Hard Times: A Letter From 2035 by Bruce Sterling

You had the Depression, irrational exuberance, and Okies. It's just the same in 2035, except now the Okies have cell phones.

They sure gave us plenty of warning: "There's no such thing as a New Economy. You can't repeal the business cycle."

Well, they were dead wrong about the New Economy. Once we got used to it, the New Economy made a lot more sense than the Old Economy did. It was faster, cheaper, sleeker, and smarter. The New Economy turned out to be quite a realistic, practical thing. And unlike the Industrial Revolution, the New Economy had an amazingly low body count. There just wasn't any proper word for it but "progress."

Unfortunately, however, they were right all along about the "business cycle."

I do try to be philosophical about this. After all, into each century some rain must fall. The hard times just happen to be on my watch, that's all. But given that I'm up here in 2035 enduring a major economic depression, while you're back there in 2000 spewing your pollutants, smoking cigarettes, and having unprotected sex, I hope you don't mind if I frankly get a few things off my chest.

These are classic hard times. Orders down, investment down, construction down, and the market flat on its back. Money is tight. Unemployment, sky-high. Nothing that would be a big surprise to the Old Economy when it got in a pinch. The novelty is that our pundits have brand-new 21st-century explanations for how bad off we are.

Funny thing about economic collapse: Nobody ever predicts one quite properly, but the instant the crash stops echoing, there are hundreds of guys explaining to us why it was inevitable. Let's take, for instance, our own rocket-science new economics, circa 2035. According to these guys (who all have triple Ph.D.s, in math, physics, and computer science), we have finally mastered the workings of "the market." See, we never understood the market back in the old days. The market was a kind of holy mystery. Yesterday's primitive market had built-in instability: greed, fear, panic, boom, bust, circuit breakers, irrational exuberance, all that sort of thing. Today, however, we finally have enough digital horsepower to out-compute all the market's vagaries.

So our old-fashioned exuberant market fell right off a cliff. Then we dog-piled so much computer analysis on top of it that it no longer roller-coasters. And except for those colorful mixed metaphors, today's market acts very sensibly and predictably. Basically, our ultrasophisticated market fell to earth, and it can't get back up. Today's market goes nowhere in particular, and it does pretty much nothing at all.

Nobody anywhere imagines that he can outperform this market. These days even grade-school kids are taught probability theory. So there aren't any "breakout stocks." There aren't any "hot performers." No panic, no fear, no greed, no mania, and, at the bottom line, no real vitality.

Well, I got out of that poisoned market in time to save most of my net worth. I give myself a lot of credit for my street smarts there. It's one of the main reasons I'm writing contemplative essays like this one instead of selling apples from a virtual cart on eBay.

After all, there was still currency speculation. Traditionally that activity was for the big boys, but in an information economy, the action tends to flow downhill, along with bandwidth and computing power. The currency scene became democratized--day-traded, bundled, arbitraged, mutual-funded, junk-bonded, the whole nine yards. I did okay there--for a while.

But then came the introduction of our single world currency, the globo. It was based on the success of the euro, which had done so much to render modern Europe peaceful and boring. The globo put a swift end to those wild, unpredictable currency fluctuations and the tribes of speculative bandits who used to bankrupt Indonesia overnight.

From the point of view of the IMF, WTO, and MAI, the globo was terrific. Nowadays your cash is good anywhere. Thanks to the Web and the globo, no place on earth is left to lag and fester in forgotten underdevelopment. Every government in the world has open books, transparency, more or less exactly the same economic policy. No trade barriers, no offshore tax shelters, no money laundries, no flimflam, no peanut shells, and, at the bottom line, no real variety. We don't even have inflation. The world economy is everywhere, so there's no place left to hide. A downturn anywhere is a downturn everywhere in the world. Weep and the world weeps with you, laugh and you laugh alone.

Back in the 1930s, they had the Dust Bowl to go along with their Depression. Here in the 2030s it's much the same story. Environmental problems are slow and chronic, easy to ignore, just like a bad drinking problem. But the abuse does catch up with you in the long run. We are your long run. So we're dealing with your abuse.

Every once in a while, once a century or so, the Great Plains has a major drought. That's just part of the natural weather cycle, but the weather cycles seem to be rather more intense and freakish here in the 2030s. You've got to expect some oddity when the air is full of greenhouse gases and the world is carrying 7.4 billion people. So this year, we're having an El Nino from hell. South Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and large chunks of Texas are all dry, cracked, dusty, and commonly on fire. The East Coast has malarial mosquitoes from Florida to Vermont. The soggy West Coast has fantastic, unprecedented mudslides.

