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Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Dilithium Ball: Can sci-fi still see the future?

Dave Itzkoff asks in the NY Times today whether today's science fiction writers can match the prescience of Arthur C. Clarke, who foresaw space stations, geosynchronous satellite orbit, and many other technologies that have come to be:
Mr. Clarke’s passing poses a challenge to the current generation of science-fiction writers: in a world where technology evolves so rapidly that the present already feels like the future, will a modern-day author ever inherit Mr. Clarke’s aura of prescience? Do any of his successors share his apparent talent for envisioning technological breakthroughs before they are realized?
The article mentions a few writers whose writing envisions where our current pace of innovation will take us in another generation or so, and attests to the viability of some of their predictions--it even mentions a group called Sigma, a "group of science-fiction writers who advise the Department of Homeland Security" (!).

Itzkoff should look at the sci-fi novels and stories of Cory Doctorow, who is more widely read in his posts on super-blog .

Doctorow's first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (free online in its entirety, like all of his writing that I mention here), takes place in a Disney World, several generations removed from ours, that has been taken over by volunteer hackers and ride designers. In place of the old monolithic structure of corporate management, there is a lean and mean marketplace of ideas, where an army of fans and bloggers instantly digest and react to every small change in a ride's design. This economy is possible because money has become so much more efficient at changing hands; if veteran fans disapprove of a change, they withhold the trickle of money that reflects their esteem and direct instead to a different ad-hoc team managing a different, more innovative ride. Teams that can't attract esteem for their design innovations dissolve as members head elsewhere to start over, and the team is soon replaced by a new ad-hoc team, made up by whoever acknowledges the opportunity in the vacuum.

Since the publication of Down and Out, fans and entrepreneurs have made several attempts to introduce a similar system of constant, instant, seamless payment, often named directly after Doctorow's system (the geekily silly "Whuffie"). His broader economic prediction of rapidly-shifting ad-hoc teams seems unlikely to come true, exactly, but elements of it are very much a part of the way business schools see current trends in the understanding of organizational health.

Enron, ironically, was described as having a similar internal system in Malcolm Gladwell's much-referenced article "The Talent Myth":
"Fluid movement is absolutely necessary in our company. And the type of people we hire enforces that," Skilling told the team from McKinsey. "Not only does this system help the excitement level for each manager, it shapes Enron's business in the direction that its managers find most exciting." Here is Skilling again: "If lots of [employees] are flocking to a new business unit, that's a good sign that the opportunity is a good one. . . . If a business unit can't attract people very easily, that's a good sign that it's a business Enron shouldn't be in."
We all know how that ended up. But beyond Enron, this sort of self-organizing, pseudo-anarchist, collective-spontaneous-decision-making model is being tried here and there.

Doctorow's short story I, Robot (purposely given the same title as an Isaac Asimov/Harlan Ellison screenplay in response to Ray Bradbury's silly legal threats against Fahrenheit 911 for its satire of his title Fahrenheit 451) also deals with near-future economic issues. It forsees an America where Digital Rights Management--the clunky technology that attempts to prevent you from, say, watching DVDs from Japan on your US DVD player--has been taken to its logical extreme by media corporations and the loyal legislators they own. While enormous economic resources in the US go towards preventing users from doing anything unexpected with their machines (and arresting them, when they inevitably break the restrictive controls), East Asia instead embraces open knowledge and innovation and races past us. This is future present.

His story "Anda's Game", whose title is also an homage to a sci-fi classic (Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game), follows a teenage girl who escapes from her adolescent frustrations by becoming a powerful leader in an online game reminiscent of World of Warcraft. But as she gains power in the virtual world, she learns that blowing off steam in the virtual world can have real-world consequences, in a twist that hints at the massive task ahead for legal systems of determining when real-world laws apply to virtual-world behavior.

And his unfinished novel Themepunks is all about a startup company run by a couple of hackers and financed by an Enronesque Kodak, which acknowledges its technology is obsolete and decides to cast its lot with hundreds of tiny new ventures. The hackers move into a high-tech junkyard and begin churning out dozens of products, some disruptive, some practical and others humanitarian; unexpected consequences abound.

Doctorow's prognostication is different from Clarke's, and from the traditional sci-fi of interstellar travel and alien attacks; his focus is on the implications for society of technology that might be around the corner. Down and Out describes a complex system of cloning and mindstate downloading, and many of his other stories deal in particular with the physical, and medical, implications of the increasing mastery we have over the flesh.

He's not the first to speculate along these lines. Spider Robinson's 1982 sci-fi novel Mindkiller described "wireheading", the use of plugs into the brain to stimulate the pleasure center more directly than any drug can. A central character in the novel is a young woman who has attempted suicide by permanent wireheading, the constant use of which overrides desires for food and drink. When the main character discovers her and turns off her machine, she is anything but grateful.

