Commencement Talk, 12/15/99
Citizens of the 21st century! We, the citizens of the 20th century, salute you! Hail and farewell!
Iím honored to be giving this commencement address. As I sat down to think about it I realized that, due to pure chance, I would be giving the last commencement address to graduating English majors at NCSU during this millennium (If you want to be casual about calendar rules). For a month now Iíve been thinking about what I, a science fiction writer, might say. Commencement speakers are supposed to dispense wisdom, right? What wisdom do I have?
The more I thought about it, the less I thought I knew. And here it was, my last chance, the very last chance anyone in our department would have, to indoctrinate you. The universityís last opportunity to put forth its insidious propaganda. In my imagination, I would be responsible for anything you did after you left this church today. A daunting prospect. And I canít even give you a test afterwards to make sure you got it.
The best I could come up with for wisdom, on my first attempt, was this: (1) Take your vitamins. (2) Donít kill anyone over an idea.
This message did not strike me as too impressive. Your parents have spent all that money on your education, many of you have worked extra jobs in order to pay your way through school, youíve sat under the hard glare of the accumulated brilliance of dozens of PhDís in the years youíve studied here, and thatís the best we offer as you walk out the door?
I was complaining about this to Dr. Walter Wolfram, a much wiser man than I, and he, in his blunt Philadelphia way, said to me, "John, just do what you always do."
Well, what do I always do? As I said, among other things, I am a science fiction writer. Science fiction writers talk about the future. We use the future to beat the present about the head and shoulders. But itís a little-realized fact about writing science fiction that, in order to talk about the future, you need to think about the past. So I started thinking about the past.
Thatís where I got my salutation "Citizens of the future." My father was born in 1904 and died in 1993. He lived every minute of his life within the 20th century. I was born in 1950. When I die, like my father, I will have lived most of my life in the 20th century. You graduates however, if you have a normal life span, will live most of your lives in the 21st
So I saw I was giving a talk, not just to a graduating class, but to the citizens of the future, a message from us dinosaurs to the mammals that will succeed us. How does that affect what I might say?
As advice from a denizen of the 20th century, it turns out that my initial instincts were not so bad. (1) "Take your vitamins." No commencement speaker one hundred years ago would have made this statement, because vitamins were not discovered until 1915. This is an important achievement of the 20th century, and we ought to remember it.
(2) "Donít kill anyone over an idea." Itís not likely that a commencement speaker one hundred years ago would have suggested that, either. But in the twentieth century we have killed more people over ideas than in any previous century. Weíve gotten very efficient, to our dismay, at killing people over ideas. That one is worth remembering, too.
Okay, so far, so good. But anyone living in the twentieth century might have come up with those pieces of advice. What, specifically, can a science fiction writer tell you that another person might not?
What does a science fiction writer know that another person might not? Here, as I understand it, is the lesson of science fiction: everything changes. My father told a story about how, when he was a boy in Poland, some people of the farm village in which he lived mistook a man on a motorcycle for the devil. Times have changed a great deal since then. In the face of inevitable change (some of which we may control, much of which we cannot) what things can I suggest will stay the same, and what will change?
Which things will change? How in the world should I know? After the fact most of the changes that occurred in the past seem obvious, but in advance of the moment it is difficult or impossible to tell. SF writers are not prophets any more than a man shooting at a barn, who hits it one out of fifty times, is a marksman.
For instance, by the time my father came to the United States in 1911, it would have been easy to predict the automobile might become very popular. It would have been much harder to predict the pollution problem, and the drastic transformation of the urban environment, that would come when everyone drove a car to work each morning. Hardest of all to predict would have been the completely unintended consequences of automobiles, things like the revolution in sexual mores that occurred when young people, in the 1920s, discovered that a car could serve, not merely as transportation, but as a little mobile bedroom.
Technological changes have unpredictable consequences. Scientists in chaos theory call this "a sensitive dependence on initial conditions," or "the butterfly effect." A butterfly flapping its wings in Hong Kong may cause a rainstorm a week later in Raleigh, NC. In many respects, history is a chaotic system. The Chinese philosopher Lao Tsu said this in a different way:
The tree you cannot reach your arms around
grew from a tiny seedling.
The nine-story tower rises
from a heap of clay.
The ten-thousand-mile journey
begins beneath your foot.
It is hard to see these things happening in front of us; weíre too close. Our time is too short. One day, one month, even one year is often not enough time to recognize change happening.
Thatís one reason why we read literature. As students of literature, you have become familiar with what I will call the One Thousand Year Rule: when we read works written in another time, and another culture-- The Iliad, or The Tale of Genji, or Hamlet--we get a different perspective on those things that we think are normal. Well, science fiction is the home of the Ten Million Year Rule: in ten million years, what we today think is crucially important will not seem so.
