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Who Said Science Fiction Never Predicted the Internet?

One of the more recent criticisms of science fiction is that it never predicted the Internet. I object to this premise on two counts:

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:

  1. That the population on whom predictions are being made is sufficiently large
  2. 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.

About Jamie Todd Rubin (31 Articles)
Jamie Todd Rubin is a science fiction writer and blogger. His fiction has appeared in Analog, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Apex Magazine, and most recently through 40K Books. He writes the Wayward Time Traveler column for SF Signal and vacations frequently in the Golden Age of science fiction.
Contact: Website

20 Comments on Who Said Science Fiction Never Predicted the Internet?

  1. The short story “A Logic Named Joe,” written in 1946 by Murray Leinster, predicted a giant network of relays that contained all human knowledge.  It was accessed with TV-like machines called “logics.”  That sounds pretty darn close to predicting the internet to me.  The only problem with the story is that the author was a bit off when he predicted how people would use that knowledge.  You can <a href=”http://www.webscription.net/10.1125/Baen/0743499107/0743499107___1.htm“>read the story for free at Webscription</a>.

  2. Jocelyn C. // March 22, 2011 at 12:37 pm //

    Although a sort of proto-internet already existed when Orson Scott Card first published the novel “Ender’s Game” (1985), he did a very good job of predicting how the internet would become a ubiquitous tool for finding news, information, and engaging in public discourse with the protection of electronic anonymity. To some extent he even predicted, via the creation of the “net” personas Locke and Demosthenes, how political discourse would change in the internet age, and how political blogging and other online political discourse could affect both national and international events. One only needs to look at recent examples such as the use of Facebook to organize protest events in North Africa and the Middle East or the bombshells of WikiLeaks to see just how precsient his “Ender’s Game” depiction of online political discourse really was.

    So no, he did not predict the internet. But yes, he did predict how it would impact society at large long before that impact became a reality.

  3. Interesting article, reading ‘golden era’ scifi its possible to point at many novels that use ‘computers’ in a way which suggests that the author envisioned a future similar to what we now understand to be the internet…

    Take Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and you have an AI that can be accessed remotely from any phone line, a AI that pretty much runs whole moon settlements and is an integral part of the rebellion that is the focus point of the novel. We are told a fair bit about this AI and its ability to control various different functions although Heinlein doesn’t go into any real detail of how this is done its simple for me to suppose he was thinking about some form of networked infrastructure.

    You can also look at 1984 and posit that the information gathering, collation, correction and re-distribution of ‘correct’ information as well as the concept of Big Brother was a study in what it could mean to a society that could control data the way we are now starting to be able to.

    I agree with your sentiments that Science Fiction authors aren’t prophets, they don’t predict THE future, however much the modern media might try and paint them that way…. Instead they are creative philosophers who study the world around them, emergent technologies, ideologies, e.t.c. and let them play out in their minds to  amuse themselves and the people who read their books. Science fiction can shape reality, in that it creates memes which can have real world repercussions…. how many scientists have been inspired by science fiction? How many science fiction authors have also been scientists, politicians and political advisers?

    Science fiction authors may not have understood quite how the technology of the internet would develop or coin easily recognisable terms, but there are any number of examples of science fiction authors who dreamed of future worlds in which ‘the internet’ was taken as a given… just as science fiction authors took it for granted that wars could be fought in space using weapons that they made up, that people would be flying in ships that they couldn’t explain how to make, or that faster than light travel would be possible if you could just ‘insert any one of a hundred different bits of scifi hockum’. Its not the technology thats fascinating… its the effects it has on us that are….

  4. Rusty, Barry Malzberg pointed out that same story to me when I first told him about this topic. Unfortunately I haven’t read the story yet (but will, as I progress through my Vacation in the Golden Age) so I will have to take your word for it.

    Jocelyn, that’s a good example. I’d forgotten about that one, probably because it does fall into that borderline time-frame of early proto-Internet as you point out.

