Desperately Seeking Cassandra

Back in the 1960’s, if you could find a bookstore that had a section set aside for the fantasy-horror-science fiction books, you might have noticed that most of the books fell into the science fiction category. Yes, you could find a few fantasy novels by someone like Ursula K. Leguin or the odd H. P. Lovecraft title, but nearly everything else was science fiction.

If you go to one of the last-man-standing bookstores today that is large enough to segregate books by genre and locate the weird fiction section, you will find that fantasy rules with horror as its consort. (I think horror is a sub-species of fantasy, but most publishers treat them as distinct.) Here and there, if you look carefully, you will find specimens of science fiction, which has become an endangered species.

One definition of science fiction is that it is speculation about the effects of technology on humans and their societies. A fair bit of the old science fiction—now called “hard” science fiction, which means that, at a minimum, the events in the story must be at least remotely possible—was written by people with some background in engineering or mathematics or the natural sciences. Even when they lacked such a background, there was far more interest in writing fictions that worked as serious thought experiments.

When Ray Bradbury died last year, one obituary writer pointed out that, besides predicting enormous, flat television screens and tiny media delivery devices you stuck in your ear, he described the likely human consequences of saturating the environment with an almost inescapable torrent of video media: a world that was much louder, dumber, and meaner.

We’re there. We’re there, and too many of us find this acceptable.

People are all too happy to plunk their kids in front of a screen, never mind the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation that small children get NO exposure to television or computers because of evidence that staring at a screen (even if it’s so-called “educational” software or videos) instead of interacting with real people and animals and objects seriously impairs cognitive development.

Not only that, but we are living in a technological environment that is far more connected than even Bradbury imagined. Many people now have anxiety attacks if something prevents them from checking their emails or text messages every five minutes.

Too many of us are hell-bent on posting every single detail of our lives and relationships online, even when what we post could get us into serious trouble. Employers (some of whom now routinely demand the password to your Facebook account), identity thieves, and even rapists and hate groups looking for potential victims all find the web a useful means to their ends.

There are some who argue that the web is one of the factors driving the gradual impoverishment of the middle class.

There is plenty of material for cautionary tales about what all this is doing to us. Why don’t we see more of them?


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