Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Final Project: Narrative Creates Technology.

We accept technology as it is, taking it for granted while benefitting from its uses. For every problem, there is a techno-solution, and for every complaint with that solution, there is another ‘update’ to take its place. One after another, piled higher and higher. You might ask…where does it all begin? And I might answer…where didn’t it begin? But the exact origins aren’t the focus here, so much as the reason a fair amount of our technology has come to be the way that it is. Why this way, as we see it in everyday life, and not another, a completely different approach? Several factors are involved, but one of the main contributors – lately – is narrative. Specifically that of science fiction. It is my intent to take you, the reader, through the reasoning of how it happened, why it happened, and for what purpose. Because, despite its entertaining appeal, science fiction in the media has always had a particular motivation in creating a new world that doesn’t exist. I’m just here to explain what that is.

To begin with, we have to take apart the title, so there’s no uncertain terms as to where I’m going here. Technology, as is known, is derived from techniques, which boils down to the method by which something gets done. In the very basic sense, every action is a technique. Walking, driving, reading, writing, etc. It’s just how you do things. Technology is innovation applied practically. You get an idea and you put it together and there you have it. Purpose achieved. Narrative falls under this. It has the purpose of creating a story, telling a tale, and that in of itself could have plenty of other reasons behind it, depending on the writer. I write this inform. I also write it to prove some kind of point. Narrative is the innovation and application of words, and those words can create the simplest particle to the infinite mass of a universe. Ideas are one of the reasons people consider humans complex. We think of things, consciously, a great deal more – insofar as can be observed – than any other being on the planet. Both the narrative and the technology human beings develop spring from creative ideas, and that is where this routine truly beings.

I say science fiction is one of our great contributors because it always has. There is just no real dispute. It’s all very simple, you see. One day, someone thinks up an idea for an invention, or a state of being, or some sort of incredible event…but it can’t happen. It’s complete nonsense! It is to be considered fiction, because it either hasn’t occurred, or it can’t. Classic tales of scientific romance were the forerunners to this. H.G. Wells, one of the first men to write of such things as time travel, alien invasion, space travel – many great things that were just out of everyone’s league at the time. This would never happen, and yet…we’re on the moon. Well, that probably wasn’t due to him. The idea of scientific romance was to explore the idea, not to explain how it might work. Still, it was a stepping stone, an all important factor in the development of this narrative. You literally wouldn’t have science fiction without the predecessors. Because while a book such as War of the Worlds was a commentary on war and psychology underneath the pages, it nevertheless had the effect of causing people to wonder.

As stated, an idea is a very powerful thing. A writer puts the idea to paper and sees where it will go. In science fiction, the premise of it can always be put to the simple question of “What if…?”. What if the future ended up like this, because we did that. Science fiction is, as implied, loosely implying that these are things that might happen, however unlikely, even though science can’t seem to bear it out. So, the authors create these tales based on a “What if…?” just to give the readers an iota into the concept of what might occur if the world suddenly turned out like Blade Runner, for instance. A dystopian future where a devastating nuclear holocaust has deadened the world and forced the surviving population to rely on technology in totality for survival? Back when Philip K. Dick wrote it, it was not impossible. In fact, the idea that it could – no matter how unlikely – was probably the motivation. Think about it. Putting aside that there are many nations out there with nuclear armaments, there are enough of those missles out there in the stronger countries alone to reduce us to a rundown and mostly wasted future. Everything from the laser tubes to the androids are possible, right now. You can have a World War Terminus, and then science will have to be applied towards methods of survival, which would include trying to make a living off-planet. That would create the need for androids as laborers and such, using the technology for cloning as a basis, and that would essentially make us Blade Runner.

Now, the “Why?” for that. Why is it, regardless of underlying intentions, to write a novel quite like that? It’s because, in many cases, books of science fiction are trying to warn us off the theoretical dangers of whatever it is they’re concocting. Dick uses a very real threat – nuclear devastation – to bring us into his world. If nothing else, tales of a dystopian, violent future is easily the way to warn us away from going down that path, to learn from a mistake before it happens. You take Isaac Asimov for a minute. Not only is he the author of a series of novels based upon the idea of robots with human-level intellect, but he has written a large number of short stories about life in the future. For whatever reason, the effect they have on the surface is that a world that ends up this way may not be best for human society as a whole. On the other hand, the idea of the robot has had such an appeal that it is a series of books with many authors borrowing from the idea and his universe in specific. And the reason? Because writers create worlds with narrative, and narrative has an effect on people.

