Ruminations on the Nature of Power:

March '96

"Power" is an ugly word, I'll be the first to agree. Particularly in the PC/egalitarian/antigovernment atmosphere of the nineties, seeking after it is almost synonymous with being an evil person. However, "powerless" is an even uglier word, the exact opposite of "free," and even the PC crowd agrees it's a bad state to be in. So while we should take care not to accumulate power, we should all endeavor to reduce our personal, tribal, and societal levels of powerlessness. In keeping with this, I've done some thinking, and broken absence-of-powerlessness down into three main categories:

(1) Physical, i.e., the ability to do physical things, or avoid physical circumstances that are undesirable. Being strong is the most obvious example, but simply keeping in shape lets you shed all sorts of powerlessnesses that might otherwise plague you, and training in the martial arts and other sports can endow your body with new physical abilities. Perhaps as important are tools; few of us can drive a screw or cut a string or light a candle with our naked fingers, but with a box of tools or even a good Swiss army knife we can do all these things and more. And a weapon as rudimentary as a keyring can make you a less attractive target for harassment, and the right briefcase or fanny pack or safari vest will let you carry these things with minimal effort.

(2) Cognitive, i.e., the ability to obtain, store, process and convey information, and also to remain calm and organized when the world around you gets confusing. Being born smart and cool-headed is the most obvious advantage here, but again, tools and training can make a tremendous difference. Education and travel are good ways to build a contextual understanding of the world, and books, magazines, and TV are all fine methods for staying informed. Carrying a day planner/address book can shore up even the sloppiest of memories, while a calculator/alarm watch or language translator or pocket encyclopedia can make you a lot harder to fool. A real encyclopedia, or an Internet hookup or CD-ROM library, can make you seem downright brilliant. Even better, a properly equipped PDA or palmtop computer can serve all these functions at once.

(3) Social, i.e., the ability to make friends, get what you want, avoid the things you don't like, and generally render type 1 and type 2 powerlessness issues moot. A clever manipulator or (better) a genuinely likeable person can sidestep the need to fight, or drive screws, or remember every little birthday and anniversary. The quickest route to this sort of power is through money; hire a bodyguard, handyman, personal secretary, lawyer and financial advisor and you can be as weak and stupid as you please. However, most of us achieve this capability through friends and acquaintances, and through personal integrity. The more people like and trust and respect us, the more likely they are to offer assistance when we need it, or even when we don't. But there's a hard side to this as well -- trust and respect can only come through the setting and enforcement of limits. We don't make friends by pushing people around, or by allowing ourselves to be pushed.

A realistic program of self-improvement could target one or two items in each of these three areas, and reduce powerlessness levels in each. Not a bad way to plan out your New Year's resolutions, I think. And since I'm a science fiction writer, I have to ask the question: what role can technology play, now and in the future? The ultimate paradigm is one which improves us as whole people, a la Walter Jon Williams' novel ARISTOI, but I suspect we'll be chained to wearable and handheld devices for quite a while yet. This being the case, the role model I think our technology should emulate is that stock character of the pulp fantasies: the wandering sorcerer. I want magic spectacles, capable of seeing in the dark and into the TV/VR/Internet spirit world, and a robot familiar who follows me around doing menial tasks while staying alert for danger and opportunity, and a magic wand or staff or hat capable of turning screws and disabling attackers and enchanting the objects around me so that they do my bidding. You know: part stun gun, part supercomputer, part Leatherman/flashlight/modem/cell phone/TV remote control. And I'd love a fat bag of gold, too, but I know I'll be served at least as well by something every sorcerer needs and no amount of money or magic or technology can produce: a few good friends.

See last quarter's rant.

Return to Wil McCarthy's home page.