James Howard Kunstler on New Technology and the Future

Booktrix is honored to present this original article by the supremely talented author, James Howard Kunstler. When we think about the future, and how we will live in it, we must consider the big issues that affect us all - our financial system, our energy systems, and most crucially, the ecology of our planet.

The Apple Company was all over NPR this morning.  The network’s "Market Place" show – in its usual role as cheerleader for Wall Street – was hyping Apple to the max. Quarterly earnings dazzled! Sales of iPhones were way up in China! Apple was now the most successful tech company in the world! Then the show switched to a piece on Google. Rah Rah!
     All this dazzlement is very much on the minds of those of us who affect to make a living at what used to be known as literature. Its enabling mechanism, what used to be known as trade publishing, is in turmoil. Publishers don’t know how to make a buck manufacturing books with paper pages now that these marvelous new e-book devices are spreading through the reading public. These days, a young subway straphanger can carry a veritable library on a thin electronic tablet the size of an hors d’oeuvre plate. You can read the Michelin Guide to Barcelona on your phone… the complete works of Herman Melville (or, more likely, J.K. Rowling) on your iPod Nano.
     I had one of my frequent epiphanies a couple of weeks ago about all this while walking around NYU in lower Manhattan. The streets were full of kids yakking into their cell phones. In the lobby-lounge of a classroom building I entered, students sat in groups with open laptops, pizza slices in one hand, punching keystrokes with the other, while gabbing with their chums. It was all very of-the-moment.
     My epiphany was one of those multiple-stagers. First, I realized, these were kids from some of the wealthiest families in America. NYU costs over fifty grand a year and if your kid is living in an off-campus apartment, well…. So, of course, they came to school fully equipped with the armamentarium of high tech – computers, tablets, kindles, phones. It also occurred to me that however cushy their childhoods had been, and however posh their college careers, they’d be graduating into an economic clusterfuck that might furnish far less in the way of amenities than what they were used to.
     What if, five years from now, some of them were out on their own, having to use the same ratty laptop, kindle, and iPhone because they had not found a job that paid them enough to get new ones, or because their daddies had lost all their money in commodities markets. What if, for one reason or another, they were unable to even change out the batteries in these devices? In short, maybe what I was seeing at NYU was the high tide of a social phenomenon which, due to the heuristic nature of human cognitive processing, had temporarily established itself as “normal.” An awful lot of people, from the producers of NPR’s “Market Place” to grungy college-age intellectuals assume that this “normal” will continue indefinitely – only with more dazzling innovations to come.
    Then, stage two came to me (after all, I have been thinking about these matters, and writing old fashioned books and trendy new blogs about them for more than a decade). What if the electricity supply isn’t as reliable in years to come as it is now? Most Americans never think about this. The facts are: 1.) America’s fossil fuel resource supply is much more constrained than either Barack Obama or the Chesapeake Energy Company lets on (including the much-hyped shale gas bonanza); and 2.) America’s electric grid infrastructure is much more decrepit than the average citizen is aware of. Put those two things together and the prospect is that we may not have the sort of 24/7 electric service that has defined absolute baseline normality for us for generations – in the sense that nobody in the USA walks into a room and wonders whether the light switch will work.
     There is, of course, a vast fantasy-land of wishful thinking these days about how alt.energy will redeem us from the fate I suggest: a much more austere future. I assert that we will be hugely disappointed by what alt.energy might do for us, and most particularly it will not allow us to run the “normal” furnishings of American life in the way we’re currently running them. It may turn out to be the case that the NYU streetscape of high-tech dazzlement was an ephemeral moment in history. A similar case, by they way, can be made for the global economy, a set of economic relations which have been hyped as permanent, but which will prove to be only one short phase of the human saga.
      At the moment however, there is no denying that the book industry is going batshit over all this confounding new e-reader technology, and that authors (i.e. writers with track-records for producing saleable books), are scrambling to figure out how to get their stuff before the public in some form other than “for free.” Human ingenuity is working this out as we speak. I, myself, have entered into several experimental work-arounds lately. For instance, last year I published a Christmas novella in partnership with a Vermont bookstore which owned a print-on-demand machine. I lost a little money on the deal when you figure in proof-reading costs and cover art and ISBN-number applications and such. But the darn thing did sell some, and recouped some expenses, and may earn out its investment next Christmas. I also sold a stage-play script off my website in the form of a downloadable pdf file for five bucks. We sold quite a few of them. Cost: next-to-zero.
     But now I face the quandary of what to do about my major efforts – the things formerly conceived to be “books” – in the years ahead. I don’t have a clue what the publishing arrangements will be for these things. I’m also rather serenely convinced that the economic clusterfuck I mentioned above is already underway and might easily result in the widespread impoverishment of the American public, which could affect their leisure time habits.
      Some things are likely not to change going forward. Human beings need stories, narratives, instructions to help them cope with reality, even to make it pleasurable to be alive. I doubt that will change. We evolved from creatures who jabbered to each other for tens of thousands of years, and we can always tell stories if no glowing tablet is available. Plus, there are currently in existence at least a million books, many of them quite all right, and some of them printed on paper that might actually last a century. I do believe that the period of difficulty we face – which I called The Long Emergency in a recent book of that name – may lead to a “time out” from technological advances. Frankly, I think we need it if we’re going to avoid destroying our only planet. I can’t say how long it might last.
      In the meantime, the airwaves are a’buzz with all this news about the continuing cavalcade of electronic miracles. Enjoy it while you can, and work around it as you must - and in five years check back and see how we’re doing with it all.

Jim Kunstler is the author of the aforementioned The Long Emergency, which I highly recommend to anyone who will listen.  I even have a few copies in my basement that are signed by the author, and for the first three people who send me a padded mailer with five bucks for postage, I will send out a copy of the book gratis.  Other recent books I recommend to all are two terrific futurist novels World Made by Hand and The Witch of Hebron.   Kunstler’s own website features his excellent and entertaining blog Clusterfuck Nation: commentary on the flux of events.  You can listen to my interview with Jim Kunstler at Writerscast.

Posted by David Wilk on 04/21 at 11:15 PM
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