This National Science Fiction Day, remember Isaac Asimov’s words as 2017 begins
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"Well, why did I choose science fiction? I didn't, it chose me." Isaac Asimov in 1988. Image Credit: Open Mind

"Well, why did I choose science fiction? I didn't, it chose me." Isaac Asimov in 1988. Image Credit: Open Mind

Asimov said that every addition to the sum total of rationality is precious, and that we can’t turn our back on technology or people

2016 was not the sentient manifestation of the time-space continuum out to kill us all. If it were, there are definitely other years in history, like the world wars, that would contest it for the title of “worst year ever.”

That said, it was a year that brought a lot of awful firsts, and made clear just how many negative trends we are facing across a wide range of issues, not just in tech. But it’s clear that the “disruption” and “democratization” technology was supposed to bring about are happening very unevenly, and not been a boon to many affected by them.

It’s not a pleasing thought. But it’s important to face the reality that a change in the calendar does not prove or disprove one year will be summed up as the #worst or #best 365 (or 366) days in recorded human history.

It’s important also to think forward, think of what’s absurd, too, because what’s fiction now could be reality tomorrow. In the US, today is National Science Fiction Day, which of course coincides with the birthday of Isaac Asimov, the prolific and iconic author about whom it is said that when he was afflicted with writer’s block, it was the worst ten minutes of his life.

He also said, most presciently in his profession, that, “Science fiction writers foresee the inevitable, and although problems and catastrophes may be inevitable, solutions are not.”

The far off year of 2002 imagined in his childhood is, for the internet, ancient history, after all.

More and more companies are eyeing automation, whether it’s for driving, journalism, burger flipping, or accounting. Where do the people who get replaced by self-service kiosks, bots, and AIs look for work? Where are the people who’ve already been displaced from relatively secure manufacturing jobs looking? As he wrote in 1950, in the work I, Robot, “The machine is only a tool after all, which can help humanity progress faster by taking some of the burdens of calculations and interpretations off its back.” Meanwhile, “The task of the human brain remains what it has always been; that of discovering new data to be analyzed, and of devising new concepts to be tested.”

We are, in fact, seeing some of that reliable, well-paying work becoming available again, as well as a pushback against just willy-nilly replacing people with droids. But even more than this, is the desire to cut costs and remove the human element as much as possible. These are not questions that have really been answered, and efforts at finding the answers are pretty piecemeal and not likely to keep pace with changes once it does become possible to go full droid.

We’ve also seen how mass communications is drowning itself. “Fake news” isn’t a new phenomenon, by any means, but the way we consume media has changed, and now it’s possible, with far greater ease, to create your own bubble universe. But, you can’t really force people to be “ethical” news consumers because if it’s someone’s choice to be lied to, that’s their choice, to be lied to. (Or as Asimov remarked in 1980, the choice we make that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”)

How do you confront this without making the situation worse? A question that needs to be asked whenever creating some mechanism of surveillance or enforcement is if you feel secure handing it over to someone you personally despise yet realistically has a chance of being in charge of it.

Is the system secure enough you aren’t worried they’ll abuse it? And if not, is that an acceptable tradeoff? Given that we’re seeing more of these attacks – less effective, but more successful, and not just in terms of violence – that tradeoff is going to be coming up a lot. But as Multivac, the supercomputer that becomes like a god (Asimov was an atheist) in Asimov’s 1956 short story “The Last Question,” says, “THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER.”

Technology has in fact caught up with a lot of older ideas, ones that could never be truly realized at time, but were imagined for the future. “This, in turn, means that our statesmen, our businessmen, our everyman must take on a science fictional way of thinking,” to quote Asimov once more. What seems like a science fiction concept of basing credit ratings on your weight loss regimen, number of close friends online, and spelling skills when commenting on Facebook isn’t science fiction any longer. It will be possible to run algorithms to try and “predict” human behavior off of social media interactions, which, again is not exactly new given that advertising has sought to do so for ages – but the difference is that it’s become possible to be so specific without people needing (or wanting?) to give consent to take their data.

Just having data is basically consent now – the only real way to opt out is to not exist.

The point is that these issues aren’t going away in 2017. They’ll be even more sharpened because, if nothing else, the world’s most powerful and prosperous country, the US, is getting a new leader. So expecting that 2017 will somehow be “better” than 2016 is really just absurd. There are no such guarantees, and 2016’s baggage wasn’t somehow lost in transit. Remember that Asimov, a pessimist, humorist, and futurist, told a New Jersey audience in 1974, “We are in a situation where we cannot go back. We cannot abandon technology.”

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  • Ron Ruggieri

    I am an old fan of Isaac Asimov -and he did contribute to whatever ” rationality ” is in me. I note that both Isaac Asimov and his friend Carl Sagan were very much on the political left. They understood that you cannot stop or reverse technical progress. But you can criticize our capitalist economic system , our not so necessarily permanent way of life.

    If Asimov were alive today he could add more than a footnote to his essay ” The Armies of the Night “. And Carl Sagan observed in his ” The Demon Haunted World ” how benighted and superstitious Russia was becoming AFTER the collapse of the Soviet Union. He put in a kind word for that Old Bolshevik Leon Trotsky.

    Trotsky had a more scientific belief in ” Permanent Revolution “. I don’t know if Isaac Asimov – a Russian
    immigrant – ever voiced an opinion on the Russian Revolution. The new year 2017 marks its 100th anniversary.

  • Adam

    How did you not use this one?

    There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”
    Isaac Asimov, Column in Newsweek (21 January 1980)