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Speculative socioeconomics, lecture 2:
Our baseless fear of Oriental takeover


I’ve read a lot of the so-called "cyberpunk" writing in the last couple of years. Take note that I really like the great majority of it, which is unusual for any subgenre.

However, there is a huge oversight that distinguishes cyberpunk. More remarkable is that this gap has gone widely unnoticed, considering the genre. Can anybody tell me what it is?

It is that the majority of cyberpunk "science fiction" is somewhat lacking in science, or even a good imitation thereof. Accidental cyberpunks such as Rucker or Bear have the best science, not to mention the best credentials.

In the next century or so, which nation is going to be on top? Whether economically or technologically speaking, the cyberpunks have done very little to justify their assumptions.

I will be picking on William Gibson quite a bit here. His writing talent far outstrips his sins of research, so don’t think I dislike his work in the least. He is hardly alone in his presuppositions, but he is widely read, and even more widely name-dropped, and will serve here as a good bad example for his detail work.

If cyberpunk is to be believed as a vision of the future, then Japan and the various Arab oil states will be slugging it out for supremacy in the next century or two. This, my friends, is garbage.

I’ll give you some background first. When the industrial revolution hit a couple of centuries ago, it was England that led the way. Soon thereafter, Germany, with its superior resources, picked up the leadership for a while.

At that time, to differ with the images painted by the previous president of the United States, the nation in which we are standing was just a string of coastal colonies with a bunch of wilderness attached. The infant U.S. tried to claim Canada, and got its fingers slapped by the British in what is known as the War of 1812. Similarly, President Polk wanted Mexico, and we had a war with that nation, which we fought to a draw and went home. And the American Civil War didn’t do a whole lot for this nation’s self-improvement program.

The United States didn’t begin its move toward leadership until the beginning of the 20th century. The colonial period, which can best be described as rapacious pillaging, was rather definitely on its way out. In this, the U.S. found itself with a great advantage, having been both big and young enough to be easily self-sufficient, unlike its counterparts across the ocean; the U.S. has never depended on colonies, which the Europeans soon discovered wanted independence as badly as had the U.S.

Then the Great War, now called World War I, devastated the colony-holding powers themselves. As they struggled to get things back in order again, the Second World War hit, along with the massive social damage done by Hitler’s Germany.

On the other hand, the United States came out of the wars with a huge industrial base. The nation has since then been ready to gear up for war at a moment’s notice; many heavy industries would have pulled back a long time ago, but for the government’s desire to have them ready, just in case.

The only national bloc that could possibly match the United States is the Soviet Union. The huge chunk of real estate known as the USSR controls incredible mineral resources. However, as in the People’s Republic of China, for most of this century it has been more important to have the right political contacts than to be particularly intelligent. Political appointees like to do what is best for their faction, not what is best for industry, agriculture, economics, or for that matter the nation. Thus, these resources have until the recent past been mismanaged so effectively that they might just as well have not existed.

After World War II, it was the United States that led the way in rebuilding the world. Germany ceased to be a major power in the old sense, when it was partitioned and remained split in two, and none of the other European countries had the resources to match the old Germany.

The work the U.S. put into Japan, however, met immediate enthusiasm. The Japanese people had expected to pay an awful price for what their leaders did, and were very surprised when the Allies pitched in and got the nation running again. They latched on to manufacturing and technology with an enthusiasm that rivaled anything back in the Industrial Revolution. Within a couple of short decades, Japan went from being the league loser to going head-to-head with the U.S. for everything from steel to supercomputers and pharmaceuticals.

You see, Japan picked up on one simple thing that got them away from the days when "made in Japan" meant something cheap and flimsy. The Japanese beat the U.S. on figuring out just how valuable information is. Nowadays, the Japanese can take an idea to market and usually do so better, faster, and cheaper than any other nation, including the U.S. of A.

What the cyberpunks seem to have forgotten is that the list goes on after Japan. There’s Taiwan, and then Malaysia, and Korea is selling cars in the U.S. Some companies have subassemblies made in Mexico and the Philippines. Even China has entered the high-technology race, and may reach the big time in the 1990s.

As for the Arabs taking over, well, does anyone remember why they’re so rich? Oil; pure and simple.

When the internal combustion engine was made practical, petroleum was something of little use. In many parts of the United States a century ago, oil seeped to the surface and lay around in huge, black ponds. So, when Henry Ford started making a cheap automobile, there was plenty of cheap fuel all over the place.

