BFTP: This is what we use it for

To further mark the closing of LP, this is a repost of one of my earlier posts there, from August 11, 2006. It’s also extra topical because the 2012 Hugo nominations were announced this last weekend.

Charlie Stross bemoans “the crap new SF” and its recent overemphasis on alternate-history. By which he means that American SF post-9/11 is virtually a non-near-future zone – it’s mostly militaristic alternate Cold War outcomes and the US Marine Corps in the 37th century (Charlie notes the the British are still doing near-future, and argues that’s why there’s a reputed British New SF Wave). He attributes this to a loss of trademark American optimism, which he acknowledges is thus revealed as fragile, and is now hiding morosely under the bed.

Chad Orzel, over at Scienceblogs, offers a totally different hypothesis.

Chad takes the unusual set-up tack of trawling through you-Tube to gather an astonishing array of homemade video-clips to the Bonnie Tyler/Jim Steinman song Total Eclipse of the Heart (go to his post for the links if you must), and then, to quote Patrick Nielsen-Hayden, “Chad whirls around, ninja-like” to his point:

Ultimately, this is the answer to Charlie Stross’s query about why nobody writes near-future SF any more: because this is what you have to compete with. Presented with revolutionary, world-spanning communications technology, and the ability to instantly retrieve information from an astonishing array of sources, and send it to any of a truly mind-boggling number of people, this is what we use it for.

Futurism never stood a chance.

Chad’s not saying that You-Tube shows that we’re going to hell in a handbasket, he’s merely asking what past SF author ever predicted that this level of trivial entertainment was what we’d do with something as amazing as the Internet?

Perhaps this lack of foresight about the Internet goes back to that SF optimism noted by Stross: Golden Period authors always seemed to show a future society where culture-wide nobility of purpose had triumphed over bread and circuses. Only the spacefaring elite might partake of higher endeavours, the rest of their society were somehow seen to be only reluctantly making do with humdrum amusements while awaiting news of the great achievements the bestriding colossi were making on their nebulous behalf.

Perhaps in this they were, unrealising, relying on the old Grand Narrative of history (which has come up for discussion several times on this blog). This history was all about the great doings of great men, various celebrated writings about those great doings, and very little about the day to day lives of wider populations. The Grand Narrative tends to a view of the hoi polloi as largely amorphous and passive, awaiting grand events to give their lives meaning, largely because their voices have not survived to come down to us today.

Yet despite the celebrated high level of discourse in surviving correspondence from the glory days of Rome and Greece, let’s not forget that what has survived was the polished prose of politically ambitious men who, like Gwendolen in The Importance of Being Earnest, consequently meant their diaries/letters for publication so that their elite peers might be duly entertained by their brilliance, and the masses marvelling.

The general level of correspondence through most of history would have been much more pedestrian, despite the cost of paper, and hence less likely to be treasured and kept, let alone published for a wider audience. Indeed, the cost of paper in the ancient world encouraged recycling of paper as much as possible (ink was bleached and paper reused), and thus only the most vivid and important communications were kept to be reread and eventually compiled by historians.

Today’s historians, in the move away from the Grand Narrative, realise that the masses have usually been less deeply interested in great men and great events than in court gossip, athletic contests and local scandals on a day-to-day basis, and thus it still is. We are all capable of being deeply engaged in certain events widely considered important, but for most of us only some of those events are truly exciting. Not everyone is enthralled by every space launch or medical advance or new philosophical paradigm, however great groups of us are deeply involved fans of various forms of entertainment (TV, music, sports etc) and have slabs of minutiae regarding these interests at our fingertips.

The internet, despite its original high intent as an academic/professional/military communications network (a purpose it still serves admirably well) has also allowed all of us to regurgitate our passionately accrued mental detritus onto variously grouped message-boards, newsgroups, websites and blogs instead of having to keep it squashed down inside for fear of glazed eyes at parties. Hooray: at least if someone reaches our corner of the Interweb they’re probably interested already in at least some of what we’ve got to say! No glazed eyes any more, at least not where we can see them.

