Out again

Returning to the circuit, Los Angeles Seoul Shanghai Shaoxing, after a few years away, everything has faded slightly. The feel is familiar, but the names have gone, and I am constantly asked if I remember things I do not think I have ever learned.

Over the Pacific I watch a romantic movie and cry repeatedly. Without the certainty of destination the flight out is one of separation. In the airport in Seoul I am again the solo traveler, proceeding from Gate 25 to Gate 43 over the span of two hours. My movements if viewed from above would be erratic and unrepeatable. But I am alone, and whether I wander down a corridor to look for a bathroom farther from the smoking lounge or whether, unknowingly, I sit at Dunkin’ Donuts and then go looking for my gate on a board down the hall only to find it eventually, behind the donut counter, the result is the same. Two hours later, having used the free wifi that does not filter social networks to say goodbye on them, I am again on a plane, over an ocean that does not touch the continent I woke up on.

In Shanghai I am part of the flow, not surprised or hurried, filling out forms in Immigration with the precision of those who long ago memorized their passport and visa numbers. The lines are shorter and in different locations, but the process has not changed, no one takes fingerprints. Coming down the escalator I remember this feeling, from my returns to Japan. Seoul was just a touch stone, a way to remember where I was going by remembering how to get there, like passing familiar landmarks on the drive to a childhood home.

Getting cash from the HSBC machine that lies inside the Customs gate I wish for a view of myself, time lapse composited, doing this in 2004, in 2007. The change in attire, in airport congestion, in personal urgency. Arriving in the morning I lack the push of those whose flights land after dark, who suddenly find themselves far from home and very tired. At ten am I walk to the taxi line, words slipping back into my mouth as they are needed.

Shanghai has grown in my absence, as noted elsewhere, but this first day it is a veneer of uncertainty covered by the plush carpets of a four star hotel’s long term housing. In the morning I am on a train, to a city small and still building concrete towers. The list of station names along the way recalls bus trips along this route years before, to factories I no longer am responsible for, whose forgotten owners do nothing to ground my soul on this stretch of fields and rivers, cities and farms.

As the train passes a road in the smog-filtered morning light I watch the dozens of people on their bicycles and scooters waiting behind the guard rail. Out here past the plush edges I find China still the same, filled with the crazy combination of past and future, bullet trains that travel upwards of two hundred mph and peasants whose homes are built of mud. It is a cliche, but a comforting one, something I have lived through, and it pulls the veil of change from Shaoxing. The streets have changed and DVDs are harder to find, but electric bicycles are still silent, televisions still loud.

On the outskirts of Shaoxing I see a single story red brick building in the middle of a lake. With dark tiles on its peaked roof it sits on a small island, connected to the shore by a foot bridge, picturesque in the way only something made in the last century as a copy of something ancient can be. Whether house or storage area I can not tell, and imagine the owner waking every morning surrounded by water, perhaps with the accompanying fowl.

On the shores of the lake, set back from the water by swaths of grass that has never grown well, are fifteen story towers of sandy concrete, balconies of apartments built in the ‘80s, dark and disheartening. Ten of them circle the water, and in the afternoon must cast shadows across it’s whole surface.

Back in China less than twenty four hours, still uncomfortable with the language and detached by the speed of transit, I watch the red building slip behind, curious about its inhabitants, more curious about its picturesque setting and invisible purpose.

Where are we going?

Lately I’ve been thinking about the future.  I do this a lot, because much of the fiction I enjoy is Sci-Fi, or, to give it more specific labels, near-fi and space opera. These aren’t new fascinations, though I’ve now betrayed this entire blog, which will be discounted as yet more rantings of a whilte male sci-fi-loving web-based writer. 

Science fiction has, for much of my life, pointed the way towards a future.  Not *the* future, but some possible vision. As someone who is fascinated by people, by their variety and by the conditions which they thrive in, visions of a future are intruguing.  Answers to the question of “how could people live” are almost as interesting as answers to “how do people live?” As my writing on inhab.it attests, I’ve been fascinated by and gravitated towards cities for most of my life, because they provide a look at more people, in more different situations, than small towns and villages.

I begin with this because I want to explain the origin of this curiousity, in a fashion that won’t get subsumed by the specifics of the following.  

