October 06, 2008

Does SF Predict or Inspire the Future?

ConnectorThe 24th of September I lectured as part of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts exhibition Beyond Future. My subject was whether science fiction teaches us something important about the future, or whether it is "just" entertainment and art.

The strongest claim is that sf predicts the future. There are plenty of things mentioned in sf that have come true, even when the predictions were at the time amazing: space travel, computers behaving in semi-intelligent ways, biotechnology. But this could be a selection effect where we remember the successes and forget all the rayguns, flying cars, moving sidewalks and other failed predictions. As an exercise I checked the latest CNN and BBC technology headlines to see whether they had been foreshadowed in science fiction. Overall the performance was not that good; beside some areas where sf has been around (like space and biotech) it had completely missed the social/economical internet that plays such a key part of current events.

A weaker possibility is that sf inspires technologists to 1) become technologists and 2) make the story ideas real. I think the evidence is stronger for this. SF is widely read among the digerati, we have a clear link between at least some sf and some technologies (such as cyberpunk stimulating VR).

Another possibility is that SF allows society to come to terms with new technologies. It stretches our minds and makes us see the unusual and arbitrary in everyday "it has always been this way" thinking. I think there is some truth to this. Unfortunately we are currently suffering from a "science fact" problem where people uncritically mix up reality and speculations of what is possible. The stretching of minds also did not seem to make people more open to biotechnology, quite the reverse. Maybe the stretching is selective and patchy like the previous cases, in that some people indeed become openminded and future-aware, while others think Fringe depicts reality or that the main intended use of cloning is dictator-multiplying.

I did a survey of the cognition enhancement SF literature, and was actually suprised by how little insight it gave. Most stories were not very plausible from a medical or technical standpoint, but more surprising was that so little was actually done with the concept and its social implications. Maybe cognition enhancement is unusually hard to write well about compared to aliens, but in terms of enhancement the literature has little to offer. There are the usual concerns about equality and who has power over new invasive technologies, some questioning about motives and priorities (would greater minds really be useful?) and the totally obvious safety and trade-off issues. One of the few important concepts to emerge from it is the Singularity, and that is still a fairly narrow concern among us futurists. The main thing to take away from cognition enhancement sf may be just good ideas for enhancements - extra perceptual cortices for information like in The Risen Empire, multitasking a la Aristoi and of course the eagerly awaited neurointerface.

But our experience with the Internet, VR and GPS shows that when they arrive they are going to be buggy and cause plenty of interesting kinds of trouble. But nobody wants to write stories about spam, headset cleaning and misnavigation, so I think it is unlikely we will be prepared for cortical confusion, intrapersonal deadlocks and brain firewall compatibility problems. So I confidently predict that whatever the biggest problems with these technologies will be, we will not be prepared for them.

Posted by Anders3 at October 6, 2008 09:31 PM