On Sunday 10th May 1994, at the Mexicon 5 convention, Tony Chester moderated a panel on the man/machine interface. The panellists were: Charles Stross, then a fairly new author of science fiction; Colin Greenland, who launched a "science fantasy" called Harm's Way at the convention; and Norman Spinrad who, at the time, was searching for a publisher for his novel Pictures at 11 (eventually published by Bantam).
One of the kick-off points for the discussion was a book published that day (also by Bantam, strangely) called Chester began the discussion with Colin Greenland and, in reference to
One of the kick-off points for the discussion was a book published that day (also by Bantam, strangely) calledMetaman, which was basically a re-hash of the Gaia hypothesis, but including non-biological systems. The panellists had each received sample chapters of the book, along with Chester's other notes, prior to the discussion. What followed was one of the better programme items (and best attended) at a convention which has always been strong on programming.
Chester began the discussion with Colin Greenland and, in reference toHarm's Way, which featured "wooden" technology (ie. magical), asked if he liked machines....
Greenland: I love machines; I have a very happy relationship with my machines. I depend absolutely on machines that re-arrange words for me as I think about them -- even as it occurs to me, the machine will do it for me -- there's even the cassette recorder that plays music to me through the headphones while I'm working, and the answering machine that keeps the rest of the World away. I'm very fond of machines.
Chester: So why did you decide this time around not to reflect a technological future, but to do, effectively, a romance?
Greenland: That's the sort of question that doesn't arise when I start a book. What I have is a character in a strange situation, in an unfamiliar or half-familiar world. I don't start with the themes and say "now I'm going to reflect the nature of technology" or "avoid the nature of technology". The attitude to technology in Harm's Way is very much my attitude, which is that it's tools, it's what we use to get through the day; sometimes it's dangerous, sometimes it's difficult, sometimes it can be used against us. But essentially it's not a subject, not something in the foreground. It's landscape.
Chester: Charles; computers.....
Stross: Are very very boring. And I charge a consultancy fee....
Chester: They don't do much really, do they?
Stross: Add and shift. That's about it.
Chester: Over the last nine years or so, we've had a lot of SF coming out that seems to want to reflect some kind of idea of "cutting edge technology" and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it's all been based around information technology. But why would an SF writer particularly want to favour that over, say, a biological SF future, where the technology involved is a lot more physical?
Stross: Because they can go and buy it in Dixons, and it looks flashy. A lot of SF, it seems to me, trys to reflect today's pre-occupations.... It sort of uses the future as a mirror. Take Neuromancer, for example; go round Hong Kong in the late 1980's and you could see an awful lot of scenary that could have been lifted straight out of it. But to tell the truth, I'm very dubious about SF's ability in the latter half of the 20th century to be a predictive medium. Very often SF writers do get it wrong when they try to predict, and they may be better off if, like Colin, they stuck to characters and used the technology as a backdrop to the human situation.
Whether we can predict anything anymore is a moot point, because the rate of progress in a variety of sciences now is such that Earth-shattering developments, which in the past would have happened once a century, are now happening every six months. And they're virtually being ignored outside of their own fields, simply because no one can keep up with what's going on in all the fields put together. Computers were a very visible development in the 1980's, because they sort of intruded everywhere very prominently -- it was this weird new office machine, that new things were promised for. It's a lot harder to relate to a biologist sticking a hypo into a mouse in the back of beyond, if you've never seen such a thing, than it is to relate to a machine which is inside all of the department stores -- and in your kitchen, and in your wristwatch.
It's worth noting that up until about 1974 there were very few SF stories in which computers were portrayed as anything other than a huge, bulking monolith attended by white-coated acolytes, and virtually none in which the personal computer was prefigured. One or two writers tried it, but it never really caught on -- it was one of the wackier predictions. It was an artifact of the "shotgun effect", where if you set enough monkeys down with typewriters, writing SF, somebody's bound to get something right.
Chester: Do SF writers have any particular responsibility when they portray the uses and abuses of technology in their work?
Spinrad: Not often, but I'm playing with it in Pictures at 11 with a very simple piece of technology that's very dangerous, but I need it for plot purposes. It's something that's do-able, and I don't know why anybody hasn't thought of it yet.
