BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Ripples still roll out from Mark Zuckerberg's October announcement of a new name and vision for the company, formerly known as Facebook. The new name is Meta, and the new vision is the metaverse, which already exists in limited forms on other platforms, including one offered by the blockbuster online game Fortnite. Many tech watchers have observed that if Zuckerberg wants to succeed, he'll have to cooperate with those other platforms, which Facebook is not good at. Ethan Zuckerman, founder of the Initiative for Digital Infrastructure, wrote that 'really Meta's vision is about distracting us from the world it helped break." Zuckerberg seeks to build an all inclusive, virtual, reality powered commercial, cultural and social space where cool things happen you don't want to miss. And where do many – maybe most of the coolest ideas come from? Science fiction or speculative fiction or S.F. If you will. Take Elon Musk pursuing space exploration and Neuralinks to the internet. He just loves Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which really seems to grok our Mr. Musk.
HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY NARRATION: And for these extremely rich merchant's life eventually became rather dull, and it seemed that none of the worlds they settled on was entirely satisfactory. Either the climate wasn't quite right in the later part of the afternoon, or the day was half an hour too long, or the sea was just the wrong shade of pink. And thus, were created the conditions for a staggering new form of industry... Custom-made luxury planet building.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Did you know Amazon's Jeff Bezos considered naming what would become his gargantuan retail disruptor, 'make it so'?
PICARD Make it so Mr LaForge. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE But what happens when a great literary genre, yes, great – is misread? What might these tech moguls have learned if they'd only read slower or better, starting with the novel that introduced the word Metaverse? Neil Stephenson's Snow Crash?
ANNALEE NEWITZ So the metaverse is both a kind of immersive world that you can dove into, or it can be accessed through goggles that give you an augmented reality.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Annalee Newitz is a science fiction author and science journalist and co-hosts the Hugo Award winning podcast, Our Opinions Are Correct.
ANNALEE NEWITZ The part that they seem to have forgotten is that the story around the metaverse in Snow Crash is that access to it is controlled by a crazy magnate named L. Bob Rife, whose name is clearly a reference to L. Ron Hubbard, and he controls a cable TV network. So to access any of the goodies in there, you have to go through this one corporation. Ultimately, Rife decides that the best way to maintain his control is to release this weird kind of semi-magical virus that's both a computer virus and a human virus that causes people's brains to shut down. They crash, and they are no longer able to speak or understand language.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Does Zuckerberg not see how he would be cast in such a scenario?
ANNALEE NEWITZ I mean, that's certainly what a lot of people have been suggesting. It's about Zuckerberg kind of misreading his place in the story. I also think that it's about not being able to think about where Facebook fits into this larger social picture. It's interesting to see this discussion about who Zuckerberg is in the story Snow Crash at the same time that the U.S. government is asking, What is Facebook in the context of our nation? Trying to hold Facebook to account for everything from suicidal ideation among young people, to the attack on the U.S. government in January. Two parallel conversations, one of which is about what is Facebook doing to us right now in the United States and in other nations? And also, what does Facebook mean to the progression of humanity? Which is the bigger science fictional questions raised by thinking through Snow Crash
BROOKE GLADSTONE In 1998, the philosopher Richard Rorty said that novels like Snow Crash, I mean specifically, was a writing of rueful acquiescence in the end of American Hope. Inspiring, right?
JILL LEPORE Yeah, that's what you really want to build your future out of.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That's Harvard historian and New Yorker writer Jill Lepore. I wondered if, as an educator, she saw reading comprehension is the issue.
JILL LEPORE They read the books for the gadgets. It's like reading Playboy for the articles.
