I love reading science fiction, and you might expect me to open this review with an encomium of how science fiction helps us imagine a way into a better future. But no. One of the reasons I love science fiction is for how it asks us to truly confront our assumptions about the way things are, and whether that’s inevitable.
So many science fiction stories involving artificial intelligence place that intelligence into humanoid or human-like android bodies. Yet other stories imagine AI as something truly posthuman, something so incredibly different from us in perception and ability as to be truly alien, no matter its origin. There’s a powerful moment in the last season of Battlestar Galactica when Number One, one of the human-form Cylons, rails against the unfairness that has saddled him with the biological limitations of human eyesight, human senses, human language: “I want to see gamma rays, hear X-rays, smell dark matter!” His passionate performance conveys a truly tragic sense that he feels trapped, that the embodiment that to the struggling remnants of humanity seemed like the ultimate upgrade for the formerly “toaster” Cylons is in fact a sick joke for him. It all comes down to perception, and to how we see the world.
In The Reality Bubble, science communicator extraordinaire Ziya Tong challenges our own understanding of how we see the world. She asks us to really dig deep into our perception of physical reality and how it affects our conception of reality, our mental map of the world. Understand that I’m not exaggerating here when I say that pretty much every chapter, if not every page, of this book is a revelation in some way. I mean, I consider myself a fairly well-educated human, and it’s true that I was familiar, in broad terms, with much of what Tong discusses herein. Yet every chapter goes deeper into these topics. As the subtitle of the book promises, this entire work focuses on the idea of the blind spots that we intentionally or unintentionally suffer throughout our lifetimes—and beyond. It is remarkably coherent and well-organized for something that is unequivocally polemical in its condemnation of capitalism’s overreach.
In Part One, Tong discusses what she calls “biological blind spots.” Basically, these are things we can’t see because of inherent limitations in our biology. These include the world of microorganisms, as well as the parts of the colour spectrum that are invisible to us. By establishing how what we don’t see shapes our world as much as what we do see, Tong lays the groundwork for the thesis that runs throughout the book here, namely that we should be mindful of how our perceptions of the physical world bias our internal, mental map of the world. It’s in this section that I learned 20 percent of our oxygen comes not from trees or even algae but from a humble cyanobacterium called Prochlorococcas.
In Part Two, Tong moves on to “societal blind spots.” As you might guess, these are constructs of human society that we nonetheless fail to see—often through a certain level of willful blindness on our part. She discusses the way meat industry, power generation, oil and other resource extraction, and the trash/recycling industry. She ties these together through an emphasis on the scale of these procedures. The culmination of a globalized economy post–World War II, combined with the technological fervour of the ebullient 1950s in the West, basically set the stage for the mass consumer culture that demanded these industries by built as they are.
In the final part, which is nearly half the entire book, Tong discusses “civilizational blind spots.” With chapters titled the likes of “Time Lords” and “Space Invaders,” you’d be forgiven for expecting flights of speculative fancy. Yet Tong remains grounded for the entire book. Those chapters are more about the arbitrary ways in which we have scientifically constructed and divided up divisions of time and space, respectively, and how colonialism and globalization have propagated these notions around the world. The final chapter, “Revolution,” summarizes Tong’s arguments and pleads for us to radically rethink how we approach the world.
I’m a huge fan of Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything for the simple reason that it really captures the interconnectedness of our universe. As I sit here on my deck writing this review, I’m breathing oxygen produced by plants and indeed cyanobacteria, lounging in a chair mostly made from plastic and artificial fibres manufactured somewhere in … oh, likely China, and transported around the world through an intricate supply chain a century or more in the making. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Bryson’s style while reading The Reality Bubble, because Tong has done exactly the same thing.
This is a book designed to make you think. Hard. It’s designed to make you question. It doesn’t offer a lot in the way of answers; Tong isn’t trying to sell you on some miracle plan that’s going to fix the whole planet. Rather, she just wants us to cast off the complacency that often settles on us as a consequence of living in such a fast-paced, on-demand society wherein the wheels and gears of the machines that drive us are often hidden from view. Tong wants us to pull back the curtain and look at the wizard and ask some critical questions about his supply-chain infrastructure. And that’s probably a very good idea.
I often give my English students a project I call the Lifecycle of a Product. It’s pretty obvious what it entails: pick an everyday product you use, research its manufacturing lifecycle from raw materials to where/how it gets disposed, and then present your findings as a media text. Beforehand, we discuss globalization and what that means for our society. Because I feel like it’s my job as a teacher not just to teach my students how to use PowerPoint but to actually equip them to ask the hard questions in life. I want them to think, and I want them to wonder, and I want them to want to know where their cup of coffee comes from and what that actually costs us beyond the couple of dollars they might not even physically exchange for the drink. I want them to remember that our reality is a curious combination of physical stimulus and social construction, and sometimes it’s so hard to divine which is which, or to decide what to do about it.