Maybe It’s Not Science Fiction

by Michael Swanwick

A quarter-century ago I ran across a bemused-looking science fiction writer at a convention. When I asked him why, he told that the day before he’d written a scene for his new novel where his protagonist checked in at a hotel and, instead of being given a key, was handed a plastic swipe­card. He’d been quite pleased with that minor piece of futurism until he’d checked in at the convention hotel and instead of giving him a key, they handed him a card.

Even worse, rather than giving him plastic, they’d placed a pasteboard card with a magnetic strip into a device which assigned it a randomly­chosen code number and then sent that number to his room’s lock. So not only was his invention not science fiction, it wasn’t even as fantastic as present­day hotel practices.

William Gibson fixed that passage before publication, and the novel he was writing, Neuromancer, went on to make him famous, so no harm done. But the incident points out how fast the world is changing and how easy it is to fall behind. Much that you think of as science fiction ­ including things you hear said on Sigma panels ­ and hence something to be dealt with sometime in the distant future may simply be current reality.

I got caught by this same phenomenon myself not long ago. I’d been asked to make a presentation on some aspect of the future of war for a defense contractor. The topic I chose was ‘War in an Age of Ubiquitous Surveillance.’

My thesis was that as surveillance cameras become cheaper, more common, and more networked, a technologically­savvy enemy will realize the enormous propaganda advantages of using them to catch American military forces committing atrocities ­ and if such atrocities are not easily found, then they can easily be manufactured. Imagine that an operative goes into a slum neighborhood and starts giving away realistic#173looking plastic toy Uzis to every boy he encounters. Then he offers a prize to the first boy who can race to the nearest security checkpoint. If the soldiers there have access to a citywide system of cameras, such as exists in London today, their routine will be broken by images of young males racing toward them with guns. Unless they have nerves of steel, they will proceed to shoot down children. And images from those same cameras that created the crisis can be immediately uploaded onto the Web, creating an instantaneous worldwide scandal.

Once you have the basic notion, you can multiply ways that ubiquitous public surveillance systems (and they seem to be inevitable) can be used to create mischief.

The solution is to learn from the experience of the police. After a number of highly publicized beatings were filmed by civilians with cell phones, police forces began putting their own cameras in prowl cars, so that their officers would know that they were always on camera and respond accordingly. The police didn’t like it at first. But they found that these recordings had a positive effect they hadnÕt anticipated: In cases of alleged police brutality, the cameras often provided an impartial record of incidents proving the police had responded appropriately.

So future warriors would have to be trained not only in combat but in public relations. They would have to assume that cameras were always on them and behave accordingly, in order to deny their enemies any propaganda victories. This would not make their task any easier. Quite the opposite. But it would be a condition they would have to deal with.

I had fun playing with the idea. I thought it was science fiction.

I was wrong.

Thinking over it afterwards, I realized that we were already living in that scenario. Not that there is always a camera pointing at us when we are in a public space, but that we can never be sure there isn’t. How many surveillance cameras did you pass by today? How many of them recorded what you were doing? And how many of them did you actually notice?

How many of the people you walked by had cameras in their cell phones?

The Abu Ghraib scandal happened in part because the people responsible did not realize that they already lived in an age of ubiquitous surveillance. There are cameras everywhere. They are linked to an instantaneous worldwide information distribution system. No matter where you are or what you are doing, it is always possible that youÕre being photographed. The only way to protect yourself is to always assume that your actions are being recorded and act accordingly.

The people running Abu Ghraib were living in the past. They didn’t realize that the future had already arrived.

When I gave my presentation on a set of conditions I thought still lay safely (if not very far) in the future, there were other science fiction writers in the room. I was talking to people who were on the cutting edge of their particular technology. Yet nobody called me on my mistake, because nobody caught it. It wasn’t until a week later that I saw it myself Ð and I make a living writing about the future!

If I can make that mistake, so can you.

So the next time you find yourself shaking your head over some crazy, far-out futuristic idea . . . The next time youÕre about to dismiss a scenario out of hand, simply because it’s too improbable, too ‘blue sky’ . . . Stop a moment and think:

Maybe it’s not science fiction.

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