I heard a portion of a piece on the radio tonight featuring some people ulcerating about teenagers sexting (sending nekkid photos of their naughty bits to each other). The debate seemed to boil down to “Is sexting a Bad Thing, or is it the Worst Thing?” with a healthy dollop of “we have no idea how to deal with this.”
It occurred to me that this is a perfect example of what science fiction can be at its best. But it also occurred to me that this is probably something sci-fi missed.
Consider that sexting is wholly dependent upon the availability of particular technologies… specifically the camera phone. The first such devices came on the scene around the year 2000. When I was in high school, such a device was more than a decade away. Cell phones themselves only came around in the mid 1980s, and they were about the size of a brick. Well into the ’90’s, if you were out and about and you needed to make a phone call, you had to find a pay phone. (Hell, I only got a cell phone in 2006). So for my generation of dumbass teenagers, if we wanted to do the equivalent of sexting, we’d’ve had to have used a Polaroid camera and physical trading of the images, something on a wholly different level than digital photography and instant image distribution.
Where sci-fi comes into it: the best sci-fi is the kind that introduces some new science or technology into society and asks “what if.” So far as I’m aware, no sci-fi writer ever foresaw kids having handheld phones with built-in cameras and easy taps into a worldwide instantaneous information network. Nevertheless, the technology came about and literally covered the world before society had a chance to even understand the ramifications, never mind come up with strategies for dealing with it.
The interesting thing is that for olds like me, camera phones remain kind of an amazing thing, because we lived much of our lives without them. But for a kid in junior high, camera phones are likely older than they are. They grew up with them, didn’t know a world without them. So it’s unsurprising that Kids These Days have adapted to this technology in a way us old farts haven’t. It’s a matter of learning how to deal with the tech being done by new generations, leaving old generations flailing in the dust.
So, sci-fi can envision a whole raft of new technologies of various levels of likelihood. Hand-held energy weapons that can actually blow a hole through you. Anti-gravity. Cloaking devices. Force fields. Mr. Fusion. Replicators. Unbreakable materials. AI. Cloning. Head transplants. Immortality serums. How will society react to them? I suggest that the sexting “problem” might be a way to examine the issue… the people who were adults when the tech became available are kinda freaked out about the easy acceptance of the tech by the young… and by how the young use the tech to do unexpected and often undesirable things with it.
PS: The idea of a “video phone” was something that denoted “amazingly futuristic” ever since at least the 1920’s. Video phones popped up from time to time, but were always failures… the bandwidth needed either swamped the available infrastructure, or the image quality was just freakin’ terrible. Video phones seemed like the sort of technology that would forever remain just beyond reach, out there with jetpacks and flying cars and home nuclear reactors. But then webcams came around, and then Skype, and now video chat on cell phones, all in a remarkably short time. For *generations* video phones were the stuff of fantastical sci-fi… and now you hold it in your hand and don’t give it a second thought.