It's really simple, it's a terrorist device. You do not need a critical mass of plutonium to make a really frightening bomb. You need a kilo, or less, and a nice mass of plastic explosive to embed it in, that's all. That could contaminate a whole city. It's a perfectly credible threat; for terrorist purposes it's quite as good as an actual atomic bomb. I don't know why Saddam Hussein didn't do it -- he had the stuff, the delivery systems, everything. You write about something like that, you think, maybe I shouldn't put ideas in people's heads; on the other hand, it's an idea that's going to happen sooner or later. So maybe it's better that it should be in a book first, before someone goes ahead and does it.
Stross: And in any event, are the people who are likely to do such a thing likely to read your book?
Spinrad: One. Never. Knows.
Greenland: But I know a man who will.....
Spinrad: I know for a fact that certain of my books have been taken up by certain radical groups. I've kept my distance, but those people are out there.
But it's not even that. Very often things start in a science fiction novel and then diffuse out into the general technology -- like Arthur Clarke always bitching and moaning about how he should have patented the communications satellite; he'd be even richer now than he is. Or the business with Cleve Cartmill [which, summarised, is the story of how the FBI descended upon Analog magazine after they had published a story with an A-bomb in it, during the time the Manhattan Project was taking place. When the editor, John Campbell, was asked where he got his information from, he replied, "everyone knows what you're working on." The FBI instructed him that he was to run no more such stories, but Campbell countered by pointing out that it would be more suspicious if these stories suddenly stopped, and that it might actually be a positive thing that this weapon was still considered mere fiction]. Or virtual reality that was popularised by Gibson in Neuromancer, that was subsequently developed.
But I had an epiphany with my computer, or rather two computers, where I lap-linked them and tranferred my entire environment across in seconds -- and it finally dawned on me that it was not the "dumb" hardware that was important, but the software. Either way I think that computers will probably make more of an impact, in an artistic sense, in music and animation rather than writing.
Greenland: Hasn't your writing changed since you went electronic?
Spinrad: My writing always changes, so how do I know.... What I've noticed is I re-write more. Endlessly, endlessly. I remember when I first started using computers, they said, "you'll be able to write a lot faster with this; it's going to be less work". (laughter and shouts of "wrong, wrong") Now to some extent it's true -- I'm a rotten typist, always have been. When an editor used to say, "type a third draft of this, and cut it by 5%, make it tighter," I used to think, "fuck you; what are you talking about.... re-type 400 fucking pages!" But with a computer.....
Greenland: Writing is more like they told me it was going to be, now I've got a word processor.
Spinrad: On the one hand it takes the shit-work out of it, but on the other hand I think you work harder.... I re-write endlessly because, when I used a typewriter I'd sit down, read the previous day's work and get on with it. Now I pull it up on the screen and, as I'm reading it, I think, "oh-oh, what's this," and start to correct something, and all of a sudden it's two hours before I get to the new day's work!
Chester: I think you'd agree, sticking with the idea of responsibility for the moment, that technology, and the uses to which it's put, is everybody's responsibility. How can SF writing help to inform... science fiction readers, if nobody else... about things like, 'Well, it's down to you.'
Greenland: I think one thing we can do, because we do have a ... vocabulary of the machine which 'mundane' fiction very obviously doesn't -- your standard mainstream novel does not have a way of actually writing about machines, we do -- I think one thing we can do is to show the ambiguity and complexity of our relationship with our machines. I think we can actually, not in a didactic way, give some sort of life, some sort of zest to our strange interface with our machines. We can make it an area, expose it as an area..... That is what "cyberspace" is; cyberspace is the taking of a machine, turning it into a fictional space in which you can put things and write stories about them. When you can do that, then you can begin to animate some of the issues that are going on already.
If you're writing a fiction where a metal being can walk on, and not just walk on, but immediately be recognised, familiar, or even 'old hat', that's a very powerful thing. You can take that whichever way you want....
Chester: Does it make our relationship with machines better... I'm thinking of the people who might use a microwave for popcorn, but it comes out wrong and that's the machine's fault.
