With Great Technology Comes Great Responsibility: Technology and its Representation in Science Fiction Literature
I’d like to start by exploring an idea presented by Ursula K Le Guin, found in the introduction of the Nebula award-winning novel The Left Hand Of Darkness. She discusses the genre of science fiction, stating:
“Science fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors, drawn from certain great dominants of our contemporary life—science, all the sciences, and technology…”
I simply draw inspiration from this statement by Le Guin, rather than incorporating The Left Hand of Darkness into the upcoming discussion. However, I believe it is not only a wonderful way to introduce this discussion, but on a more personal note, it was a wonderful way to begin a formal study of science and speculative fiction. I’d like to focus on the idea that technology is an inspiration to works of science fiction. In developing this thought, I’ll look at two works in particular, V for Vendetta by Alan Moore with illustrations by David Lloyd and Feed by M. T. Anderson. Through this analysis as well as extrapolation to a greater picture, I hope to explain the unique relationship between science fiction and technology, as well as how it relates to modern day society.
The quote by Le Guin in her introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness provides a good platform to start this adventure. Focusing on the segment of the statement referring to the “…great dominants of our contemporary life—science…and technology”, I’d like to present a brief argument that technology should not be isolated to a great dominant of only our contemporary life, but rather expanded and applied to human life over a larger range of time. Technology in a modern context is easily associated with the devices that are so common in today’s society: cell phones, laptops, cars, television, music, and so on. But it is also beneficial to take a more reminiscent paradigm, and to realize the relative magnitude of different technological innovations as they have occurred in time. For example, one of the first major innovations is considered to be the wheel. This shape is so incorporated into our society through its function that it is easy to forget that at one point, it held no functional purpose. Another interesting example is the innovation of tools. The development and use of tools in more ancient time is used to differentiate the development of different populations and at times is used to differentiate species of hominoids. Something as simple as a pointed rock or a sharpened stone used for a purpose is a great technological innovation that holds little relevance in modernity, but was a cutting edge innovation in a more ancient context. So while Ursula K. Le Guin emphasizes the importance of modern technology in its inspiration of science fiction, I believe it is important to realize the spectral nature of technology, with importance and significance within a temporal context.
Suggesting that technology is a major motivator (though by no means the only motivation) of social change and revolution may even further expand this point, and is a useful argument to briefly consider. The most obvious example of technology as a motivator of social change is the industrial revolution, sparked by the invention of the assembly line and the cotton gin. These simple innovations completely revolutionized manufacturing, creating a renaissance of sorts, in which manufacturing was completely remodeled and new inventions and innovations were frequent. These changes in technology exerted heavy influence on the social and political environment of the time. Another very obvious movement closely associated with technology was the Cold War era, in which conflict was driven by the threat of developments in the field of nuclear warfare. Concurrently, the Space Race drove massive advancements in aerodynamic engineering, with the goal of being the first to pioneer outer space. In these two examples, and in numerous more, innovation and societal evolution are closely related.
From here, it is important to examine the double-edged nature of technology. Arguments exist for both the benefits and harms of specific technologies and technological advancement as a whole. Advancements in technology have promoted growth and development in innumerable fields of science, education, and human welfare. Advancements in medical technology, pharmaceutical development, environmental engineering, agricultural sciences and even further specified fields, both within each of these overarching titles and in titles that were not named, have improved aspects of human life. But while the specifics of the argument are far outside the realm of this writing, it is important to draw attention to the counter-argument to the benefits of technology. For adults, an Information Technology Productivity Paradox is cited, saying that innovation designed to increase communication and the switch to electronic processing saw a decline in productivity rather than the expected increase. There is also the phenomenon observed more recently of younger and younger children understanding smart phones and how they work. Each of these specific instances both have arguments and counter-arguments, which speaks to the controversial nature of increased development and use of technology, which is not limited to the two examples cited above. Because of this controversial nature, technology, its uses, and its appropriateness are highly debated, creating a source of friction from which many thoughts and interpretations grow.
From this discussion, it is clear that technology is important to our modern society. Whether these developments and innovations are considered good or bad is a more controversial topic. Regardless, technological innovation is a constantly evolving field, adjusting to context while both influencing and receiving influence from social and political climate. In this niche, literature plays an important role. Literature has often been a resource to express thoughts about society and change, if any is present. Period works are interpreted within the contexts during which they were written, to help interpret purpose as well as reveal detail about societal conditions. Some of these thoughts may be represented in literature. Science fiction should be no less considered as a representation of social and political climate, despite its supernatural and otherworldly reputation. If anything, it becomes most relevant in a world trending towards technology. This is the case in Lloyd and Moore’s V for Vendetta and M. T. Anderson’s Feed, which both incorporate technology, though in different methods and magnitudes. However, both can be viewed as social commentary, to lengths that will be discussed.
