Science fiction writers may not accurately predict the future, but they’re often excellent predictors of the present — people who notice just how futuristic the world’s become while we weren’t looking.
In my last column, I introduced you to Tom Jennings, the virtuoso queerpunk anarcho-engineer who invented FidoNet, one of the earliest networks for exchanging conversation. For nearly a decade, bulletin boards around the world used FidoNet, until the internet came to the average info-civilian.
Here’s an amazing story from the paleo-internet that Jennings told me, which illustrates what this “predicting the present” business is really about.
William Gibson coined the term “cyberspace” in 1982, describing a virtual “place where telephone calls happened,” depicted in his fiction as “bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colorless void.” Gibson’s cyberspace lived in the 21st century, but it had more to do with 1982 than 2012.
Just as Gibson’s seminal novel Neuromancer was going to press in 1984, Jennings launched FidoNet. Jennings is full of great Fido war stories. So many of the standard fights seem to have survived the transition to Usenet, message boards, and then blogs and LiveJournal. Nothing new under the sun, right?
Wrong. There’s one standard FidoNet flame war that didn’t make the transition: in 1984, FidoNet users would upbraid one another for being rude while “a guest” in each other’s homes. When one FidoNetter called another FidoNetter a sack of spuds, the putative spud would get up in arms about being insulted “in his own home.” While you’re a guest, they’d say, you’ll behave yourself.
“What?” I said. “They thought that BBS discussions happened in the room where their computer was?” Jennings nodded emphatically. “But that’s crazy!”
Then I thought about it for a moment. Where do flame wars happen? “They didn’t know the term cyberspace!” We both nodded vigorously. That was it! The spread of the term cyberspace killed the “guest in my home” flame war, because once we knew that term (which, after all, described 1984, not 2054) we knew that flame wars didn’t happen in our houses! They happened out there, in the notional network of pure ideas. It didn’t have bright lattices of logic, but it had plenty of cyber and plenty of space.
Today, there’s a hell of a lot of science fiction being written about “the Singularity.” This is the moment at which it becomes possible to make a computer as smart as a human, which will shortly be followed by the moment at which a computer becomes twice as smart as a human, then four times as smart, and shortly, 40 heptillion times as smart. This is like a spatial singularity — a black hole — in that it’s a break with history as we know it, a precipice that we can’t see over. Once we hit the Singularity, human destiny becomes unknowable and unpredictable. We cease to be humans as we understand “human” and become something … else.
I suspect the future is probably weirder than the Singularity (it’s usually weirder than we think — Bell thought the telephone would be used to uplift the masses by bringing opera into their living rooms, not to beam atrocity photos out of Burma). But the popularity of the Singularity tells us something about our present day. We’re apparently living at a moment with a boundless appetite for stories of humans using technology to transcend our destiny and even our species.
Are we disappointed that our tools haven’t transformed our lives enough? Anxious that we can’t keep up anymore? Or just so overjoyed by the new mind candy all around us that it seems like we’re headed for a kind of techno-spiritual uplifting?