Archive for Near Future
Let’s start with William Wordsworth:
The panel at AussieCon IV was “Implications of Immortality”, and the panel description was:
Immortality is a common element in science fiction and fantasy, but what would it actually be like?
What would you need to do and think about if you were immortal? How would society need to change if we were all immortal?
In a world where we are no longer faced with an end to our lives, how would human society change?
In general, I was rather disappointed by this panel (audio transcript here, courtesy of the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence), as it mostly repeated SF and fantasy’s clichés about immortality, and didn’t really reach any interesting, new (let alone ground-breaking) conclusions.
So, with this panel, and a number of internet articles about immortality — Annalee Newitz on io9 (Four Arguments against Immortality), Jason Stoddard (Four Arguments FOR Immortality), BBC’s recent Do You Really Want to Live Forever?, an interview on I Look Forward To about the possibility of immortality or extreme longevity with Aubrey de Grey and David Brin (When Will Life Expectancy Reach 200 Years?), Edward Cheever’s In Defense of Immortality — in mind, I’m going to try to deconstruct a number of faulty assumption about extreme longevity.
You may have noticed that I’m not calling it ‘immortality’ anymore. Well, I think immortality is in the same class as Utopia, infinity and perfection: a great destination to travel to, but one that can never be reached. Yet we should try, nevertheless. While immortality is an unreachable ideal, the effort of reaching it will bring huge progress and immense advantages. So let’s be a tad more realistic and call it the quest for longevity, or extreme longevity.
Problem is, a lot of people think we shouldn’t be on this quest anyway, because of several misconceptions. Let’s go through them:
(1): Humans are not ‘wired’ for immortality or extreme longevity.
As (panel member) Will McIntosh said (I’m paraphrasing here): “the human psyche is not wired for immortality: in almost every thing we do lies the shadow of our oncoming demise.” However, this assumes that humans will not change. I think humans will change. Actually, humans are already changing, and have been changing throughout history.
The problem with a lot of thinking in science fiction is that it often takes one — and only one — idea and tries to imagine its impact on humans and/or society while assuming that the latter (humans and society) do not change, or only minimally through that one single idea. In reality, though, society is an immensely complex web of connections that all influence each other.
Therefore, as such, both humans and society have changed over the years, also (among many other things) in regards to life expectancy. Life expectancy has increased (and is still increasing), and we have learned to live with that. Less than two centuries ago we would become, on average, 37 years old. Our ‘productive’ life span was 20 to 25 years. Now we get, on average, 77 years old, with a ‘productive’ life span of over 40 years.
Indeed: right now we have more ‘productive’ years than we actually lived 200 years ago. And if someone had said, back in 1810, that humans aren’t wired to live 80 years, most people would have agreed.
Well, immortality won’t happen overnight: it will take time to develop much longer lifespans, followed by extreme longevity. Time enough for humans to change, and to adapt successfully to a much longer life. People have been changing all the time — albeit at a much higher rate in the past 100 years — and have been able to cope. Why shouldn’t we be able to do so in the future?
Imagine someone in 1810 saying that in 200 years people would travel around the world regularly, that we would live twice as long, and that we would be able to talk to people at the other side of the globe through a device that weighs less than a book. Now imagine depriving your 8-year-old kid from her/his gameboy, cell phone, or internet connection.
I’ve been discussing this with (Guest of Honour) Kim Stanley Robinson at the bar right after the panel, and he thought that such thinking — humans will remain the same while the world around them changes — is ‘a failure of the imagination’. I agree: by the time extreme longevity is possible, we will have developed the right mindset for it.
However — as Annalee Newitz proposed on io9 — we may change so much that we’re no longer human. Well, try to define ‘being human’ first. Then compare that 21st Century definition with that of a 19th Century one: there will be quite a number of differences. As mentioned, humans change, and the yardstick that ‘defines’ humanity changes, as well.
Of course, Annalee voiced the fear that we might become emotionless monsters as we develop extreme longevity. I disagree: there have been monsterous humans throughout history, Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot just a recent addition to a long, long list that stretches back to the dawn of human memory. Yet we have always overcome these monsters: why shouldn’t we be able to do that in the future?
I’ll even go a step further: it makes much more sense to be a ruthless dictator and burn all your bridges behind you if your lifespan is short. Conversely, if you realise that you have several centuries to go, it makes little sense to rampage an ecology that you need to support your much longer life. Even beter, as longer lifespans (or even extreme longevity) spread throughout the world population (and it will: see point 3 of this post), then it is in everybody’s best interest to weed out those so hell-bent on power that they are willing to destroy a very long term infrastructure (like say, Gaia) for it.
