Ali’s blog

Mostly quant stuff with occasional digressions

The relevance of science fiction

Posted by alifinmath on March 14, 2008

Jules Verne dreamt up a submarine in “20,000 Leagues under the Sea,” and H.G.Wells dreamt up tanks in one of his short stories. I believe these fictional creations and their subsequent real-life embodiments are not stray coincidences; rather, I feel these works of the imagination guide and lend a sense of purpose to scientific and engineering work. In more recent times we’ve had Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, which anticipated the virtual world of the internet. But even this has become passe. This is an article in today’s Guardian:

In a list of scenarios drawn up by the Chartered Management Institute and launched at a seminar in London yesterday by Sir John Sunderland, chairman of Cadbury Schweppes, companies were warned to prepare for a range of more remote possibilities, including a world under cyber attack, the use of holograms for communication between staff, and controlling employee behaviour by implanting microchips in their brains. More probable scenarios included a polarisation of businesses, with large corporations consolidating global control and becoming more powerful than the governments of some big countries.

Perhaps our world is slowly converging towards the depiction portrayed in Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon, for which I have nothing but praise. A review can be found here, and another one here.

One common misapprehension I find is that technology is conceived of as alien to some deep-seated and pristine human nature. My belief, on the contrary, is that technology embodies deep psychic urges (often for control or exertion of violence), which thus acquire tangible form and expression. We are makers and employers of tools, and the computer and the space shuttle differ only in sophistication — and not in nature — from the flint and the spear.

The real issue is that technology is used by the few  against the many — and it’s the many who feel it as alienating, as it’s being used against them. If technology truly was alienating we would neither create nor employ it; the fact that we do attests to some inherent will-to-power. 

In entirely the same vein, it’s a mistake to conceive of technology and human nature as distinct: technology by its very nature is anthropomorphic, and an embodiment of facets of human nature; it’s more fruitful to conceive of a necessary symbiosis between human and artificial, where it’s impossible to draw lines of demarcation. 

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