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"Aliens, Technology and Freedom: SF Consumption and
J. Hughes Ph.D.
Futures Research Quarterly, Winter 1995, 11(4):
As we enter the 21st century, we do well to consider the values implicit
in science fiction, the principal arena of future speculation in popular
culture. This study explored whether consumption of science fiction (SF)
is correlated with distinctive socio-ethical views. SF tends to advocate
the extension of value and rights to all forms of intelligence, regardless
of physical form; enthusiasm for technology; and social and economic libertarianism.
This suggests that consumers with these socio-ethical views would be attracted
to the SF genre, and that amount of SF consumption would be correlated
with adoption of these views.
Groups of respondents involved in medical ethical and environmental
issues were surveyed in 1992 (N=278). SF consumption was found, at first-order
correlation and controlling for covariates, to be associated with: greater
support for extending rights to animal and machine intelligence; greater
enthusiasm for technology, and rejection of limits to human endeavors;
and greater social libertarianism. SF consumption was not associated with
specific views on the cognitively and physically disabled; support for
abortion rights; or economic libertarianism.
Aliens, Technology and Freedom
Contemporary bioethics and environmental ethics are often faced with
questions of the value of different kinds of life. These movements argue
for greater or lesser value for animals, fetuses, the disabled, the comatose
and the cognitively impaired. Opponents of abortion, euthanasia, capital
punishment and animal experimentation have all argued that these interventions
transgress cognitive barriers, leading down slippery slopes to lessen respect
for life in other spheres (Kass, 1973; Devall and Sessions, 1980, 1984;
Singer, 1983; Bernardin, 1983; Tobias, 1984; Cleghorn, 1986; Thomasma,
1990; Wagstaff, 1991).
Defenders of these practices, on the other hand, have argued that clear
ethical distinctions can be made between animals and humans, fetuses and
children, or murderers and citizens. Debate often turns on whether these
different kinds of life have the qualities necessary to endow them with
value, a "right to life," or citizenship (Bok, 1974; Brody, 1984;
Davis, 1986; ).
This study seeks to explore if consumption of science fiction is correlated
with distinct medical and environmental ethical attitudes towards these
anomalous categories of life. Science fiction is one of the few places
in popular culture where extreme examples of anomalous life are often considered.
In science fiction one finds a great variety of life forms in conflict,
communication, and side-by-side in harmonious community. Since the 1960s
the latter, pro-alien perspective has become more common in science fiction
literature and film. As opposed to the older perspective which saw all
forms of non-human life as potential threats, this pro-alien perspective
has suggested that new boundaries of community can be established on the
grounds of respect for intelligent life in any form. If this is the emergent
ethos of science fiction, it would have an elective affinity for specific
medical and environmental ethics views which preference cognition over
human form as the basis for valuing life.
The study also makes two additional hypotheses about the relationship
of the cultural ethos of science fiction to medical and environmental ethics.
The first is that science fiction has a generally positive orientation
toward technology and human intervention in the "natural order."
This "pro-technology" or "anti-Luddite" orientation
would create an elective affinity among science fiction consumers for specific
views towards medicine and nature.
Secondly, much science fiction has a distinct libertarian orientation,
both socially and economically. Again, it is posited that science fiction
consumers would have an elective affinity for libertarian political views,
shaping their responses to specific medical and environmental ethics issues.
A. Extending value and rights to cognition over human form
Faith in the universality of reason, and hence in the
fundamental similarity of all intelligent beings, is strongly evident in
many accounts of physically exotic aliens... (Stableford, 1993: 18)
Science fiction has treated the biological and cognitive Other with
both horror and respect. From Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Wells'
(1896) The Island of Dr. Moreau, to the thousands of science fiction
novels and films about evil brains-in-tanks, mutants, giant insects and
aliens, the modern imagination is clearly disturbed by minds and bodies
that don't come in an idealized human form.
