Why Today's Inventors Need to Read More Science Fiction

MIT researchers Dan Novy and Sophia Brueckner argue that the mind-bending worlds of authors such as Philip K. Dick and Arthur C. Clarke can help us not just come up with ideas for new gadgets, but anticipate their consequences.

How will police use a gun that immobilizes its target but does not kill? What would people do with a device that could provide them with any mood they desire? What are the consequences of a massive, instant global communications network?

Such questions are relevant to many technologies on the market today, but their first iterations appeared not in lab prototypes but in the pages of science fiction.

This fall, MIT Media Lab researchers Dan Novy and Sophia Brueckner are teaching "Science Fiction to Science Fabrication," aka "Pulp to Prototype," a course that mines these "fantastic imaginings of the future" for analysis of our very real present. Over email, I asked Novy and Brueckner about the books they'll be teaching, the inventions that found their antecedents in those pages, and why Novy and Brueckner believe it is so important for designers working in the very real world to study the imaginary. An edited transcript of our correspondence follows.

What inspired you to teach a class at the Media Lab about science fiction? Why do you think it's important?

Dan Novy: One might assume that there would be many science fiction fans at the Media Lab, since many future and futuristic technologies are being created here daily. And yet we found this not to be the case.

Science fiction is often derided as too fanciful or not rigorous in thought. There is still a stigma against those who read it, and yet if you look at the great advances in science and technology during most of the 20th and 21st centuries, they are often preceded by descriptions in works of science fiction written decades before.

Just a few concrete examples are Arthur C. Clarke's description of Geostationary Satellite Communications in 1945; the invention of the TASER used by law enforcement worldwide ("TASER" is an acronym for Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle); and Winston Churchill’s attempt to create a “Death Ray” ("a staple of scientific and horror fiction during the 1920s and 1930s"to knock enemy planes out of the sky, which led to RADAR. With the help of MIT, the latter invention was responsible for winning the Battle of Britain.

The book that inspired the TASER

The number one goal of the class is to expose students to the genre, and hopefully affect the way they think and create. Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of the Media Lab, often says that if industry could eventually build an idea you’re working on, you’re not being ambitious enough and should stop. Science fiction illuminates a path to following Nicholas’s advice.

Sophia Brueckner: Science fiction is incredibly relevant to the work going on at the MIT Media Lab. The Media Lab is made up of many different research areas like Biomechatronics, Tangible Media, or Fluid Interfaces, for example. Each of these groups has a corresponding subgenre of science fiction, often whose authors have explored related topics for decades. These authors do more than merely prophesy modern technologies -- they also consider the consequences of their fictional inventions in great detail.

DN: Some great Media Lab projects were inspired by reading science fiction stories. I have a project called the Narratarium, which is a context-aware immersive environment. It began as an idea from a brainstorming session with one of the members of the Lab, but I quickly realized that I was building a mashup of the immersive environments from Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt” and The Young Lady’s Primer from Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age. The Narratarium environment surrounds you, but also takes input from you and alters the environment as you tell a story or experience a narrative.

The Narratarium (Dan Novy)

My realization about the science-fiction precursors made developing the Narratarium easier, and even suggested new features. This isn’t a direct relationship; I didn’t set out to build the exact video technology of the Veldt or an exact copy of the Young Lady’s Primer, but they informed and guided the design process. And that’s the relationship we’d like to see in projects in the class. No one knows exactly how Philip K. Dick’s Empathy Box operates in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and I think it would be great to see eight or nine different students' interpretations of it. 

SB: I also am in the middle of building a kinetic sound sculpture inspired by J. G. Ballard’s short story “The Singing Statues” published in 1971. With incredible foresight, he imagined a world where art merges all the senses, is highly interactive, produces visual and sound compositions using algorithms, and even responds to the thoughts and feelings of its audience in real-time. I am trying to realize the concepts described in the story using computer programming and other technologies that are now available. 

Overall, we want students to get an appreciation for the genre and be exposed to a large variety of authors and styles while focusing on books that discuss devices and other technologies that could inspire Media Lab projects. We are hoping to inspire the students to build functional prototypes of either ideas directly out of the books or encourage them to take their current research and combine it with more of a science fiction context.

What are some specific examples you'll be looking at?

SB: For example, we will be reading the classic Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, who is one of my favorite authors and is a master of crazy gadget ideas. The devices he describes in his writings can be very humorous and satirical but are truly profound. People have probably seen Blade Runner, an excellent movie based on this book, but the book is very different! Many of the most compelling devices from the book did not make it into the movie. 

