Through a Speculative Lens

Apart from singularity-guns and were-squid, a big part of science fiction, fantasy, and everything else under the speculative sun is this: Envision an existence different from our own, where something about the people, the environment or the made environment contrasts with the reality we know. Write a story about people living in that world, responding to the environment and problems created by whatever change you have envisioned. Examples: Standing against the fall of civility and devolution after a Nuclear Holocaust has broken down our society and our planet – The Wasteland Saga; conspiracy-thwarting cops in a world where people have been locked into their bodies by a plague – Lock-in; mentally-immersive internet connections allow a brilliant student to uncover a hidden signal which puts him in touch with an alien entity who wants to do business – he turns out to be more cut-throat than even our best capitalists – Signal to Noise.

The thing here is that we are examining human behavior. Through speculative fiction we look at human behavior under particular (usually strenuous or extraordinary) situations to learn something about who and what we are. Maybe even how or why we are. (I skip “when we are” because I don’t really like time travel stories.) It’s a strange mirror, sci-fi and fantasy, a mirror of thought experiments, of “what would we do if.” A handy tool – it’s nice to explore the depths of the human spirit and our species’ drive to survive in a post-apocalyptic crucible without having to actually nuke the planet. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say the developing a capacity and interest for speculative fiction goes part and parcel with evolving into a creature able to observe and analyze itself objectively, and make wise choices by working out the consequences of bad choices before making them. Think about it. We are intelligent enough to make weapons of mas destruction, but have we yet become wise enough to handle the responsibility? Some individuals, yes, some no. I think that we as a species still have some evolving to do.

I like thinking about us through a speculative lens. What it really is is objective self-analysis at a remove from cultural and environmental bias. I think it’s healthy for people to take stock of what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and if they should be doing it.

A common theme these days is “where’s the future?!” You know, the future we were promised, flying cars and hoverboards. Delicacies grown on Mars. That future.

The future is here, it’s just different than we imagined. The technological changes are huge, and I think it’s really healthy to take a step back and check out how our changing world is effecting our behavior, and where perhaps we have some catching up to do.

If you read any of my posts, you’ll probably get the impression that I freaking full-throttle geek-hump LOVE the internet. I mean, who doesn’t? Modern communication’s potential for effective democratization, equalizing the balance of power, granting access to all to tools and levels of connectivity which were traditionally very restricted, well, all that makes me mouth-breathing hot. Oh, I just wanna eat it with a spoon. An open, unregulated internet is the engine that will make the “I have a Dream” dream come true all over the world, and screw you to the power-hoarders of old.

But it’s not all good. Neither good nor bad. It’s a tool. we make our tools, but we also need to be aware of our tools shape us. (Specify: how we let our tools shape us. We are always the responsible party.) What’s the downside? Just listen to old people.

“They’re always on that thing.”

“Got 350 ‘friends’ but she don’t know how to talk to someone face-to-face.”

“You know they’re not going to teach cursive anymore? I still have letters Mom and Dad wrote to each other during the war. How’ll they replace that? Print out emails?”

“I had to tell my son to put his phone down and play with his baby before he forgot her name. Do that stuff after he puts her to bed. He never even stopped to think she was growing up on the other side of that screen.”

“You seen couples out to eat. Don’t need candlelight with those little blue screens.”

“Mabel can’t sit still for five seconds before she’s got her phone out, playing that candy cruncher.”

Some of thosse are fictional mashups of sentiments I’ve heard expressed. Others are more direct quotes heard recently. I’d like to reply to the concern with cursive. Yes, calligraphy is beautiful andd a wonderful thing, a personal artifact even. But nothing last forever. Some technologies get passed over. Hand-written letters are nice, but it’s the content that really ccounts, the message that is conveyed in the words, not the medium. Steam locomotives are beautiful machines, but I’d much rather take a car, plane or modern rail across the country than plod along for days behind a coal-burning iron hulk.

It goes on. We’re prone to addiction, wired to react to anything that triggers our pleasure centers and grab for more. “Likes” on facebook, unlocked whatsits in video games, comments and retweets, updates and apps. All this stuff grabs and gratifies. Triggers your pleasure center and draws you in, keeps you connected, makes you feel good. Very important, powerful tools are social media and other mobile online whoozits. But they’re also I-Crack.

Some people feel pretty negative and hopeless about this subject, but I don’t. I don’t think our society is going to completely fall apart – I think it’s going to change, and most people want to lead good lives and be safe and pretty much left alone, so the overall urge of humanity will be in the direction of a good change. We’ve been through things like this before. By ‘we’ I mean this species. Fire, agriculture, domestication of beasts, military organization, writing, sailing, radio, locomotion – all massive technological advancements we brough about, which in turn generated huge individual, cultural and global changes in behavior. We have only just begun to be a species  where one individual can speak, and millions might hear the message, but we’re learning how to do it right. we will figure out codes of etiquette to teach and enforce which will help help us guard against our own addiction-prone natures. Given some time, we as a species will get used to how much thrumming cool shit there is available to us, get bored with it, and get back to looking each-other in the eye and living full IRL lives, jumping online when it is right to do so.

It may not be a pretty transition. We’ll get antisocial shut-ins killing themselves, dysfunctional families where everyone’s too plugged in, flaming and trolls and cyber bullies. Spoiled dates and ruined marriages. But countless people got lost and died when we started sailing, plus we got raiders from the sea making life bloody hell for agrarians. Actual rape and pillage and murder of humans like you – not just stories in some book. Real awful life-shattering human suffering. But we as a species kept sailing, even with the pain and risk. Life got bigger and better for more. Not everyone. just more. Ideas moved a little more freely. We became more connected.

It’s happening again. A technological leap kick-starting a massive cultural upheaval. Seen through a speculative lens, with some objective distance, taking in the individual stories along with the big picture, I think we’ll find less cause for alarm, more cause for hope and, most importantly, a clearer idea of what dangers we need to avoid and what actions we need to take to make the best of this species-wide change.

PS: If I write speculative fiction, that makes my job title “speculator,” doesn’t it?

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