In a previous article titled "Slouching toward dystopia" I discussed the idea of the modern age becoming more dystopic as time progressed.  A few people commented that dystopias were, more or less, relative.  They cited the example that a person who lived in the early 20th century or the 19 century would look at the state of the world today as a "dark future" or a dystopia.  This argument, I realized, is not a sound one.  Anyone who was alive then who managed to live to the present would have been a slowly cooked frog, acclaimating to changing conditions as they occurred.  More importantly, since the likelihood that someone of that time would live to see the world today, the point is invalid.  Even if we were to suspend disbelief for a moment and take both of those assumptions as they are, I still doubt they would view our times in this way.  I think people underestimate how cold and harsh even recent eras were compared to the conditions of today.  Societies might appear to be less ordered but only socially, and only because the rise of indigenous control over nations and the slow death of colonialism would appear to a person of a previous age as anarchy. 

         But in other respects it might appear utopic.  Who would have thought, in 1890 for example, that you could buy food from a machine?  Or that your daily caloric requirements could be met for a paltry sum?  Granted these are foods I would not be interested in myself, but given the difficulties of acquiring food (comparatively) of those times, it might seem like a little slice of heaven.  Potable water is literally at the tip of your fingers and doesn't require boiling.  You can walk down the street of any urban area in the U.S. and not fear having urine or feces dropped on you from a 3rd story window.  And there is certainly no danger of stepping in horseshit.  The haze of dystopia, if there was any, would simply be the individual's inability to initially cope with such concepts.  Which I beleive would wear off quite quickly.

        I started thinking about this again when I saw a comment on an article a while back about the coming of a second "Dark Age".  I didn't even have to think about it.  The idea immediately sounded right.  At the time I didn't know why, but after a little bit of thinking I came across the "why".  It could be said that I am disposed to thinking about disaster scenarios, with the previous post about dystopias and zombie apocalypses.  So let me remind you that I am a fiction writer.  More importantly, I am a fiction writer in a genre that tends to lend itself to dark futures.  It is my job then, to consider any number of possible end of the world or dark future scenarios.  But we aren't talking about end of the world scenarios are we?  We are talking about the potential for a second "Dark Age".  The first Dark Ages, arguably, started with the sacking of Rome in 610 AD.  Some consider the Dark Ages to have begun with the intellectual collapse of Rome, but I think many can agree that this happened long before it was sacked and long before it was split in two. I'm no historian so I won't debate the exact dates here.  What is important is the fact that there was no single reason for the advent of the Dark Ages.  Rather it was a combination of them.  And the purposes of the article is still less about the reasons, than they are the dynamic that makes the possibility of another Dark Age very real.

    Ultimately, in the universe, there are no truly sustainable systems.  The Sun, which is believed to be 4.5 billion years old and powers itself on fusion, will eventually deplete its fusile material in another 6 billion years.  Our lives here on Earth move in much smaller concentric circles.  The Roman Empire lasted around 1000 years, the longest of any known.  In that time there have been other stars that have died whose light we can still see in the sky (because its final rays have not yet reached us).  So what is to say that all that has occurred in the last 700 years will not be undone?  How can we, in our arrogance, argue against the slow yet inevitable decline of modern society?  There are many factors that lead to the fall of the Roman Empire, and as a result, ushered in the Dark Ages.  Disease, war, mismanagement, and let's not forget the "barbarians" at the gate.  How many of these factors are proliferating in modern times?  All of them and more.  But this is not the basis for my assertion.  Going back to my point, no system is sustainable.  No government lasts forever, no hegemony rules for eternity, and social and technological slopes do not always incline upwards.  The name of this process is entropy.  This is appropriate because it can refer to our Sun as well as our human existence.  The Sun is gradually losing fusile material and therefore heat.  

       The larger definition is the gradual decay of something into disorder.  The universe began this process almost immediately after the Big Bang.  As soon as it had expanded unto the universe(s) it immediately began to shrink.  We are but a small speck in the vast cosmos.  If the Universe is nothing but a series of concentric circles and cycles of existence then wouldn't it stand to reason that whatever happens to the Universe also happens IN the Universe?  A more obvious example is the human body.  When we die, every cell in our body eventually dies as well.  Cyclically it would seem that this process of entropy is affecting our own world, our bodies, and the systems we create.  We, in the West, have created and in many cases, pillaged, wealth.  We have used that wealth to create a mean standard of living that is quite comfortable by any standard.  We have created data networks that span the globe, and Army that is unrivaled in history, and the means to produce and consume food and water around the clock.  And then we implemented systems by which all of these things could be made available consistently and constantly.  These are all systems built upon other systems.  Systems that by their very nature erode and decay and become less efficient and finally die.  Those systems can be repaired and updated and overhauled.  But what about the systems that are designed to do the updating and the overhauling?

