There were two panels at BristolCon based around “real” science: “When did science become the bad guy?” and “Sci-fi now”. Both were interesting discussions and shared a few panel members so I thought I’d write them up together.
(Apologies by the way, for the scatty and delayed nature of this post. I wrote it weeks ago and then NaNoWriMo started and I didn’t get round to tidying it up. And now I must get back to writing that novel…)
Tim Maughan kicked us off with the declaration that science is not considered uncool itself, but understanding it is. All these shiny new TV shows about science are pretty but have little or no depth, and certainly don’t teach anything new (though, as a counterpoint, he still rates Sky at Night). Eugene Byrne suggested that this dumbing down was part of a general increased shallowness of the media. In fact, he was quite positive, comparing the 1980s general fear of science to the current feeling that science is an important tool and the great enthusiasm for technology and gadgets. He also controversially put forward the idea that raised tuition fees will be good for science, because potential students will likely lean towards more practical subjects with firmer career prospects.
Simon Breeze made the suggestion that the Internet generation couldn’t build the Internet, which I have to say I disagree with. But I could see how someone might think that – as Jonathan Wright pointed out, technology has advanced so much so quickly that you can’t just learn how things work by taking them apart. Tim Maughan added the interesting point that state schools in the UK teach computing, including HTML and basic coding, but public schools don’t go near it, staying as always behind the times but also creating an odd reverse snobbery.
But what about the cool future science we all thought we’d have by now and don’t? This discussion kept coming back to the idea that technologies are developed when we need them. And of course some things turn out different from exactly what was envisaged. Paul McAuley thought teleportation might be useful, but suggested that the long queues for the booths might make it only fractionally quicker than flying. And drones barely feature in old science fiction yet are becoming scarily real (in military use). Tim Maughan pointed out that the car that drives itself is imminent and Eugene Byrne suggested that increased age and disability in western populations will accelerate technologies like robot cars. Dev Agarwal suggested that the same might be true of investment in cybernetics – e.g. for making people walk again.
The panel all agreed, in response to an audience question, that the future science fiction of 1984 is scarily close to coming true – and we’re all willingly helping it along. From Internet security measures that save our every search term and movement on the Web, to store cards that track our purchases, to CCTV, to social media where we announce our every action, we are creating the surveillance culture that Orwell envisaged, only we’ve forgotten to be horrified by the idea.