Monday, December 13, 2021

Heinlein Didn't Predict It - Social Media and Libertarianism


Heinlein predicted a lot of things that didn't quite come true.  But that doesn't mean he didn't have any insights.

I was at a campground this weekend, and they had a book exchange.  I found an old Heinlein paperback - a reprint from 1999 that included a few novellas, such as "If This Goes On...", "Coventry", and "Methuselah's Children".  It was interesting to re-read these old stories that I hadn't read since high school, or at least maybe 20-30 years ago.  He is a good storyteller and keeps the action moving along.  Bored, you are not.

But a lot of his "Future History" didn't quite pan out as he predicted.  For example, his idea of "Road Cities" - where long conveyor-belt roads would connect major metropolitan areas, and themselves becomes cities, never happened.  But what did happen was major metropolitan "corridors" connected by freeways and Interstates.  The Boston/New York/Washingtonian corridor is the most famous, but there are others.  I noted before how the coast of Florida, from Homestead to Jupiter is one big continuous city, not several towns and cities separated by orange groves.  It all grew together.  The greater LA and San Diego area is the same way - one mega-city ("SoCal") that extends far beyond the boundaries of the original cities, all connected by the ubiquitous freeways.

So Heinlein got the details wrong, but the underlying concept right.  But then again, "The Roads Must Roll!" wasn't so much about futuristic cities as it was about the labor movement and the idea of the "indispensable man" in society - and how Heinlein felt there was no such person.  I have to agree with him on that point.

Similarly, his predicted "Crazy Years" might be what is going on right now - although it is always easy to fit the data to the theory rather than vice-versa.  Heinlein himself later revised his timeline (a Heinlein timeline?) to fit his "Crazy Years" to the 1960's.   I think he got that wrong.  There was a lot of crazy back then - people blowing up buildings, high crime rates, cults, drugs, whatnot.  But it seems "crazy" has been taken to a new level as of late.  Maybe Charles Manson or Reverend Jim Jones were just as whack as Qanon - but it seems there are far more people in Qanon.  Poor Manson - He didn't have social media to recruit followers!

"If This Goes On..." is a novella about a bleak future where a fundamentalist religious organization, lead by a charismatic dictator known as the "Prophet Incarnate" has taken over the country.  Children are indoctrinated into the religion at an early age and pariahs are stoned to death or burnt at the stake - after submitting to the Inquisition, of course.  The USA has cut off all ties with foreign countries and citizens are told that people overseas are cannibals and heretics.  It is a frightening image of the future, and yes, some religious types here in America might see this as a paradise-on-earth.  It doesn't help that people today are making arguments that we are a "Christian Nation" and that the separation of church and State isn't really in the Constitution.

Fortunately for us, Heinlein predicts this all happening in 2100, so we have a good 80 years to prepare for this nightmare.  And in 2100, a band of rebels, lead by the Masons (!?!) overthrows the Prophet Incarnate and takes back the country from tyranny.  Hmm... sounds like the justification many are using today to try to usurp Democracy itself.

What is interesting about the story is how propaganda and social sciences are used to manipulate public opinion, both by the religious government and by the rebels.  Of course, Heinlein did not predict that social media would become a "thing" so he posits that propaganda - subtle propaganda - would be spread in newspaper articles and on the television.  For example, one of the rebels, working undercover, writes laudatory articles about the Prophet Incarnate, but "laying it on a bit too thick" - going on and on about the elaborate vestments, expensive ceremonies and gold-plated whatnot.  The idea is to get the tithing hicks who are struggling financially, to resent the Prophet for wallowing in Church Bling.  And it is an idea that works.  After all, how many televangelists have fallen from grace after it was revealed they were using the collection plate money for air-conditioned dog housesJoel Osteen should take note.

The story was written in 1940 at a time when propaganda was a big thing - not only in Germany, Italy, and Japan, but in America, where isolationism was rampant.  But even though it was written before the television age - and long before the PC, the smart phone, and the Internet - it is prescient:

"Do you really expect to start a revolution with picayune stuff like that?"

"It's not picayune stuff, because it acts directly on their emotions, below the logical level.  You can sway a thousand men by appealing to their prejudices quicker than you can convince one man by logic.  It doesn't have to be a prejudice about an important matter, either."

Sounds like how Social Media is used today - and used against us - to sway our emotions.  And everyone is doing it - Democrats, Republicans, commercial interests, foreign interests, our friends at the Russian Internet Research Agency - just to name a few.  They put up postings, videos, tweets and whatever designed to get you outraged - and to get you to click.  They want you seeing red and not seeing reason.  We are being constantly baited today, by Qanonsense, anti-vaxxers, and anti-maskers - as well as Antifarts and people pining for the overthrow of "Capitalism" - even though Communism has already been proven not only to not work, but to slaughter tens of millions of people.  But hey, if we overthrow the government, you won't have to pay back your student loans!  Pretty dumb reason to overthrow a government, but then again, our country was founded on a dispute over a tea tax.

