KATIE WRITES: Two years ago at ChiCon7 I had the privilege to hear Leonid Korogodski speak on the subject of “Galaxies in a Plasma Lab.” The subject is one dear to my heart, and I was delighted to find it represented, in however small a measure, at WorldCon. Between the panel and the approaching Hugo ceremony I had a chance to speak to Leo, along with another con member, which was probably one of the highlights of the week. And the next day I scoured the dealer’s hall until I found someone with his book, “Pink Noise” and purely by chance met up with the author again to get him to sign it. (I say “by chance” because when you’re at a convention with several thousand other people and you don’t exchange phone numbers or Facebook requests or something the odds of relocating someone you didn’t arrive with are, well, one in several thousand.)
The book was excellent, and when I was hunting for authors for this series I remembered how much I had enjoyed Leo’s unique look at science fiction and science in general, and contacted him about being a guest for this series. To my delight he agreed, and I must say that “Aesthetics of Technology” does not disappoint. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do and find fresh inspiration for your own writing!
Isaac Asimov famously defined science fiction as “that branch of literature which deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology.”1 It’s no coincidence that science fiction appeared on the cusp of the technological revolution in the 19th century and steadily drew readers as the pace of technological change increased. The growing interest reflects, on one hand, the rising concern with stability of the society and the environment, the fears of disastrous consequences; on the other—the infatuation with “The Progress,” the potential for improvement. Now, with the technological change starting to undermine the very foundations of our society—the modes of communication, the family structure, a permanent career choice—the audience for science fiction is the greatest ever, with many mainstream authors starting to explore these subjects, too.
We use the boldest colors in our imaginational palette for those things that stir us most, whether we deem them beautiful or ugly, scary or promising. Being a kind of literature, and despite being often called a “literature of ideas,” science fiction reaches out emotionally to its readers—through imagery and other kinds of sensory impression, among other things. With technology playing such a prominent part, it should hardly surprise us that its portrayal covers the entire gamut. Indeed, in different or even the same works of literature, we find technology as both beautiful and ugly, scary and promising.
So let us take a closer look at the aesthetics of technology.
A whole tome could be written on this subject, of which I am just qualified enough to offer a brief glimpse. Here, I outline three major aesthetics of technology: (1) the aesthetic of strength, (2) the aesthetic of flexibility, and (3) the aesthetic of overload (perhaps also the aesthetic of absurd, but I haven’t read enough to judge it well). Of course, these aren’t limited to writing but are also found in the related arts: movies, TV, illustrations, comics. In fact, because these emphasize the visual aspect so much, they tend to make the aesthetic trends more obvious; and for that reason, science fiction movies will be given here as illustrative examples, next to books.
We are naturally fascinated by the fastest, the strongest, and the most powerful. The aesthetic of strength is inspired by these, more obvious, successes of technology. Our cars are faster than the best runner or a horse; our planes are faster still, and then do not forget the spaceships. We now generate more power within an hour than the entire human civilization could in a year, once upon a time. We build impressive structures, even level mountains, visit the bottom of the ocean, go into space, and our computers can add numbers much, much faster than our brains can do arithmetic.
Not all of this is necessarily seen as a positive development. The potential for disaster and the deleterious effects on the environment were recognized quite early on. But whether technology is shown in a positive or in a negative light, it is often associated with a sense of power, sometimes even overwhelming force. In this aesthetic, the attributes of power—strength, muscle mass—are conflated with those of the man-made “second nature”—straight lines and angles, as opposed to smooth curves; organization and rigidity, as opposed to organic growth and development.
This kind of opposition—the Man versus Nature theme—is typical to the works employing the aesthetic of strength. Already in ancient China, the attributes of Earth and Heaven were square and circle, respectively. In the Avatar movie, the human invaders wield superior technology against the native tribal, close-to-nature order. The former command powerful vehicles and devices, cast in straight lines and sharp angles, that plow straight through the landscape, creating the sense of overpowering force. Even the muscular strength, although originally of organic origin, is transformed into the augmented power of special robotic-looking proxy bodies. In contrast, the natives are smooth and flexible, in contact with the nature. Note that the proxy bodies used by Jake and others from the Grace’s team follow the flexibility paradigm, rather than that of strength—just like the natives.