JILL LEPORE I don't know. It's a weird thing. And that's why they don't read Octavia Butler, Margaret Atwood or Ursula LeGuin. You know, it's one thing to read Neal Stephenson for the gadgets and ignore the social world, it's another thing to read Margaret Atwood for gadgets and ignore the social world. You just pretty much can't do it right. So it's a very selective and willful reading. It's an abdication of what reading is, and it's an abdication of historicism. If you were, you know, taking class and science fiction, you'd be learning a lot about the writers and the world that they lived in and the nature of the critique they were offering. These guys, as boys, read all these novels that were about the building of worlds, right? They're all world building novels, and now they're the only people on the planet who are rich enough to actually build worlds.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Lepore is talking about the tech moguls raised on fiction written during the mid-last century by mid-last century men, creating worlds suggested by an imagined in a time and place very different from our own. The tech wizards, she says, used an exacto knife to extract the gadgets from these books, irrespective of the author's context,
JILL LEPORE Asimov and Heinemann were writing from this perspective of a 1950s Mad Men era culture of swaggering white male solves everything with his fancy new computer. We don't live in that world anymore, and in fact, science fiction has so long ago moved on from all of this stuff. You know, there's a whole world of Afrofuturism and post-colonial fiction and feminist science fiction. These guys never cite that stuff. "Well, we're really big science fiction fans," but they read books that were published generally in 1952. Like, their vision of the future is unbelievably obsolete and antique. It's not that people are not excited about the Metaverse are Luddites and backward looking, it's that the metaverse is Luddite and backward looking. You know, science fiction is not fundamentally about the future, really is always about the present or about the past. So, to read it as a manifesto for the future is to begin by misreading it.
GENE SEYMOUR Science fiction has never interested me as a vehicle for prophecy. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Gene Seymour is a longtime culture critic and science fiction fan whose works appeared in Newsday at CNN, The Nation, The Baffler, and elsewhere.
GENE SEYMOUR The idea that, well, someone saw, you know, nuclear submarines as far back as the 1800s. Yeah, it's interesting from a historical standpoint, but I've always been more interested in how we behave, whether it's a dystopia or utopia. What we do to accommodate those changes, and I find that science fiction writers are further ahead than most other people are in assessing those. Science fiction or speculative fiction has always appealed to people who see themselves are forced to see themselves as outsiders, ok. People either willingly or not left to their own devices and imagining, OK, I'm on my own. How do I magnify my knowledge? How do I magnify my presence? How do I magnify me? And this is why so many adolescents are attracted to it. It speaks to that impulse to not just figure out who I am in relation to others, who either dismiss or marginalize me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You've written a lot about– you've thought a lot about Afrofuturism.
GENE SEYMOUR Yes. As you know, for many, many decades, you could see a science fiction movie or read a book and not find any characters of color or even acknowledgment that there is still such a thing as a person of color in the future. And many readers of science fiction, including me, wondered, OK, this has to be altered. Somehow, this paradigm has to be changed. And how do we do that? Well, in the years since, there have, of course, been many writers of color. Octavia Butler, Samuel Delaney, people like that
BROOKE GLADSTONE ....and N.K. Jemison.
GENE SEYMOUR Exactly, yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I love her. In fact, a lot of the leading contemporary afrofuturists are women.
GENE SEYMOUR Yes, they are. And talk about world building. They've done some incredible things. With not just the details of their world, the actual physical details, but also the societal development. When I read one of her books, I'm always struck by how fully she imagined this and also the detail. Not just in the different settings, but also in the social fabric. They seem to have an understanding of that as good, if not better, than some of the great white male science fiction writers of an earlier time. I think it comes out of a sense of urgency with black writers and writers of color to stake a claim for themselves in what the future holds. They're saying we want to get in on this since it's wide open, not just to buy into this, but as a means of self-defense and it costs from being overrun by whatever's coming, wherever it comes from. Tech millionaires trying to reshape the face of politics or deepen perhaps what's already oppressing us. You mentioned Meta earlier. There's something kind of disquieting about a Meta concept, particularly because it somehow seems out of not just our control, but out of our immediate access, and we want to make that access less remote. And I think that's one of the reasons why there is such vital interest in Afrofuturism in whatever manifestations it takes. I always, always have been enraptured. It's not altogether inaccurate to use the term rapture to describe it. I'm enraptured by how people can imagine how other people are going to deal with that and in essence, what that means in dealing with others. I don't know if that makes me typical of the people who like reading these books. All I know is the lure of those books remains principally to find out what it means to be human. And I grew up with the generation, the boomer generation that was always concerned about when the bomb was going to drop. And even back then, I'd always ask some of these people too, well, the bomb is going to drop. It's all going to end. I would ask them: what if it doesn't? And they look at me as if I was quite mad sometimes. And so these are the things that drive you to the science fiction book when people look at you that way.
