Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Catch-up ball

OK, a few thoughts about writing about the future when the future keeps changing.

It's built into the job description.

The science fiction writer aims to hit a constantly moving target. H.G. Wells and Jules Verne predicted tanks, submarines and mechanized warfare – but the real things to come took a different shape. Back in the 1980s, Gibson, Rucker, Sterling and other "cyberpunk" authors first started writing about the implications of cyberspace and personal computing. They were prophetic. They were largely wrong.

What complicates matters: the Tiresias problem. Every prophecy about the future changes the future. I.e.: Science fiction predictions affect the evolution of culture and technology. We avoid the nightmare, seek the dream. Sometimes, we get tired of the dream.

Example #1: SF writers had already explored the galaxy by the 1930s. They've made return trips ever since. In today's pop culture, the specifics of space travel and colonization are as familiar as the Western town in Gunsmoke. Although humanity hasn't been to the moon since 1972. Simulated space exploration may explain the lack of the real thing. "Space may be the final frontier but its made in a Hollywood basement." If Columbus had 3D IMax movies about America, he'd probably still be in Spain.

Example #2: Cyberpunk literature (great stuff) gave birth to lots of movies (usually godawful) and cyberpunk culture (in the future, everyone dresses in leather!) This culture sprang up before the stuff they fantasized about existed or worked all that well. Then it became old news. The original writers (who never liked the term "cyberpunk") had moved on a long time ago.

Different trips. Same destination.

We get bored with the future before it happens.

To compensate, SF writers tend to abandon certain over-used themes, situations and predictions. Meanwhile, culture and technology gradually catches up with the earlier predictions. SF writers eventually notice and play catch-up ball. Me, included.

My problem is this ...

The big thing on the horizon is scarcity. I don’t want to write about scarcity. It’s depressing. It’s been done. I’ve seen Mad Max.

The alternative is some development – equivalent to the first Industrial Revolution – which creates global prosperity. Ain't that nice? Glinda the Good floats down and waves her magic wand and says, “Just add nanotechnology, and everything’s bright and clean!” Yeah. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

This leaves me with my obsessions, namely: media as a global ecosystem; the tension between the buying and selling of ideas and the free exchange of ideas; where creators of original art fit in. In a world where stuff is free, ideas are what you pay for. Intellectual property is the only property.

I'm a child of Marshall McLuhan. The future I imagine -- the future I want to imagine -- is the future of media. Not robots and rocketships.

Gibson, Sterling et al imagined a global “cyberspace” dominated by corporations where the few remaining individualists would be cowboys and criminals surviving illegally in the cracks inside the system. The future would resemble the L.A. of Raymond Chandler. Wrong.

I had my own ideas. Also wrong.

As it turns out, the future is more like a giant hot-tub at Esalen. It’s a vast, bubbling pool of touchy-feely sharing, gossip and chitter-chatter. We are one. We are Facebook. We are Twitter. **

When I hear the words “social media” I wanna stick my head in the freaking microwave. I’m forced to think about it, if I wanna keep writing about the future.

Circa 1995, I condemned the narrow focus that certain visual artists had on selling art to make money. Inspired by R. Crumb, I pointed out another – free – side to art. Art, I said, is a repository of cultural memory – the RNA memory of the tribe.* People dance, tell stories, carve wood, etc., without being paid. Modern reproductive tech tended to destroy all that. The Man sells us our images, songs and stories at the store. Artists should be concerned about that.

Yeah, well. A decade and a half later, the evolution of media tech has – perversely – turned the tables. Like kudzu, there’s an insanely growing network of home-grown stories, videos, you name it – all created by folks who work for free. I kinda prefer the stuff I pay for. I definitely prefer getting paid.

Now, if I want to keep writing about the future, like it or not, I have to imagine what this kudzu of social media will turn into.

Be careful what you wish for.

*Yeah. I know it’s a discredited theory.

** To be fair, Gibson was right about one prediction. There are criminals in cyberspace, ready to mug you the second you get out of the hot tub.

No comments: