The History of Invisibility Cloaks, as Told by People in the Future

"Society struggled to make rules for using the cloaks appropriately. Law enforcement had trouble regulating the cloaks, and, by the turn of the century, Congress had banned them entirely."
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Last week, MIT researcher Sophia Brueckner told me that "reading science fiction is like an ethics class for inventors."

That's the short of it, but the long was a bit deeper. In an interview, Bruckner and her colleague Dan Novy explained and elaborated on their belief that today's inventors need to be reading more science fiction -- not for its ability to inspire new innovations, but for the space it provides for testing how people will use those innovations. As Brueckner said, "These authors do more than merely prophesy modern technologies -- they also consider the consequences of their fictional inventions in great detail." That's important for today's inventors, because, as Novy put it, "it is our job as technologists not to avoid creating the automobile, but to look at the traffic jam and design so that doesn’t happen. Thinking about these things at the beginning and iteratively throughout the process allows us to create better technology."

In response to that interview, a friend sent along the above video (disclosure: my friend works for a partner institution of the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network, the group responsible for the video), which takes place in the future -- exactly how far in the future is not clear -- and features a docent lecturing museum-goers on the history of invisibility cloaks. The docent begins with the early history of such cloaks (a time when they were "prohibitively expensive and available only to the wealthiest members of society"), and moves on to a period of immense popularity, and, finally, to their banning.

The video is more than cute -- it's a smart consideration of how invisibility cloaks would be used, not how they would work, something that is too often the focus when we postulate about future technologies. We get stuck on whether they are possible or even likely, forgetting to think about what we would do with them, were they here.

In the interview, Brueckner quoted author Ursula K. Le Guin, who once said, “Science fiction is not prescriptive; it is descriptive.” These books (or short film, in this case) depict a world. This world may not exist yet, but the ingredients from which we will build it -- us, our values, our institutions -- are all here.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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