Friday, February 20, 2009

The Martian Way: A Modern Lesson

Isaac Asimov wrote The Martian Way, a sci-fi novella in the mid-50's. Literary types focus on the eye he had out for McCarthyism when he wrote it, but I had completely forgotten that part of the story until rereading it recently. Suffice it to say that intellectual circles, still reeling from the descent into barbarism of the world's most literate, urbane, and philosophical nation in the 30's and 40's, coupled with idealistic hope in the UN and the possibility that communism would grow into the great rescuer of mankind, viewed anti-communist extremism as the great danger of the world. If even Germany could go bad, then so could we, and in just this way. The minor, self-correcting blip in American politics became legendary for silly reasons. Asimov failed to rise above that. Ah well.

What remains memorable about the story is the cultural lesson. People born on earth believe that no one can exist in space for longer than six months without going mad. Those born on Mars half-believe this as received wisdom despite evidence to the contrary in their own culture. Space scavengers spend extended periods in space all the time. When Mars needs water and the supply from Earth looks to be cut off shortly, adventurous space scavengers hit upon the idea of going to Saturn's rings and picking up a big chunk of ice to bring back to Mars. Because of the length of time in space, people are skeptical it will work.

Ignore the water, science, and technology as incidental to this point. The great cultural risks are taken by those who are already used to some of them. Those on the fringes willingly run the experiments on themselves which inform us what humans are capable of.

The nervous joke about physical existence in the future is "Well, we might all be uploaded to silicon by then." Most of us find the idea as appalling as it is intriguing, a version of you sitting on a shelf, which can be outfitted with a body - or not - as those who come after see fit. We try and imagine if such a being is really human. We think it a rather ignominious end.

Not to worry. Other people are going to test this for you because they want to, not because scarce resources make us all attempt it. What kind of sicko would try this? You might. Those who have a terminal illness would see themselves as having little to lose. The silicon version of you would likely belong to your inheritors, not some evil tyrannical government laboratory. Your great-grandchildren might be curious about you. The advances in technology from your time to theirs would make the downloaded you seem rather primitive, like an old 8mm movie enjoyed at reunions. But they would get some sense of you that they didn't have.

Those who spend a lot of time in online worlds will also likely nominate themselves. Few would do it now, but as everyone gets used to the quasi-reality of online personae, those out at the farther end of the curve, for whom Second Life 4.1 with virtual reality is more vivid than their flesh-and-blood life, might also reason that they have little to lose by switching over. People would continue to have minor ties to their carbon-based selves, then tenuous ones, then none. You wouldn't have to worry about the eeriness of meeting them at the store or driving around. They wouldn't go there. They'd do that in their networked world, where you could go or not as you chose. They would regard us as living in a slow, faulty, uninteresting world. There might be overlap, as folks found it entertaining to have three or four lives to bap in and out of at will, each with its own population, but there would be lots of people who picked one life and mostly stayed there. We would barely be aware of what happened in those other worlds - nor would we need to.

But, but, doesn't this meatware world have to go on functioning to support all the others, making the electricity, uploading and downloading the citizens. Couldn't this world be taken over by nefarious controllers, who would make the derivative, dependent worlds do what they wanted? Couldn't they make us into anything?

Probably not. Those living on silicon would likely find a Martian Way.

1 comment:

cold pizza said...

The works of SF author John Varley touched on the idea of downloadable consciousness back in the late '70s, early '80s (I think--it's been a long time since I've ready his books).

Then, of course, are the works of Vernor Vinge and Greg Egan, both exploring consciousness and alternate realities created via technology.

Just a thought. -cp