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 SF is in danger of becoming outdated before the books even hit the shelves (virtual or real).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 It’s their expansion that’s most interesting, and frightening, and that have outdated my story before it’s more than barely started.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?