Social Media Science Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, March 9, 2018

AFF_MarApr2018_400x570I’ve been reading the new March/April 2018 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. I’ve found two stories we could call social media science fiction. I’ve read many other examples of this emerging sub-genre but can’t recall them at the moment. But I smell a trend.

Since I’ve been reading stories from Astounding Science Fiction, Analog’s previous title, from 50-80 years ago I can’t help but imagine what readers 50-80 years from now will think about these two stories.

The first story, “The Streaming Man” by Suzanne Palmer is about a fellow named Rohn who is an inventor of implantable medical monitors. For fun, Rohn programs these monitors to also play different musical instruments based on data from his body, so his body generates music and he puts that feed online. His unique compositions gather a large following of online listeners who become addicted to the music of his body. Rohn likes to interact with his followers via something like Twitter. His followers try to guess what Rohn is doing based on the music he makes. The story itself has other characters and complications but for us readers, this story tells us how creative the internet is and will be.

The second story, “Razzibot” by Rich Larson is about a fourteen-year-old girl, Marisol, receiving a Razzibot for her birthday. This device is a small AI driven drone that flies around Marisol filming her life for a live feed to the internet. Between Marisol’s need for followers, and the AI’s ability to always seek shots that flattery Marisol’s looks and appeal to the viewers’ voyeurism, the number of her followers grow and grow. Through the story, Marisol knows when she’s playing up to the camera, but also knows when she’s revealing too much of her personal life. The tale is about ego and technology.

These two stories are very engaging. Besides good writing, I assume their relevant topics would make them appealing reads to most people. Both of these stories feel very possible. In fact, the science might already exist to allow them to happen. The stories are so close to now I have to wonder if we should even call them science fiction. They could be considered contemporary social commentary. If a reader in 2068 reads them what will they think? I can easily imagine future readers believing these stories were realistic fiction about 2018.

That’s the thing. When I read technology and science news I often feel that I’m already living in a science fictional future. I also find it really hard to imagine the next fifty years experiencing as much change as I have in the last fifty years. It’s one thing for Dick Tracy comics to imagine a wrist phone back in 1946 that’s a lot like an Apple smartwatch, but it’s a whole other thing for us to imagine what people will be using in 2090. All the easy to imagine inventions have been fictionally invented.

That makes it hard for science fiction writers. Coming up with the idea of making music from monitoring bodily functions is clever. Thinking up an always-on selfie robot is good too, but less original. They already have drone selfie cams on the market. Building in the AI to make users internet interesting is not such a stretch. SF writers probably have a hard time keeping up with real science and technology.

Dick Tracy’s two-way wrist radios go back 72 years. It wasn’t called a phone. His creator didn’t imagine cell phones. Portable two-radios were already getting smaller back then, so it wasn’t a big leap to imagine one on the wrist. We’d be far more impressed if Chester Gould had imagined a cellular phone system or a computer network.

Science fiction often imagines too much, thinking up magical inventions, like teleporters, brain downloading, holodecks, or spaceships that can make interstellar flights in a few hours. We know computer chips are getting smaller, but should we expect smartphones to get smaller too? They were, but then they got larger. There’s a practical limit to what’s useful to hold. I figure most people want to over-imagine things and suggest people in 2090 will have smartphones built into their heads, and thus providing techno-telepathy.

I find Blu-tooth headsets annoying to wear and use, and I don’t see many people sporting them like years ago. And if you’ve ever talked to Alexa or Siri you know that there are limitations in doing things verbally. I suppose we could wear necklaces that are phones which operate by voice commands and have auxiliary tablet screens for reading. But I find hearing people talk on their cellphones annoying, so picturing a world where everyone looks like they are talking to themselves and not holding anything will be even more aggravating. The other day I saw a man walking down the street shouting angrily. I told myself, “I hope he’s on a phone.”

There are countless implications to everyone having a smartphone, especially one tied to our physiology. What happens to privacy? What happens to crime when everyone’s location can be tracked in great detail? There are endless stories there, but what happens to the old-fashioned mystery novel? We’d always know who-did-it. Have you ever noticed how many classic movies would have had their plots invalidated if the characters had cell phones?

Both “The Streaming Man” and “Razzibot” assume technology will make certain individuals more interesting than others. But if everyone has the same technology will that be true? Marisol is interesting because her friends don’t have a Razzibot. Rohn is interesting because he’s the only person making music with his body.

I’m wondering if technology will eventually even out and a return to privacy will become compelling. Today I read “For Two Months, I Got My News From Print Newspapers. Here’s What I Learned” by Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times. Manjoo got better news by getting his news from slower news sources. I would think some science fiction writers might work on imagining a backlash to more technology.

I know I’m getting irritated by so many people calling me every day. Maybe we’ve become too accessible. Which is the driving force of the plot lines of these two short stories.

JWH

13 thoughts on “Social Media Science Fiction”

  1. I think the tech changes/advances you’re talking about will begin to change, in ways you and I can’t comprehend, once the last person born before the advent of ‘mobile’ technology, (that is, smart phones, tablets, wearables, but not desktop or laptop computers) is well and truly in her grave.
    By that time children who were born instinctively knowing how to use mobile tech (figuratively speaking) will be the ones in positions of power, decision makers, cultural motivators, etc.
    Right now we’re stuck oscillating between 20th and 22nd century cultural imperatives and ideologies in ever diminishing circles. 😀

  2. These two stories have intrigued, and remind me a little bit about the current science fiction book I am writing. I love how authors can have similar ideas, with some differences, and how many of us can have the same fears about too much technology. As always, your blog is illuminating.