Yet science fiction since the Sixties has also striven to "humanize"
the Other and establish expanded boundaries of civil community (Stableford,
1993). For instance, while the Planet of the Apes series projects
a future in which humans have been subjugated by simians, it clearly also
opposes the human ownership and enslavement of simians by humans, equating
it with the enslavement of Africans. Philip K. Dick's (1966) classic Do
Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, made into the hit 1980s movie Blade
Runner, similarly portrays enslaved genetically-engineered humans as
dangerous to humanity, but also deserving of citizenship and rights. While
Terminator portrays self-aware machines as humanity's enemy, Terminator
2 humanizes the cyborg as humanity's ally. Alien Nation, a 1988
movie and subsequent TV series, depicts humanoid aliens joining
the melting pot of Los Angeles as just another minority group.
Undoubtedly the most influential science fiction product has been the
Star Trek series and its sequelae, and here again alternative forms of
life are both threat and ally. The mission of the star ship Enterprise
is to discover new forms of life, in particular intelligent life. The forms
discovered are not always friendly, but when they are friendly they are
clearly welcome in the galactic civilization as equal citizens.
Views of machine-based intelligence in science fiction again show a
gradual shift from horror to acceptance. Dangerous automata began to appear
in fiction in the early 1800s, and the term "robot," from the
Czech for worker, was coined in a 1922 play, and dangerous robots and computers
have been a staple of science fiction since the '50s, when the first warehouse-sized
calculators pointed to the possibility of a cybernetic future. Usually
cybernetic minds were depicted dominating and enslaving humanity, intentionally
or accidentally. The confrontation of Hal and the astronauts in Clarke's
2001 continued this tradition.
In the 1950's, however, writers such as Lester Del Rey and Clifford
Simak began to depict machine intelligences in sympathetic ways, exploring
their possible candidacy for citizenship. But the full implications of
cybernetic minds only began to be depicted in the 1960s, as radical science
fiction writers extrapolated the human rights struggles of the period into
future machine intelligence. Robert Heinlein's (1966) The Moon is a
Harsh Mistress makes an artificial intelligence an ally in an anarchist
revolt. Isaac Asimov's (1968) "Segregationist," equates the effort
to deny machine intelligence citizenship with Jim Crow. Star Trek: The
Next Generation, has also frequently dealt with the rights of machine-based
life. In one episode Data successfully defends his claim to "human
rights," before a military tribunal. In other episodes, the ship's
computer system develops dangerous self-aware personalities, which are
nonetheless treated with great respect.
While the science fiction world is clearly populated by visions of the
need to defend human boundaries against non-humans, the dominant tendency
has been to extend value and citizenship to intelligent non-humans. While
science fiction has rarely dealt with abortion and brain-death formally,
the logical corollary of extending citizenship to intelligent non-humans
is that ethical boundaries should be contingent upon cognition and personhood,
and not on human form. This leads to the following hypotheses:
H1. Science fiction consumption will be correlated with support for
H2. Science fiction consumption will be correlated with greater support
for value of physically disabled humans over the value of cognitively disabled
H3. Science fiction consumption will be correlated with greater support
for animal rights, and for the rights of higher animals over lower animals
H4. Science fiction consumption will be correlated with support for
the rights of machine intelligence
Like the Romantics before them, genre SF writers have
generally been on the side of Faust, convinced that the quest for knowledge
was a sacred one, no matter how fondly a jealous God might prefer blind
faith. (Stableford and Nichols, 1993: 1203)
Science fiction is usually described as having two broad genres: "hard
SF," focused on space travel and few technologies, and "soft
SF" focused on future and alternative societies (Slusser and Rabkin,
1986; Bainbridge, 1986). The hard SF genre is broadly technophilic, portraying
technology as the answer to any problems that technology might create.
The soft SF genre has often offered anti-technological themes, from horrific
visions of technology run amuck to pastoralist utopian visions (Yannarella,
1985). Yet in "pastoral writings within genre SF...the joy and triumph
of technological rediscovery and redevelopment provide a frequent theme"
(Stableford and Nichols, 1993: 1203).
