At 6 a.m., my brain suddenly decided it wanted to write. More to the point, it wanted to discuss the future: which directions might we go, and where we were likely headed. I waited until I’d showered and had breakfast to do something about it because I don’t like writing on an empty stomach. That said, where are we going? Below are some of my thoughts.
Specifically, my busy mind was looking at some dichotomies:
- More freedom or more control?
- More efficiency or more redundancy?
- More complexity or more simplicity?
- More inclusiveness or exclusivity?
- More community or more isolation?
- More choices or fewer choices?
Some of these bullets are technological questions, some are social questions that could be embodied by our technologies. The originators of the internet wanted information to be free. However, ironically, the internet didn’t grow and improve technologically until government and businesses moved in to populate the virtual spaces. Government uses our patterns of electronic behavior to determine our potential risk to lives and property. Businesses use our online behavior to sell us products and services and sell our buying patterns to other businesses so they, too, can sell us products and services.
As my tech-minded friends like to remind me when I complain about mostly free online environments like Twitter and Facebook, “If you’re not paying for the service, you’re not the customer, you’re the product.”
Users are aware of these dynamics, more or less. Some enjoy the convenience of having helpful, fun, or interesting products and services marketed to us (the Hawaiian shirt makers have started swarming my Facebook profile lately). Some migrate to other digital environments, either out of concerns about how their information is being used or because they feel their personal or political views are being censored by large social media platforms.
I can’t say that we’re moving in a purely utopian or dystopian direction. Our computers are watching us, but it’s mostly corporations tracking and shaping our spending habits rather than the government minding our propensity for thought crimes. On the other hand, if people participate in blatantly antisocial or violent actions, they’re likely to announce their intentions beforehand or brag about their “success” on YouTube afterward, giving the government plenty of evidence for making an arrest. Whose “fault” is that?
The sheer number of options for communicating or receiving information has enabled us to customize the electronic “world” we see. And the more we focus our attention in specific directions or toward specific ideas/topics, the more we find our perceptions filtered through our self-grown information ecologies. More choices, but less shared experience. More inputs, but less community.
We’re still moving in the direction of communities off Earth, flying or autonomous cars, and “smart”homes, but we’ve also got people becoming polarized by different views of the world and even different facts. What’s a valid source? Which facts are worth paying attention to, and in what order? These are the questions we are all forced to confront, though it might be harder for younger generations, which never grew up with a more limited print and television environment. How do they view the present? How will they view the future?
Is there a point to any of this rambling? I don’t know. I’ve been struggling (again? still?) with writing science fiction, and I was hoping these thoughts would lead to a story idea or a way of looking at the future, but all it’s done is add to my struggle and confusion. I am not particularly imaginative when it comes toward envisioning the future. I’m much too conservative (in the limited intellectual sense, not necessarily the political sense). Still, I try to understand the present by writing in a science fictional mode because people and their concerns in the present vex and often bore me. SF is about the future of our relationship with the universe and the technologies we use to cope with it. Mainstream/contemporary fiction is about people as they are and their current, personal concerns. I’m not interested in other people’s personal problems. That’s like traveling in gossip. Writing SF is about individual destinies, aspirations, and accomplishments. Technologies might or might not figure prominently in mainstream fiction–though it’s harder to ignore them, even for people focused on personalities.
Maybe I’m thinking about the future of technology as a proxy for trying to figure out my own, personal future, in literature and elsewhere. Where am I going? Where are any of us going?
To be determined. To be continued.