Back to the British Library this evening for another interesting panel discussion as part of their Science Fiction series, this one on “Who owns the story of the future?” Given the extent to which we’ve seen the media get compromised by corporate ownership over the past two decades, at least in the US, this turns out to be a really good question—where do the narratives come from that we tell ourselves to make sense of the world as it is today, let alone of the future. And one that people seem to be interested in, given that it was literally a full house. Part of that may have been the fact that two of the speakers were William Gibson and Cory Doctorow, who have clearly thought about these issues in some detail. Plus, they’re old hands at this sort of thing. The other panel members all looked just as interesting, all being writers on what the future may or may not hold.
First, Jon Turney, the moderator, has edited The Rough Guide to the Future. Mark Stevenson has written An Optimist’s Tour of the Future. And economist Diane Coyle has just published something that is sure to go on my reading list—The Economics of Enough (reviewed here by Fred Pierce). I haven’t read any of these, I have to say, so this was a bit of an adventure—going to talks with people you’ve never heard of can be a dicey proposition. On the face of it, Coyle appears to be genuinely frightened of what the future might hold, whereas Stevenson, I imagined, might be pretty chipper about things, a representative of the Matt Ridley view of the world.
So we started out the evening with a number of possible narratives—since that’s what we’re dealing with here, the control of the narratives that will emerge as the future unfolds. My view is we’re already overwhelmed with narratives right now, which is one of the reason there is so much bad information out there. It’s easy to blame the internet, but it’s also the case that Peter Medawar’s caution years ago of the dangers of educating people beyond their abilities for rational thought (somehow the US Congress springs perhaps too easily to mind here) needs to be kept in mind as well.
But there was very little of that sort of discussion early on. In fact, the entire first half of the evening was spent talking a lot abut “progress.” Not that it wasn’t interesting, but it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. Matters were not helped by there being five people up there on the stage, one of them (Turney) trying to make sure that everyone had a chance to say something edifying. Four panelists is just one too many. Nor by the fact that Gibson, who was clearly jet-lagged (and admitted it apologetically early on), which meant he was even spacier than usual—which is already pretty spacey. This didn’t prevent him from making some substantial offerings, but still, he didn’t seem to be on top form. Then there was Stevenson, who is indeed of the Matt Ridley school of things have never been better, and we should stop being cynical, because we can fix whatever it is, or something. And who likes to talk.
It started out well, with Turney getting everyone to talk about writing about the future. Coyle had an interesting point about economics being more speculative than science fiction. Doctorow set one of the themes for the evening by taking about his next novel, which will be sort of an anti-Cormac, where people in a disaster scenario actually help each other out. He hates that meme where disaster brings out the worst in everyone, On that, Doctorow and Stevenson had one of their few agreements of the evening. Coyle also made an interesting point about Steampunk—it represents a nostalgia for the Victorian era as a time of optimism about the ability of technology to handle the future. Gibson, as is his wont these days, pointed out that Science Fiction writers actually haven’t been very good at predicting the future.
The rambling “progress” discussion was probably well-intentioned when Turney began it, but it went nowhere, sadly—or rather, too many places, some of which were interesting, but many were not. Coyle noted that an interesting aspect of the present is the amount of pessimism around, even though in many respects a number of things have never been better. Her example, which it’s hard to argue with, is that ten years ago no one in Kenya had a mobile phone, and now nearly everyone has one, and it’s difficult to actually predict what the implications of that might be. Fair enough, and Stevenson chirped right in, with further comments on the dangers of cynicism. Doctorow was having none of it. Doctorow, getting back to the Victorians, commented about the difference being that Victorians being able to deal with materials where the could bury their mistakes—we can’t do that now. This morphed into a barely semi-interesting discussion about whether we’re drowning in information or not, with the term “immortal ephemera” sounding good and surfacing a number of times. But “progress” kept coming up. Doctorow’s point was that it’s a loaded term, with a fair amount of baggage—the fact that people live longer in many countries may or may not be progress. The term that seemed better to Doctorow was “accumulation.” Stuff improves, yes, but as Doctorow pointed out, progress hits local maxima pretty quickly—we were able to improve the amount of calories per acre of soil, for example, but then hit a wall that we haven’t been able to move past for several decades. “Progress” is a very important SF meme, but what SF is particularly good at is exposing some of the delusions behind the myth of progress.
Coyle commented that in terms of the future, markets are the best—in fact, the only—mechanism we have for betting on the future, and it’s pretty short term betting, 25 years max. Gibson’s last several books have been about the present, in part because he said he’s finding the future, well, too hard to predict. The present has such complexity that it doesn’t lend itself to the kind of long term betting on the future that was common in, say, the 1950s and 1960s, the earlier ‘golden age” of SF writing. Heinlein’s History of the Future couldn’t be done today—nor, as Doctorow pointed out, could Asimov’s Foundation series. All these writers from that period—whom Gibson and Doctorow referred to as “the uncles”—had a sense that history was orderly, or at least that future history would be. No one has that sense now—technology moves too fast, and is too unpredictable. Developers of technology never really know what the impact of any particular technology is going to be when it’s introduced—it takes time. The automobile, as someone in the audience pointed out, transformed the lives of millions and the landscapes of the planet—and also has the potential to lead to mass species extinction, as Gibson pointed out, and has created the database nation, as Doctorow commented. Gibson had the best one-liner of the evening—“Who knew?” should be the motto of the human species.
All well and good, and much of it interesting, but a bit off topic—not much so far about owning the story of the future. So when Question Time came around, I asked about the competing narratives that we’re all dealing with now, and this actually worked—they started talking about this, which was good. Doctorow thought there were two at the moment—the “authenticity” narrative, in which we’re all gong to bond through the internet to make the world a better place as we all empower ourselves, and the “Astroturf” narrative, where we actually just withdraw into out own personal Las Vegas or something. I couldn’t tell you why he called them that. But there was some good discussion around this whole meme of narratives—this is when Gibson noted that there is no future with a Capital F any more. This then led to some further questions and comments form the audience that there didn’t seem to be any big themes any more. There was some discussion around this point, and Doctorow and Gibson seemed to suggest that this wasn’t really true—it’s just that, again, stuff just moves too fast for the bid idea concept to remain stable.
So a fair amount of good discussion after all, even though much of it was all over the place. Well, that’s what’s good about these things—sometimes they just open up into something completely unexpected, and you end up in a completely different place from where you started, and you’re not sure how you got there, but it sure was interesting. It wasn’t quite that this evening, however, but might have been with one fewer person on the stage. When you keep trying to make sure that everyone gets and equal chance, that tends to limit the flow of conversations. And these are people whose conversations I want to hear—that’s why I came in the first place. So one fewer would have helped, I think, and that could easily have been Stevenson, who likes to hear himself talk, with no loss in the quality of discourse. I actually would have liked to have heard more from Turney, who seems like a bright guy with interesting things to say, but clearly felt bound by the moderator’s role of not actively participating. Still, time well spent.