    Andy, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress falls outside what I would consider the Golden Age (July ’39 – December ’50), having been published in 1966. But your point about the uniqitous access to Mike through telephone lines is a good example. Also, I find it interesting that 1984 and Foundation take two diverent views of the same problem: how to use this vast store of information, with the former being darker and dystopic and the latter being more eutopic, with the psychohistorians using their predictions to save the Galaxy. In the end, even Asimov was somewhat uncomfortable with this, it seems, because he introduced Gaia into the mix.

    I’m sure there are more examples, too. In fact, with what seems to be enough good examples, it’s curious that I don’t hear more voices speaking up when people ask, “Why didn’t science fiction ever predict the Internet?”

  5. Bill Spangler // March 22, 2011 at 2:43 pm //

    Got one more for you, and it’s another Asimov novel:The Naked Sun. Lije Bailey and R. Daneel Olivaw investigate a murder on a world sett;ed by humans who are almost all agoraphobic.They almost never leave their homes because they’ve spent all their time interacting through various electronic media.  The basic concept of the internet is there, even if the instrumentality isn’t. (And I think it’s one of the few Asimov books that actually could be turned into a good movie.)

    And, just for the record, I agree with you about sf not being a predictive literature…

  6. Bill, you know for a strictly Internet example and ignoring the side-effects that I referred to, that might be an even better example than Foundation because that electonic media was very much like video-chats, or video-email, and as you point out, the network was spread over the whole world. (Granted, the population of that world was far, far smaller than what would probably be useful to make psychohistorical predictions.)

  7. A. A. Roi // March 22, 2011 at 7:14 pm //

    I would challenge anyone to say that science fiction isn’t used as ‘the most predictive’ of literatures.  Can anyone actually write a realistically predictive story that can’t be called science fiction?  There are countless obvious examples of this that anyone who questions this is simply ignoring that elephant in the genre room.  That being said, SF is by no means restricted to this, and my thanks to the many writers who well aware of that fact.  

    On the subject of predicting the internet, and the world of today, one can easily find these things predicted in numerous science fiction stories.  The most obvious to me, in terms of predicting The Internet and its likely effect on world society is John Brunner’s 1975 novel The Shockwave Rider, a book, regardless of its faults, I highly recommend. 

  8. A. A., I’m not saying that science fiction stories don’t make predictions about the future. Clearly some do, but I don’t believe prediction is the intention or the motivation of the authors when the write their stories. Some authors have said this outright. And in my own stories, I am not trying to make predictions but rather explore the possible impact of technological change on society. I’d agree that there are plenty of examples of science fiction stories that turned out to predict things: the manned moon landings, for instance. But I’d be willing to bet that the intention behind many of these stories was not to predict but to assess how such an achievement would impact society, good or bad.

    I’d go as far as saying that even hard science stories are exploring the technical feasability of a scientific problem–an artistic thought-experiment.  This is the author saying, “This is how it could happen” as opposed to an author saying, “This is how it will happen.” There may be some doing that, but my feeling is that prediction is not the intention of the majority of science fiction writers. Of course, how the stories are interpretted by fans and audiences is an entirely different matter.

    As to whether anyone can write a realistically predictive story that can’t be called science fiction, what about a story involving the first female president of the United States? Or a story simply involving the outcome of the next election? What about a story in which the Cubs win the World Series? Or one which involves the death of the last of the elephants? All of those seem to “predict” an inevitable event, but I wouldn’t charcterize any as science fiction. I imagine that stories like this are written all the time.

  9. James Veitch // March 22, 2011 at 11:31 pm //

    In Robert Heinlein’s Friday (1982), when Friday is studying back at the base, she is using something something that comes across very strongly as the Internet.

