Right to dream: lets do some

edited March 2010 in Story Games
So this guy's pages fascinate me: Planetocopia. In particular, his vision of an Earth one thousand years in the future after significant climate change.

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It just screams for a roleplaying treatment to me.

Now, 1000 years in the past is 1010. Certainly it's a long time ago, but there were human beings doing recognisable things. Arguably, it's a time in which many foundations were laid for our society, but since when there have also been tremendous changes in societies all over the globe. What will world society look like in 3010, after global warming and peak oil?

I find Wayans' musings on societies in his imaginary future the weakest part of his creation. Join me in trying to create some plausible ideas for this setting.

Comments

  • Society is going to look like one of two things.

    Either how the people who find the next big energy thing and capitalize on it want it to be

    or

    The people who find a way to make salt water crops work want it to be.

    Because let me tell you thats a lot of green sea coast (not to mention other wierd things, like the canadian shield apparently dropping quite a bit and the rockies seemingly spacing out, but hey its a drawing right. How touchy can you get.
  • This is totally my game! The Fifth World's "canon" is going to be a wiki, so people can add their own ideas of what a sustainable future looks like. I got my initial inspiration from Michael Green's Afterculture, but as much as I loved his work, I felt his, too, couldn't really live up to the task of filling in the details of a world where real cultural diversity has taken hold once again. Which is what inspired the wiki idea: I don't think any one person could do that.

    I don't think the future will look like either of those, Logos. When you look over the long-term history of human life, complexity looks like a flash in the pan. Why should "the next big energy thing" even necessarily exist? I think we take for granted how much energy we have in fossil fuels to such a degree that we feel somehow entitled to plentiful, cheap energy; so, once we run through fossil fuels, naturally, some other abundant, cheap energy source must exist, right? Normally when I say that, people look very sad and call me a pessimist, but I also think lots of cheap, abundant energy leads to a lot of social complexity that doesn't always make life better, and in a lot of ways, makes it a whole lot worse. So, my game focuses on the ways in which people can enjoy healthier, more fulfilling lives in low-complexity, tribal societies. I've sometimes described it as the deep ecological answer to Star Trek—a pseudo-utopian future based on nurturing relationships rather than creating technology, more Ursula LeGuin than Isaac Aasimov.
  • There's a book by J G Ballard called The Drowned World. In that, the old cities are drowned: there's a lagoon, under which you can see London. You can swim down into the Planetarium. The Equator is so hot that it's uninhabitable. The human race is retreating to the Arctic Circle, but even that is heating up. Everyone knows the human race is about to die.

    I'd love to play in that setting.

    Graham
  • it isnt a matter of entitlement so much as utility.

    its great to say we are awful and ruining the planet and all that, but at the end of the day, the internal combustion engine is more useful weight for weight than any number of hippies.

    As for something new and strange, your world, you can do anything you like. But remember that the basis of industrialization is not cheap energy but rather segregation of task from craftman. Cheap energy and consumerism and all that stuff (for better or worst) flow from the idea that i can make 10x as many needles if I have fred making needleheads all day and joe making needlebodies and tom combining them, then if I just have them make as many needles as they can.

    My money is on a repeat.
  • I'm tending towards Jason's ideas, just because it would be more interesting. Have you read this same Tipping Point article (PDF), Jason?
  • Posted By: Logos7As for something new and strange, your world, you can do anything you like. But remember that the basis of industrialization is not cheap energy but rather segregation of task from craftman. Cheap energy and consumerism and all that stuff (for better or worst) flow from the idea that i can make 10x as many needles if I have fred making needleheads all day and joe making needlebodies and tom combining them, then if I just have them make as many needles as they can.
    In a former life, I was absolutely obsessed with this kind of stuff, so rather than talk your ear off about it, I'll just suggest Tainter's Collapse of Complex Societies, or the blog of my friend Jeff Vail, and leave it at that.

