Tag Archives: Luddism

Science Must Fall?

“Science as a whole is a product of Western modernity, and the whole thing should be scratched off…If we want a practical solution for how we can decolonize science, we have to restart science from our own African perspective of how we experience science…”

Mmkay. Good luck with that.

“It’s not true!”

“You see? That very response is why I’m not in the science faculty.”

You don’t say.

The rest of her word salad – I thought to fisk it, but the addled thinking and pomo whargarbl speak for themselves:

“Western modernity is the direct antagonistic factor to decolonization because Western knowledge is totalizing. It is saying that it is Newton and only Newton who knew or saw an apple falling, and out of nowhere decided that gravity existed, and created an equation, and that is it. Whether people knew Newton or not or whether that happens in western Africa or northern Africa, they say the only way to explain gravity is through Newton who sat under a tree and saw an apple fall. So, Western modernity is the problem which decolonization directly deals with, to say that we are going to decolonize by having knowledge that is produced by us, that speaks to us, and that is able to accommodate knowledge from our perspective. So to say that you disagree with her approach it means that you have vested in the Western and Eurocentric way of understanding which means you yourself still need to go back, internally, decolonize your mind and come back and say ‘how can I relook at what I’ve been studying all these years’ because Western knowledge is very [pervasive?] to say the least. I from a decolonized perspective believe we can do more as new knowledge producers as people who are given the ability to reason or whatever it is people say we do when we think or rationalize. So, decolonizing the science would mean doing away with it entirely and starting all over again to deal with how we respond to environments and how we understand it, thank you.”

The best part is at the end when she nods sagely to the crowd, proud of her oration, then pulls out a smartphone and starts fiddling with it. Umm, sweetie? Yeah, giving up science means giving up all the goodies it has produced, too.

Why We Need Big, Bold Science Fiction

Glenn Reynolds’ article from Popular Mechanics is now available online. He opens:

The future isn’t what it used to be.And neither is science fiction. While books about space exploration and robots once inspired young people to become scientists and engineers—and inspired grownup engineers and scientists to do big things—in recent decades the field has become dominated by escapist fantasies and depressing dystopias. That could be contributing to something that I see as a problem. It seems that too many technically savvy people, engineers in particular, are going to work for Web startups or investment firms. There’s nothing wrong with such companies, but we also need engineers to design bold new things for use in the physical world: space colonies instead of social media.

Which is an excellent summary of why we decided to write In the Shadow of Ares, and to write it in the style that we did. I’m not persuaded that a proliferation of optimistic, “Human Wave” science fiction is enough to get us back on the right track as a civilization, but it’s certainly helpful to that end – one piece of the puzzle.

We know from past (and personal) experience that science fiction can embolden people (particularly young people) to seek out big challenges, and it can do so again in the future if the right kinds of science fiction are generated, read, and rewarded. But work is also needed on the assorted factors which needlessly prevent those big challenges from becoming big achievements: paralytic risk aversion, unproductive over-regulation, comfortable complacency, and open Luddism, among others. All of which, I hope and believe, will soon be facing their long-overdue reevaluation due to economic necessity.

As for Glenn’s suggested reading list — I’m embarrassed to say that I have only read one of the books he selected: John Steakley’s Armor. But oh, what a book it is. It’s one of my all-time favorite SF novels, and made a huge impression on me when I first read it at sixteen. It’s a very dark novel, so I’m exceedingly surprised to see it on a list of “optimistic science fiction books”. However, the tagline he quotes is indeed the moral thread of the story, and the redemption of several of the main characters at the end by living up to that quote does make it end on a positive note.

Paypal’s Peter Thiel on the Collapse of Science Fiction

I’d agree with his assessment, except I think the problem is actually much worse:

One way you can describe the collapse of the idea of the future is the collapse of science fiction. Now it’s either about technology that doesn’t work or about technology that’s used in bad ways. The anthology of the top twenty-five sci-fi stories in 1970 was, like, ‘Me and my friend the robot went for a walk on the moon,’ and in 2008 it was, like, ‘The galaxy is run by a fundamentalist Islamic confederacy, and there are people who are hunting planets and killing them for fun.’

The original article is behind the firewall at the New Yorker, so I only have this quote to build on, but if hackneyed War on Terror allegories are all that has him upset about the current state of science fiction he might be in for a surprise if he picks up a copy of, say, Analog.

One of the reasons Carl and I decided to write In the Shadow of Ares was the dearth of positive visions of the future in modern science fiction. Over the past twenty years (if not longer), there has been a shift in tone towards an anti-technology, anti-capitalist, anti-human perspective:

  • By “anti-technology”, I mean a perspective in which science and its applications are regarded as intrinsically suspect if not dangerous. Plots involving a new discovery, innovation, or application frequently put significant if not sole emphasis on its negative consequences. One of the great things about science fiction traditionally has been the useful or interesting speculative exploration of the potential for misuse of such things, but this perspective instead reflects a deeper pessimism which devalues or dismisses the positive benefits instead of making a balanced assessment of tradeoffs.
  • By “anti-capitalist”, I mean a perspective in which business, the profit model, free markets, etc. are the enemies of all good and decent things. If a corporation of some sort figures into a story, it’s almost certain to be portrayed as greedy, oppressive, irresponsible, reactionary, rapacious, short-sighted, callous, etc., an intangible sentient entity possessing a collective and inexplicably (or unexplainedly) malevolent will of its own.  “Portrayed” is probably a generous way to put it, given that these things are not crafted as the corporation’s attributes so much as mix-and-matched from a pouch of stock-villain tropes with little thought or creativity involved. There seems to be little acknowledgement that there are business entities other than Big Evil Galactic Mega-Conglomerates™, or that as seen in the real world business, profits, markets, etc. are far more likely to be positive agents and influences. There are certainly interesting science fiction stories to be told involving bad businessmen, but I’d hazard a guess that each of them has by now been told many hundreds of times.
  • By “anti-human”, I mean a perspective in which it is taken for granted that humans are by default corrupt, greedy, bigoted, abusive, violent, intolerant, militaristic, or otherwise by their inescapable nature a threat to non-humans or to the natural world. Non-human entities — whether alien, artificial, or non-sentient — are held to be morally superior to humans due to nothing more than their non-human nature, and are portrayed as endangered by humans due to our aforementioned moral defects. When non-humans are absent, humans are still portrayed as intrinsically morally negative, being (for example) willing to use a new technology to harm or oppress others for no other reason than that that’s what humans are apparently wired to do. Again, this is not to say that there aren’t bad humans to be found, or that humans behaving badly can’t be fodder for an interesting story; the problem is with the self-loathing default assumption that humans are inherently bad, augmented by the corollary assumption that non-humans are inherently good.

This is not to say that these problems are universal, merely pervasive. I gave up on Analog in 2008 after 25 years as a subscriber because of this pervasiveness – there were still occasional human-positive, business-positive, technology-positive stories in the magazine, but there was a clear drift in the opposite direction (and increasing numbers of borderline-fantasy woo-woo stories) over several years.

I think the broader point underlying both Thiel’s criticism and my own is that where science fiction used to be predominantly optimistic, it has for years (decades?) descended into an ugly dominant pessimism. And when the people whose job is imagining possible futures see only doom and gloom ahead, is it any wonder that the people actually responsible for building the future may be less enthusiastic about doing so?