Innovation via Science Fiction

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Famous scene of surveillance-directed touch screens from Minority Report, a 2002 film based on a 1956 short story by Philip K. Dick.

Last week, Paul Guinnessy, an editor at Physics Today, sent me a copy of a new report put out by Nesta. Formerly the National Endowment for Science, Technology, and the Arts – Nesta is a U.K.-based non-profit that works to promote British innovation and invention. The report is called “Better Made Up: The Mutual Influence of Science Fiction and Innovation.”1

Written by three British academic – Caroline Bassett, Ed Steinmueller, and George Voss – the Nesta piece examines the relationship between sci-fi and innovation with the intent to trace how “real world science and technology” is a “co-constitution” with “science fiction/speculative fiction.” The authors, who are all academics at the University of Sussex, aim to examine the connections between sci-fi and innovation by looking for a more complex relation than “direct linear transmission” where sci-fi provides “the inventive seed for innovation.” (In this sense, the report resembles an earlier paper by futurist Alex Lightman which, unfortunately, I can’t seem to download today) Instead, the authors posit “processes of transformation” in which “questions of influence, persuasion, and desire” are central. To make their point, the Sussex crew did an “interdisciplinary survey of work” on sci-fi, building up a database to explore “transformation paths,” and developed a “web crawl tool” to better understand how fictional ideas travel.

The focus of the Nesta report caught my attention for several reasons. In The Visioneers, I make the case that popularizations of radical ideas for the technological future can have influence of policy makers. They certainly can shape how the public imagines the future and also “close out” ideas or speculations for other possible futures. In other words, if everyone is imagining a future in which we all have autonomous Google cars, this may  push alternative ideas – mass transportation or high-speed rail – to the margins.

The report’s title also reminded me of a book I like quite a bit – Howard McCurdy’s Space and the American Imagination.

Screen Shot 2013-03-29 at 1.25.17 PMUsing the case of space exploration – primarily during the Cold War – McCurdy’s book examines culture as a force for policy making. As he puts it (p. 233): “The rise of the U.S. space program was due in part to a concerted effort by writers of popular science and science fiction, along with other opinion leaders, to prepare the public for what they hoped would be the inevitable conquest of space.” Popular culture, in other words, is a (often neglected) explanatory device for making public policy. At the same time, the wild expectations that technological elites and popular culture creates for technology – say, space colonies or nanobots – creates a problematic gap between what is possible and what is actually doable.

The Nesta report notes that scientists and engineers often draw on sci-fi as a resource, in part to support the value of science but also as part of “discourses shaping thinking ‘on the future.’” As its authors see it, sci-fi helps shape desire “for change, for progress, for novelty, for a sense of wonder and discovery” while not providing an actual roadmap.  Innovation, on the other hand, also supposedly influences sci-fi although the report seems less clear on this aspect.

I can’t summarize the entire 95 page report. But readers of it will get a nice intro to the history of sci-fi and its genres going back to the Gernsback era. This made me ask “what was it about the 1920s that led to such a flowering of sci-fi?” Was it the post-World War One moment and the disillusionment and anger that came with it? Were people seeking fictional better/different worlds to replace the ones shattered by shellfire? Or was it the decadence of the 1920s economies in places like the U.S. and the U.K.? Dissecting the “hard” sci-fi of the Cold War era seems more direct – an arms race and a space race provided narrative fuel for Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke while fears of all stripes drove the paranoid fantasies of Philip Dick and Robert Anton Wilson.

So – what more does this study tell us about sci-fi’s two-way relationship with innovation? Does it go beyond the insights that books like McCurdy’s present? In the end, I found the report set out some possibilities that while interesting were far from definite. Engagement with sci-fi requires what the authors call a “theory of influence.” Outlining what this means first requires that one appreciate that the sci-fi influence itself has a history i.e. it’s not constant over time and is contingent. OK, this seems reasonable and something most any historian would agree with.  The sci-fi needs an audience to have an influence. Again – kind of a no-brainer.

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One of the “loops” described in the report; this one tracks “aversion to vat grown food” over time.

The third aspect of the theory is what caught my eye: science fiction “creates an enabling space for innovation.” This is very similar to what I argue in The Visioneers. People with radical ideas for the technological future can challenge conventional ideas as to what is possible. Although visioneers’ ideas may sit outside the mainstream and require considerable work to establish their legitimacy, their work toward that end secures a beachhead where exploratory notions can exist while entrepreneurial scientists and engineers mobilize and push things one way or the other. Maybe the verdict is “no” but visioneers help foster an adjudication in the first place.

Ultimately, I found the Nesta report somewhat disappointing. Or, put more charitably, it set out some directions that others might be able to continue to probe. Perhaps it’s because the authors come from disciplines outside of history or because they never really give specific and well-grounded cases of actual and productive dialogues between sci-fi and  innovation. Sure, sci-fi is both a resource and an inspiration for innovation. But plenty of “enabling space” remains in which historians and other scholars can work out the mechanics of how force between them is transferred.

  1. There is a great companion piece to this, also from March 2013, by science writer Jon Turney. I learned about this after this post was originally published so my thoughts below are on the former report. However, if you’re really interested in the topic, you might wish to download both. []

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