    Jeff, I don't think I ever read that one in particular, though I think the article I read on why we're probably facing a "peak uranium" problem analogous to "peak oil" came from the same group.
  • Posted By: jasonI think we take for granted how much energy we have in fossil fuels to such a degree that we feel somehowentitledto plentiful, cheap energy; so, once we run through fossil fuels, naturally, someotherabundant, cheap energy sourcemustexist, right? Normally when I say that, people look very sad and call me a pessimist, but I also think lots of cheap, abundant energy leads to a lot of social complexity that doesn't always make life better, and in a lot of ways, makes it a whole lot worse. So, my game focuses on the ways in which people can enjoy healthier, more fulfilling lives in low-complexity, tribal societies.
    I don't know where you're currently located, but it seems statistically likely that it's not Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Cheap, abundant energy is what allows you to type something on your magic box that I can read hundreds or thousands of miles away. If you're cool with the notion of only ever getting to exchange ideas with people within walking distance, with the notion that if you have opinions that differ from those of the other tribespeople in your squalid little village you're going to at best not have any friends and at worst (and far more likely, human nature being what it is) going to end up stoned to death for heresy, then, yeah, I suppose you might consider your low-complexity, tribal society to be a utopia.

    To me, it's hell on earth.

    I'm a non-violent guy, a physical coward, and a lazy asshole. There are very few causes I could be bothered to sign a petition for, let alone fight for. But if it comes down to it in my lifetime, I will fire a gun, pick up a rock when I run out of bullets, and murder other human beings with my fists and teeth when I drop my rock for whatever side can promise me there will still be an internet.
  • edited March 2010
    Posted By: jasonWhy should "the next big energy thing" even necessarily exist? I think we take for granted how much energy we have in fossil fuels to such a degree that we feel somehowentitledto plentiful, cheap energy; so, once we run through fossil fuels, naturally, someotherabundant, cheap energy sourcemustexist, right?
    Nothing says that it must exist, but it so happens that it actually does exist. For the next hundred years, the only choices are solar or blackouts, as only the sun really has enough juice (I talk about this in more detail here). Even if you assume that power needs double every century, by 3010, solar could still provide it (especially if assuming that efficiencies get better over that time span, which they certainly would). It is likely that a could percentage of this solar energy would be used to make hydrogen gas out of sea water.

    My advice on living in a hotter world might add slightly to this discussion as well.

    Also, while there is a lot of talk of "civilization breaking down", I think it might be more correct to think of civilization as evolving into something else. (I imagine that the parents of the first cro-magnon considered him defective and a huge disappointment.) I think what that "something else" is will be the driving factor for determining life in 3010.
  • Posted By: Ron HammackIf you're cool with the notion of only ever getting to exchange ideas with people within walking distance, with the notion that if you have opinions that differ from those of the other tribespeople in your squalid little village you're going to at best not have any friends and at worst (and far more likely, human nature being what it is) going to end up stoned to death for heresy, then, yeah, I suppose you might consider your low-complexity, tribal society to be a utopia.

    To me, it's hell on earth.
    As I said, in a former life, I was obsessed with this kind of stuff. Sure, I could marshal all the evidence, I could show you why your characterization is wrong, I could point out historical and even present examples contradicting this, but even after all of that, I doubt I'll have really changed your mind about any of it.

    So far, people who've played The Fifth World, if they didn't exactly agree, at least understood where I was coming from. I found the limits of academic evidence to persuade people, and I've turned to art—especially art that we make together—as a much better way of communicating what I find inspiring and hopeful. I think that's a worthwhile undertaking: I think the world could use a lot more of that.

    Lester—again, I suggest reading Jeff Vail's blog. He'll explain much better than I could (or would want to) why I don't think solar power will end up making much of a difference.
    Posted By: WordmanAlso, while there is a lot of talk of "civilization breaking down", I think it might be more correct to think of civilization asevolving into something else.
    I might agree with that, depending on what you mean by "civilization." Etymologically and for a whole lot of other reasons, it generally means "human life in cities." If you just mean "good stuff" by it, then it's a fairly useless term, but yes, I could agree then that "good stuff" won't end, we'll just have different "good stuff."
  • Sorry, I guess my unorthodox expectation hijacked the thread a bit. To try to steer this a bit back towards Jeff's original post...
    Richard Manning in Against the GrainThe Spaniards attempted to settle in what is now Argentina in the early 1500s, but failed. They did, however, leave behind some horses. When they returned to try colonization again in the 1580s, they found horses in abundance. A traveler at the turn of the seventeenth century reported horses "in such numbers that they cover the face of the earth and when they cross the road, it is necessary for travelers to wait and let them pass, for a whole day or more, so as not to let them carry the tame stock with them." In 1744, a Jesuit priest in the pampas reported herds of feral horses so numerous that it would take three hours for them to pass by "at full speed."
    Horses originally evolved in North America. They crossed Beringia during the Ice Age, and subsequently went extinct in the New World. When the Spaniards left some behind in the 1500s, they exploded, because they had a perfect habitat.

