Most cultures preserve their traditions and transmit values by telling stories about their past. Americans used to do the same, back when the Western was perhaps our most popular genre. Yet, somewhere around the mid-twentieth century, we began to examine our most cherished values and deepest questions through exploring the future.
Science fiction is a genre about discontinuities rather than continuities, change rather than tradition, and about open questions rather than tried-and-true wisdom. It could only emerge at the moment when cycles of cultural and technological change could be viewed within a single lifetime. Today, the rate of change has accelerated to the point where we only need to go “twenty minutes from now” to envision radical cultural shifts and extraordinary technological advances.
Hugo Gernsbeck, the pulp magazine publisher widely credited with inspiring the American strand of science fiction, saw the genre as a vehicle for fostering broader public debate about technological change and scientific theory. At one time, he considered printing the factual information in italics, but then decided that allowing readers to debate what was or wasn’t true would spark a more thoughtful audience. While people read and write science fiction for many different reasons, the desire to speculate and explore new theories remains central to the genre’s appeal. Writers are both consumers and popularizers of theoretical debates.
A case in point is Global Frequency, a new comic book series by Warren Ellis. Set in the near future, Global Frequency depicts a multiracial, multinational organization of ordinary people who contribute their services on an ad hoc basis. As Ellis explains, “You could be sitting there watching the news and suddenly hear an unusual cell phone tone, and within moments you might see your neighbor leaving the house in a hurry, wearing a jacket or a shirt with the distinctive Global Frequency symbol…or, hell, your girlfriend might answer the phone…and promise to explain later…Anyone could be on the Global Frequency, and you’d never know until they got the call.” Ellis’s story responds to significant shifts in the media environment-in particular the increasing role of mobile phones and wireless computing-but also to speculations about their social and political impact.
It is almost as though Ellis was illustrating arguments that Howard Rheingold makes in his new book, Smart Mobs. As Rhinegold explains, “Smart mobs consist of people who are able to act in concert even if they don’t know each other. The people who make up smart mobs cooperate in ways never before possible because they carry devices that possess both communication and computing capabilities…. Groups of people using these tools will gain new forms of social power.”
This is important stuff-a compelling new theory about political power and social affiliation from the man who coined the term “virtual community.” Rheingold offers a number of examples, ranging from the “thumb tribes” in Japan whose social life is organized around instant messaging to the antiglobalization movement’s alternative news organizations, from the reader-moderation on Slashdot to the use of cell phones to wage revolution in the Philippines. Global Frequency and Smart Mobs hit the stands at almost the same moment and compliment each other perfectly. Both help to bring ideas from top research facilities to lay readers.