The True 21st Century Begins

Conjecture / by Bruno Argento /

From the fevered mind of Bruce Sterling and his alter-ego, Bruno Argento, a consideration of things ahead.

Illustration by Joe Kloc

My city of Turin, Italy spent the year 2008 as the “World Capital of Design.” Our year ended in financial crisis, just the same as everyone else’s.

This doesn’t much bother me, though I am concerned about the distress of others. Here in Europe, we employ terms rarely heard across the Atlantic. Translated into English, these terms are “solidarity” and “precarity.” The year 2009 will be about these issues. Their time has come.

America’s harshly competitive, highly individualistic society has scarcely any grasp of “solidarity.” Likely they imagine “Solidarity” has something to do with Polish anti-communism. But no, “solidarity” is a feeling of natural affinity with the unjustly oppressed. One could call it benevolence. Or one could describe it as a wary, street-smart understanding that some fellow citizen just caught it in the neck for no good reason, and that you yourself could easily be next.

The American response to such an affront would likely be to retain counsel and sue.  Europe is not a litigious or constitutional society. “Solidarity” is our native response.

The year 2009 will brim over with senseless affronts toward decent people who have done their best and obeyed all the rules. Well-connected, well-educated, capable people who are pillars of the community will be ruined. It follows that 2009 will be a global banner year for European solidarity.

SEE ALSO: 2009 Will Be a Year of Panic

For instance, Italian physicists, suddenly beggared by the short-sighted policies of the latest Italian government, are more than willing to join the students in the streets, or to set up protest websites such as “Buco Nero” (in English, “Black Hole”). I wouldn’t claim that this is good for Italian science — about six thousand Italian scientists flee Italy every year. It is, however, a tribute to Italian social cohesion.

If you can’t react to the misfortunes of the best people in your society, then, when do you plan to take action? What further excuse do you require to put aside your personal selfishness and learn to think politically?

We now come to the useful word “precarity,” which is part of the American lifestyle but distant from American politics. “Precarity” is, of course, the condition of existing precariously. The condition of losing one’s safety and security, of losing predictability and the ability to rationally plan ahead, the condition of being humiliated and in danger.

“Precarity” has much to do with the need for a steady income, for predictable hours of work, for a humane respect from one’s employer and a need not to be unjustly fired. Below this thin shell of labor-management relations is the deeper, more primal nature of European precarity. It is found in our time-honored European predilection for abject misery, political extremism, totalitarian violence against the dignity of the individual, and world wars.

Normally Americans and Europeans fail to agree about “precarity” — Americans think their precarity is a kind of fluidity and dynamism, while Europeans are lazy featherbedders dawdling over two-hour lunches. But what’s certain is that, whatever its definition, precarity is now global. The wealthy and powerful — especially the wealthy and powerful — are precarious. They are being flung about like flotsam, and the precarity once reserved for blue-collar workers is now inside the corner office and the corporate boardroom as well.

This means that we all have new chances to see eye-to-eye on major global economic issues such as currency flows and the aging population. Italy is leading the way in aging — we’re the oldest country in Europe — and business stabilized remarkably when we rid ourselves of the comically useless Italian lira. It’s proof that people can both adapt to the inevitable and make some bold steps.

For me personally, the greatest, latest example of Euro-American cooperation is the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft, whose radar was built by Italians. In 2004, this baroque, elephant-sized spacecraft lumbered with stately dignity into the orbit of Saturn, where, like Marco Polo, it proceeded to boggle the collective mind with a whole panoply of new worlds. Just one example: Cassini-Huygens showed us that the minor moon of Enceladus has hot, liquid-water geysers blasting out of its icy south pole. No science fiction writer ever predicted this, but there seems to be a dense organic soup merrily boiling away inside that moon, a steaming orb something like an espresso machine. For all we know — and we may know soon — Enceladus is blasting blind fish into outer space. It would be poetically appropriate if an Italian spacecraft made the greatest discovery since Columbus.

In a world so redolent with wonder, how can we allow ourselves to conduct our daily lives with so little insight, such absence of dignity? We should discover that there is no objective need for such precarity; the planet Earth should not be run as a fire sale. Precarity was supposed to be for the little people; when it is for everybody, its absurdity is manifest. Precarity cannot make us a cleaner, better, or more just society. Precarity is not sustainable. It has nothing to do with economic productivity. It does not help us sustain our precious cultural heritage or our natural heritage, the planet’s priceless biodiversity. It is the mayhem of a disturbed ant’s nest.

Once we recognize precarity as an existential threat for all, we will find the means to deal with it. A guaranteed annual income would be a good start. Shorter work weeks give us the chance to rejoin civil society, to re-establish trust with neighbors turned strangers, to engage in some convivial joie de vivre over healthy, genuine cuisine, instead of ridiculous cardboard-packaged fast food. You might want to drop by Turin to see how this can work. Here, we have built a global food-heritage industry. It would do you good to see wealthy Indians and Chinese gourmets venturing to sample the cheeses (likely the world’s greatest) available from local producers. Each side is enriched. Italy has been enduring massive tidal waves of tourists for two hundred solid years. Our tourist trade is so old and well established that we should perhaps build monuments to it.

I am a futurist — Italian “Futurismo,” 100 years old in 2009, is arguably the world’s oldest futurism, after all — so I will venture to predict something that seems to me obvious: Eight years late, the 20th century has finally departed us this year. It will never return.

The “true” 20th century — the Communist century — began in 1914 and ended in 1989. We are now in the true 21st century.

After 1989 we enjoyed a strange interregnum where “history ended.” Everyone ran up a credit-card bill at the global supermarket. The adventure ended badly, in crisis. Still, let us be of good heart. In cold fact, a financial crisis is one of the kindest and mildest sorts of crisis a civilization can have. Compared to typical Italian catastrophes like wars, epidemics, earthquakes, volcanoes, endemic political collapse — a financial crisis is a problem for schoolchildren.

The year to come is best approached as a learning opportunity. It offers a golden chance to bury our dead prejudices and learn how to properly feed the living. Once we stop shaking all over and scolding Americans, we will recognize the tremendous potential this new century offers the people of the world. The sun still shines, the grass still grows, we are still human. If we stopped pretending to be puppets of an invisible hand, we would not fret over the loss of the 20th century’s strings. We might see that life is sweet.  — Bruno Argento is an Italian futurist, a cautious optimist, and Bruce Sterling’s twin brother. He lives in Turin, Italy.

Originally published January 29, 2009

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