“Resistance is futile’”: reading science fiction alongside ubiquitous computing
Authors: Paul Dourish, Genevieve Bell
Published: 15 May 2013
The authors cite the example of Star Trek directly influencing the research and engineering activities of NASA. Portable communicators, digital pads to replace paper and VR emerged in contemporary research into HCI and ubiquitous computing. Similarly, author and scientist, Arthur C Clarke’s ‘invention’ of the communications satellite illustrates how science fiction not only anticipates but actively shapes technological advances through its effect on the collective imagination.
Furthermore, science fiction is regarded as a context helpfully providing a familiar and recognisable backdrop against which we can understand technological advancements. For example, the Esper machine in Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner film foreshadows image manipulation and search technology by several decades. However, frustration can arise when our new technology does not live up to the our expectations based upon the imaginings of science fiction writers, artists and filmmakers.
Why Science Fiction?
Science fiction uses “techniques of extrapolation and speculation … in a narrative form, to construct near- future, far-future, or fantastic worlds in which science, technology, and society intersect” (Thacker, 2001).
The tropes of science fiction are seen as mirroring the way in which much design-oriented research is carried out: the extrapolation of current technological opportunities, together with the imaginative and speculative figuring of a world in which these technologies can be applied. It does so whilst operating at the confluence of science and society, just as design-oriented research, whilst techno-centric, is ultimately concerned with social and cultural considerations.
“… for the purposes of this paper, we want to focus on television shows produced in a 25-year window, between 1963 and 1989—the ones that arguably played a role in shaping both the current science fiction offerings (as in, for example, the genealogy from Star Trek and Blake 7 to Babylon 5, Andromeda, Firefly) and also the current generation of researchers of which we are a part”
The authors chose the following selection of broadcasts because of their intersection with the emergence of the ubiquitous computing vision and their prominence in the background and memories of the authors.
Dr Who (1963 – 1989)
The TARDIS (a time travel machine and chameleon technology) and Sonic Screwdriver are both mentioned by the authors. However, these are two items of futuristic technology that have not yet been developed.
Star Trek (1966 – 1969)
The Enterprise crew’s clamshell communicators could be said to have influenced recent mobile phone designs. Two other technologies mentioned (the phaser and matter transporter have, again, yet to have materialised).
Blake’s 7 (1978 – 1981)
The show featured several very different computational devices: ZEN, ORAC, and SLAVE. They share an ability to receive and understand verbal commands and control complex machinery.
Planet of the Apes (1968)
This seems to be included, not for its illustration of futuristic technologies, but for its commentary, as science fiction, on society. The human-ape relationship inversion is played out with humans remaining in a state of tool-wielding stone-age primitivism while the apes have developed science, civilisation and an elaborate social hierarchy.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1981)
This show “had a wonderful array of gadgetry and computational technology, from the Hitchhiker’s Guide book itself, to robots, sensing doors and furniture, the Babel Fish (a natural language translator), and the Nutri-Matic Dispenser”.
What do these shows tell us about …
The mix of British-made and American-made shows provides a contrast in how science fiction deals with the bureaucracy of the future. Star Trek’s Captain Kirk is a gung-ho rule breaker with little respect for authority. He deals with “leaders, chiefs and villains’. Conversely, the characters in Blake 7, Doctor Who and Hitchhikers are enmeshed in red tape. These examples can, perhaps, help us to think about the regulation and management that attend any technological advancement – does it need to be regulated? Does it require maintenance? Does it come in a left-handed version?
… Technological Breakdown
Again, the cultural origins of these shows are key to understanding different ways in which we think about technology and how we think about narratives around science and society. In some science fiction, technology ‘just works’. It seemingly requires no maintenance or attention. On the other hand, as in Doctor Who, for instance, there are constant niggling problems and a failure to operate in ways that are fit for purpose – such as the TARDIS and its many malfunctions. This illustrates, perhaps, the American ‘can do’ attitude verses the British ‘musn’t grumble’ approach.
Regimes of Surveillance
This paper suggests that by referring to pervasive surveillance in science fiction (i.e. in the future), we are suggesting that the current environment is not highly surveilled; that any introduction of a ubiquitous surveillance infrastructure would be implemented in a pristine environment. In turn, surveillance in science fiction is generally all-pervasive and stable or non-existent. The influence of this mindset is to distract us from the fact that our surveillance infrastructure is constantly evolving and is comprised of a complex network of often interdependent entities.
In 2009, Julian Bleecker‘s essay ‘Design Fiction: A short essay on design, science, fact and fiction (PDF)’ brought together the ideas propounded by Dourish, Bell, and Bruce Stirling’s original coining of the phrase.
Subsequently, design fiction has taken hold as an established discipline, leading to the formation of agencies such as Design Friction (“We are a design practice producing speculative and critical scenarios for the upcoming presents”), The Near Future Laboratory (“We explore futures, chart the unexpected and transform opportunities into new and tangible forms”), Superflux (“Translating future uncertainty into present day choices”) and Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today.
Science Fiction Prototyping
“Science fiction prototyping refers to the idea of using science fiction to describe and explore the implications of futuristic technologies and the social structures enabled by them.”
In contrast to the ideas explored in Dourish and Bell’s paper, i.e. looking back at the canon of science fiction media to see how it has influenced the development of current technologies, science fiction prototyping takes the form of science fiction literature written for the explicit purpose of extrapolating a future for an intended technology outcome.
“The main (but not exclusive) methodology is the use of science-fiction stories, grounded in existing practice which are written for the explicit purpose of acting as prototypes for people to explore a wide variety of futures.”
In some ways, then, the designers in today’s creative community, working with scientists and technologists, are no longer relying on their cultural heritage of science fiction popular culture to fuel their creative impulse; they are becoming part of that culture, imagining future worlds and societies into which they can place their conceptual ideas as a testing ground for new technologies.
I am reminded of Tolkien’s creation of the fantasy world of Middle Earth. A secondary world created, initially, as a backdrop into which to play out his true passion – that of language invention. Without the peoples, places and societies of Middle Earth, to speak and to breath life into these languages, there would have been no meaningful context into which to place these linguistic creations.
Similarly, those involved in science fiction prototyping today are providing a context, both technological and societal, into which to place their designs and ideas, allowing them to be used, experienced and evaluated by fictional societies, providing valuable insights for their creators.
- Thacker, E (2001) The science fiction of technoscience: the politics of simulation and a challenge for new media art. Leonardo 34(2):155–158.
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