On Predicting Traffic Jams; Or, the Problems with Change (Revisited)

A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam. — Frederick Pohl, Science-Fiction Writer

The oft-quoted axiom by Frederick Pohl, as seen above, has tremendous insight into the nature of change, especially when it comes to technological, economic, political, and cultural change. Change, whether we embrace it or not, is always a certainty in life, so much so that Benjamin Franklin’s oft-quoted axiom, concerning “death and taxes,” should include change as well. Franklin never saw the rapidly changing world that began in 1789, with the French Revolution. Instead, Franklin died in 1790, never to see what would become of the Old (and New) World.

Change, particularly in the twenty-first century, is going to be constant. However, to argue that the twenty-first century is unique in this would be a problematic assertion. Instead, we should remember that (rapid) change has been with us for much of human history, albeit in differing flavors and speeds. Fast to one generations is glacially slow to another. The same will probably be said about the change in our own century, when historians hundreds of years into the future begin looking backwards in time.

When I consider the nature of change in the twenty-first century, I often look back to the stories told by my great grandmother, who was born in Utah, back in 1917. My great grandmother, who grew up with modest means and never wanted for much, saw her life change drastically throughout her time on this planet. She saw her homes go from having little or no amenities to taking running water, gas, electricity, and cable or satellite television for granted. She was old enough to know some of the early history of aviation, witnessing the development of air travel, with humans flying wooden airplanes to seeing the United States put the first man on the moon in 1969. She was old enough to remember a time before television and decent movies. She died around the time Blu-Ray was catching on. Her favorite movie was Shrek, which she owned on DVD, something that didn’t exist for much of her life. Her husband’s life was extended by medical technology. Having had a stroke around the time I was born, my great grandfather was never the same. He lost his personality, his ability to live on his own, and he became deeply dependent on my great grandmother’s hired help and his family members, especially his grownup grandchildren.

[W]e should remember that (rapid) change has been with us for much of human history, albeit in differing flavors and speeds.

What my great grandmother’s life stories show are the importance of adapting to change, understanding that change does, indeed, happen, and, more importantly, the unintended consequences of change. These lessons offer fertile grounds for those who pursue storytelling as their method of expression.

Her favorite movie was Shrek, which she owned on DVD, something that didn’t exist for much of her life.

My great grandmother was rather adaptive to technological change. However, when it came to social and cultural change, she was rather bigoted, intolerant of non-conformist lifestyles, different religions (i.e., those other than her own), and minorities, whom she hated to hear speak, because she didn’t like the sound of their voices. She wasn’t very understanding of change, especially when it came to her only son and her grandchildren.

She believed the old ways were still the best ways. Moreover, she believed that the American Dream was still the same, despite drastic economic and political changes that had developed new roadblocks that hadn’t existed during much of her lifetime. My great grandmother was someone who had been launched into true middle-class prosperity with the help of the strongest economic growth in American history — the post-WWII economy was the reason she enjoyed a life with few hurdles, and she enjoyed a life more comfortable experienced by those before and after. In other words, my grandmother seemed to forget that she was lucky. That she happened to live at the right time, lived in the right place, and belonged to the privileged class of white, middle-class Americans. Her only son and her grandchildren weren’t as lucky. They seemed to fall down the socio-economic ladder, hoping, praying, to achieve the level of prosperity their mother/grandmother enjoyed during her lifetime.

She believed the old ways were still the best ways. Moreover, she believed that the American Dream was still the same, despite drastic economic and political changes that had developed new roadblocks that hadn’t existed during much of her lifetime.

Her intolerance, her inability to understand or acknowledge changes, created a rift between her and her family. My great grandmother could never understand why my father, who was an intelligent man in her eyes, was unable to make enough money to support his family in southern Colorado. Moreover, she never understood why my grandfather, a bisexual man, was unable to make his numerous marriages last. In other words, she failed to understand socio-cultural norms had changed, and the behaviors of individuals, especially those who no longer conformed to the unrealistic (and unhealthy) myth of the heteronormative, nuclear family, where mom and dad had two or three kids, lived in an immaculate house, and prosperity was everywhere to be had — it only needed to be taken by those with the right stuff.

My great grandmother also witnessed rather brutal consequences of change, particularly medical changes or advances. Her husband, who suffered from a stroke when I was just born, lived a long time after his stroke. He was never the same again. He lost his personality, his essence, and his very humanness to my great grandmother, who saw him as a burden rather than a loved one needing special medical care and attention. She grew more annoyed with time, and she cursed him for leaving without taking her with him. She spent the next ten years looking to die, only that her life was prolonged by doctors, medicine, and the occasional surgery. This cruel stretch of fate left my great grandmother bitter, almost nihilistic in her worldview. She was the unintended victim, if that’s the right word for it, of change. She witnessed a great quantity of life, but, without my great grandfather, she suffered from a deficit in her quality of life.

Change is a weird thing. However, if we are to take my great grandmother’s life stories seriously, we need to remember that change isn’t just constant, but it throws great (and often unexpected) consequences at all of us.

Her only son and her grandchildren weren’t as lucky. They seemed to fall down the socio-economic ladder, hoping, praying, to achieve the level of prosperity their mother/grandmother enjoyed during her lifetime.

Revisiting Pohl’s axiom, we find that the predictive tools we have at our disposal are not useful unless they can envisage those unintended consequences of change. In other words, our task is not to envision (say) what airplanes will look like in the future or if planes will exist in the future. Instead, predictive tools should look beyond the obvious, beyond the low-hanging fruit. That means predictive tools will need to uncover the consequences of adopting, using, repurposing, and discarding certain technologies.

When looking to understand change, we need to remember that innovations, policies, laws, regulations, cultural norms, scientific or technological breakthroughs have consequences, and conditions of possibility for these consequences are always there, even if we can’t see them. They provide fodder for good storytelling. Moreover, they also offer storytellers important lessons in the adaptability (or lack thereof) when it comes to change.

Although change is a constant in our lives, especially in the twenty-first century, how we as humans deal with change is never constant. Change can lead to violent or peaceful behavior. It can lead to a rise in populist politics or even authoritarian backsliding. Change can allow for smaller groups to have a greater ability to conduct violence against large masses of people. (Don’t believe me, just consider the mass shootings in the United States, or even the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.) Change, especially scientific or technological change, can close borders in an instant, eliminate or ensure the quality of life, and even spread lies and deceit faster than truth and enlightenment.

Change is a weird thing.

We should embrace, yes. We should understand it as well. We should also understand that change, especially paradigm-shifting change, never occurs in a vacuum. Change must occur as a result of past judgments, policies, etc. In other words, change happens not because it is a historical inevitability, as nothing is inevitable, but as a reaction to past actions.

Although change is a constant in our lives, especially in the twenty-first century, how we as humans deal with change is never constant.

Some of these reactions might appear peaceful on the surface, but they are inherently violent internally. The opposite may be true as well. Change is written into the very laws of physics: For every action, there is an equal but opposite reaction.

For storytelling, change is what makes a story so interesting. We don't necessarily enjoy those stories where little or no change exists. In fact, the story begins when a change occurs, when something pierces the very fabric of space and of time, creating a new timeline, from which we can never return to the days of yore.


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Gregory M. Rapp

Gregory M. Rapp

A writer of fiction and nonfiction, a blogger, an avid reader and writer, and gamer.
New Mexico