The Writing on the Wall: Sci-Fi’s Empty Techno-Optimism

The Writing on the Wall: Sci-Fi’s Empty Techno-Optimism

The Writing On the Wall: Sci-Fi’s Empty Techno-Optimism

Before “offering solutions,” sci-fi must actually grapple with the material realities of our present

by Eli Horowitz

The year was 2011, and the award-winning sci-fi author Neal Stephenson was drinking himself maudlin on the sweetened wine of nostalgia. “Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on a braided rug before a hulking black-and-white television, watching the early Gemini missions,” he wrote tipsily in the World Policy Journal. “I have followed the dwindling of the space program with sadness, even bitterness. Where’s my donut-shaped space station? Where’s my ticket to Mars?”

Our problem, he declared, was “innovation starvation.” And what was the best way to put food on the table? Why, science fiction, naturally. “A good SF universe,” he explained, “has a coherence and internal logic…Examples include Isaac Asimov’s robots, Robert Heinlein’s rocket ships, and William Gibson’s cyberspace.” He called these examples hieroglyphs: clear, inspiring symbols of what a better future might hold. Without using such “big visions” to inspire “practical techno-optimism” in “scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and entrepreneurs,” he argued, there would be no way for “the human race to escape from its current predicaments.”

Shortly after writing this article, Stephenson teamed up with Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination to create Project Hieroglyph, “a global collective of writers and researchers” dedicated to countering the “darker, more skeptical, and [more] ambiguous tone” that had recently come to dominate sci-fi. Within two years, he persuaded a who’s-who of authors to join up: Elizabeth Bear, David Brin, Bruce Sterling, Charlie Jane Anders, and more. But after another two years, Project Hieroglyph went dark.

What happened? How did Stephenson’s project lose its luster so quickly? Where’s the techno-optimist renaissance that he planned to ignite? And why, ten years after he made his stand, is everything so much goddamn worse?

One Rule (For Very Large Values of One)

To his credit, Stephenson saw his target clearly. As he explained in a 2012 interview with Smithsonian Magazine, Project Hieroglyph had “one rule: no hackers, no hyperspace, and no holocaust.” Notwithstanding his unorthodox counting technique, these three rules make sense.

Consider, for example, The Martian. Published the same year as Stephenson’s “Innovation Starvation” article, Andy Weir’s breakout novel featured a MacGyver-esque astronaut who “works the problem” of being abandoned on the red planet by concocting one jerry-rigged space-hack after another. Some of these solutions were relatively clever; others were literally just duct tape. But while Weir’s Martian misadventure made for an amusing read, there was nothing in it that was grand enough to count as a hieroglyph.

In fact, The Martian was so modest that it may not have qualified as sci-fi in the first place. Cory Doctorow, another one of Stephenson’s Hieroglyph collaborators, uses the term “design fiction” to refer to works like Weir’s. But whatever you call it, The Martian’s space-hackery certainly couldn’t have inspired anyone “to develop new technologies and implement them on a heroic scale.”

Star Trek wowed us with high-tech wish-fulfillment devices. Just one problem: These technologies could never actually exist.

On the far opposite side of the spectrum, there was Star Trek, whose fantastical gadgets had fascinated viewers for decades. Where Weir offered elbow grease and gumption, Star Trek wowed us with visions of warp drives, holodecks, replicators, teleporters, and a slew of other high-tech wish-fulfillment devices. There was only one problem: Many of these technologies could never actually exist. Basically, if hieroglyphs were meant to be reliable markers on the path to progress, Star Trek was one of those Looney Tunes road signs with arrows pointing every which way.

Finally, given that Project Hieroglyph was founded specifically to counteract the grimness of contemporary science fiction, it was obviously incompatible with harsh tales of apocalypses, dystopias, and cataclysms. So, to reiterate: no hackers, no hyperspace, and no holocausts.

The Fourth H

But if Stephenson’s project ruled out three H words, there was still a fourth lurking—and no, I don’t mean “hieroglyph.” In essence, he wanted to turn our various “predicaments” into homework for nerds. Okay, class, you can imagine him saying, for this year’s science fair, I want you to propose clever, techy solutions to modern problems. And remember: no hackers, hyperspace, or holocausts!

Now, in some ways, this is no different from what sci-fi writers have always done. Yet therein lay Stephenson’s mistake. As the sci-fi writer Algis Budrys put it in the 1960s, the “recurrent strain in ‘Golden Age’ science fiction [was] the implication that sheer technological accomplishment would solve all the problems, hooray, and that all the problems were what they seemed to be on the surface.” When a problem is what it seems to be, this approach can work wonderfully. For instance, the SARS-CoV-2 virus really is exactly what it looks like (i.e., an infectious disease), and the various vaccines really are scientific advancements that we can use to keep ourselves safe from it.

The COVID-19 pandemic, on the other hand, has become something far uglier and more complicated than a mere respiratory ailment. Superficially, it looks like an epidemiological matter whose contours correlate to the use (or non-use) of masks, vaccines, quarantining systems, large gatherings, and so on. But at a fundamental level, the continuing spread of the virus has more to do with things like politics, disinformation, and global intellectual property rights. And that makes the search for technological or hieroglyphic fixes very fucking hard.

