Posted tagged ‘science fiction’

Imagining Technology – Science fiction and innovation.

March 28, 2013

My NESTA working paper on SF and tech is now published. I had a lot of fun doing it.

Thanks to all those who helped (see the acknowledgements), but especially to Cheryl Morgan, who knows far more about SF and the people who write it than I do.

You can download it from here.

There’s an interestingly complementary companion piece from the Sussex group who looked into the same question here.

If you’d just like to know where my review of all this ends up, here’s the conclusion…

…the stories embodied in technologies, or designs, and fiction form an intricate, evolving web. Efforts to pinpoint causes and effects are rarely convincing. They might not be especially useful even if they were. We are discussing the weaving of culture, and no individual case is likely to be repeatable. But there does seem to have been a gradual, general movement over time.

It can be roughly summarised.

Technology, and plans for technology, revolve around stories. These, minimally, say: we will make a thing that does this.

 Science fiction asks, if we made a thing like this, how might the world look? What effects might it have?

 Design fiction says: here is a thing we could make: what do you feel about a possible world that has such things in it?

These kinds of stories are not mutually exclusive. Each can influence the other. Technologists promoting their projects can adopt ideas from science fiction to say: the thing we will make will be like this. In film, they can sometimes insert the image of what they hope to make. People who want to discourage particular technological projects can of course do likewise. Design fiction is more like an open question. If the capacity to make things like this comes about, what would we like to do with it? Nor do any of the stories necessarily have the effects their authors hope for. But all three benefit from the illimitable flexibility of fiction. As Rudy Rucker put it, before design fiction was conceived: “The reason why fiction thought experiments are so powerful is that, in practice, it’s intractably difficult to visualize the effects of new technological developments. Only if you place the new tech into a fleshed-out fictional world and simulate the effects on reality can you get a clear image of what might happen.” Or, more briefly, when it comes to technology assessment, “inspired narration is a more powerful tool than logical analysis”.

And a concluding question about where one might take all this…

The collection of diverse items – texts, discussions, projects, artworks, events and videos – which can be gathered under the heading of design fiction also deserve more investigation. It is not easy to know what effect or impact they have had, individually or collectively. Have they influenced any subsequent real-world design projects or prototypes? What has been their public reach compared with other influences on public attitudes to technology, or other images of possible futures – including more conventional science fiction texts? Finally, what scope it there for making more use of design fiction, and who might support such efforts? There are interesting affinities emerging, for example, between design fiction and art/science/design projects intended to provoke discussion about synthetic biology – an area of technology which promises to make design a meaningful notion in the life science. For example, Alexander Ginsberg’s Irrational Genome Project is, in effect, a challenge to others to create design fictions drawing on the ambitions of synthetic biologists. It also points toward other, more participatory modes related to design fiction, such as biohacking

There seem to be an increasing number of routes to using our increased awareness of the importance of images of possible future technologies in shaping what actually gets developed. More research and thinking about the whole collection, gathered under the heading of design fiction, might help us see more clearly how they can be exploited to help selection and development of technologies which can be part of our preferred futures.

I hope some will read the whole thing. It’s a discussion paper, so any reactions are welcome – I think there’ll be some discussion on NESTA’s  blog, or you can  comment in the space below.

Science fiction and innovation – nearly there

March 24, 2013


Seems a while since I trailed the project I did for NESTA on science fiction and innovation, but it is now about to be published.

I’ve commented on retro-futures here quite a bit. For this piece, I  assembled a little composite, to enliven the beginning of a long review paper. Here it is, as a taster for the whole (quite big) thing.

As you sip your perfect coffee, you scan the morning’s personalised news on your vidscreen. Finance: yields on your undersea city bonds look poor after the pressure seal scare on the prototype dome, but asteroid mining shares are up. Win some, lose some.

Your wrist phone chimes with a message from your spouse. Her business trip to review the Sahara forest project will finish early and she ought to make the noon hypersonic shuttle and be home by teatime. Maybe you can still make the premiere of that new zero-G dance show tonight.

Time to leave. You signal the table to resorb the scant remains of your nutritionally balanced breakfast. The kids couldn’t wait. They are already in the media room for the day’s first lesson – their artificially intelligent tutor-cum-playmate is conducting a virtual reality tour of the first Olympic Games, reconstructed from the latest time probe results. You don’t want to interrupt, so you record a farewell reminder to check their gear for the afternoon’s sub-aqua games at the local leisure park.