Another aspect of the aesthetic of strength is the super-rationality—even to the point of mental rigidity—displayed by the artificial intelligences that, in many works of science fiction, eventually appear as a result of the continued technological progress. They culminate the mind’s development from the animal state to the human emotional state to the human intellect—which explains why they are imagined to be super-rational. Presumably, in this view, the emotions are limited to humans (perhaps also to higher animals). I consider this belief to be erroneous, but more on that later. Most of the works of the “robotic apocalypse,” in which these AIs revolt against their human creators to supplant them as new masters of the universe, subscribe to this belief in the extreme: the highest reason rising against and ultimately overpowering emotions.
This attribute of artificial intelligence must be considered as aspect of the aesthetic of strength. The giveaway is the tendency of robots in science fiction to be ungainly to the point of awkwardness, even though they are supposed to be overwhelmingly superior. They will be slow; they will stumble; so on (the Star Wars drones, anyone?). This way, the robots are implicitly, subconsciously contrasted to the humans, whose emotional nature is characterized by flexibility, “fluidity,” in aesthetic terms.
I’ll risk suggesting that the Golden Age of science fiction was dominated by the aesthetic of strength in its portrayal of technology. With the New Wave and later evolution of the genre, another aesthetic also achieved prominence, based on the more subtle successes of technology: the aesthetic of flexibility.
The gray area between the two is occupied by some dystopias, in which a pervasive surveillance technology is wielded by a bureaucratic government. The strength is represented by the overbearing force deployed by the government against the rebels and dissenters. But, increasingly in recent years, the other side also began to use technology in order to oppose the one deployed against then. And that kind of technology is usually characterized by flexibility. In Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, we see some very flexible and quite inventive forms of technology used by teenagers to stand up to the overbearing government.
Strength and flexibility stand in natural opposition to each other in many ways, not limited to science fiction. The motif of a nimble David defeating a mighty Goliath appears in many works of art, not to mention practical politics and actual warfare, as flexibility is often used in order to offset the enemy’s strength. The martial artist motif, so prevalent these days in our culture, used to be seen as anti-technological: a martial artist character opposes technology, while wielding nothing but his or her own body. The roots of them can be traced back to the quite aptly named Boxer Rebellion in China (1898–1900). The anti-Western rebels believed that their martial art training could help them stop or evade bullets; this was the supposed native Asian response to the superior firepower of the Western imperialistic nations.
The Matrix series of movies were pioneering in many ways, among them is the curious reversal of the martial artist paradigm. The Agents in the Matrix, despite some corporate rigidity in their behavior and costume, are extremely flexible bodily, being superior to the best human martial artists; only Neo can approach that. The Matrix also introduces other elements of the aesthetic of flexibility, associated with technology: the military devices with which the ruling AIs hunt down the human rebels don’t look so much strong as fast and nimble. And the “bullet time” effect, invented by the Wachowski brothers, allows the viewers to observe the benefits of speed and flexibility in slow time.
Originally anti-technological, the martial artist theme has been turning on its head in the recent years, which is evident in the growing number of stories about martial-artist-like figures enhanced with bionic implants—even with brand new bodies, as in John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War and the rest of that trilogy. In those books, even such a staple of firepower-mongering as a combat rifle enjoys unprecedented flexibility: the “old man” soldiers can reconfigure their rifles in an instant to use and even to produce a different kind of ammunition from a universal stock, based on the situation.
And then, don’t forget the Terminator series of movies, in which the earlier terminator robot conforms to the aesthetic of strength, whereas the later one enjoys the many benefits of flexibility.
