Man, Myth and Melrose

Would you rather fight 100 technology sized humans or one human sized technology

I think, in a way, it is technology that moves us, and not the other way around. We invent things blindly. We invent whatever we are capable of inventing. There are millions of us, determined to invent the next thing — whole industries devoted to bringing new technology into the world, without any thought given to these secondary effects that cannot be imagined. When you invent the automobile, you invent the serial killer using his van as a mobile abattoir. When you invent the camera and the airplane, you invent aerial surveillance. When you invent the drone, you should know that soon enough it will carry a bomb and be used in an assassination.

Every one of these new things we build shapes our lives, carries consequences…. It is not human beings that are controlling technology — rather, it is the other way around. Technology has always been an unstoppable force.

Ray Nayler, The Mountain in the Sea (2022)

Absolutely banging quote from a truly brilliant (and highly-recommended) book. Nayler’s book is, in and of itself, a length discussion of how technology impacts humans, humanity, and the natural world around us. Come for the advanced octopus civilisation, stay for the beach-side debates about transhumanism.

The cart/horse or chicken/egg (choose your metaphor) relationship between humanity/technology is one of the key themes in The Big Book/s of Cyberpunk. Who is in the driver’s seat? The inventor or the invention, Frankenstein or the monster, the user or the algorithm?

Personally, I err towards a slightly different view, and see technology as an ‘extension of man’ rather than something that transforms us. McLuhan, writing specifically about media, argued that each new form ‘adds itself on to what we already are’.

When you invent a drone, you should realise that it could carry a bomb (safety by design, people!), but that’s additive, not transformative. It kills more efficiently, at a greater distance. The fundamental issue here is not how or when the killing takes place, but the desire to kill that was already there. That is a human problem, exacerbated by (not created by) technology. The desire to snoop, to threaten, to scare, to harm: these are not caused by technology, any more than our desire to aid, to connect, to comfort, or to love. It is important to remember that planes, cameras, and cars have positive second order effects as well. Hell, even Twitter was useful once.

I rant about this all the time: we need to be thinking about what idealistic technology does in a realistic world. The speed of invention is faster than the speed of legislation. This will never change, meaning, to some degree, the onus will always be on the inventor to think more holistically about the impact of their work.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t also moderate technology or apply it thoughtfully after it is invented. Cars are more dangerous than bicycles, which is why we do have (far) better moderation (social, cultural, legislative) around how and when they are accessed and used. Guns kill more efficiently and effectively than knives, which is why we should have more moderation of how and when they are accessed and used. The pyramid of ideal solutions is:

  • fix the human problem - lessen (or dissuade from) (or stamp out entirely) the underlying reason that someone would want to do something nasty

  • safety by design - make a thing in a way that prevents the possibility of negative secondary (or primary) consequences

  • moderation - the thing is out there, how do we mitigate its negative consequences

None of those are easy! It is hard to moderate technology. It is, arguably, even harder to moderate human nature. Still, there remains an important nuance between perceiving humanity as being ‘extended’ by technology versus being ‘controlled’ by it.

First, the notion that tech is the dominant partner eschews us of responsibility. It wasn’t me, your honour, the drone did it. Just because the extensions of man exist doesn’t mean that we have to use them, or that we are obliged to use them for evil. Let’s not let ourselves off the hook.

Second, believing that we are controlled by tech can also lead to an optimistic, but irresponsible, fatalism. The belief that, whatever the problem, we (someone) will ‘invent our way out of it’. Don’t worry about climate change, when things get too bad, someone will invent the solution! We, as lumps of meat and gristle, can’t be expected to solve these things ourselves, we’ll wait for the big guns to somehow (invent and) fire themselves. Assigning ourselves as the junior partner is a way of absolving ourselves of responsibility.