The autopilot banks your flying car over the scattered houses, course set for the city, and you see clouds breaking up as the neighbouring county’s early morning shower clears on schedule. Here, robot cultivators tirelessly tend the fields below. On the horizon the nuclear reactor that powers them all gleams in the sun…

And so it never quite came to pass. We slightly jaded, technology fatigued, 21st century citizens recognise the story I have just invented as a parody of the future as it used to appear. Some of the inventions that earlier writers conjured up really exist. Some don’t. Some they never imagined have also entered our lives. But everyday life is as gloriously imperfect as ever, and few expect that to change.

What does science fiction have to do with any of this?

My answer appears on Thursday, along with a second paper from a team at Sussex U answering the same question. I’ll put up a link then for the download.


SF and innovation – what happened?

December 11, 2012

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.





Nanotech, terraforming, geoengineering – facts and fictions entangled.

July 26, 2012

I have, I reckon, a pretty good grip on the distinction between science fiction and reality. I read a lot of non-fiction along with my fiction. Without diverting into epistemology, I see a difference. Also, reading and writing about science for a few decades encourages you to develop a good working bullshit detector.

I am even inclined to react to the common 21st century observation that we now live in a science-fictional reality with the raised eyebrow of a simple soul pedant. If it’s reality, it ain’t fictional.

But working on the current project for NESTA on SF and innovation has brought home more strongly that fact and fiction are deeply interwoven in some areas of science and technology.

The prime exhibit here, I think, is nanotechnology. It is a hard case to analyse clearly because the term is so vague. It is partly an extension of materials science, with finer control over the composition of the product, down to the molecular or even atomic level. It is also a label for a much broader collection of ideas, involving nanometre scale devices – equipped with some power source and computing and communication capacity – which would be able to do many wonderful things. The ostensibly non-fiction accounts of the latter prospectus often draw on science fiction tropes, a habit that extends on occasion to government reports.

These science-fictional roots of the more exotic possibilities of nanotechnology have attracted much attention. Conclusions about their significance differ widely. Some say that nanotechnology concepts are inherently science fictional, and this is a bad thing. Others maintain that it is true but does not matter. Science fiction either helps or hinders funding, confuses or informs policy-makers, inspires support, or raises unrealistic expectations and evokes public fears. Maybe all of these things have been true at some point, I don’t know. But it seems inescapably true that discussion of nanotechnology and its potential has always been a science fiction discourse, even when the point being made is that some claims are “science fiction” and therefore illegitimate. I like Chris Toumey’s formulation here: “Nanotechnology needs a language that describes the future because, no matter how good the science is now, most of the technology is still over the horizon.” That language is inherently science-fictional.

Now I’m wondering whether there is a category of technologies which are inherently science fiction in a similar way. They would need to be things which were realisable in principle (or someone claims are realisable – which is where many of the nano-disputes arise) but not yet achievable in practice. I’d rule out faster than light travel or time travel, as our current scientific understanding doesn’t offer any basis for thinking they will happen. That may change, but for now they are more simply fictional.

A clearer example of what I mean is terraforming. There are reasonable scenarios for how it might be done. We perhaps know enough geophysics and atmospheric chemistry to map routes to altering suitable planets to make them more hospitable than we find them. The topic remains inherently fictional as we do not have any planets to try out these ideas on.

Set dressing the atmosphere processor for Aliens. We may assume the real thing will be larger.

Or do we? Terraforming as an intellectual problem blends seamlessly with geoengineering, which is still imaginary but could become a usefully real prospect before the century is out. We might need to do some terraforming on Earth.

In which case, it is interesting to ask how SF accounts of refashioning other planets might influence ideas about geoengineering. The same authors have certainly touched on both topics. James Lovelock, originator of Gaia theory, turned to fiction – with co-author Michael Allaby – to describe the terraforming of Mars. Later on, he proposed schemes for geoengineering on Earth to combat the effects of climate change. Kim Stanley Robinson, whose Mars trilogy has probably the most detailed account of terraforming, went on to elaborate some geoengineering scenarios in his subsequent near-future Earth trilogy about climate change. Gregory Benford has written both fiction and non-fiction about terraforming, citing Heinlein as an inspiration there, and was an early proponent of geoengineering as a possible response to climate change, in 1997.

