Talking about contestable futures on the Imaginary Worlds podcast
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I think the Internet is the nervous system of the 21st century. It's like a single wire that delivers free speech, a free press, freedom of assembly, access to education, to tools, ideas, communities, every other accomplishment that we use to measure whether or not a society is a good one.
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June 15, 2017
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«We were promised flying cars and we got Twitter instead. That’s the common complaint against sci-fi authors. But some writers did imagine the telecommunications that changed our world for better or worse. Cory Doctorow, Ada Palmer, Jo Walton and Arizona State University professor Ed Finn look at the cyberpunks and their predecessors. And artist Paul St George talks about why he’s fascinated by a Skype-like machine from the Victorian era. »
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This is a transcription of the small part of this podcast where Cory Doctorow talks. The rest of the podcast is also quite good, and if you'd like to transcribe it you can find the machine transcription of it below.
[16:59] [Host] And then I talked with Cory Doctorow, the novelist, political activist and coeditor of the website Boing Boing. And he challenged all of my assumptions. First he reminded me that science fiction writers are not psychics or fortune tellers which I know, but he was like 'Yeah, you're still treating them that way.' And he says when we look back at science fiction it should be obvious to us that those writers are just reacting to the moment in which they're living in.
[17:26][Cory] I sometimes compare it to what a doctor does when she teases the back your throat with a with a swab and then rubs it on a petri dish and then leaves it for three days and comes back and looks at it. She gets to find out something about what's going on in your body, not because she's made an accurate model of your body but because she's made a really usefully inaccurate model of your body – where one factor in it has eclipsed all other factors in its significance. And I think that that's what happens when science fiction writers pluck a single technology out of the world and grow it to encompass the whole world. It doesn't tell us how we will interact with all the other complexities of the world, but it does give us a moment in which we can maybe inhabit the emotional lives of people who are being upturned by it.
[18:12] [Host] I mean, of course the best science fiction writers have their thumb on the pulse of changes that turn out to be important. But he thinks the cyberpunks resonate today, not just because they're writing about telecommunications, but because they're writing about economic changes that would define our era.
[18:30] [Cory] Because people were telling all the different stories in 1980, but the stories that we paid attention to were the ones in which the rich became super rich and speciated from us, and in which corporate power metastasized to unimaginable levels. And maybe it's because we were living in that moment, and we could sense it. And the story spoke to us. And maybe now in hindsight we can look back and understand them
[18:52] [Host] He also doesn't share my feeling of technological whiplash. He takes the long view and thinks that the Internet is changing things for the better.
[19:00] [Cory] I think the Internet is the nervous system of the 21st century. It's like a single wire that delivers free speech, a free press, freedom of assembly, access to education, to tools, ideas, communities, every other accomplishment that we use to measure whether or not a society is a good one. And so instead of being optimistic or pessimistic, I'm hopeful.
[19:20] And hope is a thing that I think is familiar to anyone who's ever ploted a novel. It's the idea that if you can solve the problem that's immediately before you, that from that new vantage point you will see solutions to the problems that are past the problem that's immediately before you. That doing one thing to improve your situation suggest another thing to improve your situation. That's really how a plot works.
[19:45] You know, the future is not on rails. We get a different future depending on what we do. The only way science fiction could be predictive is if the future didn't change based on what we did.
[19:55] [Host] In other words: Science fiction can only rehearse the future. It's our job to make it a good one.
