Thursday, July 14, 2005

On the Internet, No One Knows You're a Dog

Like most people, I have friends and relatives who find (or are emailed) things on the Internet, which they then mail to everyone they know. Most of the time, these things are harmless, if somewhat annoying. For example, several years ago someone sent around a message saying that "if you forward this message to ten of your friends, the Taco Bell dog will dance across your screen." Umm. Right. A text message simply can't do that, but very few people seem to understand just what email really is and how it works. If they saw it on the net and it looks semi-official, it must be true, right?

Some of these things are just sad. I have received several emails wondering what time will be the best time to watch Mars when "it's as big as the full moon." Ooooo-kay. First of all, Mars is about twice the size of the Moon, so if it appears to be as big as the full moon, then it must be about 500,000 miles away. A body of this mass at this distance would cause tides sufficient to wipe out civilization as we know it. And not only that, how are you going to get Mars to leave its orbit in the first place? In reality, most people just don't have much of a clue about just how big the Solar System is. If our education system is failing to teach these things, maybe it's time for science fiction writers to step up to the plate. I think this may be one underlying reason why I tend to write hard SF instead of space opera.

But the emails that are going around have recently gotten quite a bit scarier. I was recently forwarded one that basically says we should happily throw away our civil rights in order to "win the war on terror"* and that all Muslims are terrorists and should be eradicated. The writer wrote in much more reasonable terms than that, of course, but this was essentially the message. I've seen other emails talking about how the media is conspiring to hide the fact that there are tens of thousands of fully-trained Iraqi policemen right now, something that is patently false (check the reports of the US military commanders in Iraq). Now ordinarily, I just ignore these things. The writer has an axe to grind and is more than willing to play fast and loose with the facts, so I'm not inclined to worry about any of the points made (some of which may even be good, some not). What scares me is that the people forwarding these messages blindly accept the statements as fact, even though some of those "facts" are flat-out wrong and others ignore the larger context of the situation. I would like to think that educated, thinking adults would think about these posts and see them for what they are, but if it came over the net, it must be true, right? Just like Mars is going to be as big as the full moon. When I saw that the message had been forwarded to some very impressionable teenagers that I know of, I finally had to write back and say something. The writers of those posts are 100% entitled to their opinion. As Beatrice Hall said (paraphrasing Voltaire), "I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." The flip side of that is that we also have a responsiblity to make sure that our children are critical, discerning thinkers who can analyze a situation -- or Internet posting -- and come to their own logical and rational conclusions about it, distinguishing facts from spin. Our own government, unfortunately, isn't helping things much, as they have publicly stated they have no problem using propaganda on our people to sway public opinion.

What does this have to do with writing? A lot, actually. Science fiction, as I alluded to above, is uniquely positioned to teach children (and adults) about the real world in an entertaining format. Our stories should make people think. They should understand the advantages and the limitations of technology. But most of all, science fiction gives the reader a chance to explore a "what-if" world where the events of today can be carried to their logical conclusions -- a powerful way to teach about the world. While we all enjoy reading "fluff" stories, I think the most powerful stories have always been those the make us realize something about our own world that maybe we hadn't thought about before. I've mentioned this aspect of writing before, but I think now more than ever we writers need to take up the tools of our trade and get to work on meaningful stories that can illuminate the people of our country and the world.

There may not be a world to write about much longer if we don't.

*We have a "war on terror" only the same sense that we have a "war on crime" or a "war on drugs." Sorry, folks, but you are never going to stop crime (and terrorists are criminals, not soldiers -- let's not dignify them by referring to them as "soldiers," "insurgents," or "enemy combatants"). You sure as heck can and should fight it with everything you've got, but it's not a "war" in the literal sense of the word. This is why I cringe everytime I hear someone say that the powers we are granting the government are temporary. If the war never ends, then they are permanent, folks.

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