When Three Square Market, a Wisconsin vending machine company, announced this week that it would offer microchip implants to its employees, the reactions ranged, understandably, from delight to panic. Some hailed the next wonderful step of the computer age, while others predicted the coming onslaught of our robot overlords. There is legitimate enthusiasm over the increasingly science-fiction-like places that technology might take us, and legitimate concern over the ugly path it might lead us down. It seems to me that a question that is less addressed is not what technology we develop, but who develops it for us.
Kim Stanley Robinson, the author of Aurora and New York 2140, recently commented that “we live in a present mixed with various futures overshadowing us. In essence, we live in a science fiction novel we all write together.” It’s an almost optimistic idea, but nowhere does Robinson suggest that we all have an equal hand in the writing. Rather, our world looks to be on the path of Robinson’s Mars trilogy, where large corporations have a major say in the exploration and exploitation of the Red Planet, sometimes to the detriment of the inhabitants of both Earth and Mars. In writing the future, we can often forget to ask who does the writing.
Three Square Market is not the only example. The man who seems most poised to be Robinson’s fiction made real is Elon Musk. We stand in awe as he advocates for exploration and colonization of Mars, for the preservation of this planet through alternate energy, and more recently, for the development of brain implants to treat serious diseases. Much as I admire Musk’s goals, it is worth remembering that he is not a saviour. He is the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, and however noble his intentions, his position as head of two corporations comes with strings.
We cannot, as citizens, simply accept that human development and innovation comes solely from corporations designed not for our benefit, but for our consumption. In every field – from nanotechnology to space exploration – there is a profit motive, and so there must also be an active participation from governments to ensure that it is not merely the interests of corporations that are served. To his credit, Musk seems to know this. He actively seeks the investment of governments in his proposed plans for Mars, because governments are the only one who can assemble the kind of capital that such a plan requires. They can assemble it because they serve a large group of citizens, who ultimately get some say in their expenditures.
Government participation and regulation does not come from a vacuum. It requires citizens who are sufficiently aware of the implications of developing technology to demand that their governments have a say over how those technologies get used. It demands, frankly, more work from all of us, both to learn the technical underpinnings that we are permitting, and to debate how far we will permit them. It demands that we bother to participate in government process, because we will not be permitted to have our voices heard in a corporate boardroom.
Some will say that this is a fight that we have already lost. That corporations will advance their goals and technologies unchecked by the needs of humanity. I contend that we have not yet encountered that fight, possibly because we are still too delighted by the spectacle that such innovation gives us. We are no different from the Victorians wandering through the Great Exhibition of 1851, marveling at the heavy industry that was to improve every echelon of life, without calculating its cost. We have no excuse to be so naïve.
Writing science fiction, true, good science fiction, requires on some level knowing science fact. If we are to be the writers of the science fiction novel in which we live, we first need to understand the world from which we write. Given that we have access to the largest and most accessible repository of knowledge that the world has ever known, we have a good place to start.
Jane Perrella. Teacher, writer. Expert knitter. Enthusiast of medieval swordplay, tea, Shakespeare, and Batman.