Science is the bad guy now?

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Frankenstein's creationIt’s been suggested in a Tor.com article that moviemakers only see science and technology as the bad guy, and won’t greenlight a movie that presents science and technology in a positive light.  And if you think about the sci-fi movies of recent years, it’s pretty damned hard to think of any where the science or tech didn’t create or exacerbate a problem.

Same thing for television: How long has it been since we’ve had a new TV show about someone using technology to help people?  You could mention Person of Interest; but even that show, wherein a genius siphons the identifying numbers of people who need help from an all-seeing Machine, has become thoroughly overshadowed by the discovery of another Machine that apparently wants to help a secret organization to (ahem) Take Over The World, and an imminent Machine-on-Machine war.  Extant was about taking advantage of humans alone on a space station to expose them to aliens.  Ascension was about fooling a bunch of “colonists” into thinking they’re on a space ship to another star.

I often find myself outright gobsmacked by the idea that people would consider science and technology as the bad guy in any form, considering all we have to thank science and technology for.  I mean, if we didn’t have agriculture… animal husbandry… medicine… metallurgy… standardized weights, measures and time… engineering… electronics… communications… all of which are branches of science… we’d still be living like nomads on the plains, throwing rocks at rabbits and trying to guess which leaves were safe to eat.  Or we wouldn’t exist at all, finally wiped out by the apex predators on every continent.

So, if science and technology have made our very lives and societies possible today… how are they the bad guy now?

It’s a popular statement that people tend to fear what they don’t understand, and that they don’t understand science today.  But in fact, there’s little about science and technology that’s that incomprehensible to the average person.  In fact, if you can understand the rules of American football and remember the names and numbers of your favorite players, you have the mental capacity to understand 90% of the science and technology you’re likely to come across in daily life (and another 5% of the science and tech you don’t usually get exposed to).

Most Americans have apparently decided that they don’t want to apply themselves to learning about science and technology… except, of course, when it’s convenient.  Like figuring out how to drive a car.  Or use a cellphone.  (Further proof of Jordan’s Theorem: “You get used to what you want to get used to.”)

And people aren’t scared of cars or cellphones, even though they have a very good reason to be afraid of cars, one of the deadliest inventions ever devised by Man… or cellphones, one of the most socially disruptive technologies since… I dunno, the car, probably.

Disruption seems to be key here: People have decided they don’t like their lives to be disrupted by change, and few things change people’s lives faster than technology does.  What I don’t get is why people dislike change so much; after all, it’s not as if our lives are perfect the way they are.  (Excuse me if your life actually is perfect… obviously, I’m not talking to you.)  Wouldn’t smarter cars, safer airplanes, better communications options, more helpful appliances and faster computers be things we’d look forward to having?

Doctor NoAnd how many of the bad things we attribute to science and technology are actually caused by science and technology?  When we worry about more pervasive surveillance… machines run amok… damage to our world… aren’t we, in fact, worrying about ways in which people have misused machines?  The atom bomb may be capable of killing millions… but people decided to drop two of them on Japanese cities, not some evil AI.  People shoot guns.  People cause car accidents.  People design malware.  People hack into credit databases.  People do experiments carelessly and cause problems.  People disable park computers and allow dinosaurs to run amok.  People program hostility into attack machines and become hunted into extermination.  People ransom governments using energy sources that could power the world.

In Person of Interest, it is people in the government and people running defense contracts who use the show’s AIs to do bad things.  In Extant, a NASA executive directs the program that exposes astronauts to the aliens he knows are at the orbiting satellite.  In Ascension, people set up the experiment that cons colonists into thinking they are on a space ship.  People take a new science or technology, an essentially neutral thing… and by their actions, make it bad.

So, when we say we don’t like technology—that we’re afraid of science and technology—we’re really saying we don’t like and are afraid of the people who corrupt the science and technology.  We’re blaming the bathwater for being dirty… not the dirty baby put into the bathwater.

You might argue that this is just semantics… but it’s very important, when you have a problem, to recognize the true cause of that problem.  Otherwise, you’ll never be able to fix it.  And to fix this problem, we all need to understand:

Science and technology don’t hurt people.  People do.

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3 thoughts on “Science is the bad guy now?

  1. I think this “science is bad” thing goes all the way back to Shelley (though of course that wasn’t her intent)…or perhaps it goes back to Nobel.
    We’ve also got Crichton to thank; every single one of his stories that got made into films featured the “science is bad and therefore we must fear it” theme.
    And on the other hand: bad science makes for good conflict. If Jurassic Park had been all positive, we’d have experience a tour of the park, watched as a vet treated a sick stegosaur, eaten some ice cream and gone home. Where’s the story in that?
    Finally, one other way to look at this is: more often than not, when science is the bad guy, science is also what is used to solve the problem. It’s not ballyhooed, but, to go back to the film example: shotguns (technology) were used to fight off the raptors; knowledge of computers brought the security systems back on line and a TRex – created using the “bad” tech, saved our heroes from the raptors. And then everyone escaped from the island on a helicopter.

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  2. The fact that science is (usually) used to fix “bad science” situations is valid. Somehow, though, that part rarely gets mentioned.

    Jurassic Park is a great example: When moviegoers talk about it, it’s Dr. Grant’s courage and savvy (with the help of a T-Rex’s bite) that saves the day; not a knowledge of computers, shotguns or getaway cars/helicopters. In fact, Grant depends on his knowledge of dinosaurs to predict their actions—that’s from his knowledge obtained through archeology. And yes, Steve, the same observation can be made about just about the entire Crichton catalog: Science=BAD; People=GOOD. (And we’ll just overlook that the good people are still using science.)

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