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You're listening to imaginary worlds a show about how we create them and why we suspend our disbelief American Olinsky. In the summer of two thousand and eight I went down to the base of the Brooklyn Bridge to see a work of art called the to lecture scope it looked like an enormous Victorian telescope that had emerged from the ground effort tunneling across the Atlantic and when I got to the lens of the front of the telescope I could see a live feed of people in London we have in back of me. The artist behind the work was Paul St George so you could say that they were Skype in between London and New York but the emotional response and excitement was as if they had encountered a completely new invention and as if they were when I think you went in and I did and it was and it didn't even occur to me how I could just go home and say now now that. You know it's just I don't believe it Paul is fascinated by telecommunications particularly the way that inventions follow our desires for these things to exist or at least they used to in fact he says you can go back and look at one thousand century cartoons and see fantasies about technology we have today. I've got a fantastic one from I think it was eight hundred seventy five where some people are watching Dr play tennis in South Asia and they are in my living room in London and I have a screen up and I watch and play tennis and having a conversation and the really neat thing about this work of art it's a lot for SCO is that it's based on a real patent from the eight hundred ninety S. Now the device would never have worked but the story behind it really fascinated Paul there was a guy code a French journalist working in America and he was typing up a story which he had misheard the true story about something called an electric scope and he put a T.V. in front of it and go to take two X. Which in exist he thought it was a device for the suppression of. Absence which is pure poetry as far as I can see it is a great phrase the suppression of absence meaning that people were feeling that the absence of their loved ones living so far away was an unbearable problem that demanded a technological solution so all of these amateur inventors picked up on this thing called little letter scope and they drew these designs for what would have been basically a steampunk version of Skype and that is how Mark Twain learned about the to let us go and he incorporated it into a short story called from the London Times of one thousand and four and it's generally considered to be the first work of science fiction to imagine the internet. His mind was always busy with the catastrophe or. The now took the fancy that he would like to have the two Electress cope and divert his mind when. He got his wish the connection was made with the international telephone station and day by day and night by night he called up one corner of the globe after another and looked upon its life and studied it strange sides spoke with its people. And realized there by grace of this marvelous instrument. It was almost as free as the birds of the air although a prisoner under locks and bars. Me thinking a lot about that letter scope lately and how it made me feel wondrous about technology because I've been feeling disillusioned by the Internet lately I'm just exasperated by these angry echo chambers information bubbles and this whole issue of fake news I usually pride myself as somebody who keeps up with technology but I've been feeling technological whiplash and I know this is wrong but a part of me is actually annoyed at science fiction writers because I feel like they didn't prepare me well enough for the future I mean I was ready for flying cars not swarms of trolls. On Twitter I don't think many of the negative in the complex. The insula halls given most were really predicted aloso think it helped very very very full the novelist Jo Walton I'll read a nine hundred sixty three book with moon bases of love is set to twenty seventeen but we'll be able to let it go what computer it's a case of. If history really well it could you know do some. I talked with Jo Walton and a bunch of experts because I wanted to know which writers imagine the internet and is there anything we can learn from those stories that could help us deal with the issues of our time. So get ready to take a deep dive into the past or at least the past idea of the future which is our present. That is just after the break. If I want to look at the history of the Internet and science fiction I knew I had to talk with Ed Finn is a professor at Arizona State University with a pretty great job title I am the director of the Center for Science in the imagination Ed says the next writer to imagine the internet after Mark Twain was E.M. Forster Yes that E.M. Forster The guy who wrote a room with a view in Howard's And you know if you only know his work through the Merchant Ivory films of the one nine hundred eighty S. And ninety's you might think of him as a guy who wrote a quaint period pieces but when those novels came out in the early twentieth century they were not period pieces they were about people living at that time this force was very interested in the world around him and in one thousand nine began to think about how the emerging middle class had these new kinds of jobs where they could sit at a desk all day instead of manual labor and they had lots of. Leisure time to write letters they can be quite prosperous without ever actually going anywhere so when is short story The Machine Stops Forrester added one more thing to those desks