Thursday, February 23, 2012

How the world works now

Last week Niall Harrison called attention to Benjamin Rosenbaum's post (and the ensuing discussion in the comments) on what Niall calls The Wages of Nostalgia. (I've only just read these today.) In his post, Ben says he suspects that what is being labeled "nostalgia" for old tropes commonly used in sf is actually an expression of a "covert, unacknowledged hatred of the present [that] shows up simply as indifference to how the world actually works now." For "how the world works now" Ben seems to have in mind mainly early 21st-century communications technology. This seems an updated version of what I was irritated by in the early 1990s,  where (always male) characters several centuries from now enjoyed themselves by eating a "good steak dinner" (T-bone or Porterhouse steak with baked potato and salad) accompanied by bottle of red zinfandel followed by coffee, a cigar and brandy, where women were sex objects or mothers and never plausible colleagues. It was precisely the aestheticization of 1950s white middle class culture (with all its stifling gender norms) that drove me nuts. Here Ben complains about a character who, as he says, could only exist in 2011 (but is set in the 26th century):
When this guy takes a vacation, he is completely isolated from his friends and family. He is able to avoid the awkwardness of having conversations with them which he will not remember. He is able to simply retreat into silence. So apparently in 2511 not only do they not have blogs and Facebook and twitter and IM, they also do not have anything that comes after that, anything that makes us more interwoven with each other, that erases place more. They have simply gone back to the way it was before our social topography was reshaped by electronic networks.

Not to belabor the point -- the story, which purports to be set in 2511, is actually set in roughly 1985, i think.

And why did this not bother me while I was reading it, only to make me angry on the bicycle, later?

Because I grew up reading SF stories written before 1985. I grew up reading rediscovered-lost-colony-FTL stories in which the protagonists got lost in the woods, and it was fun. It didn't occur to me then that they would have GPS cell phones. It was easy, this morning, to simply forget the world of today, and read as if I was in 1985.

But on some level this is morally bankrupt.
As I say, I can sympathize with this kind of irritation, because it's akin to the irritation I've felt about those middle-class male tropes idealizing 1950s suburban culture. (The judgment-- "morally bankrupt"--needs a bit unpacking: I'm not sure I'd go so far, on the face of it.) But in spite of knowing that irritation well, I had to laugh. Really, I just had to laugh. Especially after I read the comments. I mean, here I am, living in the early 21st-century US, in the circumstances known as "late capitalism," in which the technological infrastructure is fragmented, fragile, and prone to frequent breakdowns and cellular coverage is absent in certain parts of Washington State and internet service is crappier than it was fifteen years ago. And where for the last twenty-four hours my home internet connection has been flaking out on me (i.e., largely unavailable, perhaps because someone at the cable company fiddled with a setting that is affecting our hub but not apparently anyone else's). For a while today it looked as though I might have to go out to a cafe to get some pressing email correspondence out. (I was thinking it would be like making a run to the post office used to be.) This flaking out is not a rare occurrence. Not to mention that the various computers I own are always crashing. (& let us not get on the subject of printers! or fax machines!) We all of us spend a huge amount of time coping with a constant flow of "updates" to keep the many bits of software our computers run on going. Our computers are always failing us. Getting tech "support" is usually unsatisfying, and often means waiting on hold, listening to a repeated four-note pattern plonked out on a piano for a half-hour or even hour before getting a tech who doesn't know enough to fix complicated problems (since if he-- somehow it's always a he-- did, he'd in a better paying job and not on a cable company's frontlines fobbing off customers). Never has technology been so unreliable. And don't get me started on viruses. Or spam and phishing. Or email getting "lost in the ether."

Everyone likes to quote Moore's Law when talking about technology. Well here's Duchamp's Law: under late capitalism in the US, the more advanced the computer or communications technology is, the less reliable it's likely to be and the more prone to frequent breakdowns. (Maybe you live in South Korea or other places where the government subsidizes basic technology. I hear there are more than a dozen places in the world with reliable, fast internet service. Duchamp's Law doesn't apply to those places. But Seattle isn't among them. Nor any city in the US.)

