Opinion: Next Generation

SF Cons make my brain bigger. I come away with more ideas, more knowledge and an increased understanding of what’s going on in real world science and technology.

In the past few years, I’ve noticed something about the cons I’m attending. There seem to be very few teens and young adults in the crowds. I can’t tell whether this is a trend of the genre or if the conventions I attend are self-selecting to a Gen-X and older audience, but it worries me. I see crowds of people who are my age and older. People who have the time and money to spend a weekend talking about books, listening to scientists, authors and creators are people who walk away with big ideas.

I want to see more young people in fandom. This said, FenCon X in Dallas seemed to have more young people—middle- and high-school students—than I’ve seen in a while. I’m happy about this. I saw lots of families with elementary-aged kids as well, no doubt they are passing on their love of reading, thinking and exploring to their kids.

I just listened to the keynote speech at FenCon X. Cory Doctorow spoke about the fight over copy prevention and DRM and the need for open and transparent computing systems. He made a rational, well-reasoned argument that open source computing is the best way we have so far to ensure freedom of information. One of his points is that computers are everywhere. Computers touch every part of our lives every day. The repercussions of a system failure, system manipulation, or weaponization of these systems is frightening.

Allowing governments, corporations and intelligence agencies to insert HAL-like software into this massive system will not end well. A system that is capable of running every program except the one that “pisses me off” is one that will not advance. If we aren’t allowed to tinker with technology and adapt it to new uses, the technology will stagnate.

After the keynote, several young people were lined up to get copies of Little Brother signed. I’ve read it. In the context of Doctorow’s keynote, I was very happy to see that they read it, too. In my opinion, it’s an instruction book right up there with The Monkey Wrench Gang. (I haven’t read Homeland yet, but give me time.)

We need a next generation of computer geeks who are curious, aware, and educated enough to continue to build open-source software, operating systems and build new technology. Give these kids a copy of Little Brother. Get them interested in back doors, encryption, and technological awareness. Teach them about webs of trust and ways to get under, over, around and through the barriers that our generation is setting up to slow or stop the advancement of information.

Another of my favorite books is Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. It’s a good book for a slightly older audience. Throw this one at the high school and college students you know.  They’ll get a brain full of Turing machines, encryption, computing theories, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence. There’s also a lesson regarding social disobedience as a factor to creating change and some lessons in sociology to top it all off.

I don’t want my world to turn into an SF cliche, where we become slaves to our computers. I’m a big-brained, tool-using primate and I don’t want my tools to turn against me. I don’t want my tools to tell me what I can and cannot do.  I’m a Gen-Xer and proud of it. I grew up with computers. I tested and prodded and hacked and exploited my way through university computers and phone systems and Fidonet and Usenet because I wanted to know how they worked.

Plenty of other people my age did the same thing, and look what happened to technology over the past 30 years.

What is the next generation going to do? They seem to be re-defining social networks, but what could they do if they put their minds to re-defining technology networks?

I can’t wait to find out.

About S. Kay Nash

S. Kay Nash is a writer, editor, and bibliophile. She lives in Texas with a mad scientist and a peaceful contingent of dogs and cats.

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