I recently read Terri Favro’s upcoming book on the history and future of robotics, sent to me by a publisher hungry for blurbs. It’s a fun read— I had no trouble obliging them— but I couldn’t avoid an almost oppressive sense of— well, of optimism hanging over the whole thing. Favro states outright, for example, that she’s decided to love the Internet of Things; those who eye it with suspicion she compares to old fogies who stick with their clunky coal-burning furnace and knob-and-tube wiring as the rest of the world moves into a bright sunny future. She praises algorithms that analyze your behavior and autonomously order retail goods on your behalf, just in case you’re not consuming enough on your own: “We’ll be giving up our privacy, but gaining the surprise and delight that comes with something new always waiting for us at the door” she gushes (sliding past the surprise and delight we’ll feel when our Visa bill loads up with purchases we never made). “How many of us can resist the lure of the new?” She does pay lip service to the potential hackability of this Internet of Things— concedes that her networked fridge might be compromised, for example— but goes on to say “…to do what, exactly? Replace my lactose-free low-fat milk with table cream? Sabotage my diet by substituting chocolate for rapini?”
Maybe, yeah. Or maybe your insurance company might come snooping around in the hopes your eating habits might give them an excuse to reject your claim for medical treatments you might have avoided if you’d “lived more responsibly”. Maybe some botnet will talk your fridge and a million others into cranking up their internal temperatures to 20ºC during the day, then bringing them all back down to a nice innocuous 5º just before you get home from work. (Botulism in just a few percent of those affected could overwhelm hospitals and take out our medical response capacity overnight.) And while Favro at least admits to the danger of Evil Russian Hackers, she never once mentions that our own governments will in all likelihood be rooting around in our fridges and TVs and smart bulbs, cruising the Internet Of Things while whistling that perennial favorite If You Got Nothin’ to Hide You Got Nothin’ to Fear…
Nor should we forget that old chestnut from Blue Lives Murder: “I had to shoot him, Your Honor. I feared for my life. It’s true the suspect was unarmed at the time, but he’s well over six feet tall and according to his Samsung Health app he lifted weights and ran 20K three times a week…”
That’s just a few ways your wired appliances can hurt you personally. We haven’t scratched the potential damage to wider targets. What’s to stop them from getting conscripted into an appliance-based botnet like, for example, the one that took out KrebsOnSecurity last year?
I’m not trying to shit on Favro; as I said, I enjoyed the book. But it did get me thinking about bigger pictures, and this recent demand for brighter prognoses. These days it seems as if everyone and their dog is demanding we stick our fingers in our ears, squeeze our eyes tight shut, and whistle a happy tune while the mountainside collapses on top of us.
In a sense this is nothing new. Denial is a ubiquitous part of human nature. One of the things science fiction has traditionally done has been get in our faces, hold our eyelids open and force us to look at the road ahead. That’s a big reason I was drawn to the field in the first place.
So how come some of the most strident demands to Lighten the Hell Up are coming from inside science fiction itself?
It started slow. Remember back at the beginning of the decade, when the president of Arizona State University told Neal Stephenson that the sorry state of the space program was our fault? Science fiction wasn’t bold and optimistic like it used to be, apparently. It had stopped Dreaming Big. The rocket scientists weren’t inspired because we weren’t being sufficiently inspirational.
I’ve always found that argument a bit tenuous, but Stephenson took it to heart. Booted up “Project Hieroglyph“, a big shiny movement devoted to chasing dystopia down into the cellar and replacing it with upbeat, optimistic science fiction that could Change The World. The fruit of that labor was Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future; a number of my friends can be found within its pages, although for some reason I was not approached for a contribution. (No problem— I got my shot just this year when Kathryn Cramer, the coeditor of H:SaVfaBF, let me write my own piece of optiskif for the X-Prize’s Seat 14C.)
A few grumbled (Ramez Naam struck back in Slate in defense of dystopias). Others dug in their heels: You don’t need to squint very hard to figure out Michal Solana’s take-home message in “Stop Writing Dystopian Fiction – It’s Making Us All Fear Technology“. That appeared in Wired back in 2014, but the bandwagon rolls on still. Just this year, writing in Clarkesworld, my dear friend Kelly Robson put her foot down: “No more dystopias [italics hers]. What we need is near- and mid-future stories that show an array of trajectories out of the gloomy toilet bowl we’re spiraling.”