It's hard to feel all boisterous and ebullient about our national prospects when topsoil from Omaha is airborne and sifting down on Washington, D.C. California is full of migrating Okies again, only this time the Okies have laptops, Web pages, and cell phones. It's basically a Grapes of Wrath thing, only they're logging frequent-flier miles.

Given that big drought in America's breadbasket, food is short this year--unless you like that newfangled food they make out of bacteria. Then there's that relentless, morbid count of species going extinct. We've lost endless bugs and lizards, and now we're up to the big, cuddly, photogenic species. The Republicans replaced their extinct elephant mascot with a kind of virtual-reality creature, but the remake didn't catch on. Icebergs the size of Maine are cracking off of Antarctica. I hope I'm not being all depressing, but that is kind of my point here.

In the old days, a depression like this would have provoked a lot of extremism, maybe even a revolution. Fortunately, we're no longer aware of any alternative to capitalism. In fact, we don't even use the word. Capitalism dropped permanently out of fashion a couple of decades after its old enemy communism died off. Here in 2035 it feels old-fashioned even to say that you're "in business." The market has privatized everything privatizable, so everybody and his sister is in business. Business is so taken for granted that it has become invisible--like clocks or running water or forks. You only notice it when it's not going on.

By your standards, today's society is extremely businesslike. Basically, there's no place to be but in business. Government is in the "administration business." Artists are in the "culture industry." Doctors and nurses are "biotech entrepreneurs." Cops are "private security professionals." Scientists work for "industrial R&D." Academics are "career-training professionals." Helpfully, we tend to shoot all our lawyers, unless they are "intellectual-property lawyers," in which case they basically behave like Mafia dons.

In the old days, a businessman was some guy with a suit, brown shoes, and an MBA who lived in a mirror-glass building. Well, the New Economy did all those people in. They're a dead profession now, dead as buffalo skinners. Same goes for their enterprises. Nowadays the typical life expectancy of a corporation is about 18 months. A company lasts about as long as a typical product rollout.

In 2035 we're all about equity; even the newspaper boy and the grocer live like IPO hustlers in Silicon Valley, circa 1995. I've personally started, sold, or abandoned 37 companies, and as for the giant, three-initial company downtown in its skyscraper--forget about it. We knocked down all those old mirror-glass buildings because, frankly, the 20th century's idea of architecture was a bad joke. All that old-fashioned brick and mortar was cluttering up the highly valuable real estate in our very crowded world. We turned it all into fabulous enterprises that you never even imagined, like Bio-Cognitive Reeducation Centers and our lavish, highly spectacular Garbage Recycling Theme Parks.

We're not all that big on apple pie and motherhood these days. Mom is still demanding some kind of just, equitable salary for her grueling child-care labors. But Mom's not deriving any subsidies or market rewards, and therefore there aren't many kids around in 2035. We don't have the market pull for kids. We don't clump up in old-fashioned family-style units.

Times are hard, and there are days when everything around us feels like a pitch and a hustle. A good, honest commercial hustle doesn't bother me. I'll never kick about that, as long as I have my chance at a piece of the action.

But the basic problem goes deeper. A real depression always comes with a malaise. Patenting, promoting, and commercializing everything in sight seems to wear people out somehow. It's not all that hard to make money nowadays, but it's really very hard to make a difference in the way the world runs. When I compare my time with yours, mine is vastly more sophisticated technically, but it feels kind of narrow and tight.

There's a lot going on, but nothing that happens seems to really impress us anymore. Technological advance has become our generation's same old, same old. We grew up in a high-tech revolution, and we've never known any other way of life. New products, new processes pop up around us all the time in a loud, blustery haze of promotion. Big deal. So what. Next.

We're all burned out on your old Digital Revolution, baby. We have to live with the revolution's consequences. We feel kinda resigned and feeble about it, much the way commies felt about Lenin in 1975. The real miracle of the New Economy was that it figured out how to turn techno hype into big market caps. In 2035 this process has been done again and again, done to death. No scrap of public energy and enthusiasm is ever left unmolested by marketeers. "While you're thunderstruck with that sense of wonder, I'll be over here, going through your wallet."

I had 54 spare minutes and I wanted to help you out, so I agreed to write this essay for you on the "future of business." But let me level with you. Frankly, the term future has a very old-fashioned ring for us. The 2030s are a very different world from yours. We have a profoundly different temperament. People never quite understand that--how civilization genuinely changes, how even the deepest convictions go. But way up here in 2035, a phrase like "the future of business" sounds really archaic. It's just not the kind of topic we'd ever choose to think about or discuss.