Then there are films, which as usual will have been seen by more people. Does that make them more influential? No idea. Terraforming is going on in Aliens (“we call them shake and bake planets”), and we see a vast industrial plant which is the colonists’ “atmosphere processor”, though don’t get any discussion of what it is actually doing. The wondrously silly scene at the end of Total Recall when Mars has its atmosphere reoxygenated in about half a minute also comes to mind, but only as a cheerful trashing of the laws of physics.

It would be interesting, though, to catalogue these and similar depictions and consider what effect they may have had on broader discussion of the merits of geoengineering. Which other examples should go on the list? Matt Williams has an interesting post on this, starting with Olaf Stapledon and working through Arthur Clarke (who turns Phobos into a Sun!) Heinlein, Asimov and Robinson. Any more?

The dreams our stuff is made of – Science fiction and future technologies

April 10, 2012

I have a new, and somewhat futuristic project on the go


NESTA have asked for a review and reflection on the role of science fiction in technological innovation. It will be published in the early Autumn alongside a couple of reports on more, ahem, formal futurological methods. I’ll be blogging thoughts about this here as I go.

Now, though, a simple request for help. There’s obviously stuff I need to know about. I can think of lots of different areas to explore – and will of course be doing a (limited) literature review and compiling a bibliography in academic mode.

But there are too many disciplines relevant here for one person to cover. There is also, I suspect, a fair bit of grey literature – some in print and, perhaps, more on the web.

So a little crowdsourcing seems in order. I’d be very grateful for any pointers to relevant items – research, commentary, discussion, etc – which I should ponder. Assume I will revisit the histories of SF and technology, literature on innovation, and journals in (science fiction) literature, science and technology studies and design. But anything outside those areas which I might miss is of interest.

I am particularly interested in:

  • Robots – as a case study
  • Design fiction/interaction design/speculative design
  • Examples from non-Anglophone countries
  • Projects in which tech development organisations (public or private) have dallied with science fiction in various ways.
  • and, to ensure the project is as much fun as I intended when I pitched for it, exemplary fictions!

And the questions in NESTA’s original call were about:

  • The direct impact of science fiction on those undertaking technological development, and the extent to which it has influenced research, product design, or the ambition and direction of innovation
  • The influence of science fiction on the demand for innovation
  • The influence of science fiction on the social status of innovation
  • The creative processes and techniques that science fiction writers use to imagine and flesh out possible futures.

You might think, at first look, some of these will be easier to tackle than others. Me too…

If anything comes to mind in response to any of the above, do please take a moment to pass it on. If you use the comment space below, others can avoid repeating if they care to read through.


(working already – WordPress’s auto link search just gave me this…)

Talking about science fiction

June 6, 2011

There’s a teeny bit of me on video in the British Library’s splendid new exhibition on science fiction, Out of This World. I (and others) answered a few more questions, at sound bite length, and the collated results – which evidently didn’t quite fit the finished show – have surfaced on the BL’s website. Like so:

We asked the questions you would have liked to ask! Six short videos featuring:

  • Lauren Beukes: Author of Zoo City, and 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award-winner
  • Sumit Choudhury: Online Editor, New Scientist
  • John Gribbin: Science journalist and science fiction author
  • Alok Jha: Science correspondent, The Guardian
  • Gwyneth Jones: Author of White Queen
  • China Miéville: Author of The City & the City
  • Jon Turney: Lecturer and author of The Rough Guide to the Future

Choose an image to play a video.

Choose an image to play a video.

Launch video 1“What work of science fiction has had most impact on you, and why?”
Launch video
Open video in your media player

Launch video 2“What fictional technology do you look forward to becoming reality?”
Launch video
Open video in your media player

Launch video 3“Who or what has had the most profound effect on the development of science fiction?”
Launch video
Open video in your media player

Launch video 4“What is your personal vision of utopia?”
Launch video
Open video in your media player

Launch video 6“What is it about science fiction that you personally find fascinating?”
Launch video
Open video in your media player

Launch video 6 “If you could be a character from a science fiction story who would you be, and why?”
Launch video
Open video in your media player

Futures events May-June

April 21, 2011

A small cluster of futures-related events coming up which I’m looking forward to. I am variously chairing, “in conversation with” or empanelled with a strikingly interesting bunch of people in the next month and a bit. An enticing, if slightly daunting prospect.

