Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018 at 4:30pm
Q&A: Novelist Stanley Bing Explains How Sci-Fi Can Save Us From The Silicon Valley Overlords
In the year 2076, people have cranial implants connecting their brains to the Cloud, living bodies can be 3D printed, and weather is completely artificial. Within this world, a 127-year-old trillionaire executive named Arthur Vogel has discovered a way to live forever.
That's the premise of Stanley Bing's fascinating new novel, Immortal Life. Bing uses the apparatus of science fiction to explore the social and philosophical implications of technologies currently under development – especially those favored by today's trillionaires-in-waiting—providing either a premonition of future civilization or a prompt to change course before the opportunity is history.
In this interview, Bing reveals his motivations and methodology for grappling with the future and the forces of change that he has witnessed firsthand in his second life as an executive at CBS.
Jonathon Keats: The subtitle of your new novel is "a soon to be true story." How did you research the future? How certain are you that your story will soon be true?
Stanley Bing: For the last several years I’ve been looking into all the scientific activity that’s been going on to shape what technologists and venture capitalists are developing to craft the future they want us to live in. Huge investments are being made in cloud technology, cybernetic implantation of hardware into our biological infrastructure, all kinds of life extension, three-dimensional printing of organs and other body parts, in robotics, in artificial intelligence, in self-driving vehicles of one sort or another, in hovercraft tech, in the transportation of consciousness from one entity to another. A lot of it reads like science fiction, but what it really is the development of products and services that will transform what it means to be a human being, to live as a human in the real world. We are also seeing the consolidation of corporate entities that will feast off these transformations, so they have a big stake in making them not only desirable to us, but inevitable, through continual, relentless marketing. That’s why they’re so excited about stuff that seems, at first glance, to be dehumanizing and counter-intuitive to what really makes people happy. They call it disruption, but it’s really nothing more than their investment in the future.
Keats: What are some of the futuristic technologies you think are most likely to become ubiquitous? What makes one well-funded technological gambit more viable than another?
Bing: How much money is to be made from it. In the case of self-driving vehicles, the profits from a total change-out of the way we get around is enormous! The profits from staying pretty much the way we are? Meh. Think about it. If tens of millions of new age self-driving cars are required? Just think of the dollars that will flow into the coffers of those in control of that process. The money is so big, I think, that they’re already marketing the inevitability of it to us now – in preparation for the next generation of consumers. They’ve got a long road ahead, of course. Most people like to drive. Especially younger people.
As for AI – I believe it will be spectacular, and produce intelligent beings who are every bit as smart, unpredictable and potentially stupid as regular beings.
Keats: What aspects of Immortal Life would you most like to come true? Which seem most ominous?
Bing: I’d like to see personality transfer happen. I’d like a new body with better knees and a lot more hair, for instance. People have asked whether I would really want to live forever. Maybe not forever, but a few hundred years would be nice. I’d like to outlive certain politicians who shall remain nameless in this venue, for instance. When it comes to ominous, the ubiquity of telecommunications and our relationship to the omnivorous, omnipresent Cloud really scares me, as does the inevitability, I believe, of our communications hardware eventually being conveniently implanted in our heads. It’s this invasion of digital technology into our consciousness, round-the-clock, 24/7, year after year, that will, in the end, cause genetic mutations that move us away from our current species – homo sapiens – into something far less sapiens, less capable of independent thought, more group-oriented, like hive insects.
Keats: Your novel works simultaneously as science fiction and as satire. Why combine these genres?
Bing: Anybody who takes even a cursory look at the news every day knows that, at least in our culture, the only genre that adequately describes reality is satire.
Keats: Immortal Life describes numerous hypothetical technologies in detail. A similar sort of speculation is now popular in the field of design fiction, except that speculative designers present their ideas as tangible models. Are there advantages of keeping futuristic speculation on the page?
Bing: You know, in many ways I think this novel is more design fiction than science fiction per se, pursuing the aims of design fiction, which as I understand it is to look at the real-world implications of the developing choices we appear to be making as a civilization. I’ll give you brief example – there are quite a few in the book. The reality of self-driving vehicles will mean that the interior design of your automobile will more closely resemble that of a small living room, with couches, chairs, perhaps a desk and certainly a screen to consult in any way you wish. The experience of transport will change, then, from that of an individual with agency acting on a machine to that of a passive entity being conveyed forward in an enclosure that most closely resembles a doctor’s waiting room. There are no disadvantages to this “actualization” of our design speculations – not if we want to avoid a future that’s being created without our active participation.
Keats: The core issues in Immortal Life are essentially timeless. For instance, the questions raised by "personality transfer and migration" would have resonated for Descartes (even if he might have been mystified by references to the Cloud). Does our self-understanding never really progress? Is our failure to progress what keeps us human?
Bing: It’s clear that the circumstances of our existence, the way we live now, the things that we eat and drink and watch for entertainment… those have changed and progressed radically in many ways. But the central things we desire and fear? Those have not progressed, and I agree with you. They keep us human. And they make it possible for us to understand and identify with people who lived thousands of years ago… and presumably come to live many years from now, when we are all in new bodies crafted by technology.
Keats: You work under a pseudonym. Has that experience informed your writing about a protagonist who is two people in one body? Has it prepared you to attain immortality?
Bing: I think we are all two people in one body. Some of us more than two, although that can get pretty obnoxious when we drink too much.
Jonathon Keats will appear in conversation with Stanley Bing at Book Passage in Corte Madera on January 25th at 7:00 PM.