Science fiction spoiled the future

JUNE 6TH, 2016 — POST 154

Like countless science fiction screenwriters and authors, I spent the bulk of the weekend thinking about what exactly “neural lace” (or a neural lace?) even is. I mean, I get the principle that Elon Musk detailed during his time on the stage at Code Conference that I alluded to on Saturday but there are still a lot of gaps that fictionists are undoubtedly rushing to fill in their own works. It seems that the press has taken some time to digest the whole thing to. The “Elon Musk thinks we’re living in a computer game!” pieces were up within an hour of the interview, but those mentioning the brain-computer interface rapidly carving its name into the cultural lexicon are only now starting to trickle out.

Quartz has a story on that obliquely touches on the neural lace concept through an interview with University of Adelaide scientists about their new book that posits technology as increasingly embedded within human evolution. Whilst the piece talks about a cyborg future that the book, The Dynamic Human, describes, it also includes mention of the only person I’ve ever heard identify as a cyborg. The hero image on the article is of Neil Harbisson and his unique modification. Harbisson is colourblind and a small sensor that hangs out in front of his eyes like the lure of an angler fish detects colour and reconfigures them for direct stimulation of Harbisson’s brain which he interprets as sound. The part of the electromagnetic spectrum we recognise as visible light and colour plays like a violin for Harbisson. The talk he gave at TED a few years ago first brought Harbisson to my attention. I remember prickling somewhat at his self-identification as a cyborg. I thought I knew what cyborgs were: they fought evil, or they were the evil. They had entire limbs as exposed circuitry, metal, and blinking lights. They weren’t some chipper guy on a stage with a sensor between his eyes.

One of the most difficult things to work through with reference to the ideas Elon Musk put forward during his Code Conference interview is that whilst he will talk of the future (or some in a set of conceivable branching future paths) we’ve already been there, done that, bought the neural lace. Whether in novels like the seminal Neuromancer, or animes like Ghost In The Shell, science fiction has made and remade the future time and time again.

The frankly idiotic input method shown in the movie adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report is still seemingly the gold standard by which we measure motion-based input. And there’s the ultimate cliché, so cliché it became it’s own adjective, of the “Orwellian surveillance state” that was “predicted” in George Orwell’s 1984. Even if we’re only now approaching the technical means to execute on some of the wilder possible futures envisaged in the great works of science fiction, I doubt anyone will be that impressed.

What the futures prescribed in science fiction do is in some sense annihilate the public’s capacity to understand our own development as wholly distinct from those works of fiction. These people with get implanted with neural lace and shrug saying “Professor X had it better with Cerebro”. These people will be shipped to Mars, only to kick at the dust whilst lamenting “McConaughey got a better deal in Intersteller. These people will buy an autonomous android “house servant” and they’ll send them back because “She’s not at hot as Alicia Vikkander in Ex Machina”. We all fall prey to the mundanity of ubiquity, despite the computational power and digital liberty graced to us by developments in telecommunications because, well, Dick Tracy had it first. As frankly monumental as the Hyperloop, the first Martian colony, or the neural lace will be, they’ll all suck.

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