The following is a rant. Enjoy.
There is a type of sci-fi that is triumphalist. In this kind of sci-fi, people colonize space, improve their health so that they become immortal, enhance their brain powers, or even change the basic nature of humanity … and all goes well. This is welcomed as a good thing.
Then there is another type of sci-fi, where the implications of changes like these are thoughtfully teased out. This is what sci-fi is for, after all: thought experiments. “What would be all the implications for our everyday lives if X were not only possible but routine?” This thoughtful strain of sci-fi is neither hidebound nor reactionary, and yet … these thought experiments so often end up becoming cautionary tales.
It is these cautionary tales that I think should be required reading or viewing for policy makers. All of this stuff has been explored, in fiction, and it never ends well. I can’t tell you how many times, when I hear some harebrained social experiment being suggested, I just want to scream, “Haven’t you people ever watched a single sci-fi movie?”
Here are a few examples …
Think it would be great if all parents could afford to edit inherited diseases out of their child’s genome?
Go watch Gattica.
Predicting people’s behavior and assigning them roles in society based on their genetic predispositions? Perfectly efficient society with no freedom?
Interested in “designer babies?”
There is an episode of The Outer Limits in which the genetic editing seems to work, but once the designer kids reach adulthood, there are unintended side effects that cause them to become outcasts from the very society that created them. They are understandably bitter, and become a criminal class made all the more dangerous by their genetically edited strength and smarts.
How about perfectly executed plastic surgery to make everyone conform to contemporary beauty standards?
There’s an episode of The Twilight Zone for that.
Creating a human/animal hybrid?
The movie Splice.
Storing all our important personal information on the cloud so that it’s always at our fingertips?
Audio and visual recording equipment everywhere?
What if we take this wonderful stream of information and give everyone a brain implant so they can access it at any time?
Back to The Outer Limits. In one episode, “the stream” takes on a consciousness of its own and begins to control the people by feeding them lies. The only person who can even read the hard-copy manual in order to shut it down is a guy whose brain wouldn’t accept the implant because of a birth defect, so he has had to take a job as a janitor and has been forced to read physical books at a normal pace. Poor guy. (Of course, we don’t even need to look at The Outer Limits because we can already access “the stream” at any time, and it’s driving us crazy.)
How about “smart homes,” where our electronic assistant can work our garage door, locks, thermostat and so much more?
I give you HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. And also every other book or movie where the electric grid goes down and suddenly no one can function.
Really smart AI?
How about a perfectly controlled society in which children are raised communally?
Logan’s Run and The Office of Mercy. Oh, and Soviet orphanages.
How about a perfectly controlled society in which children are raised in families, but these families are assigned by a central government so that each child lives in an ideal home?
The Giver by Lois Lowry.
How about we find or create a portal through hyperspace and just start throwing stuff randomly into it? Or how about we touch it? It’s OK, the person touching it has a cable attached to him, should be fine, if anything goes wrong we can pull him right out …
(But actually, we shouldn’t need a movie like Event Horizon to tell us that it’s not smart to send anything through a portal that we don’t know where it goes.)
OK, OK, you’re right … no one is seriously suggesting that we try to travel through space/time wormholes. Not that I am aware of. Let’s try one that people actually are suggesting:
The Jurassic Park franchise.
Post your own examples below.