All those amateur video-clips at You-Tube present thousands of friends and families who have not had to suffer through their loved ones’ weird hobby, and thousands of people online who love that sort of stuff who’ve really, really enjoyed watching it. Sometimes it’s more than just a bit of fun, as when a spoof video filmed by Royal Dragoons proved so popular that people downloading it briefly crashed the MoD servers in the UK, yet even the MoD was pleased with the morale boosting that the vid displayed.

The SF authors of the past might well have been surprised by the essential triviality of the way most of us use this amazing worldwide communication system we enjoy, but should they have been?

The Internet has allowed people that, pre-Web, went through life feeling they were so weird that nobody else shared their interest, to feel confident that actually, there are lots and lots of people in the world who do share it and can be chatted to nearly anytime. Being able to reach out and enjoy an affinity with another human, even one on the other side of the world that you will never meet, is priceless. It’s not surprising that a lot of people keep that interaction very lighthearted and superficial: who wants to risk alienating these people who find your obscure hobbies interesting by getting too serious about something where their opinions may differ from yours?

Then we have the stoushers: the flamers and cultural warriors. There is obviously a different sort of affirmation in holding out provocative opinions and defending them which many find enjoyable, as well as some genuine desire to act as an agent for change, as has been shown possible by various advocacy groups such as the netroots campaigns making progress in the USA.

I’ve now run out of discursive puff (and I haven’t even got around to pr0n), so over to you in comments.

Note: When I wrote the above back in 2006, I hadn’t fully appreciated how overwhelming reality TV was going to become – it still seemed (to me at least) a niche genre despite the popularity of Big Brother, Pop Idol(etc) and Survivor. Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games YA trilogy engages with our appetite for reality entertainment head-on, and is perhaps the first near-future scenario fiction from the US to be popular since Stross’ plaint was published, although as dystopic fiction it’s still very anti-optimism, which is the point of his post. (It’s also highly arguable how “near-future” it is, too (by design)).

The 2006 optimism regarding netroots political activism has become rather quashed as astroturf squads have grown over the years and various nattering nabobs of negativity have organised their squads of flying monkeys to skew debate towards their preferred framings of various Overton Windows. In retrospect it seems inevitable that there would be this sort of corporate and machine-political pushback, of course.

Categories: arts & entertainment, fun & hobbies, media, Meta, relationships, Sociology

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2 replies

  1. My take on the failure of SF as predictor was well before the Internet became part of life.
    It was the total lack of t-shirts in the future!
    T-shirts with advertising was the main one, but t-shirts as self expression was another. No SF writer foresaw people happily proclaiming allegiance to a brand and paying for the privilege. Proclaiming identity by logo or by witty saying.
    Few even considered advertising. Doc Smith did, in one very memorable scene. The hero, equipped with a device that gives him full telepathic powers, is in the transport device of the aliens who themselves do not hear or see but just use telepathy and some kind of telepathic “vision”[1]. So their “car” has no windows and no soundproofing or attenuation at all. They also don’t use seats as they are like 44 gallon drums on stumpy legs. So the hero is being rattled about in a totally black hideously noisy tin can, his only sensory input via the telepathic connection with his host.
    He’s trying to get to some kind of understanding and failing, when through his host’s eyes he sees a thing like a firework which erupts to write letters on the sky “Eat Teegmee’s food”. The host alien doesn’t notice it, and thus the first piece of common ground between human and alien is discovered: the ability and desire to ignore advertising!
    That was published in 1950.
    [1] don’t think about this too much OK?

  2. @ Zebee – Pohl and Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants (1952, says the Internet) takes on marketing and advertising head-on, as the title suggests. The protagonist is tasked to sell people on the idea of moving to Venus…but then Things Happen and Antarctica gets involved. It’s pretty biting satire, but a zippy read; I definitely recommend it!
    Haha, I don’t remember any T-shirts, though…

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