To start, I will highlight the technological aspect of each novel, as well as give a brief summary of each. Feed follows Titus, a teenager in a futuristic society in which a computer implant has been installed in the majority of peoples’ brains, supplying them with a constant feed of advertisements and entertainment. In a terrorist attack while Titus and friends are spending spring break on the moon, the feed is temporarily disabled in a group of people by direct contact, of which Titus is a part. Another one of these affected people is Violet, a teenage girl that Titus meets while on the moon and is instantly smitten with. The novel follows Titus as he develops a romantic relationship with Violet, in spite of complications that arise from the terrorist’s actions. The emphasis on technology in this novel is the feed, purchased and paid for by individuals in the society and installed in close relations with brain function. The feed not only allows the constant bombardment from advertisements, but it also provides direct communication with whomever an individual desires, in spite of distance or separation, as well as an instantaneous sharable database, so that thoughts, images, memories, among other things can be shared instantly between people. V for Vendetta is a graphic novel that centers on the central feminine Evey as she encounters the anonymous character of V in a fascist London undergoing repair from global nuclear warfare. The novel reveals V’s orchestration of government overthrow, centering the action on government agency actions and the way they handle V’s attacks (both physical and technological) designed to weaken and reveal corruption. While the centrally focused theme of this novel is government relations and the role of corruption, an understated aspect is the role of Fate, a computer system that the society’s leader, Adam Susan, uses to make nearly all decisions. We later find out that it is V who programed Fate and is ultimately influencing the decision making of Susan. While both Feed and V for Vendetta incorporate technology and both are considered works of science fiction, both utilize technology in different ways to comment on society. How each does so will be discussed.
The feed in Feed is an extrapolation of our addiction to smart phones, the need for instant information, and the desire to be connected, at least electronically, at all times. In an essay about the novel, author M. T. Anderson states:
“At the time, I was worried about the cultural effect of this information buzz on how we understood ourselves—even on our own neurological development. Now I am more worried by how this media shell actually insulates us from understanding the world around us.”
It is interesting that Anderson reflects in such a manner, as he makes this statement years past publishing, yet this insulation from the world is exactly what is observed in the main character Titus. This is in stark contrast to the other main character, Violet, who pushes Titus to think about the world around him and what is going on. Titus often dismisses Violet’s comments, which frequently reference the possibility of nuclear warfare as well as numerous comments regarding current environmental conditions. This is an interesting extrapolation from modern society. For one of the first times in history, the individual can claim responsibility for the type of information they receive. By choosing whom they follow on Twitter, or becoming Facebook friends with certain people and figures, the individual chooses what information is available to them. Even more basic than that, individuals can choose what they do and do not read, with the nature of the presentation of the information influencing if that information is pursued or not. The idea of “click bait” has unlocked the potential for advertisement of information and news, a modern phenomenon. This just further plays into the focus on advertisement that is featured in Feed.
The insulating effect that the feed has on Titus can be viewed as a comment on the role of social media in our modern society. Social media is a relatively new platform for the spread of information and opinions. With information becoming so easily accessible, the overwhelming feelings that Titus experiences at times are understandable. The sheer volume of information that is available both to Titus in his future and to the modern person is massive, and some people may experience the desire for isolation that Titus experiences, choosing to listen and observe only to the news and information that directly affects the individual. This phenomenon can be observed, especially in younger generations as they mature, and manifests itself in things like decreased voter turnout. While technology seemingly increases the amount of information available, paradoxically less and less information reaches younger minds, and seemingly even less choose to act and register opinions on this information. This behavior is mirrored by Titus in Feed, and was one of the themes that Anderson chose to focus on when incorporating modern trends into science fiction and a future dystopia.
While the feed and technological innovation is a major focus in Feed, Fate is a more background element in V for Vendetta, however its role in social commentary should go no less noticed. The societal structure presented in the post-nuclear fallout of London relies on the computer algorithm that is Fate to make decisions. Adam Susan, the leader of the society, makes no decisions without consulting Fate. The public in the novel is also well aware of Fate, as Fate is personified in the novel and leads a political propaganda campaign. It is not revealed until much later in the novel that V was responsible for the decisions presented by Fate, but until that point, Susan allows its decisions to dictate society. For example, following the initial bombing of Parliament, an attack by V to launch the action of the novel, Dascombe, who is the character responsible for broadcasting the voice of Fate (Lewis Prothero, who records as the voice of Fate to make Fate seem more human, gaining trust with the people) states:
“…Fate wants us to say it was a scheduled demolition undertaken at night to avoid traffic congestion.”
