You can't speculate about technology without speculating about society

Illustration for article titled You can't speculate about technology without speculating about society

We're living in a time of extreme technological change. Gadgets that didn't exist a decade ago are shaping your existence. So we need science fiction, more than ever, to speculate about the future of technology. But here's the hard part: You can't speculate about technological change without also speculating about social change.

Top image: Surrogates.

People sometimes talk about the distinction between "hard science fiction" and "social science fiction." The former focuses on science and technology, the latter on social science, and on speculations about future societies or different cultures. (As opposed to "soft science fiction," where the science is less rigorous.)

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But there's a bit of a false dichotomy involved in making such a clear-cut distinction — just look out your window or take a walk down the street if you don't believe me. New technologies, including smartphones but also including the relatively portable ultrasound machine, have changed our world in all sorts of ways. But those technological shifts have happened at the same time as massive social change, and it's hard to separate the two threads.

Tech changes society, but society shapes tech. That is, social change and technological change go hand in hand, but neither one drives the other.

Everybody in the world doesn't start doing the same thing

Sure, the pervasive internet allows people to communicate in new ways, making it easier for formerly marginalized groups (like LGBT people) to organize and become a cohesive social force. And you could argue that one reason for the rise of income inequality today is the fact that so much of our economy is tied up in tech companies and increasingly computerized banking companies.

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But at the same time, you can think of lots of examples of society shaping technology. People start using new gadgets in ways that their makers never imagined, and (ideally) that means the next iterations of those gadgets are more geared towards those originally-unexpected uses. Also, social change creates new needs and desires, which technology arises to cope with.

Illustration for article titled You can't speculate about technology without speculating about society
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I am always skeptical of stories that go, "Somebody invents a technology, and everybody in the world starts _____ing." (Often, except for one brave hold-out.) There has never been an example of a new technology that everybody in the world used in the exact same way, and it seems unlikely to happen in future. (Although, Flappy Bird, I guess.)

If you were trying to imagine a world of smartphones 20 years ago, you probably wouldn't have dreamed up sexting. Or the use of phone cameras for bullying. Or Grindr. Or the use of GPS data to help people but also track them. The smartphone has been tied up with changing sexual mores but also the rise of the surveillance state and dwindling concerns about personal privacy.

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But at the same time, you have to account for counter-trends, and people finding ways to value what's being displaced. I was just working on a story set in the near future, with lots of weird neuroscience and computers grown in silicon gardens, and I threw in "futuristic" touches like genetically engineered kraken sushi and giant beetles that shed hallucinogenic tears into your mouth. I ended up scrapping a lot of that stuff because it was distracting — but also because in a future where brains were more hackable, people would probably cling to carefully sliced, perfectly handmade sandwiches. Just look at the rise of "artisanal" culture today.

All the reasons technological change won't ever be uniform

One thing to keep in mind when writing about technological change is the importance of generational shifts. Younger people embrace technology more readily than older people, but also use it in very different ways. And today's teenagers are going to have a very different attitude to the next thing that comes along, 20 years from now, than today's twenty-somethings or thirty-somethings.

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Another trend to think about is the increasing population density in urban areas. Studies show that higher-density populations make new technologies spread more quickly, but meanwhile people in rural or suburban areas may be much slower to catch on to a new technology — exacerbating existing cultural divides between city-dwellers and exurban populations.

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Illustration for article titled You can't speculate about technology without speculating about society

And yes, you really can't speculate about future tech and social change without thinking about the hot-button issue of income inequality. Not least because new technologies are expensive, and thus the wealthy are often the ultimate early adopters — but also, some technology may be designed only for the rich. Or for the poor — there could be gadgets to help the poor make tiny living spaces appear giant, using holograms, for example.

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You can't really imagine the future of technology without thinking about the people who make the gadgets, as well as the people who use them. You can't get a complete picture without focusing on demographic trends — like in a future America that's majority-Latino, how would that change the way people might use your magical brain implant?

This is why representing the majority of human beings in pop culture — and not just straight white dudes — is so important. Your worldbuilding will be poor and broken if you only represent part of the human race.

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Cultural shocks are like an incursion of madness

When a new technology appears on the scene, it often feels as though a bubble of insanity has appeared in the sane world. It turns everything sideways. This is somewhat like the moment where you suddenly realize that the cultural frame of reference has shifted and the formerly unthinkable is now thinkable.

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In fact, technology does cause shifts in the frame of sanity — talking to yourself on the street is no longer the sign ofa crazy person, and neither is talking in doge-speak.

Imagining a future society dealing with a future technology requires shocking yourself out of reality. It's like trying to imagine the death of a loved one or your house falling down — except maybe not so catastrophic. What I'm trying to drive at is, it's not a social change, but also a huge change that affects you personally.

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Illustration for article titled You can't speculate about technology without speculating about society

And the best stories often come out of the friction between society in aggregate responding to a change, versus one individual responding to that change.

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There is a wealth of great memoir and fiction about the Sexual Revolution, which came out of the rise of the birth-control pill but also a postwar change in attitudes towards religion and authority. And you can see how people felt both liberated and oppressed by the new normal — it was a complex shift that involved freedom from conformity but also new peer pressure.

Bottom line: if it's not messy, it's not real. If you find yourself writing about a clear-cut sea change, then you have to go back and start over.

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DISCUSSION

toothpetard
toothpetard

This made me think of what Tom Robbins says about outlaws: that they're the expendables on the edge, having confronted their values and chosen what is right over what is legal. In success they give new ways of doing things to society, and in failure society is improved by the test.

The difference between a criminal and an outlaw is that while criminals frequently are victims, outlaws never are. Indeed, the first step toward becoming a true outlaw is the refusal to be victimized. All people who live subject to other people's laws are victims. People who break laws out of greed, frustration, or vengeance are victims. People who overturn laws in order to replace them with their own laws are victims. ( I am speaking here of revolutionaries.) We outlaws, however, live beyond the law. We don't merely live beyond the letter of the law-many businessmen, most politicians, and all cops do that-we live beyond the spirit of the law. In a sense, then, we live beyond society. Have we a common goal, that goal is to turn the tables on the 'nature' of society. When we succeed, we raise the exhilaration content of the universe. We even raise it a little bit when we fail.

When war turns whole populations into sleepwalkers, outlaws don't join forces with alarm clocks. Outlaws, like poets, rearrange the nightmare.

The trite mythos of the outlaw; the self-conscious romanticism of the outlaw; the black wardrobe of the outlaw; the fey smile of the outlaw; the tequila of the outlaw and the beans of the outlaw; respectable men sneer and say 'outlaw'; young women palpitate and say 'outlaw'. The outlaw boat sails against the flow; outlaws toilet where badgers toilet. All outlaws are photogenic. 'When freedom is outlawed, only outlaws will be free.' There are outlaw maps that lead to outlaw treasures. Unwilling to wait for mankind to improve, the outlaw lives as if that day were here. Outlaws are can openers in the supermarket of life.”