Belief in human agency is what both separates and elevates good cyberpunk from the rest of the herd (of less-good cyberpunk, ye Olde Schoole science fiction, whatever). Cyberpunk is not stupid. One of the fundamental tenets of the genre is that it appreciates that technological change is happening, in real time, around us. It also understands that this change will impact every single aspect of our lives, from the food we eat to the movies we watch to the wars we fight (and win or lose).

But, ultimately, cyberpunk still positions technology as an extension of man, not a replacement for or controller of. Technology is very rarely the solution to any problem faced in a cyberpunk work: conflicts are resolved by human ingenuity than technological invention. The future, like the present, is ultimately the responsibility of people.

Melrose was my favourite show. Which is extra amazing given that I was a 12-19 straight boy when it was on the air - not exactly its core demographic. But it was my older sister’s favourite show, and hanging out with her to watch it somehow became ‘appointment viewing’. To be fair, she would often patiently sit through Star Trek: TNG with me beforehand.

When she left to study abroad for a year, a generous cousin diligently taped every single episode. Even the reruns. When she came back, we binged an entire season. This was, probably, my first ‘binge-watching’ experience, which is funny to think about. Almost as amusing as someday explaining the notion of ‘taping’ a show (on actual VHS!) to my child.

My first response to the Melrose news was zomg must watch this. Rapidly followed by: zomg I will never watch this.

This has nothing to do with Melrose Place itself. The show was better than I would have understood at the time, while also being not very good at all. But my memory of Melrose is inextricably linked to my experience of watching it. It isn’t actually a ‘hot take’ as much as accepted reality, but those positive social experiences, as facilitated by television, are a lot fewer and far-between. There’s a reason that the NFL dominates television: sport is one of the few remaining examples of people coming together to watch stuff. When a series drops on streaming, we all rush to binge it and then go online to swap reaction gifs, but it is hard to see that as anything besides a homeopathic alternative to what used to be actual co-viewing.

The problem with Melrose is that the object at the center of the experience isn’t what made the experience positive. I don’t want to watch it again! I want to watch it again, for the first time, sharing a six-pack of frozen Lender’s Bagels with my sister. Cultural creators are constantly looking to mine nostalgia properties, but rebooting the property doesn’t redeliver the same experience. The reboot might have Heather Locklear (!) in it, but it won’t have my sister (who is alive and well! just several thousand miles away!).

(I’d probably point towards X-Men ‘97, which takes the hard path to being a genuinely solid nostalgia property because they put the work of in of - wait for it - being a good show. And it cleverly weaves in broader memory triggers of ‘what it was like’ in 1997. It isn’t trying to give you the same feeling of watching it in 1997, but it reminds you of what you liked about 1997. And, again, is actually good in and of itself.)

what I’m reading (and writing) online

Behold, the cyberpunk media blitz has begun. I’m in the Independent talking about why we should be polite to Alexa. Spoilers and/or saved-you-a-paywall: this is less about courtesy for its own sake and more about establishing a pattern of optimal behaviours now, as our interactions with AI rapidly scale. Etiquette in this case is shorthand for ‘establishing a buffet of engrained heuristics’ (…and also courtesy).

In the 2019 General Election, youth turnout was lowest of all demographics. A discussion with actual young people about what matters to them and why they do (or don’t) engage with the democratic process. (My favourite part is the respondent who is furious that political orgs are trying to reach her through Facebook of all places. “I’ve never looked at it!”)

More on second-order effects. I recently was pointed to the Cabinet Office’s IN CASE framework - a toolkit to help communicators anticipate unintended consquences. It isn’t a magical forecasting tool, but a model that prompts people to think about risks in their environement.

A deep dive into finding the first female (tabletop) gamers. I really like Playing at the World, which is a history of D&D so exhaustive that it actually makes the bookshelf bend beneath it.

Anne and I are back in ParSec with our regular In the Weeds feature talking about publishing and fandom challenges. In issue #10 we talk about Goodreads, and is it actually, y’know, good for readers? (Kinda.)

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