To Anticipate Emerging Technologies, Read Science Fiction

This post is part of a series about Governing Emerging Technologies that I’m writing for a UCL course of the same name.

An overarching theme so far in the Governing Emerging Technologies course is the difficulty of anticipating the long-term consequences of new technologies. What we are interested in is not a piece of tech in isolation, but a holistic view: Its impact when it has become ubiquitous, its interplay with other technologies, social systems, nature, all those messy things. Prediction seems impossible. (Was Asimov serious when he conceived of Psychohistory?)

But are there tools of thought we can use that allow us, if not prediction, at least anticipation of a landscape of possible futures?

A science fact fiction story collection?

A science fact fiction story collection?

Earlier this year, I came across a book called “BioPunk: Stories From the Far Side Of Research”. BioPunk is a collection of science fiction short stories that explore potential futures of biotechnology and their ethical implications. But this anthology tries to differentiate itself a little bit from any old science fiction collection. Supported by the Wellcome Trust, editor Ra Page commissioned the short stories to be based on actual current science research. Authors were paired up with research scientists who were to fact check stories scientifically and presumably also acted as a source of inspiration. Scientists and ethicists furthermore contributed an afterword commentary to the stories, all adding to the impression that this book is somehow a more serious endeavour than “normal” science fiction. Indeed, the stated aim of BioPunk is “to predict some of the potential ethical side-effects of the groundbreaking biomedical research currently being developed.” Did you spot the p-word?

As these things go, once I was interested in the concept of seeing science fiction as an exploratory tool for technology anticipation, examples kept popping up. Shortly after I read BioPunk, Nesta published a paper called “Imagining Technologies”. It is mostly a discussion of the influence science fiction has on science and innovation, centring  around well known examples such as the Motorola mobile phone inspired by the communicators in Star Trek. The conclusion seems that while science fiction certainly can inspire teenagers to become scientists and engineers (although: wouldn’t there already be a self-selection bias?), its biggest contribution might be helping to create popular imagery that can be used by scientists and engineers to explain their innovations to people such as investors.

However, in the last chapter of “Imagining Technologies”, the paper introduces the idea of “design fiction”, the point of which is to “make use of imagined futures to refine or challenge thinking about design projects and innovation”. Intel for example seems to take the power of stories seriously enough to have created the role of a “residential futurist”. The job is occupied by Brian Johnson, and his role culminates in the Tomorrow Project, where he promotes the idea of using design fiction to anticipate new technologies. In this video Brian talks a bit about his job, and explains that they’re not really doing “prediction” but rather “future-casting”. I can’t tell if future-casting is supposed sound more or less powerful than prediction – it may even achieve both! Johnson goes on to include science fiction inspired by current Intel research in the toolkit of their “future-casting” efforts, because good science fiction stories “aren’t about technology, the stories are actually about people. The stories are about people and the world they live in.” So far, so unoriginal. (He goes on to say that this is important for Intel, because they really care about customers people and how customers people use their products…).

The question ultimately is, whether these attempts to imagine the future actually are helpful with genuinely new technologies. An example: In 1908, the appropriately named “British Royal Commission on the Motor Car” tried to determine the consequences and dangers of the automobile, then an emerging technology. Their biggest worry was that cars might whirl up a lot of dust from untarred roads. Would science fiction stories have been of any use in making the social impact of the car imaginable? In hindsight, it seems obvious that the commission should have considered the impact of not just a single car, but also a car for every family What demands does this create on fossil fuels, landscapes, labour and society? After all, before the car, another transportation technology had a massive impact on urban life, by inventing the idea of “commuting”: the train.

Are we getting better at imagining the future, because we have a richer collective memory of technology introduction and subsequent development?

The cutting-edge of nanotechnology speculation?

The cutting-edge of nanotechnology speculation?

A lot of the stories based on biotechnology futures such as Smart Drugs, autonomous synthetic organisms or the idea of the “Designer Babies” tend to echo current social issues such as the gap between rich and poor, or scenarios that have been part of folklore and fairy tales before the advent of science fiction. A staple synthetic biology and nanotechnology disaster story is the grey goo scenario: Self-replicators have become uncontrollable and are creating an endless amount of copies of themselves. This sounds a lot like The Magic Porridge Pot.

Is our imagination essentially restricted to what we know already? Are we only able to anticipate technologies as amplifiers, but not as game changers? And what futures are we failing to anticipate because of our bias towards the stories we are already familiar with?

Since BioPunk, I have started to read a lot of biotech-inspired fiction, including recently Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, a biotechnology apocalypse novel. During the read, I often found myself taken by surprise by the persuasiveness of the world in which the novel was set. Atwood herself resists the term science fiction and instead calls her works speculative fiction, because her narratives “could really happen”. (Personally I think her insistence on this term is insulting to the serious science fiction authors, such as Arthur C. Clarke, but it is probably sensible PR for her). The important point is that the best speculative science fiction authors seem to act as seismographs, amplifying the worries and desires surrounding new technologies. There is a formidable list of references that Atwood acknowledges as inspirations for O&C, and the resulting world she has created is much more lucid than a list of abstract potential problems of an uncertain new technology that might have come out of an technology anticipation commission. In this way, science fiction can provide us with a set of scenarios and analogies with which to lead discussions of our anticipation of the future. And luckily, most of them also have been good reading in their own right.

Every blog post should include at least one satirical comic.

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3 thoughts on “To Anticipate Emerging Technologies, Read Science Fiction

  1. I really liked this blog post! It was an interesting introduction to the relationship between science and sci-fi. I am writing my literature review on this and have found it useful.
    I thought you might find this paper by Steven Hrotic interesting (if you haven’t come across it already), it looks at the other direction that the science/sci-fi relationship might be taking.

    http://pus.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/03/04/0963662513478898 (copy the address in, I couldn’t get the hyperlink to work…)

  2. Hi Tim,
    Thank you for your positive comment, I’m glad you found the blog post useful!
    I have not come across the Steven Hrotic paper but sounds interesting based on the abstract – will try to fit it into my reading over the weekend – thanks for the tip.
    – P

  3. Possibly also a book of interest, in case you haven’t come across it yet: “Different Engines: How science drives fiction and fiction drives science” by Brake and Hook.

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