What hath the fabulists wrought?

28 June 2009

It’s long been said that science fiction predicts, or at least inspires some of the things which we take for granted every day. While the exact origins of the genre could be debated until the cows come home (and they most certainly are in some circles), it was some time during the 17th century c.e. during the Age of Reason in which people really began to write stories in which the advances of the time were their inspiration. Great voyages by sailing ship and fanciful aircraft were taken to regions of the globe which had only been seen by the human imagination. Adventurers with an almost magical grasp of the techniques and devices of the time fought wars, plumbed the depths, and explored far-flung frontiers in those tales.

Insofar as such things are concerned, things haven’t changed much in four hundred years. We still write stories about what could be and what may be possible inspired by what we have now. Over a drink or two with Pegritz last weekend I started noticing things in everyday life that could be said to have been predicted in some fashion by science fiction. It’s said that a good writer can extrapolate patterns from what is into what might be, and in some matters writers have been eerily prescient.

It seems prudent to get the tropes of the genre out of the way first, to clear the air for more precise examples. In many modern works of science fiction, almost unto cliche’, there exists an all-pervasive data network from which anyone possessing the right skills can access information as if by magic. Floorplans of buildings and property ownership information all lay around the Net unattended. I don’t think I need to say what that could be. Another cliche’ is that industrial devices which really shouldn’t be connected to a public net because they could be tampered with are for ease of administration and monitoring. Unfortunately, this is actually true these days. A popular schtick in the 80’s involved a cracker pulling detailed dossiers on practically anyone out of thin air which is pretty close to true when you realize that investigators make use of the same sites that you goof around on in your spare time. While it’s not quite name/rank/Social Security Number the information in most social network profiles gives a lot away.

There are also a couple of helpful tools which pretty much do the same thing, only without the advanced 3D graphics.

In the early 90’s, a couple of movies from a syndicated series called the Action Pack lead into to a series on the USA Network which not many people seem to recall (or will admit to watching) called TekWar. While the show wasn’t the end-all-be-all of science fiction (cameos by William Shatner aside) it did have a couple of elements that we either take for granted today or at least are common enough to warrant saving up for. As we all know, cellular telephones have given way to smartphones, the latest generation of which will possibly be capable of video conferencing if AT&T lets people get away with abusing their always-on wireless links that way. The iPhone isn’t that far off from Jake Cardigan’s video flipphone (unfortunately blue longcoats never caught on as a fashion statement).  We also now have what amount to spy-eyes, miniature video cameras that can be hidden pretty much anywhere for purchase on the consumer market for readily affordable prices.  Big screen LCD televisions that are also capable of acting as high-res computer displays are now affordable and showing up in the damndest places, such as restaurants (by the dozen if it’s a sports bar) and gyms.

While we’re on the subject of televisions in public, we may as well bring up a short-lived television show the writers of which bordered on prescience in a couple of areas – Max Headroom. Max aside, the most iconic image of this cult classic is probably the television set. Televisions, televisions everywhere. Restaurants to racquetball courts to corporate lobbies to hospitals… you’d be hard pressed to find a single scene of the show in which there isn’t a TV.  Just like a lot of places today, come to think of it – even the parking garage of Tyson’s Corner Mall.  In the show as well as more and more often these days, people can go a little batshit if their televisions are suddenly turned off.

An uncomfortable truth of the twenty-first century is that if something isn’t on television the number of people who will know about it is drastically reduced.  While services like Facebook and Twitter have become major powers in the field of getting information out faster than anyone can block it most people still keep an eye on the television news networks to stay abreast of what’s happening in the world.  Reality shows are practically everywhere you turn, half-hour blocks which depict a dubiously and creatively edited ‘reality’ ostensibly lived by average people.  Also described in Max Headroom (and other cyberpunk works since then) are the Blanks – people who, through bad luck, misfortune, or the desire to drop out and go their own way wind up on the fringes of mainstream society and make their way as best they can.  Also mentioned are body banks, places where people can sell their organs on the black market for cash.  Sometimes these sales aren’t voluntary, and sometimes the sales of organs are more a matter of waste not, want not than altruism.

I wish I were making this stuff up, but organlegging left the realm of science fiction in the late 1990s to make its own way in the guise of the recent past.

You can’t really mention cyberpunk without bringing up Neuromancer in some way, shape, or form (I’d have to turn in my mirrorshades if I didn’t) so I’ll wade in at the shallow end and start with portable computing devices that have more processing power than we know what to do with in the pockets, on the hips, or tucked under the arms of practically everyone.  In the twenty-first century we have very limited forms of virtual reality; they aren’t immersive as the technology is usually said to be but they’re pretty closeClose enough to be considered addictive in some cases.  Cybercrime, or whatever not-trendy-yet term you want to use is here and its impact is far greater than any authors ever thought it could be since organized cybercrime is now the rule and not the exception.

Malicious software infiltrates computers all over the Net, sometimes granting remote access to intruders but  more often allowing the cracker at the other end of the link to send orders to all of the infested machines in the botnet: DDoS attacks and strafing runs of spam are only the beginning.  Just wait until someone figures out that you can use a botnet to stage a brute force attack against cryptographic keys ala distributed.net.  I feel that I should also mention the advances made in prosthetic limbs since the beginning of the second war in Iraq: one of the things that P.W. Singer mentioned in his presentation at HacDC a couple of weeks ago was that prosthetic limbs used by the US military are so accurate and lifelike that you’d be hard pressed to tell that someone was using such a device without a close examination.  As if that weren’t enough, soldiers who are issued the prosthetics are back on the battlefield in as little as a month because they can carry out their duties almost as well as they could before the loss of a limb (or two).