    So, what do you think will happen with the elephants and lions picked up by zoos and the owners of various ranches, when they're allowed to spread out over the Great Plains that formerly supported mammoths and saber-toothed tigers? In The Fifth World, I've made references to the herds of elephants that roam Alberta, and the prides of lions that hunt them. In the same area, I've speculated that biker culture might trade in horses for hogs and become steppe-like nomads, the Viking/Hun horse nomads of the Great Plains.

    Naturally, jungles would reach up into Texas, and evergreen forests would cover Antarctica and Greenland.

    Plastic actually breaks down very quickly when exposed to sunlight, down to a translucent sand. So, I've often described the translucent plastic sand beaches of the Fifth World, about 88 meters higher up than today, because the ice caps have melted.

    You can't talk to Paul Stamets without coming away with some glimmer of how mushrooms will start trying to solve our problems pretty much as soon as we stop creating them. Mushrooms might evolve to eat nuclear waste. Will enormous mushroom blooms sit on old nuclear power sites? Will the nuclear symbol painted on rocks warn humans that these are areas set aside, sacred, places where humans should not go? I don't think animals will evolve to eat plastic in 400 years, but bacteria sure might—even bacteria lining an animal's intestines. So you might have animals eating plastic anyway.

    You might notice that a lot of things in prehistory just grew a lot bigger than things do today. Turns out this has everything to do with the concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere; with more oxygen, you can circulate blood more efficiently, so you can grow bigger. Scientists already expect rising carbon dioxide levels to help more plants grow, and plants release more oxygen. So, four hundred years from now, will carbon dioxide and oxygen make up a bigger percentage of the atmosphere? And will that mean we'll have giant versions of things?

    I've heard of three things that will prompt faster rates of evolution: radiation (since it produces more mutations to work on), global temperature (since it puts more energy into the system), and the end of a mass extinction event (since it leaves plenty of room, both physically and in terms of empty niches, to fill). So, the next four hundred years will provide the first hat-trick the world's ever seen. Maybe we'll see a bunch of crazy new things evolving in a fairly short period of time.
  • If you're cool with the notion of only ever getting to exchange ideas with people within walking distance, with the notion that if you have opinions that differ from those of the other tribespeople in your squalid little village you're going to at best not have any friends and at worst (and far more likely, human nature being what it is) going to end up stoned to death for heresy, then, yeah, I suppose you might consider your low-complexity, tribal society to be a utopia.

    Fortunately, that's not what tribal societies are like. They're more genetically diverse, work fewer hours in their lives than we in agrarian societies, and, when something paradigm shifting happens, they shift — what's to stop them? For the most part, "stoned to death for heresy" comes at the hands of states and other larger powers. The Salem witch trials were perpetrated by wealthy merchants suspiciously accusing of witchcraft other merchants that they owed money. The laws in Leviticus about stoning to death for antisocial behavior were obviously a threat that protected the society irrespective of the wellbeing of the individuals who made it up(curiously, never seem to have been actually enacted). "An Eye For an Eye" in the Code of Hammurabi comes from having a city-state.

    I don't mean to idylize (if that's a word — if not, I'm awesome) tribal societies. That's just not where their problems lie.

    Also, while there is a lot of talk of "civilization breaking down", I think it might be more correct to think of civilization as evolving into something else.

    Totally. That's what humans do.

    Jason, I know you've got a copy of the two previews of Human Contact. Does anyone else here? This is a lot of what it's about.

    Because let me tell you thats a lot of green sea coast (not to mention other wierd things, like the canadian shield apparently dropping quite a bit and the rockies seemingly spacing out, but hey its a drawing right. How touchy can you get.

    Just to nit-pick because it's even awesomer: Chris Wayan makes those as globes. He's made some amazing stuff. I've linked to some of it from my blog just out of sheer wowedness.

    ANYway:

    I see a lot of waterborne nomads, like Pacific Islanders. The temperate zones there have become tropical, and that means that life is really abundant. If you think Inuit kayaks are cool (and I do!), just imagine their society when they've actually got wood to build with! I'm picturing sailing catamarans with their highly efficient hull shapes.

