Monday, 24 March 2014

Social Appearance And Reality

The opening paragraph of Poul Anderson's "Welcome", IN Anderson, Past Times (New York, 1984), pp. 58-70, informs us that, by traveling five hundred years into the future, Barlow has arrived in the North American Federation of the United World Republics although Barlow himself cannot possibly know that yet.

He has "'...increased [his] rate of existence several millionfold...'" (p. 60) and left the twentieth century "...less than half an hour ago, as far as his conscious mind knew." (p. 61) My rough calculations confirm that there are several million half hours in five centuries. However, surely it would be more accurate to say that he has decreased or slowed down his rate of existence? Speeded up, he would age, die, decay and disappear in an instant. We say that an astronaut undergoing time dilation slows down, not that he speeds up, but sometimes there is conceptual confusion on this issue, most notably in HG Wells' The Time Machine, where the Time Traveler, arriving unaged in 802,701 AD, is said to have accelerated.

However, Barlow's chronokinesis is merely a vehicle or literary device to address the issue of the difference between appearance and reality in social systems. We are familiar with this difference in physical systems. If reality were simply identical with appearance, then the Sun would go round the Earth because it appears to do so. However, I think that it is wrong to overemphasize the difference or to infer that appearance is experienced whereas reality is merely inferred. Rather, we experience reality and our experience of it is its appearance to us. But experience or appearance must be interpreted.

Once, walking between buildings at a place of work, I glanced behind me, saw a colleague lying on his back on the ground and instantly interpreted what, on reflection, was a rather unusual sight. Because George was lying near a parked car with one arm flung out towards the car, I thought that he had dropped a coin or other small object which had rolled under the car and that he was reaching underneath to retrieve it. I soon learned that, if I had glanced back a moment earlier, I would have seen George's companion, Chris, lay him on his back with a blow to the jaw.

My immediate and erroneous interpretation fitted the scene as it appeared to me but not the full story as recounted by an eye witness. But both stories did involve George, not Chris, lying on his back, not on his front, near a car, not a van etc. I got that much right. If reality and appearance were merely different, then we would never detect any reality. If our interpretation and its application ever cease to be practically efficacious, then we will have to acknowledge that reality and appearance have finally parted company. In Anderson's Genesis, there are characters whose rocket technology never works because, although they appear to be on the surface of the Earth, they are really inside an immense but incomplete AI emulation.

Any society can probably look good to a newcomer who is welcomed by its social elite but he might go on to learn how that elite relates to the rest of society. Barlow is relieved to have arrived neither in a desert nor in an Orwellian dictatorship but, as he had hoped, in a civilization that welcomes him as a celebrity. However, the Earth of 2497 has:

suffered Atomic Wars;
a population of maybe fifteen billion;
hereditary government;
no technological innovation and very little space travel;
a drab continent-wide city;
only a small skyscraper apartment even for a celebrity;
but domestic servants either bred or conditioned for invincible stupidity;
an even lower breed eaten by the elite.

The heroes of Anderson's "Time Heals" and "Flight To Forever" continue traveling further into the future. Barlow might want to do this also. He keeps rationalizing the unpalatable facts of future society until he encounters the cannibalism.

This suggests an even finer gradation of Anderson's time travel stories:

a time traveler who visits a single past or future period;
a time traveler who visits several other periods;
a group of time travelers etc.

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