Science fiction: shaping the future

Tuesday, June 3, 2014
Lorraine Longhi

Illustration by Alvim Corréa, from the 1906 French edition of H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds." Robert H. Goddard, who built the first liquid-fueled rocket, became fascinated with spaceflight after reading the story, about a Martian invasion, in 1898.
Illustration by Alvim Corréa, from the 1906 French edition of H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds." Robert H. Goddard, who built the first liquid-fueled rocket, became fascinated with spaceflight after reading the story, about a Martian invasion, in 1898.

Do you use a cellphone? If you do, you should thank Captain Kirk of “Star Trek.” In the original “Star Trek” series, the captain and his crew used handheld communicators that looked a lot like today’s cellphones.

The series was on TV in the 1960s, before cellphones were invented. Watching the show inspired Martin Cooper to invent the phone you now use when you text your best friend.

Writers and other artists thought up many of the technologies people use today. They include geostationary satellites, Tasers, submarines and virtual reality. Scientists and inventors liked what they read. So they made them real.

Inspiring scientists and inventors isn’t the only thing that science fiction books, movies, TV shows and art do.  They also help us explore how new technologies might change society.

For instance, have you seen the movie WALL-E? WALL-E helps us think about what might happen if we invent robots that can think and feel. What would you do if your vacuum cleaner could get its feelings hurt?

Another example is Jurassic Park. In Jurassic Park, a lot of bad things happen because people bring dinosaurs back from the dead. Watching movies like these makes us think about the consequences a technology could have.

The Center for Science and the Imagination (CSI) at Arizona State University brings together writers, artists, scientists and other creative thinkers to come up with new ideas and think about their consequences.

Ed Finn, director of the center, says that science fiction continues to influence science today. This leads to fascinating discussions at CSI.

“Science fiction is a kind of laboratory to experiment intellectually with all sorts of ideas, and whether they’re technical or social changes, it allows you to examine all sorts of cultural assumptions about everything from justice to gender to physics,” says Finn, who is also a professor at ASU.

Can illustration from Jules Verne's "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea." The novel inspired Simon Lake to invent the first submarine to operate successfully in the open ocean.

The center experiments with these changes and ideas through several of its own projects. For example, CSI started Project Hieroglyph with Neal Stephenson, a well-known science fiction writer. The project connects people who want to write stories about a future shaped by new technologies.

 The center also co-hosts Emerge, a yearly festival that brings scientists and artists together to imagine and depict the future. They display and discuss their work with the public over several days.

“The most important thing science fiction gives us is a sense of possibility and a more active relationship with the future,” says Finn. “The big problem is that our time horizon is very small and it’s very difficult to think beyond the next few years or beyond the next election cycle. Science fiction is an important tool to show us the full spectrum of possibilities for the future and to paint it as a series of choices that we’re all invested in.”

The center also explores older science fiction works to look for ideas that scientists and inventors may have missed. What was once just a work of fiction could now be a plausible research question.

ASU will also be leading a bicentennial celebration of the novel “Frankenstein,” starting in 2016. ( Written by Mary Shelley almost 200 years ago, the book still influences many people today.

In the story, a scientist named Victor Frankenstein creates a living being in his lab. When the creature comes to life, however, Frankenstein is horrified by the monster he made and runs away. In his hurt and rage, the monster commits horrible crimes throughout the land.

Victor Frankenstein never meant for his experiments to cause harm. The story is often used as an example of how science and technology can have unintended consequences.

 “‘Frankenstein’ beautifully captures issues such as creativity and responsibility and the difficult balance between letting your imagination run wild and dealing with ownership and parental responsibility of that idea,” says Finn.

These ideas have spread through our culture in all sorts of ways. Many books, movies and works of art have been created based off of Frankenstein’s monster.

Joey Eschrich, editor and program manager for CSI, is also working on the Frankenstein celebration and exploring questions the novel raises.

“‘Frankenstein’ allows us to come together around a shared point of reference. One of our main goals is to create arenas for conversation where everyone feels like they have a voice in shaping the future and that their opinion is valuable,” says Eschrich. “‘Frankenstein’ and other science fiction stories are platforms where individuals can feel connected to other fields and feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and ideas.”

Are there any science fiction books or movies that have really inspired you? One movie that influenced Eschrich is “Minority Report.” The movie is about a world in which the police can predict—and punish—crimes before they even happen.

Finn cites “The Diamond Age” by Neal Stephenson as one of his own influences. The book takes place in a future where nanotechnology—technology so small you can’t even see it—is a part of everyone’s life. Through the story of a girl named Nell, the book explores education, social class and ethnicity.

“The novel excels at asking profound questions about social structure and education,” says Finn. “In my field, it’s especially relevant for reflecting on and putting into practice different forms of education. Why haven’t we yet created some of the technologies he’s imagined?”

Researchers at CSI believe there is great value in keeping scientists and engineers engaged with these imaginary worlds. And they want to keep writers and artists connected with science and technology, too. This interaction helps us keep the meaning and consequences of our scientific advances in mind.

“The story itself is really a blueprint for the universe and we’re creating it with our own imaginations and agency,” says Finn.