Now, the reason for why I say there is a substantial influence on the world in reality by way of science fiction is very simple. All that has been stated thus far leads to this: You take an idea, such as robots, and you just wonder about it for a while. Everyone does this, but for the right people in the right profession, it can be applied. Because once, the phenomenon was out of our reach, science fiction being an impossibility. Invention and innovation has made the impossible possible in the past. It always has. But in more recent times, the idea is not from many long years of studying and developing a theory. It’s from cracking open a book of Asimov or Bradbury, and then discovering how it can be done. With science fiction acting as both a hub for theory and entertainment, people are infatuated with lasers, teleportation, space travel, genetic cloning, and so on. The idea of the clone certainly came from science fiction before such things as stem cell research and the like. Philip K. Dick’s androids in Blade Runner are still biological no matter how you slice it. So, the book becomes the template, the real theory, for the scientist to work off of.

What you have here, then, is what’s known as a Stand Alone Complex. An idea and innovation has developed into a real and usable thing in the world we live in, but there was never an original in the first place. A work of fiction is still fiction. There is no long history of the study of the robot with the positronic brain and the Three Laws system Isaac Asimov created, but you can be sure that if someone creates a truly thinking machine, Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics will be inserted for the safety and benefit of those in charge of the thing. So, Asimov would therefore be credited for the invention and theoretical application of something that doesn’t exist, and we are hard at work already to create an AI to match specifications.

Of course, television is another major influence from the sci-fi end. Again, that is still a narrative, but it’s in the form of a script for actors. Nevertheless, you have worlds to create and a society to insert into them. Let’s take another example, a much simpler one, in fact. Star Trek, for instance. Do you have a cellphone? If so, take it out and flip it open. Though there are phones that slide open or are one solid piece, cellphones designed to fold and flip open like that – for their compactibility and such – were influenced directly by that show. Even funnier, they’re already far more advanced as is. At the rate things are going, communication badges aren’t too far off. But television has an even more powerful effect on people than just reading the book, since you no longer have to imagine as much how it looks, what it does, and other characteristics. It is so much easier for things in science fiction to be created nowadays because not only do the ideas have a theory, but the act and the expected effect can now be witnessed, enabling the scientist in question to simply figure out how to do that, rather than drawing his/her own conclusions from tests.

But it actually goes further than that. Because…this society is one that can believe in the map before the territory. There is a tale that, in summary, involves a kingdom whose ruler decreed that a map cover its entire length, a beautifully-rendered copy of the landscape and territory. Thus, it was done, and people lived on the map. But then, it is discovered that the land was rotted underneath the map, because the people had begun to like the map more. And so, the map creates the territory. The idea of narrative creating technology here is no different. It no longer becomes necessary to research things anymore. We feel comfortable, largely, with creating our fantasies, making them the real land that the map has become. Media has become a powerful thing. Like with the mockumentary, This is Spinal Tap, you can create a total fake, a complete work of fiction, and then later, it becomes a reality. Spinal Tap was never a real rock band, so someone decided to make it so. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Finally then, I get to the exact purpose in mind. We can always say that writers have something to convey in their words on many levels, even if they did not intend it so, but there is something more deliberate, more focused about science fiction narrative than others. You deliberately write about something that science literally balks at, and why? H.G. Wells wrote The Time Machine, and now there’s a long list of theories as to how it might function, for no other useful purpose than theory. Well, here’s a thought… Try to imagine what the world might be without these kinds of narratives. Consider…science within the theory of the possible with only a regular-level of development in theory, invention, etc. Technology still moves on, but at what pace? There’s no spark for the unknown, to strive for the unreachable, save for what you can see, smell, taste, touch, and feel. The theory of the sixth sense is even abandoned as paranormal nonsense, and not that it could account for a physical sense the brain subtly translates into creepy feelings. There will be cars, planes, and definitely still landing on the moon, though there will be no more thought of alien beyond the quaint theory that Mars could have once supported life. In a number of ways, it might just be a world like the one we live in, but with a number of changes that might make it a dystopian sci-fi itself.

Without science fiction, all the wonderment is reduced to unproven and untestable theories. It was always speculated that black holes lead somewhere…maybe to a world of anti-matter, that their crushing force creates a singularity, and how they actually operate. That’s not so much as science fiction as Stephen Hawking. But that part of science would never be applied to, say, generating anti-protons in a lab or building a hadron collider to try and study quarks. Because while you could say that you did these things for the furtherment scientific knowledge, the methods required a few leaps in logic on how to proceed that might’ve taken many years more or never occurred at all without a few well-placed sentences. Your cellphone might not exist as it does now without a little nudge from the original idea of an advanced pocket communicator, with a far better signal than a radio transmitter. It’s a bit hard to predict exactly what the future – or our present – might look like without science fiction giving it a nudge here and there. In a way, it could be seen as the reverse of science fiction, since we’re creating the fiction. It would be a world of cold hard facts, where radical theories are regularly thrown aside like Galileo proclaiming that Earth wasn’t the center of the universe. Heresy and nonsense! Perhaps it would be a Puritan world, brought forth by an accident at Time Safari Inc. It would be, in a word: BORING!

