We climbed this hill. Each step up we could see farther, so of course we kept going. Now we’re at the top. Science has been at the top for a few centuries now.
Now we look out across the plain and we see this other tribe dancing around above the clouds, even higher than we are. Maybe it’s a mirage, maybe it’s a trick. Or maybe they just climbed a higher peak we can’t see because the clouds are blocking the view.
So we head off to find out—but every step takes us downhill. No matter what direction we go, we can’t move off our peak without losing our vantage point. Naturally we climb back up again. We’re trapped on a local maximum.
But what if there is a higher peak out there, way across the plain? The only way to get there is bite the bullet, come down off our foothill and trudge along the riverbed until we finally start going uphill again. And it’s only then you realize: Hey, this mountain reaches way higher than that foothill we were on before, and we can see so much better from up here.
But you can’t get there unless you leave behind all the tools that made you so successful in the first place. You have to take that first step downhill.
- NN : If the future is dead, if we didn’t get the future that we were promised, it does not mean that the present, the here and now isn’t curious. In a talk you gave few years ago at Improving Reality in Brighton, you coined the term "sci-fi condition", what did you mean by that?
- WE : I don’t know if I coined it, to be honest. But I think it’s important to look at the present moment with clear eyes and understand the wonder of a contemporary context where we can see the glass lakes of Titan and satellites orbiting the sun can report to our phones. Or even that several thousand years of developing communication technology means that I can type this right now and you’ll see it in seconds. We tend not to see it. We’re conditioned to see the present moment as "normal," with all the banality that implies. This is not a banal moment. It’s the sort of intense, chaotic moment, full of strange things, that we previously only found in science fiction. "Right now" feels like all of science fiction happening at once, and needs to be considered in that context -- that we’re living in that promised world of miracles and wonder, and that we’ve been trained by the culture not to see it.
- NN : What kinds of situations/examples/technologies do you have in mind to refer to this awkward condition?
- WE : Sometimes it’s the things that seem simplest. Networked maps on phones. If you’re in the Western world and in a context of relatively low-level privilege, you will never be lost again. You could draw up your own list of things that would seem completely alien to someone from 1984. Or things that would simply seem science-fictional, like public internet kiosks.
- NN : In this context, what’s the importance of science-fiction according to you?
- WE : In lab-testing the potential pressures of all possible futures. And in universalising the poetry of science, which is the machinery of the world.