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How CEOs are using sci-fi to imagine the future

In two very different sessions at SXSW 2019, the speaker led with a story they got from writer Neil Gaiman. It went like this: Gaiman had attended a science fiction convention in China, where the government had once viewed the genre as anathema to its campaign against ‘spiritual pollution.’ When Gaiman asked why that view had changed, he was told that some Chinese government and business leaders, pondering the fact that their country was better at copying technology than innovating, sent a delegation to Silicon Valley. There, they interviewed tech leaders to discover where their innovation came from and learned that many Silicon Valley disrupters were lifelong fans of science fiction.

One of the sessions, “Oslo Talks: Post Digital and Urban Development,” featured librarian Reinert Mithassel speaking at Scandinavia House about an extraordinary new children’s library in Oslo that was designed with freedom and whimsy in mind. The other was “Sci-Fi CEOs: How Fictional Futures Influence Tech,” moderated by Kevin Bankston, director of New America's Open Technology Institute. His panelists included sci-fi authors Eliot Peper and Malka Older, and Quartz journalist Tim Fernholz, author of Rocket Billionaires: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the New Space Race.

In recent years, the panelists noted, an increasing number of companies have hired science fiction writers to create fictional visions for their products or services that they could potentially turn into realities. Though considered a “hot” newish trend, this is just a formalization of a relationship, or feedback loop, that has existed for hundreds of years. As the panelists noted, people drew from novels written in the 1800s to build the space program. Rocket scientist Hermann Oberth, as a consultant for the 1929 movie Woman in the Moon, plotted a figure-eight trajectory to use gravity to help propel a spaceship, a model later used by Apollo astronauts.

More recently, in the 2002 movie Minority Report, the main character walks through a store where artificial intelligence customer service devices greet him by name, ask how he liked recent purchases, and suggest other products—long before that became a reality. And, as Peper pointed out, the Kindle was built to spec from a fictional product in Neal Stephenson’s sci-fi novel The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer. “In fact,” he said, “the original program for Kindle was called Fiona after the character who used it in the book.”

Peper said he and other panelists were laughing about the fact that he has multiple email streams going with various venture capitalists about the implications of various short stories written by Jorge Luis Borges, an Argentinian writer who crafted stories and poems from the 1930s to the 1950s.

“Borges was one of the most influential writers for both science fiction writers and computer scientists,” he said. “Even though his stories were written in the 1930s and 40s, they prefigure many of the weird contradictions that the internet has presented to us both psychologically and sociologically.”

Borges’ stories, Peper said, “are so mind-bending they’re like yoga for your brain. I get super weirded out reading his stories. They read like a puzzle, which makes them super useful for people working on really difficult problems.”

"[Borges' stories] read like a puzzle, which makes them super useful for people working on really difficult problems." - Eliot Peper

[Read also: The best customer service agents read fiction]

“The adjacent possible” and “Making shit up”

One of the reasons science fiction writers are so useful, the panelists said, is they don’t necessarily have to stick to the rules of reality by which the rest of us operate. While some writers, like Daniel Suarez, do exhaustive interviews and other research to make sure their science fiction is possible or plausible, others can step way outside the box and create whole new realities that present scenarios for currently unimagined inventions. That’s a skill many people lack and is essential to innovation.

“One really interesting thing is how seductive the status quo is,” Peper said. “We’re born into a world where everything is set up. It’s easy to take the rules for granted. It’s actually very uncomfortable to try to consider things differently.”

But the other thing science fiction writers can do is write the reality of the current world in such a way that people see things in a new light and see how impractical or implausible many things in our lives really are. In Neil Gaiman’s SXSW panel, he said fiction has the requirement to be believable,

Science fiction writers are also good at what Bankston referred to as “the adjacent possible.” If something is not yet possible, what’s the intermediate step that you would need to make it possible? It’s not about knowing how to make a thing possible, but imagining its existence and working backwards to find a way to make it work.

