[Home]SocialMalleability

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A unifying picture of what goes on in SpeculativeFiction is a two-axis model: a social-cultural axis describing human arrangements, and a scientific-technological axis. It's the old mind versus matter debate plotted out in two dimensions, in the search for correlations, or at least a descriptive vocabulary for those.

Two extreme positions need to be noted. Firstly, if one can read directly from material conditions to social ones - if the relation is straightforwardly functional - then there is not so much speculation required, as science. That is one idea from the nineteenth century. Secondly, if there is no discernible relation there isn't much to discuss: and from the point of view of fiction one can (and does) have pure adventure stories combined with the most suburban of values. The middle position is to assume some relation: culture and technology have a mutual impact. This is another position from the nineteenth century, idealist this time, at least if one takes the relation to be somehow an active force in the world. In some form or other this assumption is still much used. The very phrase 'Stone age man' argues it one way, from technology to culture; as The Flintstones mocked it.

A small exercise in SpeculativeFiction could for example be to introduce communications technology (mobile phones or clockwork radios) into traditional societies. In a society which operates very much by gossip, the mobile phone may simply amplify that without particular consequences. In a somewhat fragmented society, for example a nomadic one, the clockwork radio may provide a channel for government propaganda, or advertising, such as didn't previously exist - and have some major effects. There are therefore the ideas of degrees of 'play': a technological change may leave societies stable, and on the other hand the adoption of technology may call upon a degree of SocialMalleability. The latter has often been called 'westernisation', but that's a loose phrase. Having mobile phones and fast food may or may not imply some sort of Western influence at the social level. In fact reading from Western science and technology to the social seems to be the adoption (in a supposedly privileged region of our plot, indeed) of the functional relationship concept mentioned before. The cases particularly of Asian countries such as Japan, Singapore and (to some extent) South Korea can be used to argue against that functional model.

You could call the functional model 'matter to mind' a left-of-centre one; and look to label the other way round, that is determination of technology by society, a right-of-centre one in order to test it. That is somewhat more tenuous a connection. A social conservative may assume that change is for the worse, and that the best technological state for a society is one that reinforces stability. But that usually implies some enforcement. In fact there is an authoritarian argument that says, roughly, technological change if unchecked is inevitable, so stop it (and have a state that can do that). For example, license all contraceptive research. George Orwell (WikiPedia:George_Orwell) made an explicit footnote to 1984 (WikiPedia:Nineteen_Eighty-Four) to the effect that science was static, and had been cut back to topics adding to state power.

This begins to sound familiar in terms of nineteenth century considerations. Once it becomes clear to everyone that there is a dynamic at work - progress if you will, meaning the science-technology genie won't go back into the bottle - then the fabric of society ... etc. etc. In fact a static model of our technology-society correlation won't do. Some path will be followed, and there are rocks around which to steer. It isn't hard to name some: growth of population, of free capital, mobility.

You can say, indeed, that the occurrence of some apparently independent variables in technology-space is to be read as a threat. Any exponential growth stresses the system, if you assume that social change is possible (there is a degree of SocialMalleability as adaptation) but the 'latency' in society is real and matters aren't to be rushed. An example from England was the way the nouveaux riches were gradually absorbed into the aristocracy, when they weren't too numerous. Another way the pressures build up is by commoditisation: for example Moore's Law in our days is explicit about an exponential decline in the price of CPU cycles.

Therefore one can try to draw a general conclusion from SocialMalleability as a concept: take it to be a finite resource and you get the SpeculativeFiction mapping of threats to horrors, deriving its persuasive power from the failure of a true SocialDarwinism to operate because the time-scale of adaptation can never match. The intro at ScienceFiction

Fiction where the point of the story is to investigate the possibilities of scientific progress, the result of technological peril, or have big strong guys bend the rules of physics to save the world

rather reads as if some such assumption is at work (for big strong guys read self-appointed men on white horses, and too often bend the laws of physics as practice interventionist eugenics, if only by getting the girl yourself).

The mention of the Gothic at SpeculativeFiction is then natural as a shorthand for gazing into certain kinds of intellectual abyss, and not returning as the facile visionary saying 'it's sublime'. At the bottom, I speculate, lies an AnthropicPrinciple as fallen angel.

--CharlesMatthews


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