Distal Muse


by Mark W. Tiedemann

     There's a science fiction stereotype--maybe it's an archetype, but not exclusively to SF--that shows up in the literature persistently, even after decades of stepping back and being sensible.
     The competent man, and his extruded exemplar the supercompetent hero.  James Bond.  Derek Flint (spies, I know, but they are the satirical stuff of Heinlein's Lazarus Long, who himself...but never mind).
     Basically, this model is little more than someone who is hyperalert and relies on an enviable capacity to adapt to fast change and new tech.  Not a bad model, not a bad idea--the only trouble with it is, you really have to get off on things never being the same and enjoying the challenge of leaving one world behind for another at the drop of a hat.  There's something romantic about this when you're young.  But reading about these people is one thing--trying to become one is something else.  The 'Verse knows, I damn near killed myself living up to impossible standards and developing superhuman abilities.
     The older you get, the more you question the whole idea.  Not that being adaptable isn't always a good thing.  Not that the struggle to learn new things isn't vital to being human.
     We should question, though, the idea that such change is always and everywhere Natural.
     Let me explain.  Change is inevitable, particularly economic and technological change.  And they go hand in hand.  We've witnessed this as the central fact of the Industrial Revolution.  Ways of doing things are displaced by new ways to do the same things or by a complete obliteration of the need to do that thing.  (We don't need buggies or buggy whips anymore, except as purely luxury items.   Stays for corsets are pretty much a thing of the past.  And so on.  Hence jobs making these things--and servicing the culture that requires them--aren't exactly growth areas.)  For the bulk of the so-called Industrial Revolution, such displacements were gradual, generational at best.  Individuals could often rely on working in the same job their entire lives.
     After the Great Depression and especially after WWII, the pace increased, and has continued to increase.  Turnover in jobs, careers, and useful abilities has become faster and more widespread.  Even so, there was a period between the 30s and the 70s when we embraced the myth of Job Security.
     The Steel industry was the first public victim of the end of this myth.
     The myth was that there are those industries that we will always require.  And with the economic growth and stability after WWII, these fields seemed set in concrete.  Sure, details changed, but by and large we expected that a huge core of our industrial base would remain a cornucopia of employment potential more or less forever.
     Nothing does, though.  Markets change.  Currency values fluctuate.  New technologies emerge.  Plastics encroached on areas in which steel and other metal industries dominated for decades.
     Then came the depletion of easily-obtained raw material.  Costs rose.
     The rest of the planet began to catch up in its productive capacity and because it could be done cheaper (for many reasons) elsewhere, American industries suffered.
     Change is tectonic.  And workers gets crushed in the shifting mantels.
     Lifelong employment is not a reasonable expectation.  On some level, we must take a job with an eye toward the next one.  All employment becomes a series of stops along the way, stepping stones.  If you settle in, you get downsized, laid off, obsoleted, outsourced.
     That supercompetent model who can always and everywhere find a way to succeed becomes a taunt to the bone weary employee who just wants to stop worrying about how long this job is going to last and where the next one will be.  The supercompetent model sneers at the worker who falters at making the next adjustment.
     We forget that always adapting is not the end all and be all of a good life.
     We also forget that ultimately this is an artificial system that can be controlled.
     Ooh, now I seem to be suggesting things which our myths tell us should be seen as Evil, anathema, unAmerican.  Sounds like Socialism to me, boy...
     But wait.  Tell me it's not controlled the other way.  Tell me that this continual upheaval is not exactly how some people want it to be.  Tell me that all the tools at our disposal are by nature impotent to compensate for the stormy uncertainties of a laissez-faire world.
     Tell me, then convince me.
     What I suspect is, we have never gotten over a Protestant worldview that sees everything as some kind of universal test of worthiness.    That there is a type of person who is the exemplar of what we consider a worth-while human being, natural benefactor of the riches and graces the world has to offer by virtue of meeting the expectations of a culture that cannot think past the idea of having to earn everything.  A model that, even though circumstances have changed and the world is not amenable to both that kind of human and a sense of equality (what we think of a democratic model), dominates our default thinking to such an extent that we automatically reject the notion that maybe we ought to change the way we think about...well, everything.
     That model is industrious, productive, adaptable, smart, humble, and clean.
     We see it all the time in Heinlein.  It's a foundational character in science fiction.  Even in the less-than-optimistic cyberpunk milieu, we see it in the characters of Molly Millions and her ilk.  Change what you want, sucker, I will come out on top or at least in control of my own destiny.
     And I'll always have cool clothes, plenty to eat, and interesting friends.  (Great sex, too, but that's a carrot we've thrown in to differentiate our model from the religious model.)
     On NPR this week, a report began about Outsourcing, the great current scourge against American jobs.  Economics is a soulless beast, neither good nor bad.  Like any system, it reflects rather than directs.  The people most able to influence it can shoulder credit or blame, which comes and goes.  Fickle is an apt description of The Economy.
     Right now, to be competitive, companies are doing anything they can to cut costs.  And with all the savage efficiency of a predator on the hunt, they are doing so.  One of the tools is outsourcing--finding resources outside the country to do the things that till recently we paid Americans to do.
