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Is technology stranger than fiction? (Part II)

Thursday May 06 2021
By Innocent Swai

There was a study which examined how often science fiction has been referenced in the papers presented at a top international conference on human/computer interaction. The study found out that “sci-fi films or stories have always provided inspiration for the foremost and upcoming human-computer interaction challenges of our time. For example, when science fiction creates compelling representations of future technologies, people in the society end up remembering them.

Today, it isn’t surprising that mobile handsets might seem an obvious gadget. But, in the mid-1990s, Motorola flip clamshell model paid a homage in its StarTAC name. Later on, that fictional tech became an obvious way of realising the possibilities of real-world technologies when technical capabilities scaled up.

New generations of technologists will have a further half century of fiction technologies to inspire tomorrow’s devices.

It’ll take time for us to adapt to new technologies even when we’ve been given them in fictional format. Again, take mobiles. For many of us who became the first generation of untethered mobile phone-users in the 1990s, smartphones with touchscreens weren’t ready to use devices for the masses. Imagine how the Le Guin fictional work titled as “The Lathe of Heaven.” It’s a novel written in early 1970s. In a nutshell it’s a dystopian tale set by then in a future in which climate change and overpopulation created an impoverished earth. Today, that climate change element is the reality. The term ‘cli-fi’ - meaning climate-related fiction - was coined in 2007. The latter might seem a more recent invention. However, put aside Al Gore’s climate change film ‘Le Guin’ fiction work pretty much nailed the ‘hows and whys’ of the reality today.

On her future earth, there were ’phones. However, the characters in her fiction work were still using land lines. The character does not even have anything like answering machines connected to the land line. On the other hand, the plot elements do not capture people answering their land lines. But, there were other advanced technologies, such as a device that enables a scientist to manipulate the brain during sleep.

This land line-only futurescape created an odd feeling of the world to come. By the 1980s the first mega-brick “mobiles” were in use. Three decades later in the late 2020 about half the population in the world had a mobile phone. That alone implies that science fiction writers and technologists do at least as well in guessing what might come next as professional futurologists, the people paid to apply their noggins to predict what the future has in store for humanity.

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The most intriguing part is how challenging it could be for finest of futurologists and the best science fiction writers to miss the mobile phone episode in their prediction. That alone exemplifies how hard it can be for anyone of us to predict the future in mundanities of how long-standing emerging technologies might morph into something utterly new.

In retrospect, the incremental microchip-enabled changes that replaced landlines with powerful digital gadgets, where the ability to make a phone call is now a one second task. It’s the very human flip-side of the supposed “science fiction predicts our future technologies” truism. Sometimes futuristic fiction later foregrounds how hard it can be to see what is wrongly believed to be “the obvious”.

For futurists not really having seen the amazing smartphone revolution coming their way wasn’t fun at all. May be technology is stranger than fiction at times. Go figure!