Our Present as the Past’s Fictitious Future
From the Series: Speculative Anthropologies
It is as if there is a collective naive assumption that the original science fiction work whether it be book, film or television, has had a positive outcome for humanity, and as such implies that the technology developed based on that fiction would have similar positive outcomes.
—Sally A. Applin
Much of technology’s material culture has developed as the realization of dreams from science-fiction narratives. Elon Musk, one of the foremost technology developers of our time, has stated that he is directly influenced by Iain Banks novels and by Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, the story of a man who tries to save the world by creating an alternate one. Martin Cooper, inventor of the mobile phone, was inspired by the Star Trek communicator, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg lists Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, a Lord of the Flies set in space, as one of his favorite books.
Today’s technologies are both inspired by and based on these and other science-fiction stories. Inspiration is not a problem in itself, for imagination is important in innovation and the creation of technological productions. But this becomes problematic when those who are realizing these inspirations use the original stories as blueprints or manuals for developing technologies that they then build and deploy in our present time and context, with the expectation that they will work in the same way that they did in science fiction.
Technological productions work in science fiction because they are imaginary, scripted in linear narrative paths. The technology used to create them may be based on pieces of functioning technology from the present, but it is imagined and described with as yet undeveloped capabilities, features, and degrees of acceptance. In science fiction, technology need not exist in any functional form. This sets up a dichotomy: science fiction is fictional science, but it can be perceived as a potential reality by those enthusiasts who are ensconced in building our technological future. The technology described in science fiction is shown to work in applied fictitious contexts. The real people who develop technologies based on their interpretations of what they extract from science-fiction stories seemingly take for granted that their productions will then work and fit into present culture. This is largely because that fictional technology had been shown to work in the visual and textual narratives that are their sources of inspiration.
One example comes from the original Star Trek series, a science-fiction television show that “offered an atheistic, yet moralistic, tale of intergalactic law enforcement. Its creator, Gene Roddenberry was a World War II combat pilot, a commercial Pan Am pilot, and a sergeant in the Los Angeles Police Department. These career experiences may have helped Roddenberry to shape Star Trek into what it became: a combination of flight and law enforcement stories set in space” (Applin 2016, 395). The Star Trek tricorder was a technology prop, imagined as a handheld device that combined sensor scanning, data analysis and recording. It was used in a variety of contexts from environmental analysis to health care. Star Trek, set in the twenty-third century, portrayed people having many other systems and capabilities that are missing in our own twenty-first century. Even if the engineering cohort of this century did manage to create a working tricorder, the cultural context in which it would reside is significantly different from the one in which the device was imagined to be placed (Applin 2016, 396).
The tricorder appeared in a scripted fictitious narrative taking place on other planets, but this hasn’t stopped humans from trying to replicate it for big prize money. In 2017, the XPRIZE Foundation awarded two teams $3.6 million for their work toward replicating the tricorder. The competition’s premise was to “develop a handheld device that accurately diagnoses health conditions anywhere, anytime. . . . Inspired by Star Trek’s futuristic medical diagnostic tool, these tricorders are truly bringing science fiction to science reality.”
While having a pocket diagnostic tool may be useful, it is only one part of a system of adaptation that needs to be in place for such a tool to work. Its capabilities (e.g., how it diagnoses or recognizes things, people, diseases, etc.) must rely upon artificial intelligence (AI) and automation that are not yet robust or even fully developed. One current AI diagnostic tool is making grave errors. IBM’s Watson was recently revealed to give unsafe recommendations for treating cancer based on hypothetical scenarios rather than real data, “simply based off the treatment preferences of the few doctors providing the data, not actual insights it gained from analyzing real cases.”
Science fiction contains multitudes of hypothetical scenarios, and most of them are written to resolve in some form that is possible in fiction but that would not resolve the same way in real life. Our world does not have a homogeneous system of support and treatment, but rather a highly culturally, technologically, and above all else heterogeneous model of human interaction and behavior.
If the XPRIZE was awarded to those who offered a solution that was said to be better or equal to human doctors, one wonders what will happen to doctors in our real future. In our world, to apply technical knowledge to medicine and people without an underlying understanding of those people could be more much more destructive than positive. There is a significant difference between reading science fiction and creating a technology to help humans and attending medical school and completing advanced training as a physician to do so (Applin 2016, 395). For the moment, inspirations from science fiction are not able to replicate any of that.
The fictional approach to technology cannot map to reality without adaptations to our present place, time, and cultural context. Without this, the science fiction from our past will continue to shape our present and future paths—often with unexpected outcomes.
This post is drawn from parts of the author’s 2016 doctoral dissertation.
Applin, Sally A. 2016. “Disrupting Silicon Valley Dreams: Adaptations through Making, Being, and Branding.” PhD dissertation, University of Kent.