The continued mainstreaming of social media has resulted a fountain of speculation about the future of social networking, always-on connectivity and the increasingly ubiquitous internet. The usual sides are being taken between technophiles and technophobes, people who see utopia around the (virtual) corner and people who think that we’re going to hell in a (virtual) handbasket.
But there’s a group of people who’ve already spent a great deal of time thinking about where these technologies are taking us: speculative fiction / science fiction (SF) writers.
A few years back, there seemed to be a rule that nobody was allowed to write anything about online culture without mentioning Snow Crash (perhaps we should have called that phenomena Stephenson’s Law.)
But now for some reason I rarely see SF referenced in articles about online culture/ social media / social technologies (at least, not in those articles authored by non-engineers). (I was inspired on this topic by a discussion on the great site Mashable, where almost nobody cited SF examples; impossible to imagine a similar discussion happening on old-school Slashdot without SF getting referenced.)
SF books seem to be one of those love-or-hate things. People either read them prolifically or not at all. Which is a pity, since near-term SF (stories that occur in the next few years-decades, instead of hundreds of years in the future) have a lot to say about where our technology might be taking us — a nuanced view between techophile idealism and technophobe cynicism.
Note that this doesn’t mean that near-term SF is intended to be an factually accurate prediction of our future. Great stories aren’t contingent on factual accuracy. Fiction is about the exploration of the human condition; fiction isn’t meant to be reality TV or a crystal ball.
As Will Hindmarch wrote — accuracy isn’t the ultimate goal of SF, or of any fictional work. Tolkien’s fans know that Middle-earth isn’t actual ancient earth history, and people still read Jules Verne and HG Wells despite the fact that these authors’ visions of the future are now quaint. As Hindmarch says, “are we done with Neuromancer because of the ways it seems dated?”
SF can also help to influence the future. Some of the early readers of Neuromancer (just like some of the early viewers of the original Star Trek series) were very influenced by it, and then made decisions to focus their life’s work on things from the book that had inspired them. (In Different Engines: How Science Drives Fiction and Fiction Drives Science, Mark Brake and Neil Hook talk about the interactions and bi-directional influence between fictional works and scientific works, going back to the 1600s.)
So if you work in social media — you need to read some near-term SF. Here’s a few places to start:
Daemon by Daniel Suarez (2008). A top game designer has died, but he left behind a legacy — an online “game” that has its own agenda. As the scheme unfolds, a handful of people are assembling the clues as to where this game is leading. Out of all the books listed here, this one is probably written in a style that the most accessible / straightforward to the casual reader.
Pattern Recognition by William Gibson. Published 2003 and already both outdated and eerily predictive. The heroine is a cool hunter and pop culture maven who consults to brands and designers. She’s hired to ferret out the story behind some mysterious online videos and along the way meets “power-hungry marketeers, industrial saboteurs, high-end hackers, Russian mob bosses, Internet fan-boys, techno archeologists, washed-out spies, cultural documentarians…”
Spook Country also by Gibson (2007) An ex-rock-star turned journalist researches “locative art” (which uses goggles and GPS to project ghost images/overlays). But GPS and 3D imaging wizardry are also popular with international spies and criminals looking for a technical edge in moving covert material around the globe.
Rainbows End by Vernor Venge (2006). Set a little further in the future than the two Gibson books, in mid-century 2000s. A elderly man is brought back from dementia by a new drug, but has to take remedial classes at the local high school to learn to adapt to a world where virtualization has become deeply imbedded in everyday life. Meanwhile his teenaged granddaughter stumbles into a plot related to the virtualization of traditional libraries.
I’ll stop there, although there’s plenty more that could be mentioned.
(And if you’re one of the people who doesn’t read SF, be aware that your kids are, and that SF young adult books are forming their ideas about what the future looks like.)