Science Fiction And The Imagination of Technologists

Jason Pontin, editor in chief and publisher of MIT's Technology Review, had an interesting editorial last week.

He writes:

science fiction continues to influence me. To this day, my tastes and choices as an editor and journalist are bluntly science fictional: I look for technologies that are in themselves ingenious and that have the potential to change our established ways of doing things. Best of all, I like technologies that expand our sense of what it might mean to be human...

He also discusses the question of whether science fiction has been successful in predicting what will happen, or creating devices or ideas that are later implemented by engineers and scientists.

Discerning a causal relationship between what science fiction has predicted and what technologists have created might be an instance of the logical fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc ("after this, therefore because of this"), except for a curious fact: SF writers not only describe current research and extrapolate its likely development but also prescribe cool things that enthralled technologists later make or try to make. In short, life imitates art.

He mentions some specific predictions, which should be familiar to regular readers of Technovelgy:

...consider the influence of science fiction on the development of the personal computer and the Internet. It is often said that SF missed both, but that isn't really true. The "cyberpunks" and their precursors began dreaming of the Net in the late 1970s. Algis Budrys's highly literate 1977 novel, Michaelmas, describes a worldwide web of telecommunications and computer data. Vernor Vinge, in 1981's True Names, anticipated a cyberspace that is recognizably our own. Most notably, ­William ­Gibson invented the "consensual hallucination" of the Matrix in ­Neuromancer, published in 1984.

(Obviously, I [or we] have got some work to do ... Michaelmas not on Technovelgy.com? Readers?) He missed a couple of important items in that paragraph. Damien Broderick was probably the first person to use the word "matrix" in his 1982 novel The Judas Mandala (see virtual matrix). And John Brunner very clearly described a nationwide data network that could be accessed by anyone in his 1975 masterpiece Shockwave Rider.

Read the editorial at Technology Review.

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