In this sequence, it is revealed to the reader that decisions regarding political and social discourse were directed by Fate. So how is this relevant to modern society? I argue that it is an extreme extrapolation of technological addiction. The most relevant example could be the use of Siri, an artificial intelligence application that is common on most iPhones. While Siri does not make explicit decisions, it does present you with all information needed to make a decision. For example, when asked, “Where should I eat?” Siri will compile a list of all nearby restaurants, listing their distance away, address, phone number, as well as a review. Another comparable thought experiment is the film Her, in which the main character Theodore falls in love with an artificial intelligence operating system. Ironically, something similar happens in V for Vendetta as Adam Susan confesses feelings of love towards Fate. While modern society seems far from falling in love with technology, the rise in addiction is an area of concern. Addiction and love are two different ideas, and the distinction and connections between them are a topic for another writing.
As observed, technology tends towards an omnipresent force in science fiction, some arguing that it is what defines the genre. So then why does science fiction choose to focus on technology in this way? I argue that it is because it contextualizes the unimaginable in a way to which we can still relate. Often, works of science fiction focus on unfamiliar things, whether that be a computer-controlled society as is observed in V for Vendetta, an implanted computer screen as in Feed, or things like time travel, space travel, or superheroes that are seen in many examples of science fiction works. I argue that if these technologies and phenomena are presented in a manner that is too unworldly, meaning that there is nothing familiar to the reader, their impact is severely weakened. I think that in order to be an effective thought experiment, as is the aim with some (but not all) works of science fiction, there still must be a strong relatable aspect within the imagined world. This allows the reader to still relate to the world, and can therefore imagine what it would be like. If the world becomes too foreign, the reader may loose the ability to interpret its significance, as most readers bring a self-centered paradigm to a narrative.
This brings attention to another interesting interpretation to give thought to: should there be a limit to the relatable nature of the content? I say this with V for Vendetta in mind. The graphic novel was a source of inspiration to the political activist group, Anonymous. For background, Anonymous is an Internet group that opposes censorship and actively hack and perform cyber-attacks on corporations and governments that they feel are guilty of censoring information. When they do stage a physical protest, it is not uncommon for members to wear the Guy Fawkes mask that matches V’s from both the novel and the film. Technologies that were featured in Feed are also coming into reality, though Anderson admits that he did not write with the intentions of predicting the future direction of technology. An outstanding example is a new contact lens that is being released by Sony, which acts as a recording device. Now, events can be recorded as a person experiences them, and played back and shared as memories. The sharing of memories through video and audio representation was featured in Feed and can now be observed in reality. One last example of a work of science fiction that is notorious for inspiring a flood of new technologies is Star Trek, which provided inspiration for the flip phone and some Bluetooth technologies. Simply labeling Anonymous, contact lens cameras, flip phones, or Bluetooth as “good” or “bad” innovations would severely oversimplify their complexity, but the connections to science fiction literature is interesting and significant. All these examples illustrate the ways in which science fiction is both inspired by and concurrently inspires reality.
Bringing all aspects of this discussion together, a unique relationship can be observed connecting science fiction literature, technology, and the two’s further feedback into modern society. While Feed and V for Vendetta provided examples of this, innumerable examples of technology and its incorporation into science fiction literature exist. Technology and technological innovations have been a driving force of societal change throughout history, present day included. The widespread use of smart phones as well as an increased use of artificial intelligence shows some ways in which the fictional aspects of Feed and V for Vendetta can easily become reality. However, referring back to Ursula K. Le Guin’s introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness, she states:
“Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.”
The authors of at least Feed and V for Vendetta certainly drew inspiration for their fictional worlds from reality, as was discussed above. But while the authors of these novels may not admit to predicting these societal changes (in agreement with Le Guin’s statement), society nonetheless seeks inspiration from these works, as is evident in social movements such as Anonymous and Sony’s recording contact lenses. Not to say that these works are the sole inspiration for these technologies, but science fiction’s incorporation of technology allows a way to represent social and political opinions through literature, as technological innovation becomes increasingly important and more closely integrated into society. As science fiction literature and modern society continue to influence each other, opportunities for advancement, either positive or negative, arise and society continues to develop and change.