Greenland: Yes, yes, you get that, and every time there's a technological development, there's a man with a microphone there to ask, " Are you afraid of computers? Are they going to ruin us? Are they going to take over?" And then they come round and say, "Is virtual reality a danger to our children? Is it going to rot our childrens' brains?" There is this tendency for us, really, for society as a whole to want to blame the machines. Which is crazy. One thing I think we can do in SF is remind everybody what Gwynneth Jones always says: "The machines are innocent."
Chester/Spinrad/Stross: Not always; not always.
Spinrad: I remember all these Phil Dick novels, with Taxi cabs talking back to you, and all that stuff. Now we're starting to get this crap! Not only cars that talk to you, but that talk to you the way you want them to, like: "Shut the door, stupid"; "Fasten the seat belt, asshole." (laughter and unsavoury suggestions from the audience)
And now they got little voice chips, you know it's only a matter of time before you walk into your supermarket, and you'll walk down the aisle, and the bloody cereal boxes will be screaming at you, "(falsetto) Buy me! Buy me!" Little Heroes is about this...
(at this point Spinrad attempts to light a cigarette with Chester's Zippo. And fails! General hilarity ensues as Chester fixes the problem...)
Chester: There's a huge aspect to technology that's to do with a very human trait, which is about control. Needing control, over yourself, over your environment.
Spinrad: Well that's the point I was trying to make before the Zippo screwed up. And that is that there are areas to our civilisation now where people are no longer in control. It doesn't mean that conscious computers, or conscious machines are either. It means that nothing is in control. Blind, randomly evolved programmes are in control.
Greenland: That's not to blame the programme, though, is it? It's our fault collectively........
Spinrad: We're getting too Catholic here. It's not a question of blame or guilt. It's a question of, "What's the reality?" And the reality, and we see this as writers, is that, for instance, many publishing decisions now are made by this blind mechanism, in the sense.... like the Neilson's in television (an American audience viewing statistic). Who controls what's on TV? Is it the producers.......?
There's a great Van Vogt story about this that illustrates it much more simply, a great story called The Day of Complete Control. There's a Great Dictator and you find that he is really being controlled by his Prime Minister; but the Prime Minister's really being controlled by his mistress; she's really being controlled by her hairdresser; and this continues until you get to someone being controlled by this nerdish little guy in a shop somewhere; and when he turns on his tube, and sees the great dictator there, he's being controlled. So who's controlling?
That's a nice analogue of the television industry, publishing and, right now, American, Clinton-ian politics. They've got their noses glued to the polls, and there's a haircut, or something goes down, so he fires this guy.
Greenland: Has the technology just made this more apparent?
Spinrad: (unclear on tape)... it's made nobody in control. It's evolved, like a virus. The technology is neutral, it has no moral dimension in and of itself. It's the uses to which it's put.... But some technology causes decisions to be taken out of the 'moral loop', or the aesthetic loop.... Why is TV in the States what it is? Not because anybody's made a decision. Anybody! It's because the Neilson Ratings System, and the technology that enables that to happen, has created this situation.
Chester: Moving on a bit, but still thinking about what SF is being written now; in Metaman there's this assertion that humans do not need to worry about being controlled, being taken over by machines, as the author feels that the relationship is essentially symbiotic. However, he does draw a distinction between environments... Planetary surfaces are rather wet and spongy, and you need wet and spongy machines -- human beings -- to make the best of that environment. Space, on the other hand, is somewhat inhospitable to these wet machines, and therefore that's the environment where metallic machines would have an edge.
However, with the emergent bio-tech it's occurred to more than a few people that the wet machines, us, could be adapted to the new space environment. But there seems to be little SF being written that reflects these ideas...
Spinrad: Well I think there's a coming trend in SF, that's arrived in SF, which is nanotechnology. Now we could argue here for hours about whether quantum level machines, nanomachines, are that kind of technology -- are they biomachines, or just machines, or neither or both? -- the definition breaks down.