SF gives us the view from a height. Iíve practiced trying to look at my surroundings from such a height, and aiming my fictions from that perspective, but I make no claim to being a marksman. I donít know if what I have to say in the rest of this talk will come close to hitting the barn. But let me venture my opinion as to what the most significant change of the 20th century has been, and what I expect will continue to be the most significant change of the 21st. Itís not the motorcycle. Itís not the Atom bomb. Not the computer. Itís not a technological artifact at all, though I think it is more a product of technology than we generally realize.
Itís the feminist movement. I want you to think about feminism not in terms of slogans, prohibitions, or ideology. Not as an assault on motherhood or on male privilege. Think of feminism as one of many social changes fostered by technology. The technological changes that occurred in my fatherís lifetime, and in mine, have affected the roles of women. Some of these changes, like the factory system that led to thousands of women working outside the home, date back to the 19th century. The advent of technology has put less and less of a premium on brute strength for the production of goods and services. When the work to be done consists of sitting at an assembly line all day (or later, in front of a computer screen), of mining data instead of coal, then the advantage of men over women in the workplace is diminished.
Of course, feminism has also been a political movement. In the United States, for instance, after seventy years of work by suffragettes, we passed the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote. I donít want to minimize the significance of politics, but politics, more often than not, trails social change, rather than leading it. Ask yourself: which has had more effect on the roles of women in our times: the defeat of the equal rights amendment or the invention, in the 1950s, of the birth control pill? Factor in the growth of a global economy. The development of a media space in which people live more and more of their lives. The switch from an industrial to an information society.
Not all the effects of this have been good. Patterns of living that people thought were "eternal" have been changed. One of the values of literature is that it shows us that most such patterns are contingent: those things we think are eternal, when we apply the One Thousand Year Rule, we find are subject to change. When we apply the Ten Million Year Rule, we see they are the merest appearances, as transitory as smoke.
So, given the continued effect of technology on our lives in the 21st century--think of gene research, the cure of old diseases, the advent of new ones, biotechnology, intelligence augmentation, life extension, communications, cybernetics--I expect the roles of women will change still further. Traditional systems of male-female living, it seems to me, are destined inevitably to change, and nothing short of a complete collapse of technological civilization is going to reverse that trend. And all this will have both intended and unintended consequences.
Many of my female students have said in class that they "are not feminists" at the same time that they are planning careers as journalists, writers, college professors, lawyers, even rock musicians. Girls, I am here to tell you that, like it or not, you are part of a movement toward change that is only now gaining momentum, and that in the 21st century will change the world--it is my fervent hope, vastly for the better. Maybe you canít see it as you sit in your classroom or make your job applications or go on a date or spend the holidays with your loving, and worried, and over-burdened parents, but take the thousand-year-view and it becomes obvious.
And guys, hereís the thing. Change does not have to be bad for you. With the need to put aside some control of the world will come the blessed relief of not carrying as much of the responsibility, and the chance for new ways of solving old problems. If we can get past the anxious time we are living in, an initial stage when everything seems disrupted and Iím sure it sometimes feels to you that men are being blamed for everything thatís wrong with the world, and given credit for nothing thatís right, a proper balance can be struck. One of the painful truths that feminist theory has been slow to recognize is how little power the vast majority of men have had over their lives. In the face of women telling you their legitimate grievances, you can perhaps be excused for feeling that not enough attention has been paid to the fact that throughout history, men have been thrust, like it or not, into the roles of toilers and warriors. The vast majority of men have not run the world. They have taken orders, done their jobs, worried and felt marginal. Unfortunately, the man who has had no control over his own life has often taken a harsh comfort from exerting control in the one area he can: over his wife and children.
I look for a time when that is no longer necessary, if it ever was. Realize that what women want is what you want: the right to live at peace, unmolested, and whole. That is the goal of feminism, and I think it will be the major social legacy of the 20th century to the 21st.
What does this have to do with you today? You will go on and have whatever sort of career you will have. But change is coming. I urge you, men and women, to be willing to change with it. To be, as Lao Tsu says, like a reed, not a stone. To stay rooted in your humanity in the face of the forces that are at times going to seem like they are about to overwhelm you, but to recognize that change is not death. Do not live your life as if having or not having power, or wealth, or beauty, is the thing that matters the most. Apply the Ten Million Year Rule: you may think the fact that you are so small and time is so large is cold comfort, but it does not mean that you are not valuable. Live both in the moment, and in the vast perspective of time. Accept those things you have in common with others, and treasure those things that make you different. Find a way to go forward rather than retreat in reaction, find a new balance rather than try to re-establish a balance that has been irretrievably broken by technologyís effects on us.
Human beings have lived in a thousand different ways throughout history, and I expect them to develop even more astounding ways to live, love, and create in the future. Look into the face of your brother, your sister, your lover and try to express your own humanity and allow her to express hers. Negotiate (not a very romantic word). Ask questions and donít be too sure of the answers. Find a way to live at peace, unmolested, and whole. Take your vitamins and donít kill anyone over an idea.
Citizens of the 21st Century! We, the citizens
of the 20th century, salute you! Hail and Farewell!