Wikimedia Commons

For example, the Mood Organ is a device that allows the user to dial a code to instantly be in a certain mood. The book contains multiple funny instances of people using this device, such as when one character plugs in the code 888 to feel “the desire to watch TV no matter what is on,” but Dick also points out some disturbing implications resulting from the existence of such a technology. “How much time do you set aside each month for specific moods?” asks one character. Should you be happy and energized to work all the time? This character eventually concludes that two days a month is a reasonable amount for feeling despair. Today, we are hoping science and technology will find the secret to forever happiness, but what will happen if we actually succeed?

Another one of my favorite gadgets from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is the Empathy Box. A person holds the handles on the Empathy Box and is connected with all other people using it at the same time by sharing the feelings of a spiritual figure named William Mercer. Amazingly, even in 1968, Dick saw the potential for technology to not only connect people across long distances but to do so with emotional depth. Dick writes that the Empathy Box is “the most personal possession you have! It's an extension of your body; it's the way you touch other humans, it's the way you stop being alone.”

Actually, I just realized while answering this question that I’ve been attempting to build a version of the Empathy Box as part of my thesis! I believe people crave for their computers and phones to fulfill this need for connection, but they manage to do so only superficially. As a result, people feel increasingly estranged and alone despite being connected all the time. Like Dick, I also am intrigued by how to use technology to promote empathy and a greater sense of genuine interconnectedness with one another, and I am currently working on designing wearable devices to do this.  Some of my best ideas stem from reading science fiction, and I often don’t realize it until later!

And, of course, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? had ersatz animals in it too! These didn’t end up in Blade Runner either, for the most part. In this case, Dick’s prophecies did come true, and we now have devices like PARO, a robotic harp seal, which is used as therapy in hospitals and extended care facilities.

What do such examples show about the relationship between fiction and reality?

DN: Fiction, specifically science fiction, is a way to see, as Cervantes would say, “life as it ought to be,” not just life as it is. Storytelling is how the human brain understands reality, by comparing the input it is currently sensing and comparing it to stories it’s experienced or heard before.

On the deepest levels, your consciousness doesn’t make a distinction between experiences you’ve had and the experiences of characters in stories you’ve heard. This is why fiction is so powerful and why human beings seem to need to tell, collect, and understand stories. Fiction allows you to live more lives in the space-time of one lifetime than you would normally be able to. It allows you to benefit from the outcome of simulations without being exposed to the dangers or time constraints that you would be forced to undergo if you had to live every experience that informs your reality by yourself. In a post-industrial society of tool using primates, like ours, technology is one of the defining factors, and so science fiction, with its tendency to emphasize technology, is a way of running exponentially iterative design processes to conceive and create new technologies.

One of my favorite authors of all time, although many people only know him for comic books, is Alan Moore. He shares a belief and definition of “magic” with Picasso, which basically states that magic is real, but only in the sense that the human mind can conceive of something that did not exist before and then make it. You have made something out of nothing. There is a thing now there that did not exist before. That’s magic. This is a power we attribute to deities and wizards. Science fiction is a form of this magic, suggesting solutions to problems or technologies to delight, entertain, and educate. I like to think that drawing them out into functional prototypes in the real world, as we are attempting in this class, is a way of completing this “creation” process.

SB: Ursula K. Le Guin wrote, “Science fiction is not prescriptive; it is descriptive.” Science fiction looks at current technological and social trends and extrapolates them into the near or far future. It speculates on the consequences of these trends, both good and bad, if they continue unchecked. In a way, these works are concerned with today’s reality far more than the future. For example, science fiction written during the Cold War often dealt with communism and themes of apocalypse, and recent science fiction commonly explores contemporary issues like genetic engineering, the hazards of being overly virtual, etc.

Your course description says that the "class ties science fiction with speculative/critical design as a means to encourage the ethical and thoughtful design of new technologies." What do you mean by this? What are you hoping students get out of the class?

DN: One of the ways science-fiction stories function is as cautionary tales. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a Gothic biopunk cautionary tale about the repercussions of man using technology and science to “play God.”

Often, this cautionary aspect becomes central and depressing. “Watch out!” or “Think about what you’re doing!” become overbearing mantras, thus limiting the range of ideas in science fiction. The negative aspects of a new technology often come from failing to predict the human results that the technology will create. Science fiction allows you to test these human repercussions and possibly make alterations before a technology becomes real and lessen its negative impacts.

Here at the Media Lab we are encouraged to think about the repercussions from the very beginning. One of the first classes I took at the Lab was “Location Aware Computing” with Joe Paradiso. It’s a class about location and tracking technologies, ranging from using the stars to find your location in the galaxy (a system developed for the navigation of the SR-71 Reconnaissance plane) to GPS and on down to indoor systems that can locate a person or object to within 15 cm in a room or with submillimeter accuracy on a table top.