    I'm also seeing us retaining the knowledge of composite materials. Fibers in a polymer matrix turns out to be a really efficient way to make materials. Metal takes thousands of degrees. While it's useful for some things, bamboo fiber in resin is much cheaper and only requires information, not the incredible heat of a forge. I see boats, houses, armor, all made of the stuff.

    And they're going to need it, because this is an age of trading empires. The greatest of these might be the central African Watukuu, who trade between deep within the continent and the scattered tribes of Europe. There is a vast and secret project to connect the upper end of the Congo river to the Gulf of Victoria by a system of roads that their empire might stretch to the Indian Ocean.

  • YES!

    Remember, most of the modern U.S. highway system overlays major trails that knit pre-Columbian North America in a trans-continental trade network (and before that, the migration paths of mammoth herds). A thousand years ago, Cahokia, a few miles east of modern St. Louis, sat at the hub of a continent-spanning trade empire, with a bigger population than London. As you said, an age of trading empires!

    Bamboo fiber armor ... oh man, do you have any handy links on that kind of stuff? That is too cool!
  • Sure!

    Note that pre-industrial polymers — shellac, boiled linseed oil, rubber — come from tropical and subtropical regions. I'd bet that, with our current 21st century understanding of chemistry we could develop techniques that would make craftable polymers out of tree sap, insect shells, DNA, cellulose, and other stuff that should be abundant.

    Are you still wondering what people trade?

    Also, I'm seeing a much smaller population than our current one. That means different family structures. I'm seeing polyamorous families of three to five adults (obviously the other tribes around you are doing it wrong — but I hear their women are loose!) raising a couple of children at a time until they reach local equilibrium. Fertility is often low, with miscarriages even more common than it is in humans now (3 in 4 pregnancies miscarry right now!) and birth defects are common, thanks to the circumstances that led to the rising of the sea levels. Families with greater genetic diversity are doing a sociogenetic endrun on those factors.

  • So humanity has been more or less monogamous (with a lot of social polygyny) for what 4 thousand years and then suddenly not so much?

    I think thats wishful thinking.

    Also I would like to see your source for that 3/4 quarter miscarry number. Wikipedia is quoting 10-50% with many of those never being known by the mother (and thus why the number is hard to gauge).

    I think theirs more likelyhood in the 400 years up to the disaster leading to a remixing of genetics than any social decision/machine doing it. As things go to shit, travel is going to become harder and more resource consuming. The global village is going to break back up into 10'000 local villages. But the immigration is already done, which means that these new populations are going to be somewhat diverse. Its more like a landbridge suddenly opening and populations mingling before it disappears than somekind of social break up and radical forward thinking.

    Given peoples perchant for notions of 'purity' and preference for 'sameness', I think that any benefit hybrid vigour brings is not going to be enough to suddenly make us all want polyamourous multiracial units.
  • So humanity has been more or less monogamous (with a lot of social polygyny) for what 4 thousand years and then suddenly not so much?

    So... like you said. Plus, I added in some further pressures, that I explained.

    Also I would like to see your source for that 3/4 quarter miscarry number. Wikipedia is quoting 10-50% with many of those never being known by the mother (and thus why the number is hard to gauge).

    OK, 1/2. Whatever. It doesn't change what I said. The number I had was from a sex ed teacher, but it hardly matters.

    I think theirs more likelyhood in the 400 years up to the disaster leading to a remixing of genetics than any social decision/machine doing it.

    Look, since you're not a good reader or speller, I'll explain with simple words:

    The world is hard to live in. There are a lot of miscarriages because of the changed nature of the world, which is an axiom in this discussion.

    Then, people raise children in larger family units, spreading the risks.

    Complete lack of partnerdom leads to rampant sexually transmitted diseases. To mitigate that, people live in 3-5 person sexual units.

    That means that both men and women are in multiples for a given family.

    OK? Now: make some stuff up or stop posting.

  • Posted By: Logos7So humanity has been more or less monogamous (with a lot of social polygyny) for what 4 thousand years and then suddenly not so much?
    The interesting thing about history is that it's kind of accretive. Societies learn things.

    When Julius Caesar wanted penultimate power, the way was open to him. If Barack Obama wanted to become a dictator, there is no constitutional way open. This is political learning.