On the way home tonight, we saw a pickup truck parked down the street, with giant foot-high letters on the back saying, "Do Not Comply!"  I had to explain to Mark that it was an Anti-Vaxxer rally cry - these things are like dog whistles these days (hence the oh-so-clever "Let's Go Brandon!" stickers.  How about this one?  "Fuck Donald Trump!" - kind of more to the point, and the Left isn't afraid of the F-bomb).  But again, logic fades away and is replaced by emotional thinking.  People who are ordinarily logical people (or one would think) turn emotional.  By the way, what is the deal with Southwest pilots?  There have been a number of incidents lately, such as pilots refusing to be vaccinated or saying "Let's go Brandon!" over the P.A. system.  Yea, I get it - I've been to Oshkosh many a time, and pilots are a conservative bunch.  But they should know better that angels aren't holding up the wings of the airplane.  It makes one not want to fly.

Logical people behaving emotionally.  It is scary, as people who ordinarily seem to be of sound mind are being sucked into these crazy conspiracy theories - shooting up a pizza shop while looking for a nonexistent pedophile ring in a nonexistent basement. Loitering in Dealey plaza for weeks waiting for Dead Kennedys to come back to life.  Hey, maybe the band will get back together.

So yea, once again, Heinlein has the basic idea right, but the details wrong.  Social media allows anyone, anywhere on the planet, to plant these little disturbing ideas, which get people riled up.  Want to start class warfare? Just go write a nice piece about how boffo it is that some Billionaire is going up in a rocketship - and then mention casually how much it cost.  Let that simmer on the back burner for a while and before long, people are calling for blood.  Hey, never mind that the Russians have been selling seats on their ancient Soyuz capsules and letting people hotel at the ISS - for years now.  Never mind that the Federal Government send John Glenn back into space on the Space Shuttle, just so NASA could get appropriations.  That's logical thinking, and we want people to be Outraged!™

It is a lot easier to be outraged when you realize that when Elon Musk talked about colonizing Mars, he wasn't talking about the gamer incel community.  He was talking about real space-men and -women, people who are actually qualified for such work.  I think the people who once idolized Musk secretly thought he was going to take them with him to Mars.  But now it is clear that only the select few get to ride the rockets - the way it has always been and probably will always be, by the way.  But that's logical thinking.  Illogical thinking is to buy a share of Tesla stock because some guy on Reddit told you to.

Of course, Heinlein got more than details wrong in his stories.  In another story, he opines that racial prejudice will disappear in the future.  Racial prejudice exists, he posited, because the "Negro" is jealous of the advantages that white people have.  Once those advantages disappear, people will live in peace and harmony.  It is an interesting and somewhat insulting angle - that racial prejudice is the fault of the minority and not the majority.  Problem is, racial prejudice by white people is what keeps minorities from having equal access to society - and one reason why many whites are pushing back on racial equality.  When you give up a cultural advantage by allowing others to have it, it seems like you are losing something.  Perhaps Heinlein was a over-simplifying things just a little bit.

Just a bit.

The second story in this combined paperback - "Coventry" - is an interesting observation of, and denunciation of, Libertarianism.  Many Libertarians are big fans of Heinlein and his "Armed Society is a Polite Society" nonsense.  But "Coventry" sort of pushed back on that idea.  In this story, after the Prophet Incarnate is overthrown, a new government is formed - and a "Covenant" is made among the people.  If you are caught committing a crime, you can chose to either submit to psychiatric treatment (including forced medications, hypnosis, and other mind-altering techniques) or be sent to "Coventry" - a large section of land about the size of Nebraska, fenced off from the rest of the country.  In Coventry, anarchy rules - or whoever has the most power, rules.

Our protagonist, after punching someone in the nose, is given the choice of psychiatric re-alignment or Coventry.  He chooses the latter, thinking it will be a land of ultimate freedom.  What he finds out is that is it a land of dog-eat-dog and whoever has the most power, rules.  Local authorities in Coventry quickly strip him of all his possessions and then throw him in jail when he objects.  The Libertarian ideal turns into a nightmare in short order.  But then again, that seems pretty obvious on its face.  And yes, it has been tried in the past - like Communism, it didn't work at all.

What is a bit depressing about reading both stories is the idea that people - en masse - can be manipulated so easily.  The madness of crowds, so to speak, which we are seeing right now, what with the hype of obscure stocks as well as "Crypto" - a useless "currency" whose only use is for illegal activities (until governments crack down, such as they are already doing in India and China - can the US be far behind?).  It seems we are being goaded and tricked on a massive scale.  If it isn't crypto or "stonks" then people believe in Qanon or the "big lie" or whatever.  And these beliefs, if written in long-form and posted on the Internet, would be scoffed at.  But like with Qanon, they are parceled out in tidbits, loaded with emotional baggage.  People fall into the rabbit hole, one step at a time.  Hey, they did their own research, right?

Well, maybe not all is lost.  Maybe we have lost a sizable chunk of the population to this nonsense.  And maybe some of our political leaders are willing to use this sort of propaganda to advance their own ends.  Whether it is Qanon or the "antiwork" movement, a political party may not embrace any of the emotional hooks being used, but they will take their vote - and their money - if the adherents think the party is on their side.  Of course, what they don't realize is, the powers-that-be are not on their side.  Once these "useful idiots" are no longer of any use, they will be thrown under the bus, much as Hitler did with the brownshirts.

Then, we just have to hope they don't latch on to some even more extreme ideology!