(Not to mention the non-starter ‘Whatever body you’re in, there you are‘. Sorry: last time I looked all of us are constrained to one, and one body only. I personally will highly appreciate it if it lasts much, much longer.)
(2): Immortality is boring: I will be stuck with the same dead-end job/uninteresting life/pointless existence forever.
As mentioned, immortality is an idealised concept: it is an endpoint that we might approach asymptotically, hence it will not happen overnight. Still, quite a few people (some of which were in the audience of the panel) seem to think so. One even literally mentioned that ‘immortality would be a kind of eternal hell as she would be stuck with the same dead-end job forever’.
In the grander scheme of things, holding a steady job throughout one’s carreer may already be a passing fad in times to come. Yes, in times of yore one — before the 20th Century almost always a man — acquired (either through education, experience, inheritance or a combination thereof) a job or profession and stuck to it for the rest of one’s productive life. Exceptions acknowleged, of course, but those were few and far in between.
But nowadays, things are different, completely different, just check out this video: “Shift Happens: Bringing Education into the 21st Century“
A few price quotes:
—1 out of 4 workers today is working for a company they have been employed by for less than one year
—More than 1 out of 2 are working for a company they have worked for for less than five years
…the top 10 in demand jobs for 2010 did not exist in 2004
—We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist…
…using technologies that haven’t been invented…
…in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet
Basically, the amount of jobs that you can hold for your complete productive life is shrinking: a ‘job-for-life’ is increasingly becoming a feature of the past.
Therefore, in order to keep making a living people already need to keep educating themselves, constantly. I know what I’m talking about: I train people in my company’s product, and I need to stay updated. I teach and I learn, all the time.
Some people see this as a bad thing: such people like to keep on doing the same things, ad nauseam until their pension. This, though, is increasingly not an option anymore.
I see this as an interesting, and potentially good development: now people (must) keep developing themselves, learning new things, broadening their horizons, expanding both the depth and the breadth of their knowledge.
Isn’t this an exhilarating convergence? As life expectancy grows, life is becoming more interesting, as well. Maybe we are already on the right track to leading longer and more fullfilling lives by being able to change constantly?
Now before some of you — like Athena Andreadis (see point 2) — start to argue that the memory and learning capacity of a human brain is limited, let me make a bet (for a drink, or a symbolic amount like one Euro): I bet that before people live so long that their brain capacity is insufficient to store, work or even understand all the knowledge they build up in their extended lifetime, that there will be not one, but a variety of competing options to extend that brain capacity. For example, check out Andy Clark’s article “Out of Our Brains” in the New York Times (via Futurismic).
(3): Only the superrich will have immortality, and will keep it ‘locked away’ from the rest of the world.
Or point 4 (“We’ll have to deal with the immortality divide“) of Annalee Newitz’s io9 post.
This argument assumes that:
- there is an immediate development that changes life expectancy immensely;
- that this — nearly instantaneous — development is so expensive that only the superrich can afford it;
- that the superrich elite will be able to keep this development completely to themselves;
Personally, I suspect it’s extremely unlikely that a ‘silver bullet’ for highly increased longevity (let alone extreme longevity and forget about immortality) will be developed overnight. It’s hugely more likely that longevity will increase in leaps and bounds, with all kinds of dead alleys, red herrings and fool’s gold (to deftly mix metaphors) along the way. The way almost all scientific research does. The way longevity has been increasing already.
So while I do expect that there will be new treatments that lengthen lifespan, I do, very strongly, suspect that these will not stay with the ultra-healthy among us for long.
Consider: there are about a thousand billionaires in the world right now. There are about 10 million millionaires. By 2030, about two billion new people may join the world middle class (via Goldman Sachs: opens PDF file): adding this to the 1.5 billion middle class people as of 2010, this will total 3.5 billion middle class incomes.
So a big pharmaceutical company would keep its product exclusive to the happy thousand? Even after it has earned back its development costs? And will ignore the 10 million plus other, rich customers? And once the treatment has been proven to work for over a million people, they will not eventually want to sell it to almost 4 billion more customers? That’s not how capitalism works, last time I looked.
Then there is the case of the ghost having escaped the bottle: in science, once something has been proven to be possible, it can be replicated. If an experiment can’t be verifiably repeated, it’s not true science. So if it’s possible (extreme longevity, even immortality) then competing scientists will know that, and they will redouble their efforts to reproduce the same result.
