Carrying future

Trapped in a window seat, 53A, between Tokyo and Shanghai. Reading Gibson, brought with me as a talisman, a way of accessing a certain mind set. Few authors can pull my hopeful brain, my dreaming mind, up from the cover of organization and functionality that I have layered over it.

We move so freely, the few of us lucky to have been born into the rich countries and jobs of the late twentieth century business environment. We schedule calls and flights in varying time zones with such frequency that the ability becomes the important part, not the impressive part. We layer organization over the impressive moments in our lives: descending into Hong Kong at daybreak and seeing the islands, oceans, and ships with the first rays of sun splashed across the shallow green water. We sleep through ascent out of Tokyo in the rain, neon splashed across the bay’s dark surface. All too often we stand in the courtyard of a remote factory or temple staring at our phones rather than at our surroundings.

Sometimes sleep is necessary. Frequently phones bring human connection with their distractions. The world was never as simple as we imagine, and we were never as free.

Reading fiction that is likewise trapped between the chance of the future and the truth of the present is a good way to spend these strange hours of international travel that themselves are mundane and amazing. And books, like always, are a good reminder that writing is a good way to convey hope.

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.

In celebration, time

Cities are built in our minds as layers of stories, novels, photographs, brief visits. To live in them is not to dispel, but to add, not to remove, but to complement. The romantic vision of Paris still exists, after months of work-time drudgery, at another angle of view.

I moved to Shanghai on a vision and some faith. The Shanghai of my dreams had no maps, had no daily commutes. The Pearl Tower didn’t hover over the river, wrapped in pink reflections and the smoke of a thousand explosions. The small houses of the French Concession weren’t torn out and re-furbished, weren’t divided up and re-occupied. My vision, from this angle today, is hard to find. Perhaps it was of Hong Kong, or Tokyo. Perhaps it was actually of Pingyao or Changzhou. There were never this many fireworks, not on a Sunday night in early March. Not enough to have my walk home lit by hundreds from every street corner. Not a week after Chinese New Year, post vacation. Not by every employee, nor with such glee. The Shanghai I left Tokyo for was never wrapped in smoke that flashed green and red, that sparkled, that deafened with the thudding boom no smoke could shield me from.

Watching the suits roll out of Hong Kong plaza at noon on a Wednesday, out of Plaza 66 at 6 pm on a Friday, I wonder where the Shanghai I anticipated has gone. That strange land of Chinese people and mystery, of abduction so literally named that tempted me from afar.

What does New York look like to a boy growing up in Italy? In Mexico? In Bolivia? In Shanghai? What are these visions that drive us all to move across oceans, to push past distance and imagination, and what then do we find?

One night the bar is filled with collars, shirts starting to come un-tucked as Friday’s challenges recede into memory, as beer one’s grateful relief becomes beer four’s sudden enthusiasm. The pool table holds it’s own against the dart boards, the barman counsels whisky choices, Man U scores again and again in slow motion on a pirated Philipino cable channel. Outside on the balcony he’s hard to hear.

“Shanghai didn’t have any streetlights when I got here. Now everything is neat.”

The difference between the Shanghai of imagination and the city of reality coalesce around his sentence, around the bar, around the sense of order possessed by New York, London, and Hong Kong, that of money. The global city that airline customers inhabit with such ease slips over the imagined city of men on plastic stools eating at pasteboard tables outside stone houses with no running water, their jackets square cut a reminder of the ’40s, their bundled half-dozen layers a reminder of the season and the lack of insulation.

Wreathed in smoke tonight it’s hard to tell the two Shanghai’s apart. Zhaojiabang Lu is a mish-mash of explosions and quiet conversations in posh restaurants, parents taking their families out to huge meals, their servers running out the back between courses to set off crackers with the cooks. The smoke wraps the Audis as they attempt to park in multiples on the sidewalk. The smoke masks the specks of red paper and spots of ash that litter their roofs. The cigarette-selling woman stands, arms crossed and grinning at the scene, beside her friend the fruit vendor. They smile as they chat, these women who watch everything that passes on this street: weather, Audis, firecrackers, construction cranes, trees, men with axes, police.

The Shanghai of my dreams was really of someone else’s, or of fiction loosely based. My own stories of Shanghai are fragmentary, dependent on time, mood, luck, and friendship. The Shanghai of Economist editorials, of NYTimes stock rumblings, of factory openings and shipping schedules is likewise a fiction, an abstraction of the complete picture. Shanghai’s dumpling women standing in the steam mid-morning, water pouring down their faces and hair half tucked back, do share this city with the collar-popping crowd of Louis Vuitton fashion watchers, of Guandi party dancers, of dkd bouncers. My commute to work and the school child’s ride, tucked behind their parents on the scooter, are made on the same streets that Zhang Jimen’s Mercedes takes, that is then swept by hand by a blue-uniformed man who pulls his cart behind him.

Yet for everyone the moment comes, “Shanghai’s changed,” it slips out, or “I remember when we could,” or “Back when …” Our visions falter, caught up in who we’ve become, thinking that the city is likewise obsessed, that the stories are not complementary.

Somewhere in this city is a boy just arrived from a foreign country, unable to speak, uncertain of where he will live when the hotel bill comes due. Somewhere in the city is a girl writing a novel that will lure him here once translated. Somewhere in the city is a visitor preparing to leave, is a teacher preparing to travel on holiday, is a student studying unfamiliar characters, is a man renting a small place all his own.

The Shanghai I was curious about from Japan is hard to see through the smoke of enthusiastic celebration. The Shanghai of my vision, so often forgotten these intervening years, was masked with a haze of confusion, of desire, of ignorance and hope. Tonight, walking home beneath colored thunder, these cities are not as far apart as they seem. They are the same, and have always been.