Science Fiction Repair Shop: Seize The Future, With No Gloves On Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2013-12-10 15:00:00 No comments

More from Professor Dijkstra. Pardon the longish quote:

E.W. Dijkstra Archive: On the cruelty of really teaching computing science (EWD 1036)

It is the most common way of trying to cope with novelty: by means of metaphors and analogies we try to link the new to the old, the novel to the familiar. Under sufficiently slow and gradual change, it works reasonably well; in the case of a sharp discontinuity, however, the method breaks down: though we may glorify it with the name "common sense", our past experience is no longer relevant, the analogies become too shallow, and the metaphors become more misleading than illuminating. This is the situation that is characteristic for the "radical" novelty.

... Coming to grips with a radical novelty amounts to creating and learning a new foreign language that can not be translated into one's mother tongue. (Any one who has learned quantum mechanics knows what I am talking about.) Needless to say, adjusting to radical novelties is not a very popular activity, for it requires hard work. For the same reason, the radical novelties themselves are unwelcome.

Much of this is a cousin to an idea, one rapidly gaining respectability, that we are more enamored of the idea of the new than we are of newness itself. The former can be romanticized, abstracted, treated like a pretty thing to be put in a display case and admired at arms' length. The latter — the messy, difficult, uncompromising, truly new thing — is not so easily dealt with. More often than not it's simply shunted aside and forgotten about.

But as the good professor points out, sometimes it's even worse when we try to grapple with the new thing by connecting it too closely to the old. Movie pitches do this all the time: "It's Casablanca meets How I Met Your Mother!" (Yecch.) What ends up happening, though, is that we think of the new exclusively in terms of its connection to the old, and not on its own terms, because to confront newness is so inherently frustrating and difficult.

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D.T. Suzuki once said of Zen that it was best "seized barehanded, with no gloves on". Meaning you have to put everything down to be able to pick it up in the first place. We're reluctant to cast off assumptions, because we always think that amounts to leaving us naked and defenseless against everything from hucksterism to our own gullibility. But it's not like we're any less gullible when we're at the mercy of our own preconceptions about what is and what can never be.

I always valued SF for being one of the ways we come to grips with the new, by imagining a whole slew of different possible versions of the new ahead of time, and this not being quite so sucker-punched by the new when it finally does come along. What I worry about is whether or not such speculation can become just as hard in the arteries, just as limited in its vision, as the complete lack of same.

Random example: the way most of the speculation going on out there about our future exclusively involves technology, and not human intellectual or spiritual development. I know, I know — technology and science have vastly normative effects on such things, so it's important to consider how those changes will play out. But to say sci/tech are the only ways such things change, or are the most important ways to effect such change, strikes me as willfully ignorant. The sci/tech side and the intel/spirit side feed into each other freely. Ignore either one at your own peril.

Tags: Science Fiction Repair Shop Zen culture neophilia philosophy science fiction