in those rooms a screen that people could gaze at so people live in these rooms where everything is automated and you basically spend your whole day basically living your entire life in Facebook so you attend lectures and you deliver lectures you face time with your friends and going outside doing things in the physical world visiting people physically is initially frowned upon and then eventually it's deprecated entirely and people just spend literally their whole lives online. But it was fully fifteen seconds before the round plate that she held in her hands began to grow a faint blue light shone gross darkening to purple and presently she could see the image of her son who lived on the other side of the earth and he could see. To know how slow you are he smiled gravely I really believe you enjoy don't. I have go to before but you were always busy or isolated I have something particular to say what is it dearest boy be quick why could you not send it by pneumatic posed because I proof saying such a feeling. I won't. I won't you to come in Simi. Valley he watched his face in the blue. But I can see you she exclaimed What more do you want. There is this entropy story which is a classic science fiction trope that you know we build these magnificent sand castles but then sooner or later things start to fall apart and part of it is also about complexity you know we build the thing to be so complicated that. Nobody understands how it works anymore so thinks fall apart and nobody notices because everybody's invested so much faith in the machine and actually the machine becomes a religious object of a kind of God by the end of the story having an almost religious devotion to a technological brand not so farfetched although if it doesn't work I can imagine people continuing to worship it now there is another story that imagines the internet for a long time we have to jump to one thousand nine hundred six when Murray lends to write a short story called a logic named Joe about a machine in everybody's house that could answer any question and the story is really about people getting information that they don't actually want getting insights that they don't want to have that are uncomfortable or inappropriate that the logical extension there is like well what if everybody had access to all knowledge and it turns out that society is constructed around that not happening society is constructed around certain kinds of knowledge not being accessible to everyone all the time. This fella punches are going to get rid of my wife just for the fun of it the screen is blank for half a second then comes a flash Service question is she blonde or brunette. To us when we come look he punches blonde is another brief pause then the screen says X. A medic rial amino a setting is a selective poison which is fatal to blonde females but not to brunettes or a male of any color in this fact has not been brought out of by human experiment but is a product of logic service the screen goes blank we stare at each other. Down to the right. Despite the one thousand nine hundred lingo or maybe because of it I'm amazed the story is basically about a search engine. And I think it's quite precious that the computer is named Joe to make people feel comfortable about putting in their homes that's right out of Steve Jobs's playbook. But. Ed says a lot of these stories fail to imagine a key component of the Internet they didn't realize that in the future information would be able to flow in all directions the metaphor the adaptation was of kind of the masses of the twentieth century you think about radio you think about T.V. You know there's just like a large group of people who are a collective block and they're going to believe the same thing and actually the Internet is is way more complicated than that again Joe Walton What do you know how in science fiction generally is you'll get something like Google but the almost of it you get it it's like looking in the encyclopedia it is the correct old you know get fifty seven million rumbled the sun with the right of the world and some of the people argued about what's right and what's wrong in other words they imagine computers as one trick ponies maybe why the Wild West nature of the Internet took us all by surprise. Now you might notice I'm making big leaps from one thousand nine hundred forty six and were about to jump to the one nine hundred seventy S. But first I want to have a brief sidebar because the novelist ADA Palmer has an explanation as to why Western science fiction isn't dealing much with telecommunications because most Western science fiction of this time is preoccupied with the rise of fascism civil rights and the Cold War But she says writers in Asia work splurging technology much more her favorite example is Osama. Created Astro Boy in the Phoenix serious he has a number of stories that involve issues of robots being able to communicate instantly over distances with us humans can't yet our computer intelligences being able to communicate over distances while humans can't yet and she says we should be so literal at looking at whether these stories talked about certain technologies some writers were imagining the problems of the Internet with pure fantasy science fair. Action lets us fight our moral battles in and science fiction tries out there for many many many many many different ideas and then explores what the social and moral and political consequences of those might be kind of gives us a preview you know so let's imagine that we didn't have any science fiction anticipating social networks in fact we did but let's imagine that