Sterling, Bruce. Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next Fifty Years. Random House, 2002, index, 320 p.

Meyer, Karl E. The Dust of Empires: The Race for Mastery in the Asian Heartland. The Century Foundation, 2003, index, bibliography, endnotes, 252 p.

Reading these two books in succession lent provided an unexpected synchronicity. In many ways they complement each other and offer a the strengths and weaknesses of the American perspective in the early 21st century.

Late one Sunday night while channel-surfing I happened across Bruce Sterling speaking at the New Jersey Library Association annual conference. He was the keynote speaker at the conference and was reading from his new book Tomorrow Now. He began his talk by offering the usual peaen to librarians that most speakers do when they address librarians. Then he began his reading, which turned out to be from Chapter 4. I must confess that I’m not a big fan of Sterling’s fiction. I read Islands in the Net a few years after it was published and found it to be quite dated by that time, overtaken by the rise of the Web. Still, he is an accomplished writer and knows how to cleverly turn a phrase. So I grabbed a piece of paper near the bed and made a note of the title. The next time I went to the library I happened to see it sitting on the shelf and decided to give it a try. It was worth the gamble.

In the book, Sterling uses a bit from Shakespeare’s As You Like It to provide a structure for his rambling disquisition on the future. He divides the future into seven threads each corresponding to “melancholy Jacques” soliliquoy in the play. From this base Sterling has a ball pulling together threads and strands to weave a more or less consistent whole. More than likely not, a re-read in 50 or 75 years would make for good fun since the future is usually made up of current trends punctuated and evened by unexpected and disruptive events.

Sterling’s work would have been much better and more convincing if he had bothered to include footnotes or at least a bibliography. In places, ideas from others authors were readily discernible. For example, his discussion about technology lock-in is extensively discussed in Information Rules by Hal Varian and Carl Shapiro. Likewise Sterling cites extensive statistics about the rate of worldwide glacial melting. Some idea about the source for the statistics would have been nice.

But I have a more substantive complaint. I don’t think anyone can make predictions about the future without observing the past. In his introduction, Sterling cites a number of authors who have mined history to make telling observations about the present. Thinkers such as Peter Drucker and Lewis Mumford are in his list. But in the text of his book only Kevin Kelly and Stewart Brand are mentioned, hardly first-rate scholars, although both of them provocative and excellent authors in their own rites.

Still Sterling’s lack of understanding of the past is no where more evident than in his 4th chapter, the one he read from at the New Jersey Library Association, titled “The Soldier.” And it is here that the synergy with Meyer’s The Dust of Empire is so evident.

In chapter 4, Sterling describes something he calls the “New World Disorder” and skillfully limns the lives of three modern outlaws, some might call them Robin Hoods. In any case, each of the three takes on law and order to sow disorder and chaos. In Sterling’s view they are archetypes of a new kind of warrior and bring forth a new kind of war. His is a war without meaning and without ideology, except the ideology of oil and money, which are synonymous. In Sterling’s view the New World Disorder is without an anchor in the past and just happens because of the psychotic behavior of outlaws and anarchists. Meyer demonstrates that the New World Disorder isn’t so new and that it has its antecedents in interference of western nations in the affairs of central Asia that stretches back for centuries. It’s no accident that all three of Sterling’s examples come from Slavic or central Asian regions.

In a short, pithy work, Meyer shows that the current US invasion and occupation of Iraq is part of a pattern of western imperialism that has spanned several hundred years. The two other major interlopers in the region have included Britain and Russia. Both have sown seeds of anger and mistrust that are likely to play out for decades yet to come.

Meyer has chapters on Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, the Caucasus, and central Asia. He concludes with a chapter that asks “What Is To Be Done?” Written after 9/11/2001 but prior to the current Iraqi imbroglio, Meyer is spookily prescient. He dissects the case that western imperialism can “make the world safe for democracy” by carving up and creating client states in the Middle East. It didn’t work for Britain in the 19th century. It’s unlikely to work for the US in the 21st. In fact, British hegemony at the end of the 19th century offers uncanny parallels to America’s role in the 21st. At a time when it could be
an huge influence for good and for advancement of humanitarian rule, the US time after time is throwing its largess away on authoritarian rules who care less about the welfare of their people than feathering their own Swiss bank nests. And he neatly slices through current neo-conservative thinking (although he never uses the term) that the US can go it alone, not needing to participate in multilateral treaties. One can picture Paul Wolfowitz leering into the camera, saying, “Treaties? We don’t need no steenking treaties” as he pushes back his cowboy hat.

Meyer lauds the first President Bush for using international bodies and international pressure to force the newly independent states of the former USSR to give up their nuclear weapons. One shudders to think how that delicate and touchy situation would have ended up with the current administration.

Americans have a hard time with history. They don’t like history. They want, like Sterling, to think about the future. They want to create the future. Now. But without an understanding of the past and knowing that Pakistan was carved out of India by the British in six weeks or that the Taliban in Afghanistan were largely created by US aid, we will surely demonstrate that ignorance is far from bliss. Indeed it will inexorably lead to fear, uncertainty and probably death and destruction.

Meyer’s call for multilateral action to battle the spread of militant Islam is right. His book deserves a wide reading.

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