SF and innovation – what happened?

Returning here after a pause, in case anyone wonders what happened to the promised piece for NESTA on SF and innovation.

As is the way of these things, some of the futures think pieces they commissioned (not mine – old journos do deadlines) took longer to produce than originally planned. So we are having a meeting to discuss them tomorrow, and think about what it all means.

Intriguingly, I learn that the SF and Innovation commission ended up doubled. That is, another contractor got some money to examine the same question. Neither of us, I think, knew the other (the other team in their case) was at work.

That means we both spent time reviewing the same literature, which may or may not be beneficial, but also (and better) that if our conclusions are similar they may gain force from independent verification. We may talk about that tomorrow as well.

The whole set of projects will be published, I believe, as NESTA working papers, but not until some time next year. All the folk who helped me do mine will be properly acknowledged then, but thanks to all now as well – and especially to Cheryl Morgan for advice on science fiction and authors.

Frau im Mond - ready for launch, unlike this report

Frau im Mond – ready for launch, unlike this report

Meantime, and in advance of the meeting, here is a 12 point version of the quite long (15,000 word) paper I’ve ended up with.

Science fiction and technological innovation –

1. Science fiction and innovation influence each other

(although that could just be ‘cos “everything influences everything else”)

2. Technology, at the design stage, is a kind of story-telling

(a point I’ve taken from David Nye, among others)

3. SF is a characteristic mode of story-telling of industrial society

(or “the dreamtime of industrial society – W Gibson)

4. This affinity promotes their mutual influence

5. SF’s treatment of technology has a history

(and that is a story itself)

6. Most (but not all) simple stories of SF inspiring, or even influencing technology fall apart on close examination

7. Past influence has been largely positive

(though not because the balance of depictions is positive – but cheerleading works better than doomsaying and awful warnings)

8. Mass exposure to SF has now moved into the cinema, where some depictions of technology have qualities which lend them particular influence

9. Contemporary SF authors neither predict nor, in the main, attempt to influence technology

(they said, when asked)

10. Nevertheless, a growing self-consciousness about SF and technologies mutual influences has arisen

(among media, critics, corporations, and all)

11. One of its most striking manifestations is design fiction

(which comes under various other names, but all are trying to open up a conversation about possible futures)

12. This approach might be developed to deepen relations between fiction and technology, and enrich public debate about technological futures.

If anyone wants to see the whole thing now in late draft, for comment or just for interest, or nab the references (the bibliography is quite long, too)  email me and I’ll let you have a not-for-distribution PDF.





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4 Comments on “SF and innovation – what happened?”

  1. Ari Popper Says:

    Please email me the pdf report. Would love to see it and to chat?

  2. rosieoliver Says:

    “Contemporary SF authors neither predict nor, in the main, attempt to influence technology.”

    This partly depends on what you mean by science fiction… but this is a debate in itself and a red herring leading away from the point you’re trying to make…

    In all seriousness, have you spoken to the techie science fiction authors… those authors who do tech work in their day job? Surely they can’t help but bring some of their tech background into their writing?

    And what of those authors who point out potential tech developments? They may also bring some understanding of how tech development and science fiction inter-relate. It is not a simple relationship, believe me. I remember the board members of a major tech firm being ordered in the 1980s to watch the Star Trek episodes as they were being aired. The reason? To see if any tech ideas could be seriously developed by the firm concerned. This is not hearsay or wishful thinking. It actually happened.

    And have you talked to any leading systems engineers? They will give you some very interesting comments.

    I think I’ve said enough for now…

    • jonturney Says:

      Well, this was a small study/small sample of authors (time, budget constraints), but most who responded did say influencing tech was not their intent. There are always exceptions, of course, and some are discussed in the full paper.

      The Star Trek story is nice. The influence of Star Trek is broad, and well documented. I wonder, did the board members you mention find any ideas to take into development, or did they just humour whoever was telling them to watch it? You’d think that by the time an idea found its way into a TV series it is pretty much common property…

      • rosieoliver Says:

        Hm… appreciate this study is of limited resource, but nevertheless a helpful viewpoint to put forward.

        To answer your question about the Star Trek story – I’m afraid I don’t know. I didn’t have sight of all that went on in the firm.

        I think the main problem I have is that there are some science fiction authors who, because of their techie background, instinctively predict some technology developments in their stories. They just assume these things without thinking twice about it. The classic one of course is the smaller sized computers for the same computing capacity.

        But I will leave you with an interesting thought… in 1875 (yes I do mean EIGHTEEN SEVENTY-FIVE) the UK passed a law to make sure the use of gunpowder and explosives were made safer. As a direct consequence, UK did not develop rockets like Germany of the USA. What would be an interesting study is to compare the science fiction from the three countries to see how much rockets appeared prior to Germany’s V2s becoming a reality. The implications of this example are far-reaching and I’m not sure I’ve worked them all out.

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