When the Town Square Shatters

Once again, science fiction fandom shows us how to use the internet.

An undated early flier for GEnie’s Science Fiction Round Table.

When it comes to the social internet, chances are that science fiction fans got there first. The first non-technical discussion forums on the internet — ancient mailing lists — were devoted to sf. The original high-traffic non-technical Usenet groups? Also sftnal. (This isn’t always something to be proud of — long before Donald Trump’s dank meme army, before Gamergate, sf’s “Rabid Puppies” and “Sad Puppies” were figuring out how to combine pop culture, the internet and far-right conspiratorialism into a vicious harassment machine).

Sf’s mix of technophilia, subculture, and its long tradition of gluing together a distributed community with written materials made it a natural for digital, networked communications.

Long before Twitter created — and then destroyed — a single, unified conversation that linked practitioners with the people who normally lived far downstream of their work, science fiction had created a single, unified “town square.”

And decades before a mediocre billionaire uncaringly smashed that unified conversation into a million flinders, sf fans and writers were living through their own Anatevka moment.

Twitter users bemoaning the end of the “unified conversation,” I am here from your future to tell you what happens next.

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Let the Platforms Burn

The Opposite of Good Fires is Wildfires.

A forest wildfire. Peeking through the darks in the stark image are hints of the green Matrix 'waterfall' effect.

Cameron Strandberg/CC BY 2.0 (modified)

California needs to burn. For millennia, First Nations people oversaw controlled burns in the forests they lived, played and worked in. These burns cleared out underbrush, saw off sick trees, and created canopy openings that admitted sunlight to help quicken new growth. The importance of fire to healthy renewal is testified to by the regional trees that can only reproduce through fire, including the state’s iconic giant redwood.

Centuries ago, European settlers dispossessed the state’s First Nations of their ancestral lands and banned “cultural burning,” declaring war on both indigenous people and fire. This was the start of a long period of firelessness, during which time ever-more-heroic measures have been deployed to keep fire at bay.

This is a vicious cycle: massive fire suppression efforts creates the illusion that people can safely live at the wildland–urban interface. Taken in by this illusion, more people move to this combustible zone. The presence of these people in the danger zone militates for more extreme fire-suppression, which makes the illusion all the more tempting. Yielding to temptation, more people move to the fire zone.

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