Mindkiller thus brings up the classic philosophical conundrum posed by Aldus Huxley and others: if all our work is in pursuit of happiness, would it be wrong to short-circuit the process and skip directly to happiness? With drugs, the familiar answer is that the effect wears off and users are left little better than before, though long-lasting therapeutic effects of MDMA/ecstasy have been reported by some psychiatrists. Robinson's wireheading trumps this drawback of drugs because, with enough wealth to pay for a lifetime of nutrient IV liquid and a secluded place to wire up, someone could exist in perfect pleasure for a lifetime.

Can you guess where I'm going with this? In Wired last year, Mary Graham reported on a treatment for depression that sounds straight out of Mindkiller:

In vagus nerve stimulation, or VNS, a two-inch diameter, .25 inch thick disk is surgically tucked under the skin near the left collarbone, then wired upward to the vagus nerve in the neck. The battery-operated disk delivers intermittent, rhythmic pulses to the nerve -- whose name means "wandering" in Latin -- that reaches a half dozen areas of the brain critical to treating depression, according to Dr. Darin Dougherty of Massachusetts General Hospital.

"Instead of prescribing milligrams I'm prescribing milliamps," Dougherty says. The implanted disc is programmed and reprogrammed with a wand held over the skin.
The technique won FDA approval as a depression treatment in July 2005. Since then, about 3,000 depression patients have been wired, according to Cyberonics, the Houston-based manufacturer of the device.
Researchers know the treatment stimulates norepinephrine and serotonin centers, now treated with pharma at a tepid success rate, and increases blood flow and neuron activity. But they candidly say they don't fully understand why VNS works.

Once healed from surgery, patients report their voices get gravelly during the pulse cycle, usually five of every 30 seconds. If that becomes a problem -- during public speaking, for example -- the device is designed with an off-switch: The patient can suspend the unit by placing a magnet over it, Dougherty says.

Thank god for the vagus nerve, which, crucially, transmits info separately from the spinal cord. The vagus nerve is what lets paralyzed people still feel sexual pleasure, and what transmits the signal to, say, get an erection. Thousands of paralyzed people in the world can still have orgasms they describe as "fucking awesome" and "orgasmic", even though they can't feel the physical stimulation causing it!

Our biology is as surprising as any technology, and as malleable, and Doctorow is on this beat as well. In his story "0wnz0red"--that's leetspeak for "owned", meaning controlled or bested--programmers hack their own brains to control their body and mental processes. From "0wnz0red":
Murray heard the zero and the zee in 0wnz. Hacker-speak for having total control. No one wants to be 0wnz0red by some teenaged script-kiddie who's found some fresh exploit and turned it loose on your computer.
Ever think about how all the really good shit in your body -- metabolism, immunoresponse, cognition -- it's all in Ring Minus One? Not user-accessible? I mean, why is it that something like wiggling your toes is under your volitional control, but your memory isn't?"
Exercise doesn't burn fat, exercise just satisfies the condition in which your body is prepared to burn fat off. It's like a computer that won't boot unless you restart it twice, switch off the monitor, open the CD drive and stand on one foot. If you're a luser, you do all this shit every time you want to boot your box, but if you're a leet hax0r like you and me, you just figure out what's wrong with the computer and fix it. You don't sacrifice a chicken twice a day, you 0wn the box, so you make it dance to your tune.

"But your meat, it's not under your control. You know you have to exercise for 20 minutes before you start burning any fat at all? In other words, the first twenty minutes are just a goddamned waste of time.
All the good stuff -- say, pain-control and universal antiviral hardening -- we'll make for free, viralize it. Once our stuff is in the market, the whole world's going to change, anyway. There'll be apps for happiness, cures for every disease, hibernation, limb-regeneration, whatever. Anything any human body has ever done, ever, you'll be able to do at-will. You think there's going to be anything recognizable as an economy once we're ubiquitous?"
Naturally, this work interests the organization most concerned with the limits of human ability: the Pentagon. Which makes me wonder: will vagus nerve stimulation ever be installed in soldiers? A soldier will be more valuable to military planners if he can overcome conflicting emotions and fear at the touch of a button, and pump up testosterone, adrenaline and seratonin.

As past predictions for the future get folded into the everyday, we've been discovering that dystopian scenarios of forced obedience are being replaced by voluntary compliance. The two-minutes' hate isn't government-enforced; it's a voluntary ritual at extremist, gay-hating churches. The Pentagon won't have to coerce recruits into letting them implant emotion-adjusters inside their brains; soldiers will volunteer for it.

(Another interesting tidbit about Robinson's Mindkiller trilogy--by law, a successful sci-fi novel must be turned into a "trilogy" of three or more books--is the list of aliases used by a con man character in the third book, Lifehouse. Slipped into the list is "James Tiptree, Jr.", a pen name Alice has written about. Tiptree was really sci-fi writer Alice Sheldon, and the reference to her gender-crossing pseudonym is doubly interesting when you consider that Spider's wife Jeanne Robinson has collaborated with him on many of his books, sometimes with credit and sometimes without.)

