Questions of Change

Science fiction and fantasy have always dealt, at least ostensibly, with change, about how the future might be with technology, aliens, biotech, or whatever, or how our world or others might be if some form of workable magic existed. In a world where change is ongoing and seemingly accelerating, we tend to forget that for much of human history change was either slow or non-existent. And it wasn’t just a question of technology. The Ptolemaic Egyptians had a rather interesting array of technological gadgets. And they were nothing compared to what had already been developed in China. The Roman Empire implemented Greek technology, but added little, except concrete, central heating, and plumbing, despite conquering a large section of the “known” world. So why did technology lead to change and ever more change in post-Renaissance Europe and virtually none in earlier prosperous societies?

Africa is clearly the cradle of homo sapiens, and where tool-making began, yet after the Egyptians, the Nubians, and perhaps the Carthaginians, in a sense, nothing changed, and societies in Africa declined, both in cultural and technological terms. Why?

Today, after several centuries of comparatively rapid change, despite outward appearances, the pace of change is again slowing. About the only significant change in space exploration and travel over the last forty years has been the advances in communications and video areas so that we can see more of the solar system and the universe in far greater clarity. We still can’t get anywhere significantly any faster, and, in fact, we’ve really done less human traveling in space. Do better pretty pictures of space represent a real change, or just an illusion of change?

Despite Einstein and atomic power, essentially we’re still using an improved model of the first atomic power plant. That’s after fifty years of accelerators, totamaks, and other gadgets designed to discover more about the nature of matter and energy, and we don’t seem much closer to practical fusion power than a generation ago. The fastest commercial air travel is slower than it was two decades ago. We have a better understanding of medicine and better medical procedures, but much of our own population and most of the rest of the world can’t afford the costs of availing themselves of such medical improvements. Will such costs eventually choke off real change in the medical procedures available to most people?

According to some test scores, American students are smarter and improving in their knowledge of various subjects, and certainly there are more students in both absolute and percentage terms who are completing high school and college. Yet the high-level functional literacy rate of college graduates and post-graduate degree holders continues to decrease, and the absolute performance of males is declining relative to women. The United States, despite a century or more of effort to eliminate sexual discrimination, is one of the few western industrial nations that has never had a female head of state, and, unless matters shift dramatically, has never even had a major party candidate who was female. The U.S. is also the most overtly religious of the major western industrial nations. Does that religious background mitigate against significant real change in the gender power balance? And perhaps in other aspects of society?

Both Democratic Party candidates have called for “change,” but for what sort of change? I don’t see a call for re-invigorating our space program, or more more research in basic science, or for real and fundamental change in our approach to education, or anything approximating real change. What I see is an emphasis on changing who controls government and resources and who benefits from them, and that’s not the same thing… is it? Really?