Google Wants to Make ‘Science Fiction’ a Reality—and That’s Limiting Their Imagination

The future is vast, and scifi provides but a tiny porthole to see it.

A poster for the 1927 film Metropolis  (Library of Congress)

Self-driving cars, extreme life extension, and global wifi provided by weather balloons: Google makes projects that sound like science fiction into reality at its secretive research lab, Google X.

And that may be exactly the problem.

Google finally allowed a journalist, Fast Company’s Jon Gertner, to profile Google X. His report is on newsstands (at least digital ones) today. The most interesting strategic detail he gleaned was Google's process for selecting Google X projects:

[T]here are three criteria that X projects share. All must address a problem that affects millions—or better yet, billions—of people. All must utilize a radical solution that has at least a component that resembles science fiction. And all must tap technologies that are now (or very nearly) obtainable. But to [Rich] DeVaul, the head of Rapid Eval, there's another, more unifying principle that connects the three criteria: No idea should be incremental.

(Emphasis added.)

A lot of people might read that line and think: Wow, cool, Google is trying to make the future!

But “science fiction” provides but a tiny porthole onto the vast strangeness of the future. When we imagine a “science fiction”-like future, I think we tend to picture completed worlds, flying cars, the shiny, floating towers of midcentury dreams.

We tend, in other words, to imagine future technological systems as readymade, holistic products that people will choose to adopt, rather than as the assembled work of countless different actors, which they’ve always really been. The futurist Scott Smith calls these ‘flat-pack futures,’ and they infect “science fictional” thinking.

Science fiction, too, can underestimate the importance and role of social change. For every feminist science fiction writer or Afrofuturist, there is a still better-known member of the genre’s far-right. The writer David Forbes, in fact, asked for support earlier this year so he could investigate the great influence of science fiction’s extreme conservatives.

Wrote Forbes at the time:

Sci-fi's popular history doesn't mention John Campbell's belief that race riots were caused by “genetic barbarians” or Robert Heinlein's fondness for robber barons and military rule. It remembers Larry Niven's creative alien worlds, not his advocacy of lying to immigrants to deny them healthcare. Jerry Pournelle is widely hailed as the dean of military sci-fi, his sympathies for fascists like Franco and Pinochet forgotten. 

Google X, obviously, isn’t to blame for science fiction’s reactionary inheritance. But a science fictional imagination is prone to these sorts of myopia. I fear—especially when we talk about “science fiction”—that we miss the layeredness of the world, that many people worked to build it.

In his article, Gertner expands on Google X’s aversion to incrementalism:

The rejection of incrementalism, he says, is not because he and his colleagues believe it's pointless for ideological reasons. They believe it for practical reasons. “It’s so hard to do almost anything in this world,” [DeVaul] says. “Getting out of bed in the morning can be hard for me. But attacking a problem that is twice as big or 10 times as big is not twice or 10 times as hard.”

DeVaul insists that it's often just as easy, or easier, to make inroads on the biggest problems “than to try to optimize the next 5 percent or 2 percent out of some process.”

This strikes me as an intriguing assertion, and I want to think more about it. But it’s certain that some causes—especially social ones—can only be advanced incrementally; and some technologies—especially systemic ones—can only be constructed the same way.

I’m reminded of my colleague Rebecca Rosen’s interview with Radia Perlman, whose invention of the spanning-tree protocol made the modern Internet possible. Perlman is often called the “Mother of the Internet” for her work, a title which she eschews. She explained why she doesn’t like it:

The Internet was not invented by any individual. There are lots of people who like to take credit for it, and it drives them crazy when anyone other than them seems to want credit, so it seems best to just stay out of their way. I did indeed make some fundamental contributions to the underlying infrastructure, but no single technology really caused the Internet to succeed. And sometimes, things get invented multiple times until the time just happens to be right. The thing that happened to be there at the right time isn’t necessarily better than the other ones.

Likewise, we have thousands of stories about why flying through space is awesome, but many fewer about why NASA’s funding has been reduced in the past few decades. Flying through space is awesome, but if technological advocates want not only to make their advances but to hold onto them, we have better learn the virtues of incrementalism.