There’s something telling about that edict, insofar as it explicitly admits that yes, we are indeed circling the drain. We’re all on that same page, at least. But what the hope police seem to be converging on is, You don’t get to give us bad news unless you can also tell us how to make it good. Don’t you dare deliver a diagnosis of cancer unless you’ve got a cure stashed up your sleeve, because otherwise you’re just being a downer.
Looks like dangerous seas up ahead. I know! Let’s erase all the reefs from our nautical charts!
Inherent in this attitude is the belief that science fiction matters, that it can influence the trajectory of real life, that We Have The Power To Change the Future and With Great Power Goes Great Responsibility— so if we serve up an unending diet of crushing dystopias people will lose all hope, melt into whimpering puddles of flop sweat, and grow too paralyzed to fix anything. Because the World takes us so very seriously. Because if we do not tell tales of hope, then we have no one to blame but ourselves when the ceiling crashes in.
I’ve always been a bit gobsmacked by the arrogance of that view.
I’m not saying that SF has never proven inspirational in real life. NASA is infested with scientists and engineers who were weaned on Star Trek. Gibson informed the future as much as he imagined it. Hell, we wouldn’t have the glorious legacy of Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative if a bunch of Real SF Writers hadn’t snuck into the White House and inspired the Gipper with hi-tech tales of space-based missile shields and ion cannons. I’m not denying any of that.
What I’m saying is that none of those things inspired people to change. It merely justified their inclination to keep on doing what they’d always wanted to. Science fiction is like the Bible that way: it’s big enough, and messy enough, to let you cherry-pick “inspiration” for pretty much any paradigm that turns your crank. Hell, you can even use SF to justify a society based on incest (check out the works of Theodore Sturgeon if you don’t believe me). That’s one of the reasons I like the genre; you can go anywhere.
You want to convince me that SF can change the world? Show me the timeline where we headed off overpopulation because people read Stand on Zanzibar. Show me a world where the existence of Nineteen Eighty-Four prevented the US and Britain from routinely surveilling their citizens. Show me a place where ‘Murrica read The Handmaid’s Tale and whispered in horrified tones: “Holy shit, we really gotta dial back our religious fundamentalism.”
It’s no accomplishment to inspire people to do things they already want to. You want to lay claim to being part of Team Worldchanger, show me a time when you inspired people to do something they didn’t want to. Show me a time you changed society’s mind.
Ray Bradbury tried to imagine such a world, once— late in his career when he’d gone soft, when hard-edged masterpieces like “Skeleton” and “The Small Assassin” were lost to history and all he had left in him were mushy stories about Laurel and Hardy, or time-travelers who used their technology to go back and make Herman Melville feel better about his writing career. This particular story was called “The Toynbee Convector”, and it was about a guy who saved the world by lying to it. He told everyone that he’d built a time machine, gone into the Future, and seen that It Was Good: we’d cleaned up the planet, saved the whales, eliminated poverty and overpopulation. And in this upbeat science fiction story, people didn’t say Great: well, since we know everything’s gonna be okay anyhow, we might as well keep sitting on our asses, snarfing pork rinds until Utopia comes calling. No, they rolled up their sleeves, and by golly they set about making that future happen. I don’t know if I’ve ever read a story more willfully blind to Human Nature.
If you’re looking for ways in which science fiction can inspire, here’s something the hope police may have forgotten to mention: if downbeat stories inspire despair and paralysis, it’s at least as likely that upbeat stories inspire complacency. Yeah, I know the planet’s warming and the icecaps are melting and we’re wiping out sixty species a day, but I’m sure we’ll muddle through somehow. We’re a resourceful species when the chips are down. Someone will come up with something. I read it in a book by Kim Stanley Robinson.
In fact, Kim Stanley Robinson is a good example. He’s no misty-eyed Utopian by any stretch, but he’s certainly more hopeful in his imaginings than the Atwoods and Brunners of the world. He recently pointed to the Paris Agreement as a “hopeful sign“:
It was a historical moment that will go down in any competent world history … That moment when the United Nation member states said, “We have to put a price on carbon. We have to go beyond capitalism and regulate our entire economy and our technological base in order to keep the planet alive.”
