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Science Fiction and Smart Mobs

Dystopian visions of the future explore the power of virtual communities.
January 31, 2003

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.

The genre has also gone through quite a transformation in the last 80 years-a shift from gee-whiz wonderment toward an increasing dystopia; from grand engineering enterprises to what cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling calls “tech that sticks to the skin”; from scientific experimentation to the social, political, economic, and cultural impact of new media. To some degree, these changes reflect science fiction’s broadening readership. But they also reflect a shift in how we perceive technology. No longer under the control of the guys in the white lab coats, new tech is literally under our skin, attached to our bodies, tossed into our backpacks.

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.

A compelling new theory of social organization is forcing Ellis to rethink science fiction’s conventions. Ellis rejects the mighty demigods and elite groups of the superhero tradition and instead depicts the twenty-first century equivalent of a volunteer fire department. As Ellis explains, “Global Frequency is about us saving ourselves.” Each issue focuses on a different set of characters in a different location, examining what it means for Global Frequency members personally and professionally to contribute their labor to a cause larger than themselves. Once they are called into action, most of the key decisions get made on site as the volunteers are allowed to act on their localized knowledge. Most of the challenges come, appropriately enough, from the debris left behind by the collapse of the military-industrial complex and the end of the cold war-“The bad mad things in the dark that the public never found out about.” In other words, the citizen soldiers use distributed knowledge to overcome the dangers of government secrecy.

Transmetropolitan, Ellis’s previous series, also incorporated debates about media power, tapping into genre conventions from the cyberpunk movement. At its center were two competing myths about media-the media “torrent” and the hacker who knows how to surf it. On the one hand, Ellis depicted a world where voters are benumbed by the challenges of navigating through 2000 cable channels, where our most sacred artifacts are sold as commodities (“Air Jesus” shoes allow you to walk on water), where politicians use nanotech to erase scandals from our brains, where individuals customize their identities through cosmetic surgery and body modification, and where advertisers set off “buy bombs” to implant their messages in our dreams. Here, elite groups use media to distract us from any real democratic participation.

On the other hand, there is a heroic story about the power of grassroots media to resist corporate control. The series’ protagonist is a tattoo-covered gonzo journalist, Spider Jerusalem, whose often hallucinatory rants articulate the vague dissatisfactions of the underclass. Modeled after Hunter S. Thompson, Spider is alternatively bemused, outraged, addicted, and repelled by popular culture-but he plumbs its depth and emerges with the uncomfortable truth. Ellis may be cynical, but he maintains a core belief that an informed public can make a difference. Spider topples two political administrations (“The Beast” and “The Smiler”) by following the traces, connecting the dots, and deciphering the clues, in a world where all information is out there if you can only find it. That the Spider action figure comes with its own laptop, suggests just how central this ideal of grassroots media is to the series.

Over the past decade or so, the original cyberpunk writers (such as Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, or Pat Cadigan) have moved away from their focus on hackers vs. corporations to deal more and more with themes of globalization and the collapse of the nation state. These stories have been increasingly pessimistic, offering no compelling vision of what a better society might look like or how it might come about. By tapping into current discourse about “smart mobs,” Global Frequency gives us a glimpse into what kinds of social action might make sense in this rapidly changing political and technological landscape. Ellis does what science fiction does best-pushes contemporary theories to their limits and makes them accessible to the public; his new series incites us to speculate and debate the implications of technological change.

Hugo Gernsbeck would have been proud.

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