When you’re smiling, the whole universe smiles with you
Looking to ride the wave of the latest sf movement, the Beamers went happily into the near future with the members of Project Hieroglyph, based at the Center for Science and the Imagination of Arizona State University. The motivation behind the project is simply to provide the spark for “a better future” by inspiring people with a range of possible undertakings, small or large, that could improve our world, instead of giving into the pessimism attendant upon all the problems we face (climate change, species extinctions, water shortages, etc.). The book we read, Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, tried to provide us with just that kind of inspiration. Were we inspired? Well, we were inspired to talk and talk and …
We’re All Living in The Future!
Originally conceived by Neal Stephenson, the book was edited by the director of the Center, Ed Finn, and a professional sf editor, Kathryn Cramer. (Full disclosure: Kathryn is a friend of mine. Note: I will be disclosing a lot in these notes.) It delivers 17 pieces that were written (or slightly revised) for the volume itself, and each story is accompanied by notes and links to the research behind the speculation and to discussions held among the Project members about the items. There is quite a lot of material, and no one of us got through all the various references, though we were treated to some of the added commentary on a big-screen TV through the good graces of Alan, who hosted the meeting with his wife, Terri, to whom we awarded the prestigious title of Temporary Honorary Beamer for the evening.
As is usual with an anthology, we had a wide range of reactions to the items, from love to hate and back again. In a few cases, there was a consensus, such as with Annalee Newitz’s piece “Two Scenarios for the Future of Solar Energy”, which was much more of an essay than a story. Nick (via e-mail) poked this piece in precisely the way most of us did: “Like a high-school science fair project – just explain it.” And curiously, Rudy Rucker, king of gonzo sf, left us all a bit more boggled than bedazzled with his “Quantum Telepathy”, featuring quantumly genetic modified rats (“qwet rats”) and having telepathy as a side-effect that the designers recognize but do not seem too concerned over. There was a universal sense that the story was failing to inspire us with its psychedelic mind-link future. On the bright side, Alan and I liked that the quantum rat prototype was “built” on the personality of a random worker at the genetic company, as well as the rats having the ability to reproduce, strictly against their design, because once the tech genie is out of the bottle, who can say what will happen?
Blood, Sweat, Tears, and 3-D Printing?
Most of the stories that we appreciate were ones that featured a sense of hard-nosed realism, willing to admit to the possibility of failure but not to give in to it. One example was Cory Doctorow’s “The Man Who Sold the Moon” (a shout-out to Robert Heinlein, if ever there was one). Here, the object is to send a solar-powered, self-monitoring 3-D printer to the Moon, where it will produce building panels to be used by whomever gets there to assemble a shelter from them. Jon (a 3-D printing maven, via e-mail) found the story a little long and was not pleased by the lack of a resolution, with the machine on the Moon, printing away, to no immediate purpose. I liked the use of the libertarian TANSTAAFL (“There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”) tenet within the story itself, as it takes 6 attempts to get the printer onto the Moon and working. And since the idea of the Hieroglyph Project is to inspire sf-style adventures, having the printer on the Moon as a lure to launch a crew back to Luna really appeals to me. (July 20, 1969 was one of the greatest days of my life.)
And the realism could be very hard-nosed. One story that resonated with everyone who read it was Elizabeth Bear’s “Covenant”, a first-person look into the mind of a technologically “repaired” serial killer. (Full disclosure: I know Ms. Bear well enough to call her by her real first name, Sarah.) The concept of repairing a mind by surgically alteration can be both exciting and frightening. My first analogy was to A Clockwork Orange, which features aversion therapy (such as it is) to “cure” a violent gang member. The other Beamers were more optimistic that finding a “healthy” pattern of brain activity and enabling a sociopath (one lacking in basic empathy) to gain some humanizing mental activity was a very worthy undertaking. Me, I muttered about Soviet psychiatric “hospitals” to treat dissidents who were clearly “crazy” for not loving life in The Workers’ Paradise.
Terri thought that individual societies all have mores that help regulate behavior, so using a neurological approach was not too different from other social control mechanisms on behavior. At least Jon was in sympathy, finding the story “creepy”, if “really well done”. But our differing takes on the cost/benefit of neuro-correction, it did not stop us from going into a whole raft of topics related to law enforcement and judicial exercise, including privacy/surveillance, gun ownership, and regulation of commerce and industry.
“Facing” the Future
Another good debate broke out over “Degrees of Freedom” by Karl Schroeder, a story centering on a political dispute between the Canadian government and one of its First Nation dependents (who would like to be a lot less dependent), negotiated by a minister who himself is a descendant of that First Nation. What makes the story roll is the use of open-source, decision support software, termed Structured Dialogic Design, that finds connections among the various differing opinions and positions to (hopefully) optimize the points of agreement. Tied to it was another novel software use, a visual display of outcomes as projected onto the user’s facial portrait, called a “Dorian”, which seeks to leverage our human sensitivity to facial patterns so that it amplifies our response to particular outcomes and thus makes it easier for us to see and agree to a particular decision. Nick thought it was intriguing, but he wondered about how corporate marketeers could “game” the system by presenting overly “happy” faces to customers, a position with which I agreed. Liz and Alan were more amenable to trying out such a system and letting it sink or swim based on how useful (and how non-abused) it would prove to be. And Jon found this story to be his favorite in the book, particularly with the “very delicious irony” at the conclusion, where the usually powerful minister finds that the negotiations were, in essence, over before he even got to make his opening remarks.
I’d Like to Teach the World to Tweet, in Perfect Harmony
But, we lost poor Jon on the story that the rest of us picked as our favorite, “Entanglement” by Vandana Singh. Jon slammed it as “climate change propaganda”, a charge that puzzled the rest of us. Sure, it is about climate change, but the characters were all working to overcome it, and in a variety of ways, from technological to sociological to personal. What unites them all are their wrist bracelets, designed to connect people in emotional need with some random member of their “circle”, who can send a message of encouragement. The story is braided, with each individual segment covering one person’s struggles and including the random message, sometimes nothing more than someone saying “Something good will happen to you today”. And like the flap of a butterfly’s wings, a whirlwind of change may start to envelop the recipient. Kathy (via e-mail) found the story very moving, feeling it helped illuminate the sense of “Life being a web of unseen, mysterious connections”, a sentiment with which I concurred. Maybe the Big Ideas were too big for some of us (like the 20-kilometer tower, whose construction not even Terri, an architect, could persuasively explain to us), so the small ones, like the bracelet, seemed more within our grasp and within the real ambit of change, human nature, that stubborn, slowly evolving set of traits that will, in the end, determine our fate more than our technology will. The tool may fit the hand, but the hand swings the tool.