Yesterday I talked about how good science fiction is at predicting future technology—or not. That question puts the genre directly in the prophecy business and makes its writers oracles of innovation. How does that work?
Clarke’s Laws of Prophecy
In his 1962 essay, “Hazards of Prophecy: Failure of Imagination,” which appeared in Profiles of the Future, the late Arthur C. Clarke first published his Three Laws of Prophecy. They are:
- Clarke’s first law
When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
- Clarke’s second law
The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
- Clarke’s third law
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Mr. Clarke produced some great works of science fiction that were turned into movies like “2001: A Space Odyssey” and the recent TV series, “Childhood’s End” so he knew something about science fiction, prophecy, and future technology.
One might argue that Steve Jobs cracked the second law with his drive to create products that are “insanely great.” He was unreasonable and he was not a nice guy or a pleasure to work with. But he changed the direction of technology development in America and that technology triggered cultural shifts.
Elderly scientists might have a bias against being unreasonable because they have spent their professional lives bumping up against the limits of the possible. Finally, reluctantly, they stop beating their heads against the wall of do-ability and don’t want anyone else to prove them wrong. The third law is, of course, obvious. Try explaining a GPS device or color television to a primitive tribesman and you’ll understand.
Second Chance at Creativity
If you want to see some excellent tech that’s beyond our reach at the moment but might be graspable within ten or twenty years, it’s on TV right now. Watch the “Second Chance” series on Fox and you’ll see some real cutting edge innovations that make the viewer wonder how long it will us take to get there.
If you can suspend disbelief long enough to get past a scientific way to bring someone back from the dead, you’ll see Google Glass taken to a higher level, and an intelligent, personalized visual interface that appears on any polished surface among other things. The creators have actually let their imaginations run free, extrapolating today’s tech into the future. It makes you sit up and say, “hey, why not?”
Given that most science fiction starts with the question, “what if?” this is both logical and inspirational. Now if I could only figure out how Jimmy Pritchard breathes in that tank.
Onward to Predicting Future Technology
So where do we go from here? Where does the next injection of inspiration come from? I dare say it’s not from the young male developers who populate Silicon Valley and spend their time creating apps to get pizza delivered faster or laundry picked up automatically. That kind of self-indulgence ran out of cultural steam a long time ago.
When I think of breaking through the ceiling of what’s considered possible for future technology, I think of George Bernard Shaw’s famous quote:
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
These people aren’t necessarily nice guys or a pleasure to work with. They may be abrasive, hyper-focused on things rather than people, apt to disappear into a lab for weeks, or fit somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum. They may be more interested in solving the problem than in helping the people they barely notice around them.
In that case, the road to future technology means embracing diversity of gender, age, race, cultural background and experience. It requires accepting people who don’t understand facial expressions, courtesy or small talk. It may well involve inventors who don’t know where Sand Hill Road is, much less how to pitch a new technology to investors. These folks may believe that the truth is out there—and we had better be able to listen to their ideas without judgment.
Eventually we’ll understand that expanding the limits of the possible means pushing the edge of our own personal envelope—and listening seriously to someone who says he or she has found a way to go where no man has gone before.