Small Smart Objects

… as opposed to the traditional sf plot-engine staple of the Big Dumb Object. Madeline Ashby and Charlie Jane Anders interviewed-in-conversation at Slate (and edited further by me for concision):

Charlie Jane: […] That’s something that always bugs me, the ways that tech is designed to be opaque.

Madeline: Right, I think that’s the nature of writing about a consumer product. It’s not the same as writing about a big dumb object, like a space elevator or something. You’re writing about something that has been made, in theory, user-friendly. So it has to look that way on paper, too. And it has to have all the bugs that “user-friendly” things have, too.

Charlie Jane: In my story, the big mechanism driving everything (no pun intended) is these driverless trucks that are supposed to bring supplies to New Lincoln, but they keep getting rerouted…

Joey [Eschrich]: And thus, who do the makers of the technology have in mind as their customer? Who gets left out of that? Or in the case of the trucks, what’s the system logic driving decisions about food delivery?

Charlie Jane: My story didn’t really “click” until I decided to start it with just a view of the trucks zooming across the landscape, and it’s pretty clear that there’s no human being involved in their routing. I think that these systems start out with good intentions and then just gradually get more and more unwieldy as more complexity is added.

Madeline: Right, and complexity is treated as a threat to the system. The system is actively hostile to nuance. […] Mostly because nuance requires humans, and humans cost more.

I think I’ll build on my flippant title, though, and argue that the Small Smart Object is not the sf-nal antithesis of the BDO, but rather the demand-side expression and extension of the ultimate BDO (for which we might retroactively claim that all the other BDOs in sf were metaphors uncognisant of their status as such), namely the distributional metasystem we tend to refer to as “infrastructure”. That metasystem has become a hyperobject, but a certain subjective perception of it can be garnered through an engagement with the interfacial excrescences through which it manifests in our daily lives. Or, more succinctly: all technology criticism (and hence the majority of non-space-opera science fiction) is infrastructure criticism. And that’s as it should be, IYAM.

Hang on, I can see a raised hand for a question at the back of the room. What’s that, sir? ‘Why can’t we get back to the good old days when sf was inspirational and technology was a force for good?’ I think I’ll let Madeline take that one, actually…

Madeline: [Regarding commissioned narrative prototypes] deep down, all of those stories are answering questions like: “How will humans actually interact with this? What might someone use this for?” At its best, it surfaces questions and concerns that weren’t already in the mix. My favorite question is: “What’s the worst that can happen? Can you write a story about that?” People don’t ask it very often, but that’s when they get the best results.

Although, naturally, the question arises: “Worst for whom?”

Or, alternatively, to paraphrase the Mighty Clute: in 20th century sf, the reward for saying “yes” was the future, while in 21st century sf, the reward for saying “yes” is death. And if you don’t understand why that is, it’s because you’re still stuck in the unevenly distributed polder-remnants of the 20th century. Lucky you.

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