Instead of blindly moving forward, Joe brought in one of the world's foremost experts on privacy from the Harvard Law School and we devoted several class periods to defining, exploring, and debating how privacy should operate on any of these systems and on any projects we would be building in class. Privacy wasn’t an afterthought. We were determined not to be surprised that someone, a government or criminal organization, was misusing our technology. We said “what if” a lot, and developed with possible negative repercussions in mind. This how how the Lab operates in general. Or at least how we’re encouraged to operate.

Engraving from the 1831 edition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (Wikimedia Commons)

Sometimes we still fall into the Frankenstein trap and push ahead to see our creations live, but science fiction allows you to see the possible negative repercussions at the same time as it suggests a technology and then offers a safe path should you decide to create that technology. Frederick Pohl once said that it wasn’t the job of science fiction authors to create the automobile but to describe the traffic jam.

It follows that 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. Just as storytelling gives you more lives to live, speculative design or science fiction prototyping gives you more iterations to consider before your creation goes out into the wild and becomes hard to control. Once a genie is out of the bottle, it isn't inclined to allow itself to be stuffed back in. Once an abusable technology is in the hands of a fascist government or rogue nation-state, its leaders aren’t likely to return that technology for an upgrade that removes the features they’re using to spy or express their political agenda. Designing the genie so he can’t be used that way, before he gets out of the bottle, is the safest choice.

And to be less dour, science fiction and science-fiction prototyping also allow you to develop, explore, and test new features and affordances while it is still cheap to do so. The “napkin drawing” phase is as inexpensive as the ink, paper, and cocktail that came with the napkin. And if most of the work of design can be hashed out here, or in similar “design fiction” documents, then you have more chances, and a greater chance that your product will be strong and well received.

Alfred Hitchcock storyboarded all of his films in excruciating detail. He spent a vast amount of time in this stage, trying every possible combination of shot and camera angle, every style of cut or transition, ensuring that he had the best telling of that particular story. Actors often complained that once Hitch got to set he was really only there to get the full motion version of his storyboard shots, and that he “herded” them through shooting like they were cattle. In his mind the film was already complete, he just had to capture the images and put them together to match his ink and paper prototype.

It is this kind of “sketching in hardware” or paper prototyping that is encouraged at the Lab. We often say, “Build it to see if there is a there there.” Science fiction, in the written form, is an even earlier and easier form of prototyping these ideas and a more forgiving sandbox or petri dish than even the hot glue and duct tape prototypes created in excited all-nighters here at the Lab.

Before coming the the Media Lab, I spent 16 years in Hollywood as a Visual Effects Technical Supervisor. There, I created many “design fictions,” as Bruce Sterling would call them, of how technologies would operate and then designed them to operate within the limited two-dimensional medium of film. One of my favorites was creating the interfaces for the flexible display laptops in the film Red Planet, starring Val Kilmer and Carrie Ann Moss. Having a laptop that unrolled like a scroll and was transparent and could be used as a AR camera and medical scanning device was quite a challenge, and we had to show exactly how it operated, down to how the icons moved and the buttons were pressed.

The Fluid Interfaces group's "Flexpad" (MIT)

I found out the other day that a project developing flexible, transparent displays was underway in the Fluid Interfaces group and they were using clips of Red Planet without realizing that the guy who had created the interface they were studying was now working one floor below them! So here’s another example of a technology that was conceived in a work of science fiction, prototyped to a working state for the purposes of a film, and is now being turned into reality at the Media Lab. I love that kind of thing! And that’s what I’m hoping this class will do for generations of Media Lab designers and engineers.

SB:  Before coming to the Media Lab, I was a software engineer in Silicon Valley, and what I built did indeed affect millions of people. I was struck by Silicon Valley’s frenzied culture of building and launching projects as quickly as possible without considering their social impact in the long term. Unfortunately, the makers of technology are generally not encouraged to be introspective or reflect too deeply on what they are making, and this really worries me.

Once any sort of technology has users, it becomes extremely difficult to change it -- even if you know it should or must be changed.  Usually the only thing you can do is tack on more features, but it can be impossible to change the core structure. And once something has thousands, millions of users, the impact of every design decision is huge. Millions of people will be engaging in the same interactions possibly even hundreds of a times a day, and this is reinforcing very particular pathways in the brain. 

How is that affecting our social structure and values? How is that changing the way we view ourselves and even the way we understand our own mental functioning? I got my first computer, a Commodore 64 when I was two years old, and I often wonder how constantly interacting with computer interfaces and code since a young age has affected my thought processes and my perceptions of other people and my environment.

Reading science fiction is like an ethics class for inventors, and engineers and designers should be trying to think like science fiction authors when they approach their own work. The projects we build here at the Media Lab often become widely adopted or serve as examples that influence countless other projects, and I feel with great urgency that we need to very thoughtfully consider what we build as well as encourage that same thoughtfulness out in the world.

Presented by

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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