Once a certain development’s time has come, it shows up everywhere. Tesla’s and Marconi’s dispute about who invented radio first is one example. The rise of aviation (once the Wright brothers delivered proof of concept) is another. There are countless more. And these technologies, once new, are now available to almost everybody: radio (is become obsolete by the internet, another technology initially developed for the hapy few — the Pentagon or CERN— available to all), avaition, the utmost majority of modern medicine. Once the cat is out of the bag…
Competition, the desire to sell it to as much markets as possible, the fact that it can be done all will make sure that it eventually becomes available to all. Inevitably.
(4): (a) Biological immortality or biological extreme longevity is impossible; and (b): mind uploading is a pipe dream.
Check out this interview with Aubrey de Grey and David Brin: When Will Life Expectancy Reach 200 Years?
The above gentlemen are talking about a life expectancy of 200 years. While that may sound already unrealistic to some, and a bit unambitious to others (what is 200 years in the face of extreme longevity?), there is a tipping point. As Ronald Bailey explains in his Liberation Biology:
“Researcher reported in the April 2002 issue of Science that life expectancy has been increasing at about two and a half year per decade for the past 160 years. Demographers such as Olshansky, they note, have been consistently wrong in predicting an upper limit to this trend. In 1928, for example, demographer Louis Dublin predicted that average life expectancy in the United States would never exceed 64.75 years. Today it is 77.6 years.”
“At this rate of improvement, the authors of the Science report conclude that “record [average] life expectancy will reach about 100 in six decades”.”
It gets better:
De Grey offers a scenario in which efforts to achieve radical life extension reach “actuarial escape velocit (AEV)”. Recall that for the last 160 years, average life expectancy has increased by two-and-a-half year per decade. What if increases in life expectancy rose at a rate of ten years or more per decade? “The escape velocity cusp is closer than you might guess,” claims de Grey. “Since we are already so long lived, even a thirty percent increase in healthy life span will give the first beneficiaries of rejuvenation therapies another twenty years—an eternity in science—to benefit from second generation therapies that could give another thirty percent, and so on ad infinitum”
Yes, the same Aubrey De Grey interviewed above. The above quote can be found online on PLoS Biology: ‘Escape Velocity: Why the Prospect of Extreme Human Life Extension Matters Now‘.
Extreme longevity in this century? Maybe even in our lifetime?
As noted above, David Brin disagrees, as I’m sure many of you do. “There are way too many obstacles,” I hear you say, “there is no low-hanging fruit.” Further cue to David Brin:
All advances to date have involved allowing ever-greater percentages of humanity to hit the “wall” at age 100, and maybe coast a few years beyond. Getting beyond that will require either;
1) THOROUGH nanotechnology, applied down at the INTRA-cellular level, or
2) genetic recoding to enhance repair capabilities in new ways (good news for our great grandchildren, maybe), or
3) gradual replacement of failing parts and systems with prosthetics, or
Oh, I am willing to be proved wrong, but all of these seem much harder than the zealots think.
a) The intra-cellular world is the next frontier. It now seems huge, complex, involving massive amounts of computing. Will you flood the INSIDES of cells with nanomachines? Good luck.
b) We haven’t a clue how to do #2.
c) #3 will happen in phases. But when the brain fades… well,… see #a
c) re #4 — see #a
The Aubrey De Grey/David Brin interview was posted on November 25, 2010. Three days later, this news came out: “Harvard Scientists Reverse the Ageing Process in Mice“. Price quote:
The Harvard group focused on a process called telomere shortening. Most cells in the body contain 23 pairs of chromosomes, which carry our DNA. At the ends of each chromosome is a protective cap called a telomere. Each time a cell divides, the telomeres are snipped shorter, until eventually they stop working and the cell dies or goes into a suspended state called “senescence”. The process is behind much of the wear and tear associated with ageing.
At Harvard, they bred genetically manipulated mice that lacked an enzyme called telomerase that stops telomeres getting shorter. Without the enzyme, the mice aged prematurely and suffered ailments, including a poor sense of smell, smaller brain size, infertility and damaged intestines and spleens. But when DePinho gave the mice injections to reactivate the enzyme, it repaired the damaged tissues and reversed the signs of ageing.
This sounds very much like ‘genetic recoding to enhance repair capabilities in new ways’. And yes, it is only applicable to mice (“Repeating the trick with humans will be more difficult”), and developing a method that works for humans might still be a long way off. Yet, we have gone from “We haven’t a clue how to do #2″ to “We have found a method that works in mice”.
