Is The Lightstream Chronicles awash with gender stereotypes?

When we look at speculative futures, the tendency can be to focus on the technologies and futuristic designs. But technology and design send out ripples beyond their form and function and have an undeniable impact on culture and behavior.

Early on in my character design for The Lightstream Chronicles a colleague mentioned that she was offended by my depiction of women. I was a bit shell-shocked at the time so I didn’t delve into her rationale. In hindsight however, though I disagree, I can understand her point. You have to realize that, at that time, early in character development, Marie_D, Kristin’s domestic synth had a more developed chest and noticeable nipples—sans clothing. This characterization of Marie, actually caught quite a bit of flack. In my mind, however, my intent was anything but the sexualization of my female characters, rather it was motivated by the storyline, that visible, near-nakedness is something taken for granted in the 22nd century. Nevertheless, I reluctantly re-designed Marie to have a pronounced chest, yet without articulated breasts and minus the nipples. I must admit, I like this better for the domestic model.

My rationale for any imagery that may be read as over-sexualized is something I have written about before. Namely, that just as 100 years ago we would be shocked by the thong and bikini, we are equally taken aback at the thought that in another 100 or so years clothing may be a thing of the past. In my story, thin, vacuum sealed second-skins, wrap all the characters in a bio-aware cocoon and any protruding curves, bulges or contours are part of the package, so to speak. While it may cause some base titillation for the various sexes in that day and age, it is no more so than similarly provocative clothing works today. And with genetic tech that enables every human to have the body of their dreams, these contours are deliberate fashion statements. So it remains part of the story line.

As far as whether it is sexist or these are gender stereotypes. An online dictionary will quickly produce this definition:

sexism
noun
1.
attitudes or behavior based on traditional stereotypes of sexual roles.

2.
discrimination or devaluation based on a person’s sex, as in restricted job opportunities; especially, such discrimination directed against women.”

Two characteristics seem to emerge. First there is “attitudes or behaviors”, and the second is “discrimination or devaluation…especially such discrimination directed against women.”

Here I can confidently say that none of the above apply. First, there is no discrimination based on sex or devaluation for that matter. Kristin, our major female character is clearly in charge. She is a strong, single mother who does not rely on males for validation, nor on or her body in any kind of overtly sexual role. It is arguable that Kristin is in fact more dominant that her male counter parts, (aside from Col. Chen’s gratuitous bullying by virtue of his powerful position). Futhermore, in The Lightstream Chronicles, both women and men are visualized in the same way.

This is more of a commentary on steadily changing social mores than on any kind of gender stereotyping.

I have often thought that the true state of affairs in 150 years might be so unrecognizable that readers would find it too provocative or unsettling. So if things continue to heat up in The Lightstream Chronicles, don’t be too surprised. At the same time consider that it could actually be much worse.

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The future: Soon to be evenly distributed.

One of the great debunking websites is something called the Quote Investigator. The site is characterized by excellent research, thorough citations and lot of interesting tidbits especially about quotes we think we know. It has been a couple of years since I saved this one, but it strikes me as especially relevant with a spate of the most recent news releases on wearable technology (spawned by the Apple Watch), and lots of tech reports on telepathic breakthroughs. Consensus, it would seem is that what Gibson actually said (though as QI states, it wasn’t always said in the same way) was,

“The future has arrived — it’s just not evenly distributed yet.”

Which is to say much of what we attribute to science fiction future, at least the near and not too far out fiction futures has probably already been done to some extent.

Also from QI:

“In July 1996 the Washington Post published a story discussing research on wearable computer systems. In the mid-1990s systems using bulky visors and head-mounted video cameras resulted in a Borg-like appearance. The journalist John Schwartz deployed an entertaining variant of the adage under investigation ’The future is already here, it’s just in beta testing, the high-tech world’s final smoothing-out of kinks before products and services go public.‘”1

So images like this TIME cover animation are very sci-fi in appearance but they are also right around the corner. As the cover says,

“The Apple Watch is just the start. How wearable tech will change your life—like it or not”.2

tumblr_nbp4x1ff0s1qcy1c2o1_r1_500
Time cover, whether you like it or not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In my Copenhagen presentation earlier this year, I called this Technological Darwinism—the idea that technology will change our lives and we are powerless to stop it. Adapt or die.

