George R.R. Martin’s Science Fiction Theory Of Internet Apocalypse

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George R.R. Martin predicts who will win the Hugo Awards.
George R.R. Martin predicts who will win the Hugo Awards. Reuters

On Friday, Game of Thrones creator George R. R. Martin posted “Monsters From The Id” to his LiveJournal. “Who says that science fiction is not prophetic?” he wrote as an accompaniment to an embedded clip from the 1956 sci-fi classic, Forbidden Planet. While most remembered today for one of its costars, the iconic Robby the Robot, Forbidden Planet isn’t the serving of 50s, B-movie pulp many assume. Instead, it’s a thoughtful take on William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, with Dr. Edward Morbius in the place of Prospero, as a scientist investigating deadly forces beyond his control.

Martin’s clip comes near the end of the movie, as Dr. Morbius and Commander Adams (a young Leslie Nielsen!) finally figure out the mysterious power behind an invisible monster that keeps killing Adams’ crew. Morbius has been playing with technology left behind by an extinct alien race, the Krell. The Krell’s machine can “instantaneously project solid matter to any point on the planet, in any shape or color they might imagine, for any purpose,” Adams said. “Creation by mere thought.”

But the Krell didn’t take into account the primitive impulses underlying their noble intentions. Once activated, instead of offering them miracles, the device weaponized their own worst impulses: “The secret devil of every soul on the planet, all set free at once, to loot and maim.”

“The Krell Machine has been built,” Martin writes. “We call it The Internet.”

It’s an apocalyptic comparison, which isn’t in short supply these days. But whether or not it’s true is hard to say from here. It’s more likely that the internet as currently conceived isn’t revealing our true nature, as the Krell id machine does, but playing to our vulnerabilities, turning our own psychology against us to drive engagement and encourage addiction. We don’t even really understand what we’ve built. We’re digitally packed together and defenseless, like urban areas in plague times before the germ theory of disease.

As Max Read pointed out in a recent New York magazine article on Facebook, “At 2 billion members, ‘monthly active Facebook users’ is the single largest non-biologically sorted group of people on the planet after ‘Christians.’” Something is being built and nobody, certainly not Mark Zuckerberg, understands what it means. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter may have been modelled to suck up our information and sell us to advertisers, but it’s gone far beyond anything we could have previously imagined, moving elections, changing society, maybe even altering us as people, irrevocably transforming how we interact and where we find social cohesion. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, 4chan — they are not churches, not countries, not governments. They are something new. And something dangerous.

Could our algorithmically-sorted social media lives, isolating us in epistemological echo chambers, hurt our chances of unifying to confront global problems like global warming? Could tribalist online communities reinforcing radical ideologies be to blame for the rise of reactionary politics and the resurgence of fascism?

They are questions that could only be asked in the past few years, as we’ve seen consensus truth explode into a fragmented and uncertain future. The scale of the problem is becoming more and more evident. “We have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works,” former Facebook Vice President Chamath Palihapitiya said in a recent Stanford talk. “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. You are being programmed.”

That word, “programmed,” suggests human agency and control. But while the internet depends upon human input, its output — the new world it will build — is, for now, as out of our control as the alien technology of Altair IV.

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