In my own Pink Noise: A Posthuman Tale, the principal spaceship design uses magnetic sails for maneuverability. The unique property of the magnetic sail propulsion is that the ship slides sideways to the sail and the fact that the solar wind can be redirected by magnetic sails into the path of other sails. This allows incredible maneuverability, to the point that such a ship with multiply articulated sails can literally dance in place, in its complexity rivaling and even exceeding human body. Indeed, the pilots operate these ships by dancing (mentally, when under heavy g’s), the pilots having their minds and bodies enhanced by cyber-components.
The fundamental reason, however, why technology is linked to flexibility is that the technological advances open new possibilities—in everything. This kind of flexibility is not so much that of the body or of spaceship propulsion in combat. Rather, the nature of flexibility, ascribed to technology, is that of an ever-widening choice. And, as science fiction explores the impact of technology, the tension between the potential for disaster and that for improvement is ever present in its works.
Elsewhere, in my blog post on optimism and darkness in science fiction, I describe why, according to a certain fundamental law of nature (which I won’t reiterate here, for the lack of space), the potential for the good is statistically higher than the potential for the bad. Although both grow, the difference is ultimately positive.
Just as a child grows up, just as she learns to walk, then as she learns to bike, and as she learns to drive, the danger goes higher every time. She goes out in the world, leaves home, finds people to love… Every step of the way, the potential for something to go wrong grows. But do we stop her? No. Because we feel that the potential for the good is greater still.
I argue that the true AIs, whenever we develop them, would not be able to avoid having emotions. Down deep, emotions are one of the brain’s main optimization tricks. The brain evolved in animals in order to predict the outcome of active movement (plants don’t need brains); eventually, along the evolutionary spiral of growing complexity, the brain evolved to handle higher levels of abstraction. But even though we may argue whether the world is deterministic, it’s definitely unpredictable, thanks to the “butterfly effect”: a simulation’s outcome may differ widely depending even on such trifling thing as the rounding precision during the calculations. So, even though our computers perform arithmetic much faster than do brains, they aren’t very good at making snap decisions in arbitrary unpredictable circumstances—which is what emotions are for. So the AIs would have them, too, as I predict in my Pink Noise. This is an aspect of the aesthetic of flexibility that stands directly opposite the super-rationality trait of AIs found in most of science fiction and shared almost universally in the society.
The aesthetic of strength’s popularity is understandable, as it accommodates a certain pattern of conflict: that of Man versus Nature. Yet the aesthetic of flexibility does offer room for conflict, too. Instead of the global tensions between our society and that which is external to it, the aesthetic of flexibility plays on the subtler tensions within each individual, as all of us continuously struggle between our desire for stability and our passion for increasing choice.
Last but not least, the aesthetic of overload is exemplified by the Singularity-related works of Charles Stross (especially, Accelerando) and Hannu Rajaniemi. These are the worlds in which the stream of information is so high that any chance of diving into it without losing sanity is virtually non-existent. The heroes of those works survive by taking a lighter view of things, essentially closing the shutters against the info-bombardment of the outside world.
I may have labeled this aesthetic as a variety of that of strength, if not for the rather distinctive quality of style: the numerous aficionados of Charles Stross delight in the high density of narrative; a stream of words hurled at the reader, on purpose, in order to induce the sense of overload without actually overloading the reader’s mind. A tricky feat, that, to achieve. One doesn’t have to understand all of that stream in its details. The texture itself is more important, and the readers love the very sound, the verbal sense of it. It helps that the story is often written with a tongue in cheek, that certain elements are blown out of proportion, bordering on the absurd (the Lobsters in Accelerando, anyone?).
I tentatively judge the aesthetic of overload to be a separate aesthetic of its own (although maybe having much in common with a potential other candidate: the aesthetic of absurd). With this, I leave it to the readers of this blog to contribute their thoughts on aesthetics of technology.
Leonid Korogodski graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a Ph.D. in Mathematics and a C in English as a Second Language. That didn’t stop him from writing, first in C++ and Java, then in English. He recently moved from Massachusetts to live with his new family in Southampton, Pennsylvania. For more articles and information on his writing you can visit his website.