     I am not one of those anti-globalist ideologues who support the boycotts of the multinationals and the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.  Quite the opposite, I do not believe equality will ever be more than temporarily and locally achieved until we're all on the same economic page.  As long as there are places where slave labor is allowed, where unregulated sweatshops operate, and the locals live in obscene conditions while the company that controls their lives accrue huge profits, the demand for human rights will remain only that--a demand.  Unfulfilled.  Globalization, for all that it might be damaging to customs and traditions (not necessarily, but in fact some cultures and traditions do get in the way of equality and, before even that, make it far more difficult to simply feed people), is the only way these inequities will ever be redressed.  Rejecting the idea that we are all one world and that basic rights must be there for all if they are to mean anything to any of us says that we approve on some level the inequities that make all our lives tenuous and difficult.
     However, that's not the same as saying that holding American jobs hostage to the idea that The Economy is a god that cannot be controlled is necessary.
     WalMart Syndrome has effected our thinking at a national level.
     Small communities that sustain perfectly adequate local economies are destroyed by the sudden presence of WalMart.  WalMart undercuts local businesses, which causes job loss, which causes the migration of workers to places where they can find work, which reduces the independence and viability of the community.  And when the profits obtainable in that community drop below a certain level, WalMart leaves, after it has become the largest employer.  This ends the communitie's chance at recovery.
     I name WalMart, but there are other companies that do the same.  What is really going on, in the name of competition, in the name of free markets, is the parasitic leeching of the latent value in a community.  These companies are nomadic, the modern-day equivalent of the Mongol hordes.  What they do is not sound economic practice, but opportunistic--and legal--robbery.
     It has always been done to some extent.  Usually businesses do it to other, vulnerable, businesses.  The communities involved suffer, some more than others.  But till the advent of the WalMart Syndrome, the community itself was seldom the target.  That's changed.
     There is no reason why this should be allowed.  This is not free market practice.  WalMart does not have a Right to plunder.  We have been lied to about this.
     How does relate to my earlier statements about Competent People?
     In America, we make the assumption that your life is yours to take care of--or fail with.  That if you can't manage with what you have (or what you can get) then you basically don't deserve anything.  Because of the nature of our market system, there has always been a lot of opportunity.  We've managed to have a majority of people making do and managing their lives.  Even during the Great Depression, most adults still had jobs.
     We make the further assumption that getting help from the government is somehow inimical to this ability to manage your own life.  And we have resisted any attempt to involve government in what we feel is a "natural" process.
     It has always been a false assumption.  Our attitude about it depends on who we're talking about and under what conditions.
     Tax deferments for businesses are not seen as government subsidies.  They are.  But we don't talk about them that way.
     Be that as it may, the fact is any individual can only do what the community in which he or she lives allows.  The "opportunity" we praise as an American virtue is a manufactured condition.  It is made up of laws and regulations that keep the field open, to greater or lesser degrees, depending on when and where you're talking about.  The latter part of the 19th Century was dominated by what we call Robber Barons.  This was not a quaint euphemism.  There was a reason they were so called and without government intervention in business practice, they would have continued on pillaging labor.  Their number one claim was that they had to keep costs down in order to be competitive.
     I hear echoes today.
     We're allowing business to resurrect usurious and predatory habits in the name of Competitiveness.  We assume this will be all right in the long run because we also rely on the myth of the Competent Man.  No matter how the landscape changes, the worthwhile person can and will adapt.  Those who can't...well, that's evolution in action.
     That's, not to put to fine a point on it, bullshit.
     We seem to accept the idea that the individual has to adapt, retraining, jumping from position to position.  We don't question this.  We heap mythic respect on the person who can do this.  Such ability is laudable, but we never stop to ask Why.  Why do we accept this model as the only viable one.
     I grew up believing that any job I got would be simply a means to an end.  I do not live to work, I work to live.  That is, until I found my calling.  My writing is both my job and my raison d'etre.
     But that was my choice.
     We send a person through college, work them hard to get a degree with the promise that this will make life better, and then, a few years after entering the field of choice, we allow circumstances to strip that career away, requiring more and more of us to go back to school and start again.
     Sure we need your skills.  But not at your payscale.  We can outsource to India or Singapore and get the same job done at a tenth the cost.
     What you do now is your look-out.  This is America.  Land of opportunity.
     These practices benefit those who in an earlier age would have been labelled Robber Barons.  They resist government intervention in the name of Free Trade.
     And they have the people who are now forced to dance from place to place, job to job, constantly adapting, believing that this is somehow just natural.  It's The Economy.  What can we do?
     Manage it.  Control it.  Stop pretending it's like an earthquake or a tidal wave or gravity.
     There are not many depictions of viable democracies in SF.  We are enamored of the Competent Hero model, so we find it difficult to write about democracies in which the Necessary Man plays the role we wish him to play.  We want to think the individual is the ultimate arbiter of all good things.
     In a way, we're right.  But I think we've misunderstood how exactly that's supposed to work.  The whole point ultimately of our democratic experiment is to allow all of us--all individuals--to have a chance to live a worthwhile life.
     You can't do that when you're constantly retraining, in the hope that maybe this time you'll be able to start living instead of just getting ready.
     I think some serious rethinking about competency is in order.
     I think some serious demythologizing is called for.

copyright © 2004 by Mark W. Tiedemann