Sunday, December 13, 2009

Hello, World

I've been thinking a lot about life. I think our culture is at a turning point, where a lot of the ideas we were sold as kids are starting to fall apart and the things that are going to replace them haven't shown up yet, or at least haven't found acceptance. There are a lot of pieces in flux, and a lot of stuff is going to happen in the next twenty years that nobody can predict, but I think some patterns are starting to emerge.

I grew up on science fiction. Nothing was as fascinating to me as a story about what will happen, and I know that the same is true for many people. And while I still love science fiction, I'm starting to think that in a very fundamental way we got it very, very wrong.

Any great science fiction has at least some speculative piece of technology that's central to the plot -- some yet-to-exist device without which the story couldn't happen. And when you're making things up, you're bound to screw up the details, and I can forgive a lot of that. But there's something I can't ignore, and that's the constant habit of over-emphasizing the technology.

I'm still trying to figure out the cause. I think in some cases it's that the technology is conceived in a very broad sense, almost in a vacuum. A writer predicts virtual reality and the Internet, but not wireless communication and miniaturization, so we get a bunch of stories where people have gigantic VR devices that take up half a room. Now that we have all four, we know that's ridiculous -- there are easier ways of doing the same thing, so even though we could build that device today it's never going to happen.

In Star Wars there are some pretty off-the-wall predictions about physical engineering advances and artificial intelligence, but a near complete lack of understanding of the implication of computer networks. You can stuff a self-aware system into a human-sized robot, but a moon-sized death machine has a room somewhere with a physical link to a "door circuit"? Never going to happen. Not only wouldn't happen, but could not. That kind of engineering project would be effectively impossible without advanced networking, and the presence of that technology would change any number of events in the story.

Now, I'm not saying that we should have known better, or that any particular writer did it wrong. It's incredibly hard to accurately predict one piece of technology, let alone several, and even worse to get it right for a majority of what you're dreaming up. But even when we do a bit better it seems that the technology gets overplayed. After all, it's the future, and look at all this technology; surely everything is different.

And here's where I really start to have a problem with most science fiction, because that never happens either. Imagine going back fifty years and describing to someone just the technology we have available today -- the Internet, computers in every home and every pocket, medical advances, behavioral science, genetics -- do this, and then ask them to describe the culture that surely must exist because we have all this technology. How close do you think they'd get?

Just listing all those out at once gives me a little twinge of nostalgia for the stories I grew up on. Predictions of a technology-fueled utopia, where everything is different and better, and everything is amazing. But I can list those things because they're no longer in someone's imagination; I'm sitting in a coffee shop, writing this on a computer thousands of times more powerful than anything available fifty years ago, connected by wireless signals to a global network through which I can contact almost any person and find almost any piece of information that exists. I've come from the future, and I'm here to tell you it's not actually that different.

That's not to say that what we have is not amazing; it is. It's the overall effect of these advances that we got wrong -- the feel of the society we posited decades back is one that I can't reconcile with the world today. In almost every case the technology seemed so incredibly advanced that we assumed it must take center stage in the society that possesses it, but that never really happens. Human nature doesn't radically change no matter what technology you throw into the mix, or at least that's my claim. There is a change, obviously, but it's much more subtle and hard to define. But I think I have an idea.

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