So while extreme longevity is probably not around the corner, I believe that it is possible. At the very least we can expect that our life span will continue to increase in the future, as it has done for the past 160 years. Very probably with more than 2-and-a-half year per decade. I strongly suspect that auctuarial escape velocity will not be a matter of if, but of when.
And then extreme longevity is a fact of life.
Finally, as to (b): mind uploading is a pipe dream;
I don’t know.
On the one side, the human brain is an immensely complex organ, of which we still understand very little (even though our knowledge is increasing). It’s also very unclear if a mind based so intimately in a biological body can be ‘transported’ or ‘copied’ to a non-biological mainframe, without considerable losses in either functionality or memory or both.
On the other side, if Moore’s Law holds (and it’s not showing any signs of slacking up yet), then by the time mind uploading is possible — even when it happens only a few decades from now — then there will be a hell of a lot of computing power available to upload into.
Apart from that, if uploading becomes possible, there is still the problem that, in all likeliness, it will be copying your mind into a different substrate, leaving the original behind to die. That’s why I prefer developments of extending lifespan of our biological bodies: it seems the better bet.
- Blue Trefoil Knot: via Wikipedia;
- Shift Happens: via Shifting Paradigms;
- Intimations: via Photography Blog;
- Intimations of Immortality: via The Millstone;
- Actuarial Escape Velocity: from the PLoS Biology article;
- Golden Trefoil Sculpture: via Into the Deep;
Here are a few things that struck me in my own country (The Netherlands).
This so-called ‘Beer Boat’ is fully electrical driven (both the propeller and the crane) with green current and reduces the county’s CO2 emissions with 16.5 tonnes per year in comparison with trucks. It not only transports beer, but also clothing, books and construction materials.
Actually, it is the second one in Utrecht, a city that tries to limit truck driving in its inner city because the fragility of its ancinet bridges and wharves. The first one is a diesel boat, but it was so fully booked they needed a second one. A much better one (it’s almost completely silent), everyone agrees.
(Friday April 9 I am meeting my Dutch SF companions in Utrecht: the beer should taste extra good…;-)
- In the recent DUS (FNV BondgenotenMagazine: the newspaper of the Union of which I am a member) there was an interview with Pieter Hilhorst, the Dutch national ombudsman: a self-procliamed ‘tireless softie’ who is against cynism.
I hate cynicism, but I am not an old-fashioned leftie. The old-fashioned left still think a better society can be created through anonymous solidarity with rigid rules. But we get stuck in those rules. We should rebuild solidarity from the bottom up: help each other at the small scale level, using self-organising powers: not ‘save yourself’, but ‘save each other’.
We need more people like him.
- Hyves for energy is the vision of the future (via de Volkskrant): experimental cogeneration (or Combined Heat and Power or CHP) plants are being installed in Dutch households. Experimental because of the scale: right now CHP plants are of industrial size, this is one of the first times where the principle is scaled down to that of a household central heating boiler. A so-called micro-cogenerator boiler (microwarmtekrachtketel’) that — according to KEMA, the manufacturer — increases the energy efficiency from 98 to 125% (this obviously hinges on how one defines ‘efficieincy’, but in other words, part of the boiler’s waste heat is transformed in electricity through a small Stirling engine).
Problem is that such installations are quite expensive, and their economic feasibility hinges on the electricity company’s willingness to pay for power delivered back into the net. Hence an experimental set-up, with some households using the micro-cogenerator boiler, some using a heat pump that extracts energy from the air, some have solar panels and all are connected to windmills through a smart grid. Also the use of ‘smart’ appliances like washing machines and dishwashers that will automatically switch on when the renewable energy is cheaper than that of the grid.
“There will be communities that share and exchange energy,” says Pier Nabuurs of KEMA, “a bit like Hyves for energy.” (NOTE: Hyves is the Dutch version of Facebook.)
- Groenlinks, the Dutch green party, presented its programme for the June 9 national elections yesterday. I particularly like their slogan: ‘Zin in de toekomst’, or: ‘Looking forward to the future’.
- A new species of plankton — named Chordata Borgesius — discovered in the same week where World Biodiversity Day and Cultural Diversity Day were held (OK: some news is from last year, which I didn’t have the time to post). “Coincidence? I think not!” Babette Wagenvoort states.