Surely I can’t be the only one who sees the oxymoron in “put a price on carbon … go beyond capitalism”. The moment you affix a monetary value to carbon you’re subsuming it into capitalism. You’re turning it into just another commodity to be bought and sold.
Granted, this is better than pretending it doesn’t exist (I believe “externalities” is the term economists use when they want to ignore something completely). And Robinson is no fan of conventional economics: he dismissed the field as “pseudoscience” at Readercon a few years back, which was heartening even if it is so obvious you shouldn’t have to keep coming out and saying it. But the moment you put a price on carbon, it’s only a matter of time before some asshole shows up with a checkbook and says “OK— here’s your price, paid in full. Now fuck off while I continue to destroy the world in time for the next quarterly report.” Putting a price on carbon is the exact opposite of moving beyond capitalism; it’s extending capitalism into new and more dangerous realms.
Citing such developments as positive makes me a bit queasy.
I got the same kind of feeling when everyone dog-piled all over David Wallace-Wells “The Uninhabitable Earth” in New York Magazine this past summer. Wallace-Wells’ bottom line was that even the bad news you’ve heard about climate change is a soft-sell, that things are even worse than the experts are admitting, that in all likelihood large parts of the planet will be uninhabitable for humans by the end of this century.
It took about three hours for the yay-sayers to start weighing in, tearing down that gloomy-Gus perspective. They tried to pick holes in the science, although ultimately they had to admit that there weren’t many. The main complaint was that Wallace-Wells always assumes the worst-case scenario— and really, things probably won’t get that bad. Even Michel Mann, one of Climate Change’s biggest rock stars, weighed in: “There is no need to overstate the evidence, particularly when it feeds a paralyzing narrative of doom and hopelessness.” This turned out to be the most common criticism: not that the article was necessarily wrong overall, but that it was just too depressing, too defeatist. Have to give people hope, you know. Have to stop being all doom-and-gloom and start inspiring instead.
I have a few problems with this. First: Sorry, but when you’re driving for the edge of a cliff with your foot literally on the gas, I don’t think “inspiration” is what we should be going for. We should be going for sheer pants-pissing terror at the prospect of what happens when we go over that cliff. I humbly suggest that that might prove a better motivator.
Further, describing the worst-case scenario isn’t unreasonable when the observed data keep converging on something even worse. Science, by nature, is conservative; a result isn’t even considered statistically significant below a probability of at least 95%, often 99%. Global systems are full of complexity and noise, things that degrade statistical significance even in the presence of real effects— so scientific publications, almost by definition, tend to understate risk.
Which might explain why, once we were finally able to collect field data to weigh against decades of computer projections, the best news was that observed CO2 emissions were only tracking the predicted worst-case scenario. Ice-cap melting and sea-level rise were worse than the predicted worst-case— and from what I can tell this is pretty typical. (I’ve been checking in on the relevant papers in Science and Nature since before the turn of the century, and I can remember maybe two papers in all that time that said Hey, this variable actually isn’t as bad as we thought!)
So saying that Wallace-Wells takes the worst-case scenario isn’t a criticism. It’s an endorsement. If anything, the man understates our predicament. Which made it a bit troubling to see even Ramez Naam— defender of dystopian fiction— weighing in against the New York piece. Calling it “bleak” and “misleading”, he accused Wallace-Wells of “underestimat[ing] Human ingenuity” and “exaggerat[ing] impacts”. He spoke of trend lines for anticipated temperature rise bending down, not up— and of course, he lamented the hopeless tone of the article which would, he felt, make it psychologically harder to take action.
I’m not sure where Ramez got his trend data— it doesn’t seem entirely consistent with what those Copenhagen folks had to say a few years back— but even if he’s right, it’s a little like saying Yes, we may be a hundred meters away from running into that iceberg, but over the past couple of hours we’ve actually managed to change course by three whole degrees! Progress! At this rate we’ll be able to miss the iceberg entirely in just another three or four kilometers!
I don’t mean to pick on Ramez, any more than on Favro— having recently hung out with him, I can attest that he is one smart and awesome dude. But. Try this scenario on for size:
You’re in your living room, watching Netflix. You look out the window and see a great honking boulder plunging down the hill, mere seconds from smashing your home to kindling. Do you:
- Crumple into a ball of weeping despair and wait for the end;
- Keep watching Stranger Things because that boulder is just a Chinese hoax;
- Wait for someone to inspire you to action with tales of a hopeful future; or
- Run like hell, even though it means abandoning your giant flatscreen TV?
