02 July 2009

The Possibilities and Realities of SF

Science fiction does not predict the future. At least, in my experience it does not try to predict what might happen as much as say what is in the realm of possibility. And even this only comes with a lot of assumptions about the foundations of what is really possible. It is popular culture that takes many of these ideas and runs with them. This is why in the 1950’s we were supposed to have helicopters to drive to work. Currently there is debate about when we will have singularity, or a dyson sphere. I would make the argument that we, as a civilization, will never accomplish anything close to this. The reasons why are simple; first, these SF ideas never look at the real big picture with society. And secondly, they rarely look at the big picture of science.

So to begin, human society is a complex and unpredictable beast. We tend to be nationalistic, irrational, and selfish. But what is more important than this is that modern human society has settled itself into a cycle of consumption. What I mean by this is that it is in every nation’s interests to always have a growing birth rate in order to produce more people who will then consume goods which can be produced. This is the engine of the world economy. It is based on growth without end. The only reason why we were able to survive to produce more than six billion people is due to the invention of artificial nitrogen in the 1920s. That single invention increased the ability of the land to produce the food required by today’s population. But this system does not work on the same function of growth without end. There is still a set limit of how much food the earth can produce. Of course, water is another major concern. There is a finite amount, and even in this country we are starting to see the affects of water shortages. A few years ago two states started fighting over water rights of a shared river. And according to USA Today, (http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2003-01-26-water-usat_x.htm) we are going to see worse before long. Add to all this ideas of a world of governments sworn to try and keep only their own populace alive and we have a powder keg. The world will not achieve SF levels of technology because it would require us to change our self serving set of morals which include the idea that maintaining human life is a high priority.

And of course this does not even begin to describe the hurdles that socioeconomics play into this tangled web of humanity. The world has a class system. And this system does not allow for everyone to be equally prosperous. With only a few exceptions (Sweden being one), this system does not allow for the government to function with the idea of moving everyone forward together. Economic progress comes at the price of widening the gap between rich and poor. If this is the case than there is little political room for abandoning the poor, because it is both heartless and foolish to do so. The foolishness comes from the fact that any economy (SF or otherwise) will need laborers to create goods. I would argue that the world of SF would not be possible without first advancing the world into a level, and educated playing field. Good luck with that.

Secondly, SF likes to ignore some key scientific facts in order to put forward a big idea. Again this is a product of popular culture. The fiction is allowed to do so, it’s fiction; there should be a level of suspension of disbelief. But these ideas are then treated as possible by the media who disseminate this information to the public. But the media doesn’t exactly think that the viewing audience is “Science Savvy,” so things are left out and then forgotten in any debate about plausibility. A good example of this is the Dyson Sphere (or shell or ring or whatever you like). It just can’t happen, even if we ignore the immense logistics of putting such a structure in place it won’t work. This is for one simple reason: Solar flares. The huge ejections of matter and energy can knock out satellites orbiting the earth. The only thing that is protecting our own satellites now is the earth’s magnetic field. Even assuming that satellites could survive a solar flare from one AU away, they would need to produce a massive magnetic field to protect them. This alone would negate any energy gains made by the satellite.

SF is fine for fiction. But in the real world, little of it is really possible. I find this is due mostly to the fact that the ideas of SF are too big for their britches. To us as readers, these ideas are sexy. They are made to be. But if we are to talk about what is possible let’s be frank, the big sexy ideas that fix everything and make the world a better place are never going to happen.


Adam Wykes said...

So nothing good can come of technology because the human that creates it is a bad, bad species and cannot produce anything good.

What about Adam Smith and the invisible hand and all that? The greed of individual agents twisted for the benefit of all, etc?

Geoffrey Wykes said...

"Economic progress comes at the price of widening the gap between rich and poor. If this is the case than there is little political room for abandoning the poor, because it is both heartless and foolish to do so. The foolishness comes from the fact that any economy (SF or otherwise) will need laborers to create goods."

The interesting thing about SF is that it ignores all these sundry concerns for a further future that just...is. Spacecraft are built, but by whom? Who developed and designed them? Usually some single genius, but that's hardly ever the case in reality, which, though, doesn't matter at all, of course.

SF mostly ignores the role of labor and the poor in a stable society, and for good reason, too, because it's boring to talk about functioning, well adjusted societies, where what is produced is produced because it is needed, or wanted, where people go poor because of their own foolishness alone. It's when things go wrong that labor is suddenly important, because then, well, one has the whole of human history to draw on, and easy parallels abound.

That said, these are often misleading parallels, because there are few direct comparisons, especially when it comes to the nature of this labor. For one, most things are not actually produced by 'laborers' per se. Labor is nothing more than work, and most modern things are made by skilled workers, men and women who are neither poor nor poorly educated. The basis of the modern American economy, and presumably a comparable future economy, is not based on laborers but instead on labor alone, done by fewer and more skilled people through massive technological enhancement.

Chris B. said...

The invisible hand of the market is largely a myth use to try and prove that the stock market is rational. But the latest Wall Street nose dive has gone a long way to showing that the market is irrational. It runs based on things like fear and ignorance much more than thought. And I never stated that good technology can’t come out of SF. I merely argued that the big ideas are not realistically possible due to social, economic, and scientific reasons.

And to respond to the second comment: first of all; poverty is not caused by people, it is caused as much by complex socioeconomics. Secondly, in a future world where there is less need for laborers there is less need for people. And as such, this continues to drive the gap between rich and poor (not the poor’s actions alone). This alone would inherently create an unstable society.

Geoffrey Wykes said...

The Invisible Hand is actually not really much more than a convenient visual metaphor with an eye towards explaining the methods of the market (the WHOLE market, not just Wall Street). It actually leans more towards proving the apparent irrationality of the market in that motivations are not always obvious, and therefore not accounted for by observers, creating something that seems irrational but instead is rational along other lines.

Less need for laborers--human driven labor--does indeed create less need for people...which is why they then do other things. The reason that science has picked up its pace so much in the last centuries is that an ever increasing technological base has given people ever increasing amounts of free time. Why learn to read when you work your tail off just to live? This kind of educational leisure was traditionally only available to the elite of a society; now it is open to all. Additionally, this has given the poor a measure of absolute living that is, in the relevant nations at least, increasingly higher than historical levels.

Being poor is, by the way, not an inherent state; it's a ground state of sorts, the level at which one tends to land in our society. Those who are poor are not always going to be THE POOR, just as those who are rich are not always going to be THE RICH. People can and do move along this continuum. The fact that the continuum itself is lengthening--that the differences between minimum and maximum are increasing--means nothing in and of itself.