The broad ethos of science fiction has been to embrace technological
possibility and reject sacred limits to human intervention in nature. This
suggests several hypotheses:
5. Science fiction consumption will be correlated with opposition to
bans on technology, genetic engineering and other medical technologies
6. Science fiction consumption will be correlated with use of, and enjoyment
7. Science fiction consumption will be correlated with rejection of
the idea of sacred limits to human endeavor
C. More socially and economically libertarian
As with the Other and with technology, so also has science fiction expressed
a gamut of political views from Left to Right to non-political. But the
dominant political mood of American science fiction since the 70s has been
libertarian of one strain or another. The libertarian mood of science fiction
can probably be traced back to the dystopian authoritarian fiction that
emerged in response to fascism and communism, such as Huxley (1932) and
Orwell (1948), which displaced the earlier statist utopian visions of Bellamy
(1888) and Wells (1905). Today, most social speculation in science fiction
portrays heroic individualists rebelling against planning and authority.
Today's few utopian visions, from both the left and the right, are of libertarian
societies (Ross, 1991).
The most prominent right-wing libertarian of the golden age of science
fiction is Robert Heinlein, whose many popular novels expressed an explicit
social and economic libertarianism, and occasionally a revolutionary anarchism
(Heinlein, 1965; Franklin, 1980). In recent years the stalwarts of the
right-wing anarchist canon has been L. Neil Smith and Jerry Pournelle.
Even the cyberpunk sub-genre, while far less explicit in its politics,
often portrays radical individual struggle against the corporations that
have displaced nation-states.
On the Left, Ursula K. Le Guin's (1974) Dispossessed and Marge
Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) are examples of popular
libertarian utopias. More recently Iain Banks' (1987, 1989) Culture series
has also portrayed an attractive socialist libertarian society.
Someplace between Left and Right, the Star Trek' series advocates a
militant version of liberal society for humans, and liberal tolerance of
other species. Respect for the Prime Directive's libertarian principle
of non-intervention is carried to the extreme of allowing species to be
destroyed by exploding suns, or enslaved by their neighbors. The most vilified
foe of the Next Generation series was the collectivist species, the Borg,
whose infection with individualism recalled the jeremiads of Ayn Rand.
Although a military order, the Starfleet permits a high degree of personal
and cultural liberty.
The principal difference between the libertarianism of the Left and
the Right has been its focus; while the Left has focused on social and
cultural freedom, and assigns the distribution of goods to cooperative
administration, the Right has focused on the freedom of the market and
individual, while often idealizing patriarchy, heterosexuality and other
conservative social values. This study will consequently examine the correlation
of science fiction consumption on these two forms of libertarianism, social
and economic, separately.
8. Science fiction consumption will be correlated with support for social
9. Science fiction consumption will be correlated with support for economic
The survey sample was selected from national mailing lists of activists
and organizations involved in environmentalism and medical ethics. Medical
ethicists and environmentalists were chosen as samples because they were
presumed to have the most coherent and internally consistent positions
on bioethics, at least within their domains. Most people are not very ideological
or systematic in their opinions, and their responses to surveys are very
sensitive to context and nuance (Converse, 1964; LeBlanc and Merrin, 1977;
Conover and Feldman, 1981). Two things predict ideological consistency:
higher education and life experiences that have crystallized the issues
for the respondent (Krosnick, 1988; Zaller, 1990). People are more consistent
about things that they have been thinking about. From higher education
and life experience, medical ethicists and environmentalists should have
more consistent ideological positions on these issues than the general
The survey was mailed out in September 1992 and all surveys were received
back by December 1992. The response rate was 56% from the sample of environmentally-related
individuals (133 of 238) and 71% from the medical ethics-related individuals
(145 of 239).
The environmentalist sample included directors and staff at organizations
working for conservation, animal rights, alternative energy, organic farming,
population control, vegetarianism, local toxics issues, and a variety of
social justice issues, as well as a number of ecologist academics and organizers
of local Green party chapters.
The sample of medical ethics-related individuals was composed of about
half Ph.D.s in philosophy and related social science and humanities, two
dozen students with interests in medical ethics issues, as well as about
20 physicians, ten directors or staff at health policy organizations, a
handful of priests and nuns, and several nurses and lawyers. The occupations
of the medical ethics-related sample included ethics consultants at hospitals,
the directors of academic programs in philosophy, medical ethics or policy,
and the staff of lobbies for AIDS funding, national health insurance, drug
legalization, senior concerns, alternative medicine, and for and against
There were no significant difference between the sample groups in education
or age: the mean member in both groups was college-educated and 42 years
old. But the environmentally-related sample was 50% male, while the medical
ethics-related sample was 65% male.