This underscores, I believe, a potential flaw in the worldview of the hope police. It may be that despair and hopelessness reduce us into inaction— but it may also be true that we simply aren’t scared enough. You can thank our old friend Hyperbolic Discounting for that: the future is never all that real to us, not down in the gut where we set our priorities. Catastrophe in ten years is less real than discomfort today. So we put off the necessary steps. We slide towards apocalypse because we can’t be bothered to get off the couch. The problem is not that we are paralyzed with despair; the problem, more likely, is that we haven’t really internalized what’s in store for us. The problem is that our species is already delusionally optimistic by nature.
Not all of us, mind you. Some folks perceive their contextual status with relative accuracy: they’re better than the rest of us at figuring out how much control they really have over local events, for example. They’re better at assessing their own performance at assigned tasks. Most of us tend to take credit for the good things that happen to us, while blaming something else for the bad. But some folks, faced with the same scenarios, apportion blame and credit without that self-serving bias.
We call these people “clinically depressed”. We regard them as a bunch of unmotivated Debbie Downers who always look on the dark side— even though their worldview is empirically more accurate than the self-serving ego-boosts the rest of us experience.
Judged on that basis, chances are that even most dystopias are too optimistic. Telling us that we need to be more optimistic is like telling an already-drunk driver to have another mickey for the road. More hope and sunshine may be the last thing we need; just maybe, what we need is to catch sight of that boulder crashing down the hill, and to believe it. Maybe that might be enough to get us moving.
The distribution isn’t a clean bimodal. Sure, there’s a clump of us here at the Grim Dystopia end of the scale, and another clump way over there at the Power of Positive Thinking. But there’s this other place between those poles, a place that mixes light and dark. A place whose citizens say You may not like it but it’s gonna happen anyway, so why not just settle back and enjoy the ride?
I see it when Terri Favro waves away the implications of smart homes that drain our savings into the coffers of retailers we never met in exchange for products we never asked for, with a shrug and a cheery “How many of us can resist the lure of the new?” I see it when I read articles in Wired that rail against our ongoing loss of privacy, only to finally admit “We are not going to retreat from the cloud… We live there now.” Or that more recent piece— just a couple of months back— which begins with ominous descriptions of China’s truly pernicious Social Scoring program, segues into it’s-not-all-bad Territory (Hey, at least it’s more transparent than our own No-Fly Lists), and finishes off with the not-so-subtle implication that it’ll probably happen here too before long, so we might as well get used to it.
It’s almost as though some Invisible Hand were drawing us in by expressing our worst fears, validating them to engender trust— and then gently herding us toward passive acceptance of the inevitable. “We’ll be giving up our privacy, but gaining the surprise and delight that comes with something new always waiting for us at the door!” Can’t ask for more than that.
Not unless you want to end up on the wrong kind of list, anyway.
These aren’t huge leaps. Inspiration Not Despair segues into Look on the Bright Side which circles ever closer to Accept and Acquiesce. There are, after all, a lot of interests who don’t want us to believe in that boulder crashing down the hill— and if said boulder becomes ever-harder to deny, then at least they can try to convince us that it really isn’t so bad, that we’ll learn to like the boulder even if ends up squashing a few things we used to value. There’s always a bright side. The planet may be warming, but it’s not warming as fast! Just another few kilometers and we’ll be past that iceberg! See, we’ve even put a price on carbon!
Of course, if you really need to blame someone, look no further than those naysayers over in the corner; they’re the ones who didn’t Dream Big enough, after all. They’re the ones who failed to Inspire the rest of us. Don’t blame us when the boulder squashes you flat; blame them, for “making us all fear technology”. Blame them, for failing to “show an array of trajectories out of the gloomy toilet bowl we’re spiraling”.
In fact, why wait until the boulder actually hits?
Blame them now, and avoid the rush.
 If you want a cinematic example of this mindset, check out Roberto Benigni’s insipid 1997 film “Life is Beautiful“, whose take-home message is that the best way to ensure your children’s survival in a Nazi death camp is to trick them into thinking that it’s all just a game and nothing can possibly hurt them.