Annalee Newitz, sci-fi author and tech journalist at Ars Technica, io9 and more, discusses living in a “science fictional era,” the mundane side of time travel, and the emerging technologies that excite and scare her.
Q: It’s been said that when you co-founded science and sci-fi hub io9.com, it was partly because we’re living in a “science fictional era.” Can you expand more on what that means?
A: There’s two answers. One is the really simple assertion, which we certainly weren’t the first people to make, that a lot of these ideas that seemed futuristic in science fiction 50 years ago are now part of our everyday lives. We all have communicators that we wear on our bodies, many of us work in companies or factories where robots or technology are supplementing our labor. You have robot arms building cars or batteries, or bots helping to do searches or research and analyze a bunch of data. We’re living in the science fiction that many of us grew up watching and reading. But the other piece of that is, if you look at the most popular films and TV series and novels, a lot of them are science fiction. What we were thinking about a lot is how science fiction is no longer segregated into a genre, it’s now just mainstream entertainment.
Q: As both a science journalist and sci-fi author, how have you experienced the way sci-fi influences real life innovations, and vice versa?
A: I think that it’s a chicken and egg thing. There’s a whole generation that grew up watching Star Trek and then wanted to go into science. I interview scientists all the time who went into their career not because they met some influential scientist, but because they watched science fiction and were like, “That’s what I want to do!” I often say that science fiction is the cultural wing of the scientific project. It’s these stories about new technologies and new discoveries that are part of how we engage in scientific discoveries. Science fiction writers are keeping an eye on the news about innovation and science and spinning tales of how these new things that are found in the lab might behave “out in the wild.” … So the two things — science and storytelling — are always working together because both are trying to imagine a new way of doing things. They’re both about discovery. One is about “What can we discover in our reality? What can we make in our reality?” and the other is about, “How does this fit into our culture? How does this fit into our personal lives? How will this change our families, our economic prospects?” All this stuff is as important to reality as having something like a badass electric car. If we lost the storytelling wing of science, I think our science would be deeply impoverished. Ultimately technology doesn’t do anything — it’s all about how we adopt technology. And that’s the importance of storytelling, which is thinking about how different kinds of people, different cultures and communities, will adopt technology in different ways.
Q: Science fiction itself has changed a lot since you co-founded io9 in 2008, and certainly since you’ve been writing about sci-fi in general. What’s it been like, as both a fan and a professional, watching the genre evolve?
A: It’s really interesting, and super awesome. I’ve been so gratified, especially in the last five years or so. As I was saying earlier, science fiction is partly about thinking through how different kinds of people and communities will engage with new scientific discoveries and innovations, and now we have a lot more women and people of color whose work is being celebrated in the mainstream. … [Science fiction] has always tried to explore radically different perspectives, but at the same time, the community has suffered from sexism and racism, so it’s really great to see this future-minded community moving into the future in this way, and embracing not just technological change but also social change — which is a huge part of what science fiction is about: imagining transformed societies as well as future technologies.
Q: One of your upcoming novels is about time travel. What aspects of time travel do you think people don’t often consider?
A: How changing history is actually incredibly difficult. One of the main fantasies of time travel, which is a very satisfying fantasy, is if we could just change one thing, or kill one person, or make sure that one person survives, that we would basically utterly transform the timeline and prevent some kind of huge disaster. What I’m trying to grapple with is if you went back in time and were trying to change things, it’s just like trying to change the present. You can’t just kill a politician and change things because there’s this huge social movement behind any particular person’s power. A person doesn’t become powerful unless there’s say, a huge corporation behind them, or a massive part of the electorate. It’s this kind of mundane side of time travel that I’m really fascinated by. Even if you went back in time, you’d probably have to stay there for years and years convincing a bunch of people of something to really make a difference in the timeline. I do love the fun time paradox stuff … I think it’s really fun, but it’s not really how history works.
Q: Much of your career is based in researching, analyzing and commenting on new and emerging technologies. Is there any new tech that you’re most excited about?
A: I am most excited about self-driving cars. I don’t drive, and I know lots of people who have mobility issues or disabilities where they can’t really drive. In my happy utopian future for self-driving cars, I kind of imagine it being like “the last mile” for a really robust public transit system. Right now we have buses, we have trains. I live in San Francisco, so we actually have a public transit system that sort of works, but there’s always that “last mile” problem or the last seven blocks problem — some people can’t walk seven blocks to a bus stop. So having self-driving cars would allow you to help those kinds of people, who can’t necessarily run to the bus. And also, if we can get it right, I do think that we have a chance to reduce car crashes and take some of the anxiety off of human drivers and it would really enhance safety. We’re not there yet, but to me that’s a really hopeful sign of how we might run transit in the future.
Q: Are there any technologies you’re scared of?
A: I think the thing that I’m most scared of, which I wouldn’t have said five years ago, is social media. I think a lot of our social networks and social media platforms haven’t been designed with enough humans who understand culture in the loop. I think they’ve been designed by people who are really good with tech and really good… with design. But there need to be some cultural analysts, social scientists, representatives of different human groups involved in planning these kinds of spaces because they’re public spaces. It’s like designing a city. When you design a city, it can’t just be designed by people who think buildings are really awesome — it also has to be designed by city planners who understand where people want to walk, how does it feel to move through the space and how easy is it to move through the space, and what kinds of groupings does it encourage. And we haven’t had anything like that with things like Facebook and Twitter or any of the other popular apps that people are using. I think that’s what’s leading to vulnerabilities that allow propaganda to circulate so quickly. It’s not like we haven’t had this before or it’s historically unprecedented — we’ve always had lies in the media, we’ve always had propaganda — but we’re designing social spaces without thinking of them as social spaces and how they shape public perception and the ability for people to interact with each other.
Q: What are some of your favorite science fiction movies and books and how have they influenced your life?
A: Oh man, there’s so many. When I was growing up I was really influenced a lot by Ursula K. Le Guin and her work, and I was also really influenced by the ordinary things like Star Trek. But in the ’80s there were these really trippy movies that were sort of sci-fi, like Liquid Sky that made a huge impression on me, or Brother From Another Planet, which is an amazing alien movie.
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