“Science fiction is the most important literature in the history of the world, because it's the history of ideas, the history of our civilization birthing itself. ...Science fiction is central to everything we've ever done, and people who make fun of science fiction writers don't know what they're talking about.” ― Ray Bradbury
The best science fiction both predicts the future and helps influence it, often while critiquing the present. From the inventor of the helicopter crediting Jules Verne as his inspiration, to cell phones inspired by Star Trek communicators, there’s been a give-and-take between culture, inventors, and creatives, although there are some things people don’t see coming.
For all the things Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451, got right, including technology eerily similar to Bluetooth earbuds, he still predicted a future where our lives would revolve around television, not knowing the Internet was just around the corner and that we’d soon be spending more time inside apps than watching TV. On the other hand, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, credits Arthur C Clarke’s short story Dial F For Frankenstein as one of his inspirations.
And of course, there’s the sci-fi giant Star Trek, predicting (and arguably influencing) changing social norms by showing an interracial kiss, and Star Trek: The Next Generation showing what was essentially an iPad, 23 years before the iPad debuted.
One of the things mainstream science fiction didn’t predict, though, was the internet — or rather, how much the internet would become woven into the fabric of our daily lives.
The Post-Internet Future
It used to be that our vision of “The Future” included flying cars, moving sidewalks, and everyone walking around in silver suits.
For many years, scenes from Back to the Future 2 were the de-facto pop culture interpretation of what the future would be like.
Today, the entire Back to the Future trilogy takes place in the past; “hoverboards” are a fad at best, and our shoes aren’t exactly self-lacing yet.
While there are some amazing emerging technologies (many of which we’ll be covering this month) the question is, after the debut (and subsequent rise) of the internet, how has our vision of the future changed?
“Science fiction's always been the kind of first-level alert to think about things to come. It's easier for an audience to take warnings from sci-fi without feeling that we're preaching to them. Every science fiction movie I have ever seen, anyone that's worth its weight in celluloid, warns us about things that ultimately come true.” — Steven Spielberg
I'll be honest, it doesn't make businesses look good.
In the near future painted in the book Feed, the internet lives in our head in the feednet, transmitted via brain implants, complete with telepathic communication with other feed users, called m-chatting.
Teens visit the bathroom every hour, on the hour, to update their style based on what’s trending. The feed is ostensibly meant to keep its users educated, but is largely controlled by corporations, aiming to create a database of consumer profiles to sell more effectively.
In a world where advertisers are collecting data constantly, whether we know it or not, and where city-dwellers are exposed to up to 5,000 ads a day, the future depicted in Feed hits a little close to home.
“This is 100% about having more information about the customer and being able to generate more commerce as a result of it.” (On advertisers and their data-mining strategies)
Notably, in the book, only 73% of the population have feed implants...an interesting parallel to the 15% of Americans who don’t use the internet today, largely people in rural areas and lower income classes.
What happens to that 15% of people, or the 30% of people who still don’t have broadband internet, as we move towards a future where gigabit internet is made more and more available...but only to those in metropolitan areas and those with the money to afford it?
Are they left out of the growing freelance/remote economy, or even the normal economy, where companies expect you to be able to submit applications online? Can they keep up on news and pop culture, as video and virtual reality takes up more and more bandwidth?
“Of those Americans making less than $25,000 per year, 48 percent do not have access to broadband at home.” (via the FCC, quoted at International Business Times)
The Fear of Big Brother
Image via Mashable
The fear of being constantly observed isn’t a new one, with 1984 (published in 1949) being one of the earlier warnings. The difference is that, in older media, the observer using technology is usually the government — in newer media, it’s usually corporations, aiming to get data on consumers so they can sell them as many things as possible, as effectively as possible.
As the specter of communism and the Cold War faded, our fears have shifted from Big Brother watching us to Facebook consuming our every minute.
It's hard to the deny the cognitive dissonance in how we view technology, when we have articles on the coolest new gadget right next to articles on how to keep your smart TV from spying on you, or with titles like “Goodbye, privacy, hello ‘Alexa’”.
Some of this juxtaposition may be pure laziness on our part.
When I upgraded my iPhone 5 to the 6S+, I had every intention of turning off the "Hey Siri" functionality, creeped out by the idea of my phone listening to me constantly. But I forgot, and then found myself using the feature more and more. In this case, Apple says all listening data is stored locally and deleted immediately, so privacy concerns should be minimal. But with other “always-on” devices on the rise, interactions like this will become more common:
“A few days after my wife and I discussed babies, my Kindle showed an advertisement for Seventh Generation diapers. We had not mooched for baby products on Amazon or Google. Maybe we had left digital tracks somewhere else? Even so, it felt creepy. Quizzed, the little black obelisk in the corner shrugged off any connection. “Hmm, I’m afraid I can’t answer that.” - Rory Carroll, The Guardian
Americans say they want to control their personal information — a 2015 Pew survey showed that 74% of Americans believe control over personal information is "very important,” and 84% of Americans in a University of Pennsylvania study said they wanted to have control over what marketers learned about them. But according to PageFair, only 15% of Americans are using adblockers — one of the most basic ways to protect some of your information:
Is it ignorance — simply not knowing the steps they can take to protect themselves?
That’s arguable, given that the same UPenn study showed only 58% of participants believed they had no control over what marketers could learn about them.
As businesses, where do we draw the line and determine how far is too far? How can we keep from straying into the corporate overlord trop seen so often in science fiction?
The current Apple vs. FBI battle exists at the intersection of these concerns, and it’s not the first legal battle of its kind that we’re going to see, by far.
“Science fiction writers foresee the inevitable, and although problems and catastrophes may be inevitable, solutions are not.” - Isaac Asimov
Where Are We Really Headed?
It might seem like we’re headed towards a cyberpunk dystopia (or maybe, that we’re already there). But it’s worth noting that technological advances always come with a level of pushback — there’s a reason we have science-fiction from decades ago with themes of antagonistic technology.
Image via Wired.com
There’s validity to these fears, but there are so many other game-changing innovations being released, that it will be difficult to recognize some of these concerns 10-20 years from now.
The truth is, it’s increasingly difficult to imagine the world in which virtual reality, artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, aerial drones, bionic limbs that can feel, humanoid robots, and countless other advances are commonplace and as much a part of our daily lives as the internet is today.
Since we’ve discovered fire, our reaction to incomprehensible innovation has always been a volatile mixture of fear, suspicion, and awe. We may not know what comes next, but we can take comfort in knowing that we’ve been here before.
We’re in uncharted territory now — it’s up to us to create something great.