- Apropos biodiversity and its uses: let worms clean the sewage sludge. Scientist Tim Hendrickx of Wageningen University says the Lumbriculus variegatus can clean up to 70% of the Dutch sewage sludge. Biocrafted Ouroboros, anyone (hats off to Rajan Khanna)? [Rajan's tweet was up on @outshine on June 10, and the worms article on June 13. Coincidence? I think not...;-)]
- A company in Barneveld called Paperfoam is the only one in the world that fabricates packaging material fully from potato starch: ‘a real iPhone is packed in starch‘. 100% biodegradable, and the CO2 emission from manufacturing one paperfoam CD or DVD case is one tenth of that of a plastic one. While all the research is done in Holland, the company has license holders in Denmarl, Malaysia and the US.
So say goodbey to your plastic (one hopes, looking at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch).
- And finally, an ecohotel I wasn’t aware of: ‘De Vrouwe van Stavoren‘ where people can stay in recycled Wine Casks (via ecofriend ).
That’s the second time that environmental awareness is combined with good drinks! Coincidence? I think not!
And thankfully innovation and forward thinking are alive and well, also in Holland.
UPDATE (hot off the press): Suriname, which used to be a Dutch colony, is doing very fine. An interview with Andre Telting, the director of Suriname’s central bank.
In the year 2000, as the country’s bank director, he inherited a total financial chaos. But he — and his fellow countrymen — turned it around.
Recently, at the IMF meeting in Istanbul, Suriname was receiving compliments. They were one of the very few nations that showed growth through the credit crisis. The country improved its debt position and strengthened its monetary reserves (reducing the country’s debt from over 500 million euors in 2000 to 210 million euros now).
On top of that, while he’s resigning (after ten intense years, and he’s 74 years old now) he’s optimistic that the Surinam people will not elect a corrupt government again. To quote:
“As regards criminality in this region we are an oasis of peace. Suriname is a safe country for foreigners. The average Surinamer is healthy and well-educated. Yes, I am positive about this country. But we have to prepare our people to several new developments, like the oil inning industry which can be a large source of income for Suriname.”
Which puts the cliché that ‘Third World’ countries can’t take care of themselves in a different perspective.
Sometimes I can’t help but wonder why—in the SF blogosphere —a post about whether SF should or should not die effortlessly draws more eyeballs than near-future SF stories that demonstrate its relevance. Partly, I suspect, because stories do not contain links to other articles. Still, it’s a bit of a shame that articles with a negative undertone get more attention than stories with a positive message. Or maybe I’m just comparing apples to pears.
Therefore an article about positive developments in the world (I’ve already posted plenty of those). Here’s one development that particularly caught my attention, because it is a solution that addresses several problems at the same time:
→In West Africa, native fruits have a big future:
(from New Scientist, November 7, 2009. Yes, it’s six weeks old, and I’m catching up on my NS reading. But this is an item that will remain relevant for—at least—several decades, showing that near-future, optimistic SF does not need to have a one or two-year expiration date.)
For those not subscribing to New Scientist, the article is online.
“Domesticating wild fruit like bush mango has changed our lives.”
“It is a peasant revolution taking place in the fields of Africa’s smallholders.”
In short, African farming smallholders are switching to local wild fruits, making both more food and more money, and creating more biodiversity and environmental sustainability in the process.
The advantages combine to make a sum larger than the separate parts:
- fruit trees exist in a large variety (over 300 different ones in Cameroon alone);
- fruit trees are much better resistant against droughts than mass crops like cassava, maize and wheat;
- in the domestication programme, local knowledge and science—after some initial mistrust, which was overcome by the good results—are combined;
- all low-tech, no fancy equipment needed;
- fruit trees generate income year-round (not just three months like, for example, cacao);
- they thrive in a diversity situation (many different tree crops on one land), creating a habitat for wildlife and environmental sustainability;
- people not only get better food, but with the extra income they buy school fees for their children, decent healthcare, and improved housing;
Let’s call it ‘win/win squared’!
Obviously, there is still a very long way to go, and there will be large obstacles to overcome—especially worries about a level playing field against big agriculture: check out some of the comments in the comment section—but this is nevertheless a tentative step forward, not only in Africa, but it’s happening in North Australia, as well (see also some of the comments in the comment section of the article).
A similar interesting development is the rise of urban beekeeping as honeybee numbers have been falling to catastrophic levels, with the counter-intuitive result that people in cities are helping to keep honeybees alive, both genetically and increasingly in larger numbers. Many thanks to Cameo Wood—who runs Her Majesty’s Secret Beekeeper in the Mission District—for informing me about this when she showed Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman and me around in San Francisco, courtesy of Borderlands Books.
By way of contrast, two examples of implementing change directly on the larger scale (keeping in mind that the previous examples are already adding up in sheer numbers):
- Growing biofuel without razing the rainforest (also via New Scientist): an interview with plant scientist Marcus Buckeridge;
- The 2009 Human Development Report: common migration misconceptions are challenged (“Migration can be a force for good, contributing significantly to human development,” says United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Administrator Helen Clark.)