We've definitely got business. We also have a future, but we don't need or want any 20th-century future. In 2035 everybody knows that our future is already here, inside an R&D lab someplace. The future just hasn't been properly marketed yet. It'll get here. Then everything around us will be different. It'll be cheaper, faster, probably less in control. Only, not particularly "better," just "different."

You see, to believe in "a future," you have to have some sense of historical progression. You have to have this irrational, exuberant faith that the whole shebang is moving somewhere that makes sense. In 2035 we just don't believe in that anymore. We see it as one of your naive illusions. That whole notion sounds phony to us; it sounds silly and dated and rather Soviet. Sure, we know that the clock is still ticking. But we don't have any grand, pompous theories about "history." We gave up trying to explain life with all those big fat ideologies. Believing in history is right next door to believing in government. Or destiny. Or the people. Or astrology.

Things change all the time, but that's not "the future," it's basically background noise. We're much more practical about this than you were. You see, if you want something high tech, then you just go buy it. If you want a fad or a groundswell, you pay some ad guys to create one for you. If you want to study the big trends in industry, then you hire somebody to forecast the usual S curve. Our so-called leaders rule by polls and focus groups. So if you want some progress, well, there's just nobody in that market.

To you, I probably come across like some kind of nihilist anomie case. But I promise, I'm no more shocking to your 20th-century notions than those of the 20th were to the cherished beliefs of the 19th. I'm a very regular guy, really; trust me on that one. Despite the impression I'm leaving, I don't complain all the time. Whenever good things happen, I'm very happy about it.

For instance, when I first learned that I was likely to live to be 110, I have to say that I was really pleased about that. Decades of vigorous life, right? Wow! Even a 2% rate of return looks pretty good when you're expecting to make 110. Then I had a closer look at the trend forecasts in med tech, and I realized that today's newborns will probably make 150. So I'm outliving my granddad, and I guess that's great, but in life-extension technology, I'm just a lame newbie. I've got a lousy, low-end, beta version of the truly extended life span. My Web-based HMO is on my case every day to eat yogurt, jog, and have my chromosomes unkinked. But kids these days, they have it so easy! They don't understand how we suffered: acne, tooth decay, myopia ...

I suppose I ought to be content with what I have, and not begrudge today's young people the fact that they're scarcely even human. But I'm a man of my own times, okay? I have the common attitudes of the period. There's some serious generation-gap trouble here in 2035. These new kids may have fantastic health care, but they're growing up in a depression, and if you ask me, they definitely have that sour, wrinkly, depression-kid look on their faces. I can only hope they don't stay true to depression form and end up in the trenches clutching bayonets.

Okay, here's my bottom line: By your standards, my world is fantastically advanced, but it's also gray, sagging, increasingly conservative, and visibly running out of steam. I live here and I feel at home here, but I am not a stodgy guy, trust me on that. America is cram-full of old geezers now, and I guess I'm bound to end up as one of them, but every winter I sneak off to Brazil, where they still know how to party. Like they say in Rio, "Brazil is the country of the future and always will be!"

Thanks for listening. I'm feeling a lot better now. It's not like there aren't plenty of bright spots, you know? Like, we never quite made it to Mars, because manned space flight has no real commercial potential. But it turned out to be surprisingly useful to plan how to settle on Mars. Because if you can settle Mars, the Gobi desert is a suburb. In 2035 we have big, new, booming communities in the Gobi, the Mojave, and the Sahara. Lots of free solar power there, big airtight malls, entertainment piped in on fiber optic--it's a great life.

Architecture's having a renaissance, with our plug-and-play malls and inflatable cities. We don't take our houses any more seriously than you did your PCs, so they're all smart, modular, and highly advanced, and they all last about 18 months. And as for biotech, now that is where we really shine. We can do anything with biotech that an apple tree used to do:,,, whatever you want to pay for.

And one final thing: I know in my heart that the business cycle still hasn't been repealed! When times are booming, that's a threat. But in times like these, that is a firm promise of joy restored.

As soon as I finish this little essay for you, I'm gonna climb out of my ergonomic workstation, with its carpal-tunnel-proof everything, and I'll go out and buy something I don't really need. (That's how we celebrate.) While I'm enjoying myself, I'll let the old screensaver kick in. It's that perennially popular, good old-fashioned SETI screensaver, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Ever since the 1990s the SETI screensaver has just sat there on a million Web screens, chewing cosmic noise, waiting for some kind of, I dunno, "message." It's never found a damn thing out there. But I'm not ashamed to confess that I have a kind of faith in it. Once we get that big "buy" signal from the sky, we're just bound to have a major turnaround.


archive posted on 6 Mar 2000 in #crying & #imagining

Copyright © 2024 Bruce Sterling. Used without Permission.