I’ve been thinking about the future a lot lately.  In some way, this piece clarified my thinking, in a way supported by the latest Gibson book.  Having stated that he is no longer as interested in far future, Gibson has moved towards illuminating the undiscovered in the present day.  These recent books are very entertaining, but, as Adam Greenfield says best, “read as yarns told about people we (quite literally) already know.”  In some sense, the awe is gone.  

Stein postulates that he might simply be getting old, and that the nerd culture may have passed him by, that there may still be college kids developing things that beat whatever is popular today.  While he is speaking specifically of consumer hardware, the idea holds to the grander scale of a future, and of the newly-arrived fragility of any specific view of it that Greenfield mourns.  Cyberpunk once seemed convincing, but now seems mundane, says Greenfield.  And nothing so viscerally true seems to have emerged.  

As for Stein and the idea of aging out of the future?  He is most certainly right about aging, new things will inevitably be built by those younger and closer to the edge. Facebook is an immediate proof, built by youth and adopted by everyone.  But he is also not wrong about hardware, in that there is no obvious target for a vision of those new things.  Part of this is the specific choice of hardware.  Where will hardware be in a decade?  The evolution used to seem so hard to predict, at any distance. When the idea of everyone having a computer seemed fantastic, there was room to imagine what such a device might look like.  When there was no global network there was room for writers or engineers to imagine a fully interactive version.  

The future, in those specific terms, has been built, and, like always, it was built on the backs of what came before it, on the phone lines and the telegraph wires, much like the non-oil based transit industry is being built on the model of the combustion engine, on the public road system and the personal automobile.  It is not alluring in the way cyberspace was , or sketches of maglev trains strung out across the skies of cities are.  In fact the future-become-present seems boring, and even possible to ignore.

But I think that is unwise.  In this way I think Gibson is right.  The current world is more fascinating, because the variety of the possible is so large, and the ability to learn about it so much greater.  No longer do I have to dream about what it would be like to jump off of buildings in France.  I can see it done, and done well, better than I would be able to were I there.  

That’s not the future, but it’s fun.

Where then is that view of a future we so enjoyed?  I think the future, like everything, is in people.  The fascination with tools has lasted mankind a long time, from the first knife, probably, and there is no reason to believe it has stopped.  Phones, computers, cars, and the internet may no longer be advancing at the pace they once were, or towards the destinations they once seemed to be, but that simply means new things can be built on top of them as they become stable, evenly distributed.  Will we personally adopt what comes next, will we still be at the leading edge?  Probably not, because we will grow old, we will settle for using what we know rather than building something new, and eventually rather than learning something new.

But the future will still be out there.  Or rather, a future will be.  The only question is who will imagine it, write it down, and share it with the children most of us will be raising.

The topography of people

People have two kinds of geography. The first, outwardly invisible, is that of their history in the world. The house they grew up in, cities where they’ve worked. Geography like this can be shared but is hard to learn, residing as it does in memory, in emotions tied to shades of light and times of year. This geography is the hook that songs sink in to, and perfumes. In this version of my geography “We Walk the Same Line” will always be a Kawaguchi evening near Christmas, the park cold and empty save for the glow of white bulbs strung over dark grass and bare trees. I was alone, and can describe the evening, but can not take anyone there. A visitor to the place I recall would find it different, would indeed create their own separate version of that park and city, adding to a different set of maps. The geography of memory is permanently intangible.

The second kind is a more physical topography. It can not be shared but is easy to learn, for it is layered onto each person by the world. In the scar beneath my right eye lies a story of an ultimate tournament in Hong Kong, and in my crooked nose the story of a child’s repeated foolishness. These stories require extraction, questions, to understand, but only sight to discover. Unlike the geography of where we’ve been, the geography of what has happened to us can become familiar to another.  Our geography can be learned by anyone we let close enough to touch.

We are all vaguely aware of each other’s old injuries, of the recurring impact of the years and places we have managed to survive. Likewise we know that most people in most cities have a different birth place, a history of travel and a rationale for each move. The learning of each kind is what differs so, an interesting separation. Who knows both parts of us, who cares to and who even could? How many sets of geography and of personal history do we have space for in our heads, or on our bodies?