Sci-fi and the public sphere

The idea that people in a society can freely come together to discuss issues and take action is often challenged in science fiction, where media technologies suppress the public sphere.

The public sphere may be envisaged as a social realm providing opportunities for the civil society – a non-state community united by common interests and will – to transmit its wishes and evaluations of state authorities’ actions through media channels. The level of public sphere development and public interest promotion is determined, to a significant extent, by authority and hierarchical relationships between civil society and the state.

While one is capable to locate multiple illustrations of public sphere suppression in history textbooks and in news reports covering contemporary dictatorships, science fiction also provides a way to speculate on possible scenarios of social and political interactions. Importantly for the present, dystopian portrayal, sometimes hyperbolised, of totalitarian future regimes utilising media technology to oppress society, renders a warning to humanity becoming increasingly globalised and ever more interconnected.  

In a selection of sci-fi texts reviewed reviewed for this project , we observed the persistence of an idea that media technology as value-neutral, but which became oppressive and dangerous in evil hands, suppressing the public sphere or eradicating humanness out of population. This technophilic approach is different from technophobic accounts, which were also present among analysed literature and films. Technophobes hypothesise that technology is capable of leaving the boundaries defined by creators, and usurping authority, which is largely visible in works about artificial intelligence (AI) (Beauchamp 1986).

Books Neuromancer (Gibson 2004 [1984]), Dune (Herbert 2007), and Defiance (Quinn 2015), for instance, clearly adhere to technophobic traditions: artificial intelligence in these texts is considered to be a potential and indeed possible threat to humanity. While the first two works may not explicitly engage with the phenomenon of public sphere, Quinn’s Defiance describes in more detail how the “ascenders” – half-human, half-cyborg creatures – take power away from “traditional” or “legacy” humans via the process of human evolution, and regulate social and political life of the latter. “Defiance” also appears to transcend the limits of technophobic writing, engaging with technophilia as well: “ascenders” utilise sensing, surveillance and other essentially “neutral” technologies to prevent humans from developing public sphere or any countermovement against the ruling technoregime.

Famous dystopias Brave New World (Huxley 2006 [1932]), Nineteen Eighty-Four (Orwell 2008 [1949]) and Fahrenheit 451 (Bradbury 2013 [1953]) provide further insight into how technologies may be used for political, ideological and market purposes. In these novels powerful rulers ensure that mass media, consumerism and perpetual entertainment facilitated by sophisticated smart technologies create constant “noise” (Syvertsen 2017).

This continuous media interference appears to be a successful neutraliser of “reasoning” capacities of civil society as described by Habermas (2004). The power relationships between authorities and the public are not questioned, and the potential for a civil society to act in its own interest is neutralised. Public interest, therefore, becomes closely compatible and in line with promoted narratives of political regimes, which maintain monopolies on information dissemination. Such negative manifestations can already be pinpointed in reality.

Dahlberg (1998) observes that corporate and state interests threaten free circulation of opinions within the public sphere. In particular, the democratic development of the Internet has already experienced challenges of censorship, access restriction, and capitalisation of the cyberspace among others. With the prospects of further intensive development of hyperconnectivity – an unprecedented level of inter(connection) between people through electronic (media)devices and between different gadgets themselves – one may advocate the need to commence looking for methods of how to integrate public sphere protection mechanisms into pervasive computing designs. Such principle of “embedded responsibility” suggested by Kang and Cuff (2005) may prevent the uncontrolled rise of hyperconnected technologies from compromising norms of transparency, open access, publicity and respect for privacy.

Dystopias, thus, are useful for hypothesising what course in terms of democratic development in relation to media technology society may take. And while technophobic prognoses about AI are important as useful notices of caution for near and distant future, technophilic accounts may be more effective to direct the path towards the reorganisation of the way media technology is being currently (mis)used by political and corporate entities to disrupt normal functioning of public sphere.   

 

References

Beauchamp, Gorman. 1986. “Technology in the Dystopian Novel.” Modern Fiction Studies 32 (1): 53–63. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/244281.

Bradbury, Ray. 2013. Fahrenheit 451. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Dahlberg, Lincoln. 1998. “Cyberspace and the Public Sphere: Exploring the Democratic Potential of the Net.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 4 (1): 70–84. https://doi.org/10.1177/135485659800400108.

Gibson, William. 2004. Neuromancer. 20th anniversary edition. New York: Ace Books.

Herbert, Frank. 2007. Dune. SF Masterworks. London: Gollancz.

Huxley, Aldous. 2006. Brave New World. New York: Harper Perennial.

Kang, Jerry, and Dana Cuff. 2005. “Pervasive Computing: Embedding the Public Sphere.” Washington and Lee Law Review 65: 93–146. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=626961.

Orwell, George. 2008. Nineteen Eighty-Four. London: Penguin.

Quinn, Susan Kaye. 2015. Defiance: Prequel to the Legacy Human. https://itunes.apple.com/au/book/defiance-prequel-to-the-legacy-human/id1252650947?mt=11.

Syvertsen, Trine. 2017. “Evil Media in Dystopian Fiction.” In Media Resistance: Protest, Dislike, Abstention, 153. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan. https://www.palgrave.com/gp/book/9783319464985.

 

 

 

About the author

Dzmitry Pravatorau
By Dzmitry Pravatorau

The JxD Project is about imagining the journalism of the future. We are interested in using interaction design to propose new ways of for communicating and interacting with news and information that is in the public interest. On this site you can find out about our projects, download resources and see our publications.