Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Fragile Humans in a Changing Technoscape

As I’ve commented before, characters have begun to predominate over science fiction concepts in many a magazine’s writing brief – not all, to be sure, there are still those who specify that the concept, the science or the situation must be endemic to the storyline (Analog, for instance, and Compelling), but a majority want characters the reader can identify with – or loathe – readily and comfortably, first and foremost, and then depicted against a speculative background.

I have often wondered if this is symptomatic of the social development of the world – the “reality TV” era, which is devoutly and profoundly the opposite in a repellently glitzed-up package pretending to not be scripted. This preoccupation with “people” in an age which has, in real terms, devalued the individual human being in the most outrageous way, seems patently false and cynical. But there may be far a more functional explanation.

Take the tablet, for instance. When they first appeared in Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1987, they were 24th century hardware, but came true in less than 25 years and are now ubiquitous. The underwater camera was fictional when it appeared in the Bond flick Thunderball in 1968, but in the 1970s became a reality. Skype and similar systems have made visual communication a normality, when the dedicated “videophone” was an experiment following its introduction at the 1964 World’s Fair, but which attracted too few subscribers to prove viable. The point is that the gadgetry science fiction can conceive of, technology can – now – reproduce fairly quickly. Mobile phones are the academic example. Computer interfaces change so rapidly one can never be certain what is fictional and what isn’t, and it essentially no longer matters. Holographic displays such as we see in Iron Man and Avatar are tipped to be out there in the future for us, while projection systems, graphics the size of walls or table tops are with us already. One used to be aware that the systems depicted in the Bond films were often fictional, but the kind of graphics and system architectures depicted in later years no longer provoke that reaction, one simply accepts them. Compare the MI6 briefing room display in Quantum of Solace to the Memorex-drum memory, command environment and first-generation graphics seen in 1982’s For Your Eyes Only and the decades of development really do become apparent.

Technology, especially in the form of gadgetry, has become the axiom of the age. We almost all have a smartphone, even the most resistant of us, and who can operate in modern society without a computer? I’m writing on one and will use it to upload to the internet to be read on one, or a phone, or tablet… The line has blurred between lived reality and the fictional worlds science fiction used to depict, and in this is perhaps found the human need to connect with people in stories. Why? Because something of the fascination with the new and strange that SF used to embody has been lost, literally blown away, by the pace of change in the real world. Future shock? What’s that? A concept from half a century ago, when the pace of life was changing. Now the future holds out the promise of both wonders and terrors and we know there’s no avoiding them, no matter how uncomfortable any particular person might be with any particular promise.

As writers, this leaves us with the ironic proposition that, though we strive to be “prophets of the unknown,” we must place people first as surely as literary fiction ever did; there is no longer more than a curiosity role for people reduced to minor figures, hurrying to serve the mega-machines and implacable intelligences set in dehumanised landscape that the disturbed and wary conjectures of the Seventies warned about. The landscape more or less arrived, but it’s often softened with an enhanced knowledge of human needs, and, after all, we place people first now. At least we do if we’re hoping to entertain, if not inform or challenge.

So the only world in which machines dominate is an industrial one, an autocratic one, and the rest of the human race finds itself living into a gadget-rich tomorrow in which, ironically, those ever-fresh gadgets serve purposes that were invented merely because the technology existed to make gadgets to serve – a profitability cycle; while the problems which dogged humankind when science fiction sought so keenly for answers, are still dragging along with us as the 21st century unfolds, and are generally worse than ever. Now there’s a scenario few could have predicted before the Eighties (I’m thinking Judge Dredd comics), and an interesting frame of reference in which to write of the tomorrows baring down on us.

Cheers, Mike Adamson

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