The survey instrument was constructed with sets of questions designed
to tap traditional political, environmental and medical ethical attitudes.
The instrument also included sets of wild card questions aimed at revealing
underlying attitude constructs for post-facto scale construction.
Science Fiction Consumption Science fiction consumption was measured
by two questions:
Do you ever read novels or watch films based on science
Never or rarely Sometimes Often
Do you watch the television show Star Trek: The Next Generation?
The two science fiction consumption questions correlated highly (r =
.60, sig < .001), and were summed into a four-point scale of SF consumption
(None, Low, Moderate, High).
Four kinds of life were chosen to measure the respondents' boundaries
of the "right to life": disabled newborns, disabled elderly,
animals and fetuses.
Mentally and Physically Disabled Newborns Support for euthanasia
of disabled newborns was measured by the following series of questions
Do you believe that parents, consulting with their pediatrician,
should be permitted to discontinue medical treatments that may preserve
the life of a week-old newborn, if:
the newborn has a normal brain, but has severe physical
deformities that will cause death within several months Yes No
the newborn has a normal brain, but has severe physical
deformities that will cause death within several years Yes No
the newborn has a normal brain, but has severe physical
deformities that will cause death within twenty years Yes No
the newborn has a normal brain, and will live a normal
life span, but has severe and disabling disfigurement of the face, arms
and legs Yes No
the newborn has an able brain and body, but has a condition
that will cause constant pain for the rest of his or her life Yes No
the newborn has an able body, but has such severe brain
damage that s/he will only learn a few words and simple tasks, such as
how to feed themselves Yes No
the newborn has an able body, but has such severe brain
damage that s/he will never learn any tasks or how to communicate Yes No
the newborn has an able body, but has such severe brain
damage that s/he will never wake up, and will always require a feeding
tube Yes No
Mentally and Physically Disabled Elderly Support for euthanasia
of disabled elderly was measured by:
A 70 year-old person, who has not previously expressed
an opinion towards whether s/he would want to be kept alive, has fallen
into a coma. Should the person's relatives be permitted, in consultation
with a doctor, to discontinue medical treatments that may preserve the
person's life, if:
the person may awake from the coma, but has a terminal illness that
will cause death within several months Yes No
the person may awake from the coma, but will be paralyzed below the
neck for the rest of his or her life Yes No
the person may awake from the coma, but have severe and disabling disfigurement
of the face, arms and legs Yes No
the person may awake from the coma, but will be in constant pain for
the rest of his or her life Yes No
the person may awake from the coma, but will have such severe brain
damage that they will only re-learn a few words and simple tasks, such
as how to use a spoon Yes No
the person may open their eyes and move, but have such severe brain
damage that they will never re-learn any tasks or how to communicate Yes
the person will not awake from the coma, and will always require a feeding
tube Yes No
Both euthanasia question sets were designed to measure reactions to
different degrees of cognitive and physical disability. The cognitive disabilities
range from severe impairment to permanent coma, reflecting debates about
the varying definitions of brain death and personhood (Gervais, 1986).
The physical disabilities range from pain, paralysis and disfigurement
to terminal illness, reflecting debates about the importance of quality
The two parallel sets of euthanasia questions sets broke down into four
principal components: attitudes towards withdrawing treatment from (a)
cognitively disabled infants, (b) cognitively disabled elders, (c) physically
disabled infants, and (d) physically disabled elders (alphas = .67, .73,
.69, and .75 respectively). These sets were merged into four separate scales.
The dependent variable was created by subtracting the scores on the two
cognitive disabilities scales from the values on the two physical disability
scales. This fifth scale, "Cognitive Preference," is intended
to measure the degree to which the respondent preferences the cognitively
able, but physically disabled, over the cognitively disabled.
