Wednesday, September 12, 2007

How SciFi missed the point

Ray Bradbury once said that he didn't own a computer, "because I already own a typewriter, and I don't need another one." This sentiment from one of sci-fi's canonical masters, of a computer as a glorified typewriter and calculating machine, perfectly illustrates just how blind and short-sighted so much of science fiction was. To see why one needs to look no farther than Britney Spears.

Britney Spears made a sorry spectacle of herself a few days ago at the VMAs, and what's worse, she did it in front of a net-savvy, plugged-in audience, which meant an incident that a few years ago might have blown over after momentary embarrassment within a certain audience - how many people actually watch the VMAs, anyway? - becomes a broader cultural event. There is no greater evidence for this than the remarkable fact that I, who must be about the last person to be interested in what happens in Britney Spears' life, have not only seen the spectacle myself, I've also seen that video where a sobbing Britney fan comes to her passionate defense. Sure, my exposure to the whole fracas only comes out to about 10 minute of video at most, but this is still far, far, far more Britney than I thought I would ever encounter in a 24-hour span.

This is hardly a unique insight. Political pundits have already observed how the Internet has the effect of magnifying a politician's gaffes - former senator George Allen's "macaca" moment being the oft-referenced example of this - and it's long been accepted that the convergence of cell-phone cameras, a rabid audience, and YouTube has brightened the spotlight on celebrities to a blinding glare. Nor is, I think, my broader point at all novel - that the Internet has, in fact, changed everything. It allows incredibly niche, tiny subcultures to network and form communities and harnesses the long tail of consumer demand. At the same time it gives the "mainstream" culture a pervasive vehicle of transmission so that even individuals who are doing their best to tune out have difficulty escaping its presence. (I skimmed thread titles about Britney in the off-topic forums at some sites I lurk, and was formally introduced to the entire affair via an article at Salon.)

Nevertheless, I bring up this admittedly not very original point that "The Internet Changes Everything" for a reason. For one thing, I think it is frequently underestimated just how much information and communications technology has Changed Everything. In terms of cultural impact, the Internet is equal to radio and greater than television, the telephone, and the telegraph. It has completely reshaped how an entire generation interacts with each other and the broader culture, and by doing so, it has changed the lives even for those who might have little use for the Internet at all. An elderly Virginia citizen who has never touched a computer, for example, has nevertheless been directly affected by YouTube and the role it played in George Allen's re-election failure. (I could perhaps even point to Bill Clinton's impeachment, which certainly altered the trajectory of this country and the world, as a product of the information age - it's questionable just how big the Lewinsky Affair would have been had Drudge not trumpeted the story early, as it's precisely the sort of story that the "respectable" media of the time was hesitant to publish.)

From time to time people have wondered what exactly happened to "the future" - by this they mean the wonderful technological advances promised by futurologists and science fiction writers decades ago. Where is the life promised by the Jetsons? Where are our moon bases, our flying cars, or personal robot servants? But these are mere trappings, fetishes of technology. The astounding advances in communications technology has already ushered in a completely different world. But our science fiction writers have almost entirely missed the point. Science fiction has largely been what I call "industrial" science, by which I mean it is fixated on technology you can see and touch - lasers, spaceships, robots - while failing to realize just how significant this electronic-mail thing was going to become. But the first world is post-industrial. A better car, a faster spaceship, would hardly affect our lives the same way that the Internet has.

Ultimately I think the problem was that the canonical science fiction writers, and certainly "hard" sci-fi writers, were and are pretty terrible sociologists - it is a "soft" science after all. The Isaac Asimovs, Raymond Bradburys, and Phillip K. Dicks of the world were far more interested in the gee-whiz technological wizardry of their futures than in the social impact that advancing technology would have. In fact, going back and reading their work it's often amusing just how anachronistic their "future" societies seem: if it weren't for the cool technology laying around, many of those stories could just as well be set in the pre-feminist and pre-counterculture postwar decade.

I don't mean to indict an entire genre, of course, just the amusing failings of the older, stodgier, "I don't need a fancier typewriter" Bradburys of sci-fi. Cyberpunk certainly suggested that there was more to the future than jetcars and moon bases, and Cory Doctorow, probably the most important sci-fi writer today, is almost entirely a child of the Internet. My point is that any science fiction that claims to be relevant today must, like Doctorow, account for how information and communications technology has and will affect our lives. Otherwise you're just playing with spaceships and lasers.

1 comment:

Nariah said...

Keep up the good work.