Talking Science to Romance Novel Writers

A few weekends ago I had the opportunity to give a talk on science and technology to the Nashville Romance Writers of America chapter. Yes, yes, laugh all you want, but romance novels often touch on other genres. I met writers whose books had strong science fiction or suspense elements, and you can bet that they’re interested in science and technology.

I focused my talk on recent technologies and trends that are affecting how we relate to each other. I started with how our sense of privacy is evolving. We’re more willing to share details of our lives than before, and online tools like Twitter and Facebook both encourage that behavior and spread what we say to a much wider audience. Heck, thanks to this blog you know more about my views on parenting than some people who see me multiple hours a day. Much of what we share is innocuous, like what we’re having for lunch, but over time you can learn a lot about someone who’s sharing openly on line.

Now mix that trend with gamification, in which the trappings of games are added to non-game activities. Gamified applications are encouraging us to share even more information online. Foursquare is an excellent example of this. Foursquare lets you use your mobile phone to check into locations like the Five Guys near me. As you check in to places, you earn badges. If you check in at a place more than anyone else, you become the mayor, which encourages other people to check in more there to dethrone you. Being mayor and having badges doesn’t actually net you anything but it doesn’t matter — the net effect is that you’re driven to broadcast your movements to the whole world because the app is exploiting the same psychological quirks that make us pour money into casinos. Ian Bogost has called this trend exploitationware with reason; here, we’re being exploited to share more than we might otherwise do.

Now imagine what happens when two people meet cute. After they get home, do they look up the other person’s profile on Facebook? Do they peruse their Twitter stream? See where they’ve been checking in on Foursquare? All of this raises near endless possibilities for personality-driven conflict and misunderstandings, which serve as fuel for romance novels.

Even when we’re not sharing information with others, our technology is doing that for us. We’ve long been trackable via our cell phones, but to get that information you had to talk to the cell phone company. Now our phones are quietly recording where we’ve been and storing them on the phone. Want to know where your boyfriend or girlfriend have been? You might only need five minutes alone with their phone to find out.

Right now a lot of what we share is manually entered. We upload and tag pictures, identifying the subjects. We write about our day and what we ate. Data mining and improved computer processing power will automate much of that, with the knock-on effect of taking some control out of our hands. Facebook has a giant database of people’s pictures that we’ve given to them and labelled with the name of the people in the pictures. Facebook now uses that information to try to identify people’s faces in new pictures. You don’t have to upload a picture of you drunk at a party; instead, a friend may do so and Facebook will automatically tag it and add it to your feed. Google Goggles draws on Google’s vast database of indexed web pages and pictures to identify items you take a picture of. Researchers are working on apps that, when you take a picture with your smartphone, uses information from your phone and the phones around you to figure out where you are, what you’re doing, and who’s in the photo.

If you put all of this together, you’re much closer to what the science fiction writer Charlie Stross called the lifelog. Imagine recording every word you say and everything you see. Computers translate your speech to text, identify who you’re looking at and what you’re seeing, and index it. Voila, you’ve got a searchable database of your entire life.

Now imagine that information being broadcast. Companies will offer incentives for viewing their products, let alone using them. Social apps will want us sharing our information with our friends and will use the trappings of games to encourage that behavior. The judicial system will use what we record in courts, and employers will want to watch what we do during work hours. A future Google will aggregate all of this information and make much better statistical predictions about how people really behave. Partners can check up on each other. You think we have boundary issues now with Facebook and Twitter? Just you wait.

All of that is going to make how we relate to each other different in weird and somewhat unpredictable ways. And as I said earlier, that’s key to romance novels: how do two people learn about one another and eventually come to fall in love. Now they’ll just do it under the unblinking eye of everyone’s cameras.

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