  10. Just have to mention Ursula K. LeGuin’s “Always Coming Home” 1985 here. It is a dys – u – topia story set sometime in the future after are major unspecified world cataclysm and earthquake in California / Pacific Northwest. The only form of electronic technology remaining is “the exchange” – a small network of computers located in larger communities of the valley which are used for sending messages and accessing a vast amount of stored knowledge. Sorta puts the computer back in the role of “tool” rather than master. lol

  11. James, I vaguely recall that from Friday.  And  DC, I haven’t read “Always Coming Home” but I’ll take your word for it. Of course, in both these cases, “predicting” the Internet is somewhat easier than it would have been pre-World War II since by the early and mid-1980s, computers were not only well-established, but networked computers had been around. But seeing as how I wasn’t specific in my question (I didn’t ask, “Who said Golden Age science fiction never predicted the Internet?) then I think both these stories should be added to our growing list of exceptions. 🙂

  12. The Machine Stops – E.M. Forster (1909)

     

    Short story that does a pretty good job of predicting the increased reliance on a machine that allows all whims to be carried out without any physical expense.

  13. Science Fiction might not have predicted the Internet exactly as we know it today, but it did something grander than that, it gave it meaning even before it was what we know of today. In William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer he coined a term we have all become familiar with since then: Cyberspace.

    The main character is a very talented hacker, but not the kind we have today, this is much more up cloe and personal, for the net is not accesed merely through a set of keyboards and screens, no matter how flat, but it can be accesed through a direct neural interface (that’s right, plug the cable straight into your brain), for a totally immersive experience, and there is even a social network of sorts among the elite users of this network. The gist of the story lies in chasing a rogue AI (Artificial Intelligence for the technollogically challenged), a super computer, that has evolved beyond the control of its owners.

    So I would strongly argue that Science Fiction did think about a global network of computers, even back when this was something restricted to military installations and high end colleges. While I agree that SF is not in the business of predicting the future, you can be sure that many on the inventions of the 20th century drew their inspiration from Science fiction short stories and novels, otherwise how would you explain the proliferation of submarines named Nautilus?

     

  14. Mike, I’ve never read the Forster piece, but that would indeed have been an impressive prediction, 90 years in advance of the real thing.

    Dadrocant, I tend to look at Neuromancer as an alternate history of what the Internet might have been. There are certainly some shared elements, and we’ve certainly borrowed terms from the book (“jacked-in”, for instance), but the novel was written at a time when computers and computer networks were a growing phenomenon, and even TCP/IP was already in use in 1983 as a government/military standard. I was looking at the predictions of much older science fiction.

    AI will be interesting because computer scientists and AI experts seem split on whether science fiction’s vision of AI will ever be possible, like time travel or FTL drives.

  15. In “The Machine Stops”, E.M.Forster wrote a remarkably on-target satire of Internet users:

     

    She knew several thousand people, in certain directions human intercourse had advanced enormously.

     

    Read the story

  16. A. R., thanks for posting the link to the story!

  17. “Everybody will be doing it, everybody will be living inside a TV studio. That’s what the domestic home aspires to these days; the home is going to be a TV studio. We’re all going to be starring in our own sit-coms, and they’ll be very strange sit-coms, too, like the inside of our heads. That’s going to come, I’m absolutely sure of that, and it’ll really shake up everything…”

    J G Ballard in a 1982 interview, from REsearch No. 8/9

  18. Lyse Beck // April 19, 2012 at 1:05 am //

    I can see I’m a year late to this post. However, I have been researching this topic today, and I came across this and had to add what I have discovered. In 1889, Jules Verne wrote “In the Year 2889″ and described a Phonotelephote” which is the earliest reference to a videophone. A few years later, in 1898, Mark Twain (who dabbled in sci fi, although reports say that his sci fi stories were terrible) wrote “From the London Times of 1904” where he wrote of a “telelectrioscope” which used the newly invented phones to create “a world-wide network of information-sharing”. He based his invention partially on Jan Szczepanik’s work at the time for “a scheme for the transmission of colored rays” (television). So to some, Mark Twain was in fact the first to imagine the internet back in 1898. 🙂

  19. True Names by Vernor Vinge. It’s all there.

  20. Rob Furey // May 8, 2013 at 2:26 pm //

    THE MACHINE STOPS by E.M. Forster was published in 1909 and clearly describes not just the internet, but a rather well developed one with capacities as we currently know them: entertainment, email, “facetime,” education, and personal business among its uses to the people living in a global archology. I guess we’re waiting for that archology now.

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