What happens to Ben's 2011 guy when he vacations on the Olympic Peninsula, say at La Push, on the coast, or somewhere in the Cascades? (I.e, somewhere one to four hours by car from Seattle.) His cell phone ceases to work, that's what. Maybe he'll have purchased a cute little GPA gizmo from REI, but maybe not, because maybe, like Ben, he'll assume his cell phone will give him all he needs. Or what if he crosses the border into Canada and discovers that his iPad or iPhone won't work because his cellular coverage ceases when he leaves the US? (Unless, of course, he's wealthy enough to think nothing of obscene roving charges.) The more cut-throat our economic system becomes and the more advanced our technology, the less likely it is to work. And that doesn't even get into the frequency of power outages during wind storms (which are common where I live) or ice storms or hurricanes or when transformers blow (which they seem to be doing more often than they used to). Rechargeable batteries are convenient, but they don't last long when the power outage lasts more than a few hours.

I would add, more personally, that I of course could never be characterized as a "2011 guy." (Assuming that "guy" is intended to be gender-neutral, as I am.) See, technology is uneven--unevenly adopted, unevenly affordable, unevenly used. I don't use Twitter. I just don't have time. (Hell, you all can see what a terrible job I do trying to keep this blog from stagnating!) At the moment, I'm about two months behind on reading my RSS feeds. Even when I'm on "vacation" I usually don't have time to be on Facebook much. I can barely keep up with my email, and as for voice mail, well, I so seldom use the telephone that I can't remember to check for messages and so usually listen to them days after they've been sent. There are so few hours in the day, you see. And I can't help it, my body seems addicted to sleeping at least a portion of them. You may say this is an age thing, and there'd be some truth to that. (I know it's age that has prevented my ever even thinking of texting-- I took about ten years to get a cell phone of my own at least partly because I can't use it without putting on my reading glasses.) I do, of course, take both a netbook and an iPad (as well as a Sony reader) with me on vacation, at least partly because I'm as compulsive a Google Search user as anyone I know. But I know very well that on vacation, especially, the internet will be out of reach.

Here's another aspect of uneveness: I have several friends, of varying ages, who have resumed sending me letters written on paper through the USPS. Why? Because they associate email with their jobs. And their relationship with me is personal. Yes, they do have cell phones and email addresses. One of them has a Facebook account (and we are not "Friends") and uses her iPhone to text. But print letters feel to them private and personal and one-to-one in a way that social media can't be. Is that old-fashioned or nostalgic of them? Perhaps. It will be interesting to see if private one-to-one relationships of that sort go the way of the do-do bird. I myself, looking back, am amazed to think of how in earlier decades of my life I'd spend a couple of hours every day writing letters to friends and acquaintances. (But then, literate people had been doing that for centuries.) I don't do that now. The arrival of the mail, even before I became a writer, was an important moment in my day. Somehow, I've never imagined a character in one of my stories living that way. I have often, though, made private "social" relationships part of my fiction, regardless of the technological context. Is that nostalgic? The answer to that depends on whether we think private social relationships are/will continue to be part of the way the world works. Yes, a lot has changed in the last thirty years. I just don't have a grip on what exactly is being phased out. 
If there's one thing I'd like to say about Ben's 2011 guy, it's this: showing characters using technology without a continual stream of interruptions to technology is idealistic beyond belief. Why don't most sf stories show characters routinely having to grapple with the banal, mundane breakdowns we all have to cope with in our real 21st-century lives? Why does everything work like magic in sf (except, of course, when the plot requires a communication failure for the author's purposes). Why don't they routinely show how uneven access to technology is? How our world works is as much a story of how it doesn't work as how it's supposed to work.


Nancy Jane Moore said...

Damn it, Timmi, now you and Ben have got my mind working on an interesting issue that is in no way on my current things to do list. I'm going to have to write an essay of my own to do it justice, and I just don't have time to do it (see Timmi's observation on how hard it is to keep up and add moving into a new house to that).

But I can't resist saying a couple of things off the top of my head.

I plan to start using "Duchamp's Law" to refer to technological unreliability and the constant need to "improve" what you've got. ("Moore's Law" is already taken.)

I suspect one reason most SF posits tech that works perfectly (except for when the plot needs it to fail) is that the writers are hoping that at some point in the future all those bugs will be resolved and we will not live at the mercy of dropped calls, unreliable internet connections, and the blue screen of death.