To restate (as I’ve done over and over on this site): good things and optimistic developments are happening on this planet: they’re just underreported, underrated and—I suspect—underestimated. Let’s keep looking forward, and work on a better future.
There’s been a lot of musing about the fate of science fiction, lately. To be clear, I’ll be discussing *written SF* here (predominantly), not SF in movies, comics, video games or other media. To summarise (and this is far from complete, but I hope it touches upon the main points):
- According to Ashok Banker, SF is morally and ethically bankrupt (to put it mildly: his interview at the World SF News Blog has been deleted on his request, because some idiot stalker is now threatening not only him, but his family and friends, as well);
- According to Lavie Tidhar, SF — and fantasy, as well — is suffering from monolithic anglophone syndrome;
- According to Mark Newton, SF is commercially dead, and fantasy is the (bestselling) future;
- According to Athena Andreadis on the Huffington Post, SF has ditched science and has become, in effect, fantasy. Geoff Ryman (who recently edited When It Changed) and Ken MacLeod (who is involved with The Human Genre Project) seem to agree;
My viewpoint is that SF is becoming increasingly irrelevant, and that lack of relevance can be attributed to developments and trends already mentioned in the points above, and SF’s unwillingness to really engage with the here-and-now. That doesn’t mean that SF needs to die (actually, a slow marginalisation into an increasingly neglected and despised niche-cum-ghetto is probably a fate worse than death), but it does mean that SF needs to change, and that it needs to become much more inclusive of the alien (and I mean alien in ‘humans-can-be-aliens-to-each-other’ sense) and proactive, meaning it should not just shout ‘FIRE! FIRE!’ (and do almost nothing but), but both man the fire trucks *and* think of ways to prevent more fires.
That’s the short version: allow me to expand on it below the cut. Read the rest of this entry »
Yesterday I visited my brother and his wife and his two kids (my nephews). They had been to the Sinterklaas party at my brother’s office, and had gotten a present. This was a DVD board game called “Sealife“. So we played it.
I was amazed: not only does it teach kids a lot about life in the sea (particularly in a coral reef), it also raises awareness of how pollution, overfishing and climate change affect, well, sea life (and that of a coral reef in particular). I was also amazed that my oldest nephew Boris (6: he’ll turn 7 on December 4) got so many questions right, and has already a fairly good understanding of concepts like pollution and eco-tourism.
Now one can wonder if this is a subtle form of indoctrination (even if the ‘eco-friendly’ question were few and far between: most were trivia questions about life in the sea itself), or a good education counter-balance. Yes, I’m saying counter-balance because my nephews have a gameboy where the play nintendo games, too. So they’re also playing games where they hit, smash or otherwise destroy opponents in order to attain a certain goal and get to the next level. The phrase: “I still have 8 lives” is a common one. So they’re exposed to ‘violent’ games, as well.
Which made me wonder: which game has more influence on their thinking and (emotional/intellectual) development? I don’t really know, and have to make a wild guess. I think it hinges on two important factors: education and sense of reality.
With which I mean education at large, not just the education they get at school. Kids receive a continuous education from the environment: their parents, their family, their friends, their school. But also TV and the internet are a growing part of that environment. In Holland we have this thing called ‘jeugdjournaal‘ (‘youth journal’, or better: news for young kids), where important news items are told in a way young kids can understand, mixed with news of particular interest for kids (and it’s got a website, and can be friended on Hyves — the Dutch version of FaceBook — and followed on Twitter: they don’t miss a beat). It’s great, and I know it’s watched and followed by a large number of adults, as well.
Then there are these educational games they do at school: when I showed my mother, my brother, his wife and my two nephews around in the Training Centre where I work, my oldest nephew immediately understood how to use a smartboard, got on the internet, and played ‘het poepspel‘ (the poop game): a game where kinds need to fits pipes between a house and the sewer before the resident of the house is finished on the toilet. If they fail the whole screen is literally full of shit (young kids love that), and if they succeed the grey water is succesfully transported to the sewer. It succesfully combines a young kid’s fascination with poop into a game that shows why we have sewers. I certainly wish we had such a game in my youth.
2. Sense of Reality.
I suspect that there is a qualitative difference in how those kids see and experience a DVD board game such as Sealife or a nintendo game on a gameboy. I think they know that when they’re playing on a gameboy and their avatars jump to immense heights, perform impossible feats, and die 8 times to live again, then they realise, deep inside, that it’s not real.
