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A Wave is Made of Droplets: Asimov's Foundation is About Us

“The psychohistoric trend of a planet-full of people contains a huge inertia. To be changed it must be met with something possessing a similar inertia. Either as many people must be concerned, or if the number of people be relatively small, enormous time for change must be allowed. Do you understand?”(Asimov, 1951)


An insightful frame by which to view Isaac Asimov’s quote is to see it through the eyes of fellow science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin. She said, “Science fiction is not predictive, it is descriptive” (Le Guin, 1969). Asimov’s creation, the fictional science of psychohistory, is a combination of history, sociology, and statistical algorithms to make civilization-wide future predictions. Viewed through a predictive lens, psychohistory is a boot – a tool helping us travel distance in plot but lacking the insight of a journey. However, viewed descriptively, Asimov’s words grow in meaning. The Foundation universe transforms into a powerful metaphor describing the nature and challenges we face as a society today.

“The psychohistoric trend of a planet”

Psychohistory’s eminent prediction is that the Galactic empire will fall, leading to 30,000 years of human suffering before the rise of another Galactic empire. Sound familiar for a planet nearby? Another quote of Asimov’s “problems and catastrophes are inevitable, solutions are not”, show’s Asimov’s concern with the path of human civilization. How can we extrapolate that Asimov is pointing to trends that collapse on Earth is imminent?

Population is a primary commentary of Asimov’s work, and a key variable he used to define the worlds in his writing. In the Foundation universe, Asimov showed a future Earth with a massive population, and a poor quality of life, adjusted to match the limited resources available to such a large population. We also know that Asimov was in written contact with Dr. Albert Bartlett, professor of Physics at University of Colorado at Boulder. Bartlett identified the most significant accomplishment of his life being the creation of the lecture “Arithmetic, Population, and Energy” (Bartlett, 1994), and delivering it over 1700 times before his death. In the lecture, Bartlett discusses correspondence between himself and Asimov regarding the absurdly erroneous nature of resource predictions. Bartlett discusses the inevitability of collapse when exponentially growing populations collide with exponentially shrinking resources to maintain human quality of life.

Perhaps the greatest proof Asimov was speaking metaphorically about Earth lies in the autobiographical nature of the character Hari Seldon. Seldon, the character who says the quote under review, is nicknamed “Raven Seldon” as a response to his persistent and unwavering declarations of the imminent collapse of the empire. Asimov, between 1963 and 1992 wrote more than 20 commentaries on the need to limit, and repercussions of, population growth. Raven Seldon is Asimov, and his vision of the Foundation universe is another commentary.

The quote is much less about psychohistory and much more about people, inertia, change, and size (i.e. huge, similar, small, enormous, as many). A quick review of the quote shows that these are the only descriptors that are repeated; and it is in these words where its meaning lies.

“inertia”

Asimov is building an argument leveraging the reader’s pre-existing knowledge of momentum and inertia. Any bicycle rider who has struck a curb and felt the rapid deceleration of their body when skin meets pavement knows momentum. Momentum is our mass moving at speed. Inertia is our bike stopping from the force of the curb while we continue forward at the same speed, flying despite ourselves.

The concept of momentum is multiplicative; Momentum = Mass * Velocity. A train, with huge mass, and a modest speed has gargantuan momentum. Likewise, a plane with modest mass and huge velocity also has gargantuan momentum. But if gargantuan is the way to describe a train or plane’s momentum, how might one describe the momentum of a planet full of people or the momentum of a single galactic traveler on board spaceship Earth?

As humans we know we are at rest. We confirm we are at rest by observing ourselves in comparison to our surroundings. While our velocity is invisible to our human senses of sight and sound it is quite visible to the mind’s eye. At this very moment, we are hurtling through space.



“The psychohistoric trend of a planet-full of people contains a huge inertia.”

Think: people, inertia, size

Consider sociological inertia as the number of people * the number of behaviours those people choose daily. The world “huge” fails to convey its grandness. In earlier drafts of this essay, I studied various descriptors of magnitude to no avail; my thesaurus full of gas but going nowhere. I found myself in the same position as Asimov, lacking an adjective capable of communicating a concept so massive. Like physical inertia, to grasp behavioural inertia in its entirety one must look with the mind’s eye.

The smallest unit of behavioural inertia, a droplet of water, is the individual behaviour. At this level behavioural inertia feels fickle, funny, and easy enough to change. On Monday you drive to work, on Tuesday you drive to work ... on Wednesday same… On Thursday same… On Friday same. What of Saturday? We set the wheels in motion for an exciting weekend getaway, only to find ourselves pulling into an empty work parking lot saying, “What the hell am I doing here?” A bead of sweat on our brow, we have established behavioural inertia.


Another example is this essay which you are currently reading. As a single person taking a task so small, it holds some, but very little, behavioural inertia. Even now you may stop reading at any point. Perhaps you may sense a feeling of exhaustion or tedium which in all fairness should be growing more prominent as I persist in this self-referential nonsense. I see you made it. Now imagine the behavioural inertia of communities, countries, civilization.

The smallest unit of behavioural inertia, a droplet of water, is the individual behaviour. One life, a leaky faucet of choices, left to languish forever, labouring for each, drop, one, at, a, time. Such is an individual’s inertia.

The Jones families come out to wash the cars on their personal plot of pavement, soapy suds, soaked sponges, and spray come together with neighbors' to form a white-water rapid running toward a storm drain. Such is a community’s inertia.

The Superbowl. A team of men averaging 250 pounds of muscle and power ceremoniously crash concussions into each other’s craniums. Is this violence not to your liking? “Shut up and sit silently,” suggests the roiling river, “stay for the splendiferous sales scheme.” Such is a country’s inertia.

Acquiescence to authority. Climate change (horrific hurricanes), cross cultural conflict (water wars); Cultural conditioning compels, “only powerful people may propel purposes towards progress”. Such is a civilization’s inertia.

Regardless of tier, each body of water from pond to ocean, hurricane to blizzard, is made of single droplets. Droplets move together. Their force is a power all its own.

“To be changed it must be met with something possessing a similar inertia. Either as many people must be concerned, or if the number of people be relatively small, enormous time for change must be allowed.”

Think: people, inertia, size

These words are spoken by Hari Seldon – Raven Seldon – Asimov himself – about us – Earth, and our times. The actions of a sole warrior or small group lack adequate counterforce to steer the path of a civilization – a concept Asimov shows in great clarity in the rest of the book. But if generations, a lineage of beavers, artfully build dams, redirect streams, gather water in keys place – is this enough?

“Do you understand?”

Herein lies the crux of things, Asimov is giving us the stipulations for changing human society. When Seldon says “Do you understand,” Seldon already knows the answer. He has been arrested and is being tried for treason against the empire in a kangaroo court. His words have no meaning to their recipient in the book. When Seldon says “do you understand”, he is breaking the 4th wall. Asimov is asking us, the reader, do we see what is at stake? Can we comprehend what is necessary to create change in human society?


References


Asimov, I. (1951). Foundation (1st ed.). Gnome Press.

Bartlett, A. (1994). Arithmetic, Population, and Energy. A 65-minute videotape copyrighted by the Regents of the University of Colorado. Copies available from Kate Albers. Information Technology Services, University of Colorado, Boulder, 80309-80379.

Le Guin, U. K. (1969). The left hand of darkness. Walker.

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