THE CULTURAL CONTRADICTIONS OF SCI-FI
The 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall was supposed to be the start of a new age and represent a peaceful global future. The internet fueled visions of an open, transparent, and mobile society. 28 years later, the co-founder of Twitter, Evan Williams later admitted, “I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place. I was wrong about that."
So where did we go wrong?
A couple weeks ago, Marc Andreeson published the Techo-Optimist Manifesto. I sense that this was mostly out of his frustration with the way in which technology is covered in the press, and now, all too eagerly regulated by the EU and Washington. What's interesting about this piece is not the piece itself, but the vehement reactions against it.
No one is doubting technology's contribution to society, but we all share a widespread notion that something is missing. Today, technology and culture are running in opposite directions. Even Stewart Brand once said, "with technological acceleration driving economic acceleration, politics and culture can only struggle to keep up."
E.O. Wilson, framed the problem best:
“The real problem of humanity is the following: We have paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology. And it is terrifically dangerous, and it is now approaching a point of crisis overall.”
From the 1900s to the 1970s we've seen incredible technological progress: electricity, the telephone, radio, transistor, the computer, air conditioning, the jet engine, nuclear power, plastics, synthetic food, the automobile, space travel, radar, television, and lest we forget, the atomic bomb. At that pace, anyone living through the 50s would have thought we would have flying cars and conquered the stars by now.
Science is the elixir of civilization. Our philosopher's stone. But it is a widely acknowledged fact that scientific progress and economic growth stalled in the 1970s. It fell below the trend line and never recovered. Tyler Cowen, Peter Thiel, and even David Graeber all agree on what is known as the Great Stagnation Theory, which can be summed up by Thiel's quip,"We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters instead."
Much of the technological revolution since the 70s was not mechanical, but involved the collection, transmission and processing of information. The innovations have largely been in information technologies. Technologies of digital simulation. What Baudrillard calls Simulacra and Simulation. The idea that in contemporary society, simulations and signs often become detached from the reality they are supposed to represent, and we start living in a world of hyperreality where copies and simulations become more real, more "valuable" than reality itself.
Technology allows us to do more with less. But it can also do more harm than good. When technology mediates a human function, we lose something of social value. Something I call the Law of Virtual Exchange. When we simulate a human function digitally out of convenience, we lose the bodily knowledge earned through physical resistance. Dating apps for instance take away the most difficult part of meeting someone. The first contact. Saying hi. But as most women know by now, we lose the romance, and thus gentlemanly behavior—creating more pick-up artists and f#ckbois. Texting killed the romantic letter writer.
Technology is not upstream of culture. Culture creates the conditions for technology to flourish and be proliferated. Science fiction has a long and valuable history of providing us with visions of a better world. But science fiction since the 1960s has failed in that regard. Professor Joseph Heath makes the point in his incredible piece, Why the Culture Wins, that modern science fiction writers had little to say when it came to the evolution of culture and society. That it became a standard trope of the genre to imagine a technologically advanced future that contained archaic social structures. An intergalactic spacefaring civilization with warp drives would so obviously not be dominated by warring houses like Dune or be a part of an empire like Star Wars.
What's clear is that we need new poetic visions of the future. Not ones that look down on humanity. As Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian notes, Dystopia used to be a fiction of resistance; it's become a fiction of submission, the fiction of an untrusting, lonely, and sullen twenty-first century, the fiction of fake news and infowars, the fiction of helplessness and hopelessness. It cannot imagine a better future, and it doesn't ask anyone to bother to make one. It nurses grievances and indulges resentments; it doesn't call for courage; it finds that cowardice suffices. Its only admonishment is: Despair more.
I don't fault Andreessen for wanting hit the warp drive and blow past the corrupted feeding tubes that keep the octogenarians alive while giving the finger to the hive mind borg journos. I would too if I were him. But more than acceleration, we need a path. A set of new and old values that are congruent with the velocity of modern life. Our world is in a constant state of evolution. The updates to it—particularly in media and technology, forces a constant reappraisal of what it means to be human.
I just hope that the quest for new models for civil society and with it new forms of social organization will be seen as a rational response to technological change—not a rebellion against it, but an attempt to deal with its discontents and dislocation for the common good.