Slum Planet, Schrödinger's 'You,' and Other Underreported Stories of 2006

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by R.J. Eskow

What can you say about a year when the Vice President shoots somebody in the face, hides from the authorities, then gives a false statement - and nothing changes? It was interesting. But the bigger stories of the year may be the ones whose significance were less obvious, and more profound. I've already talked about science and homosexuality.

Here are a few others of special interest.

Earth Is Now a Slum Planet

Any day now -- in fact, it probably happened this year -- one more Third Worlder will move from the country to the city, and for the first time ever more humans will live in cities than in the country. (This according to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs.) As author Mike Davis points out in his brilliant book "Planet of Slums," this is a watershed in human history.

The vast urban wastelands that circle our planet's urban centers are now the primary homes for the poor, the displaced, the hungry, and the ill. We're doing very little as a species to prevent this urbanization pattern, or to make it livable for the billions who are affected by it. The street vendors I saw struggling to survive in my trip to Africa this year are the harbingers of humanity's future.

If urbanization and slum proliferation were an invasion from outer space, the people of Earth would be mobilized as never before. Instead, it's happening slowly and inevitably, the result of economic forces we don't care to understand. Instead of being drawn into the high-tech "Borg collective" of Star Trek fantasies, the people of our diverse cultures are being crushed into a shantytown collective where they can be forgotten.

The slums are taking over.

Space War

This year I raised the possibility that the Bush Administration's new space policy might lead to space war or earth-based conflict. It was a story that had been ignored by the media at that point, but the Washington Post picked up on it a few days later and it got a lot of attention - briefly. That led to the question of whether I helped start a new cold war in space.

It's still one of the overlooked stories of the year. It may sound far-fetched - but then, so did invading Iraq.

Torture Rays Against US Civilians?

That's another story I broke in 2006, with help from broadcaster Charles Gillette. As in the space war story, it sounds far-fetched. Nevertheless, your tax dollars are being spent to develop the weaponry, and the Secretary of the Army was explicit when he said he expects this new weaponry to be used against American demonstrators.

Is the Singularity Coming?

They've already built artificial neurons, and now they've created artificial synapses. Does this mean the "Singularity" is coming, when humanity becomes part human, part machine and advances beyond all current understanding?

Right now, artificial synapses are a potentially great technique for providing movement and other functionality to the paralyzed. But could a human being - you or me - soon be replicated as a machine and live forever? It may be possible. Would it be a good thing, and freely available to all? Raymond Kurzweil and other singularity proponents say yes. I have my concerns.

I'll write more about this in 2007.

God Is A Concept By Which We Measure Our ... Gain?

Democrats who want to appeal to the evangelicals might as well give up, according to the polls. Despite plunging poll numbers for the GOP, white evangelical Christians voted almost exactly in 2006 as they did in 2004. Accept it, Hillary: they're Yellow Dog Republicans.

But moderate religionists - those who don't go to church every week - moved heavily in the Democratic direction. That's where the Democrats should focus their attention in order to capture more "religious" voters, if you believe the numbers.

And if you don't believe the numbers, your religious outreach program is just another "faith-based initiative."

Saddam: Dead Men Tell No Tales

They grabbed him, made sure he gave no interviews to nosy reporters, and only tried him for one of his most minor atrocities. That seemed odd, until you realized that it was the only known crime he committed before he began his fruitful collaboration with the U.S. Republican Party, so he couldn't ask any embarrassing questions during his "show trial."

Then they made sure he was dead before the year was out. That way he couldn't be tried before the Hague or some other competent international court, where he no doubt would have given detailed evidence on how he was helped in his atrocities by Rumsfeld, Reagan, and other GOP leaders.

Saddam was a hideous human being, and our leaders helped him commit his crimes. Even though they rushed to execute him before he could talk, the public record is there for anyone to read: the secret handshakes, the support for Hussein in his use of chemical weapons against Iran (support that was illegal under current treaties), and the other tawdry pieces of the record.

Our media won't tell that story now, without the "human interest" of a rigorous Saddam trial. And America's only rationale for helping to commit these crimes against humanity - to resist the influence of Iran - has been subverted by our invasion. The government we've installed in Baghdad is as resolutely pro-Iranian as Saddam was resolutely anti-Iranian.

And what are the "centrists" talking about now? Why, a "surge," of course.

The Media Unbowed

The war in Iraq is a disaster. Generals are openly rebelling and talking about the futility of escalation (although it seems they've been whipped back in line to a certain extent.) The public has rejected the war. But read this CNN interview with John Edwards (scroll down), and you'll see that the "mainstream media" continues to aggressively attack any politician who discusses withdrawal -- even mischaracterizing what the generals say in order to do it.

That's a harbinger of 2007 and 2008. The media will continue to debate Democrats using Republican talking points, while letting Republicans walk. (link courtesy Atrios)

Plus ca change, plus ca meme merde. (That's right, motherf**ker. French! The French were right all along. Sorry about the grammar, Frenchpeople.)

Schrődinger's 'You'

TIME Magazine says the Person of the Year is "You," because "You" write blogs, create videos using YouTube, and use the Internet to change the political process. But do "you" really matter? If you do, that may well be the story of the year. If you don't matter, that's definitely the story of the year.

So which is it? Let's see: "You" voted overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party in 2006, and "You" were very clear in exit polls that you did so primarily to end the war in Iraq. Yet all Washington is talking about now is an escalation of that war. Will the Democrats you put into office have the guts to do what you elected them to do?

And as for that free and democratic Internet "You" allegedly used in 2006, will it stay free and democratic? AT&T and others have been fighting to crush the Internet as we now know it, by seeking to double-charge the creators of Internet content for the same use of bandwidth "You" have already paid for as a customer. That would replace today's "You"-centered Internet with a corporate-driven model that would be unrecognizable to today's Web users.

AT&T backed off their position in order to merge with another company, but that's just a temporary victory. If they and others succeed in their goals, few people will see all that revolutionary content "You" are supposedly creating - unless, of course, media companies continue to use "You" as unpaid talent.

Remember Schrődinger's cat, in the famous thought experiment? It's neither alive nor dead, until an observer comes along to open the box. It's a metaphor for a subtle (and often misunderstood) quantum physics concept. Here, though, it's a simpler matter.

Do "You" matter as a voter? Only the Democrats can open the box when they assume office in January. If they show some courage, you do. If they follow the path of expediency, you're irrelevant. And if ATT and its cohorts get their way, "You" will be disenfranchised from the Internet world you created. The regulatory issue known as "net neutrality" is an unopened box, too.

So "You" are the story of the year. But are "You" the future, or the past? Are "You" in control, or just a powerless and voiceless bystander? That's the story of 2006 - but we won't know the answer until 2007.

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