One of the interesting benefits of writing a blog like this, focusing as it does on the end of industrial civilization, is the opportunities it routinely affords for a glimpse at the stranger side of the collective thinking of our time. The last few weeks have been an unusually good source of that experience, as a result of one detail of the Retrotopia narrative I’ve been developing in the posts here.
The detail in question is the system by which residents of my fictional Lakeland Republic choose how much infrastructure they want to have and, not incidentally, to pay for via their local tax revenues. It’s done on a county-by-county basis by majority vote. The more infrastructure you want, the higher your taxes are; the more infrastructure you can do without, the less of your income goes to the county to pay for it. There are five levels, called tiers, and each one has a notional date connected to it: thus tier five has the notional date of 1950, and corresponds to the infrastructure you’d expect to find in a county in the Midwestern states of the US in that year: countywide electrical, telephone, water, and sewer service; roads and related infrastructure throughout the county capable of handling heavy automobile use; and mass transit—specifically, streetcars—in the towns.
The other tiers have less infrastructure, and correspondingly lower taxes. Tier four has a notional date of 1920, tier three of 1890, tier two of 1860, and tier one of 1830. In each case, the infrastructure you’d find in such a county is roughly what you’d find in a midwestern American county in that year. With tier one, your county infrastructure consists of dirt roads and that’s about it. All the other functions of county government exist in tier one, tier five, and everything in between; there are courts, police, social welfare provisions for those who are unable to take care of themselves, and so forth—all the things you would expect to find in any midwestern county in the US at any point between 1830 and 1950. That’s the tier system: one small detail of the imaginary future I’ve been sketching here.
Before we go on, I’d like my readers to stop and notice that the only things that are subject to the tier system are the elements of local infrastructure that are paid for by local tax revenues. If you live in a county that voted to adopt a certain tier level, that tells you what kind of infrastructure will be funded by local tax revenues, and therefore what the tax bills are going to be like. That’s all it tells you. In particular, the tier system doesn’t apply to privately owned infrastructure—for example, railroads in the Lakeland Republic are privately owned, and so every county, whatever its tier, has train stations in any town where paying passengers and freight may be found in sufficient quantity to make it worth a railroad’s while to stop there.
The tier system also, and crucially, doesn’t determine what kind of technology the residents can use. If you live in a tier one county, you can use all the electrical appliances you can afford to buy, as long as you generate the electricity yourself. Some technologies that are completely dependent on public infrastructure aren’t going to work in a low tier county—for example, without paved roads, gas stations, huge government subsidies for petroleum production, military bases all over the Middle East, and a great deal more, cars aren’t much more than oversized paperweights—but that’s built into the technology in question, not any fault of the tier system. Furthermore, the tier system doesn’t determine social customs and mores. If you live in a tier four county, for example, no law requires you to dress in a zoot suit or a flapper dress, drink bootleg liquor, and say things like “Hubba hubba” and “Twenty-three skidoo!” This may seem obvious, but trust me, it’s apparently far from obvious to a certain portion of my readers.
I can say this because, ever since the tier system first got mentioned in the narrative, I’ve fielded a steady stream of comments from people who wanted to object to the tier system because it forcibly deprives people of access to technology. I had one reader insist that the tier system would keep farmers in tier one counties from using plastic sheeting for hoop houses, for example, and another who compared the system to the arrangements in former Eastern Bloc nations, where the Communist Party imposed rigid restrictions on what technologies people could have. The mere facts that plastic sheeting for hoop houses isn’t infrastructure paid for by tax revenues, and that the tier system doesn’t impose rigid restrictions on anybody—on the contrary, it allows the voters in each county to choose for themselves how much infrastructure they’re going to pay for—somehow never found their way into the resulting diatribes.
What made all this even more fascinating to me is that no matter how often I addressed the points in question, and pointed out that the tier system just allows local voters to choose what infrastructure gets paid for their by tax money, a certain fraction of readers just kept rabbiting on endlessly along the same lines. It wasn’t that they were disagreeing with what I was saying. It’s that they were acting as though I had never said anything to address the subject at all, even when I addressed it to their faces, and nothing I or anyone else could say was able to break through their conviction that in imagining the tier system, I must be talking about some way to deprive people of technology by main force.
It was after the third or fourth round of comments along these lines, I think it was, that a sudden sense of deja vu reminded me that I’d seen this same sort of curiously detached paralogic before.
Longtime readers of this blog will remember how, some years ago, I pointed out in passing that the survival of the internet in the deindustrial age didn’t depend on whether there was some technically feasible way to run an internet in times of energy and resource limits, much less on how neat we think the internet is today. Rather, I suggested, its survival in the future would depend on whether it could make enough money to cover its operating and maintenance costs, and on whether it could successfully keep on outcompeting less complex and expensive ways of providing the same services to its users. That post got a flurry of responses from the geekoisie, all of whom wanted to talk exclusively about whether there was some technically feasible way to run the internet in a deindustrial world, and oh, yes, how incredibly neat the internet supposedly is.