    For the first time in history, perhaps, women are conscious of themselves as a class,and politically active as a class. That won't just go away. People are currently still using religious codes from 2000 years ago.

    I'm not necessarily convinced that polyamory will be the rule, but I don't see today's nuclear family as inevitable.
  • edited April 2010
    By the way, as an old simmy RQ player I always like to have the good and the bad in all RPG societies. I love those moments where the players stop and say "Shit, we're barbarian killers.... oh well, better get on with it."

    What's the scope of a game in this setting? I'm thinking it would be fun to start a game in your own area and explore from there (obviously, some people's areas would be gone). What's left of the physical old world in 1000 years? Is there anything as durable as the Roman aqueducts?


    [Will there ever be a Charlton Heston moment or is the Statue of Liberty gone like the Colossus of Rhodes?]
  • So... "Science". "Technology". Those might end up being dirty words for a while, but it won't last. People need food and clean water, they need to treat their sick and injured, they need to build shelter against the elements, they need entertainment. While they won't be able to duplicate the techniques of the past, they're not going to suddenly forget that all those things are products of human ingenuity and not gifts from the Gods. They'll understand that observation, reasoning, and experimentation are vital survival skills.

    The hulking ruins of drowned cities will serve as a reminder that the old ways aren't always the best ways, that complacency is fatal, that tradition must always instruct, but never compel.

    In the waning days of the age of technology, as paper books and electronic storage became prohibitively expensive, the use of unassisted human memory came back into fashion. Ancient mnemonic methods coupled with modern psychology led to a significant increase in humanity's ability to store and transmit memories. Guided visualization and song began to replace the textbook.

    Now, in 3010, villages exchange knowledge though vast interconnected networks of itinerant scientist-bards, who trade in both entertaining human-interest stories ("My friends, would you believe that in the far off valley of Logos, each inhabitant restricts themselves to only one sexual partner?") and hard scientific data ("Now gather closer as I sing to you of their system of three field crop rotation and its effect on barley yields over the last 30 years.")
  • Posted By: Logos7So humanity has been more or less monogamous (with a lot of social polygyny) for what 4 thousand years and then suddenly not so much?
    84% of all cultures are polygynous. 1% polyandrous, 15% monogamous. Monogamy has always been an oddball setup for humans.
    Posted By: droogWhat's the scope of a game in this setting? I'm thinking it would be fun to start a game in your own area and explore from there (obviously, some people's areas would be gone). What's left of the physical old world in 1000 years? Is there anything as durable as the Roman aqueducts?
    Sense of place is important to me, so mine focuses on how cool your backyard is. :)
    Posted By: droog[Will there ever be a Charlton Heston moment or is the Statue of Liberty gone like the Colossus of Rhodes?]
    I started my speculations with the Water Oracle for exactly that reason. Doesn't every post-apocalyptic scenario have to start with the Statue of Liberty, to tell you where you are (right up there with a leading white male "so the audience has someone they can identify with," right?). In this case, the Atlantic Ocean rises up to Liberty's chest (if you go with complete ice cap melting and a resulting 88 meter sea level rise, that should be about right, if I've measured everything correctly). So, somewhere out in the ocean, you'll suddenly see this giant green woman rising up out of the depths. So when you really need an answer, you risk the trip out to the Water Oracle to seek an answer.

    I also took the name "the Fifth World" from southwestern Emergence mythology. It seems like there's some elements of Hopi society that are really preparing for an expected collapse of civilization. So, I have a lot of Hopi post-apocalypse going out like evangelists, trying to help people sort out everything that happened. One in particular has taken up residence in the observation deck, and gives oracular pronouncements to people who come seeking the wisdom of the Water Oracle.
    Posted By: Ron HammackPeople need food and clean water, they need to treat their sick and injured, they need to build shelter against the elements, they need entertainment.
    Assuming that you're willing to call what tribal societies have "science" and "technology," sure. They provide for all those things, too. I think you've got it, though: the return of oral tradition (which has its own, unique benefits that you can't get from a book, just like books have their unique benefits), and itinerant bards. Very cool.
  • 84% of all cultures are polygynous. 1% polyandrous, 15% monogamous. Monogamy has always been an oddball setup for humans.

    ... if you look at behaviors, instead of mores, then easily.

