Thursday, February 23, 2012

How the world works now

Last week Niall Harrison called attention to Benjamin Rosenbaum's post (and the ensuing discussion in the comments) on what Niall calls The Wages of Nostalgia. (I've only just read these today.) In his post, Ben says he suspects that what is being labeled "nostalgia" for old tropes commonly used in sf is actually an expression of a "covert, unacknowledged hatred of the present [that] shows up simply as indifference to how the world actually works now." For "how the world works now" Ben seems to have in mind mainly early 21st-century communications technology. This seems an updated version of what I was irritated by in the early 1990s,  where (always male) characters several centuries from now enjoyed themselves by eating a "good steak dinner" (T-bone or Porterhouse steak with baked potato and salad) accompanied by bottle of red zinfandel followed by coffee, a cigar and brandy, where women were sex objects or mothers and never plausible colleagues. It was precisely the aestheticization of 1950s white middle class culture (with all its stifling gender norms) that drove me nuts. Here Ben complains about a character who, as he says, could only exist in 2011 (but is set in the 26th century):
When this guy takes a vacation, he is completely isolated from his friends and family. He is able to avoid the awkwardness of having conversations with them which he will not remember. He is able to simply retreat into silence. So apparently in 2511 not only do they not have blogs and Facebook and twitter and IM, they also do not have anything that comes after that, anything that makes us more interwoven with each other, that erases place more. They have simply gone back to the way it was before our social topography was reshaped by electronic networks.

Not to belabor the point -- the story, which purports to be set in 2511, is actually set in roughly 1985, i think.

And why did this not bother me while I was reading it, only to make me angry on the bicycle, later?

Because I grew up reading SF stories written before 1985. I grew up reading rediscovered-lost-colony-FTL stories in which the protagonists got lost in the woods, and it was fun. It didn't occur to me then that they would have GPS cell phones. It was easy, this morning, to simply forget the world of today, and read as if I was in 1985.

But on some level this is morally bankrupt.
As I say, I can sympathize with this kind of irritation, because it's akin to the irritation I've felt about those middle-class male tropes idealizing 1950s suburban culture. (The judgment-- "morally bankrupt"--needs a bit unpacking: I'm not sure I'd go so far, on the face of it.) But in spite of knowing that irritation well, I had to laugh. Really, I just had to laugh. Especially after I read the comments. I mean, here I am, living in the early 21st-century US, in the circumstances known as "late capitalism," in which the technological infrastructure is fragmented, fragile, and prone to frequent breakdowns and cellular coverage is absent in certain parts of Washington State and internet service is crappier than it was fifteen years ago. And where for the last twenty-four hours my home internet connection has been flaking out on me (i.e., largely unavailable, perhaps because someone at the cable company fiddled with a setting that is affecting our hub but not apparently anyone else's). For a while today it looked as though I might have to go out to a cafe to get some pressing email correspondence out. (I was thinking it would be like making a run to the post office used to be.) This flaking out is not a rare occurrence. Not to mention that the various computers I own are always crashing. (& let us not get on the subject of printers! or fax machines!) We all of us spend a huge amount of time coping with a constant flow of "updates" to keep the many bits of software our computers run on going. Our computers are always failing us. Getting tech "support" is usually unsatisfying, and often means waiting on hold, listening to a repeated four-note pattern plonked out on a piano for a half-hour or even hour before getting a tech who doesn't know enough to fix complicated problems (since if he-- somehow it's always a he-- did, he'd in a better paying job and not on a cable company's frontlines fobbing off customers). Never has technology been so unreliable. And don't get me started on viruses. Or spam and phishing. Or email getting "lost in the ether."

Everyone likes to quote Moore's Law when talking about technology. Well here's Duchamp's Law: under late capitalism in the US, the more advanced the computer or communications technology is, the less reliable it's likely to be and the more prone to frequent breakdowns. (Maybe you live in South Korea or other places where the government subsidizes basic technology. I hear there are more than a dozen places in the world with reliable, fast internet service. Duchamp's Law doesn't apply to those places. But Seattle isn't among them. Nor any city in the US.)