      1. Mind you, I don’t think it is a particularly good novel. It’s an instance of a mainstream author dabbling in SF, and then many readers who normally would not pick up SF are confronted with a couple of SF themes and call it “groundbreaking”, but the ideas in The Circle are rather tropey and mundane. Although I have also noticed big differences in opinion between age cohorts. A film came out last year and almost all young people I talked to found it mundane and regurgitated material, but it spoke loudly to older generations.

  3. Returning to a theme discussed here recently – unfairly neglected authors of decades past:

    From what I recall, Norman Spinrad’s A World Between published way back in 1979, was quite prophetic about the role of social media in an internet connected world. The central plot concerns three political factions conducting a propaganda war on worldwide social media platforms.

    Check out how current these descriptions seem. From FantasticFiction.com: “Pacifica was a monument to freedom and equality-until the off-worlders came. The Femocrats, a party of female separatists, and the Transcendental Scientists, an institute of technofascists dedicated to male supremacy. Carlotta Madigan, Pacifica’s prime minister, and Royce Lindblad, her handsome young lover and media adviser, had to find a way to stop the Pink and Blue War-without becoming casualties themselves.” And from Wikipedia: “A World Between… takes place on a planet called Pacifica, whose governmental system is a media democracy, in which elections are held on a world-wide computer net.”

    “There are countless implications to everyone having a smartphone, especially one tied to our physiology. What happens to privacy?… Maybe we’ve become too accessible.”

    Ever read Frederik Pohl’s 1965 novel The Age of the Pussyfoot?
    https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1171506.The_Age_of_the_Pussyfoot
    The citizens of Pohl’s future world carry an appliance called a Joymaker. As described by Pohl this is an internet connected, AI-driven, combination smartphone/electronic ID & wallet/mood altering drug dispenser which can also use neural stimulation to induce physical sensations as part of a message. Forrester, Pohl’s protagonist, is constantly besieged by messages on his joymaker that he either can’t or won’t find time to deal with. Denizens of this future are so tied to these devices that they effectively become nonpersons if their joymaker is lost or stolen. Pohl set the story several hundred years in the future, but says in an intro that he expected a lot of these developments might happen within about 50 years.

    “What happens to crime when everyone’s location can be tracked in great detail? There are endless stories there, but what happens to the old-fashioned mystery novel? We’d always know who-did-it.”

    In The Demolished Man (1951), Alfred Bester managed to pull off something similar with telepathy instead of cell phones as a plot device. From FantasticFiction.com: “In the year 2301, guns are only museum pieces and benign telepaths sweep the minds of the populace to detect crimes before they happen. In 2301 murder is virtually impossible, but one man is about to change that…” The plot follows a telepathic detective trying to solve said murder.

    “Have you ever noticed how many classic movies would have had their plots invalidated if the characters had cell phones?”

    Sure, but on the other hand… here’s a decent little thriller called Cellular (2004) starring Kim Basinger.
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0337921/?ref_=nv_sr_1
    Contemporary tech is central to the plot. From imDb: “A young man receives a call on his cellular phone from a woman who says she’s been kidnapped, and thinks she’s going to be killed soon, along with her husband and son who the kidnappers have gone after next. The catch? She doesn’t know where she is… and his cell phone battery might go dead soon.”

    1. PJ, I recently finished listening to The Demolished Man on audio. Bester showed how hard it would be able to get away with murder in a telepathic society. When I get the time I’ve got The Stars My Destination lined up to hear too.

      Whatever happened to Norman Spinrad? I remember Bug Jack Barron and The Iron Dream. I need to find a copy of A World Between. Isn’t it funny that some authors speculated about our future but we forgot them because we don’t remember that speculation being right at the time?

      I read The Age of the Pussyfoot ages ago, but you’ve convinced me I need to reread it.

      1. The Stars My Destination is on my current re-read list as well, James.

        Can’t remember titles or authors at the moment but I know I’ve read a couple of ok stories about murders committed in total surveillance societies. Probably in Analog from the 1970’s. I keep picturing cover art of a bird nesting in some circuitry, but that was for a story about suspected sabotage in an arcology.

        Anyway, I’ve always enjoyed SF mysteries – stuff like several of Larry Niven’s early stories, Asimov’s R. Daneel Olivaw & Elijah Bailey, and Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy. Then on the flip side there are Anthony Boucher’s Rocket to the Morgue ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rocket_to_the_Morgue ) which is set in the milieu of early SF publishing and Asimov’s Murder at the ABA – ABA is short for the American Booksellers Association convention, and the protagonist of the novel was modeled on Asimov’s pal Harlan Ellison.

        The Age of the Pussyfoot does unfortunately peter out near the end, but meanwhile it is simply fizzing with all sorts of social speculation. The Joymaker devices are only one of many such. Definitely worth a read, even from a present-day perspective.

  4. I don’t have a cell phone. I’m not on Facebook or Twitter. I’m not a Luddite. I just don’t want to be pestered. Time is one of our most precious resources and I don’t want to squander it.

      1. Well, we used to hitch a ride to the nearest pay phone, then call AAA. Good luck with that strategy nowadays. I held out as long as I could (and still don’t own a smartphone) but a cell phone is now almost a necessity, simply because everyone else expects you to have one. Good access to the internet is perhaps even more a necessity for full citizenship these days, which makes ISP pricing and the end of Net Neutrality almost criminal in their disregard for the public welfare.

  5. I live in a suburban area so police would be on the scene of a breakdown on the highway within minutes. Think about it: we all survived for decades before cell phones were invented. They’re not as essential as they’ve been marketed to be.

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