we had not but we did have science fiction imagining what would happen if you could teleport in there for communications changes and community shape suddenly change and that helps us understand social networks to some extent because it's similar and for that reason we are well prepared for UN's from familiar social changes and moral change and exactly the way the Middle Ages weren't prepared for this because they never speculated about what if the world were different from the way it is now or one of the world changed radically in an unprecedented way. In that kind of thinking about telecommunications and all the moral battles that it would create reached its apex with the cyberpunk novelists Jo Walton spade for example from that time is the one thousand nine hundred seventy three story the girl who was plugged in by James Tiptree Jr You might remember I did an episode about Tiptree who was actually the pseudonym for a writer named Alice Sheldon living a double life and pretending to be a man allowed her to imagine that someday it might be useful to have what we would call now an online avatar it's a wonderful story that is terrifying and all full of the you're ready to do should do but it's also quite amazing how many things she go Royds in terms of reality T.V. companies creating full size instant celebrity people who come become pople but still above the control of the corporations who created the the story is about a guy who falls for a hot celeb or. Who is actually a reanimated corpse wirelessly controlled by a deformed woman in a lab or to use modern language it's about a guy who gets catfish to catch you take what I'm explaining to you they've got the whole world programmed total control of communication they've got everybody's mind wired to think with the show them and want what they give them and they give them what they're programmed to want You can't break in or out of it you can't get hold of it anywhere I don't think they even have a plan except to keep things going round and round one great big vortex of lies and garbage pouring round and round getting bigger and bigger and nothing can ever change that people don't wake up soon we're through. And if we're going to talk about cyberpunk of course I have to talk about the groundbreaking novel Neuromancer by William Gibson from one thousand nine hundred four I asked Ed Finn There's a scene A feels particularly precious to Him and He loves the moment when the protagonist Henry case who is a cyberspace junkie finally gets back on line and then there's this moment where he he Jackson and you get that sense of the rush that sense of vertigo that sense of elation and in a way that sense where cases suddenly become someone else you know he was one person before he was kind of this spiraling denizen of the underworld and all of a sudden now he's a superhero in this virtual reality space again he's more alive he's more himself online than he is offline. With his dick waiting back in the loft when the Sendai cyberspace seven they left the place littered with the abstract white forms Volm packing units crumpled plastic film and hundreds tiny phone beant. The only of Sendai next year's most. Expensive sock a computer a Sony monitor a dozen discs of Corbridge grade ice a Braun coffee maker Armitage only waited for cases approval of each piece. And it's funny because a lot of the cyberpunk novelist were the very first people online and once they experienced the Internet they updated their thinking very quickly Vernor Vinge was on an early version of the Internet called Usenet and incorporated that into his one thousand nine hundred two book Fire Upon the Deep and when Joe Walton read that book she thought his Internet bulletin board thing was just something he had made up I read a book before I was old line and then when I got online and discovered years that. It was actually real. So to me this is a fun exercise seeing who got it right and who got it wrong [16:59]
[This part is transcribed above]
[20:05] Well that is it for this week thank you for listening special thanks to Jo Walton Paul St George get up Homer and Finn Eric Bergman who did the readings and Cory Doctorow who says just because the cyberpunks were skeptical of capitalism doesn't mean they wouldn't sell out in fact a German Soup Company agreed to publish Neuromancer if William Gibson would add scenes like this one where the character Molly million says all right boys now let's take it easy and get outta here quick but first we want soup and a pepper spray What kind of soup of you God And she says all we've got all kinds of soup we've got beef barley we've got chicken noodle we've got tomato we've got broccoli and chatter and they say that soup sounds amazing and then they always Soup for the rest of the page and then they escape from the sense not care of. Imaginary worlds is part of the panoply network you can like the show on Facebook I tweeted evil and. Now talking all these really smart interesting people there's a lot of stuff that I couldn't fit in the episode and if you push to support the show on Peachtree on you can actually get access to a drop box folder which has all the full interviews and we get a poem or had a great anecdote about how she runs a large every year at the University of Chicago where her students play out the papal election of fourteen ninety two which is full of Macchiavelli and scheming and that exercise helped her students understand the twenty six thousand election better now that part I'm actually going to put as bonus audio available on the show page for this episode and imaginary worlds podcast dot org.