    I was thinking about radiation affecting males more than females, what with the goods on the outside. (No idea if this is true), and considering polyandry. The sterile guys are still useful — they can still help raise kids, kill seals, make needles, and say funny things. Maybe there's a special place in such societies for sterile me — a sort of comedian, pleasure-bringing, trickster kind of guy. They might be your itinerant bards, even. While they're a disease vector, they're also sexual fun without the risk of pregnancy. And look: risk of disease really doesn't prevent us from fucking.

    So, somewhere out in the ocean, you'll suddenly see this giant green woman rising up out of the depths. So when you really need an answer, you risk the trip out to the Water Oracle to seek an answer.

    GIVE ME YOUR TIRED, YOUR POOR, YOUR HUDDLED MASSES YEARNING TO BREATHE FREE, THE WRETCHED REFUSE OF YOUR TEEMING SHORE, SEND THESE, THE HOMELESS, THE TEMPEST-TOST TO ME

    It's pretty sinister in that context, innit?

    Anyway, I'm pretty sure people aren't going to forget how to make electricity, for instance. It has a lot of potential uses, and it turns out to be really easy to make a simple spark-gap radio. Being able to communicate at the speed of light is frighteningly useful. Particularly if, say, you're forging a trading empire.

  • Posted By: Joshua A.C. Newman... if you look at behaviors, instead of mores, then easily.
    Could be. Those numbers come from the Ethnographic Atlas.
    Posted By: Joshua A.C. NewmanThe sterile guys are still useful — they can still help raise kids, kill seals, make needles, and say funny things. Maybe there's a special place in such societies for sterile me — a sort of comedian, pleasure-bringing, trickster kind of guy. They might be your itinerant bards, even. While they're a disease vector, they're also sexual fun without the risk of pregnancy. And look: risk of disease really doesn't prevent us from fucking.
    I've heard biologists suggest that one evolutionary reason why we see homosexuality in thousands and thousands of animal species might have to do with just this: having somebody around to help raise the kids, who isn't sinking time into raising his own kids, helps those kids survive. Most American Indian traditions had a "Two Spirit," a recognized third gender that played a definite role in society. One of the heart-breaking ironies of the current debate about gay marriage among the Navajo, for instance, is that they once honored the nadleeh, even to the point of attributing to them some significant parts of the creation story.
    Posted By: Joshua A.C. NewmanAnyway, I'm pretty sure people aren't going to forget how to make electricity, for instance. It has a lot of potential uses, and it turns out to be really easy to make a simplespark-gap radio. Being able to communicate at the speed of light is frighteningly useful. Particularly if, say, you're forging a trading empire.
    I think metal will probably become really hard to get your hands on. Don't you need some good copper, for instance, to even make a spark-gap radio?
  • Yeah, I was thinking about Two-Spirits when I wrote that.

    Copper has some really neat attributes. One of them is that it's really easy to smelt — unlike iron (which is a technique that seems to have started in one place and then spread), copper technologies developed all over the place over and over. Another is that we've got vast piles of it already mined in the form of power and communications cables. And just think about the vast wealth that's found in the anaerobic environments of landfills. Look at all that aluminum — an excellent conductor — that's in there, thrown away instead of recycled, away from oxygen and light. It's hard to mine aluminum from bauxite ore, but recycling it is stupid easy.

    Glass, likewise, once you know how to make it, you can keep making it. It's not like Earth isn't totally covered in silicon. That means lenses, optical fibers, and fiberglass (though bamboo fiber turns out to have very similar properties and needs less processing), as well as drinking glasses and the like.

    Iron smelting is a technology that cultures really cling to, too. I mean, check out the glorious Maasai and Zulu blacksmithing. That's some terrifying shit those people make. Ultimately, metals are dirt. When you learn how to control the dirt with fire, water, and air, you can make metals. It's the massive, industrial, quality-controlled production that's a modern thing, but unless we're trying to move huge amounts of stuff and people around, building bridges out of steel probably isn't a priority. I'd bet that knives, cables, and weapons are, though.

    And check out Viking, Yemeni, or Indian wire work. Metal isn't a modern, high-tech material. In fact, it's kind of old-school at this point. Modern materials are composites and tensile structures, where you use geometry to make things strong, rather than just quantity of materials. And that's precisely the kind of thing that can be learned from a teacher or a book.

