PREDICTING THE PRESENT
By Cory Doctorow
SCIENCE FICTION WRITERS MAY NOT
accurately predict the future, but they’re
often excellent predictors of the present —
people who notice just how futuristic the world’s
become while we weren’t looking.
In my last column, I introduced you to Tom
Jennings, the virtuoso queerpunk anarcho-engineer
who invented FidoNet, one of the earliest networks
for exchanging conversation. For nearly a decade,
bulletin boards around the world used FidoNet,
until the internet came to the average info-civilian.
Here’s an amazing story from the paleo-internet
that Jennings told me, which illustrates what this
“predicting the present” business is really about.
William Gibson coined the term “cyberspace” in
1982, describing a virtual “place where telephone
calls happened,” depicted in his fiction as “bright
lattices of logic unfolding across that colorless void.”
Gibson’s cyberspace lived in the 21st century, but
it had more to do with 1982 than 2012.
Jennings nodded emphatically. “But that’s crazy!”
Then I thought about it for a moment. Where do
flame wars happen? “They didn’t know the term
cyberspace!” We both nodded vigorously. That was it!
The spread of the term cyberspace killed the “guest
in my home” flame war, because once we knew that
term (which, after all, described 1984, not 2054) we
knew that flame wars didn’t happen in our houses!
They happened out there, in the notional network of
pure ideas. It didn’t have bright lattices of logic, but
it had plenty of cyber and plenty of space.
Today, there’s a hell of a lot of science fiction
being written about “the Singularity.” This is the
moment at which it becomes possible to make a
computer as smart as a human, which will shortly
be followed by the moment at which a computer
becomes twice as smart as a human, then four
times as smart, and shortly, 40 heptillion times as
smart. This is like a spatial singularity — a black
hole — in that it’s a break with history as we know
it, a precipice that we can’t see over. Once we hit
I suspect the future is the Singularity, human destiny becomes unknowable
probably weirder than the and unpredictable. We cease to be humans as we understand “human” and become something … else.
Singularity — it’s usually I suspect the future is probably weirder than the Singularity (it’s usually weirder than we think — Bell
weirder than we think. thought the telephone would be used to uplift the
masses by bringing opera into their living rooms,
not to beam atrocity photos out of Burma). But
the popularity of the Singularity tells us something
about our present day. We’re apparently living at
a moment with a boundless appetite for stories of
humans using technology to transcend our destiny
and even our species.
Are we disappointed that our tools haven’t transformed our lives enough? Anxious that we can’t
keep up anymore? Or just so overjoyed by the new
mind candy all around us that it seems like we’re
headed for a kind of techno-spiritual uplifting?
Just as Gibson’s seminal novel Neuromancer was
going to press in 1984, Jennings launched FidoNet.
Jennings is full of great Fido war stories. So many of
the standard fights seem to have survived the transition to Usenet, message boards, and then blogs and
LiveJournal. Nothing new under the sun, right?
Wrong. There’s one standard FidoNet flame war
that didn’t make the transition: in 1984, FidoNet
users would upbraid one another for being rude
while “a guest” in each other’s homes. When one
FidoNetter called another FidoNetter a sack of
spuds, the putative spud would get up in arms
about being insulted “in his own home.” While
you’re a guest, they’d say, you’ll behave yourself.
“What?” I said. “They thought that BBS discussions
happened in the room where their computer was?”
Cory Doctorow ( craphound.com) is a science fiction novelist,
blogger, and technology activist. He is co-editor of the popular
weblog Boing Boing ( boingboing.net), and a contributor to
Wired, Popular Science, and The New York Times.
14 Make: Volume 13