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2007's Best: The Future
Alex Steffen, 31 Dec 07

Jer's Design for 10,000 Years

Last Spring, on a road trip, I visited Hoover Dam. It was as impressive as you'd expect for something taller and wider than the Great Pyramid of Khufu, a single structure that irrigates three US states. It's engineering with a capital E. That wears off after a while, though, especially if you consider the dubious environmental impact of creating the hemisphere's largest artificial lake. The thing that still impressed me days later was the monument there to commemorate the dam's construction. ...Or, rather, the monument's floor.

The floor of the Hoover Dam's commemorative art piece is a star map for its location on the date the dam was finished. They did that because this structure was so monumental they planned it to last thousands of years. They consciously planned it to last longer than this country, the English language, maybe longer than our civilization. They wanted to leave something readable by whatever future civilizations came along, and they reasoned that anyone advanced enough would have precise astronomy, and would be able to read the star map and calculate back through time to the date that the stars would have been in those positions for that latitude and longitude. It's brilliant. (And they have a textual explanation of it, inlaid into the floor in bronze, which is so verbose future archaeologists could practically decrypt English from it.) Nobody outside of The Long Now thinks that way these days.

Limits and Brilliance

...When we look ahead, the skies darken, and we see not aluminum cities of flying cars, but a "global Somalia."

No wonder, then, that we cling like a monkey with a wire-brush mama to the idea of a future in which engineering conquers the human condition, where we can leave off serious worrying about the planet until the godlike AIs get here, and in which, in any case, we can always jump ship and scuttle off to another planet if things get too hot.

Unfortunately, wishing doesn't make it so. Indeed, more and more of our best futurists, science fiction writers and big thinkers are trying to get us to dump our threadbare inherited tomorrows into the recycler, if only so we can start to think seriously about the real challenges we face today.

My thought piece The World With Us, was not one of my better works, but it did generate an enormous amount of press interest, as the book I was criticizing has become the best-selling environmental book of 2007

But The World Without Us suffers from an even bigger failing, which is that it's an easy and formulaic angle on the problems it addresses. It's not that hard to imagine the natural world recovering it's health in our absence: it's more difficult, and more necessary, to imagine it recovering its health in our presence.

In other words, what we need to imagine is not the world without us, but the world with us.

That's a tougher piece of work, because it involves something more than mere reportage grouped together in the wrapper of an imaginary (and bloodless) apocalypse. Imagining a future in which both human beings and nature thrive demands actually thinking in new ways, engaging in anticipatory journalism, teasing out the possibilities presented in various present and emerging innovations, and generally blazing a new path.

If there's any central premise to our work here at Worldchanging, it's this: that such a future is possible. That through the dedicated work of many people and the application of the innovations they can create together, we can create a planet of which both people and nature thrive.

My review of Matt Klingle's great book, Emerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle

Our cities could be seen as machines for transforming water, biomass and minerals into people and pollution. If we're serious about building a bright green future, we need to redesign those machines, keeping the people, but bringing the mechanism into a balanced cycle with the Earth. That's going be a bit challenging.

One thing we can do to increase our odds of success is to understand how our cities grew into the complex systems they now are. Indeed, not understanding what accidents, choices and forces shaped our cities almost guarantees that the new designs, policies, plans and technologies we introduce will either fail or produce monstrous unintended consequences. As Wendell Barry once said, "All good work remembers its past."

The past explored in Emerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle may have unfolded on the shores of Puget Sound, but this new book's insights are both cosmopolitan and timely. Matthew Klingle has made a hugely important contribution to the field of environmental history. More impressively, he's written a book that at once pushes the cutting edge of scholarship and yet will speak deeply to the people actually working to build more sustainable cities.

My essay The Empire of Crime

We feel no more historical vertigo considering the Machine than we do the Dawn of Agriculture, and few if any of us wake up in the morning with a sense of deep angst about the move from hunting and gathering to sowing and reaping. There may be, as Gary Snyder says, no such thing as a post-agricultural civilization, but we already live in societies that take agriculture so much for granted that we feel those who live by any other means to be nearly alien. The same will very soon be just as true for industrialization.

To see this new reality, one need only look backwards. The other night it rained hard here in Seattle -- in big warm drops that pinged off the skylight and drummed on the roof and lifted a metallic smell off the blacktop outside -- and I took the night off, cooked some pasta and watched Fritz Lang's classic 1933 film, The Testament of Doctor Mabuse.

I absolutely loved Mabuse! At first glance, it's a straight detective story, with Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke, playing one of the greatest cops ever caught on film) trying to crack a criminal conspiracy. But the conspiracy turns out to be anything but the usual organized crime syndicate: instead it is the evil cabal of the mad Doctor Mabuse, whose intellect is so powerfully twisted that even locked in an asylum in a catatonic state he can sway others to his cause through his insane scribblings.

Mabuse's aim? A "reign of terror" brought on by "the empire of crime" -- the destruction of society through terrorism. Mabuse's writings direct his henchmen to rob jewelry stores, commit assassinations, destabilize currencies, and blow up a chemical factory, poisoning the city's inhabitants. His testament -- a mix of handwritten words and drawings which resemble the kind of freehand journal kept by the more sensitive type of disturbed 13-year-old girl -- is so potent that the evil Doctor is able through his mad writings to exert powers of hypnosis and turn a formerly good psychiatrist into an insane agent of evil who channels his personality. It's great stuff, which despite the gulfs of seven decades and a foreign language, kept me totally riveted and smiling.

But after the film ended, I was left with a strange feeling, more akin to watching a really good and trippy science fiction movie than an old detective film, and after a couple of days thinking about it, I think I know why: Lang's sensibility in making Mabuse is every bit as alien as some outlandish futuristic world.

When life seems daily to be out-pacing the speculative fiction which is meant to induce a sense of wondrous future shock in our lives, the mindsets of 1930s modernists are as distant as colonies on Mars.

And Mabuse echoes in profound ways the concerns of its day: the pace, sophistication and industrialization of urban life. From its camera work and its use of sound (still novel for its time) to it expressionist graphics and modernist design fetishism (at one point, the heroine actually begins caressing a lampshade, in a way that marks her perfectly as the future target market for Dwell), the film alludes to the rise of a new mechanized city culture. Technologies (what were, in their day, the red-hot emerging technologies) are raised almost to the status of characters in the film: recording devices, scientific equipment for crime scene forensics and ballistics, cars and pistols and telephones (and thus car chases, gun fights and the tracing of mysterious calls) all play prominent roles.

All of this, though, builds to the film's prime question: "Who will use these incredible new technologies and capabilities, and to what end?" Lohmann uses them, in a sardonic style that can't hide his essential decency and bravery, to defend the public good, democracy and justice; Mabuse wants to use them to exert his power over the course of history. Indeed, Mabuse's testament reads much like the transcript of a bin Laden cave video. Here is a man who does not hesitate to destroy the innocent to make room for the promise of a vague, "purified" new order.

The resemblance to Nazism was intentional. Mabuse -- which tangentially was produced at UFA, where I stayed when last in Berlin -- was censored by Goebbels himself and banned throughout the Reich. Lang fled Germany almost immediately afterwards, with the film's premier being held in Budapest. The idea that a madman might use the force of personality and modern technologies to wreak havoc on the world unless good people stopped him was not, apparently, a welcome cinematic theme.

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Thank you for writing thought-provoking pieces.

this has been a great read (as well as the rest of the great stuff around "here").


Posted by: avi, israel on 4 Jan 08



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