Our Science Fiction World

None of the following is really all that novel. But as I’ve been walking my way through it over the past year, I think that I may have stumbled upon some important questions that couldn’t be asked in any serious and immediate way until recently.

I think we all accept that humanity currently lives in a world that would have been almost alien to us less than a generation ago. It would look a lot like … well, a science fiction story:

  • Video chat
  • Robots fighting wars and killing criminals but also performing surgery and exploring Mars.
  • 3D printers, cybernetic limbs, privatized space travel
  • Hackers influencing elections
  • Computers strapped to your wrist
  • Augmented and virtual reality

All these things sound pretty normal now don’t they?

But project yourself back twenty years ago. If you were to have talked about a lot of the normal features of our world today with any sort of seriousness back then, a lot of people would think you had your head in the clouds. They’d peg you as a frivolous dreamer.

That’s the spot I found myself in during the late 90’s and early 2000’s. I was a sort of publishing consultant for a software company based in Michigan. It was my job to kick out all the old mainframe and dumb terminal systems, set up shiny new Mac or Windows PC’s with our software, train all the editors, writers and designers, and then answer… questions.

Most of that was basically consulting on workflow, backup procedures, hardware upkeep and other mundane things. But since this was the onset of the internet age, a lot of the questions were about the Future. These were always very instructional moments for me. You see, I was still basically a kid in my twenties, engaging in high-level strategic conversations with older executives who had often spent big chunks of their adult life heading companies that were sometimes older than America. The ships they commanded were of many different sizes and scopes, but they were all at one point, the primary distributor of information for their community. The methods these organizations used certainly evolved and varied, but on contrast to what was to come, they appeared to be etched in stone.

So when this youthful, sci-fi geek would very enthusiastically describe how readers in the world of tomorrow would not only love to read their news on a computer screen but that those screens would fit in your pocket a sort of litmus test would occur.

Many of the editors and publishers I’d have these talks with would at least accept that the scenarios I laid out were at least possible. A few of them could even cut to the underlying truth that even crazier stuff might be possible and that this was going to be a very dangerous time for the news industry.

But sadly, most of the reactions I would get revealed a subtle hubris that the industry enabled in its leaders. There were many appeals to reason raised against my wild fantasies. Most of these had to do nostalgia for morning paper reading traditions, the eye strain that screens plagued an aging readership with or rather presciently about the impossibility of creating a business model that would nourish a healthy news gathering organization. Unimaginative or insightful, all objections were delivered to my inexperienced ears with absolute certitude and finality.

But we all know by now how that turned out. Journalism went through an incredible crisis. During its moments of weakness, it became infected with all sorts of conflicts that eroded the public trust. We’re still trying to sort it out to this day. I don’t think anybody feels satisfied that we have it right.

News organizations weren’t the only part of the world to be unprepared about the future and have its ass kicked. In fact I challenge you to come up with any aspect of our human world that isn’t still getting chopped and torn up in the blender of progress set to hyperdrive. I dare you. I promise if you find something, I will send you a special certificate and write an entire blog post about how brilliant your insight was. The first person to stump me will have the whole award named after them.

But I’m pretty confident that I won’t hunting down certificate templates any time soon.

Because we are in the future. Even more incredible is that we have all accepted it by now. When Elon Musk declared we’ll have a colony on Mars in a few short years, nobody even tried to talk down to him like he was a spastic dreamer. Corporate America didn’t scoff. In fact one-hundred year old Boeing took it so seriously, they announced their own competing mission.

Developments in technology and infrastructure change the parameters of how we live our lives so regularly — so rapidly that we hardly notice anymore. The stories that were once derided as juvenile and escapist have turned out to appear almost prophetic in the way that they described our real world today.

Of course anyone who was enthusiastic enough to read or otherwise consume a lot of science fiction knows that there are no real prophets here. For every autonomous battle robot prediction, there are even more flying car or jet packs that don’t light your ass on fire scenarios. So there’s no magic here outside of the pure industriousness of plotting out a massive number of scenarios that occasionally hit the mark.

“…science fiction predicts the future in the same way that a shotgun kills a duck. Many stories fly out from the “barrel” of the genre, spreading out in the general direction of the future — and a lucky hit the mark.”

I recently interviewed Steve Gould. He’s writing the next two Avatar films with James Cameron and is the current President of the Science Fiction Writers of America. He repeated a favorite truism among speculative fiction writers about their craft. He said that science fiction predicts the future in the same way that a shotgun kills a duck. Many stories fly out from the “barrel” of the genre, spreading out in the general direction of the future — and a lucky hit the mark.

To drill a little deeper, we have to understand that science fiction is ahead of the curve so often because its writers are constantly pouring over trends in science that would bore a lot of us. The gift they give us is to make that shit cool and interesting by imagining applications of advancements in basic science and the implications those applications have on people and societies.

It may not be as sexy as the idea that Isaac Asimov was a secular Nostradamus, but this in no way diminishes the realization that science fiction has been a very important player in how our daily lives evolved. Because just as science fiction creators have borrowed from the work of scientists and engineers, those people have been inspired and guided by science fiction writers.

From its very early days, it’s been a symbiotic dynamic. The results have been powerful and world-changing.

And I think people and organizations from different walks of life have taken notice. I’m not sure all of them have fully processed what really went on. But I do think that the resemblance the fantasies of science fiction has had to what the real world turned into hasn’t escaped the notice of people and organizations that wield power. In specific, I’m talking about financial and political power.

On the financial end of this, you can see major corporations taking the craft of science fiction through the practice scenario analysis very seriously. Even in the public sector, governments have been keen on tapping writers and groups of writers like SIGMA for advice since before the Reagan era. But don’t think the reaction to this had developed fully ripened fruit on the strictly political end. Except for the occasional foray into SDI or Ayn Rand, I don’t think that science fiction hasn’t been seen as a serious angle for electioneering or basis on which to justify planks in a platform.

That’s because so much of politics is about harmonizing with and manipulating public perceptions. And just like I wasn’t taken very seriously at those newspapers in the early 2000’s, candidates who rallied around sci-fi scenarios would have been checked for tin foil hats at the voting booth.

But once again, the world has changed hasn’t it? You don’t have to have been a captain of industry or Air Force General to have noticed that it turned out that science fiction has actually been a cultural dialogue we’ve been having among ourselves about what we want our future to look like. And isn’t that sort of what politics is anyway? Isn’t politics the all the things that are concerned with guiding or influencing the direction of a society?

I know that science fiction has always been a political form of literature. But I think politics at-large is going to be more interested in science fiction, in more sophisticated ways. So much so, I’ve been working on a feature-length documentary exploring this for the past year. I’ve interviewed dozens of writers, policy experts and futurists. What I’ve gleaned from all that is very interesting indeed.

Subscribe to this blog if you want to keep up with my progress. You really should. It’s been a helluva journey.