       When the next Dark Age arrives it will be because of this sort of decay.  The real question here is:  Are we witnessing that decay now?  One could argue that diseases have never been more treatable than they are now.  We are a hairs breadth away from curing AIDS, the single largest scourge of our time.  More effective treatments for cancer are available and the survivability has increased dramatically for those diseases.  But we've also seen the rise of Avian and Swine flus that can be transmitted from animal to human.  Our over use of antibiotics has created super strains of strep and staph.  And the incredibly unhealthy lifestyles we have created by our automated "systems" has given us Type II Diabetes, Heart Disease, and a host of other physical aiments.  Effectively we are creating the new diseases that will overcome us.  The Romans were also stricken by lead poisoning from their own aquaducts.  They were poisoned by their own water supply.  We pollute our environment ceaselessly which permeates every aspect of our lives, not the least of which is our water supply.  We permit large corporations to experiment on our food sources, the effects of which we may never fully know.  And those same corporations purloin our food supply with chemicals, artificial flavoring agents, and copious quantities of High Fructose Corn Syrup.

          What about the non-automated systems?  Certainly this coccoon of comfort that we have created for ourselves in modern times has had a deletirious effect on the psyche of the people these systems were created to serve.  People comprise systems parallel to the automated ones.  Actually, human systems were built on top of the automated ones.  Yet it seems that even this dynamic is turned on its head.  Are we the master of these systems or are they ours?  We spend so much time maintaining and prolonging the life of these systems, pouring more and more energy into them as they more rapidly diminish in return that it could hardly be said that we are any longer the masters of them.  We have created bureaucracies in order to achieve this maintenance.  Yet the automated systems have nullified us, and anesthitized us with comfort and immediacy.  We are plied constantly with the very things we have created the systems to provide, and in exchange we are growing increasingly useless.  This immediacy and consumption on demand, where we no longer have to put in much effort to achieve even moderate levels of comfort has skewed the things we truly value.  We are rewarded for achieving the percieved maximum result for the actual least effort.  In hunter gatherer days people were valued based upon their ability to deliver the things that were essential for survival, whereas the person in modern times who can afford to have the finest foods delivered to their doorstep with a minimal effort are virtually worshipped.  A more relevant example would be corporate models, where the executive who never leaves his air conditioned office is valued more than the low level laborer who works back breaking hours and both are compensated with bits of paper and metal whose value is completely arbitrary.

     All systems are inherently self correcting.  There will never be a time where the human ability to repair or sustain a system will eclipse the capacity for that system to break down.  But we are living in a time where it is the systems themselves that our accelerating our decline.  I believe there is a single reason for this.  All of the systems we create with one primary purpose: profit.  Profit trumps sustainability ever time.  We create machines, organizational structures, industry, agriculture etc. with the intent of maximizing immediacy and by extension profit.  As a result the pure nature of those things are compromised, abused, and contaminated.  To that end, the things we create not only enslave us, but they convince us that we are free simultaneously, thereby stripping us of the desire or even ability to assume control of those systems in order to ensure our own survival.  This is at the heart of the oncoming Dark Age.  The difference now is that there are more educated people in the world than at any time previously.  We have access to more information as common people than at any time in the history of civilization.  This fact should negate the idea of a Dark Age as forgone conclusion.  But it doesn't.  Years of socialization has us trapped in the belief that we are OK.  We know for a fact that the polar ice caps are melting.  Any one with Google Earth can see that.  Yet even in the face of major catastrophe we que up for five dollar coffees at chain coffee houses, relentlessly pursue self aggrandizing activities.  Where Rome had one Emperor, modern societies have millions.  And each one ignorantly believes he/she knows best, or simply doesn't care.


About the author
J. Austin Yoshino
Author: J. Austin Yoshino
That's what I do; I read and I know things.
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