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Category: Politics

Future Shock and Fast Trains

Here is a thoughtful obituary from NYT for a man and an idea: Alvin Toffler and his 1971 book, Future Shock. I say it’s an obituary for the idea as much as the man (Toffler died on June 27), because the shock’s worn off, and lately I’m feeling all we can do is strap in for interminable future nausea.

Speaking of nausea, the opening montage of this 1972 Future Shock documentary — narrated by Orson Welles — features some truly guttural synthesizers and provocative jump cuts between violence and riots. It would feel quaintly dystopian if we didn’t live in a time when snuff films widely circulated on mainstream US media lead to armed revolt against the police.

Anyway, the NYT profile neatly illustrates how Futurist forecasting, which was both a key propaganda tool and a useful legislative function during the Cold War, has been largely subsumed within the commodification of “innovation” best represented by Silicon Valley and its separatist, post-national world order. The brightest futurist minds in the West these days seem mainly preoccupied with building AI and imposing some stopgap ethical rules on its ascendance. Politically speaking, the problem of the future has been steadily exorcised from both sides of the US Federal government’s partisan agenda since the ’80s:

In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, as the American government began to spend huge sums in the Cold War, futurists became the high priests of the coming age. Forecasting became institutionalized; research institutes like RAND, SRI and MITRE worked on long-range projections about technology, global politics and weaponry, and world leaders and businesses took their forecasts as seriously as news of the present day.

In 1972, the federal government even blessed the emerging field of futurism with a new research agency, the congressional Office of Technology Assessment, which reviewed proposed legislation for its long-term effects. Futurists were optimistic about lawmakers’ new interest in the long term.


Newt Gingrich has long been enamored of science fiction — he wants to build a moon base. But when Mr. Gingrich, a Georgia Republican, became speaker of the House in 1995, he quickly shut down the Office of Technology Assessment. The government no longer had any place for futurists, and every decision about the future was viewed through the unforgiving lens of partisan politics.


“It is ridiculous that the United States is one of the only nations of our size and scope in the world that no longer has an office that is dedicated to rigorous, nonpartisan research about the future,” Ms. Webb said. “The fact that we don’t do that is insane.” Or, as Mr. Toffler put it in “Future Shock,” “Change is avalanching upon our heads and most people are grotesquely unprepared to cope with it.”

Yes, it is insane. Even on a cultural level, it seems we Americans are grotesquely unprepared to face the future, and will be at least until the weeping wounds of the past are addressed. We can’t escape from them into VR, and a real civil war would “disrupt” technological progress in a way not even the most hardcore Valley evangelist would find useful.

Pivoting to China, which has its own set of political problems vis-a-vis future shock (“historical nihilism”, “digital sovereignty”, et al), here are two things I read recently that demonstrate how much more prepared it is to mitigate some of the more potentially catastrophic future shockwaves.

One is this detailed, data-rich analysis of how China’s high-speed rail (HSR) system is working. (TLDR: very well.) According to one estimate, per-passenger greenhouse gas emissions from HSR travel are “13 times less than a bus (30g), 50 times less than a car (115g) and 70 times less than a plane (153g)”:

As far as I know, the only HSR currently under construction in the US is the California High-Speed Rail, which began formal planning in 1996 and broke ground… last year. They plan to have the first stations open by 2025.

The Chinese Ministry of Railways, meanwhile, began shopping around for the prototype of what would become its current standard gaotie (高铁) bullet train in 2003, started technology transfer in 2006, and had the first line operational by 2007. Now China’s HSR network looks like this:

China plans to use “railway diplomacy” to additionally construct HSR lines connecting out to Seoul (by 2030), Singapore, and Moscow. The US will at best have a line connecting Northern to Southern California in that timeframe. The idea of the Federal government coordinating a nationwide HSR system seems pretty far-future, even though Obama outlined a national HSR initiative in 2009:

Already, $8 billion from the stimulus plan has been dedicated to this initiative and the president has requested another $5 billion over the next five years. The Department of Transportation will begin distributing funds to projects before the end of this summer.

