I received an email from a student at Stanford working on a forecasting project. He was asking for examples of corporation-produced videos showing the future that could be traced back to science fiction that appeared about two decades before them. The idea is not that science fiction predicted the future, but rather science fiction inspired people to realize that future. The theme here is “tracking the curve of SF optimism”.

I suggested that you, dear readers, would be a better reference than I could be…so I will let him explain it…and let you offer some suggestions.

Dear SF Signal readers,

My name’s Eng Seng Ng, and I’m a student at Stanford. I’d like to ask for your help in a project – help which you are uniquely qualified to give.

My project is about looking at big visions of technological innovation, and how they’ve evolved over time. For instance, right after the Second World War, the group that would later become RAND laid out a big vision called “Preliminary Design of a World-Circling Spaceship” – a decade before the first satellite was launched, and when almost no one was thinking about it. I’ve been studying it and other visions since then, all the way up to the modern day in videos like Microsoft’s “Productivity Future Vision”. What I’m starting to realize, though, is that a lot of these technical visions happen about twenty to thirty years after literary visions of the same thing – in science fiction.

The theory which I’d love you to help me with is still in its early stages, but I believe that it’s not necessarily that SF writers somehow accurately predicted the future. Rather, I think that sufficiently inspirational SF authors actually created the future, by inspiring the young people who would later grow up to bring the things they read about into the real world. What I need your help with is finding proof for the theory. Quotes from engineers working on cutting-edge research saying that they were inspired by Asimov. Technology that showed up in 1960s sci-fi that became real in the 1990s (or earlier, or later). Themes that seem to pop up at a certain point in SF history, and later in the research world.

Here’s an example: In 1993, Sun Microsystems released a video called “Starfire“. Some of the not-yet-real tech they envisioned in the movie included: video teleconferencing, documents editable in real time by multiple people, and rapid editing of presentations based on instantly researched. If that sounds familiar, it’s because a lot of those technologies have become real in the twenty years since. But where did Starfire come from? Arguably, many of those same technologies first showed up on Star Trek, in the form of the communicators and adaptable visual displays used on the Enterprise.

Now, I don’t expect you to provide fully fledged examples from SF to technical vision to reality, though of course I’d be very happy if you did. The thing I don’t have the knowledge for which you do, though, is finding the themes in SF over the years. Have there been changes in how optimistic SF has been? Is there a technology you see one author mention, and then starts to pop up in other stories shortly afterward? What about a more general theme like “mobile information”, “near-space colonization” or “sentient AI”? From there, we can start to look at whether and where that technology found its way toward reality.

Thank you so much for your help. I think we’re going to make something exciting.

Filed under: Science and Technology

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