The same QI article further surrounds the quotation with another Gibson remark from a USA Today Article in 1993,

“I’m not trying to predict the future. I’m trying to let us see the present.” (Ibid.)

This, as I have often stated, is also a prime rationale for design fiction. The other albeit a bit more difficult to achieve, is best said by Resnick,

“Scenarios work to enable agency in those who experience them by showing the breadth of possible futures and the inevitability of none.”3

So I will wrap this up by quoting my own quotes from the same Copenhagen paper,

And while society is in desperate need for a host of technological advancements,  Evan Selinger of RIT reminds us that, “technology moves faster than politics, moves faster than policy, and often faster than ethics” 4

According to Allenby and Sarewitz

“… as technological evolution continues to outpace the grasp of human intent, we have little time to waste. These are the questions of our time…”5

1 http://quoteinvestigator.com/category/william-gibson/
2 http://timemagazine.tumblr.com/post/97149637119/times-new-cover-never-offline-the-apple-watch
3 Resnick, Jonathan. “Materialization of the Speculative in Foresight and Design.” Thesis. OCAD-Ontario College of Art and Design, 2011. OCAD-Ontario College of Art and Design, Dec. 2011. Web. 2012.
4 Wood, David. “The Naked Future — A World That Anticipates Your Every Move.” YouTube. YouTube, 15 Dec. 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2014.
5 Allenby, Braden R., and Daniel R. Sarewitz. The Techno-human Condition. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2011. Print.
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Speculating on the future. How do we know?

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary describes a futurist as:

“one who studies and predicts the future especially on the basis of current trends”1 (emphasis mine).1

According to the Society of Professional Futurists,

“A professional futurist is a person who studies the future in order to help people understand, anticipate, prepare for and gain advantage from coming changes.  It is not the goal of a futurist to predict what will happen in the future.  The futurist uses foresight to describe what could happen in the future and, in some cases, what should happen in the future.”2

Their definition expressly denies any attempt at prediction. Embedded in that definition is the term foresight. Voros, in his paper, A Primer on Futures studies, Foresight and the Use of Scenarios, seems to agree.

“Futures (or foresight) work is not, contrary to popular misconception, about prediction or crystalball gazing and trying to guess what “the future” will be. Serious futurists are not in the business of prediction.”3

When I presented my paper Design Fiction as a Means of Provoking Individual Foresight and Participation in Today’s Decision Making, at Loncon3, The World Science Fiction Convention Academic Programme last month, a question arose from the audience suggesting that The Lightstream Chronicles was speculating on “so much”, such that how could I know?

At the time I thought the questioner was inquiring as to my methodology for speculating about future events on such a broad, world-building scale. I started a nutshell explanation of how I built the foundation of the world in 2159, but before I could get very far our time ended (as these things run like a clock). I hoped to carry on the conversation afterward one-on-one, but alas the questioner disappeared,

Thinking about it afterward, either he came in late and missed the point or I did. The point of The Lightstream Chronicles is not to predict the future, but to get us thinking and to provoke discussion and debate about it—today. In this regard, my story about how design and technology blend seamlessly with culture influencing behavior and humanity, shares its intent with Paul Saffo’s definition of foresight: “The goal of forecasting is not to predict the future but to tell you what you need to know to take meaningful action in the present.”4

So the answer is, we don’t know.  At the same time there is a rationale for all of this speculation. Here, I turn to Voros’ “Three ‘Laws’ of Futures” :

The future is not determined.

The future is not predictable.

Future outcomes can be influenced by our choices in the present. 3

And that is the point.

 

 

1. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/futurist

2. http://www.profuturists.org/futurists

3. Dr Joseph Voros, Swinburne University of Technology, Foresight Bulletin, No 6, December 2001, Swinburne University of Technology.