Theoretically, the idea is that companies can use the fiction to imagine new gadgets or technologies to advance their products or services. But the panelists made one thing clear: in science fiction, it’s not really about the technology. It’s about the people. The writers said they create technology that will advance their characters’ stories and most don’t worry too much about whether it’s currently possible or even about the adjacent possible. They’re not focused on the thing, but the people. Readers don’t need proof the tech will work; they do need to believe the characters and their relationships.

Older, for example, has “absolutely zero compunction about making shit up.”

“I am so happy to go into a book and just invent something that will help me to say what I want to say…. I don’t care that this is not tethered to immediate reality,” she said. “What people enjoy reading, what people can identify with, what’s really important, is that the characters make sense. The way the characters relate to each other; how people react and interact.”

That is precisely where the value of the science fiction writer comes in, the panelists said.

It’s not the writer’s job to explain how the technology works; that’s for engineers to figure out. It’s for the writer to understand what technology makes the fictional world possible, and to understand how the tech alters the relationships between people. Frequently, the stories are written as a warning. Too often, the panelists said, people get hung up on the potential of the tech and miss the overarching message about what effect the tech will have when it comes to how humans interact with each other and within their lives. Technology, they argued, is supposed to empower human relationships and human development, not overpower it.

Technology, they argued, is supposed to empower human relationships and human development, not overpower it.

[Read also: Want to be a better person? Read fiction.]

Losing touch with humanity

The risk of a relationship between wealthy CEOs and sci-fi writers is that people at the top of the food chain can lose touch with the needs and relationships of the rest of humanity. Entrepreneurs may have the resources to fulfill a sci-fi fantasy; but do they have the social conscience to make it a good one?

As Fernholz noted in Rocket Billionaires, Jeff Bezos bought the model of the Star Trek Enterprise and has a life-size steampunk spacecraft meeting room built in honor of Jules Vern. His Blue Origin rocket company mission reflects the future world as shaped by Bezos’ influences. The same is true of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which was influenced by author Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars.

“Elon wants to retire on Mars and he didn’t come up with that by himself,” said Fernholz. Both Musk and Robinson envision a world where space travel is possible, but have different ideas about what will happen on Earth to make that both possible and necessary.

People like Sergey Brin and Larry Page, fueled by science fiction, can have romantic visions for their companies that inspire their employees to see what they’re doing differently—Google as an encyclopedia for the world instead of a global ad machine, for example. But the panelists said they don’t always take away the right message from the science fiction.

Often science fiction books are written about a “post-scarcity future” in which humans are “not necessarily the dominant thing but they still flourish,” Bankston said. Some envision a future full of human cooperation; others take a more libertarian view in which humans live in self-governing tribes. And what is produced by these visionary companies generally empowers one or the other future.

Some books, Bankston said, create “a fantastic future utopia where the machines of love and grace take good care of us while we live out our dreams and take care of ourselves and play games and do drugs and hang out.”

But as Older pointed out, many are dystopian novels, where people of status and privilege can experience it as a utopia,

“The lucky people can live however they want with no scarcity and long lives, and all the best care. It makes you wonder if these billionaires are designing now for these dystopias, where does that leave the rest of us?”

“Isaac Asimov’s foundation novels posit a world where, if you have the right data and the right understanding of people, you can have a discipline to foretell the future,” Bankston said. “That’s the ultimate statement of golden age science fiction hubris, that the world can be controlled by a single cabal of people. That gets at what we’re seeing in Silicon Valley, where they have the ability to make a lot of decisions that are algorithmically vetted and empirically sound, but maybe not the choices the consensus of humanity would choose.”

In a sense, these corporate leaders are stepping into a world where they hope “no man has gone before” in order to bring the world along with them. The only question is: will they be thinking about how their visions further our stories or will our stories be wrapped, wittingly or unwittingly, around what they create?

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