But while the tech issues showed the flaws in the story Ben was writing about, I don't think the problem is really tech so much as a lack of imagination about how human culture, and therefore human beings, change. My immediate response -- as yours was, Timmi -- was to think about all the SF (and not just the Golden Age stuff) in which the author assumes that nothing significant will change in the relationship of men and women.
If you want to write a story in which a person who likes to cut himself off from others because he thinks he doesn't need them gets actually lost and needs help (which sounds like the underlying theme of the story), you have to think about what that means in the world you've dropped him into. Or else set it in a world where you already know the cultural parameters. Which, of course, might make it something other than SF.

Josh said...

Can't say I'd heard of Moore's Law (unless it has something to do with movie adaptations of comic books); but Gibson's "The future is here: it's just not evenly distributed" is not an obscure observation. I've observed before that Ben seems to come from a pretty small, privileged world; but the idea that we'll have 2011 social media five hundred years hence strains credulity to the breaking point. If anything, it's *less* credible than the idea that 1950s family structures will be back in that era.

Benjamin Rosenbaum said...

Hey folks

I like "Duchamp's Law" a lot and have been known to observe that in the future the amount of time we spend giving and receiving tech support may increase asymptotically, to the point that, at the asymptote, the entirety of human civilization consists of everyone waiting on hold for everyone else to give them tech support, like the Stanislaw Lem story in which (spoiler alert) all the human-hunting robots are actually humans in robot costumes engaged in "passing".

Just so I'm clear, as Josh says, had the story had been full of 2012 technology (eg "social media") that would also, obviously, have been a failure of imagination. I'm not sure it would be even a less *severe* failure of imagination than having it be conceptually situated in 1985. But it would point to a different cause. Extrapolating 2012 technology linearly into the future may be naive; simply moving present-day technology into the future may simply be lazy. But writing a story set in the future whose technology is from *1985* is something else again; it has a certain intriguing perversity.

You're probably right that "morally bankrupt" is assuming far too much (certainly if it's meant to say anything about the author or about the experience of any reader other than myself), but I can identify in myself the urge to luxuriate in SF-of-1985, and I do think it's akin to that aestheticization of the 1950s with its porterhouse steaks, which you so ably descibe above.

And, yes, of course, having a future full of future technology which often *fails to work* would of course be even better. An "aged future" of people futzing with things that don't work properly is always more realistic than a smoothly perfect future of everything materializing just as it should.

It's not that I'm complaining that the story lacks a perfectly functioning GPS cell phone (or a geeky urban character frustrated and wrong-footed by the fact that his GPS cell phone turns out to be insufficient for any of the reasons you describe -- even better!) It's not that you can't come up with a plausible reason for a character in a FTL-employing multiplanet society 500 years in the future being lost in a forest; or a character in that future taking a vacation in which he watches porn on the hotel TV, swims, reads books and eats at a hotel restaurant; or a character in 500 years keeping a paper journal and not having any other way of finding out what happened in a "lost" period of several weeks. Any given choice in isolation may make sense; but in combination it starts feeling like a series of coincidences that everything feels like 1985.

The future being unevenly distributed is a crucial point, so I'm all for a character depicted as being marginalized and having less access to the resources of the future lacking many technological resources I take for granted today. But, of course, the character in the story is not such a person; he's a privileged upper-middle-class character. And the interesting thing about "not distributed evenly" is also that it's true also between technologies as well as between people, so that it's not that by moving away from privilege you simply move evenly "back in time" in terms of technological access and social construction of it. Plenty of people in the world today have cell phones AND no access to clean water, simultaneously. It's hard to imagine a future in which some section of society lives *exactly* in middle-class US 1985, with all of middle-class US 1985's advantages and disadvantages; yet people keep setting stories there...

Benjamin Rosenbaum said...

The point is not that the future is "better". It's that it's different. Imagine explaining to your 1985 self why you are considering having to go out to a cafe to get important correspondence out. See, that's a perfect example of a weird unintended consequence of technology. It's not that a 2011 with a crumbling privatized network infrastructure is simply 1985. You have become dependent on email, so that you have to drop everything and run to a cafe. That's an unintended, complex social consequence of technology. One thing technology does is make us more *vulnerable*.

