How science fiction informs the future

Cory Doctorow and Michael Hainsworth

Science fiction gets a lot of credit for “inventing” the future. NASA scientists aren’t the only ones that cite Star Trek as their inspiration. The creator of the flip phone admits Captain Kirk’s communicator played a big role in the design. But between 2004’s flip phones, George Orwell’s surveillance society of 1984, and the submarine – envisioned 150 years ago by Jules Verne – it’s no surprise we turn to the genre for insight into the impact technology today will have on the future.

One of the most popular science fiction authors today isn’t convinced his compatriots have a crystal ball. Cory Doctorow says, “We always have agency. We always have the ability to change the future.” 

The two-time John W. Campbell award winner is fighting for the future he wants through his work with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He points out that technology has been turned against us through copyright and digital rights management, and calls it “contemporary feudalism” in which the aristocrats of the past have been replaced with “trans-human artificial colony lifeforms called Limited Liability Companies.” What are we humans to LLCs? “Inconvenient gut flora,” he winces.

“We always have agency. We always have the ability to change the future.” 

Dystopian appliances

Much of Doctorow’s writing centers on fighting back against powerful forces. In Radicalized: Four Tales of Our Present Moment, he takes the Keurig coffee machine business model to its logical near-future conclusion: the toasters that only accept manufacturer-approved bread in subsidized housing units fail when the company in cahoots with the landlord goes bankrupt, leaving thousands without the ability to use their machines.

Salima, the central character in the short story “Unauthorized Bread”, goes on to hack the toasters of her neighbors. It’s an act of bravery, defiance, and unity with her fellow oppressed immigrant tenants who are forced to use the back door to the building because facial recognition in the elevators only gives access to non-subsidized renters. “Sometimes when as far as you can get, say, in getting a law enacted has been reached,” Doctorow says, “Maybe you can make a technology that helps people just get around the edges of the law.” 

As early as 2014, Keurig coffee maker “owners” were hacking their machines to accept non-approved — and less expensive — pods. A year later the company’s attempt to add Digital Rights Management to their machines to lock them to it’s more expensive pods backfired. After announcing “the future of brewing”, sales of the units tumbled 12 percent. Google “Keurig 2.0” and instructions on how to hack the machine appears on Page 1 of the search results.

Dystopian vs Utopian

It’s a mistake to think that all science fiction in which things go horribly wrong is dystopian, Doctorow states. “A dystopian view is that the world will collapse and your neighbors will come over and eat you. But a utopian view is that your neighbors will come over to see that you’re alright.”  

What science fiction is really good at, Doctorow argues, “is talking about things that work well but can fail badly… An engineer who thinks things will never fail isn’t an optimist, they’re an idiot. So designing for graceful failure modes is something science fiction can really help us with.”

“The first task that you have to overcome is convincing people that the problem even exists.”

From inside an aerospace prop shop that serves Hollywood’s biggest science fiction films, Doctorow adds sci-fi is also good at drawing attention to the apathy that comes with change. He’s coined the term “Peak Indifference Model” in which cause and effect are separated by time and space. From climate change to cigarette smoking, “the first task that you have to overcome is convincing people that the problem even exists.” And by the time the effect is felt, the “job switches from convincing people to give up denialism to convincing them to give up nihilism.”

Doctorow remains firm in his belief that dystopian science fiction doesn’t guarantee a dystopian science future. From the book-lined walls of his Burbank office, he says, “Science fiction has made a lot of predictions and if none of them came true, it would be pretty remarkable,” and adds, “but we significantly underperform random chance.”

Watch How Science Fiction Informs the Future (with Cory Doctorow) 

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