What’s more, when I pointed out that they weren’t discussing the issues I had raised, they didn’t argue with me or try to make an opposing case. They just kept on talking more and more loudly about the technical feasibility of various gimmicks for a deindustrial internet, and by the way, did we mention yet how unbelievably neat the internet is? It was frankly rather weird, and I don’t mean that in a good way. It felt at times as though I’d somehow managed to hit the off switch on a dozen or so intellects, leaving their empty husks to lurch mindlessly through a series of animatronic talking points with all the persistence and irrelevance of broken records.
It took a while for me to realize that the people who were engaged in this bizarre sort of nonresponse understood perfectly well what I was talking about. They knew at least as well as I did that the internet is the most gargantuan technostructure in the history of our species, a vast, sprawling, unimaginably costly, and hopelessly unsustainable energy- and resource-devouring behemoth that survives only because a significant fraction of the world’s total economic activity goes directly and indirectly toward its upkeep. They knew about the slave-worked open pit mines, the vast grim factories run by sweatshop labor, and the countless belching smokestacks that feed its ravenous appetite for hardware and power; they also know about the constellations of data centers scattered across the world that keep it running, each of which uses as much energy as a small city, and each of which has to have one semi-truck after another pull up to the loading dock every single day to offload pallets of brand new hard drives and other hardware, in order to replace those that will burn out the next day.
They knew all this, and they knew, or at least suspected, just how little of it will be viable in a future of harsh energy and resource constraints. They simply didn’t want to think about that, much less talk about it, and so they babbled endlessly about other things in a frantic attempt to drown out a subject they couldn’t bear to hear discussed openly.
I’m pretty sure that this is what’s going on in the present case, too, and an interesting set of news stories from earlier this year points up the unspoken logic behind it.
Port Townsend is a pleasant little town in Washington State, perched on a bluff above the western shores of Puget Sound. Due to the vagaries of the regional economy, it basically got bypassed by the twentieth century, and much of the housing stock dates from the Victorian era. It so happens that one couple who live there find Victorian technology, clothing, and personal habits more to their taste than the current fashions in these things, and they live, as thoroughly as they can, a Victorian lifestyle. The wife of the couple, Sarah Chrisman, recently wrote a book about her experiences, and got her canonical fifteen minutes of fame on the internet and the media as a result.
You might think, dear reader, that the people of Port Townsend would treat this as merely a harmless eccentricity, or even find it pleasantly amusing to have a couple in Victorian cycling clothes riding their penny-farthing bicycles on the city streets. To some extent, you’d be right, but it’s the exceptions that I want to discuss here. Ever since they adopted their Victorian lifestyle, the Chrismans have been on the receiving end of constant harassment by people who find their presence in the community intolerable. The shouted insults, the in-your-face confrontations, the death threats—they’ve seen it all. What’s more, the appearance of Sarah Chrisman’s book and various online articles related to it fielded, in response, an impressive flurry of spluttering online denunciations, which insisted among other things that the fact that she prefers to wear long skirts and corsets somehow makes her personally responsible for all the sins that have ever been imputed to the Victorian era.
Why? Why the fury, the brutality, and the frankly irrational denunciations directed at a couple whose lifestyle choices have got to count well up there among the world’s most harmless hobbies?
The reason’s actually very simple. Sarah Chrisman and her husband have transgressed one of the modern world’s most rigidly enforced taboos. They’ve shown in the most irrefutable way, by personal example, that the technologies each of us use in our own lives are a matter of individual choice.
You’re not supposed to say that in today’s world. You’re not even supposed to think it. You’re allowed, at most, to talk nostalgically about how much more pleasant it must have been not to be constantly harassed and annoyed by the current round of officially prescribed technologies, and squashed into the Procrustean bed of the narrow range of acceptable lifestyles that go with them. Even that’s risky in many circles these days, and risks fielding a diatribe from somebody who just has to tell you, at great length and with obvious irritation, all about the horrible things you’d supposedly suffer if you didn’t have the current round of officially prescribed technologies constantly harassing and annoying you.
The nostalgia in question doesn’t have to be oriented toward the past. I long ago lost track of the number of people I’ve heard talk nostalgically about what I tend to call the Ecotopian future, the default vision of a green tomorrow that infests most minds on the leftward end of things. Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last forty years, you already know every detail of the Ecotopian future. It’s the place where wind turbines and solar panels power everything, everyone commutes by bicycle from their earth-sheltered suburban homes to their LEED-certified urban workplaces, everything is recycled, and social problems have all been solved because everybody, without exception, has come to embrace the ideas and attitudes currently found among upper-middle-class San Francisco liberals.