On the other hand, when they see footage from Jacques Cousteau of coral reefs where these reefs are bleaching, blackened by disease or otherwise suffering, then they realise that this is real.
So I do think there is hope: it is our duty, as the older generation, to educate our kids so that they will become smarter than us (and I mean ‘kids’ and ‘generation’ in the broadest sense). One of my fondest wishes is than when my nephews become adults, they do things better and smarter than me. Then we — as the ‘older’ generation — have succeeded.
Another question is that of, for lack of a better word, indoctrination. By implicitly pointing out the things that threaten sea life in general (climate change, pollution, overfishing), is Sealife brainwashing kids? Maybe, but personally I think it’s a good counterbalance against the senseless violence in many computer games or TV series: those indoctrinate, as well.
I think the kids will be alright, if we teach them well.
In all the kerfuffle I haven’t failed to notice Terry Bison’s interview with Kim Stanley Robinson (regular visitors know I’ve quoted the man several times on this site already). Io9 summarised it as “Dystopian Fiction Is For Slackers“, and while I mostly agree — while acknowledging that there are great dystopias, I think the form itself has become too much of an easy writing mode and a cliché — I think it oversimplifies matters.
As Kim Stanley Robinson said on the New Scientist website earlier this year, science fiction tends to see the pessimism/optimism duality too much as an either/or phenomenon, while in real life things are much more complex: they’re a mix of upbeat and downbeat, with indifference, incomprehensibility and interconnectedness thrown in for good measure, and also strongly subjective; that is dependent on and coloured by one’s personal experience, mindset and perspective.
And indeed, while he calls it ‘utopia’, what he means is not a full-on, happy clappy Pollyanna:
So, the writing of utopia comes down to figuring out ways of talking about just these issues in an interesting way; how tenuous it would be, how fragile, how much a tightrope walk and a work in progress.
This, BTW, describes the majority of the stories in both the Shine anthology and DayBreak Magazine. One clear example that you can already read is David D. Levine’s “horrorhouse“, that perfectly demonstrates ‘how tenuous, fragile’ such a ‘utopia’ (I prefer to call it a ‘better future’, meaning there’s always room for improvement, with ‘utopia’ as the ideal that can never quite be reached) is: both a ‘tightrope walk’ and always a ‘work in progress’.
Finally, I take note that if people thought that I overstated my case with the “Why I Can’t Write a Near-Future, Optimistic SF Story: the Excuses” piece (which keeps consistently getting several dozens of hits each day), well, Kim Stanley Robinson doesn’t exactly pull his punches, either:
The political attacks are interesting to parse. “Utopia would be boring because there would be no conflicts, history would stop, there would be no great art, no drama, no magnificence.” This is always said by white people with a full belly. My feeling is that if they were hungry and sick and living in a cardboard shack they would be more willing to give utopia a try.
Amen to that.
(Or, as I said: “And indeed, that’s what most dystopias are: a comfort zone for unambitious writers”.)
Anyway, one small blessing has already occurred: new e-zine Bull Spec — whose first short is by Terry Bisson, indeed who did the ‘utopia’ interview: coincidence? — already changed their guidelines to include utopias on the theme:
“utopias are hard, and important, because we need to imagine what it might be like if we did things well enough to say to our kids, we did our best, this is about as good as it was when it was handed to us, take care of it and do better. Some kind of narrative vision of what we’re trying for as a civilization.”
(Which is a straight quote from the Galileo Dreams interview.) So one more market — keep track: such markets are thin on the ground — where to send an optimistic story (when they re-open on February 1 next year).
Apropos David D. Levine’s “horrorhouse“, another interesting ‘coincidence': a few days ago New Scientist put an article called “How reputation could save the Earth“, where the influence of maintaining a good reputation is wielded to extract good (eco-friendly) behaviour:
If information about each of our environmental footprints was made public, concern for maintaining a good reputation could impact behaviour. Would you want your neighbours, friends, or colleagues to think of you as a free rider, harming the environment while benefiting from the restraint of others?
Compare this to the EcoBadge in David’s story, which was published 17 days before the New Scientist article, demonstrating that near-future SF can both be trend-setting and not age immediately.