When we look at something like the vacation the character takes in the story, where he gets away from it all, watches porn on the hotel cable channel and swims and is bored, and we want to ask ourselves whether it belongs in that future, one thing to ask is what historical times and places it makes sense in. Does it make sense in 1511 Europe? No: there was no such possible "isolation vacation" then. There were intensely social forms of travel like pilgrimages, there were professions (mercenary, merchant, monk) utilizing a travel network of inns and convents, but there was no "I'll take my two weeks off and veg out in a hotel room". Does it make sense in 2011? For many people, sure. More working-class people in 2011 than in 1985 probably can't rely on two weeks off, and more middle-class people like the geek in the story are reliant on the online world in a way that means that geographical separation simply doesn't remove them from their daily routine as much. Yes, this means they spend may half their vacation futzing with technology to get online. But it also means they increasingly have to make *choices* about what belongs on vacation and what belongs at home. "At the moment, I'm about two months behind on reading my RSS feeds. Even when I'm on 'vacation' I usually don't have time to be on Facebook much. I can barely keep up with my email, and as for voice mail, well, I so seldom use the telephone that I can't remember to check for messages..." -- there's a perfect description of the experience of a networked person living in 2012. You have the experience of being *behind* on your RSS feeds (imagine explaining that to your 1985 self), you don't find time to get on facebook "much" while on vacation-- meaning you have to make a decision not to get on it. You can "barely keep up" with your email -- which means you're spending how many hours a day on it, on vacation? I expect that you are in fact reading it on vacation, and answering pressing work emails. Does that not sound a lot different to you than a vacation in 1985, where being away from your desk for two weeks meant you were simply unreachable, and someone with a work question for you would have simply had to wait?

When I talk about 2012 I'm talking about your life in 2012, Timmi, not some glistening perfect 2012 in which the internet always works, printers never break down and everyone has caught up with their RSS feeds and always finds time for Facebook.

Of course it won't be precisely like this in 2512, or even in 2032. But the idea that the background texture of life, the social conventions and expectations and parameters, will simply return to what it was in 1985 seems awfully suspect.

Timmi Duchamp said...

Thanks, Ben, for your lengthy comments. I do see what you mean about the difference between 1985 & 2012. Let me say, rather, that when people talk about the bliss of living in the future (now) with all this cool tech, they *are* mostly talking about "some glistening perfect 2012."

For some of my correspondence, I did feel a great sense of urgency to get to the post office--rather than a cafe-- to get it out. The same sense of urgency, I suppose, except that the people on the receiving end of the mail in 1985 would have cut me more slack. Quite a lot of things just took much longer to unfold in 1985 than they do now. & everyone made allowances for that.

Your suspicion that "in the future the amount of time we spend giving and receiving tech support may increase asymptotically, to the point that, at the asymptote, the entirety of human civilization consists of everyone waiting on hold for everyone else to give them tech support" is frightening-- but I think only an exaggerated expression of the changes I've seen in the world over the last quarter century. Although I'm just as eager as the next person for each new shiny machine, my experience with how unpleasantly disruptive each new bit of tech introduced into my life tends to be has come to temper my pleasure (also disruptive, but in a seductive way) in it. Software's the same thing. & speaking of 1985, I have hundreds of WordStar files from the 1980s & 1990s that I still need to translate into a format that will survive after I've gone on to yet another computer. (How many computers have I owned in my life? I've lost count. A lucky thing they aren't as expensive as they were in 1985.)

One other thing-- I'm agog at the idea of luxuriating in 1985-- of, that is to say, aestheticizing those years. But maybe the decade one can feel nostalgic about varies by generation...

Benjamin Rosenbaum said...

The massive obsolescence of knowledge in this age of rapidly fluctuating formats is a really interesting question, actually (it's clearly part of the inspiration for Stephenson's Anathem, via the Long Now foundation).

In 1985 I of course was in high school, playing Runequest and Call of Cthulhu with polyhedral dice, shooting fanfic versions of imported BBC culture (Monty Python, Tom Baker Dr. Who) on super-8, walking to 7-11 to get Slurpees in the summer heat and falling in love. I wrote satirical songs about the nuclear war we all presumed would end life on earth (1985's cold war was very different than 1965's -- 1965's obsession with survival, bomb shelters and sirens and hiding under desks, seemed naive in the extreme -- we played Gamma World, but the idea of post-nuclear-war survival was a campy joke; we expected, instead, annihilation) and Michael Jackson's Thriller...

Any age is aestheticizable when it was yours!