It’s far from rare, at sustainability-oriented events, to hear well-to-do attendees waxing rhapsodically about how great life will be when the Ecotopian future arrives. If you encounter someone engaging in that sort of nostalgic exercise, and are minded to be cruel, ask the person who’s doing it whether he (it’s usually a man) bicycles to work, and if not, why not. Odds are you’ll get to hear any number of frantic excuses to explain why the lifestyle that everyone’s going to love in the Ecotopian future is one that he can’t possibly embrace today. If you want a look behind the excuses and evasions, ask him how he got to the sustainability-oriented event you’re attending. Odds are that he drove his SUV, in which there were no other passengers, and if you press him about that you can expect to see the dark heart of privilege and rage that underlies his enthusiastic praise of an imaginary lifestyle that he would never, not even for a moment, dream of adopting himself.
I wish I were joking about the rage. It so happens that I don’t have a car, a television, or a cell phone, and I have zero interest in ever having any of these things. My defection from the officially prescribed technologies and the lifestyles that go with them isn’t as immediately obvious as Sarah Chrisman’s, so I don’t take as much day to day harassment as she does. Still, it happens from time to time that somebody wants to know if I’ve seen this or that television program, and in the conversations that unfold from such questions it sometimes comes out that I don’t have a television at all.
Where I now live, in an old red brick mill town in the north central Appalachians, that revelation rarely gets a hostile response, and it’s fairly common for someone else to say, “Good for you,” or something like that. A lot of people here are very poor, and thus have a certain detachment from technologies and lifestyles they know perfectly well they will never be able to afford. Back when I lived in prosperous Left Coast towns, on the other hand, mentioning that I didn’t own a television routinely meant that I’d get to hear a long and patronizing disquisition about how I really ought to run out and buy a TV so I could watch this or that or the other really really wonderful program, in the absence of which my life must be intolerably barren and incomplete.
Any lack of enthusiasm for that sort of disquisition very reliably brought out a variety of furiously angry responses that had precisely nothing to do with the issue at hand, which is that I simply don’t enjoy the activity of watching television. Oh, and it’s not the programming I find unenjoyable—it’s the technology itself; I get bored very quickly with the process of watching little colored images jerking about on a glass screen, no matter what the images happen to be. That’s another taboo, by the way. It’s acceptable in today’s America to grumble about what’s on television, but the technology itself is sacrosanct; you’re not allowed to criticize it, much less to talk about the biases, agendas, and simple annoyances hardwired into television as a technological system. If you try to bring any of that up, people will insist that you’re criticizing the programming; if you correct them, they’ll ignore the correction and keep on talking as though the programs on TV are the only thing under discussion.
A similar issue drives the bizarre paralogic surrounding the nonresponses to the tier system discussed above. The core premises behind the tier system in my narrative are, first, that people can choose the technological infrastructure they have, and have to pay for—and second, that some of them, when they consider the costs and benefits involved, might reasonably decide that an infrastructure of dirt roads and a landscape of self-sufficient farms and small towns is the best option. To a great many people today, that’s heresy of the most unthinkable sort. The easiest way to deal with the heresy in question, for those who aren’t interested in thinking about it, is to pretend that nothing so shocking has been suggested at all, and force the discussion into some less threatening form as quickly as possible. Redefining it in ways that erase the unbearable idea that technologies can be chosen freely, and just as freely rejected, is quite probably the easiest way to do that.
I’d encourage those of my readers who aren’t blinded by the terror of intellectual heresy to think, and think hard, about the taboo against technological choice—the insistence that you cannot, may not, and must not make your own choices when it comes to whatever the latest technological fad happens to be, but must do as you’re told and accept whatever technology the consumer society hands you, no matter how dysfunctional, harmful, or boring it turns out to be. That taboo is very deeply ingrained, far more potent than the handful of relatively weak taboos our society still applies to such things as sexuality, and most of the people you know obey it so unthinkingly that they never even notice how it shapes their behavior. You may not notice how it shapes your behavior, for that matter; the best way to find out is to pick a technology that annoys, harms, or bores you, but that you use anyway, and get rid of it.
Those who take that unthinkable step, and embrace the heresy of technological choice, are part of the wave of the future. In a world of declining resource availability, unraveling economic systems, and destabilizing environments, Sarah Chrisman and the many other people who make similar choices—there are quite a few of them these days, and more of them with each year that passes—are making a wise choice. By taking up technologies and lifeways from less extravagant eras, they’re decreasing their environmental footprints and their vulnerability to faltering global technostructures, and they’re also contributing to one of the crucial tasks of our age: the rediscovery of ways of being human that don’t depend on hopelessly unsustainable levels of resource and energy consumption.
The heresy of technological choice is a door. Beyond it lies an unexplored landscape of possibilities for the future—possibilities that very few people have even begun to imagine yet. My Retrotopia narrative is meant to glance over a very small part of that landscape. If some of the terrain it’s examined so far has been threatening enough to send some of its readers fleeing into a familiar sort of paralogic, then I’m confident that it’s doing the job I hoped it would do.
Photo credit: By Ellin Beltz (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons