Human connection is important to our survival as a species. Without that connection, our ability to proliferate is threatened, as we would seek no companionship. The advent of technology has seemingly thrown a wrench into the ways we seek companionship, we find that it is much easier to go “online” and find a partner, as opposed to going out into the real world and meeting someone. While this is not problematic in itself, it says something about our reliance on technology. As we progress, we find that our reliance and fascination with technology has only increased; we spend countless hours interacting with a type of virtual reality with real people on the other end, but it begs the question of whether we are doing it too much. Technology will only continue to progress and our fascination will likely follow suit. As our fascination grows, we become increasingly more isolated and dive further into these virtual communities, and to what effect? High-Tech and Low-Tech science fiction narratives seek to give us an insight into that very question. While High-Tech focuses more on the advancements of technology itself, we still get a glimpse into how such advancements may affect our interactions with others as a side effect. Low-Tech science fiction, conversely, focuses primarily on the emotional disconnect we experience in a world where technology has taken over and how we cope with these advancements while still retaining our ability to connect to others.
The subgenre of the High Tech/Virtual reality narrative within science fiction very much relies on a sense of adventure to captivate the reader. Many of the stories gloss into the unbelievable and present us with an extremely artificial vision of the world we know; we don’t get to the know the characters very well beyond surface level and the narratives are almost always very action oriented. One particular example of this is William Gibson’s “Johnny Mnemonic”, in which most of the narrative presented is focused on relaying the story to the reader in a matter-of-fact recall of events. The story only concerns itself with detailing the technical aspects of the world and what body modifications separate each individual from the other. What distinguishes this style from its sister subgenre (Low Tech), is the lack of emotional connections between other human beings or any rumination on their actions or the world they live in—it simply is. This trend is much the same in Gibson’s “Burning Chrome”.
Gibson’s “Burning Chrome” dives a bit deeper than “Johnny Mnemonic” in regard to the emotional connections made, but they are still fairly shallow—it barely goes beyond a glint of concern for Rikki’s well-being and a hint of growing affection that is never expounded upon, it seems only a matter of passing interest. Our main character’s interest in Rikki only seems to be highlighted by Bobby’s lack of real interest in her, which could be interpreted as pity in some instances rather than genuine interest. The flashbacks presented in the story give the reader the feeling of reflection, as they shift between the virtual reality in which they are “burning Chrome” and Automatic Jack’s encounters with Rikki. From these flashbacks, we get the impression that Jack has formed an attachment to Rikki; however, it is clear that the virtual reality is the chasm between their ability to form genuine human connection. This binary is a clever tactic by the author to show how virtual reality—whether it be the virtual world Jack and Bobby navigate or Rikki’s obsession with “Simstim”—can create a disconnect between human beings. This objective is reinforced by Rikki’s desertion of Automatic Jack as she leaves and seeks stardom in the “Simstim” world, despite the obvious implication of a budding affection between the two of them. This concept is very much alien in the Low-Tech subgenre, where emotion is the guiding force.
Low-Tech narratives of the future rely on emotional connections to propel the story forwards and to make a point about the world of technology in which we live. Thomas Fox Averill’s “The Onion and I” is a world similar to Gibson’s “Burning Chrome” in which virtual reality simulations are possible, however they have not become integrated with everyday life. The concept of this story is similar to Gibson’s in making a point to show how human connection and our sense of reality is inhibited by the overuse of technology. The family is given the opportunity to essentially live their lives in a virtual reality—all of their possessions have been taken and “scanned” into their virtual world, and they subsist on “protein paks” as they dine virtually in restaurants. Every aspect of their life is digitized. While this seems like a convenient lifestyle, it becomes apparent that this is problematic after the main character experiences an existential crisis as a result of this lifestyle; he begins to question his own existence after having been immersed in the virtual system for so long. The lack of human interaction and connection is essentially the catalyst for such a crisis; disconnecting from the system for long periods of time is impossible, he does not get any real interaction with his mother or his father. It is only after his father disconnects him from the system and plants the onion with him that he realizes there must be a balance between real life and a virtual life.
This concept of balance between virtual life and real life is evident in the contrast of Low-Tech and High-Tech subgenres of science fiction. High-Tech narratives are action oriented and rely on a sense of adventure, while leaving human contact and interaction to the wayside. The High-Tech narratives are often violent and consumed with themes of gadgetry and body modifications—it creates an atmosphere of artificiality. In contrast, Low-Tech narratives are emotionally involved and question whether technology in large doses is good for humanity as a whole. Looking at High-Tech versus Low-Tech narratives, we can see how high usage of technology is questionable. Characters within these High-Tech narratives become so consumed with the artifice that they seem bereft of human emotion; Bobby’s relationship with Rikki is superficial. They are both so consumed by their desires—Rikki to get eye implants and Bobby to “burn Chrome” and make the big score he’s always been dreaming of—that they seem coexist in a state of mutual non-existence towards one another. That in itself is a warning that technology can have such far-reaching effects on our capability to bond with others. This concept makes itself much more evident in Averill’s “The Onion and I”, in which the disassociation with reality causes the main character to question his own existence. In this regard, we realize that a reliance and addiction to technology is a slippery slope, and one that can result in an inability to relate to others and the world around us. Overuse of such technology can cause us to lose touch with the world around us, whether it is in the literal sense, as in “The Onion and I” or our ability to recognize other human beings as more than just tools in our toolbox to meet a goal, such as Bobby’s superficial relationship to Rikki. Either way, it is evident that a balance must be reached with our virtual existence and our real-world existence.