Use of Animals in Medical Experiments Support for animal rights
was measured by asking:
Medical researchers often use animals in painful and fatal
medical experiments. Please consider the following list of animals and
consider whether you believe researchers should be allowed to use this
kind of animal in painful and fatal experiments that have a clear benefit
to human beings (not cosmetics research, for instance), do not contribute
to the extinction of the species, and for which no other animal can be
fish Yes No rats Yes No birds Yes No
cats Yes No chimpanzees Yes No dolphins Yes No
wolves Yes No dogs Yes No bears? Yes No
Respondents were also asked to rate their support or opposition to the
animal rights movement and vegetarianism, and these two items were strongly
intercorrelated with the animal experimentation questions (alpha = .85).
Consequently support for these two movements were summed with the number
of animals the respondents were willing to protect from experimentation
into an animal rights support measure.
Fetal Life Attitudes towards the value of fetal life was measured
by a set of questions on support for abortion. These questions were designed
to focus on the changing status of the fetus across the three trimesters,
a distinction established in the Roe v. Wade decision and defended by many
ethicists (Bok, 1974; Brody, 1974), rather than focusing on the mother's
reasons for the abortion as many surveys have done:
Do you believe that women with unplanned pregnancies should
be permitted to have abortions if they want them:
during the first three months of pregnancy Yes No
during the second three months of pregnancy Yes No
during the last three months of pregnancy Yes No
In addition, the respondents were asked whether they supported fetal
tissue transplantation, and to rate their support or opposition to the
"abortion rights movement" and the "pro-life/anti-abortion
movement." As expected, the questions about tolerance for abortion
in the different trimesters were intercorrelated with the questions about
support for the abortion rights and anti-abortion movements (alpha=.69),
and these were merged into a scale.
Machine Intelligence Attitudes toward machine intelligence were
tested by the question:
Do you agree that: "A computer that thinks like a
human being, and is not a threat to humans, should be granted human rights"
Strongly Agree Agree Disagree Strongly Disagree
Technology and Human Interventionism Factor analysis also discovered
a strong relationship (alpha = .60) between the three technology-related
Do you agree that: "Humans should not 'play God'
through genetic engineering"
"Humans should stop interfering in Earth's natural
"Some technologies should be banned"
These were summed into a measure dubbed "pro-technology,"
which is also closely related to whether the respondent believes there
are limits to human endeavor which must not be transgressed.
Attitudes towards technology were also tapped by two additional measures
related to computers. Respondents were asked:
How do you feel about computers?
Like computers Indifferent to computers Dislike computers
How often do you use a computer?
Never or frequently A few times a week A few times a week Daily
These two questions were correlated (r = .48, sig <.001) and summed
into a "pro-computers" measure.
Social and Economic Libertarianism Factor analysis also revealed
two underlying scales political attitude scales: social libertarianism
and economic libertarianism. The component questions that were summed to
construct the two variables are shown below in Table 1.
Table 1: Social and Economic Libertarianism Scales
|Social Libertarianism Scale
||Economic Libertarianism Scale
|lack of Christian religiosity
support for drug legalization
support for homosexuals' use of reproductive technologies
alpha = .63
|opposition to the trade union movement
opposition to national health insurance
disagreement that "the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer"
disagreement that "the wealthy control America"
alpha = .78
The SF consumption measure produces four groups who vary in their demographics,
as shown below in Table 2:
Table 2: Demographics of the SF Consumer Groups
SF Consumer Group
Percent from Environ. Sample
sig. < .0001
SF consumers are more likely to be male, and from the medical, rather
than environmental, sample, though neither of these trends are significant.
The SF consumers are, however, significantly younger.
At the level of first order correlations, shown below in Table 3, only
some of the hypotheses are confirmed. SF consumption is not correlated
with "Cognitive Preference," the variable measuring the degree
of preference given to the physically disabled over the mentally disabled,
nor with any of the four subsets of euthanasia questions that comprise
this variable. SF consumers are also not more likely to support for abortion
rights or be economically libertarian.
But there is strong support for the other hypotheses. SF consumption
is correlated strongly with willingness to accord rights to machine intelligence
and to animals. SF consumption is also correlated with the use and enjoyment
of computers, and with the rejection of limits on humanity's technological
innovation. SF consumers are also more socially liberal.