Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Athena on Alpha Centauri and Squee Harshers Like Me

When I say humans aren't going to Alpha Centauri (a point extensively elaborated here), I am in congenial company. Here's the always marvelous Athena Andreadis on the topic.

I especially liked this observation of hers, which has a very useful more general applicability:
Science fiction has been the entry portal for many scientists and engineers. The sense of wonder and discovery that permeates much of SF makes people dream -- and then makes them ask how such dreams can become real. The problem arises when science fiction is confused or conflated with real science, engineering and social policy.
No doubt the very same observation could be made about the impact of Hollywood sword and sandal epics in the formation of some who go on to become archeologists and historians of Roman antiquity, but it is interesting that comparatively few would try to draw from this observation the conclusion that campy gladiator flicks are themselves a form of serious historical scholarship or that this sort of inspiration is indispensable to the accomplishments of Roman archeology. It's not as if nobody would have ever grasped the wonder and mystery and provocation of our fantastically complex universe without science fiction to let us in on it, after all -- indeed, our sense of wonder at the cosmos preceded, enabled, and fuels sf's sensawunda to this day.

I suspect that part of the difference between space opera and toga melodrama in this connection is a matter of the extent to which futurological pop-tech conceits have actually become roughly co-extensive with the marketing and promotional forms that now suffuse our public life. Deceptive, reductive, hyperbolic claims about anti-aging skin creams, smart phones making smart users, artificially intelligent automobiles, and our greenwashed clean coal future use pop-tech pseudo-science to peddle complacent consumption in the present as if that is a rocketship to "The Future" all the time: Robot Cult protestations about the supreme scientificity of their techno-transcendentalism are simply a reductio ad absurdum of the prevailing pattern at its extreme edge.

Andreadis continues, "many people fall back to the Kennedy myth: that we went to the moon because of the vision of a single man with the charisma and will to make it reality. Ergo, the same can be done with any problem we set our sights on but for those fun-killin’ Luddites who persist on harshing squees." She points out that comparable gestures of would-be charismatic men, "wars" declared on complex problems like cancer, drugs, and terror expose the folly of such generalizations, and recommend closer scrutiny of the specific circumstances that made Apollo possible. (And as I have said before, Apollo might well be considered a stunt, glorious though it was, and one that not only did not bootstrap a sustainable space program beyond its accomplishments but might not even be repeatable today on its own terms.)

What really strikes me in her observation, however, is the way it evokes the way so many techno-transcendental futurologists of the True Believing Robot Cultic variety seem so often to be indulging in the flabbergastingly fantasy that the role of the charismatic Kennedy figure in this little drama is themselves. They seem to think that somehow by blogging fervently about how awesome it would be if nanobots could make next to anything for next to nothing, or how awesome it would be if a brain scan of them was the same thing as them and cyberspace was the same thing as heaven and uploading a brain scan into cyberspace would techno-immortalize them, or how awesome it would be if the same petro-industrial corporate-military organizations that are destroying the planet could build mega-engineering planet-scrubbers for profit instead, and on and on and on in this vein, that they are somehow acting as heroic protagonists championing science and progress against the forces of darkness, by contributing energy to what will be an irresistible wave of can-do techno-magick through which all their dreams will surely come true.

Science is about the long, hard work of forming and testing useful hypotheses, progress is a matter of slow heartbreaking collective historical struggle. Science isn't about wish-fulfillment fantasies, progress doesn't come from clapping louder. Anti-futurological squee harshing in an epoch of complacent consumerism, self-promotional fraud, and scientific illiteracy is indispensable to the mobilization of imagination and effort through which means are translated into actually progressive ends.


Chad Lott said...

Do you like gladiators?

jimf said...

> Do you like gladiators?

I like tits 'n' sand movies.