THE END OF SCIENCE FICTION? (2): the end of technological progress

Continuing his survey of arguments tending to establish that science fiction has come to an end, Nader Elhefnawy turns to a supposed deceleration of technological progress:

we are constantly told that we live in an age of unprecedented rapid technological change….However, a simple consideration of the technologies of daily life is enough to cast doubt on this “futurehype.” Electric lights, air conditioning, central heating, indoor plumbing, and most of the electrical appliances now standard in the modern home (like the vacuum cleaner, washing machine, and refrigerator) were in wide use before 1940. So were the skyscraper, the movie, the phone, the car, the radio, and the airplane (while the first jet engines were demonstrated in the late 1930s). Television was invented in 1928, and the first broadcasts occurred just a few years later.

It seems safe to say that the 60 years that followed did not see nearly as much change, at least where daily life is concerned.

I think that this approach to technology in terms of lists may make us lose the wood for the trees, individual inventions are details springing up within more general trends and paradigms. History is scanded by technological revolutions, from the Stone Age through the Bronze and Iron ages on to the industrial revolution and now the digital revolution. All of these have had profound and far-reaching effects not just on our social organisation but also on our very psyche.

We still cannot teleport macroscopic objects, or build faster than light spaceships, or even construct viable cities under the sea. But we are living through a technological revolution, whether it leads to AI or to the Singularity or not. The ultimate consequences of the digital revolution are still far in the future but the inventivity here is certainly not drying up. This is a technological phylum that was foreseen by some earlier science fiction, but its impact on our lives and on our manners of thinking has yet to be fully explored.

More generally, there is no reason to insist that the only possible inspiration for science fiction must come from the extrapolation of a limited set of canonical technological themes and tendencies.

We still have not seen what sort of technological changes the ongoing development of the life sciences can produce. Octavia Butler in her XENOGENESIS TRILOGY describes an alien species whose technology is based on genetics rather than machines. I think this is a good anticipation for what is in store for us in the future, and that the sequencing of the human genome heralds a new beginning rather than an end.

Cyberpunk was a preliminary attempt inside science fiction to extrapolate from the digital and biological technologies, but it is by no means the last word in these domains. Kim Stanley Robinson’s AURORA unites these two sources of inspiration in a very different way than cyberpunk did, allying them to another rising field of applied sciences derived from climatology.

I think that the two aspects of the end of science noted by Horgan and by Elhefnawy, of the existence of inherent limits to scientific progress and of the qualitative deceleration of technological progress are not totally wrong, something is ending. However, they do not adequately diagnose and describe the change. What is coming to an end is an overarching “meta-paradigm”, or episteme (in Foucault’s sense), regulating the various scientific and technological paradigms to which we have been habituated. We are seeing a move from an episteme based on unity to one based on disunity and plurality, and a corresponding move from transcendence to immanence. This is where Elhefnawy’s concern for a third aspect of the end of science, the menace of relativism and of irrationalism, finds its source.

In science fiction we can see this move in various guises in the work of Peter Hamilton (the Void Trilogy), Kim Stanley Robinson (AURORA), and Neal Stephenson (ANATHEM). These works of science fiction contain an explicit repudiation of transcendence and of its limiting, and sometimes devastating, consequences.

For those who cling to the old episteme based on the existence of transcendent truth this movement can seem to spell the end of science, of philosophy, or of science fiction. But if we can get used to seeing in terms of a more diffuse and more modest perspective, we may discover that it is not a death but a transformation and a diversification.

History (and thus also society) is coming to be seen as much less homogeneous and much more complex than previously imagined. This complexification of our vision of history includes technological and scientific history. It involves also a complexification of our philosophical vision, as we move even further from Platonic transcendence in theory and practice, without giving in to relativist hyper-tolerance.

I have cited AURORA and ANATHEM as examples of a more general tendency towards immanence and pluralism that traverses philosophy, physics, and science fiction. This tendency produces its own dangers, in particular the risk of irrationalism.

Given that our overarching paradigm or image of thought is no longer monism (Platonism) how can we avoid falling into the multiplication and uncritical celebration of meaningless language games (relativism)?

The multiplication of scientific and philosophical worlds at the level of the content of our theories and of our imaginative models mirrors the multiplication of formalisms and of language games at the meta-level. How can we accomodate both the plasticity of the real, which allows for multiple interpretations and ways of life, with its resistance, that selects out only a few possibilities as valid and viable?

Elhefnawy poses the problem very clearly:

A world in which science is diminished in standing and interest for the general public is necessarily one in which a fiction with roots in science suffers. No less importantly, it makes for a very different attitude to the future, and especially the “capital F Future,” than the one that has enabled science fiction to flourish.

The campaign and the results of the recent US Presidential elections have highlighted the actuality and relevance of this aspect of Elhefnawy’s argument.


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