Ah, but why? Why all this? Writers create these tales for a reason. Many reasons, no doubt, both above and below the surface. You write a book to make money, but also to make a statement of some kind. You write an essay to obtain a grade, but also to prove a point. There is an underlying purpose, or else the work just wouldn’t unfold that way. And why not come out and say it? Because people don’t like to be told. In some cases, they can’t be told, because getting cooperation that way is like pulling teeth. So, you bait them along and wait for them to bite. And once that’s done, you reel them in carefully, almost so slowly that they don’t even know it’s happening. Finally, you have them, and the notion is planted. They have to think about it if their brain actually works. There is a point. There always is. George Orwell wrote 1984, about a future that was advanced and mighty, but also lifeless, in a way. A world where everyone is a number and has little more existence than to act as a cog in a wheel. There was a film production of it, but I find that THX-1138 also gets the idea across. Why tell us about a future world like that, where humanity is practically destroyed? Easy. They don’t want it to happen. Isaac Asimov wrote about many theoretical futures in which the human race is dependent on one machine or another for all the answers, so much so that they would be crippled without it. You write about such things, make a plot out of it, because you don’t want society to devolve into a world like that.

It is a far better thing that people keep their innovation, their ideas and wild imaginations. It’s part of what makes us the way we are. But if we destroy the world, or create dominating super computer, or become slaves to our technology to the point where there’s no more ‘us’ but rather the ‘its’ and their organic extensions…it’s all over. We who write walk a fine line. People are gonna read this stuff, consider its content, and give their opinion. You have to give them ideas so they won’t make disastrous ones. Science fiction writers show an endless array of how the future might be, or how a new instrument might effect the world. They do this as a warning. You can write as many books as you like, but there’s only one real world to work it out on.


tuffy777 said...

Technology is humanity's best friend and worst enemy. It all depends upon what we do with our new toys.

~~ Tessa Dick

Adam Johns said...

The problems of the draft persist in the final version. While the focus has improved (by the end, anyway), there's still *nothing* resembling evidence here. What you have instead is a long list of linked and interdependent propositions. Take a look at this excerpt:

"I say science fiction is one of our great contributors because it always has. There is just no real dispute. It’s all very simple, you see. One day, someone thinks up an idea for an invention, or a state of being, or some sort of incredible event…but it can’t happen. It’s complete nonsense! It is to be considered fiction, because it either hasn’t occurred, or it can’t. Classic tales of scientific romance were the forerunners to this. H.G. Wells, one of the first men to write of such things as time travel, alien invasion, space travel – many great things that were just out of everyone’s league at the time. This would never happen, and yet…we’re on the moon. Well, that probably wasn’t due to him."

First, you say that science fiction has made some kind of massive contributions to technology. Then you assert that there is no dispute - which is a poor substitute for demonstrating your proposition. If it's so obvious, why can't you come up with, say, 2 compelling and documented examples? Then, weirdly, by the end of this excerpt you reverse yourself - Wells actually *didn't* cause innovation. Huh? You claim that science fiction does and does not cause innovation - reversing yourself without ever providing evidence for either side of the argument.

You say interesting things and touch on interesting subjects at various points. Some of your secondary ideas are, unfortunately, also propositions advanced as fact without evidence. For instance, is it really so obvious that the three laws would be built into any real robots? I'd argue that we'll see real robots -- if at all -- in the military: *those* sure won't be built with the three laws.

By the end you've shifted your focus: now you're interested in the ethical responsibilities that writers, as generators of technology, have. I like this focus better, but you still *desperately* needed a test case or two -- an example of some writer or writers who have actually generated a technology or technologies. There's nothing in here to convince a skeptical reader, despite some good writing and interesting ideas along the way - it isn't, in other words, a *functioning* essay.

Jake The Snake said...

Well Professor, I disagree with your line of thinking, and firmly believe that I wouldn't even need to go to these lengths just to prove the points I try to make. If I simply ask people, off the top of their heads, if they think narrative has done what it's done and that it would never be the same without it, most of them would say yes. You did not agree and that is your opinion. You are entitled to it.