Natural’s Not In It

Natural’s Not In It, an essay about radical biofutures in science and science fiction, was published online by Real Life in March 2019.

If the 20th century promised better living through chemistry, the 21st century has promised better living through digital technology. Yet rather than gravitic ships, holodeck entertainment, tricorders, and radical equality among genders and races, we have talking assistants helping us buy things we don’t need, a technologically facilitated growth industry of anti-Semitism, racism, and sexism, and a virtual reality platform owned by the same company that helped deliver the U.S. presidency to Donald Trump. Many of the societal ills we link to digital technology seem to have already happened to us, and it can feel like we have little control over them. This feeling is reinforced by metaphors of technological evolution that make it seem as though the always-on, precarious gig economy is the product of natural, biological forces we cannot stop.

But in fictional worlds, we can control technology again. While science fiction has provided the scripts that many technologists have used to create our disappointing future, it also plays an important epistemological role in the struggle against racism, sexism, ableism, classism, xenophobia, and capitalism. It invites us to consider that the ways societies are organized in the here and now are themselves contingent fictions. Science fiction reveals that the social facts many have taken for granted — things like gender, race, sex, class, hierarchy, and domination that are often attributed to “human nature” — are not inherently true and could be otherwise in the future. Technology can be distributed through non-hierarchical economies and social structures. And by describing in detail the potential technologies that could undergird different forms of life, science fiction demonstrates how versions of society where biology does not determine social worth might become durable.