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Writing the Future
Christopher Reinert   Jun 13, 2013   Ethical Technology  

There is an argument in popular culture that claims science fiction authors have over the past century routinely predicted the development of new technologies and new social problems. Proponents of this argument cite supposed predictions of geosynchronous satellites, the internet and artificial intelligence as proof. The issue with these predictive claims, aside from supposing that a science fiction authors possess extraordinary clairvoyant powers, is that such arguments ignore the scores of failed predictions. However, the basic question is still interesting to futurists. Can science fiction be used to predict the future?

There is not an easy answer to the question of the predictive utility of science fiction. I would argue that works of science fiction do have predictive qualities, but that the public and futurists alike should subject any predictions skeptical scrutiny and not blindly accepted at face value.

The skeptic in me would claim that any verified predictions made by a particular work of science fiction or a science fiction author are purely coincidental until proven otherwise. I would submit that this position should be default position of futurists when evaluating claims of extraordinary predictions. Multiple explanations can be used to explain the coincidental nature of the predictions.

The first explanation is the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy, which argues that pieces of information with no relationship are grouped together because of their similarities. What this explanation implies is that no predictive pattern exists in a work of science fiction. Instead, a real world and fiction event share similar features and are treated as a pattern by the reader.

The second explanation claims those who extol the predictive utility of science fiction have invoked the Ludic Fallacy. This fallacy asserts is that the variables necessary for a prediction to be true have been oversimplified. Colloquially, this explanation merely states that the supposed claim is based on oversimplified variables behaving in a specific way.

This fallacy frequently appears in science fiction films and other media. Every variable surrounding a particular event, for example the development of a new technology, has been condensed and oversimplified for the sake of the plot. The audience only sees the new technology being released to the public but does not see the years of testing, ethical quandaries and legal discussions associated with the product.

A similar trend occurs in real life. Those claiming that a technology was predicted are assuming the technology was developed according to the author’s notions of how the technology would be developed. These claims do not account for outside events which alter a country’s research focus or political climate. The claims are therefore valid only under idealized conditions.

The third skeptical explanation is that the predictive claims can be reduced to arguments from ignorance. This explanation implies that those making predictive claims are asserting the predictive claim is true (or false) because said claim has not been proven otherwise. No one can conclusively prove that an author did not predict a given event; therefore the author must have predicted it.

The final explanation is that the author who supposedly made these claims might have special knowledge about technology or they are forecasting events in the near future. For example, the claim that a given author predicted the internet could be tested based on their knowledge of the field of computer science. It is reasonable to assume that a science fiction writer with sufficient knowledge of the field could write about a technology that later came true. This is the case for Arthur C. Clake and geosynchronous satellites.

Does this mean that futurists or the general public cannot use science fiction as a means of predicting or modeling the future? If one is looking for an absolutely accurate prediction, then yes you should never use science fiction. If one wants to model the future, science fiction can be a useful tool depending on the question you are asking and the type of media the science fiction is presented in.

Can we use the works of a single author to predict future events? The knee jerk reaction is to say no since the author’s preconceptions about the future ultimately bias their possible predictions. These preconceptions are not always insidious in nature. For instance, depending on when an author was writing, the type of technology they were exposed to on a daily basis would be different. We would not expect Jules Verne to predict augmented reality, but we would expect him to predict deep sea subs.

Should the predictions of a single author be categorically rejected as biased and therefore inaccurate? As long as the person making the claim about the prediction accounts for the authors bias, the work can serve as a representation of a possible future. In this sense, the work does not predict the future, but provides an avenue to discuss it. The novel or movie may catalyze a discussion about the ethical use of technology, but that does not mean it predicted the technology would happen.

Why limit the discussion to movies, television shows and printed stores? Can we use games with science fiction elements, like EVE Online, to predict or model the future? Games, by design, are based on a core set of rules that allow for multiple outcomes. Movies and other media have a fixed outcome. Luke always destroys the Deathstar. The organic quality of games allows researchers to model the impact of a new political policy on the economy.

For example, a science fiction game allows us to model an economy where twenty percent of the population has been forced out of work because of mechanization. A single author may take an extreme dystopian or utopian view of this problem. Multiple players will solve the problem differently, but given enough iterations of the game, a series of stable solutions may emerge.

Given sufficient iterations, the solutions may coalesce around common solutions. One solution may rely on forced human employment in low skilled jobs. Another solution may focus on retraining the unemployed workers, allowing the unemployment rate to drop to a stable level. Still other solutions may involve the creation of new economic systems.

Are these predictions made by these models accurate? They are not meant to be perfect predictions, only predictions of trends. By forecasting future trends, society can start to explore the social and political effects of each possible solution.

Admittedly, these models do fall victim to the Ludic Fallacy. They rely on an oversimplification of complex variables and the assumption that new variables will not be introduced to the equation. This does not mean they are inherently wrong or unreliable, they are only oversimplified models of complex events.

Science fiction as a genre does have some predictive utility depending on the media and claims being made. A single author can fall victim to their own preconceptions and biases about the future, coloring their view of the future. Additionally, their prediction may just be coincidence. Games may model the future, but are victim to the oversimplification of variables or the assumption that no new variables will be introduced. As a default position, the claim that any particular author has predicted a specific future event should be treated as spurious.

Image credit

2: John Harris

3: Le Voyage dans Le Lune

4: wallpaperswa.com

Christopher Reinert is a Masters student of Human Computer Interaction at Georgia Tech. His interests include human robotic interaction, brain machine interfaces, and the public perception of science.



COMMENTS

Should the emphasis be on predicting the future or “shaping” the future?

#Imagination #Curiosity #Creativity should not be constrained by contemporary notions and understanding of Human limitations?

SciFi inspires Science inspires SciFi inspires Science.. >> yesterday’s Metaphysics IS today’s Physics?

Connections are often contrived and yet “realised”, (made “real”), by third parties?

“The organic quality of games allows researchers to model the impact of a new political policy on the economy.”

“Multiple players will solve the problem differently, but given enough iterations of the game, a series of stable solutions may emerge.”

Sounds good! Let’s do it?

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