In fact, volunteers are already lining up, illegally when necessary, to make adjustments to their bodies that make "Ownz0red" sound either prescient or already dated. Gretchen Reynolds wrote about these experimenters in a NY Times Magazine piece called "Outlaw DNA" last year:
It was a single line from a longer e-mail message. But when read into the record by prosecutors at the drug trial last year of the German track coach Thomas Springstein, it caused a sensation. “The new Repoxygen is hard to get,” Springstein had written. “Please give me new instructions soon so that I can order the product before Christmas.”
Repoxygen works by worming a specialized gene into its host’s DNA. In the right circumstances, the gene directs cells to start making extra erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone that drives the production of red blood cells. More red blood cells means more oxygen transported to muscles, which is why athletes have been known to inject themselves with synthetic EPO. By insinuating itself into an athlete’s genetic code, Repoxygen would theoretically produce a natural stream of the stuff.
In the United States, the first news media reports of gene doping appeared in the late 1990s, when word got out that “Schwarzenegger mice” were being produced in the lab of H. Lee Sweeney, a molecular physiologist at the University of Pennsylvania...
To this day, Sweeney receives overtures from would-be guinea pigs. “Every time there’s a story about our research or any research similar to ours, we get more calls,” he says. Patiently he’ll explain to the caller that, even when his therapy is ready for human testing — Sweeney says it will be years — there will be risks of infection, rejection, organ failure, possibly death. The callers will listen, he says, and then reply, “O.K., when can we start?”
Doctorow clearly has his finger on the pulse of tech trends that are barreling towards us. His accuracy is impressive, but his focus is often on the very near future--an easier thing to predict than the future of interstellar travel. Arthur Clarke was dealing with a different time scale; his innovations are the stuff of traditional science fiction, of ray guns and lightspeed travel and space docks.

But to his credit, Clarke didn't ignore the practical human elements of his futures. Where Gene Rodenberry's Star Trek employed transporter beams and such only so far as the plot required, in Clarke's future worlds the technology was not magic, but merely advanced. Technology in Clarke's futures had not lost its tendency to break down unexpectedly or otherwise insert itself into people's lives in inconvenient and tedious ways. For all the book's eventual metaphysics, Clarke's world of 2001: A Space Odyssey is one where first-time visitors to the moon's space station quickly realize, with the help of a broken rib or two, that while their weight is now near zero, their mass and momentum are unchanged.

Neither have the people of Clarke's future gained the utopian enlightenment and altruism so commonly seen in sci-fi visions of the future. Dave Bowman of 2001, we read, took a long-shot gamble in his science career and refused to specialize, which meant missing the good jobs but positioning himself with the shallow but wide knowledge needed for small-crew, long-range space flight--should such flights ever be resumed. A careerist who must take economics and office politics into account is very different than the philosopher-kings of "Star Trek" or Isaac Asimov's Foundation series.

But Clarke's best writing served a different essential purpose than Asimov's or Roddenberry's. Their future served as allegory, as visions not so much of what might one day happen, but rather as reflections of the human condition told using a tool--science fiction--whose power is that it allows the author to craft reality to serve the purposes of the story. This is especially clear in Roddenberry's case; he had battled with studio executives in a failed attempt to run an episode of his Army drama that addressed racial integration (his production company had to swallow the cost of producing the episode, and it was never allowed to air), and conceived Star Trek as a way to deal with issues of tolerance without scaring away suits or viewers. Attempts to explain the technology of "Star Trek" (there have been several books to that end) are a novelty, and treat themselves as such.

Asimov's writing is not so dismissive of the awkward details of technology, but it's clear that when he's identified something as irrelevant to the story, he's not afraid to breeze past it. Need a non-supernatural way for a dead leader to have seen the future? Invent an imaginary field of study that perfectly predicts the course of history. Asimov's stories are vividly imagined: a dysfunctional robot produces achingly beautiful art; rival inventors play a high-tech game of death on a pool table; a judge decides a time travel case with a headline-ready twist on an old adage. But these are set to the specifications of Asimov's wit, not set in motion on their own and allowed, to some degree, to chart their own course. Asimov's lovable and complex Bicentennial Man robot, with his hastily explained "positronic brain", is a world apart from Clarke's HAL, whose limited range of understanding and expression reflect real problems of artificial intelligence and, I think, make for a more compelling character.

I close with a mention of Philip K. Dick, whose genius was to dismiss space ships and such entirely as unimpressive, and to predict a future as unenlightened as the present. His 1968 book Ubik got the American Library treatment a few years ago and, to my surprise, is on Time Magazine's list of the 100 best English novels of the 20th century (along with Alan Moore's Watchmen and Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret). In it, the hero, Joe Chip, struggles with such future annoyances as his front door threatening to sue him when he jimmies it open, and his coffee machine demanding a toll for each morning's brew. In the end, it turns out that a commercial product has the importance of a god.

That one didn't take long, did it?

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Anonymous Anonymous on Thu Mar 27, 11:50:00 AM:
Larry Niven had "wireheads" in Ringworld (1970)--same term, same concept.