4. Saffo, Paul. “Six Rules For Effective Forecasting. (Cover Story).” Harvard Business Review 85.7/8 (2007): 122-131. Business Source Complete. Web. 4 Mar. 2014.

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Science fiction: Near, distant or far? Why is The Lightstream Chronicles set in 2159?

Science fiction author William Gibson said,

“Personally I think that contemporary reality is sufficiently science fiction for me. Some critics are already maintaining that science fiction is a sort of historical category and it is not possible any more…I have to figure out what it means to try to write about the future at a time when we are all living in the shadow of at least half a dozen wildly science fiction scenarios.”1

I am not of this opinion. I think it is still possible to write compelling near, distant and far future fiction. The frustrating part is often the off-the-cuff critiques, and quick dismissals that any trope such as robotics, or immortality immediately render the work a rehash. I’ve heard this many times. So, it was an conscious decision when writing the original script to make this a distant future fiction.

I follow Robert Heinlein’s definition of science fiction:

“Realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the scientific method.”

With that it is incumbent upon the author to hold those realistic speculations in one hand and with the other, threads of the present that could stretch far into the future.

One of my primary thematic motivations is speculating on human and transhuman futures. To me, based on present day facts, seminal aspects of transhumanism are already in place. We already have cochlear implants, artificial hearts, robotic limbs, transmitting health monitors, and other technological improvements built into our bodies. Without some sort of wild card devastation (which could derail any speculative future) here is no reason to consider a decline in the sophistication and amplification of health-assisting technologies. As with most technologies that, over time, etch themselves into our culture, these will become progressively more accepted as logical improvements to our natural bodies. Based on the current rate of technological advancement and the propensity for technology to grow exponentially, it is not unreasonable to consider a neart future—say 10 to 15 years—where our natural human bodies are significantly enhanced by multiple technologies from retinal implants, to augmented reality, in the form of organs, genetic adjustments, replacements, and interventions designed to keep us younger, sharper, and better in some demonstrable way.

This 10 to 15 year future could easily be the premise of a “near future” design fiction (and perhaps my next book will take that track), but I wanted to follow the threads deeper for two primary reasons. First, is the pragmatic reason that it takes a long time to write and produce a graphic novel of this complexity and I did not want to embark upon a race with technology to complete my story before the speculative future was either no longer speculative or was simply wrong. The second reason, is that small changes, to me, are not disruptive enough to provoke discussion and debate. An incremental change, one that seems like the logical next step, runs the danger of appearing too rational and “on course” to disrupt our present day thought processes (i.e., Her). If we only observe incremental trajectories, we cease to contemplate the long term.

The argument against long-term, future speculation is that it ceases to be plausible because, by then,  “anything can happen”. But this is merely a truism. The fact is, anything usually does not happen. There is an enormous amount of logical speculation that can be derived from what usually does happen given the human condition. If you combine the human factor with plausible advancements in technology—given reasonable trajectories of scientific focus—then we are, in fact, dealing with realistic speculative futures.

This brings me to the narrative itself. If you want to take the next few steps, and look beyond incremental change, to the logical next steps of viable AI, and synthetic humans, fully realistic and indiscernible virtual reality, functioning telepathy, ubiquitous surveillance and indefinite life-pans, then to exert a firm grasp on the science and the current gaps that exist, the only responsible thing to do is move your story into the distant future. To accomplish this you don’t need a 300 year Star Trek future but rather two or three generations from where we are now. This places us in a distant future of approximately 150 years. In my estimation, you just can’t plausibly get there any sooner.

If we want to talk about these logical trajectories we have to place ourselves in a setting that permits them to exist. Then we can look back on how they came to be. To me, this is the crux of design fiction. You may not like it, but the idea is provocation and examination of the futures we incrementally build. If you may think it passé and stereotypical, then you might also find yourself quickly bored of stories that also include tropes such as life, death, love and redemption.

1.http://www.reuters.com/article/2007/08/07/us-books-authors-gibson-idUSN2535896520070807?pageNumber=2&sp=true

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