Mar 062015

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.

 Posted by at 2:21 am
  • Adam

    When I was in sixth grade it was rather rare for anyone to have a cell phone in my age group. This was in 2002/2003. Now, cellphones are so ubiquitous that even toddlers have them! Can you even imagine what a toddler does with all that computing power and internet bandwidth?

    Personally, I think cellphones are bringing forth the idiocracy. Why need to think when you have instant access to the internet in your pocket?

  • Bert

    Every imaging technology, and indeed every information-transmission or storage technology from the first pigment on the first cave wall, was used to make jerk-off material immediately and regularly. Dirty cave paintings, dirty sculpture, dirty amphora, dirty scrolls, dirty codexes, dirty paintings, dirty playing cards, dirty phonographs, dirty photographs, dirty phone lines, dirty IRC channels, snapchat and whatever the damn kids are doing today. I would venture to guess that the total percentage of onanism committed by humanity has remained pretty much constant since well before Onan….and that the people who clutch their space-pearls and recline on their techno-couch in faint over the prospect of the next generation rubbing it raw has held roughly constant as well.

    Science fiction has regularly dealt with the next evolution of the jerkoff-aid, but there isn’t really much to say other than “same as it ever was”, so it is often just a technobabble throwaway to indicate that you are in the future, rather than a bold conjecture and prescription about the society of tomorrow.

    • publiusr

      It never would have occurred to me to take pix of my junk.
      I think smart phones have only introduced the paparazzi and the 24/7 news cycle into the already toxic peer pressure that is teen life. More a distraction than an aid.

  • Paul451

    Can’t remember who said it, but “Anything that already existed before you were about 10yrs old is “Tradition”, anything that happened between 10 and 30 is “normal”, anything that happened after 30 is new, weird and unnatural.”

    [For your question about SF anticipating kids with cameras. The closest I’ve seen is Brin’s Earth. Micro-cameras and his version of the internet (worldnet?) meant everyone watched/recorded everyone else. But he didn’t say anything about texting or equivalent (at least I can’t recall anything). But as Bert said, I think he would have considered it too obvious and “of course hormone-filled teenagers will use it for sex” for it to be interesting. His “interesting thing” was old people becoming video-vigilantes and constantly filming young people.]

  • Phil

    I recently read an interview with William Gibson in which he says science fiction gets dated very quickly.

    Do you think that with 3-D printing, we’re approaching the replicator?

    There have been news stories about kids getting themselves into serious trouble taking pictures of themselves and sending them, because of their age (or not being of sufficient age, actually). Kids make mistakes. Throughout history, making bonehead mistakes and learning from them has been part of growing up. Nobody’s perfect, and I’ve done my share of stupid things. Now kids can get themselves into big trouble more easily than when I was a kid. While all this technology is pretty freaking awesome, I don’t necessarily envy the younger generation.

    • Scottlowther

      > Do you think that with 3-D printing, we’re approaching the replicator?

      Sorta. A true replicator will require the ability to work with individual atoms, crafting molecules on the fly. I shudder to guess what the computational requirements will be.

      > kids can get themselves into big trouble more easily

      Not just kids, and not just more easily. Olds like us can get in trouble easily… and more widely, and more permanently. Google is *filled* with news stories of some schmoe nobody had ever heard of who took an irreverent photo or posted a bad joke and incurred the wrath of the Social Justice Warriors, who piled on *not* on the person who offended them… but that persons employer. So the person not only loses their job, but their name is now permanently easily googled and found by potential future employers.

      • Phil

        That’s true.