The Internet Will Kill the Hugos

Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It’s the transition that’s troublesome.

― Isaac Asimov

Some people may not believe me. But the truth will be recognized by anyone who understands technology, and how it changes the way people behave. An award that was born in the 1950’s is dying, and not before time. For my own part, I come to bury the Hugos, not to praise them.

Over 5,000 supporting members have signed up to this year’s Worldcon, almost double the number from last year. There has been an extraordinary outpouring of words about votes and nominations and puppies and CHORFs. Some might take this as evidence that the Hugos are in rude health. I believe this is another example of human societies turning their back on technology, when it suits them. That the context is a science fiction convention only adds to the irony.

The controversy surrounding the Hugo Awards has encouraged a surge in supporting memberships for Worldcon. People have been giving supporting memberships away. This year’s Hugos have received more mass media coverage than usual. All of this has been enabled by technological progress, in the form of the internet.

It is the ubiquity of the internet that permits anyone – me included – to broadcast their opinions about the Hugos. The deep penetration of innovative communication tools and techniques, and the broad acceptance of new cultural norms that surround them, allows people to rally supporters and friends, and to rile strangers and enemies, with unprecedented ease. The internet amplifies the potential for controversies like those which have surrounded the Hugos, and increases the attention they receive.

However, the Hugos themselves have not embraced the internet. On the contrary, the meagre use of the internet by Worldcon organizers demonstrates a sad refusal to adjust to modern times. Their motives are understandable; they want people to physically attend their convention. However, the awards could be unleashed, and managed across international frontiers by placing it wholly in cyberspace. This has not happened because the awards are subordinated to the needs of the convention.

Societies that cannot accommodate technological change may persist for a generation or two, but they become easy prey for those who have evolved. A herd mentality may make Worldcon members feel good, but adaptation is a superior strategy to groupthink. Has this group of people adapted to the modern world? Not really. They continue to follow a behavioral pattern mapped out decades ago, before the internet existed.

Worldcon members can vote for the Hugos online. But why should the “premier awards in the science fiction field” still be associated with a physical meet-up? That approach was optimal in the 1950’s, and for a long while after. It is no longer a good way to serve your goal, if the goal is to promote an art form, and to engage with the greatest number of fans. The internet has changed what is possible. The internet connects us to millions, when we used to be satisfied with reaching thousands.

It appears that Worldcon2015 will have more non-attending members than attending members. The disproportionate growth in Worldcon supporting memberships demonstrates an inconvenient truth. The awards could be managed separately from the event. There are only two reasons to connect the two: marketing, and a subsidy for the physical convention. By connecting the two, the legitimacy of the award is undermined. This is supposedly an award given by all fans, wherever they are. So why confuse a voting electorate with a membership system that prefers some fans to others?

Associating an internet-based vote with a convention inevitably skews the vote towards the population who live near to the convention’s location. If the organizers of a ‘world’ event really wanted to maximize the diversity of participation in SF, they would separate the convention from the award, and lower the cost of voting. If Worldcon attendees want to vote on the Hugos, let them pay a lower entrance fee and then pay an additional top-up to vote, set equal to the cost of a supporting membership. Then the awards would not be treated as the hostage of the event, used to generate increased revenues for the convention by increasing publicity and creating a subsidy for those who physically attend. Let the convention be sold on its own merits, and the award be voted for by fans, irrespective of where they are. There is no need to confuse the two.

Consider the cost of participation in the Hugos. To vote currently costs USD40. What the heck are they doing that costs USD40 per voter? This is a small-scale internet-based ballot to decide the winners of a cultural award. USD40 is much more than it costs most governments to handle international postal voting in public elections, although they obviously have to be managed to a higher standard in order to prevent fraud.

If the goal was open democracy, demanding 40 bucks for the right to vote would be considered an outrage. And obviously the cost will have a different impact around the world, because no allowance is made for average national incomes. If the organizers want diversity, the cost of voting should only be a few dollars. The actual cost reflects two goals which are opposed to diversity: erecting barriers to create exclusive tiers within ‘fandom’, and the maximization of revenues.

One of the joys of the internet is that it is so inclusive. Since the 1990’s, the roll-out of commercial internet services has done more to remove barriers of wealth, nationality, race and gender than decades of political posturing. On the internet, nobody knows if you are a dog. So long as you can afford the cost of accessing the internet, it does not matter if you are old, black, Inuit, disabled, gay, Jewish, transvestite or French. If you have access, you can express your opinion.

However, the data from the Worldcon memberships shows the Hugo Awards have totally failed to be the inclusive global force it pretends to be. At the time of writing, this year’s Worldcon has 10,157 members. 8,263 of them are from the USA. The huge rise in supporting memberships has done nothing to increase the international diversity of Hugo voters.

