Sci-fi teaches you what it means to be human, not to fear technology

The most effective science fiction makes us reflect on the ills of society, not where future inventions will go wrong

Nature never appeals to intelligence until habit and instinct are useless. There is no intelligence where there is no need of change.
– The Time Machine, H.G. Wells

A strange article popped up in Wired this week, where Michael Solana calls for an end to dystopian sci-fi on the grounds that it’s making us all scared of technology. Meandering through examples like Battlestar Galactica and the Hunger Games trilogy, he calls on budding sci-fi authors to invent technology heroes, rather than villains.

It’s true that we look to sci-fi in literature, TV and films to examine how we can remain human if the machines ever come for us. We examine what it is to be human under the most extreme circumstances — the destruction of the planet in Battlestar Galactica, humanity’s end days in The Time Machine, and the replacement of human emotions with synthetic alternatives in Brave New World.

According to Solana:

While innovation has improved our lives in almost every way imaginable, people are more frightened of the future than they have ever been. And after Battlestar Galactica, can you really blame them?

As a long-time reader of science fiction and sort-of-long-time reporter of tech, I say BS.

Solana leads on the claim that “…in the 21st Century, the average American is overwhelmingly afraid of artificial intelligence”, citing the website Think Artificial.

The source of this claim is an informal online poll with three possible answers to the question: “Do you, for some reason, fear the current and/or future increase of artificial intelligence?”. The results were as follows:

  • 16.7% Yes, I find the idea of intelligent machines frightening (1002 votes)
  • 27.1% No, I don’t find intelligent machines frightening (1632 votes)
  • 56.3% I’m not afraid of intelligent machines, I’m afraid of how humans will use the technology (3366 votes)

Just 16.7% of the poll’s participants actually came out and said they found the technology itself frightening — hardly “overwhelming” or indeed representative of your average American. What was overwhelming was their fear of how humans might misuse technology, and there lies the main issue with Solana’s argument.

Salona picks on Battlestar Galactica, a sci-fi series I’ve recently had the pleasure of rediscovering through Netflix. Battlestar isn’t really about how the human race would survive if the robots took over, though that is the ostensible setting. Intelligent machines are simply a strong dramatic backdrop to explore current-day issues such as the freedom of the press, military ethics, religious conflict and democracy. I can’t believe anyone watching the series would be blind to the parallels in our own society. None of those issues have anything to do with robots.

Another is the Hunger Games trilogy, which I don’t deny is difficult to read with any optimism. But the books are light on technological innovation and its negative impact on humanity, which is what Solana seemingly takes issue with. The main causes and catalysts of human misery in the Hunger Games are war and politics — tech’s just a sideline.

To argue that tech is generally the enemy in dystopian sci-fi is, I think, to misunderstand the finest works in the genre. These tend to explore contemporary issues, in whatever guise, alongside imaginative leaps into what technology can do to help or hinder those problems. To write a story about an innovation itself isn’t very interesting. To consider the moral, human dilemmas that spring from that innovation is. In short, dystopia makes for good sellable fiction because — as this journalist well knows — bad news sells.

Solana doesn’t see it that way:

Luddites have challenged progress at every crux point in human history. The only thing new is now they’re in vogue, and all our icons are iconoclasts. So it follows here that optimism is the new subversion. It’s daring to care. The time is fit for us to dream again.

This comes dangerously close to calling for a clean-up of fiction. And maybe it’s just my dystopia-washed brain at play here but there’s another word for what Solana’s calling for: it’s called “propaganda”.

This post first appeared on Medium.

#ngram: science vs. religion

Google has launched Ngram viewer, a tool which lets you compare phrases appearing across the entire corpus of Google books (click the image below to see the graph in full).

Compare “science” against “religion” in books written between 1800 and 2008. The results are interesting – see how science begins to overtake religion in books written during WWII and onwards. The demise of faith after mass human tragedy and huge advances in medicine and warfare, perhaps?

Climategate, media coverage and wrecking reputations

On Tuesday evening, two journalists from well-regarded media institutions accused the academic science community of remaining locked up in ivory towers during a panel discussion on climate change. The basis for this accusation was ‘Climategate’ (sigh, I’ll keep the scandal+’gate’ rant for another post), where UEA scientists were accused of manipulating climate research data to hide flaws. Not only did scientists refuse to answer FOIs, but hid in ‘ivory towers’ as the scandal broke, they said. (I wrote more about this here).

Impossible, they said, to keep the stories balanced because scientists were so reluctant to communicate. Ironically, the one actual scientist scheduled to appear on the panel didn’t turn up.

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