Utopias part 2 – Culture

Back to this;

Culture is what makes a society work – it is the society working. From how we settle differences to how we celebrate happiness – the way we do the things that humans need to do in order to live together.

There’s two poles of culture types – introverted, and extroverted. Introverted cultures value the individual, whereas extroverted cultures value the group, and conformity to the group. Western cultures are typically introverted, and Eastern, extroverted. It seems that an extroverted culture would be a more sustainable model, but does the demand for conformity stand in the way of the happiness that makes a utopia a utopia?

So whatever cultural elements go into the utopia, is there a combination – a system, that can satisfy both the need for individuals to be able to follow their dreams and be themselves, without that interfering with the sustainability of the system?

In Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, the main character says that our system, capitalism, communism, monarchy, what not, would work, if only humans would be better than they have ever been in their entire existence. And it’s true – if everyone was just nice to one another, and the people in power had the interests of their people at heart, rather than taking advantage of those below them, nearly any system in use right now would work.

Where to look for a model that would work?

Well, anthropologists have looked at the question, and they’ve surveyed people in different cutures.  If you ask the average person in western society if they’re happy with their lives, the average person will laugh at you. But, anthropologists asked this same question of people living in tribal settings, and overall, they answer yes, they are happy with their lives.

These are people in villages that often don’t have anything resembling modern luxuries; but anyone who’s thought about it knows that it’s not luxuries that make people happy. The truth is that humans have many needs, and these tribal cultures have evolved organically over hundreds and thousands of years, in the same way Darwin’s finches evolved specialized beak shapes. It’s not something that can be imposed on a people, the way a king’s law can be, and this natural evolution can only happen when people themselves have a say in how they live.

Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups, they say. Well, tribal societies were not large groups – not by today’s standards. A typical tribe’s population was far less than the average person’s facebook friends list. While one voice railing at an injustice in the population of say, a small city, let alone a modern country, doesn’t get heard. But one voice calling for justice and change among the average population of a tribe (about a hundred to a hundred and fifty people – twenty five to thirty families) is a voice that matters.

A tribe’s population is adaptable, it changes with the needs of it’s people. Modern governments are not adaptable. Besides the bureaucratic red tape and corporate manipulation standing in the way of change for the better, there is the fundamental requirement of centralized government that the rules be the same for everyone, regardless of their circumstances or environment, and a rule that works for one community may not work for another, and neither group has any power to change it.

These small, autonomous communities are weak, though, and easily driven off their land and resources. Another tribe moves in, and imposes their laws on the other people, and nations are born. And eventually we come to this, and wonder what went wrong. A utopia of small autonomous tribes would be easily conquered, and that, of course does nothing for sustainability.

I don’t know if it’s possible for such a thing to exist for any length of time, but I’d still like to think it is. In any case, I’m not going to be so arrogant as to claim it’s impossible, just because I can’t see a way myself.

NaNoWriMo 2011 – Road To Elysium

It’s that time of year again, NaNoWriMo is coming around, and I’m gearing up to participate.

My Nano history: my friend Turtle talked me into it six years ago; I started three days late because I was convinced that I wasn’t interested until I saw her so motivated and having fun, and the peer support, and finally caved and started. Failed miserably – exams were at the same time. But I was hooked. Same deal next year, but I got to about 25k this time. Next year I hit under 20k, but that was a month before my wedding. The year after that was 2009, and I wasn’t going to school, and I booked time off work in November to prove that if I had the time, I could do it. And I finally did. Last year I got a new job, and the weeks I had booked off in November disappeared. But I was working close to home, and slightly shorter shifts, that gave me two hours a day extra to do it, so I was determined to give it all I had, and I made it again last year, if barely.

This year I figure I got it in the bag. I have 1 week off, and I’ve had my hours reduced at work – bad financially, but writing wise… eh, I’m enjoying the time it’s given me to work on revision, so there are perks. As long as I don’t get overconfident and lazy, I should be golden.

The project this year: Road To Elysium. Breaking away from my usual Dieselpunk, and delving into science fiction, specifically cyberpunk. The setting will be intergalactic, and largely inspired by current economic events, extrapolating the Corporate personhood idea out to where corporations are now government, and there are no nations, just Companies. Workers are often brainwiped to protect corporate informational assets.

There is slavery, though they don’t like to call it that. In this world, people in debt are forced to work off their debt in service of whatever corporation that owns their debt. Whoever owns their debt, owns them. Society is composed of mostly debt slaves, since the companies don’t pay their workers in cash, but credits that can be spent only on company goods, or traded for cash at a pointless conversion rate, so that no one can actually get out of debt. Or their parents debt, passed down to them. The only other option for someone who can’t work, or refuses to, is bankruptcy, in which case they must go to live on one of the refugee camp planets.

The story starts with the main character, who’s been brainwiped, and doesn’t remember anything before being rescued from an escape pod two years ago. A strange woman shows up to take her away from the mining asteroid she works on – her debt is being sold to another company because that company is looking for a “certain type of worker”. What that is, they won’t tell her, other than she fits the bill.

Once they’re free and clear, she finds out that the woman who’s taken her away is an AI from the planet Elysium, a paradise where all inhabitants live in perfect harmony and equality. The woman tells her that’s where she came from, and she’s come to take her home. But the Corporation that owns her debt catches on, and their journey home becomes a desperate flight from the corporation’s mercenaries, among others.

Seeing as I’m breaking out of my old habits with genre, I figure I might as well in other ways as well. I think I’m going to try writing in first person, present tense, just to mix things up. The Windup Girl by Paulo Bacigalupi was in present tense, and while I noticed right away, it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of it. First person is a little less foreign to me – I wrote my first novel in first person (an abomination that will never ever see the light of print on paper). And most recently, I wrote a short story in first person. I hadn’t planned that, I just had the plot entirely worked out, and sat down to write and the first sentence came out in first person. I looked at it and blinked, and went with it. It’s one of my better pieces, but too long for a short, so it’ll probably be a novel some day.

In any case, I’m being ambitious and daring this year – I suppose I had to make up for having a more comfortable amount of time to work on the thing. Which reminds me, I should go finish the outline for it. 😛

Utopias part 1 – Sustainability

NaNoWriMo is coming up, and my idea for this year centers around a Utopia. It’s not something I’ve done before, but it’s something I’ve thought about a lot. I think the reason I haven’t done it before is because it feels like such an ambitious thing – how vain to put forward what one single mind believes would be a perfect world? How many people have come up with their own picture of a world where everyone would be happy and live in harmony, and been scoffed at because they hadn’t taken one this or that into consideration?

There are a few things a Utopia must be. First, it must be sustainable – what good it a utopia with an expiration date?

Which means sustainable on an ecological level. Which means two things – first, respecting the environment, in some way. Not necessarily revering it as untouchable, but on the other hand, biological diversity is unarguably important. Just think of what would happen to the world if common wheat suddenly stopped growing due to a disease. Lucky thing we can switch to other varieties.

The other thing sustainability means is population control. Whatever plenty there is, a population will grow until it exceeds the capacity of it’s environment, then the population with crash due to famine. It’s a fact. And in case anyone wants to argue that people aren’t animals, we can overcome that, well maybe we are, maybe we’re not – maybe we are in fact capable of defeating our instincts as individuals, but as a whole the above has been true over and over and over throughout history. One might also argue that the areas of the world where the population is growing are the areas of the world where there is not enough resources, however, if the people do not have enough food to fuel their population exansion, what is it that they are eating? Rocks? Sand? This is where the “global economy” comes in – economics of an area are no longer isolated, food is shipped in from other countries, in aid donations, which is only exacerbating the population problem, sustaining the population at an unsustainable level. But that’s another point I’ll have to save for another post.

There are many forms of population control – war being one, famine being another. Obviously those are not the sort of things one would expect to see in a utopia, however. The form existing in China, now, might be viable, but could people be happy with it? Can humans be happy with their reproduction restricted? Keeping in mind that the order of priority in an animals instincts is first survival, and second, reproduction, and all else after those two.

But then look at the countries where the population is declining. Studies show that population growth is inversely related to education of women. If you had an isolated society, where people in general were educated to a sufficient level, would that exert enough of a population controlling influence to keep the population at a sustainable level? Maybe. One major reason for first world people to not have children is lack of resources, which would not be an issue in a Utopia. The reasons for not having children, however, are diverse, from couples just wanting to enjoy their lives unsaddled with children, people having difficulty finding someone two settle down with, health being too poor to bear or look after children, concerns over hereditary diseases, or even not believing that one would make a good parent. In any case, such a society would likely not need to be as severely restrictive of reproduction as China.

Hmm, this is getting long – may need multiple posts. I will get back to this.

Occupy Winnipeg: My first brush with activism

Yesterday I attended the first general assembly of the 99% in Winnipeg, Manitoba. I was one of those people walking up the street in between the people with signs decrying corporate greed. It was really cool. And with the subject material I write about, it only makes sense that I should be there to stand up for what I believe in. I only wish I could stay out there through the night with those guys, but I’m working, and if I was there, then I couldn’t be writing, and since that’s where my talent lies, that’s my form of protest.

