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Transcending Reality

Joy and Matthew Steem

transcendence I was reading that some of the big wigs in theory development are getting annoyed lately at the success of dystopian fiction. Since I am not a particular fan of such literature, I was thrilled at the possibility of acquiring some new potential stones to throw in that direction. Most annoyingly, however, the points made were not about dystopian fiction so much as about the experts thinking that what the general public really needs is more sunny sounding stories than ones of warning and woe. One of the commentators, Ed Finn, was annoyed that “negative visions of the future perpetuated in pop culture are limiting people's abilities to dream big or think outside the box.” These folks want fewer cautionary tales about the future, and more about the wonderful advances that science offers us. Oh yay!

Okay. I respect that. I questioned it a bit, but then didn't think much past it. After all, how much of a biased slant could be thrown in a story? The reader/watcher isn't that gullible right? I mean, we know that all power corrupts ... And isn't technology a form of power?

Recently, I watched Johnny Depp in Transcendence. The tag that went along with it was Sci-fi. I like sci-fi. At the conclusion of the experience though, I don't know if I was more dumbfounded than utterly horrified. For at the very end, the moral of the story was that unlimited and near immediate technological progress would have saved the world, and that the luddites who thwarted the coming utopia were short sighted philistines. OK, maybe not philistines, but most absolutely lacking in the ability see the potential good. Unlike the hero, they also had no appreciation of aesthetics.

My first thought was that this was a sinister plot against good science fiction everywhere. Where was the warning about the danger of speedily accepting unlimited technology? It seemed to me that Transcendence was anti-science fiction. After all – and while my repertoire may not be immense in this body of literature, it contains a large enough sample to provide a bit of relevance – I am pretty sure that sci-fi generally provides to the reader some cautionary aspect as well as a good story. The plot goes something like: some clever and ingenious cookie creates/finds a powerful technology. This technology is wrongly employed by either the originator or someone else. Horribly bad and nasty things happen. (I have various images of The Outer Limits traipsing through my head right now.) That is sci-fi – at least to me.

One of the great powers of literature is that it can provide us with a realistic landscape where the consequences of things, whether they are political ideologies or technologies, can be imaginatively played out. In our age, like none other, we have a power in technology and science that is mind boggling. Never before has mankind wielded such a force that could be used for either good or bad ends – knowingly or not. So, now more than ever before, we need skilled creators in the imaginative arts who are willing and able to provide us with the potential risks and consequences that technology can bring.

And isn't this just what good science fiction has been used for? To create a space where pronouncing judgment on an idea is easier, because we can imagine the down-the-road consequences. In fact, there are a good many philosophers (Michael Polanyi comes to mind) who have hinted that the human imagination has the uncanny ability to “guess” correctly when it comes to carrying out thought experiments. Again, science fiction seems to be just that – guessing at what happens when such and such technology is employed to the fullest. With that said, if some of the big wigs would have their way, the very thing we need now, caution, would be reduced. Instead they would want to fill our imaginations only with the wonderful march of progress. Eugenics anyone? That was “progress” too. But now I am sounding dystopian. Horrors.