    This:

    Now, in 3010, villages exchange knowledge though vast interconnected networks of itinerant scientist-bards, who trade in both entertaining human-interest stories ("My friends, would you believe that in the far off valley of Logos, each inhabitant restricts themselves to only one sexual partner?") and hard scientific data ("Now gather closer as I sing to you of their system of three field crop rotation and its effect on barley yields over the last 30 years.")

    ... is the hot hotness.

    The charcoal, once burnt, will burn again hot
    Saltpeter oxidizes — it will smoulder not
    Sulphur will make the burning start soon
    Combined and then trapped, it will burn like high noon.

  • Posted By: jasonI've heard biologists suggest that one evolutionary reason why we see homosexuality in thousands and thousands of animal species might have to do with just this: having somebody around to help raise the kids, who isn't sinking time into raising his own kids, helps those kids survive.
    As of my most recent schoolin' on the subject, that's pretty much the behavioral biology explanation for homosexuality I was taught.
  • It's also the reason for grandparents. A lot of animals don't have them. It's expensive staying alive and infertile for so long. But we do it, elephants do it, some cetaceans do it. The thing we all have in common is that our existences are really complex and we need someone devoted over the course of two generations to helping us get it right.

  • Posted By: Joshua A.C. NewmanAnd check out Viking, Yemeni, or Indian wire work.
    Yeah, I've included stuff like bog iron, which is produced by bacteria, so you wouldn't have to mine it. But bog iron takes time to regenerate, so you'd only have some small quantities of it. That gives it a very different role in society. In Mongolia, blacksmiths count as shamans, for instance. The myths about Weyland give a pretty good feel for how the knowledge of how to work iron became something very rare, and the people who had it much sought-after. Early Scandinavians relying on bog iron tended to use it for tools that used other materials—so, you just needed a little bit of iron to get the effect. So, for instance, they often preferred spears to swords. And the tools that they did have made of metal took on a mystical quality because of that. A lot of the stories of magical weapons probably had their start in that kind of scarcity. For instance, I've heard some people speculate that the legend of Excalibur may have arisen from one of the few Roman-crafted swords still floating around the island, when most others had to use spears and such.
    Posted By: Joshua A.C. NewmanIt's also the reason for grandparents. A lot of animals don't have them. It's expensive staying alive and infertile for so long. But we do it, elephants do it, some cetaceans do it. The thing we all have in common is that our existences are really complex and we need someone devoted over the course of two generations to helping us get it right.
    Seems like young elephants go a little crazy when they don't have elders around to teach them how to behave. Having already mentioned how I'm not too enamored with the Agricultural Revolution, my wife & I were discussing the Neolithic Mortality Crisis. My wife suggested that maybe a lot of the problems that arose then might have happened because human farmers ended up like those elephants. Suddenly, all our elders died, and with them, the traditions that gave us direction and purpose. No wonder we've so consistently painted that as the beginning of our existence, eh?
  • Another thought about swords of legend is that they're made from meteoritic iron — pure and found in huge chunks. Swords hidden in stones, if you will.

    But it's not like all the iron in the world is going to disappear. The cities of a thousand years ago are made of steel and glass. A lot of it is rust, maybe, and a lot of it is underwater, but not all of it, and how much do you need? People devoted to retrieving the treasures of the past would have awfully good stuff to trade.

    It should be noted that, to this day, humans use obsidian knives because they have a finer edge than any other we can make. They're fragile, but they're used for scalpels because of their extreme sharpness.

    Once we know how a thing works, we're awful good at finding ways to use it.

    You know, that's an interesting thing: plagues (such as those wrought in city-states) take out the elders first. Babies, with their astounding resilience (and ability to absorb antibodies from their mothers' milk) have a better chance of survival. Loss of elders sure seems like a crazypants inducer.

  • Posted By: Joshua A.C. NewmanBut it's not like all the iron in the world is going to disappear. The cities of a thousand years ago are made of steel and glass. A lot of it is rust, maybe, and a lot of it is underwater, but not all of it, and how much do you need? People devoted to retrieving the treasures of the past would have awfully good stuff to trade.
    I've speculated about a "Rusting Age," where you've got your Mad Max-style warlords who control the crumbling cities, which they mine for what iron they can work (since mostly we use alloys that are much harder to smelt) before what remains rusts away. Between that kind of competition and the fact that iron doesn't take all that long to rust, I figure that will last for a century or two at best.
    Posted By: Joshua A.C. NewmanIt should be noted that, to this day, humans use obsidian knives because they have a finer edge than any other we can make. They're fragile, but they're used for scalpels because of their extreme sharpness.
    Absolutely. We use obsidian blades for eye surgery, for example, because it's so much sharper than steel. The work there is so fine that you can't use steel, you have to use obsidian.

