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The Future Keeps Arriving too Soon

The big thing about science fiction, in the old days, was that it was always trying to predict the future. Sometimes it succeeded, probably more by accident than anything else, but mostly it failed. Look at some of the golden oldies of SF today and those predictions look downright silly. But science fiction is a good way to think about the future and its possibilities, and the best sf still does that. But it’s getting harder. We know we aren’t going to be colonizing Mars or Venus, and that there will never be private flying cars. But sf is still one of the best ways to conduct thought experiments about the future.

If real life is proving that some things can never happen, it’s also showing us that we have reached a point in human history where they’re happening too fast for us to keep up. SF is in danger of becoming outdated before the books even hit the shelves (virtual or real).

A few weeks ago, I started a short story based partly on my own high school experiences, and partly on current trends in what is laughingly called education. The words that cover what’s happening are surveillance and control. And today, I read a summary news article that told me the trends are already far beyond anything I’d considered including in my story.

I’m not assuming my readers are familiar with these trends because they’re not well-covered by mainstream media. But here’s a quick rundown on what’s been happening in America’s schools over the past few years. RFID tags that track students’ attendance, and their locations anywhere inside school. CCTV cameras in hallways and other public areas. Those two forms of surveillance have spread widely enough that they’re hardly newsworthy anymore. It’s their expansion that’s most interesting, and frightening, and that have outdated my story before it’s more than barely started. Luckily, I can add more of the juicy details to my fiction. Unluckily, the intrusion into students’ lives, in real life, is going to continue. There will continue to be parent/student uprisings here and there, and embarrassed concessions and pullbacks by school systems, but it’s already clear that massive and intrusive surveillance will win the day.

What kind of progress are we looking at these days? Cameras in school rooms. RFID badges that record when students get on and off school buses. Tags attached to backpacks so students can be tracked between home and school. Tags required to check out library books, buy lunch, and register for classes.

Getting nervous yet?

How about surveillance to oversee and prevent obesity? A snapshot taken of the filled food tray in the cafeteria. A bracelet that counts heart beats, tracks motion, and sleeping habits. This originates in school, but follows the student home and even into bed.

If you didn’t know that in some school systems absenteeism is a crime, now you know. Here’s a new pilot program designed to reduce that particular form of criminal behavior. “Students with four or more unexcused absences have “volunteered” to carry a handheld GPS device. Participation in the program will enable the students to avoid being prosecuted and a potential stay in juvenile hall.

“Each school day, the delinquent students get an automated “wake-up” phone call reminding them that they need to get to school on time. In addition, five times a day they are required to enter a code that tracks their locations: as they leave for school, when they arrive at school, at lunchtime, when they leave school and at 8pm. These students are also assigned an adult “coach” who calls them at least three times a week to see how they are doing and help them find effective ways to make sure they get to school.” Orwell had no idea of the possibilities.

Finally, and Orwell would be jealous of this one, which updates 1984 very nicely, a school district now has screens in the hallways, showing real-time surveillance footage. Big Brother is watching, and we want you to know it.

Pity the poor science fiction writers. How in the world are we supposed to keep up?

The Unbelievable Ways Schools Are Now Monitoring Children — Even What They’re Eating

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8 Comments

  1. Yep, I keep having to revise my futuristic SF WIP. Writing in the horror genre is less nerve-wracking.

    You probably read about this:

    http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9158818/Pennsylvania_schools_spying_on_students_using_laptop_webcams_claims_lawsuit

    A school administration spying on children in their homes came to light when a “high school official” accused a high schooler of “improper behavior in his home.” How many schools are collecting photos of unsuspecting children in their bedrooms? Don’t these “officials” realize how blatantly creepy this is?

    • I didn’t mention the computer spying because it’s a couple of years old and, as far as I know, not typical. I hope. The worst part about that story is that the school didn’t inform the parents or students that the school-issued computers had live cameras or were sending videos back to the school.

      • Yes, that story is from 2010, and I wonder how much more sophisticated / sneaky the spying has gotten. If a specific technology exists, people will abuse it until they are prevent from doing so. An endless cycle.

        • Oh yeah! Abuse is built right in. I’m waiting for the first news report about tiny surveillance drones tracking kids everywhere. That’s probably at least a couple of years away, but it’s coming. Hey, another sf story.

  2. Your blog entry comes at a great time for me. I’m tying up the knots in a high school dystopic SF sort of novel. You definitely gave me some food for thought.

    • I’d be interested in how you’re handling the subject. I have my storyline pretty well laid out. Now if I could only find the time to finish it.

  3. Science Fiction used to be full of innovation and wonder (and some few writers still manage it), but for the most part now what passes for SciFi is futuristic horror. And that’s too bad.

    I think you’ve hit on the reason in your post. In a world where technology moves so fast, how do you draw the line?

    We now have 3d printers (just a few points away from “replicators”). Teleportation has been accomplished on the quantum level, and Raymond Kurtzweil has been going on about “the Singularity” for years. For that matter, K. Eric Drexler published “Engines of Creation” in 1986 and today nanotechnology is a very real science.

    I love good science fiction, but more and more it comes down to “space opera”, that is to say good, solid, character-driven stories in space.

    Sigh.

    Oh, and as for finding time to finish your story… you HAVE heard of time-travel, right?

    ))

    • Time-travel? What’s that? Just one more thing we’re not going to see. An article I came across recently said that space SF is more about escape than anything else, these days. And very little of any SF is about hope. He was probably right.

      In the meantime my NaNo novel keeps evolving. I think I was looking for hope, without realizing it, and I seem to have found it.

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