Pervasive and Obligatory Features

The Story So Far

And now we are ten! And this despite the fact that I can’t actually seem to reliably swing a weekly schedule yet.

The problem is that right now my reading list is basically “all US elections, all the time.”

Part of this is because I’m honestly just fascinated by the entire thing. I mean, how often do you get to watch a polity lose its collective mind in real time? That I, you know, live here adds a certain level of extra investment for me as well.

Politics also happens to be my day job (in a somewhat askew way). So I’m busy trying to read the tea leaves and figure out what the hell I’m going to be telling people on November 9th.

But as much as I may be preoccupied with the current electoral cycle, it just doesn’t give me enough material to write a whole issue of Five Futures. But I’ve finally amassed enough stories to do a new issue, though. There’s not as much narrative cohesion here as I’d like, and it’s a bit heavy on US politics, but it will have to do.

Empire-Building First, Sex Later

DNA studies are upending yet another established narrative, this time about the colonization of the Pacific by the Polynesians. We’ve known for a while that modern Polynesians have a pretty diverse ancestry. The standard story has been that the relevant ethnic mixing occurred before they began expanding into the wider Pacific.

Now it appears that story is exactly backwards. The ancient Polynesians spread out into the Pacific first; the sex came later.

The big surprise was that there was almost no hint of Papuan ancestors. Instead, all the DNA was most closely related to populations in East Asia - as you’d expect for a population that originated in Taiwan. The immediate ancestral population, however, seems to have intermixed with a variety of other groups in East Asia since, so there’s no clear source of the Polynesians left in Asia.

If the Lapitan people didn’t have any Papuan DNA, how did it end up in modern Polynesians? The authors looked for hints by examining how long the stretches of Papuan DNA are in the modern populations. While the stretches would originally have consisted of entire chromosomes, exchanges of DNA between pairs of chromosomes would gradually break those stretches up into smaller pieces. By examining their current length, the authors conclude that the Papuan DNA was introduced into the ancestors of modern Polynesians between 50 and 80 generations ago.

That works out to be 1,500 to 2,300 years in the past, which also happens to be part of the period when the Polynesian trade networks were likely to be flourishing. And as the authors point out, this was a period when inter-island warfare was a regular event, which could have led to population displacement.

“Population displacement” is such a bloodless term for war and captivity.

A Rupture of Cultural Narrative

And now, a few pieces of light reading presented with minimal commentary. Take some time to read through these (a few appeared in previous editions of Five Futures), and then come back for my (brief) thoughts.

A lot of people have called Trump a fascist, or at least (as I have) a proto-fascist. But I’m starting to think that fascism isn’t what’s going on here. Rather, a set of diverse trends - filter bubbles, the culture of “safe spaces”, increasingly fact-free elections - may be causing our sense of shared cultural narrative to collapse.

Now, not all of these trends are, by themselves, bad things. Filter bubbles emerge because search engines are trying to provide us with the most relevant results. Safe spaces are a reaction to the fact that words have real life consequences and a sizable number of us are, unfortunately, dicks. The dominant cultural narrative throughout the West has historically been shaped by and for wealthy white men. Trying to address these problems is, on the whole, a good thing.

But there’s a dark side to this: As our cultural narrative becomes ever more atomized, it also becomes more difficult to find shared principles upon which to base cooperative, deliberative systems. Eventually “facts” themselves become a matter of dispute. It’s impossible for us to verify everything we hear experientially, and thus any complex argument about the real world is ultimately based upon accepted cultural authority. Without shared narrative who determines what a “fact” even is comes into dispute.

For the cultural left, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The same cannot be said for the right, which seems to have adopted a sort of “fog of war” created by contradictory political statements and an overt rejection of experienced reality. Because the process on the right has been more intentional, it’s also much further along and more dangerous than similar trends on the left. While the rupture of narrative on the right has allowed ethnic nationalism to re-emerge as a political force, it’s not fascist per se. Rather, Trump and other leaders in the GOP are simply assembling a set of groups with divergent, often conflicting, worldviews into a collation and attempting to ride the resulting wave into power. Which would just be “how democracy works,” except that rather than unifying their base(s) with a shared narrative they’ve instead professed allegiance to all narratives simultaneously. Their words literally have no meaning. And because they have no meaning, everyone hears exactly what they want to hear.

In a world with no shared cultural narratives, “facts” are replace with group identification and allegiance. What we call “fascism” may just have been the most primitive manifestation of this loss of cultural cohesion.

The Banality of Information Warfare

Jezebel may have just broken one of the most important stories of the year, but damn did they bury the lead. It seems that a number of sites (including Jezebel) have fallen victim to an elaborate SEO scam involving wholly fictitious writers and stories. The case they cover in-depth concerns the fake author “Rachel Brewson.”

