I went to the Phoenix Comicon over the weekend, and learned about the Hieroglyph Project started by Arizona State University. The professors, postgraduate students, and science fiction authors who sat on the panel brought up a few good points that I think all of us who write science fiction in any capacity should be interested in.
The point of the hieroglyph project is to get science fiction authors to imagine a future world that is good – utopian rather than dystopian. They argued that the dreams that we dreamed only a few years ago are becoming real now. Scientists can implant light-sensitive neurons and actually control how animals behave using lights – and that is not future technology, it is at this very moment.
They brought up the point that in our science of today, in one sense we have all the control over what we are doing in the laboratory. But in another sense, we have no control over it. We don’t know that the long-term outcomes are going to be of many of the experiments we do today – working with smaller and smaller molecules, working with DNA, or hacking the brain.
We need science fiction writers to write the narratives of what will happen with these innovations. Are we going to use light-sensitive brain technology to rehabilitate prisoners? Or are we going to use it to control the population so that no one resists the government?
Right now, everyone is writing dystopian fiction because it’s easy. Cynicism looks smart – and if you have a conspiratorial mindset it’s easy to think of 20 ways in which light-sensitive brains could be used in a negative way. But what we really need in society is those people who will think about these things in a positive way – thinking about how these things can benefit society. A difficult task.
A second theme of the panel was that the technological future is not ‘in the future’ so much as it is here now. For example, our planet is already terraformed. If you live in a city, use roads, or live in a house, you are living in a terraformed world. We always like to think of terraforming as happening somewhere far away, but not enough people are looking at how terraforming it is being done here; how it has affected this planet, or how it could be done better in the future.
In addition, many underclass people already live in a science fiction dystopia. They are negatively influenced by technology because they haven’t been able to keep up with the rate of change. They may never own a computer, may not understand how to use one, and may even be left out of the middle and upper class conversations of the future because they can’t understand the vocabulary. *Case in point – one of the speakers asked us to please ‘defrag the room’. Everyone in the room understood that the phrase meant to scoot toward the middle because there were too many empty chairs between people, and automatically started moving toward the center. That is a very high-level example, but how many people would not have understood that phrase? Technological terminology is going to be even more of a barrier in the future than it is now, and high society is going to seem even more unreachable to those at the bottom if they are not able to become fluent in computers or technology…what happens when books disappear?
One last point, which is fast becoming an important factor in the lives of young people today. Due to information streaming, it is totally possible for you to live in your own little bubble – choosing your own online friends, your own news, and creating your own space where you are never challenged. This is a terrible thing for us, because the real world is all about conflict – it’s all about being able to articulate your thoughts, stand up for what you believe in, and argue persuasively against those who don’t. Teenagers who aren’t challenged will grow up into adults who aren’t able to respond to challenges without resorting to insults or running away – and in my opinion a society which looks like a bad comedy news show is not a society which is going to get anything done to improve the lives of the people within it.
As science fiction writers, I think it is good for us to have these types of conversations at these types of events. Every word we write will hopefully touch hundreds if not thousands of readers, influencing their minds, and through them, the future.
If you would like to join Project Hieroglyph, it is available to the public and especially to science fiction authors: http://hieroglyph.asu.edu/