When I want to understand the internet, I turn to science fiction. Not for details of artificial intelligence or scientific accuracy, but for the writer’s ability to construct new worlds while exploring complex questions of existence. When Octavia Butler, who many refer to as the “godmother of Afrofuturism” was asked why she chose the genre, she replied, “I was attracted to science fiction because it was so wide open. I was able to do anything and there were no walls to hem you in and there was no human condition that you were stopped from examining.”
Octavia Estelle Butler published novels and short stories from 1970 until her death in 2006 at the age of 58. For much of her career, she was known in the media as the only Black American woman science fiction writer. Common practice, for Butler, meant waking up at 3am to write for several hours before she headed to work at factory jobs. Butler described herself as a painfully shy child who experienced ridicule from classmates for her large stature (her height would reach over 6 ft.), and deep voice. She experienced great solitude while imagining other worlds, and this dedication to her craft also proved a good tactic for survival on Earth.
Butler’s stories explore issues of gender, racial identity, adaptation, and violence in groundbreaking ways. In her novel Dawn, Butler writes about a planet inhabited by the species Oankali. Oankali have perceptive sensory tentacles and three genders; male, female and Ooloi. In Parable of the Sower, protagonist Lauren Olamina has a neurological condition called “hyperempathy”—she is faced with the challenging gift of being able to experience the pleasure and pain of those around her. Butler’s bestselling novel, Kindred, incorporates time travel, as the protagonist, a modern day African-American woman named Dana, is mysteriously transported to a plantation in the antebellum South.
Butler lived to see digital space but would not witness how quickly the internet continues to grow and consume our lives. She was wary of the growing reliance on computers, choosing to write her novels on a typewriter or early word processor machine. I wonder how Butler would respond to school teachers who attest that students need to be reminded the internet was invented by humans as opposed to a pre-existing world discovered by explorers.
Early programmers and users projected idealistic hopes on the internet’s humble beginnings. This will be a new way of existing! We can bring an end to inequality, transform democracy and redefine public space! But, like any masterful science fiction novel where humans are present, we bring with us into new worlds the same troubling patterns that complicate life on Earth.
Take for example censorship and manipulation. In December 2017, the FCC voted in a split 3-2 decision to repeal the government’s 2015 Net Neutrality rules, which required internet providers to treat all websites equally. With the repeal, internet providers such as AT&T and Verizon will now be allowed to speed up service for websites they have corporate interest in and slow (or even block) all others. Unrestricted internet access could become an additional consumer feature and therefore a matter of economic privilege.
Even when websites are treated equally by law, scholars like Safiya Umoja Noble show us that data discrimination has been an ongoing societal problem. Her 2018 book Algorithms of Oppression documents numerous case studies that reveal how the decisions made by technologists and private interests have created “a biased set of search algorithms that privilege whiteness and discriminate against people of color, specifically women of color.” When we turn to search engines as educational tools, these biases can be incredibly influential on how we define our selves and the world that surrounds us.
Furthermore, researchers have been reporting for years that increases in depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation are linked to the amount of time spent on platforms like Facebook and Instagram. Last October The Guardian published an extensive piece featuring silicon valley programmers like Justin Rosenstein, the brains behind the “like button.” The article focuses on these programmers’ ethical concerns about social media business models that rely on addiction. Some voiced public warnings for users to get off of Facebook. To stop using the very same social media tools they created.
Such dystopian narratives can be overwhelming because the problems are systemic. If these platforms were truly designed for the people who use them, their functionality and appearance would be unrecognizable compared to what we use today. As we have grown to understand, “free” sites are created for profit through advertising and the exploitation of users’ time and attention.
When students ask their teachers who discovered the internet they may not realize it, but they are making an important observation about users relationships to power in digital space. The corporations that have economic control over our dependence on their products do not want us to question the decisions they’ve made along the way. They do not want us to understand that their platforms are intended to deceive. That their algorithms are programmed to intentionally reinforce hierarchies experienced IRL.
Thankfully, social justice activists, community organizers and artists are often the first to explore these power relationships and advocate for change. In 2015 a collection of “science fiction stories from social justice movements” was published called Octavia’s Brood (edited by adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha). The contributors (a diverse group of multi-disciplinary writers) carry on the legacy of Octavia Butler in their works of “visionary fiction” exploring such themes as; bioterrorism, gentrification, and digital technology. Their words provoke difficult questions about existence and remind us that we need only give ourselves permission to envision and build new worlds.
What would an ideal internet look like to you? What types of online experiences would benefit your mental health and nurture societal transformation? Perhaps there would be multiple internets, beyond the dark web, a digital universe with worlds of different names! (I spell “internet” with a lower case i to discourage reinforcing its singular supremacy) I believe there are tremendous possibilities for our digital selves. This is why I turn to science fiction. To better understand how taking our imaginations far away from the realities of our lives can support us in affecting the most incredible, sustainable changes to our futures.