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March 23, 2009

Filed under: culture»internet


I've never particularly cared for Kevin Kelly, but the man's outdone himself this time. In a post quoted at Global Guerrillas, he writes that "we are all collapsitarians these days" because progress is boring, so we all secretly hope that the civilization will break down.

Yeah. Wait, what?

There are two kinds of really stupid reasoning going on here. The first is that he opens the post with a chart of Google Trends for "collapse" and "depression," both of which have spiked since mid-2007. Friedman-like, Kelly reads a lot into the word "collapse," a trend which could be more simply explained by the financial markets, you know, collapsing, and the fact that there's only so many ways that journalists can describe a market breakdown before they start to hit the more obscure parts of the thesaurus. It doesn't mean that the world's population suddenly became infatuated with dystopia. But then, you don't get a reputation as a tech visionary by using common sense.

Hence Kelly's second mistake, in which he decides that these brand-new "collapsitarians" come in six varieties, including luddites, anti-globalists, and conservationists. I say that these are brand-new, because Kelly writes that their existence is "surprising." Why it's surprising, I have no idea. None of the ideologies named began in mid-2007. None of them have been particularly altered by the financial crash, although I imagine the anti-globalization crowd is feeling pretty smug. Why is it surprising? Particularly to Kelly, a person who has been (according to Paula Borsook's Cyberselfish) a pretty hard-core Christian, the existence of apocalyptic or end-times movements should be familiar, historically if not personally. Does the Great Awakening ring any bells?

Now, you may ask why we need to worry about Kelly, who to the outside observer just looks like another geek with odd-looking facial hair (seriously: his headshot seems to have been taking right before he went out to churn some butter, raise a barn, and perhaps sell some fine quilts to Pennsylvania tourists). But of course, as a former editor of Wired and a figure of some standing online (albeit much diminished), Kelly acts as a kind of weathervane for the flakier parts of Internet culture. While those with a healthier viewpoint have begun to think multi-generationally, Kelly represents the people for whom a future without shiny jetpacks and nanotech is unbearably boring. This outlook is one of dangerous extremism that we can't afford.

In many ways, we've already moved beyond our previously-imagined futures. I remember reading William Gibson's Virtual Light in high school, which includes a passage about trucks running on cooking oil that smell like fried chicken, and thinking "Huh. That'd be pretty wild." This weekend I went back to my university for a forensics reunion and ate at a brand-new cafeteria, where all the cooking oil is recycled into bio-diesel. That may not be jetpacks, but how can you say it's not fascinating? What kind of person can look at the dilemmas we face, as well as the solutions we're creating, and not be excited--indeed, who would look forward to destruction instead of inspiration?

"Collapsitarianism" is, at its most basic, a kind of tantrum: you didn't get exactly what you wanted, so you'd rather tear it all down. I'm sorry that you picked the wrong future, guys. But the sign of an actual adult is that they recognize when circumstances have changed, and adapt to them. The process of solving ecological and social problems is going to be very exciting. There's going to be plenty of wizardry to go around without crying that the world looks more like Herbert than Heinlein.

Perhaps the root problem is that we continue to make a distinction between present and future, as if there were a solid break between the two. There's not, of course. The future is just an extension of where we are now. Ironically, this is part of the point of the Long Now Foundation, on which board Kelly sits. But where the Long Now decries a culture in which "people in 1996 actually refer to the year 2000 as 'the future'", I think we should close the gap tighter. We need to get used to the idea of the future as connected and intertwined with modern times--we already live in the future, in other words. By placing ourselves on the arc of history, instead of imagining it vaguely in front of us, it's easier to spur ourselves to action. It certainly beats waiting for the collapse.

Future - Present - Past