Why Science Fiction Shapes The Future

Given recent headlines, both good and bad, I suspect I’ve not been alone in daydreaming about what the future might bring for science. On top of that, and no doubt in no small part due to my choice of recent reading material, that’s also led me to think more about the impact that science fiction has on life – or at least on the possible futures that are being explored by those interrogating the edge of mankind’s knowledge as they focus relentlessly on innovation.

An article in Vox today hypothesises that if we can get over the slightly sniffy view that so many have towards this genre of fiction but instead actively promote its existence to the youth of today, we might just be in a position to change the world. Rather than simply being assumed to be the sole preserve of unsociable geeks throughout the decades, the argument goes that the genre in fact enables individuals of any circumstance to hold a mirror up to modern society and extrapolate either the ultimate demise or potential development of our species over a varying timescale.

Hence within the same section of a book shop, we can go from the burned-out dystopian badlands of an Earth ravaged by global conflict to the more utopian view of life lived within a landscape that (until publication at least) remains tethered to the author’s imagination alone. We can choose to lose ourselves in a society governed by the iron fist of the few, a world in which our current values of liberty and freedom have been eroded – or one united in its common defence against an enemy from lands far away.

To use author Gareth Powell’s words:-

“In this respect, science fiction is useful as a tool, not for predicting the future, but for instead modeling a vast range of possible futures. As our society develops and changes, science fiction is there to show us what will happen if we continue along our current path”

There have been many famous innovators over the years who have taken their inspiration from science fiction of course. But if fiction can in turn act as the gateway drug to bring more people into the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) that are so vital to our collective progress going forwards, surely this is something that in fact we should be increasingly supporting as a society that is hurtling towards a massive skills gap in these areas?

The topic is on the agenda in some areas. It’s certainly on Neal Stephenson’s radar in any event if you read his essay “Innovation Starvation”. You might have heard of his Project Hieroglyph which he pulled together with the Arizona State University and other top authors in order to build collaboration to provide, “the missing element that scientists, mathematicians, engineers and entrepreneurs need in order to take the first real steps towards realising some novel idea”. A book of short stories was published earlier this year if you’re interested.

I remember Cory Doctorow (who also took part in Hieroglyph) making a really interesting comment on a similar subject a while back (can’t find a link, sorry). From working in a software production environment previously, his point was that, given the fact that it’s crucial for anybody who designs new products to really understand the experience of its users in order to improve it,  story-telling is a vital tool in the toolbox to ensure that this essential level of awareness is possible.

Of course, we’ve all heard the stories about how Star Trek inspired the invention of many new products. As Neal Stephenson said in an NYT interview on its release:

“There’s definitely some kind of a feedback loop between science fiction and technological fact”

If you’re interested in hearing more about the Hieroglyph project, here’s a talk from Neal Stephenson, Cory Doctorow and Ed Finn from an event called ‘Reigniting Society’s Ambition with Science Fiction’ in Seattle on 26th October.

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