Science fiction, and its harness mate, “progress,” both have their roots in the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. The sudden technological change was so striking, and had such a profound effect on people’s lives, that the only way to cope was to convince ourselves that these changes were not only good, but necessary. Hence “progress.”
Speculation about where this magic carpet ride would take us led to science fiction. It wasn’t called that, at first, of course, but early sci-fi authors like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells speculated in their works about the future of technology – and its effect on the human experience.
Some writers – most, even – projected utopian visions of technologically-induced paradise. Other writers, such as Ray Bradbury, warned that the job of science fiction was “to prevent the future.”
Well guess what, Ray. You failed. The future is upon us. We now live in a dystopia worse than George Orwell imagined – where no stray thought or word or moment of love or private contemplation goes uncaptured, unstored, unanalyzed. Uncontrolled. We are now bits and bytes in a gigantic database, to be ruled now and forever by those with the right access.
This is not, by the way, a diatribe about the NSA. Other countries are using information technology for the same ends – population control. Even if the United States were to shutter the NSA tomorrow – an unlikely prospect, I grant you – the technology would continue to exist, and it would only keep getting better. And better.
Any sufficiently-motivated and -endowed adversary can now know every trivial detail of your life. What books you read. What music you listen to. What your face looks like when you masturbate while watching online porn (you think your laptop camera isn’t recording?) What you whisper in your lover’s ear between the sheets (oh wait, did she leave her cell phone on your nightstand?)
This fundamentally alters what it means to be human. We now live in a world prison, a panopticon of gargantuan proportions. To watch is to control, and to control is to dehumanize. A slave, by definition, is less than human – robbed of his liberty, his freedom of thought and expression, freedom of association and travel, robbed of the ability to dissent, to create, to build, what is a man? Nothing more than a thing, a machine, an automoton.
Philip K. Dick would be proud. We are all replicants now, and most of us don’t even realize it.
Our slavery has been a long time coming. And, like all great tragedies, the end was buried in the beginning, and could be seen far in advance.
From the barely-literate transcribings of medieval monks, to Diderot’s Encyclopedie, to Babbage’s first machine, the dominant theme of our Western culture has been the collection, storage and analysis of information.
This “advance” – this “progress” – continues apace, robbing us of our humanity at now blinding speed. Consider how some of the technology we now take for granted has already turned us into replicants.
Take handwriting. Yours is unique. So is mine. This is why signatures have value – no one else, except perhaps a talented forger, can sign a document in the same way you do.
The medium is the message. What is the message of the handwritten word?
Ink on paper naturally encourages noncomformity, dissent, freedom of thought. One is not constrained even by lines, if one does not wish it. You can write as big or as small as you wish. You can write sideways. You can write on an angle, as legibly or as illegibly as you want. After public speaking, handwriting is the most human medium possible.
In a world of email, and word processors, and computers, we are all constrained by the same limited palette: Times New Roman, 12 point. Or maybe Courier, if you’re feeling edgy. The medium is the message. And what is the message here? Conformism. Everything and everyone the same. Computers constrain what may be thought and said, and thus rob us of part of our humanity.
(One could argue that the printing press had a similar affect, but more so on the reader than on the writer. Until the typewriter was invented, type was traditionally set from handwritten manuscript. Nietzsche commented that, upon purchasing his first typewriter, the way he wrote and thought changed.)
Or consider the telephone. The human voice modulates between 300-3400 Hz. But the telephone narrowly conducts the range of 1.5-2.5kHz. A human voice transmitted over a telephone has been stripped, constrained, put in a box – a mere shadow of its former self.
Is this a picayune example? I don’t think so. More and more, machines are our intermediaries. When we communicate using modern technology, machines strip our humanity down to what they are capable of representing. And, acknowledging these limits, we modify our conduct, our speech, our writing, our thoughts to conform to what these machines permit us to do, say, and think.
What’s more, this technology is ripe for control and abuse. When we become bits and bytes in a giant database, it becomes a trivial task to query, modify, or even delete unwanted data – to “bug squash,” only in real life. (Spying inevitably leads to a purge, if left unchecked.)
To blame the NSA or the United States for this – as worthy of blame as they are – is to miss the big picture. Our technological slavery is the culmination of centuries of “progress.” We are in the sweep of historical forces so vast, so powerful, so terrible, and so inevitable, that we are compelled to argue for them, to become proponents of our own slavery.
The last six months have seen much of humanity wake up to our digital slavery, thanks to Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald. And their noble work may slow the final, tragic ending of our times, perhaps by ten years, perhaps by twenty. But history, as Oswald Spengler tells us in The Decline of the West, is a form of tragedy, with the ending known in advance, and which we are powerless to stop or prevent, but only to watch in awe-struck terror.
What, perhaps you ask, does any of this have to do with science fiction?
Surveillance breeds conformity and stifles dissent. And science – like art – like all innovation – can only advance by challenging the status quo. Almost every major scientific breakthrough in history was achieved by a dissenting scientist opposing an establishment unwilling to consider new ways of thinking.
Science fiction exists to speculate about the future. But the future is now. And this dystopic hell we now inhabit is as good as it gets, people. There will be no cure for cancer, no colony on the moon. Forget about space travel. Forget about any new paradigm that might open up new avenues to explore.
That’s over. Done with. The only thing technology now has to offer us is the fulfillment of our current world view – Moore’s Laws, until that, too, ends, more and more pervasive spying, smaller and smaller drones, until online spying becomes a quaint relic, and inexpensive militarized hummingbird-sized drones impose global martial law, mapping our every move, recording our every twitch of an eyebrow, and murdering anyone who dare disobey.
Goethe’s Faust, Spengler argues, is the ultimate metaphor for the modern West: We, like Faust, have sold our souls to the devil in exchange for technology.
And so, automatons all, we wander the earth, soulless, our love, and passion, and originality draining from us like blood from a cadaver. Our children and grandchildren shall haunt the earth, numb to the world, slaves to the machines their forefathers created to serve them.