Greenland: And when you write these books quickly, the technology starts to become invisible. Not just because of the scale of them, but because of the multiplexity of it; in a book like Queen of Angels [Greg Bear] where you can manufacture anything, there's no way of foregrounding the machinery, the virus, whatever it is. It's just this magic "block"; it could just as well have come out of a magic well or wand.
I think one of the reasons that people like to write steel machines is that it's just so much easier to conceive imagistically -- if you write about a cyborg, part machine and part flesh, you can see it more easily than if you were writing a "nanotechnologically reconstructed person", who would just appear to be another human being.
Chester: So why are we employing this imagery?
Stross: Because we are always reflecting the preoccupations of the current decade on the future, and we're always looking at what we can see around us and amplifying it. It's very easy to overestimate the originality and creativity in SF -- we see people around us with machines that plug into other machines, and it's easy to think, 'well why not plug them into ourselves?' But it's much harder to take a greater leap and think, 'well why not conceive of a World where there are no machines; it's just that the World itself is intelligent and anticipates your needs?'
Greenland: And if you do that, you change the mode of your writing; you'll be doing fantasy...
Stross: To mutilate an Arthur C. Clarke aphorism, "Any sufficiently advanced SF future is indistinguishable from fantasy." (general laughter and cries of "Yes!")
Spinrad: Or to turn that on its head, any sufficiently advanced technology is user friendly. That's self-evident, I think.
Chester: How many chapters have you lost at 4am?
Spinrad: A few, a few. It's also a part of the scientific culture we interface with, I think. I was at a conference in Tokyo once, with Robert Jastrow among other people. Some astronauts. And it was a space travel thing. Jastrow went on and on about, "You science fiction writers are full of shit. All this bullshit FTL stuff will never happen." You know.... And he started talking about how the future of Humanity was going to be to download ourselves onto silicon wafers, and have immortality, and go to the stars. And he's ready to sign up for it right now. And this, to him, was perfectly sane and logical; whereas the crap that we were writing was fantasy!
Greenland: What he doesn't realise is that we're writing about him.... (laughter)
Spinrad: Well I think that there may be some kind of deeper, murkier, Freudian, psychosexual level to all of this....
Stross: Manaclean dualism.
Spinrad: There has been a device marketed in the US -- I don't know if it's ever hit Britain, it may just be this peculiarly American thing -- called 'Auto-Suck'. Has anybody here ever heard of auto-suck?
Greenland: Do we want to?
Chester: This isn't part of the cybersex thing is it? (audience finally catches up and starts laughing)
Spinrad: Well it's this primitive, actually sold, thing. One end of it plugs into the cigarette lighter in your car, and the other end you plug yourself into (more laughter). And this thing jacks you off while you're driving. (audience becomes hysterical, as do Stross and Greenland) Now a lot of people, especially in the States, have an erotic relationship with their car, and this device helps you to actualise it!
Stross: It's funny you should mention it as I just read a newspaper story about a young man who formed an erotic fixation on his family's Mini Metro... In this country it's considered grounds for therapy.
Chester: I'd like to move on to Artificial Intelligence now, with a quote from Marvin Minsky: "When intelligent machines are constructed, we should not be surprised to find them as confused, and as stubborn as Men in their convictions about Mind, Matter, Conciousness, Free Will and the like. A man's or a machine's strength of conviction about such things tells us nothing about the man or the machine, except what it tells us about his model of himself." What does that mean, Colin?
Greenland: It means that problems continue to exist, questions still exist. We're not building machines that solve these problems, because the problems are philosophical, about the nature of identity. It doesn't matter what we build, the questions go on...
Stross: The machine that isn't confused and doesn't have an identity crisis probably isn't intelligent.
Greenland: Yeah; maybe self-awareness is self-questioning.
Spinrad: Yeah; the ultimate goal isn't to build artificial intelligence, but artificial stupidity (laughter).
Chester: I was running through some of the quotes from this book (Metaman) with another fan, Dave Ellis, and we were kicking around one of the assertions that, paraphrasing somewhat, said that a visitor from two centuries ago to the modern World would be amazed at our technology, but find the World itself quite recognisable. However, if we were to move two centuries into our future, this would no longer be true.