GENE SEYMOUR These are the things that, that sort of tend to marginalize you. But I think it was a valid question then, and it's a valid question now. If that makes me more of an optimist than I have a right to be, my answer that would be the question, well, what other choice do we have?
BROOKE GLADSTONE In fact, Neal Stephenson himself has launched a project to collect and catalog positive visions of the future as a response to these dark times. His rule? No hackers. No hyperspace. No Holocausts.
ANNALEE NEWITZ Yeah. So it's not about just painting a happy picture of the future.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Annalee Newitz.
ANNALEE NEWITZ I mean, I think Neal Stephenson was expressing something that many of us in the science fiction community have been feeling for at least the last decade, which is that wallowing in dystopian stories or dark stories at a time in history when things are already feeling chaotic can create a sense of helplessness. So instead of turning outward to your community and trying to make things better, even if that's just by voting or giving a meal to a friend, instead, we just go back to the Metaverse, right? You go back for more and more entertainment, more and more dystopian stories that just confirm your already existing bias that the world has fallen apart and there's nothing we can do. It's a very dark, nihilistic tunnel that you can go down. And I think that's what's so provocative about the idea of the Metaverse, because it provides us with this metaphor for what it means to indulge endlessly in entertainment without ever leaving your computer. I'm not saying you can't make the world better from your computer because lots of people do. I just mean that we can get caught in these loops that just keep reconfirming that there's no use in trying to make things better.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What science fiction books would you suggest the scions of Silicon Valley read?
ANNALEE NEWITZ Becky Chambers. She has a new series out now called Robot and Monk, which is all about imagining technology and ecology working together. One of the big writers in the science fiction field now, of course, is in N.K. Jemison.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Oh god, yeah
ANNALEE NEWITZ Who is just fantastic, and she's also thinking about the future of the planet and how technology and environment will go together in that future. One of the things that's interesting about both of these authors is that they are engaging with technology, but it's just as important to think about the civilizations that that technology is embedded in. And you know, if you're a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and you're trying to create some kind of app that has a social component, it's really important to be reading science fiction that deals with the social world. That's something that you just don't see in a lot of those kind of golden age, 1950s science fiction writers. Tade Thompson, who is a Nigerian British author. His series that begins with the book Rosewater is a really interesting exploration of alien technology and how it transforms cities. And again, it's all about the social world, also really cool technology and mutants and stuff like that. So these are all books that are fun, but they also will make you think about these social issues.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I have just written those down. I'll be well-equipped when I become a high-tech media mogul.
ANNALEE NEWITZ Yep, when you're ready to just start melting people's brains, but then you're reading, science fiction will hold you back. Yes, and you'll realize
BROOKE GLADSTONE I just don't understand why Snow Crash didn't have that effect. So you can lead a techie mogul to a book, but you...
ANNALEE NEWITZ ...can't make him think.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I guess the moral of the story is that reading isn't merely fundamental, it's existential. You just have to read the right stuff. Ursula LeGuin.
URSULA LeGUIN I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives. Who can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being and even imagine some real grounds for hope. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, more ways to tell the stories of our time and other times from a writer long dead who should never be forgotten. This is On the Media.