The first thing I noticed was, having come expecting police to be around, was that there weren’t any. There was a cruiser parked a little ways away, but we think that might have been a speed trap. Not that Winnipeg is known for violent protests (the Winnipeg General Strike notwithstanding.) The group was very clear that it was intended to be a peaceful and sober event.

Trevor Semotok gave a rousing speech on the steps of the Legislature building. I have a video, but it’s taking a while to edit out the shakiness from my shivering, I’ll get it up later. (ETA – video working now, no more giving people motion sickness.) There was also a First Nations contingient, and their “Princess of the North” was an amazingly powerful speaker.

One neat thing I learned about is the Human Mic. Apparently on Wall Street, they’ve outlawed voice amplification, so they can’t use PA’s to get the voices heard. Instead, they’ve come up with the Human Mic. One person, the speaker, when they have something to say, shouts “mic check!” and everyone who can hear them, shouts “mic check!” back, and they keep calling and responding until everyone who can hear the speaker is paying attention. Then the speaker starts their message, keeping it to 2-4 words at a time, and after each 2-4 words, the crowd of participants repeats their words, so that the words can be heard beyond how far one person’s voice could reach.

It was quite powerful, because not only is it a substitute for a PA, it also results in the participants saying out loud – shouting out loud, the message. Speaking something out loud is a powerful thing, psychologically. I’m stealing the idea and putting it in a novel. 😛

We marched downtown and held our first General Assembly of the 99% of Occupy Winnipeg. There was lots of use of Human Mic, and cars driving by honked in solidarity when they saw our signs. The buses were good and loud, but the cement truck took the cake for horns.

The politicians are still saying it will go nowhere though. That nothing will come of all of the protesting. That we’ll just give up and go home and submit to the policy changes that will crush the spirit out of us. The legislation undermining collective bargaining the federal government is laying down on unions, the new free trade agreement that will make NAFTA look like it was environmentally friendly and pro small business, and the abolishing of the Canadian Wheat Board that will have food prices that are already rising, skyrocket, and put small farmers out of business. They say there’s nothing we can do.

There’s an air of desperation in all of this. It’s like we know if we give up now, that’ll be it. We’re putting everything we’ve got into it now, and if we don’t succeed in forcing change now, we’ll have nothing left. I think that’s why, in some places, it’s getting violent. That’s the next step, if things don’t change. The movement is worldwide, and the demands are the same all over.

Politicians criticize our lack of a specific message. The problem with trying to put a specific message to this movement is that how can we pick just one can of BS out of all the cans that have been shoved down our throats? They want to make us choose just one thing, when any one thing is one of the many straws that broke the camel’s back. If protesting specific things made a difference, they would have heard the people every time they protested in the past. It’s too late for that now. They’ve proved that they don’t care what we, as citizens, want. Our government doesn’t represent us. It’s time for revolution. 

Peter S. Beagle vs Granada Media

I have been following the Peter S. Beagle vs Granada Media story for a number of years, since I realized the movie was based on a book and read it when I was about seventeen. It’s finally over, says Connor Cochrane, the man who has been helping Peter through all of this and getting his carreer back on track. His most recent newsletter gave details on how it all happened:

“All along, Peter and Connor had known that Granada Media was a subsidiary of a much bigger company — a huge European media conglomerate called ITV. What Connor noticed was that ITV had recently gotten a new CEO, a man named Adam Crozier, who came in from outside the company and had a mandate to pretty much completely clean house: get rid of things that weren’t working, make marginal properties more profitable, etc. To put it bluntly, this new CEO had no reason to cover up for anyone’s past bad judgment or mistakes and every incentive to make good new business happen. So, after some internal discussion, Connor sent a letter directly to Adam Crozier himself. The person at ITV who was tasked with responding was the company’s Group Legal Director and Corporate Secretary, Andrew Garard. Andrew really took the situation seriously. He dug in, did his research, met with Peter and Connor and Richard Mooney in New York City last November, and ultimately came to the conclusion that we were was right — (a) Peter wasn’t getting his due, and (b) if we stopped fighting and started working together, The Last Unicorn could be even more successful than it already was. Settlement details were worked out at a second meeting, this time in Los Angeles, and finally, last August, the settlement paperwork was signed.”

I’m glad things worked out for him. What makes me sad is that for things to work out, what had to happen is some corporate power decided not to be a dick.

