29 May, 2015

Post-modernity Does Not Dream of Electric Sheep

Just watched Blade Runner, the classic Science Fiction movie based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Phillip K. Dick.

And it struck me just how different our vision of the future was back in the Golden Age of SF.

In Blade Runner, hover cars soared above the traffic where the plebs milled about in their cool-looking, angular gas-guzzlers. A great zeppelin roamed the skies, shouting obnoxious advertisements from high above. And of course, genetics became capable of synthesizing humans.

The modern world is nothing like that. This era looks much the same as the 70s, except cars are more round at the edges, people dress differently, and corporations don't need a zeppelin or advertisements on the sides of sky-scrapers to infect our minds with consumerism. Instead, information technology means they just illegally download cookies onto our computers, manipulate our search habits, and convince children to spend half their lives on social media getting manipulated into a consumer-friendly cultural obsession. Even music today basically sounds like it did in the 80s. I hold out some hope that it'll turn on its head again, much like it did in the 90s.

Society lacked both the resources and the gusto necessary to affect real change. In the end, those with money did not want change unless it was in the direction of furthering consumerism. We do not live in the hyper-industrialisation that many writers imagined. The world simply couldn't sustain it, and regardless, no one has the power to build it. Money would never be interested enough in building it. We certainly do not live in the utopia some writers imagined, in which we could clone food for everyone and eliminate starvation. Instead, obesity and starvation are each epidemic, and rather than getting better, each problem continues to compound. We do not have a technologically fascinating infinite fuel source. Instead, people would rather destroy planet Earth in order to frack for oil, rather than use the infinite fuel resources that have indeed been at our disposal for over a decade. Which leads me to the main functional problem the SF writers of the day did not foresee: the world lacks the natural resources necessary to fly hover cars for more than a weekend.

But for all its technical oversights, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a brilliant story. I love the Sci-fi of that era.

In the old days, while it's true that, just before and just after the counter-culture movement, society was rife with modernist, and thus technological fetishism, the stories of those authors did not bear that mark. I must admit that every era of literature has had its share of trash, but the great writers of those days neither fetishised nor demonised technology. They wrote deep, human stories about the consequences of technology, about how society would change and what new moral dilemmas we would face.

But where does such extrapolation lead us now? Phillip K. Dick, and many others, asked where unfettered technological development would lead humanity, and what struggles, on every level, we might face.

I look forward to seeing SF evolve, because we all know where unfettered development leads us now. (At least, those too stupid to have figured it out shouldn't be able to read.) SF must find new philosophical questions to remain relevant. In my opinion, it must soften and look inwards to the Self, but that's just me. One thing most readers and writers can agree upon is that it can never be exactly as it was. In essence, the literature of change must itself change, because society has not changed in the spirit SF had foreseen. The dilemmas we face now, unless one simply writes of apocalypse, are human, social, and personal. As for social development, the question now is whether empathy will trump apathy before it's too late.