Dave and I looked at each other and said, "well, do we really swallow that?" Is the fundamental fabric of society going to change? I mean, so long as you have 'meat' running around with its attendant emotions, and psychoses, and desires.... Is technology going to change society beyond recognition....?
Stross: You put the crucial clause in the question: you said "as long as we have meat wandering around". Two centuries? That's an open question.
Spinrad: Not just that, but 'meatware' technology too. Drugs are technology. Electronic augmentation and control of conciousness is technology. I just read a Michael Swanwick story which was called... Medusa, I think, where they discover a self-replicating virus that enables you to reprogramme your personality to be what you want. To be smarter, stronger, more charismatic, whatever. That ability would have a really profound effect on society, I think. As would the ability of central authorities to do the same thing....
Greenland: I do think you need to 'frame' this whole kind of question -- technology is always changing society, technology is changing society now....
Chester: Yes; it was the word 'radically' that I was trying to think around.
Greenland: Some of the changes are radical, some are marginal, some things don't change at all....
Stross: And there are strange feedback loops -- without technology we would not have the synthesiser or the mixing desk, and without those we wouldn't have 'rap' music; and then we wouldn't have had the quote, a few months ago, from Richard Nixon, where he said: "If rap music had been around when I was young, I probably wouldn't have gone into politics." (laughter)
Chester: One thing we all seem to be very aware of is the exponential rate of change. In the past we used to have to worry about 'built-in obsolesence'; now we don't even have to build it in. Especially in the information technology field, as soon as something comes out, it's already obsolete....
Stross: Absolutely. I work on a major software engineering project where the cycle time between releases is eighteen months or less. In aerospace engineering, it's thirty years. You can extrapolate the exponential curve. The problem is, it's meaningless. Sometime around the year 2018 it hits infinity. That is, the rate at which the on-line information is available is doubling a million times a second. This is sometimes known as 'the singularity'.
Vernor Vinge and Professor Hans Morovec are pretty fond of this, as is Marvin Minsky. It will probably tail off before then, but around that time we would probably expect to have information processors around as powerful, if not more so, as the human brain. If the rate of change in chip fabrication continues.... The result is that around that time, we can expect that the World will be a very, very strange World to live in. And this is why I think that SF extrapolations of futures more than ten years away are bunk. It just cannot be done.
Spinrad: There's another way to look at it..... That is, let's say, to be conservative, that if in another century it's possible to do anything that's possible within the constraints of the space/time continuum, the question changes from "can we do it?" to "should we do it?" Then Clarke's law is itself turned on its head. Technology has become magical.
In the past it was usually true that if it could be done, it would be done. Now we're already at the stage where there are some things that we can do, but we damn well better not. And now we're approaching this other singularity where we may have to make choices to not do things, even though we can.
Chester: I was thinking that human beings are often nostalgic, to some extent, about technology as much as culture, and I was thinking that we may be facing soon a kind of "let's slam on the brakes and sort out what we've got before we go any further" period.
Stross: The problem with that is that I don't think enough people can see the approaching headlights at the end of the tunnel. We live in a society where, even in this country, 30% of the people still think the Sun goes round the Earth.
Chester: Well, again, as SF writers what are you going to do about that?
Stross: Retreat into high decadence. (laughter)
Spinrad: We need some short-term historical perspective on this. I think we have evolved, and in some cases technology has helped us evolve. An example; we've had nuclear weapons for half a century, and not used them -- well, twice in the same war -- but not used them.
Stross: We came close in the Gulf....
Spinrad: Yeah, well, if Saddam had used nerve gas on Tel Aviv, they might have used them. But there's another point: Saddam had nerve gas, Hitler had nerve gas -- stockpiles of it -- but it was never used.
300 Years ago, slavery was commonplace; it was an 'ordinary' thing. It isn't now. I think, talking about the exponential rate of technological change, that as it speeds up, our ability to absorb it speeds up also. If you had given all these toys to Attila the Hun, you would have had a different outcome than you have now...
Greenland: Yeah, we do have a moral sensibility. Let's give ourselves at least that much. The more information some of us have, the more we're inclined to act in a moral way....