… Rachel’s main creator [is] marketing consultant Kenny Hyder … [who] … came to [the website used to monetize the character’s stores] Review Weekly through his friendship with Sheri “Charlie” Katz, an Israeli entrepreneur who runs a company called Equate Media. …


“The funny thing is we do this all the time,” he told me. “You guys just found one.”

Review Weekly, he explained, was “a content site that we did to run affiliate programs through.” The concept is called arbitrage: “You pay for traffic and then monetize it and try to turn a profit. But because of my background in SEO, it was natural to start some content and try to get some free traffic as well.”

Okay, how does this qualify as the biggest story of the year?

And then Brewson and [her equally fictitious ex-boyfriend] Todd were invited to appear on Nightline, where [the actors who played them] argued in a manner that seemed, even to a casual observer, to be staged.

So, the SEO scam managed to dupe a respected, mainstream news show. And then the other shoe really drops.

… But otherwise he claims the process of launching a fake person into TV fame was surprisingly easy, even with the picture discrepancy. I asked if anything about it felt unethical, and he said no, pointing out that no one at ABC or Nightline ever asked for ID or any other kind of verification.

“How is it unethical?” he added. “They wanted to interview her about this story that went viral and it was a story. You know what I mean? TV is all made up anyway. Why not join the fun? That’s the state of our reporting in this country.”

Besides, he says, “It’s not the first time for me, having a fake author get invited to go on TV.” He estimates that he has created “thousands” of fake characters over the years, and that seven or eight were as detailed as Rachel Brewson. (He didn’t want to tell me about any of the more detailed characters he said he’d helped create or where they appeared, saying it could hurt his livelihood.) He claims that “Rachel” isn’t even their most successful character: “She isn’t the biggest. That side of Equate was so minor, such a minor blip.” …

“It’s really funny because there’s stuff on TV all the time, people that are not real people,” he added, chuckling. “No one even knows, but us internet marketers just laugh.”

In a presidential campaign season awash with stories of international information warfare, the Brewson affair is something else again. Not because it appears extraordinary, but rather because it appears to be so completely banal. If we’re to believe Hyder (and it’s not entirely clear we should), these sorts of SEO-driven misinformation campaigns not only go on all the time, but are remarkably successful.

That the media is not to be trusted has long been the refrain of the paranoid and cynical. Certainly, mistakes happen and reporters are often biased. But to retreat entirely from the mainstream is to either withdraw from society completely or to discard any semblance of shared cultural narrative. In either case, the result is to amplify the centrifugal forces already pulling us apart.

One thing you frequently hear in more liberal circles is that demographics are on “our” side. While the trends are powerful, I think this belief makes people more sanguine than they should be about Democratic prospects. It’s unclear that an increasingly nativist GOP will be content to either temper its policies or accept political oblivion. And I think there’s a high likelihood that the GOP will seize both the federal Legislative and Executive branches in 2024 - even if its current rightwards slide continues.

The reason for my pessimism is that the GOP currently has a lock on 23 state governments (Democrats only have a lock on 7, two of which are exactly the ones you’d expect).

The states control polling, voter registration, and most importantly how legistlative districts are redrawn after the decennial census. Control of the state governments thus allows the GOP to maintain control of the House of Representatives and biases Senate and presidential races. President Obama and former attorney general Eric Holder have recently launched an effort to combat this lock, but if the GOP is savvy they’ll be pushing just as much, if not more, money into the 2018 and 2020 state races.

Demographic changes can’t be held off indefinitely under the current system… But unless Democrats invest heavily in the 2018 and 2020 state races (and I’m hoping that, given Obama and Holder’s new effort, they will), it seems likely that a combination of gerrymandering and increasingly subtle voter suppression measures will tile the 2022 - and more importantly, the 2024 - election cycles increasingly in the GOP’s favor. Should a radical nativist party come to control both the Executive and Legislative branches at the federal level, it’s not hard to imagine the demographic shifts so many seem to be placing their hope in being put on hold indefinitely.

Kim Stanley Robinson on the Future

Well, that’s all been awfully dark, and unfortunately I don’t have any thoughts about more distant horizons to offer as a chaser. Instead I’ll let noted science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson have (more-or-less) the last word.

We should take the political and aesthetic baggage out of the term utopia. I’ve been working all my career to try to redefine utopia in more positive terms - in more dynamic terms. People tend to think of utopia as a perfect end-stage, which is, by definition, impossible and maybe even bad for us. And so maybe it’s better to use a word like permaculture, which not only includes permanent but also permutation. Permaculture suggests a certain kind of obvious human goal, which is that future generations will have at least as good a place to live as what we have now.

It’s almost as if a science fiction writer’s job is to represent the unborn humanity that will inherit this place - you’re speaking from the future and for the future. And you try to speak for them by envisioning scenarios that show them either doing things better or doing things worse - but you’re also alerting the generations alive right now that these people have a voice in history.

You can read the entire interview over at BLDBLOG.


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