Technology and Science Fiction… Mark Reece

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It is easy to fall into the trap of deterministic thinking, where one event inevitably leads to another, and a person, or even whole societies, are under the sway of ‘impersonal forces’ outside anyone’s control. One form that this way of thinking takes is technological determinism- the view that a particular type of technology causes this or that- ‘the Arab spring is the Facebook revolution’, ‘x type of job must be done by machines sooner or later’. By contrast, futurism in science fiction can give us a much more realistic vision of how technological change occurs, and how technological change alters how people interact.

A common mistake is to focus on the most advanced form of technology that currently exists, what might be called the innovations fallacy- ‘a human like robot can serve drinks- is the hospitality industry facing ruin?’ In fact, older forms of technology not only continue to exist for a long time after apparently becoming obsolete, but play a vital role in people’s lives. World war two is often considered a primary example of a war in which scientific and industrial developments played a key role in the outcome, but was also probably the war that involved the largest deployment of horses in history (largely logistically, but also, in smaller numbers, in combat). Like a stubborn aunt in a Victorian novel, obsolete things often refuse to die.

My favourite example of this, both as a reader and a writer, is the continuing importance of physical books despite the development of many competitors, from radio to television, to cinema, and, more recently, e-books and other on-line mediums. This could be explained (or dismissed) as simple emotional attachment, or sentimentality. However, that would ignore the usefulness of obsolete things. I was once asked by a friend why I still kept a dictionary when words could be looked up on the Internet much faster. I replied that I thought the book was faster. When challenged to prove this, I said that I would accept a test, but only if it was a fair test- that my friend’s phone should be put in his pocket before he carried out a search, whereas I could pick up my dictionary from where I kept it. In other words, that the test conditions reflected how the technology is actually used. The dictionary was faster. (We still speak.)

There is nothing inevitable about one type of technology being superseded by another. Obsolete things are not usually replaced wholesale, instead, the old and the new are merged in curious and creative ways. Anyone who has worked in a large organisation will know that within the same building, high technology can exist alongside computers that are far inferior to those the workers use at home. People contact colleagues across the world, but sit in offices with printers that regularly clog, using paper files to deal with organisations that can’t handle electronic records. One of my favourite scenes in the film Brazil is when a rogue engineer tries to repair a central heating system in a flat. He opens a panel and a crazy tangle of pipes and tubes burst out. The only way he can solve the problem is by creating yet another bypass in the system. I think this is a great depiction of the way technology is actually used- patched, incorporated with newer and older things, then re-patched.

Technology does not develop or is used in a linear way. Nor does it determine how people live. Technology is not transcendent- the effects is has on personal interaction and social relationships is an extension or an expression of those relationships. When hearing deterministic arguments: ‘You can’t buck the market’, ‘the march of technology cannot be stopped’, ‘so-and-so is inevitable’- the simplest reply is that all of these things have happened, many times. The power of the deterministic argument is the power of the tyrant- absolute and inevitable, until it is not.

This should lead us to question apparently necessary progressions. Rather than focusing on the ‘inevitable decline of the high street’, one might ask how on-line firms are structured, what the law permits them to do, and who has power within them. I recall watching a news feature in which a representative of a certain Internet based retailer was asked why various regulations and forms of taxation should not apply to them in the same way that they apply to high street firms. The PR figure suggested that her company was so innovative in its processes and structure that officials could never hope to understand it, let alone try to force it to follow obsolete regulation. The interviewer pointed out that the company’s business model was to sell a variety of goods, and asked in what way it differed from Argos. Much bluffing ensued.

It is for these reasons that I think futurism in science fiction should have as its object not technology, but social interaction and ways of living- a sociology of the future, and, obliquely, of the present. It is not the descriptions of how people are grown that are the most memorable from Brave New World, it is the children being encouraged to play sex games. As is the crushing loneliness depicted in I am Legend, and the sense of the passing of eras in The Three Body Problem trilogy. It is why the best science fiction relies so heavily on world building and characterisation, the classical virtues, rather than studied depictions of technology. And the classical virtues are classical for a reason. Mark Reece

The Dreams of the Eternal City, Mark Reece’s debut novel, is out now. Order it here

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