How Social Media Is Science Fiction

A dispatch from one of SXSW's most fascinating and wide-ranging discussions, featuring io9 staff, Bruce Sterling and other influential sci-fi writers

maxheadroom.jpg"We wanted to talk like humans up here. No slides," cracked Annalee Newitz at the start of Sunday's panel on how social media is science fiction. Newitz is a prolific, amazing tech writer, and editor-in-chief of Gawker's sci-fi blog, io9.

Science fiction has always concerned itself with positing our next reality. On Sunday morning at SXSWi (at 9.30 a.m.!) Annalee Newitz and her assembled panelists gathered to consider what world our current science fiction was predicting for us -- and how social media is creating a world that our fiction only began to imagine.

Science fiction has done a pretty good job of predicting our reality, Newitz starts out. The late-1980s television show Max Headroom gave us an investigative reporter with an embedded camera who recorded live from the scene, and an ad market where news agencies allow ad firms to bid for placement on their upcoming coverage. Sound familiar?

Matt Thompson, now the editorial project manager for NPR's Project Argo, created a 2004 film Epic 2014 a about a future media landscape where Google and Amazon have merged to form Googlezon, and all of us are content producers. Thompson isn't so sure the development of an artificial intelligence (AI) is a fixed end goal -- he sees it as a spectrum that starts with collective intelligence, goes through social media and ends with AI. "I don't think it makes sense any longer to talk about individual intelligence," Thompson said.

He did a year-long fellowship at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute in 2008 -- eschewing the usual "let me spend a year writing a tome" model, he blogged his way through the year. "We are not asking ourselves, what are we getting back?" Thompson said of social media interactions. "We are an intensely social animals. and one of the things social media gives back is the constant context of society."

"It's hard to make the case that just me, just my individual intelligence informed [my final project]," Thompson said.

Sci-fi novelist Maureen McHugh reminded the crowd of Robert Heinlein's definition of three levels of science fiction -- at the first level, we're inventors in the basement, at the second level we extrapolate an infrastructure and at the third level, we're positing changes in people's behaviors as a result of this changed world.

McHugh said we're well into the second level of abstraction in how we think about social media, but we're not yet into the third. Consider multitasking -- in general, we're still bad at it, as an MIT study recently demonstrated. "And we're freaked out. But Socrates was freaked out about literacy!" McHugh noted, and the result of literacy was a written record of history. The benefits we're going to gain from offloading part of our social interaction onto the net remain to be seen.

Still, for all the possibilities for innovation, social media clearly has a dark side. Molly Crabapple, a New York-based illustrator and founder of the alt-art social drawing gathering Dr. Sketchy's, said she sometimes fears a future where no one has jobs, and work is a series of games and challenges. You wouldn't work at Wal-Mart, she told the audience, you'd be part of the Wal-Mart Challenge! "And the prize," Crabapple said, "would be what used to be called your salary. Will the only work that is left be digital turking, she wondered? "So we'd pick up the slack from AI, basically."

Newitz noted that Google hopes it will become AI.

Charlie Anders, a science fiction writer whose work appears at io9, echoed this possibility. She noted we've always wondered about avatar versions of ourselves, but that recent incarnations of these avatars have been dark. "Recently, in our fictions, the avatar is unhappy."

Newitz asked, though, if in this future social media-spawned AI will even be something we conceive as a separate identity. HAL of 2001: A Space Odyssey is still what most of us picture when we think of AI. But if, as Thompson noted, the path to AI is a continuum, then aren't we ultimately a part of AI?

"The AI may be measurable in teraflops, but it may be a dispersed network that I don't talk to, because I'm a neuron," McHugh said.

The question then is how we conceive of our interactions with this network that we're both a part of and interacting with. "We tend to talk about the what and how, and I think increasingly," Thompson said, "[it's about] who, who are we talking to with social media?"

The development of our interactions on social media platforms into a hive intelligence brings, naturally, a host of concerns about privacy. Newitz shouted out Hannu Rajeniemi's The Quantum Thief, which imagines a dystopic future where we develop an organ to control privacy settings since every interaction is networked.

Crabapple noted that we used to assume that "only cool people would read our updates." But to our horror, it's everyone from the spam bots to our future employer.

"Or your mom," McHugh said.

"Or James O'Keefe III," added Thompson. "All of our conversations about media turn on the question of memory," Thompson went on. How do we store, much less control, the memory that's being pushed out via tweets or blog posts?

Bruce Sterling (who happens to be sitting next to me at the panel) proposed the Dead Media Project in 1995 to deal with this very question by compiling obsolete and forgotten communications technology.

"Someone sent me a floppy disk recently, and I was like what do I even do with that?" Anders asked the crowd to laughter.

The panel turned serious again with a discussion of who circumscribes our social media world, and how. What if, Anders asked, Google queried us about why we were searching for things. "Do you really want to search for that? Your friends are searching for this, why not try it out?" said Anders.

"With sex that already happens!" interjected Newitz. Indeed, in it's push to create an ever more personalized search experience Google has helped create chambered-off information worlds. Former executive director of Eli Pariser spoke about these "unique universe[s] of information" that we live in online in a recent TED talk.

It's not just the conversation that we struggle to control online, it's our very avatars. "Part of being social animals is we construct identities," said Thompson. Increasingly, our online avatars demand that our identities merge into one--we are asked to log-on to services using an existing Twitter or Facebook account, we're discouraged from interacting anonymously, be it on Craigslist or a discussion forum. This is a change from the fears about ourselves that we expressed in science fiction of say, the 1960s. Doris Lessing, to pick one example, took up this fear in The Golden Notebook. The novel's protagonist, Anna Wulf struggles with possessing multiple social identities.

But now, we can't get away from our online avatar. "In the future your identity will be so glued together you won't be able to do anything but stack boxes," said Newitz, referencing Crabapple's Wal-Mart Challenge! jobs.

The O'Keefe/NPR scandal shows this perfectly, points out Crabapple--we assume that our personal views and our corporate personalities are necessarily combined. And let's not forget, that crowds are behind lynchings and mobs, noted Newitz. "The wisdom of crowds is not always awesome," she said.

Still, Thompson noted, it's too easy to be glum about social media. Craigslist is a marvel of the modern world! Wikipedia is an amazing cultural artifact. "Dystopia is just more fun," Thompson cracked. "Dante also wrote a story about heaven--but no one reads that!"

McHugh captured it best: "I think we're making a lot of interesting mistakes."

Image: Museum of Broadcast Communications.