need to say "I'll call you on the telephone". There is no "online", or there is only "online".

Nera is of Bosnian extraction; all four grandparents settled in Germany during the wars of the 1990s. Her parents were born at the turn of the century and were equally fluent in Serbo-Croatian and German, vocationally educated as florist and pharmacist. Nera's first language was German, her English also perfect, her Serbo-Croatian rusty; up until '33 she was being educated on the Gymnasium track, to become some kind of academic. One thought: if the revolutions of the 1840s were led principally by 30 and 40 year olds and the revolutions of the 1960s by 20 year olds, the vanguard of the revolutions of 2033 might be teens -- the generation for whom social networks no longer had to be prefixed with the word "online", but had always been, instead, their primary social world. Counterbalancing thought: the demographics are wrong for that. The youth of the 1960s were powerful partly because of their numbers, swollen by the baby boom (which is to say, by the enforced delay of breeding due to the large and gender-segregated temporary population transfers during 1939-1945) -- what would cause a similar baby boom in 2018? If we don't postulate a similar delay of breeding during 2012-2018, we are left with the thought that teens would be few in number. They might be an important presaging movement or fulcrum, but large numbers of older people would have to revolt as well -- people born 1990-2015, Millenials and their younger siblings. Particularly if we are talking about a revolt with the capacity to directly challenge nation-states and rewrite the rules of the money economy.

Or maybe we do have a suppression of breeding 2012-2018 and a later spike -- financial collapse, massive spikes in migration, climate change, religious ferment, major wars? Not sure any of those, in the 21st century, actually postpone breeding the way a big mid-twentieth century war did. Pandemic, though, that might do it. In any event, Nera was born at the tail end of Something Bad, in a bubble of recovery that then led to the chaos and innovation of the 30s.

The revolutions of the 1840s are an interesting model because they succeeded even though they failed. The actual rebellions were put down, the trappings of the old regimes retained -- but nothing was ever the same again. Thereafter, aristocrats only retained power insofar as, individually, they could succeed under the new system (naturally they had a leg up...)

There is now a large band of children in my house demanding dinner; some of them are even mine. So that's probably enough for now.

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Thursday, June 3, 2010

On inculcating values in children

This came up in the comment thread of that last post on; I answered it there, but it seems worth a separate post here.

Jason Sperber asked,

I'm the father of a five-year-old and a one-year-old, and I'd love to hear more about how you're discussing issues of economics, money, work, consumption and value with your children in ways that encourage them to question the [....] culture that surrounds them. I try to have conversations with my five-year-old about these kinds of things [....b]ut I'm not always sure my message is getting through, especially when she receives different messages from her friends at school. [....] I want to encourage the kind of questioning your children, Ben, seem to be doing on their own, without being too didactic.

I do so love it when people ask me about parenting. :-) I spend so much time thinking about it, and have relatively few opportunities for output. My answer here as little to do with the actual content -- critique of materialist, consumerist culture -- and more to do with the general problem of having beliefs you want to effectively communicate to your kids.

Here's what I wrote Jason:

One thing I would say is that kids learn relatively little from instruction. First, your influence as a parent is highly overestimated by society. People frame the "nature/nurture" debate as if the only things constructing kids' characters are genes, Mom, and Dad, and that's absurd -- already at five, kids are absorbing as much from peers, school, advertising, etc., as from parents. Kids are designed to soak up the culture they live in like sponges. And in a way, this is a good thing. They should be paying attention to the whole world, not just you. You want them taking in lots of information and thinking about it.

Then, granted that your influence on them is a fraction of the total environmental influence, I'd say the way that influence works is probably, let's see, 70% modelling, 20% listening, and 10% actual explicit input -- and of that 10%, 90% of what gets absorbed are things they asked on their own initiative because they wanted the answers. Meaning that the effect of prepared lectures by the parent is 1% of total parental influence which is only one voice in a lot of voices to begin with.

So, what you can actually do is, in descending order of importance:

  1. Live by your own values, and let them see you do it,
  2. Listen with an open mind to their thoughts, questions, and explorations, not rushing to give them answers, giving them space to have different opinions than yours,
  3. Answer their questions as honestly as you can, and
  4. Tell them your own philosophy.
Trying to ensure that kids hold certain opinions is a losing proposition. They will fight for the freedom to hold their own opinions and come to their own conclusions, so attachment on our part, as parents, is counterproductive. That doesn't mean we don't get to strongly express what we believe, and insist on behaviors we feel are incumbent to insist upon. We can do that while modelling respect for dissent and disagreement -- even pride in independent thinking where it differs from ours.

Ideally you present your kids with a consistent, passionately held view of the world. It's one option for them to sample, as they explore their universe. If you respect their opinions, they will tend to respect yours. They will conduct empirical tests, to determine whether you are bullshitting them or not. In the end, they are going to make up their own minds.

There's a separate, interconnected issue about what kids are exposed to. You can't stop them from having their own opinions, but that doesn't mean you have to leave them to passively bathe in the onslaught of commercial values being pumped out of the TV. You get to decide what environments you think are good for them -- not to control them and make them think like you, but to protect them and make them think like them.

Book recommendations: "Simplicity Parenting" and "How to talk so kids will listen, and listen so kids will talk"

I also added some specific examples relating to talking about consumerism, social justice, and economics.

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