Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Sci Fi Writers Will Save Humanity

I wrote a few weeks ago about the latest IBM Internet of Things video, called System of Systems, on YouTube. If you didn't read that post, the thing that surprised me the most was how the tone changed from their first video, clearly trying to address the fear that many people have when they first start comprehending the Internet of Things.

The worst thing that the Internet of Things industry can do is to ignore or trivialize these fears. Even if you believe that these fears don't have the power to stop the continuing evolution of technology (they don't), it doesn't mean that these fears should be allowed to simply exist without discussion, or that we can't learn something from them.

Queue the sci fi novelists! Depending on your definition, science fiction has existed for hundreds of years. The Wikipedia article also describes the genre as being difficult to define. But one item that seems a likely common ground for identifying a work of science fiction is that the author takes a "what if" approach to technology. What if humans could travel faster than light (Star Trek)? What if we lived in a world of continual surveillance (Brave New World)? What if we could actually travel under the sea for long distances and long periods of time (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea)?

These may be works of fiction, but they have an uncanny knack for picking out how technology impacts individuals and society. In fact, that's kind of the whole point of the genre, and what makes it interesting.

Of course, that doesn't mean they're going to be correct in their predictions! In fact, they probably aren't. For one thing, very few people seem to be very good at telling the future. But for another thing, we need to remember that these books are written to tell a story. They're entertainment, first. There's a double-edged sword in effect here. The best stories are about how the hero saves the world from a wide-spread evil. And that evil is usually either technology itself, or empowered by technology.

So we have to be careful about understanding where the realistic and interesting ideas stop and the story-telling begins. But that doesn't mean they're useless. The best ones frequently identify non-obvious interactions between societal traits and how the technology amplifies them. The way a good writer can trigger the imagination is very powerful in both shaping how we think and in giving other people new ideas.

But the most important aspect of the science fiction novel is how we can all relate to them. The popularity of the genre over the past fifty years has given the average person (in the affluent countries, at least) a keen awareness to technology that simply didn't exist ever before in history. We still have a long way to go to educate the public about the impacts of technology on privacy and other rights, but without science fiction, it is likely we wouldn't be able to hold a meaningful conversation on the topic at all.

Of course, a futurist is likely to have more meaningful and potentially accurate information about how technology will shape our lives. But unfortunately, they just don't usually tell a very good story!


  1. If you haven't read the series already, I highly recommend the Hyperion series (4 books) by Dan Simmons. In my opinion it's one of the best science fiction works of all time, by a true futurist and excellent storyteller.

  2. Thanks for the suggestion! I haven't read those yet.

    Not sure I'd classify Simmons as a futurist in the strict sense, but that actually fits well with the point I was trying to make. "Futurology" is actually considered a real science/academic endeavor, and was the subject of a class I took once. ( )

    I have to admit I haven't read much sci-fi recently. But my favorite thus far has probably been Issac Asimov's Foundation series. I always liked the fact that he was a "real" scientist, but that he could also write some great sci-fi. Carl Sagan (Contact, Cosmos) is certainly in that realm, too. But they're certainly in the minority.