I just finished reading William Gibson’s essay collection Distrust That Particular Flavor. And towards the end, I ran across a passage that made me realize something: many science fiction writers actually care about technology. The passage was:
Isaac Asimov wrote a whole shelf of novels working out a set of hardwired ethics for intelligent robots, but I never got into them. The tin guys didn’t, by the Sixties, seem to me to be what was interesting in science fiction, and neither did spaceships. It was what made Asimov’s robots intelligent in the first place that would have interested me, had I thought of it, but I didn’t.
Now, I loved Asimov’s Robot stories. And I read them in the mid-to-late 1990s, long after the whole idea of the intelligent robot had been reduced to hokum and after the Information Age had started to demolish all of Golden Age sci-fi’s visions of the future. But that didn’t matter. Although twelve-year-old me probably didn’t think of it this way, the robots functioned for him as a symbol. Not a metaphor, precisely, since there was no explicit comparison between them and something else. Rather, the robots were a symbological consturct that allowed disparate themes like adolescent alienation and underclass resentment and the dialectical struggle and all kinds of other things to be fused together in a variety of interesting ways.
Now I am not going to say that with his fiction William Gibson tries to predict the future. He repeatedly makes the point in his essays that this is what’s trying _not_ to do. At the same time, Gibson clearly thinks that technology is important and I think what he’s trying to do is map out some of the ways in which changing technology affects human nature and society. And that’s awesome. When William Gibson writes, in an offhand way, something like, “all cultural change is essentially technologically driven,” it makes me really happy, because I also believe something like that. But at the same time, I don’t think that I have quite the same interest in technology as Gibson does. Because when he talks about the impact of the Internet and of computers, he writes things like this:
The human species was already in the process of growing itself an extended communal nervous system, and was doing things with it that had previously been impossible: viewing things at a distance, viewing things that had happened in the past, watching dead men talk and hearing their words. What had been absolute limits of the experiential world had in a very real and literal way been profoundly and amazingly altered, extended, changed. And would continue to be. And the real marvel of this was how utterly we took it all for granted.
And that paragraph leaves me very cold. Because it seems to imply that technology has changed something about the experience of living–about what it feels like to be ourselves. And…I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think that the feeling of listening to the top artists in the world produce flawless performances over and over again at our command actually provides any more pleasure than it did, two centuries ago, to gather around your daughter’s piano and hear her croak out a tune. Our peaks and our valleys are fixed. Our emotions remain the same. The only thing that changes are the routes to get there.
In his essays, Gibson seems to write quite a bit about the aesthetic of technology. The way that it transforms people and makes them alien and enables all kinds of strange new behaviors. In particular, he seems to return, again and again, to a kind of isolated obsessiveness–whether it’s Japanese teens locking themselves in their rooms for years; or auteurs making one-person films in which they use digital technology to control every aspect of the movie; or spending hours browsing eBay to swap and trade digital watches–that perhaps feels, to him, like a hallmark of technological culture.
But I’m not really interested in any of that. To me, technology is interesting primarily for the way in which it changes our relationships with each other and our methods of social organization. The classic example (whose truthfulness will probably be forever unknown, of course) is that the car allowed teenagers to get away from their parents and provided them with a second space for private activity and that the combination of these effects resulted in our modern hookup culture. That, to me, is fascinating. It’s people relating to each other in a totally different way than they had previously.
On the other hand, where do I really differ from Gibson in this? It’s still, in some ways, a primarily aesthetic difference. The thrill that teens in the fifties got from making out was probably the same as the thrill that teens in the oughts got from dancing together or that teens in the 18th century got from being sewn up in the bundling bed.
It’s really tempting for someone like me to become very reductionist and conclude that nothing ever really changes. It’s kind of startling to think that the humans who were alive 40,000 years ago were anatomically modern people. If you were to go back in time and bring back one of their babies, he or she could easily grow up to become a computer programmer or a deconstructionist English professor. And if one of them was to reach forward and snatch your kid, then the modern babe would…well…he’d probably annihilate them with all kinds of futuristic diseases. But if that didn’t happen, then he’d fit right in as he ran across the savannah and flung his spear at the antelope.
Maybe it all does come down to window-dressing. But the window-dressing that I find aesthetically appealing is very different from the window-dressing that Gibson finds appealing.