In the Company of Monsters

There have been monsters in fiction ever since there was any fiction at all. They are — always — scary, and sometimes attractive. But during the last years they have also began to be something else, something never seen before: they are our colleagues. Buffy’s Scooby Gang of monster-hunters ended up including, at different times, vampires (with and without souls), witches, demons, werewolves, and even the occasional cyborg. Hannibal Lecter went from threatening monster in a cage to lionized anti-hero, and this not because the character changed, but because our appreciation of him changed, culminating, in a way, in the ever-so-polite and helpful lawman and serial killer Dexter Morgan. Despite its origin as a cybernetic Nemesis, the most iconic Terminator is doubtless the protector in the second movie. And even the once classic opponents of the two archetypal sci-fi franchises, Klingons and Stormtroopers, are portrayed in the later iterations of the franchises as fighting shoulder to shoulder with the good guys.

Although there is seldom a single, lineal cause for the ebbs and flows of popular culture, it’s likely that one factor driving this slow change is the growing interconnection of our world. In absolute terms, it’s possible that humankind is more homogeneous than it has ever been in recorded history (billions upon billions know at least a few words of english, have access to a cellphone, and wear or have worn a western-style t-shirt, just to mention a few key items of the vernacular global culture), but the same communication infrastructure that makes this possible also makes much more heterogeneous the experience of individuals and societies. An american customer calling a bank is more likely to notice the non-american accent of the person taking their call than to reflect upon the fact that they are interacting through a direct, complex economic relationship that assumes a degree of cultural closeness and a shared infrastructure (both material and normative) that would have baffled previous generations. If in our fiction we work with the monster/the different/the other, it’s partly because we already work with whom was once a very monstrous Other — and it works. Maybe our subconscious understands the advantages of international trade better than we do.

And beyond, or rather behind and following globalization, lie the diffuse but increasingly strong effects of biotechnology and information technology, which are pushing certain forms of human diversity into the realm of what was once the fictional. If americans working with chinese or europeans working with norafricans find themselves struggling with both real and perceived cultural mismatches, imagine what the reaction will be to accountants on nootropics, engineers refusing to take off their augmented reality glasses — would a salesperson turn off their cellphone? — or having your immediate supervisor be a software algorithm (for many of us, whether we realize it or not, the latter is already the case).

Initially a matter of philosophical humanitarism, and latter driven by the eminently pragmatic goal of preventing wars, nowadays the ability and disposition to work with the radically different — often dismissed as “mere political correctness” — is instead one of the key competitive advantages of individuals, organizations, and societies. We live in a world teeming with the seemingly monstrous (and we ourselves certainly look like monsters to many we share the world with). Your next key ally (and maybe even your next teacher or friend) is likely to look very, very strange.

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