I’m curious where that money has gone. Certainly not into building trains. Obviously there are bigger fish to fry now, and we’re not likely to hear Trump or Clinton talk about high-speed rail at a time when identity politics and asymmetric war dominate the national conversation.

The other thing I read recently was this: China’s plan to cut meat consumption by 50% cheered by climate campaigners

Also doesn’t seem like a conversation we’re anywhere near having in the US.

Of course China has the advantage of leveraging a technocratic autocracy to address these problems of future, and I’m not sure where Americans might find a balance between our democratic principles — which are kind of loudly and lethally self-detonating right now — and the radical, top-level reorganization we’ll need to get ourselves on track.

That’s a train pun. Incidentally, a ride on a Chinese fast-train is very smooth.

Sorry if this long trip into HSR-worship seems like a digression. It’s not. Global Times, one of the Chinese government’s preferred propaganda blasters, has a warm obit for Alvin Toffler, “China’s favorite futurist”:

Named “one of the top 50 foreigners who have had the greatest influence on China in recent centuries” by the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of China, Toffler’s influence in the country began in 1983, when he and his wife Heidi gave lectures on [Future Shock sequel] The Third Wave at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Shortly after, Toffler’s The Third Wave was translated into Chinese.


“We were in China about two years ago. People came up to us and told us that they can still remember bicycling 10 miles to watch The Third Wave television program,” Toffler said in an interview with in 2006.

NYT’s official obituary for Toffler adds:

Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang of China convened conferences to discuss “The Third Wave” in the early 1980s, and in 1985 the book was the No. 2 best seller in China. Only the speeches of the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping sold more copies.

I doubt The Third Wave or Future Shock were as influential among the US political elite in the ’80s. Maybe that’s why I feel so sick today.

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Orwell and Brexit

I recently read All Art is Propaganda, an edition of George Orwell’s critical and political essays from a bit before to just after WWII. The moral crisis he experienced as a British writer at that time yields endless lessons to someone like me, writing as an American today. Speaking of today, I felt an acute need to skim the highlights I archived while reading the book. Its title is an aphorism that Orwell repeated, but I think he said it best in his essay on Dickens:

All art is propaganda. Neither Dickens himself nor the majority of Victorian novelists would have thought of denying this. On the other hand, not all propaganda is art.

Orwell in Spain

After the skimming this one stuck out, from Wells, Hitler and the World State. In it Orwell criticizes a newspaper column by Victorian sci-fi master H.G. Wells that laughs off the idea of the Nazis ever gaining any real ground against Britain. Orwell says that we shouldn’t underestimate the old powers of ethnic nationalism and fascism, because they can sweep the world before we realize they’re there. I don’t really know what I mean by “we”, probably something like “educated liberals.” But that’s the point:

The energy that actually shapes the world springs from emotions — racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, love of war — which liberal intellectuals mechanically write off as anachronisms, and which they have usually destroyed so completely in themselves as to have lost all power of action. The people who say that Hitler is Antichrist, or alternatively, the Holy Ghost, are nearer an understanding of the truth than the intellectuals who for ten dreadful years have kept it up that he is merely a figure out of comic opera, not worth taking seriously.

Hmm. Well that tragicomedy has set deep roots in UK and US politics as of this writing. I fear I might be doing a disservice to Orwell’s love of brevity here, but I need to include this excerpt from his essay Writers and Leviathan, because it reminds us that before criticizing anything, we need to sacrifice at least half our pay:

A modern literary intellectual lives and writes in constant dread — not, indeed, of public opinion in the wider sense, but of public opinion within his own group. As a rule, luckily, there is more than one group. But also at any given moment there is a dominant orthodoxy, to offend against which needs a thick skin and sometimes means cutting one’s income in half for years on end. Obviously, for about fifteen years past, the dominant orthodoxy, especially among the young, has been ‘left’. The key words are ‘progressive’, ‘democratic’ and ‘revolutionary’. While the labels which you must at all costs avoid having gummed upon you are ‘bourgeois’, ‘reactionary’ and ‘Fascist’. Almost everyone nowadays, even the majority of Catholics and Conservatives, is ‘progressive’. Or at least wishes to be thought so. No one, so far as I know, ever describes himself as a ‘bourgeois’. Just as no one literate enough to have heard the word ever admits to being guilty of anti-Semitism. We are all of us good democrats, anti-Fascist, anti-imperialist, contemptuous of class distinctions, impervious to colour prejudice, and so on and so forth. Nor is there much doubt that the present-day ‘left’ orthodoxy is better than the rather snobbish, pietistic Conservative orthodoxy which prevailed twenty years ago, when the Criterion and (on a lower level) the London Mercury were the dominant literary magazines. For at the least its implied objective is a viable form of society which large numbers of people actually want. But it also has its own falsities which, because they cannot be admitted, make it impossible for certain questions to be seriously discussed.

