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Issue #128 - April 2006

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Fear of the Future

By Cheryl Morgan

There are basically two ways to approach an academic study: one is to look at the material and come to conclusions based on what you find; the other is to start out with a theory and look for material that confirms it. Technophobia! by Daniel Dinello is a classic example of the latter. The thesis of the book is very simple. Dinello believes that science fiction is inherently technophobic, and that its purpose is to warn us about the evils of science and technology.

OK folks, jaws up off the floor please. I’m being serious here. That is what the book is about. The story goes a little like this. Dinello opens up by stating his opposition to George W. Bush and the military-industrial complex, not to mention everything DARPA. He then goes on to talk about technoevangelists such as Ray Kurzweil. Unlike Joel Garreau in Radical Evolution, he appears to regard them as dangerous lunatics who Must Be Stopped. The rest of the book is devoted to finding examples from science fiction of just how awful the future will be if Kurzweil and his crazy friends are allowed to have their way.

If this sounds a little froth at the mouth, I should point out that Dinello defines his title is a fairly restrained way:

The book’s title, Technophobia, is meant to suggest an aversion to, dislike of, or suspicion of technology rather than an irrational, illogical or neurotic fear.

He also admits:

Of course, not all science fiction is technophobic, and not all scientists serve military-industrial interests — just most.

On the whole book is clearly and cogently argued. A solid case is made. But that doesn’t stop Dinello from concluding:

In its devotion to technophobia, science fiction paints a repulsive picture of a future world where technology runs out of control and dominates all aspects of human behavior. Technology’s inherent structure requires suppression of human spontaneity and obedience to its requirements of order and efficiency. This extends the social controls initiated by the cybernetic ideological system. Asimov’s laws of robotic obedience have been reversed into technology’s laws for human submission.

How, one might ask, can anyone come to such a bizarre conclusion? I know an awful lot of science fiction authors, and most of them are technophiles of one shade or another. Most fans I have talked to about Dinello’s ideas have reacted with astonishment and/or laughter. How can Dinello have misunderstood SF so badly? I read the whole book just to find out.

One of ways in which you can come to this conclusion is, of course, to concentrate mainly on movies. The majority of the material in Dinello’s book is based on media SF rather than on the written word. For example, he very much approves of Michael Crichton (even though Crichton is a big favorite at the White House because of his support for the denial of global warming).

The inhumanity of scientists, the dangers of technological addiction, and the unpredictable human-violating consequences of man-machine symbiosis are central to this story [Terminal Man] and much of Crichton’s work…

What Dinello doesn’t seem to have quite grasped is that there is a major difference in dramatic structure between movies and books. The majority of movies are simple adventure stories with good guys and bad guys. In a science fiction movie it is pretty much inevitable that the bad guys will be using futuristic technology in some spectacular way. Therefore almost all science fiction movies feature "bad" technology.

Perhaps more to the point, there simply isn’t time in a movie to develop a complex philosophical argument. Generally there is only time for the hero to confront the bad guys and blow them up. A novel, on the other hand, can address issues in considerably more depth, and is therefore more likely to be balanced and considered in its approach to the technological "menace". Dinello doesn’t seem to appreciate this at all. Indeed, discussing Blade Runner he notes:

…the movie strengthens Dick’s vision of a technology that dwarfs and controls humans.

As if Ridley Scott were somehow correcting a failing in Dick’s original novel.

Having said that, Dinello has clearly read widely in addition to his watching activities. Many well known SF novels are referenced in the book. Almost all of them are held up as examples of SF’s technophobic attitudes in some way or another. There is, however, one SF writer whose attitudes are so out of tune with those of Dinello that his anomalous nature cannot be ignored. He is, of course, the Great Satan of Science himself, Isaac Asimov.

Rather than try to recruit Asimov to his cause (clearly a hopeless task) Dinello sets out to mock him instead. He cites many examples of SF that question the viability of the Laws of Robotics as evidence that Asimov was fatally flawed in his belief that robots can be tamed (or perhaps as evidence that he was a pawn of the military-industrial complex). References to the idea that robots might be persuaded to follow laws, or that they might choose to be friendly to humans, are generally described as "fantasy", whereas the idea that the first thing that robots will try to do on attaining sentience is wipe out all of mankind is treated as being so blindly obvious that it doesn’t need justification.

Naturally Ken MacLeod’s The Cassini Division is held up as an important text. Ellen May Ngwethu’s rants about the evils of the Fast Folk are quoted at length. No mention is made of Jay-Dub, or indeed of any of MacLeod’s other work, for example his theory in The Sky Road that environmentalists will come to embrace nuclear power as the only viable solution to global warming.

Elsewhere Dinello is a little more circumspect about who he recruits to his cause. For example, he makes much of the perceived awfulness of the worlds described in books such as Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, but wisely stops short of accusing Neal Stephenson of being a technophobe. In other places he is really quite cunning in how he recruits people to his cause. One of the last people I would expect him to latch onto would be Donna Haraway. Someone who promotes cyborgization as a solution to sexual discrimination is a technophobe? Well, not quite, but Dinello cleverly notes that Haraway’s ideas were heavily inspired by the fiction of Marge Piercy, and Piercy, well, go and read He, She and It. See, Haraway is a technophobe after all.

There are areas where Dinello doesn’t seem to have understood the argument that an SF novel is making, or perhaps has willfully misunderstood it. Here’s an example from his discussion of uploaded minds, which centers around Greg Egan’s Permutation City (yes, Egan is a technophobe too).

If a Copy is not the same person, then the techno-prophets’ vision of immortality through duplication and download is a meaningless religious fantasy and a mere propaganda tool.

This is such an egregious simplification of a very complex argument played out through many science fiction novels that I began to wonder about Dinello’s honesty. If nothing else the idea that copies are not the same person as the original is central to many novels such as David Brin’s Kiln People, and is used as an argument for the humanization of the technology.

Another book that Dinello uses extensively as an example of science fiction’s technophobia is Rudy Rucker’s Software. I happened to attend a reading by Rucker shortly before writing this review so I asked him for his opinion. Having read the couple of pages devoted to his book Rucker agreed that the description of the plot was entirely fair, and yet a book he had thought was a bit of fun (eating brains and all) was being held up as a dire warning about the world to come.

John Shirley, who was at the same reading, said that he viewed SF more as a modeling tool. Science fiction writers use their books to think about how the world may develop. The argument is often of the form of, "things could go this way, or that way, depending on choices we make." I suspect that many of his fellow SF writers would agree with that.

Dinello, in contrast, doesn’t read the books like that. His fear of technological change is so intense that he sees any description of a future world different from our own as a terrible prediction of what will happen rather than as the more neutral thought experiment that was intended. In the end I came to the conclusion that Technophobia! was more an expression of its author’s own fears than an objective study of the field. However, as I have explained many times before, once a book leaves an author’s PC and finds its own way on the bookshelves of the world, the author loses all control over how it is interpreted. If Dinello chooses to read most SF as technophobic well, that’s his right. But he should also expect to be regarded as mildly crazy by authors and readers of SF alike.

Technophobia! - Daniel Dinello - University of Texas Press - trade paperback

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Emerald City - copyright Cheryl Morgan - cheryl@emcit.com
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