Currently at UCL specialising in Science and Technology Studies. I am interested in sciences social, historical and philosophical effects
Does Sci-Fi sculpt our future?
Science fiction steers us away from the dystopias it portrays. It acts as a lighthouse, illuminating the rocky waters we must avoid – the bleak pictures of a potential future depicted in some science fiction media. Yet, science fiction often has an entrenched sense of hope hidden behind this pessimism; a hope that, in predicting these potential futures, we have the power to shape a more promising one.
An abundance of scientific and technological achievements within the last 100 years was prophesied within sci-fi literature long before they came into physical existence. As a society, we appear reluctant to acknowledge not only how science fiction literature predicts the future, but also the impact it has on shaping it. Throughout modern history, there has been a symbiotic relationship between fiction and those in the science and technology fields. Pioneering science fiction synthesises and popularises new ideas of the imagination, which in turn can lead to others establishing the real-world implications of such ideas, or leaving them within the world of fiction.
Well, in order to comprehend the significance of the relationship between sci fi and the technological world, one must explore the world in which they coincide.
Not only is sci-fi a form of prediction, but, as seen with Apple hiring science fiction writers to do “design fiction” and to narrate stories about new technology that can lead to the ideation of potentially marketable products, it is also a form of creation.
This speculatively highlights the notion that these so-called “fiction” writers are not just predicting the future, but actually indirectly creating it, potentially leading to an abundance of real issues in consequence. Dark dystopian fiction, such as Blade Runner or Black Mirror, portrays the future in very much a negative or unnerving light, and given the parallels that the audience can draw to the current day-to-day occurring, we are forced to question the extent to which they are a true depiction of what is to come. If this is the case, and we can use sci-fi as a means of warning, it would be arguable that we should anticipate such a change and our of actions accordingly. In order to explore this further, we must acknowledge a few examples, some of which highlight predictions made within sci-fi coming true, and others show sci-fi not only predicting, but shaping.
How this is shown to be true?
For instance, Black Mirror’s ‘Nosedive’ predicted a range of technology development. It imagined a personality rating system, which is now starting to be introduced within China, as a private credit and behavior scoring system called ‘Sesame credit‘. This system conducts behavioral analysis data based on the citizens’ bill payments, abilities to hold contracts, shopping habits, online behavior and characteristics of online friendships. Very low scores have the potential to actually affect people’s real-world lives – as depicted in the Black Mirror, the public are restricted from making reservations at hotels/restaurants for example.
Not only that, but Black Mirror also depicted robotic bees in their episode ‘Hated in the Nation’. The story-line centers around the plot device of creating a large population of self-sufficient bee-robots in order to fill in the niche left by the extinction of live bees (an ever-increasing reality today). In the real world, scientists at the Harvard micro-robotics lab have begun to create their own version of these bees. These autonomous flying micro-robots have fantastic crop-pollinating skills, but also other potential uses such as surveillance.
The film Minority Report, released in 2002, imagined the possibility of an interactive screen where people can simply gesture at it rather than using any type of controls. The Google project of ‘Solis’ confirmed this prediction. It is able to track hand movements at 10,000 frames per second and is small enough to be built into your smartphone. Further, the handheld pocket communicator used by Captain Kirk in the film Star Trekportrayed the idea of portable communication technology and we have cell phones now.
Augmented reality was also to a large extent predicted by sci-fi movies. The real-time visual data display system used by the human hunting robots in Terminator 2 and the virtual reality device called Holodeck in Star Trek depicted the possibility of wearable augmented reality glasses. These possibilities have started to come into our reality. Many virtual reality games already entered the market such as “Until Dawn: Rush of blood” – a more real-life version of the horror game shown in the Black Mirror episode of ‘Playtest’.
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Should we really be worried?
The successful predictions of science fiction could be seen to imply a forecast for a hurricane of disaster to come. Today, with robotics advancing in leaps and bounds, shows like “Humans” make timely depictions of worlds where A.I. becomes consciously self-aware. Apart from opening a philosophical can of worms on how we define what it means to be human, it also casts a worrying picture of depersonalization where the human relationships are broken down and replaced with a connection to robots. Other films like ‘Ready Player One’ paint a picture of a dystopian landscape brought about by climate change and the fossil fuel crisis. People look to escape to a limitless world called the ‘oasis’, experienced through their VR headset. This film paints an extreme picture of a sadly realistic climate disaster and explores how we might turn to forms of escapism when our reality becomes odious. Should we be concerned these fictions becoming fact?
Today’s science fiction seems to suggest we’re walking into a storm. However, there is good news! We are not condemned to play out all the events in science fiction, it seems. As we have seen, science fiction can and does make accurate predictions on technology, yet the part that really matters is how we use that technology. It’s the ill-use of technology that leads to dystopia, for instance, in ‘Ready Player One’ using a VR to escape reality rather than trying to prevent disaster or repair their world. Science fiction is a tool we must use to shape our future.
Science fiction holds a mirror up to society, shedding light on current social and political technological issues. It then extrapolates and transports us to an entirely secondary realm, be this a world with self-aware robots or aboard the ‘USS Enterprise’ from Star Trek. Here we can view issues free from the influences that might otherwise skew our perception. Viewing something as an outsider gives us socially conscious lenses, free of our normal bias.
Why science fiction is actually preventing the dystopias it predicts
But the story doesn’t end there. Whilst many have heard of sci-fi ‘holding a mirror to society’, as well as the famed ‘predictions’ (both good and bad – we’re looking at you Back to the Future 2), science fiction has been shown to actually shape the future. It has a real-world influence.
With the aforementioned examples of concepts/ideas in sci-fi being found later in certain societies (‘Sesame Credit’ etc.), the influence that science fiction has on the worlds of tech, industry, science etc. are easy to see.
Something as simple as providing inspiration for an idea that can be actually developed by an inventor, or perhaps an Elon Musk, shows the shaping effect the domain can have on the world. Google Glass, self-driving cars, augmented and virtual reality, artificial intelligence – even human genetic modification, anti-aging processes, and space travel – are all ideas that appeared in science fiction before reality. Musk’s SpaceX plan of colonizing mars is an example that we are on the cusp of seeing for ourselves.
Whilst there are clear positive aspects of the sci-fi inspiration and its effects on modern technology, some of the dystopian societies and cultures predicted in such pieces of work as Black Mirror and Blade Runner, one could argue that these provide a real insight (perhaps taken to extremes) as to the potential downsides of technology, essentially providing us with a warning. If we heed these warnings from science fiction, we can create a more promising future. We can be conscious of our technological challenges and thinking about them before they actually manifest gives us foresight.
Over time history appears to show that science fiction is less of a predictor of the future, and more of an indirect creator. With the inspirations for many aspects of our modern life-based in sci-fi films, television, books etc, the genre itself can be seen as effectively playing a part in shaping our future. What do you think will be the next real-world sci-fi creation? Flying cars? Neural networks? We can only wait to find out…