Who Said Science Fiction Never Predicted the Internet?
First is that, in my opinion, science fiction is not a predictive literature. It gets interpreted as such because its stories are often set in the future. But I look at science fiction as an exploratory literature, one that investigates possible future, how society might react to technological change. I don’t believe the Heinlein’s Future History stories were meant to be predictive any more than Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy was meant to be predictive. They are both exploring possible futures.
Second–and despite what I just said–I think that a particular piece of Golden Age science fiction came remarkably close to predicting the Internet–and almost certainly predicted some of the more remarkable results of the Internet. The particular fiction I’m talking about is Isaac Asimov’s Foundation stories, the first of which appeared as “Foundation” in the May 1942 issue of Astounding.
There is no way that any Golden Age story could outright predict the Internet because, at the very least, the story requires computers and prior to World War II, computers were absent from science fiction stories. Don’t get me wrong, there are references to “computers” in early Golden Age stories–for instance John Berryman’s “Space Rating” (Astounding, 10/39), but in that story the word referred to people who compute.
Not only would you need the notion of computers as we think of them today, but you’d also require the notion of networked computers, and not just two computers connected together via a radio signal, but a huge mass of computers all networked together so that access was virtually ubiquitous.
If you have the notion of computers and networks, it is not a far leap to the idea of storing all of humanity’s data on these computers and providing universal access to this data. And it is here where Asimov’s Foundation stories begin to draw interesting parallels.
The premise of the stories is that the Galactic Empire is falling and will crumble into ten thousand years of dark ages. A single mathematician, Hari Seldon, invents the science of psychohistory which can be used to predict the future course of humanity, provided that two conditions are met:
- That the population on whom predictions are being made is sufficiently large
- That the population in question is unaware of the prediction so that they don’t alter their behavior.
With this science in hand, Seldon says that while he cannot stop the fall of the Galactic Empire, he can limit the dark ages to a mere thousand years. There are other complications, and those who’ve read Foundation know what I’m talking about. But if you think about it, what Asimov (through Seldon) was writing about was modeling the behavior of the masses and making predictions based on it.
When Asimov went on to add to the Foundation series in the early 80, he admitted that the lack of computers (or robots for that matter) in the original stories was odd. But it had to be that way since computers hadn’t been invented yet. Nevertheless, he introduced computers into the later books. But even without computers being expressly described in the original stories, a modern really simply assumes them. The psychohistorians of the Second Foundation had to have some way to collect and store vasts amounts of data about the behaviors of humanity. They had “psychohistorical equations” that allowed them to make predictions from this behavior. The predictions came with a resultant accuracy. And this was a galaxy-spanning operation. For it to work, a sophisticated network of computers had to exist.
Nevertheless, while it might be a stretch to say that Asimov predicted the Internet in his Foundation stories, it is by no means a stretch to say that his psychohistory is alive and well and in its infancy today because of the Internet.
The Internet is so ubiquitous today that it is a method for capturing data on human behavior in vast volumes with relative ease. For example, it is well-established in computer forensics that hackers can often be identified by their key-stroke patterns. Read through magazines like Scientific American and New Scientist and you’ll find countless examples like this.
The spread of infectious disease can be modeled and predicted by taking anonymous data from GPS devices carried by millions of people worldwide. Google can predict rush-hour traffic patterns through similar models. Large online clearing-houses like Amazon can use their vast stores of behavioral data to do a pretty good job of making suggestions for other things you might want to buy.
Each of these is a small example of what essentially amount to psychohistorical predictions. We are not yet talking about predicting the behavior of large-scale sweeps of humanity, but I certainly wouldn’t rule it out. All of this prediction is absolutely dependent on incredible amounts of behavioral data that is relatively easy to collect, and virtually invisible to the people from whom it is being collected. An Internet-like entity is a virtual prerequisite for this.
I still think that science fiction is not a predictive literature, but an exploratory one. But whenever I hear people complain that science fiction never predicted the Internet, I think about Foundation and think about how much data is being collected from Internet users and I whisper under my breath:
Be careful what you wish for.
Filed under: The Wayward Time-Traveler
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