The Orrery, Part II

Science fiction helps us understand what it means to be human.

That’s something I’ve heard, anyway. I’m reminded of my sophomore year Intro to British Medieval Literature professor shrieking at the class that there are no messages in literature!, that reading is an aesthetic experience, not an instructive one (I think that’s what she meant). Admittedly  no decent science fiction was ever written as a moral guide, but it still raises philosophical concerns.

For example: if you could replace all of your body parts with man-made prosthetics, one by one, over time — to avoid illness, suffering, death — would your humanity remain intact after your final natural part was removed? (I’m pretty sure this is the central premise of Ghost In The Shell).

So I’m still thinking about the metaphors we use to grapple with the impact of the digital explosion. Networked technology has catalyzed such a profound and immediate change in day-to-day life (at least for those in wealthy countries) that it’s reasonable to say we’re now living a sci-fi reality. A world whose only historical precedent exists in fiction and myths.

Observing the scope of all this makes one a little philosophical. Maybe the best option for those thoughtful enough to grasp the enormity ofthe change is to reaffirm their value set, their internal compass for making meaning from scenarios for which we have no pre-written guidebook, no folk wisdom. It’s not always an easy thing to do. Sometimes I think of caricaturized, sci-fi-ish synopses my own life  as a way to get clear on my values. If my own life story was embellished and turned into a work of fiction it may be described summarily like:

[PROTAGONIST] born seven months to the day prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, five years post-1984, ten before the dawn of a new millennium –on the verge of the greatest revolution in human communication since Gutenberg’s printing press — has seen too much. The expansion of digital technology has escalated rapidly during her lifetime, a revolution described by its architects as liberating and empowering , but maligned by many others as the very downfall of man. Aware of the influence that accrues to all who bow before the machine superstructure, [PROTAGONIST] is fearful that this power will be used to advance the interests of a few lucky men  — at the expense of the rest of the planet! Faced with a moral quandary she can’t ignore, [PROTAGONIST] struggles to confront those falling under its hypnotic spell with a truth she may not be prepared to tell them — and they may not be prepared to hear.

Grandiose, yeah. But nothing in there is technically inaccurate. It sounds much more glamorous than it feels, but in a sense, that narrative is one I’m trying to live. Though I’m not nearly so alone in it as this description makes it sound. I’ve gotten the sense in the last few years that I’m able to see things that non-geeks don’t. I’ve asked every professional programmer I’m friendly with whether they feel like they have some kind of elite, insider knowledge about society from which non-techies are excluded. I’ve gotten an emphatic yes from all of them. On a similar note, toward the end of my graduate Fundamentals of Information Technology class, my professor posed this question to us: do you think that those who who are knowledgeable about IT and those who aren’t now represent a new sort of haves vs have-nots in society? — to which we all replied: yes, of course.

There’s a funny thing about seeing visions of the future that others don’t. Prophets and soothsayers have a long history of being ignored. The figure of the blind, ignored or laughed-at seer is an appropriate metaphor for whistleblowers and those programmers who choose to draw attention to their own industry’s failings. I’m not a programmer (my tech skills aren’t deserving of that title, honestly), nor am I a whistleblower. But I’ve been in and around the culture enough, and I’ve also made an odd leap from “writer” to “writer-and-tech-hobbyist.” It’s my job to articulate and offer new insights on what I experience in this world.

Fresh perspectives are what tech writing is all about; every new app or product demands a fresh batch of writing alongside it. But writing about the minutiae of the digital world almost feels wrong when the bigger issues are just so . . . big, and when you feel they’re not getting proportional media attention.

And when you think that’s where you’re best suited, anyway, as a writer. Observing from the aerial perspective. So I think about the metaphor of the orrery again, the mechanical universe that you can place on a desktop or shelf. Even if you manage to write clearly and precisely, without conflating terminology, looking at technology from a more holistic angle feels a bit soft, or at least un-hip. But maybe there’s something revolutionary in there, too. There’s something beautiful to how all the parts move together in one cohesive system, but it’s a terrifying vision if you look too hard. It can feel really dark without suitable guides.

This new world needs writing to illuminate it — to invite people to understand it in such a way that they can reflect on their own humanity within it. And to act on those reflections, if they discover that that’s the best way to retain their sense of being human inside it. It’s what I’m trying to do.


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