Science fiction is one of my favorite genres because of its power to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange.
Kim Stanley Robinson wrote an anti-dystopian essay in which he discusses how science fiction works:
For a while now I’ve been saying that science fiction works by a kind of double action, like the glasses people wear when watching 3D movies. One lens of science fiction’s aesthetic machinery portrays some future that might actually come to pass; it’s a kind of proleptic realism. The other lens presents a metaphorical vision of our current moment, like a symbol in a poem. Together the two views combine and pop into a vision of History, extending magically into the future.
I read that and then, a day later, stumbled upon a thought experiment published on the wonderfully quirky website of Ville-Matias Heikkilä.
The thought experiment, titled “Inverted computer culture”, asks the reader to image a world where computing is seen “as practice of an ancient and unchanging tradition.”
It is considered essential to be in a properly alert and rested state of mind when using a computer. Even to seasoned users, every session is special, and the purpose of the session must be clear in mind before sitting down. The outer world is often hurried and flashy, but computers provide a “sacred space” for relaxing, slowing down and concentrating on a specific idea without distractions.
What a dream. I encourage you to read the piece which is quite short. It struck me as being exemplary of the aforementioned double action of science fiction—both a vision of the future and a metaphor for the current moment. You can imagine how a fictional immune response to our current culture might drive us toward a world of computing and technology like the one imagined here.
To push it a bit further, I prompted ChatGPT to write a story based on the thought experiment and threw the result into a gist. You can read the story it came up with here.
The story’s alright, but the last paragraph is something else. It captures so many of the feelings I have about computing and the web:
As she sat there, lost in her work, she knew that she would never leave this place, this sacred space where the computers whispered secrets to those who knew how to listen. She would be here always, she thought, a part of this ancient tradition, a keeper of the flame of knowledge. And in that moment, she knew that she had found her true home.
Here’s to all those who know how to listen.