When Hieroglyphs Make Contact With Reality

Here’s another example. In his “Degrees of Freedom,” which he wrote for Project Hieroglyph, Karl Schroeder envisioned “a looming environmental disaster in northern British Columbia [that] threaten[ed] to destabilize relations between the government of Canada and First Nations indigenous groups.” In order to defuse the situation, Schroeder dreamt up “a set of Big Data visualizations and collaborative decision-making tools” that allowed the two groups to work together.

In the fictional world of “Degrees of Freedom,” political decision-making was exactly the problem it appeared to be; namely, the challenge of balancing competing interests in a rational and morally bounded way. As such, the power brokers of this fictional world faced only one question: How do we get the best information possible? They had arrived at a technologically solvable impasse, and so, for them, Big Data was a hieroglyph. (Or close enough, anyway. Let’s be honest with ourselves: No children are going to experience their formative moments watching the nation’s Big Data scientists bravely conquer a new pivot table. But we can round up.)

Schroeder’s world fit all of Stephenson’s criteria. It was optimistic; it attempted to woo engineers and entrepreneurs with fancy tech; and it obeyed a coherent internal logic. Unfortunately, its optimistic, techy logic just so happened to be totally at odds with the actual reality of political conflict.

This optimistic, techy logic is totally at odds with the actual reality of political conflict.

As if to prove the point, real-life First Nations groups and the government of British Columbia acted out Schroder’s exact premise, only it went very differently than he envisioned. Demonstrators blocked railway lines all across the country after British Columbia forcefully displaced a group of indigenous Wetʼsuwetʼens who were themselves protesting the construction of a natural gas pipeline on their land. Big Data never came into the picture during this saga, though not because it wasn’t available. It just wasn’t relevant. Government and industry representatives knew that the Office of the Wetʼsuwetʼen opposed their pipeline. But they’d persuaded other First Nations groups to sign off, and they figured that would give them enough justification to skip any further negotiations and overpower the dissenters.

As Foreign Policy reported at the time, this whole chain of events was emblematic “of several long-standing problems in Canada, such as excessive force used by police against Indigenous people; the government’s failure to consult with Indigenous communities over energy projects that are potentially harmful to the environmental sanctity of both their territory and the planet; and the expansion of natural gas and oil pipelines despite global warming.” Or, to put that in simpler and more universal terms: Too often, we humans just aren’t as good as we ought to be. Indeed, the more closely we examine our “current predicaments,” the more obvious it becomes that they didn’t show up all on their own. Rather, they were actively caused by the shittiness of (certain) human agents.

Solving for Humanity

Still, that doesn’t automatically rule out a hieroglyphic approach. If humans were the problem, maybe someone could have thought up a hieroglyph that fixed us. This is what the existential risk theorist Nick Bostrom had in mind in 2019 when he suggested developing a “high-tech panopticon” to keep all of humanity in line at all times.

But it’s easy to see why none of Stephenson’s colleagues followed Bostrom’s lead. Treating humanity like a homework problem has been the stuff of sci-fi dystopias since at least Brave New World—and for good reason. As history shows with brutal clarity, our efforts to engineer better humans inevitably end in exploitation, repression, and/or genocide. Even Bostrom admitted that, with one slip, his system would become “a totalitarian nightmare” capable of turning the entire planet into one huge jail cell.


Still, at least Bostrom tried. In contrast, Project Hieroglyph was a veritable parade of preemptive surrender. Kathleen Ann Goonan’s story focused on illiteracy without addressing its links to economic inequality and gender bias. Charlie Jane Anders and Vandana Singh both tried to tackle global warming without accounting for the humans who are knowingly accelerating the problem in the name of profit and economic growth. And EVOKE, an educational video game that attracted Project Hieroglyph’s support, was designed to teach kids in developing nations to solve problems like wildlife conservation—as though the world’s least powerful people were somehow responsible for the choices of mining, logging, and agricultural corporations headquartered on different continents.

Over and over again, Stephenson and his colleagues tried to skirt or obscure human malfeasance. Worried about the oceans? Just “replant” sea life without stopping to wonder why it died out in the first place! Concerned about ecosystems the world over? Don’t bother to grapple with the reasons why they’re threatened, just carve out a few exceptions for tourists!

Because these wannabe hieroglyphs never reckoned with human villainy, they were less “techno-optimistic” than “techno-naive.” By now, we all know the statistics. In New York City, there are roughly three empty apartments for every unhoused person. Amazon destroys millions of products every year at its warehouses. The United States trashes thirty to forty percent of its food while millions around the world go hungry. And despite the inherently global nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, wealthy nations are buying vaccines to the tune of five doses per person while the vaccination rate in poorer countries hovers around two percent. Predatory capitalism and its attendant ills may not be the only ways in which we’re causing our own problems, but they’re much too important to simply ignore.

Or, worse, to encourage. Remember, Stephenson’s target audience consisted of “scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and entrepreneurs.” Given his choice to court private wealth, it’s no surprise that Project Hieroglyph was doomed from the start. After all, you can’t very well expect to succeed as a hero if you stop to ask the villains for their permission.

The Writing on the Wall

To paraphrase William Gibson, the future is already here, albeit unevenly distributed. Or, as Simon and Garfunkel put it, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls.”

We can choose to ignore those words and embark on a naive quest to encode the future in finely wrought techno-fantasies. But as the collapse of Project Hieroglyph and the subsequent years have shown, optimism has very real limits. The writing on the wall might be too “dark” and “ambiguous” for comfort, but it’s time we started reading.

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“Simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and thoughts, you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.”
― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

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