For reasons that I struggle to understand, the organizers of Worldcon2015 have taken a massive step backwards when it comes to the transparent presentation of demographic data. Worldcon2014 provided a straightforward table, so you could analyze memberships by both nation and type. Worldcon2015 gives you totals by nation, and totals by type, but no cross-analysis. Is this because they are embarrassed by the lack of diversity? The number of supporting members is more than double the number of members from outside the USA. It does not take a mathematician to realize the growth in supporting memberships has resulted in even less international diversity amongst Hugo voters.

Literally anybody on the planet should be free to say they are a fan of SF, and to vote on what they considered the best work of the year. One of the Hugo categories is ‘Best Dramatic Presentation – Long Form’ (a stupidly outdated way of saying ‘Best Film’). Are there only a few thousand people on the planet who are competent to judge if Guardians of the Galaxy was better than Interstellar? Of course not. Nobody ever went to see a Hollywood film because it won a Hugo, but these awards are treated like they represent the opinions of fans everywhere.

Ignoring the international nature of SF film culture reveals the inward-looking nature of some ‘fandom’. We can make excuses for why written stories may not succeed when taken across borders, but it is harder to make excuses when it comes to the medium of film. Consider Solaris, a 1972 film directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Tarkovsky is one of the greatest film-makers of all time. Ingmar Bergman said:

Tarkovsky for me is the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.

Solaris was both a science fiction film, and a work of genius. It was so good that some arrogant Hollywood types decided they could make some easy money by remaking it in English. Was the original nominated for a Hugo? Of course not. It was made in the Soviet Union. One of the greatest SF films was ignored by a ‘fandom’ which ignores films distributed outside the Hollywood system. Am I supposed to believe that George Clooney has better taste in SF films than most SF fans? The failure to nominate Solaris for a Hugo was excusable in the 1970’s, when it was harder to know about foreign cultures. There is much less excuse for a current ‘world’ award to exhibit an unrelenting bias towards Hollywood films, though it clearly persists.

The organizers of the Hugos do not care if Koreans (current Worldcon members = 0), or Indians (3), or Africans (1) express an opinion on what was the best SF film of the year. They do not care if there are thriving movie industries in those parts of the world, or if they make good SF films. As a result, I will not learn about those films by taking an interest in the Hugos. The bias towards Hollywood films should be a telltale sign of cultural bias, but the in-crowd seem unaware of the lack of international diversity in the culture they choose to consume. That is why they do not deserve to influence others. But mercifully, that is also why the Hugos will die.

I would never read a book because it won an award. All culture is a matter of taste. It makes more sense to be influenced by my past experience, by the advice of friends, and by individual editors and reviewers with good taste. It makes less sense to be influenced by the votes of individuals who I do not know and who represent nobody but themselves. As a result, the internet is killing the Hugos, even whilst it props them up with a burst of increased publicity. Overall, the internet diminishes the power of the Hugos, by making it easier to receive opinions about a wider range of content, from sources that we know and trust.

If I wanted to be influenced by strangers, I could read their blogs, or follow their tweets, or see their reviews on Amazon or Goodreads. And if I prefer to seek out the newest film from Studio Ghibli, instead of some dross from Hollywood, the internet will help me. The internet is often like an echo chamber, allowing people to hear their own opinions reflected back at them. But it also gives us choices that would not be possible otherwise. It gives us freedom, and diversity, and alternatives. Thanks to the echo chamber, some will convince themselves that the Hugos still represent a meaningful expression of taste. Stepping outside that echo chamber, fewer will be listening. And if the global SF market expands, then the Hugos may suffer more than it benefits from that growth, because of the failure to decouple an international award from a predominantly American convention.

To rejuvenate and extend the authority of the Hugos would be simple: separate the voting from the convention, and thus encourage many more people to vote, from all around the world. But that is not going to happen. Meanwhile, the internet gives me access to many more opinions, but it does not increase the amount of time I spend reading. That is why the influence of the Hugos will continue to diminish. The Hugos served a purpose, but by sticking to an outdated model for human interaction, they will become increasingly anachronistic. So the Hugos must die, and the sooner the better.

The internet has room for many opinions, and an award is an expression of an opinion. I do not care who pays 40 dollars for the privilege of identifying themselves with ‘fandom’, for the same reasons I prefer Solaris to many films which were nominated for the Hugo. Real diversity now surrounds us, in the optical fibers and radio waves that bring us the internet, wherever we are in the world. That diversity is incompatible with the cultural straightjacket worn by the self-selecting Worldcon ‘fandom’. The Hugos are dying; long live the internet, and the liberation of science fiction.