WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Most sci-fi books and movies paint a dystopian view of the future, and it’s all too easy for people to get caught up in the moments and accidentally create those futures.
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In previous article I discussed the benefits and impact of using the sci-fi genre as a means to envision and create the future. I also mentioned that there was an often over looked downside, and that’s what we’ll be discussing in this article.
Many of the technological achievements in the last few decades were actually ideas prophetically described in sci-fi literature long before they became a reality. Throughout most of history, there’s been a symbiotic relationship between fictional story-tellers and creators thanks primarily to the genres inane ability to spark people’s imagination and the imagination of people who have the technical knowledge to help realise its vision. Don’t believe me?
In 1945, Arthur C. Clarke, a physicist and budding sci-fi author, wrote a manuscript called The Space Station: Its Radio Applications. He proposed that space stations could be used to broadcast television signals at a time when television was barely a commercial reality. Seventeen years later, in 1962, the Telestar 1 communications satellite relayed the first transatlantic television signal.
One year earlier, in 1961, Clarke also published Dial F for Frankenstein, a short story of an interconnected telephone network that spontaneously acts like a new born baby and leads to global chaos as it takes over financial, transportation, and military systems. And, did you know that that short story was cited as inspiration for the World Wide Web?
In 1989, Sir Tim Berners-Lee submitted a proposal for the first successful communication between a Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) and a server, which led to the birth of the internet. According to a New York Times feature he recalls from the short story the “crossing the critical threshold of number of neurons,” about “the point where enough computers get connected together,” that the whole system “started to breathe, think, react autonomously.”
Shortly thereafter, in 1992, just as Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web had come to fruition, Neal Stephenson was inspired by the recent invention, which led to him publishing Snow Crash, a sci-fi novel that illustrated much of today’s online life, including a virtual reality where people meet, do business, and play.
Even today, many of today’s greatest innovators reference Snow Crash as inspiration for their work. Google co-founder Sergey Brin named the book as one of his favourite novels. Google Earth designer Avi Bar-Zeev has also said he was inspired by Stephenson’s ideas. At Facebook, the book, alongside Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, is also given to anyone who starts a job at the virtual reality company Oculus.
What’s funny, Stephenson, who was the Chief of the Future at the multi-billion dollar immersive reality startup Magic Leap, told Vanity Fair that he was just “making junk up” when he wrote the novel.
But despite his intent, he and other popularised sci-fi writers are playing a big part in shaping the future. And, when it comes to technology and innovation, reality seems to be constantly playing catch-up to the visions of the world that are painted in science fiction narratives.
So it should come as no surprise that science fiction novelists are playing a more direct role in Silicon Valley …
In fact, Magic Leap wasn’t the only forward thinking company to reel in world class imaginations. Microsoft, Google, and Apple have also hired science fiction writers to do “Design Fiction” to narrate stories about new technology that can lead to the ideation of potentially marketable futuristic products.
It’s also, at this point, worth considering the influence sci-fi has on our futures, and even more so, how cautious we should be in how we consume or create it.
That said, nothing makes me feel quite as anxious as when I watch or read a futuristic sci-fi about a dystopian future of an abandoned society crumbled by technology. Seriously, just try to name a popular sci-fi movie, book, or television series released in recent years that doesn’t portray the future as a stomach-dropping, throat-lumping nightmare.
Worse, the success of these dark futuristic depictions, hit series like Altered Carbon, Black Mirror, Hunger Games, Terminator, West World, and the likes, are nothing more than evidence of a collective consciousness with a pessimistic outlook. They all signal the same basic message – technology is more likely to ruin our lives in the long run than improve them. And, at this point, it’s starting to feel like our stories aren’t just predicting various futures, they’re creating them too.
All of which begs the question – will the overwhelming amount of dystopian projections inevitably manifest into reality? Or will it mobilise today’s creators, engineers, researchers, and scientists, to anticipate and take action to avoid our technological doom?
Only time will tell, but either way humanity and organisations around the world need to be very careful that the future, and the products and services that enable it, are more utopian than dystopian in nature …