    I wonder if they'll have eye surgery? They did basic brain surgery in the Mesolithic.
  • I've speculated about a "Rusting Age," where you've got your Mad Max-style warlords who control the crumbling cities, which they mine for what iron they can work (since mostly we use alloys that are much harder to smelt) before what remains rusts away. Between that kind of competition and the fact that iron doesn't take all that long to rust, I figure that will last for a century or two at best.

    I dunno, man. We have museums filled with thousand-year-old carbon steel, and that's from a period when it was a rare and precious material. This is one of those things where you choose among several plausibilities for the one that best suits your aesthetic purposes. If you want rare steel, make the cities rust away under the rising waters. If you want a thriving trade in it, have it be exactly as rare as you want it to be to make your society function the way you want.

    In fact, given the presence of the Watukuu, it might be that they're buying the steel of the ancient cities and trading stuff they know how to make better than anyone else. It might be slowly consolidating there in West Africa.

    I wonder if they'll have eye surgery? They did basic brain surgery in the Mesolithic.

    Yeah, I was thinking about trepanation, too. It's clearly something we have an inclination to do. Eye surgery relies on anaesthetics, though, which are a closely guarded and subtle technology right now. It seems like that's the kind of knowledge that might be lost.

    I forgot to say it before, but Ron's got some really spectacular ideas up there:

    In the waning days of the age of technology, as paper books and electronic storage became prohibitively expensive, the use of unassisted human memory came back into fashion. Ancient mnemonic methods coupled with modern psychology led to a significant increase in humanity's ability to store and transmit memories. Guided visualization and song began to replace the textbook.

    That's very interesting to me. That could cause a real, profound change in language as a technology. Get all up in Sapir-Whorf.

  • Posted By: Joshua A.C. NewmanIt's also the reason for grandparents. A lot of animals don't have them. It's expensive staying alive and infertile for so long. But we do it, elephants do it, some cetaceans do it. The thing we all have in common is that our existences are really complex and we need someone devoted over the course of two generations to helping us get it right.
    Totally right about grandparents. That's the non-controversial one. It's when you bring in the gay and suggest that it has a positive biological purpose that people get testy. Plus, it's the gay we're talking about here. Whenever you talk about it someone somewhere gets testy.

    I'd also suggest that it's not merely our individual complexity that selects for the continuing presence of non-reproducing family members (grandmothers, gay people), but that humans' reproductive strategy appears to be founded at its root in the social unit. Each person enhances the survivability of her own genes by fostering the survival of those genes in her family members. We're social animals, and so we take this thing that is present in any mammal I can think of — a period of post-natal care — and multiply its power by caring not only for our own offspring, but for our parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. In each of those people is part of ourselves, part we're trying to see fostered and carried down. In other words, these non-breeders are still helping themselves out by taking care of their genes in their relatives.

    And because we're complex, we also have this adaptation of socially-shared knowledge which enhances survivability. Non-parents can use the time they're not spending raising children expanding upon this knowledge, and sharing it.
  • Posted By: Joshua A.C. NewmanI dunno, man. We have museums filled with thousand-year-old carbon steel, and that's from a period when it was a rare and precious material.
    Steel, yes. Steel doesn't rust nearly as quickly as iron. Steel also requires a much higher temperature to smelt or even rework than plain old iron does.

    Also, those pieces in the museums are generally armor and swords and such that people took care of, not stuff left in crumbling buildings that people might go trying to salvage. Whether you take care of something or leave it open to the elements makes all the difference. Imagine the guy, 400 years from now, who has one of the last surviving katanas, passed down from father to son with immense care and respect, in an unbroken line from the Tokugawa period. But compare that to, say, an iron swing my family put up that rusted to almost nothing in little more than 20 years, because we left it outside.
    Posted By: Joshua A.C. NewmanThat's very interesting to me. That could cause a real, profound change in language as a technology. Get all up in Sapir-Whorf.
    Absolutely. When you really dig into how oral traditions really work, there's really a lot of this already going on. See David Abram, for instance. It's fascinating stuff.
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