(Emphasis mine.)

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Politics of Geography

This is kind of cool, kind of terrifying:

It is billions of people’s maps, according to Google, but it is also Google’s map, and as the company’s Geospatial Technologist, Parsons’s job is meant to make users and governments feel comfortable with Google’s control of it. As it seeks to maintain growth, Alphabet Inc. has bet big on personalizing Google’s flagship products—search, maps, and mail—which means capitalizing upon ever more sensitive information about where users go, and what they do there.

Geopolitics today is still largely the geopolitics of yesterday: land vs sea power (though the sphere of ocean action has shifted to the Pacific), superpowers arming each other’s neighbors, “New Silk Roads”, etc, etc. But geopolitics today is also the actual politics of geography, from the global to the personal level, and is no longer practiced exclusively by nation-states.

Google’s brand of cultural imperialism is maybe more pernicious than any one country’s, since its ultimate goal is absolute, unquestioned ubiquity:

“That is my job, to be that kind of lightning conductor, good and bad,” [Parsons] says. “My job is about evangelism, trying to get people to see the world the way that we see the world.” […]

To compete with a range of tech titans — besides Apple, companies like Nokia, TomTom, and Microsoft have invested heavily in mapping technologies — Google is focusing on personalization. Parsons’s hope is that using an increasingly personalized Google Maps—and syncing one’s location with surrounding devices, from your cell phone to your garage, heater, and car—will pass what Google calls “the toothbrush test.”

“Is the technology so valuable, so familiar, that you use it every day, that you don’t really think about it?” Parsons asks. “To get that level of trust, we need people to understand and be completely confident with it. You only use your toothbrush every day because you’re completely confident that it’s not poisoning you, it’s not going to make your teeth fall out.”

It’s the tech lords’ world grid, we’re just living on it. The article coins the fun phrase “surveillance as cartography” — I think it’s the other way around, though.

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More Horror

The 2016 US presidential election in two tweets:

Clinton’s first reaction is to send thoughts and wait for facts. Trump’s is a stream of factoids, breathlessly repeated keywords (tough, smart & vigilant) and appeals to Islamophobia. His tirade reads more like ‘sending thoughts’ than Clinton’s studied response, and of course got him yet another wave of free media. It also sounds a lot more like how people talk.

The former Secretary of State followed up with an official statement, saying that:

we need to redouble our efforts to defend our country from threats at home and abroad. That means defeating international terror groups, working with allies and partners to go after them wherever they are, countering their attempts to recruit people here and everywhere, and hardening our defenses at home.

On the one hand, a callous absorption of tragedy for short-term political gain, which is exactly how Trump responded after Paris. On the other, a vaguely worded commitment to more global drone war, domestic surveillance, etc etc.

Trump’s diction is simple to the point of idiocy (“be smart!”), which explains why it’s so popular. Clinton sounds exactly like a politician. (Where else do people speak of “redoubling efforts” these days, besides DC?)

It seems likely that there will be another mass shooting in America before November, possibly even one attributed to ISIS. With more horror looming, each presidential candidate will need to talk about it before they get a chance to actually do anything about it.

Obama has given this speech about 15 times now. He must be incredibly weary. The next President has already begun dress rehearsal, and the words each candidate uses now will decide who wins. Clinton’s speech is presidential; Trump’s is a seismic shock aimed at fissures in American society, toward those who would make him king.

For now, in our own words and prayers, we’re all sending our thoughts to Orlando.

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