This article was originally written in 2017 by Lauren D’Ambra, former editor at Emerj.com.
“Design fiction,” as defined by MIT Media Lab, is “sparking imagination and discussion about the social, cultural, and ethical implications of new technologies through design and storytelling.” Storytelling, more specifically science fiction (and even popular nonfiction science) seems to be a natural gateway to this relatively new concept. A series of recent email interviews with science fiction writers inspired us to think more about the avenue of storytelling as an influence in shaping technology and human history in the making.
Stories and narratives are a powerful vehicle for discovery and discussion—one quick look through history proves this repeatedly. They reflect the current state and issues that permeate our world, but they’re also as close to seers as we get. Fiction writers have the rare ability to peer forward in time, and while predicting the future is still in the realm of fantasy, some science fiction stories have an uncanny way of foreshadowing the world of tomorrow.
“Fiction can be the searchlight that illuminates the future and shows what is possible—if we work toward it,” says Author Ben Bova, whose latest book “Power Surge” explores the intersection of high technology and politics.
Many science-fiction-induced realities are objects eventually born into our everyday world. Michel Verne, a 19th century writer, described a transportation system in “An Express of the Future” that sounds very similar to Elon Musk’s proposed Hyperloop system in California. In Arthur C. Clarke’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Clarke wrote about “newspads” that seem an uncomfortably close fit to Apple’s iPads.
“Classically, the theory has been that science fiction inspires students to pursue degree concentrations in STEM fields. If true, then one could say that more sci-fi leads to more scientists and engineers down the road, which then expedites scientific discoveries and associated inventive advances,” says Author Keith Wiley.
In addition to inspiring a next generations of science-inspired doers, science fiction also paints new situations and whole worlds that reflect greater cultural ramifications and moral considerations. Author David Brin uses fiction to explore the ramifications of human actions on the collective whole. These stories often reflect more doomsday than utopian realities, perhaps because the potential horrific realities that threaten our very existence are more pressing in our subconscious. H.G. Wells’ “The World Set Free” was almost prophetic in the eventual creation of the atomic bomb and the horrific acts that took place almost 70 years ago in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Writer Frank White tells Emerj, “I enjoy writing fiction as well, because it is a way to explore big ideas in an engaging and often entertaining way. It is, for me, a non-confrontational way to get people to think about the future and realize that their decisions are shaping it.”
Storytelling is a skill relegated to self-aware human beings. Whether we recognize ourselves as storytellers or not, we constantly create our real-life “stories” with every thought and action. As creative thinkers we are able to draw associations and inspiration from sometimes seemingly unrelated ideas. All writers draw from life, as well as the deep well of imagination; one feeds the other.
Frank White came up with the idea behind “The Overview Effect” while flying across country and considering what life would be like and how worldviews might change in a space settlement. Keith Wiley was inspired to write his most recent short story, published in the anthology “Visions of the Future,” based on his understanding and reflections on the Fermi Paradox and the idea of computerized intelligence (the story involves a Von Neumann probe, or space-traveling AI, that arrives at its target solar system).
Storytelling is such an influential tool that it brings us back around to “design fiction,” a strategy being used by some of today’s most technologically-savvy companies, including Microsoft, Google, and Apple. It’s not unusual for some of the world’s largest tech companies to invite science fiction authors behind closed doors and introduce them some of the latest up-and-coming technologies still in the design and research phase. While names are often kept confidential, these authors are given the unique opportunity to combine X parts existing technology with Y parts imagination in order to dream up new visions and ideas that sometimes serve as inspiration for companies’ final products.
While stories have always been a source of ideas and inspiration, in a very real sense the mutual visioning between technologists and storytellers in recent years seems to have blurred the line between science fiction and reality, creating a whole new world of potential solutions in its wake.