Spinrad: And it's not just our morality, but our ability to absorb so-called future shock. I don't think people are so shocked by it any more.
Stross: They've had twenty or thirty years to acclimatise....
Spinrad: They haven't just acclimatised to the technolgy itself, but they've acclimatised to the rate of change.
Greenland: And come to depend on it. Thinking about what Tony said in his introduction: there are technophobes and technophiles and techno-indifferents. A common problem is people not being able to programme their video recorders, so they sit around until a technological fix comes along, and someone says, "if you point this stick at this barcode, it'll programme the VCR for you."
Chester: Yeah. I think it's telling that Doris Lessing was, apparently, casting around for years and years, being frustrated that there was no common term for the remote control; but, in fact, at least where I come from, there is one. It's called 'The Wand'.
We're running out of time, so I'd like to move onto an idea that Colin brought up in correspondence about how technological change occurs, without the requisite 'social calculus' to deal with it. Nowadays we have theoretical physicists running around coming up with all kinds of theories -- the calculus, if you will -- but then the hard data comes in from, say, astronomers and it contradicts the theory and makes a nonsense of it.....
Greenland: Well, it's that predictive problem again. People see the automobile and, perhaps usefully, predict that we'll be able to get from A to B faster, and more people will be doing this movement, but nobody predicts the traffic jam! You don't predict the pollution and the smog. You don't predict Norman's auto-suck device (laughter). You cannot do it.
There are always more propositions that are true than you can see from the initial conditions, or the data.
Stross: There's probably room to take both approaches. It's certainly true that the World today is as small as England was a century ago, in terms of the ability of people to cross it, and the cost of doing so.
One statistic David Brin is fond of quoting is that there are more scientists alive and researching today than there has been in the whole of human history. In that sense, we can both form the theories and try to act on them, and develop something new and sort out the theory afterwards.
Chester: I think we're going to have to stop soon, so I'd like to bring the audience in at this point. Does anyone have any comments?
Audience 1: I think that one thing we're forgetting, perhaps on purpose, for the sake of the game, is that once need is satisfied, the pressure to develop decreases. Now the problem with that are the triple human defects of dissatisfaction, curiosity and greed. But if I can give an instance, I don't know how many of you are concerned with the growing piles of horse manure on our streets. Now I'm sure, if we wanted to, we could come up with a great device for collecting horse manure, but the need isn't there.
Spinrad: We already have it. The Parisian Pooper Scooper. France, being what it is, you can't tell a Frenchman where his dog can and cannot shit, so they have these guys in neat green uniforms, going around on this cool looking cross between a motor cycle and a vacuum cleaner, sucking up dog turds!
Audience 1: OK, but what I'm saying is that, while all kinds of great stereo equipment exists and is available, most of us are content with the standard versions of that equipment that we already have. In that way, exponential growth curves tend to get cut off, as it were. Once the need gets satisfied.....
Greenland: Needs change, needs expand.
Stross: And then there's the demon of marketing...
Spinrad: ...the science of creating more need.
Chester: We can give you lots of extra buttons on this calculator, even if you're too stupid to use them. Audience 2: There is also the demon 'side-effect'. Probably happened a lot in computing, but think of something like HRT (hormone replacement therapy). This is a specific treatment for a proportion of women who have very specific physical and psychological problems, during or after menopause, or who have surgically induced menopause at a young age. As a result of HRT there are many women in this room now who will have a life expectancy greatly in excess of that of their male partners.
Chester: Now you'll just suffer from longer exposure to men (laughter). I'm afraid that's all we've got time for, so if you want to carry on, it'll have to be in the bar! Thanks to all of you for coming, and thanks to all of my guests (applause and cheers).
I've had to take some liberties in transcribing the tape of this panel -- what works as speech does not always make sense in print (and some vagueness still creeps into the text here and there I note). So, for those of you who would like to hear the foregoing without my amendations, a tape of this discussion is available from:-
Also available, from the same convention, are:-
Pat Cadigan interviewed by Paul Kincaid
Norman Spinrad interviewed by Ellen Datlow
Tom Shippey -- The Mexicon Lecture
Each tape costs £5.95 (inclusive of Post and Packing)
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