Grant not unto me a spirit of idleness,
of discouragement,
of lust for power,
and of vain speaking.

Thus begins the prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian, which we Orthodox Christians repeat every day during Lent. Now, I’m aware that today is Easter for those of you on the Gregorian calendar (which is, um, everyone), and that a good portion of you are not religious or don’t care about Orthodox Lent. But never mind that! This is a series about writing, not a series about religious observances.

I am going to use this prayer to structure the next few posts, though, because it’s a good one. The challenges of writing are not so different from the challenges of the spiritual life, and the pleas of St. Ephraim are certainly applicable to the writer’s vocation. So let us take this line by line:

Grant not unto me a spirit of idleness

Hoo boy.

I saw a tweet the other day that said, roughly, “Being a writer is 3% talent and 97% not being distracted by the internet.” I don’t think I’ve ever met a writer who didn’t identify with this sentiment. For me, given that I’m still writing in my free time while also trying to hold down a day job, it’s especially acute, because after a hard day of work the thing I most want to do is to curl up and read webcomics. Or play Magic. Or do any number of things other than the difficult, demanding job of writing a stupid story. I tell myself that the full-time writers have it easier… but I don’t actually think that’s true.

I have been very bad at this for the past few months. Mostly, it’s because I let my Magic playing take over too much of my writing time. I took a hiatus from Magic for Lent, and my writing output has gone up dramatically. As a result, I’ve reevaluated how much time I’m going to devote to the game once the fast ends, regardless of how much I love it.

A maxim I’ve heard over and over again from pro writers is that you need to put your butt in the chair and write. No amount of other things can possibly make up for sitting down and puking out words until you have enough; and then you have to pick through your verbal vomit to find out which chunks of it are gold. Everything else is just idleness.

Next time: Discouragement

Time marches on, and the coming backlash against the internet is getting ever closer. I ended my last post on this subject with idle speculation about the internet would be downgraded to banal or actually evil:

The current crop of tech-lovers are certainly not evil themselves, and we haven’t yet seen anything that is both clearly evil and fundamentally tied to internet-enabled communication. Wikileaks, though, gives us an interesting glimpse at what may be to come. If a ponce like Julian Assange can embarrass the most powerful country in the world and get away with it, then it’s possible that someone who’s smart, ambitious, and evil could do something similar in a way that would be really disastrous. Our e-Hitler could easily get the sympathy of most of the world’s hackers and geeks, who would gladly participate in an open-source world-domination project written in Python if it were framed in the right way. And if that happened, you’d better believe that the rest of the world would turn against the tech-lovers right quick.

However, that’s a far-fetched scenario, the sort of random thing I was able to come up with in a few minutes of theorizing. Recently I read an article about Jaron Lanier in the Smithsonian that suggests a more plausible avenue to internet evil:

At last we come to politics, where I believe Lanier has been most farsighted—and which may be the deep source of his turning into a digital Le Carré figure. As far back as the turn of the century, he singled out one standout aspect of the new web culture—the acceptance, the welcoming of anonymous commenters on websites—as a danger to political discourse and the polity itself. At the time, this objection seemed a bit extreme. But he saw anonymity as a poison seed. The way it didn’t hide, but, in fact, brandished the ugliness of human nature beneath the anonymous screen-name masks. An enabling and foreshadowing of mob rule, not a growth of democracy, but an accretion of tribalism.

It’s taken a while for this prophecy to come true, a while for this mode of communication to replace and degrade political conversation, to drive out any ambiguity. Or departure from the binary. But it slowly is turning us into a nation of hate-filled trolls.

Well. Once you put it that way, it seems obvious, doesn’t it?

By this time, it’s a commonplace that internet comment threads, especially those about politics, are a cesspool of hatred and vilification. Everybody knows this. Political orientation doesn’t matter, either: left-leaning and right-leaning comment crowds are equally vitriolic, equally contemptuous of those who disagree, and equally devoid of serious thought and intellectual rigor. There are exceptions, here and there. I know that in my head I keep a short list of sites where I’ll dare to read the comment threads. But basically everything else is guaranteed to be like dipping my face into a toxic pit of filth and hatred.

