Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany

Blog and project archive about transdisciplinary design, media theory and creative coding

The Star Trekking of Physics, by Alan N. Shapiro

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In spite of the proliferation of exhilarated technoculture and its multidisciplinary, wired self-image, there remain some straightlaced, uncool tendencies within the techno-elite which boil over at the thought of all this openness to the humanities and the soft. Many scientists and research engineers still disdainfully dismiss as sentimental any point of view which introduces ethical, historical, aesthetic, or semioliminal considerations judged to be extraneous to the arduous intelligence of the scientific work itself.1 But the hard times for these rigorous and increasingly embattled scientific workers are just beginning. It is not easy to be a real scientist when multiplying media (the Internet, television channels like Fox and the Discovery Channel, pseudoscientific publications like OMNI and Discover) are bestowing an aura of informational legitimacy on dowsing rods, creationism, encounters with extraterrestrial life, extrasensory perception, the existence of angels and ghosts, and other occult and New Age phenomena. It is not easy to be a real programmer when amateur software-tweaking has become a far-reaching skill, when Microsoft encourages end-users to learn how to recombine ready-made net-aware objects, and when there are a plethora of software construction toolkits promising “thirty minute learning curves” and “thirty minutes to build your application.” It is not easy to be an Internet pioneer or guru when everyone is a networking expert, and when open systems protocol acronyms are recited with the cult familiarity of sports statistics. It is not easy to be a humble, truth-seeking theoretical physicist when every viewer of Star Trek or Quantum Leap has terms like closed time-like curves, phase transitions, and colliding antiparticles flowing from his or her lips.

The languages and themes of science, digital technology, and futurology have passed into our culture’s interstitial cracks and intricate, constitutive circuitry. The extrapolated or narrative future has replaced the historical past (which has receded behind museum-piece layers of simulation) as our most fundamental and decisive reference. But this homecoming of science fiction culture has resulted in the criteria for scientific truth being set adrift. Since it is viewer ratings which determine what is shown on television, and sales which determine what is printed in magazines, what is disseminated today has become more of an eagerly consumed Jarryesque pataphysics (rhetoric of imaginary scientific solutions) than a genuine physics. Although astrophysicists, for example, conclude that the probability that we will ever have direct contact with intelligent extraterrestrial life is near zero (although it is just as certain that the universe is teeming with intelligent life), this does not prevent the media from saturating themselves with stories of alien abductions and X-Files, because there is a deep cultural yearning in our time for (virtual) contact with the extraterrestrial Other which transcends all other parameters.

Yet the scientists are among the last to recognize the full implications of the proactive and determining role of science fiction culture. In the reductive, operational view which most scientists persist in having of science fiction literature and media (founded on analytic binary oppositions between hard and soft, fact and fiction, happening and prediction), an ironic, fatal reversal of the terms of who is progress-enabled versus who harbors tender and quaint attachments appears. As science fiction media culture becomes more and more the driving force influencing what gets researched and developed, this fateful inversion of signs renders the hard-nosed scientists and technicians, who refuse to fuse with the soft other espoused by the multi-fashions, into the nostalgic rear guard of sentimentality. These physicists, logicians, and procedural programmers are the last retro defenders of the rigorous paradigms of physical reality, literalness, and sequential algorithms, caught in the wake of the ascension of virtuality, metonymy, and object-orientation. That is, unless they choose the other option of abandoning scientific purism, grabbing one of technoculture’s fashionable surfboards, and pulling themselves up to ride the crest of the pataphysical wave.

It must be granted that the scientists’ assessment of science fiction as the dual opposite of science fact does assign a significant role to the former as part of a linear movement from fantasy to design to realization. Science fiction, according to this judgment, is an imaginary workspace occupied and utilized by imaginative authors equipped with proto-scientific minds. But it is nonetheless an ambivalent valuation. Science fiction authors elaborate amazing future possibilities, and are revered for serving as beacons who guide and inspire scientists. But science fiction authors are also intellectually weak dreamers, and their products are seen as mere precursors of genuine science. Much in the manner of orthodox Marxists or Althusserians contemplating the writings of Feuerbach and the early Marx, scientists who read or view science fiction are the self-appointed arbiters of which technological inventions can be hailed as conforming to established scientific laws, and which must be discarded as belonging to the category of noncompliant unscientific nonsense. The privileged filtering function of scientist-readers of their preferred literary or media genre is to determine which fantasized future technologies are feasible and can be built by real engineers, and which are to be rejected as hokey or gee whiz bullshit. This sorting process is evidently the most non-textual of reading strategies, where the (un)text is considered as a potentially qualifying technical manual or handbook for the construction of the future.

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