Via a Shine contributor (I’m not saying who. I’m not giving the ToC just yet. There will be a competition about this) I was attended to GreenPunk. I see their blog started last August 19, so it’s still early days. FWIW, my first impressions:
- Their manifesto (or ‘statement of purpose’) is a bit too formal (and occasional over-the-top: see point C) for my taste. Caveat: I’m not a fan of manifestos. When Jason Stoddard wrote a manifesto about optimistic SF, I immediately asked him to change it to an open forum; that is, open to questioning and change. Where everybody can contribute and discuss, and is clearly and openly invited to do so. Hence the Optimistic SF Open Platform on the top of this very site.
- I agree with several of the commenters on the io9 topic about GreenPunk: why punk? I’m so tired of -punk added to a movement. Worked with cyberpunk. Got repetitive with steampunk. Got boring with clockpunk. Got completely superfluous with every whateverpunk after that.
- A flog to make sure the horse stays dead: the original punk movement got tired of itself by the early eighties already. Punk is dead, it’s become a product, and proclaiming your movement as ‘GreenPunk’ is about as realistic as the mohawk of the guy pictured below:
- (Yes, you can buy it — for $7.89 to look cool at the next Halloween)
- Finally — this punkhorse resurrects more often than vampires and zombies combined, unfortunately — punk is what beginning musicians produce because they can’t really play their instruments. The moment they do acquire a certain level of musicianship they start to play different music like gothic rock, hardcore and maybe eventually even metal.
Anyway, as mentioned, it’s still very early days for GreenPunk (they’re live less than a month), so time will tell if they are here to stay and produce something interesting (says the guy whose Shine blog is still a month away from its first anniversary. Life on the web is short and fast…;-). As long as they don’t go the way of the SFFEthics-that-became-the-SFFEnthusiasts, whose blog hasn’t posted anything since June 30 (says the guy who hardly posted anything last August. My excuses are a total solar eclipse in China, a WorldCon in Canada, a hacker conference in my home country, preparing for an important new project on the day job and the fact that I had to deliver the Shine MS on August 31. To say that I was extremely busy in August is an understatement: it was totally insane).
To follow up on the “Blueprint for a Better World” post: New Scientist has posted 8 SF stories — edited by Kim Stanlay Robinson — online, calling them sci-fi: the fiction of now.
It’s typical: while I was busy writing up my piece about how the Shine anthology is coming together for SF Signal, I also thought about these 8 flash fiction pieces. I can’t help but think that most of these stories go against the spirit of what New Scientist is trying to do with the “Blueprint for a Better World” series: only Ian McDonald’s “A Little School” is somewhat, very cautiously optimistic, but the rest varies from pessimistic satires to outright apocalyptic (Geoff Ryman’s “2019: The Reality?”, Nicolla Groffith’s “Acid Rain“, Paul McAuley’s “Penance” and Stephen Baxter’s “Kelvin 2.0“). As mentioned, even the satirical pieces (Ian Watson’s “A Virtual Population Crisis“, Justina Robson’s “One Shot” and Ken McLeod’s “Reflective Surfaces” [what's in a name...;-)]) are downbeat in tone.
While I agree that it, more or less, indeed represents a proportional cut-through of the state of current written SF (overwhelmingly downbeat), I can’t help but think that it goes against the spirit of the “Blueprint for a Better World” series.
Which is, I suspect — as I am still catching up with everything, so just read today — summed up New Scientist‘s own editorial of the August 22 issue, which I would love to quote ad verbatim, but will have to refrain, and take out the tastiest morsels:
Positive thinking for a cooler world
[...] Show people this video and they will find little motivation not to carry on generating trah and burning oil like there’s no tomorrow. But tell them about the steps their peers are taking to make things better, and they may just follow suit. [...]
[...] Over at the Earth Day Network site, it gets worse. There you can find how many Earths it would take to support your lifestyle if everyone on Earth lived the same way. It’s hard to find any positive messages: a vegan who doesn’t own a car, never flies, takes public transport to work and shares a tiny appartment in a US city would still be told their lifestyle requires 3.3 Earths. It is hard to see what this is going to achieve, other than disillusioning people who are already doing their bit and telling everyone else that it isn’t worth the bother [...]
(Emphasis mine.) This almost exactly echoes the points I made on the “Why I Can’t Write a Near-Future, Optimistic SF Story: the Excuses” post, especially the Sixth Excuse:
Furthermore, with the amount of cautionary tales going around in SF today, we should be well on our way to paradise, as we’re being told ad nauseam what not to do. Imagining things going wrong is easy; imagining things improving is hard. It’s easier to destroy than create. I’m sick and tired of writers demonstrating five thousand different ways of destroying a house: I long for the rare few that show me how to repair it, or build a better one.
Oh well: New Scientist tries to lead by example. Will SF follow suit? Let a thousand Shines rise…