We all know this. But have we really considered what it means when the internet becomes the dominant arena of political discussion? I can carry on a cordial discussion of politics with my neighbor, but I won’t risk a discussion of politics with basically anyone, unless I’m well-prepared with a flame-retardant suit and some sharpened mots justes of my own. Is this what we want? It seems pretty clear that the spread of the internet is making our political dialog stupider, angrier, and more extreme—in other words, that the internet is actively making the world a worse place.

At the end of the article, Lanier suggests that we could see the internet’s capacity for mass action set up a legitimately evil mass movement, an echo of the outbreaks of popular cruelty that found their expression under fascism and communism. I’m afraid to say, that sounds really plausible. It also sounds like something that I don’t want to see.

In 1987 both the Internet and the Soviet Union existed. Twenty-five years later, only one of these things exists, and it’s not the one that most people would have predicted in 1987, or even the one that they had heard of.

This comes to mind because I recently came across this set of time capsule predictions from notable SFF authors of 1987. Like all retro-futuristic predictions, this one is a lovely mixture of the wrong and the ridiculous, and it gives us all a chance to smirk at how smart we are for living in the future that those poor schlubs could only guess about. I especially note how pessimistic most of these gentlemen are (and they are all gentlemen). Many of them predicted nuclear war or ecological collapse; economic troubles were widely forecast, and the human population was routinely overestimated. (In fact, nearly every person who mentioned population used the number eight billion, which is so coincidental that I assume the number was the official estimate at the time. It also overshoots the actual world population by about a billion.)

I’m particularly amused by Isaac Asimov’s short prediction, which I quote in its entirety:

Assuming we haven’t destroyed ourselves in a nuclear war, there will be 8-10 billion of us on this planet—and widespread hunger. These troubles can be traced back to President Ronald Reagan who smiled and waved too much.

The cause of all our problems

Gregory Benford made this puzzling remark:

The outer-directed, social-issues consciousness of the USA, only nascent in 1987, will have peaked and run its course…leading to a fresh period of inward-directed values, perhaps even indulgence…though there will be less ability to indulge.

1987 was the beginning of a period of social consciousness? And it’s supposed to have run out of steam by now? I can safely say that I have no idea what he’s talking about, not even enough of an idea to say for sure that he was wrong.

Lots of people predicted computers would be important. No one mentioned the Internet. Other technological predictions, about space missions to Mars or the moon, about nanotechnology, and about renewable energy, all failed to come true.

And of course no one guessed that the Soviet Union would break up, especially not in two short years.

But what’s the point of reading about failed predictions of the past if you aren’t willing to make a few predictions of your own? So here are my predictions for the year 2037:

  • The Internet will be ubiquitous in economic and social interactions. It will, in fact, be so omnipresent that no one will think about it much.
  • The US will still have the world’s strongest economy, but not by much. Its main competitors will be the developed economies of China, India, and Brazil.
  • The EU will still exist, but it will have fewer countries in it than it does today.
  • Islamic terrorism will largely be a thing of the past.
  • Humans, but not Americans, will have been back to the moon. Most likely the newest moon visitors will be Chinese. No manned mission to Mars will yet have taken place.
  • The Singularity will not have happened. There will be no strong AI. There will be no contact with extraterrestrials. We will not run out of oil, nor will there be any game-changing renewable energy source. There will be no radical breathroughs in biology, cryogenics, nanotechnology, or robotics. Instead, there will be modest, incremental advances in all of these fields (except the Singularity and extraterrestrials, because those are pure fantasy).
  • Global warming will still be going on, but nothing much will be done about it. It turns out that incrementally adapting to global climate change is easier than radically revamping the entire world economy in an attempt to stop it.
  • There will be wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet.