Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Making It Personal

Simon asks a question that I think is too good to be left under the fold:
Something has been bothering me for sometime about Sci-Fi and you seem the kinda guy to shed some light on it. How come Sci-Fi writers before recent times never mentioned/envisaged personalised settings in technology (you know - screen savers, font, pictures - things that reflect/feedback ones personality in objects). It seems that even the greatest kept faith with the idea of mass homogenised technologies which were no doubt linked to the ideas of societies and objects in the post industrial age. I mean it would have been nice if Rick Deckard would have played around with the personalized settings of his mood organ? I think personalised settings say a lot about notions of liberty, society and people’s interaction with technology – seems an under explored area (you just gonna tell me that I’ve simply just missed all the right books?!!)
 I have not one but three answers. And a question.

First - and I know I've said it before- science fiction really isn't in the prediction business. What it really does is hold up a distorting mirror to the time in which it is written, and takes current directions and preoccupations and speculates wildly about them. It doesn't predict the future, but a rich variety of possible futures.  Sometimes it gets it right. More often it gets it wrong, as in the example at the top of this post - Kelly Freas's terrific painting of a space pirate swarming aboard a rocketship with a slide rule between his teeth.

Second, modern science fiction came of age in the post-war years, when techniques of mass production deployed during the Second World War began to spew all kinds of consumer goods. The growth of the American military-industrial complex in the 1950s and 1960s not only produced the largest and most modern armed force in the world, it also stimulated a huge increase in civilian living standards. SF written at the time reflected that, often in satirical, dehumanised dystopias: Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451; Fredrick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth's The Space Merchants; much of Philip K Dick's work. Deckard's mood organ doesn't have personalised settings because that's the point: it's a machine for standardising human emotions in a future where the line between real and artificial human beings is confused.

But has any science fiction explored personalisation of technology? You bet. Much of cyberpunk explores the way in which technology can be subverted and repurposed.  'The street,' William Gibson famously wrote in his short story 'Burning Chrome', 'finds its own uses for things.' My question is this: what's the earliest example of personalised technology in science fiction? In the stories in Larry Niven's future history, published in the 1960s and 1970s, asteroid miners personalised their space suits with paintings (much as vans and motorcycles were customised, back then). But there must be earlier examples . . .


Anonymous Pat said...

Didn't Dick have android manufacturers make them in the likeness of particular people for customers? Possibly in The Simulacra (1964). Does that count?

Certainly in Ubik (1969) the environment of the uploaded dead was made in the semblance of real furniture, rooms, etc., though I don't recall if it was their furniture.

Michael Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time (starting in An Alien Heat, 1971) personalise the whole of local reality through their power rings.

February 09, 2011 10:34 pm  
Blogger Wm. Luke Everest said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

February 10, 2011 1:30 pm  
Blogger Wm. Luke Everest said...

I'm sure I remember something about personal and constant reinvention in I, Robot, but I don't want to go and look it up. As for recent examples, Bio-Punk is full of personalisation brought to a whole new level, even to the point of technological standardization being relegated to the new underclass.

What I'd like to see is less social standardization of the uses of technology--understanding and craftsmanship behind occasionally standardised sociological ramifications. We all watch the same TV, but we don't all watch the same shows. I'm sick of science fiction that gives a single, rather insignificant invention complete precedence over all civilisation. It's time we woke up to social and human sciences, and the importance (or lack thereof) of personalization is worth exploring. Do we honestly think fashion, whether on a facebook page or an iPod screen, capable of expressing the essence of a sentient being?

And speaking of fashion, did you know modern car engines don't actually hum? They're fitted with outboard speakers that make completely pointless barritone noise in order to satisfy the pride just purchased along with that new BMW. In a consumer culture, technology follows society more than the other way around. Society claims personalisation, but I see standardisation in the shallow culture Hannah Montana sells to idiots.

Writing of the future should seek things that drive humankind along the roads we take. And I don't know about you, but I ain't gonna work on Maggie's Farm no more, and I don't think personalised screen-savers in an open-plan office means it's changed all that much. Sorry to harp on.

February 10, 2011 2:21 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Be really interested in seeing some pictures of these modern car engines that don't hum and have the speakers, because, quite frankly, that smacks of urban legend. In fact, *electric* cars are being fitted with speakers because they make no noise and everyone's jumping on the "can't hear it comin to get me" fearwagon (instead of the "please go back to looking both ways before crossing the street" wagon).

It seems to me that the great fear of the future was of depersonalization and factorization of humanity wholesale after an era when everything was somewhat customized because there was no other way of producing goods, and thus science fiction at the time revolved around those themes, as well as the loss of identity associated with working in a factory (cog in the machine and what-not).

February 12, 2011 9:57 am  
Blogger Wm. Luke Everest said...

I don't know all the details about modern engines, but my brother does. Bryn Richards, CEO of Aeristech, is basically responsible for inventing hybrid turbo-charging. It can be read about here:

To quote my brother: "Some cars now have resonant chambers and even outboard speakers to cancel or compliment various frequencies of noise. Drivers want to hear a steady humm, but engines don't need to sound that way anymore."

Again, I don't know all the details, but I do know that Bryn's a great guy to ask whenever I have an engineering question. He can tell me a couple decades' worth beyond common knowledge.

To me this smacks of energy waste and noise pollution. And if Paul would like, I can get pictures from my bro.

February 12, 2011 10:22 am  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Hi Pat,

Wasn't it We can Build You rather than The Simulcra? In any case, it sounds like a good example of the transitional form - companies customising product for customers. The Dancers at the End of Time series is a great example of pushing an idea as far as it can go, and then some ...

Luke, I was thinking more of customers taking standard consumer items and making them over - cyberpunking them, steampunking them - rather than manufacturers tweaking stuff because they think that's what the customer likes. A whole other set of ideas to explore, there, but embedded in an earlier notion of consumerism.

February 14, 2011 6:17 pm  
Anonymous Pat said...

That was the one, about all I remember from it is Abraham Lincoln. Time to read them again.

February 15, 2011 4:58 pm  

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