What happens to Ben's 2011 guy when he vacations on the Olympic Peninsula, say at La Push, on the coast, or somewhere in the Cascades? (I.e, somewhere one to four hours by car from Seattle.) His cell phone ceases to work, that's what. Maybe he'll have purchased a cute little GPA gizmo from REI, but maybe not, because maybe, like Ben, he'll assume his cell phone will give him all he needs. Or what if he crosses the border into Canada and discovers that his iPad or iPhone won't work because his cellular coverage ceases when he leaves the US? (Unless, of course, he's wealthy enough to think nothing of obscene roving charges.) The more cut-throat our economic system becomes and the more advanced our technology, the less likely it is to work. And that doesn't even get into the frequency of power outages during wind storms (which are common where I live) or ice storms or hurricanes or when transformers blow (which they seem to be doing more often than they used to). Rechargeable batteries are convenient, but they don't last long when the power outage lasts more than a few hours.

I would add, more personally, that I of course could never be characterized as a "2011 guy." (Assuming that "guy" is intended to be gender-neutral, as I am.) See, technology is uneven--unevenly adopted, unevenly affordable, unevenly used. I don't use Twitter. I just don't have time. (Hell, you all can see what a terrible job I do trying to keep this blog from stagnating!) At the moment, I'm about two months behind on reading my RSS feeds. Even when I'm on "vacation" I usually don't have time to be on Facebook much. I can barely keep up with my email, and as for voice mail, well, I so seldom use the telephone that I can't remember to check for messages and so usually listen to them days after they've been sent. There are so few hours in the day, you see. And I can't help it, my body seems addicted to sleeping at least a portion of them. You may say this is an age thing, and there'd be some truth to that. (I know it's age that has prevented my ever even thinking of texting-- I took about ten years to get a cell phone of my own at least partly because I can't use it without putting on my reading glasses.) I do, of course, take both a netbook and an iPad (as well as a Sony reader) with me on vacation, at least partly because I'm as compulsive a Google Search user as anyone I know. But I know very well that on vacation, especially, the internet will be out of reach.

Here's another aspect of uneveness: I have several friends, of varying ages, who have resumed sending me letters written on paper through the USPS. Why? Because they associate email with their jobs. And their relationship with me is personal. Yes, they do have cell phones and email addresses. One of them has a Facebook account (and we are not "Friends") and uses her iPhone to text. But print letters feel to them private and personal and one-to-one in a way that social media can't be. Is that old-fashioned or nostalgic of them? Perhaps. It will be interesting to see if private one-to-one relationships of that sort go the way of the do-do bird. I myself, looking back, am amazed to think of how in earlier decades of my life I'd spend a couple of hours every day writing letters to friends and acquaintances. (But then, literate people had been doing that for centuries.) I don't do that now. The arrival of the mail, even before I became a writer, was an important moment in my day. Somehow, I've never imagined a character in one of my stories living that way. I have often, though, made private "social" relationships part of my fiction, regardless of the technological context. Is that nostalgic? The answer to that depends on whether we think private social relationships are/will continue to be part of the way the world works. Yes, a lot has changed in the last thirty years. I just don't have a grip on what exactly is being phased out. 
If there's one thing I'd like to say about Ben's 2011 guy, it's this: showing characters using technology without a continual stream of interruptions to technology is idealistic beyond belief. Why don't most sf stories show characters routinely having to grapple with the banal, mundane breakdowns we all have to cope with in our real 21st-century lives? Why does everything work like magic in sf (except, of course, when the plot requires a communication failure for the author's purposes). Why don't they routinely show how uneven access to technology is? How our world works is as much a story of how it doesn't work as how it's supposed to work.

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