What I love about science fiction is its ability to both predict and shape the future. Satellites, telecommunications, virtual reality, warp drives. SF writers plant an idea in the public consciousness decades before it becomes a reality. If you think about it, that fictional presence may be a necessary component in the psychological process of accepting drastic change.
Back in 1970, Alvin Toffler wrote a sensational book called Future Shock that detailed the effects rapid, unyielding change has on the human psyche. Essentially, he argued that too much change too fast was causing people to disconnect from society as they became fatigued by information overload.
So, imagine that the Altair PC never happened, the KayPro Z80 likewise never occurred, and IBM never legitimized the whole personal computing industry. Now imagine that, as you’re shoving punch cards into a mainframe one day, the IT department brings you a modern, multi-monitor computer, complete with windowed multi-tasking operating system and the Internet. And all this comes to you without the entertainment properties that were engendered by William Gibson’s groundbreaking cyberpunk masterpiece Neuromancer.
I don’t think you’d have a meltdown. I think you’d take one look at the box, its pretty displays and its “alleged” content from a worldwide network of attached computers and go back to feeding cards into the mainframe. You’d have no choice but to believe you were being pranked.
Whenever you bring up this idea in mixed (stiffs and nerds) company, someone (a stiff) will glibly remind you that science fiction never predicted the cell phone or the rise of personal communications. But one actually did.
The President’s Analyst (1967), a satirical comedy in which the President’s psychoanalyst succumbs to the paranoia of treating paranoid spies and government officials and runs off. In not too long a time, spies from all sides are after him, some trying to save him, others with less noble intentions. In the end, SPOILER ALERT, it turns out the one agency he has to fear is AT&T. Remember that back in 1967 there was exactly one phone company in the U.S., a company Lilly Tomlin used to parody (later) in SNL ads with the tagline, “The Phone Company, we don’t care because we don’t have to.”
Be that as it may (and I can attest from personal experience that they absolutely didn’t care), the point I’m trying to make is that the whole plot of the movie turns on a plan by AT&T to embed a phone in every person’s jaw. They want the analyst, played by the matchless James Coburn, to convince the President that this is a good idea.
Why? Well, for all the things they actually have now. They may not be a monopoly anymore, but they can now track us every minute of the day, monitor our interests, record our conversations, and bill us by the minute.
Many of the ideas put forth in science fiction novels will probably never come to pass, but some will and it will be the decades of accepting these ideas on a fictional basis that will prepare us for the day that they become science fact.
So, let’s raise a glass to the writers who invent the future.