But, that was back in the old days, before someone coined the term "non-renewable resource." Ever more vehicles used ever-greater quantities of petroleum, until we had to start shopping elsewhere to guarantee a steady supply.

The Arabs weren’t using their oil anyway, so they figured that whatever they charged these weird white folks was all profit. They had the sense to push for the best prices, having watched the foreign oil companies in action. And unlike them foreigners, the Arabs realized that they might run out some time, and that keeping the prices as high as the market would bear was definitely in their best interests. Hence, OPEC, the cartel that decides what price the oil will be sold for. Complain though we do about OPEC, they are no more greedy than the oil companies, and far more honest.

The Japanese and the Arabs. Yeah, sure, they have a lot of free cash, and they’re buying up investment properties in the United States. Well, the whites did it to the Indians, so I don’t see what all the fuss is. In fact, both the Japanese and the Arabs have made it impossible for other folks to do the same to them; to get into their real estate markets, over 50%, a majority or controlling interest, has to be owned by citizens of the home country.

What the cyberpunks don’t see should be obvious to you now: the Japanese and the Arabs are both one-trick economies.

Let me explain a little. Every time that OPEC raises oil prices is a reason to make cars more efficient and otherwise find ways to buy less oil. This worries them, and they try to stop progress by cutting prices; they also knife each other on occasion, one member of the cartel selling for a little less than the agreed price. But some estimates say that Arab oil will suddenly cease early in the 21st century, and definitely before the 22nd. That gives OPEC a lifespan of less than a century from now.

The Japanese thing is a little more complicated. See, Japan still doesn’t have any resources. People weren’t building paper-walled houses for aesthetic purposes a few centuries ago: wood is scarce. And swords were revered because of the scarcity of metal. The country is densely populated wherever there isn’t a mountain, and the rice industry is practically a religion because that is the main dietary staple and has been for many centuries. Beef is $10 a pound and up, because between downtown and mountainside Japan has very little open land.

And the Japanese are very good at single-minded research projects, but they to this very day hate individualism. Anybody who makes a big thing out of acting independently is shunned regardless of how good they are. In other words, they can’t invent worth a damn. Where would U.S. industry be if we hadn’t had crackpots like Thomas Edison running around loose?

Let me give a big example of this. A couple of years ago, Japan mobilized a huge consortium of its best semiconductor and computer industries, and added government monies to back it. The purpose: to lead the world in the race for the best supercomputer. Well, they’ve caught up to the Cray I; in other words, they have become as good as one man, Seymour Cray, was... back in about 1975. By the time they get caught up to the revolutionary Cray II, his little company in Wisconsin will have released the Cray III. Somehow, I’m not impressed. Here is a country spending billions of dollars a year to catch up to one guy with a pencil, and failing. Seems like it’d just be cheaper to hire him.

The Japanese depend on someone else to make the breakthroughs, the sudden bright leaps of logic. In France some years back, there was an unfortunate movement in the academics of mathematically research, the Bourbaki. They got the bright idea that research should only be done step-by-step, methodically, and even disdained the use of graphs and charts. Guesswork and bright ideas were strictly prohibited, and heavens help you if you couldn’t show your work in great detail. Japanese industry has fallen prey to this sort of elitism, ironically in a society where Buddhism glorified insight and intuition.

I’m going to wait until next session to discuss the economic power of the next century, since most of you are going to need a little briefing in the history of this country of ours.

Before my time runs out completely for this session, let me make a few suggestions on the future migration of high technology. I’d put money on China, which still has strong belief in individualism, left over from tribal days before 1945, only a few generations ago. They have high drive and enthusiasm, and a high regard for craftsmanship, so they should make good inventors and basic researchers. They also have the sense to lease out the ideas they come up with to the highest bidder.

Another good possibility is India. Most Westerners are totally ignorant about the high level of scholarship supported in that country. I have picked up badly bound mathematical and sociological works printed on awful brown paper, and been astounded at the clarity and insight of the scholarship. A dark horse, maybe, but India combines this strong respect for scholarship with positive points similar to those of China.

Before we go: for next time, I’d like you to be ready for some comments about the U.S. capital-letter National Debt, and think about why so many such numbers are immediately suspect.

article © 2003, 1989, K.Walter Uilleach, Albermarle ARG

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