Wednesday, Dec 07, 2022

Speakeasy: Science, Foretold

The tremendous oracular value of science fiction. It has had tremendous oracular value, but unfortunately, science fiction's most popular works predict dystopias.

Asimov’s Science Fiction, Hugo Awards, Nebula Awards, Robert Silverberg, Massachusetts, High Fidelity, The Shape of Sounds to Come, George Orwell, Winston Smith, World Wide Web, Neuromancer, William Gibson, indian express, indian express news Ahead of his time: Robert Silverberg had no grounding in science.

The current issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction includes a column by multiple Hugo and Nebula winner Robert Silverberg, who remains prolific well into his eighties. Titled ‘I Invent the Compact Disc’ in 1961, it describes the rediscovery of an article he wrote for the Massachusetts-based magazine High Fidelity, one of the world’s finest sources of audio news from the Fifties to the Eighties, the period in which sound reproduction abandoned valves in favour of solid state, and then embraced integrated circuits. The technology also moved from analog to digital, Dolby took the hiss and crackle out of life, and pickups moved on from diamond needles to laser beams, the first radical transformation in reading music from media since Thomas Edison made the wax cylinder.

It appears that Silverberg, who freely admits that he has no grounding in science, was the first to write about this technology, two decades before the first market-ready CD was demonstrated on BBC’s Tomorrow’s World in 1981. There may have been other thought pioneers, whose ruminations were sent to oblivion by the kabariwallah. Silverberg’s article in High Fidelity, titled ‘The Shape of Sounds to Come’, escaped that awful fate, and was recently brought back to his attention by a fan. He admits to being amazed by the fidelity of his vision to the technology that would become commonplace by the end of the 20th century. In the article, Silverberg predicted that the industry would seek pickups which do not wear out media by physical contact, and he declared that lasers would fit the bill. They did until the industry realised that for digitally encoded music files, magnetic or flash media would do just as well. And so the CD drive became history.

Silverberg predicted the CD — and the DVD, naturally — in a story set in 1984. Which was the year in which another futuristic writer with no grounding in science predicted another feature of modern civilisation that we have been obsessively interested in this year when Aadhaar was examined by the courts and stripped of its surveillance features. George Orwell placed Winston Smith, the protagonist of 1984, in a media-drenched world. The screens in every home and office both recorded citizens and hosed them down with propaganda. If left to grow unchecked, the Aadhaar ecosystem would have performed one half of that role, and constituted a gross invasion of privacy, holding fine-grained data of value to businesses, and of interest to governments.

The World Wide Web, which has become the backbone of civilisation, also dates back to 1984 in science fiction, with the publication of Neuromancer, which established the cyberpunk genre. Writing on a manual typewriter, with almost no experience of using a computer, let alone having access to the command-line machines on the Unix networks on which the precursor of the internet ran, William Gibson coined the word cyberspace. He visualised it as an illuminated network of data structures, with corporate silos soaring above the level of the information highways travelled by common data, like a night-bound city seen from a plane. We use data instead of visualising it, but that’s what our contemporary network probably looks like.

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Another famous sci-fi prediction is plastic money, foretold by Edward Bellamy in 1888 in the still-popular Looking Backward. He is usually credited with dreaming up credit cards, but the financial instrument he depicts is more like a cash card, the bit of plastic which you load up with currency when you travel overseas. Even so, the idea that value could be abstracted from paper would not be bodied forth in plastic until 1950, when Diners Club launched its charge card programme to help people who were absent-minded enough to go out to dinner and leave their wallets behind. And the idea that payments could be deferred on a line of credit — that the retail economy could run almost entirely on plastic money, giving Occupy theorist David Graeber food for thought — would not be a reality until eight years later, when Bank of America released the first revolving credit instrument.

Science fiction has had tremendous oracular value, but unfortunately, its most popular works predict dystopias. Obviously, this is because dark materials sell better, in turn, because human nature — especially that of the intelligent slice of the pie — is inclined to believe the worst. Equally unfortunately, these dystopias do come to pass with depressing regularity (it’s so hot these days that it must be climate change), because humankind excels at pandering to its worst instincts. The ubiquity of the credit card does support Graeber’s thesis that debt is more important than the market, which we take to be the fulcrum of the global economy. And debt is a dreadfully gloomy prospect. But looking back 20 years, in its finest hour, that CD which Robert Silverberg invented brought hope, happiness, Queen, Stevie Wonder and Stevie Nicks to millions. That bit of science fiction wasn’t at all in vain.

First published on: 07-10-2018 at 06:00:26 am
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