The ultimate resolution to the conflict was not the law was upheld (it was, but that’s hardly even matters in the system anymore) it was the people with the boatloads of money stopped manipulating the law to make the little people’s lives miserable. Which means there’s nothing at all stopping this from happening again.

I commend Andrew Gerard for his moral behavior. But this should never have gone on so long that it took a management change to resolve. His predecessors should have been forced to uphold their contract years ago. This doesn’t set precedence in law for corporations to be held accountable for greed and unlawful actions.

This is exactly what the Occupy Wall Street movement is about. Protesting corporate greed, and the way our political systems force the poor and the working class to follow the law, but not corporations, because corporations, when their actions are challenged, will throw so many lawyers at it that will manipulate the system to drag things out so long that no one but another corporation has the money to follow it through.

I’m dealing with the same thing with my husband’s insurance company. He’s been sick and unable to work for three years, but because it’s a Syndrome that has long been marginalized, and some doctors (who all work for the insurance companies) will still claim that it’s psychosomatic (all in his head). While he has a medical diagnosis, and no medical professional involved can understand why he’s being denied the insurance money he’s owed, the insurance company is making us take them to court for it. It’s immoral and illegal, but they’re doing it anyway, because they have so much money they can get away with it, and they don’t want to pay up. They’re hoping we’ll just give up. Now they’re offering us a fraction of what they owe us, and we’re so tired of dealing with it, it’s tempting to take it. Tempting to take the scraps and run away with our tails between our legs. But we couldn’t bring ourselves to do it.

*sigh* We need a revolution.

Occupy Wall Street – These are the times that Chinese curse Talks about

While I support the brave people out participating in the Occupy Wall Street movement, I have to confess a certain morbid fascination with the current events of the last few weeks, and even months. Government and Big Business is pressing it’s thumb down on the working class – in Canada, the “Harper” government, as it’s styled itself, has legislated ends to two strikes and is now interfering with yet another, undermining worker’s rights to Union negotiation. This stuff is happening all over, in times when the disparity between rich and poor has not been greater for over fifty years.

I’m fascinated because this is the sort of experience that I build stories from. Even the most painful struggles of my own life create fodder for words that will one day go onto paper.

Sometimes I think I should stop being so terrible to my characters, and I could write about utopias where nothing bad ever happens, then I could have happy things happen in my life…..Yeah, I didn’t think it worked that way either.

Also fascinating is the way the media is treating the entire movement. They are doing their best to ridicule and illegitimize it. They are making the protesters out to be a bunch of pot smoking hippies, finding the radicals in the crowd, and picking those people to interview. They’re making fun of them.

A post on reddit had some advice: get a haircut, and wear khakis and polos to protest. It’s important right now, for the protesters to convey that they are not the radicals that the media and the Corporatocracy wants the general population to believe they are. They are people just like you and me, who have been screwed out of jobs. They are the Everyman and Everywoman, and their misfortunes could be yours. They are also young people – college and university trained, and new to a workforce that doesn’t need them, doesn’t want them, and won’t pay them. This is the next generation, the leaders of tomorrow, and the people in power would like nothing more than for them all to disappear. These people need to make it clear that they are not going to disappear, and their government has a responsibility to them.

On that note, I plan to swing by Occupy Winnipeg at some point, to show my support. Hold together, all.

Californian Students Protest Racist Admission Policies with Bake Sale

A Californian University is proposing new admission policies that would make racial background a factor for student admissions, favouring minorities. The students have responded with a Bake Sale.

On the one hand, yes, it’s more difficult, and often prohibitive for members of racial minorities who tend to have lower incomes, to attend university. So one might argue that the University is doing a cool thing, no?

But the students have a valid point too. What if a white male, equally deserving, has a low income?

Their point is that it’s wrong to base laws and policies on the assumption that how much someone can afford to pay is based on their race. How much someone can afford to pay should be based on how much they can afford to pay. Now, a policy taking into consideration household income as admission criteria would be reasonable, not racist, and be sticking up for the ethnic groups that tend to have lower incomes.

But that’s not what corporate and government policy is about in the USA – policy in the USA is all about distracting the lower class so that they fight one another rather than attacking the government and Corporatocracy that’s screwing them.

So now they have low income Caucasian males and minorities up in arms against one another, which is exactly their goal. They’re taking something that’s not about race, and making it about race. Because the race issue divides, while the low income issue would bring solidarity between low income minorities and low income Caucasian males. And that’s insidious. As long as the Corporatocracy can keep it’s people fighting one another, these people will be too busy squabbling to unite against their real oppressor.