First up is a three-way at the Arnolfini in Bristol, blurb as follows:

Creating a Future Without Destroying the Present

Diane Coyle, Mark Stevenson and Jon Turney

 Diane Coyle 20 May 2011, 19.30-21.00
Arnolfini, Bristol

Jon TurneyMark Stevenson

How do we continue to live well and not damage the future? Is economic growth the problem, not the solution? Who is planning for the future and what kind of future will this be? Enlightenment economist, writer and blogger Diane Coyle, author of The Economics of Enough: How to Run the Economy as if the Future Matters, shows how we can be happy and prosperous now without cheating the future. She looks at the fundamental questions about the way the economy is organised and about the links between the economy and the kind of society we want and need, so that we can provide our children with a decent future. Mark Stevenson, in An Optimist’s Tour of the Future, tours the world to make sense of what’s in store for us all. He looks at the amazing work of scientists, robots that think, re-engineering of humans, science that will solve the energy crisis and the ideas of great visionaries. They discuss their work with Jon Turney, author ofThe Rough Guide to the Future.

Price: £7.00 / £5.00. Contact Arnolfini, Bristol on: 0117 917 2300, book online, or visit in person.


Then come a couple of discussions at the British Library in London, opening a series linked to their fascinating science fiction exhibition, opening May 2oth.

The first, coincidentally, has some of the same people –

Who owns the Story of the Future? 

With permission of the Frank R Paul estate

Tue 24 May 2011, 18.30 – 20.00

Conference Centre, British Library

Price: £7.50 / £5 concessions

any Book now for 24 May 2011, 18.30 – 20.00

Will the future be better or worse? – and does the story we are telling ourselves help or hinder us? Can we make the right choices, and deal with the grand challenges ahead or will our ambitions and lack of political will get in the way.Jon Turney (The Rough Guide to the Future) chairs a panel including economist Diane Coyle (The Economics Of Enough), technology and SF writerCory Doctorow and Mark Stevenson (An Optimists Tour of the Future)  STOP PRESS:  Now with added William Gibson!

Diane Coyle runs Enlightenment Economics, a consulting firm specialising in technology and globalization, and is the author of a number of books on economics, including The Soulful ScienceSex, Drugs and Economics, and The Weightless World. Her most recent book is The Economics of Enough: How to Run the Economy as If the Future Matters. A BBC trustee and a visiting professor at the University of Manchester, she holds a PhD in economics from Harvard.

Cory Doctorow ( is a science fiction author, activist, journalist and blogger, the co-editor of Boing Boing ( and the author of the bestselling Tor Teens/HarperCollins UK novel Little Brother. His latest novel isFor The Win, a young adult novel; his latest short story collection is With A Little Help.

Mark Stevenson divides his time between running agencies for science communications and cultural learning and performing and writing comedy. He lives in Telegraph Hill, south London. His first book is An Optimist’s Tour of the Future.


The following night, we’re talking about revolution…

Compared to this, the Industrial Revolution was Nothing!

With permission of the Frank R Paul estate

Wed 25 May 2011, 18.30 – 20.00

Conference Centre, British Library

Price: £7.50 / £5 concessions

any Book now for 25 May 2011, 18.30 – 20.00

Is the ‘ultimate reboot’ is coming as the Genetics, Nanotechnology and Robotics/AI revolutions intertwine and pick up speed? Are we heading toward a radically different society where our notions of old age, scarcity and our institutions have to be radically rethought? Or have we heard it all before?

Trying to shed light on these intriguing questions will be our speakers who include Richard Jones, University of Sheffield and author of Soft Machines;: Nanotechnology and Life and Anders Sandberg of the Future of Humanity Institute.

Chair Jon Turney.


Finally, I’m joining a panel at the Cheltenham Science Festival on June 11

Human Extinction – will we survive beyond this century?

12noon – 1.30pm on Saturday 11 June at Cheltenham Town Hall

at Town Hall Unreserved
£8 (£7) Members – 10% off

Ecologists have suggested that the Earth is experiencing a mass extinction of species, but what about Homo sapiens? The survival of humankind has been challenged throughout history and, despite our ability to adapt to past changes, nothing is guaranteed. Zoologist Charles Godfray FRS, chemist Judith Howard FRS, palaeontologist Chris Stringer FRS, and author of The Rough Guide to the FutureJon Turney discuss past and present threats to humanity, the future challenges that we face, and whether we have the capacity to survive.

Cheerful, eh?

The last time I was at the science festival in Cheltenham (as opposed to the jazz festival), about ten years ago, I read poems from A Quark for Mister Mark in the Pillar room with Richard Dawkins and Lavinia Greenlaw, which was delightful. But the invitations prompted by the more recent book seem to be a little different…