Technology is something we often think about in abstract terms. We read the latest trend reports, keep an eye on new scientific papers, or maybe just browse
every once in awhile. We know technology is important. But its prevalence belies its impact. We complain about the wifi as we soar around the world in the belly of an aerospace engineering miracle, rocketing us to our destination at hundreds of miles an hour thousands of feet in the air.
Living in an age of wonders, we suffer from boredom.
Weinstein tackles topics as diverse and difficult as food system risk, virtual relationships, and the neurolinguistic effects of digital media with equal aplomb. Every tale will suck you in and spit you out with a thousand ideas, as riveting and provocative as a literary Black Mirror.
In the following conversation, we discuss what it means to be human in a world dominated by technology, how speculative short stories can reveal hidden answers to important questions, and what we should to prepare for the new world we are barreling into.
How is technology challenging our conception of what it means to be human? What does tomorrow hold for our internal lives?
I find that many of our newest cyberspace technologies lead us away from inner contemplation and instead make us much more attached to the material world. This is interesting, because in many ways the internet is the exact opposite of material. There’s nothing solid to hold onto—we may think we’re crushing small pieces of candy, but they’re just programs and pixels. Similarly, when we introduce virtual reality into the mix, there are fully realized landscapes that seem material to us but are completely fabricated.
So technology is making many of our human interactions intangible rather than physical. Our text-messages go LOL-ing down an invisible echo chamber. We reach out to online dating profiles and have our desires stoked or quelled by their virtual responses. And we all have hypothetical Facebook friends—people we haven’t seen in decades, but who we know just had a great meal, or a baby, or got married. We don’t actually hear their voices or hang out with them in person though, and so these old acquaintances might as well be AI programs!
All of this leads us to a diminishment of some of the central elements of what it means to be human: To have actual physical contact with others, to learn empathy for strangers (rather than swiping them into the trash as our dating apps would have us do), to be able to sit quietly with another person without the need of checking a virtual screen. So I think technology is changing our ability to be present in a very deep and meaningful way.
Of course there are plenty of wonderful things about technology—the way it can help to motivate social action (and boy do we need active resistance these days). It allows us to find friends who might otherwise have been lost forever, and couples do meet online and fall in love. These are wonderful aspects of the internet, and I think when used well, it can bring people together. More importantly, we’ll likely need technology to help get us out of some of the ecological predicaments we’ve created (i.e. the need for wind/solar power and clean drinking water). But on the day-to-day social level, the Internet seems to be moving us toward a more robotic consciousness.
How do you tease out the personal, emotional, and philosophical implications of technological innovation? What thought experiments did you perform while working on this book?
Many of the stories in Children of the New World emerged from my own bumbling attempts to use technology. For example, “Saying Goodbye to Yang,” came from my computer crashing. One night my computer died, taking with it much of my work. I was pretty devastated because I had an emotional connection to the laptop (it had traveled with me through three states, been with me when I got into an MFA program, etc.) and I began to cry. At that moment, I realized I was emotionally connected to my electronics! So my laptop became Yang, the robot child who malfunctions in the story.
In other cases, I needed to experience the emotional component to fully understand the technological metaphor I was working with. For example, in “Openness,” the characters are dealing with a kind of psychic technology where they can virtually access people’s inner lives and send mental text-messages. The idea for the psychic technology came quite quickly. I was on a crowded bus in Boston, and I suddenly thought of how useful/horrifying it would be if we could project our likes/dislikes/preferences onto a visual aura around our bodies. You could look across a room and know that a stranger enjoyed Tom Waits, or hated cats, or was originally from Maine, and, in turn, you could psychically message people who shared your interests. So the technology of the story was fully formed, but I couldn’t yet place the human conflict of the story.
It was about two years later, as I was going through a break-up with a woman I loved dearly, that the human element of the story took shape. The break-up dealt with putting up emotional walls—and as we were navigating this, I suddenly understood how the psychic technology of layers was a metaphor for the emotional barriers which arise in a romantic relationship. This became the central theme of “Openness” which explores the way in which we can retract our “layers” from those closest to us.
So, rather than consciously trying to work out the emotional/psychological implications of my stories, it’s often my own life and the trials of the heart that provide the deeper plot/conflict/themes in my fiction.
What present observations or realizations inspired the futures portrayed in these stories? What important details in our own lives do we regularly overlook?
Alongside the technological satire that my stories present, I’m working with two main themes: Ecological/social disaster & human kindness.