When Science Fiction Gets Real

In 1982, a then-unknown science fiction writer named William Gibson coined the term "cyberspace" in a short story titled Burning Chrome. In 1984, he expanded on his cyberspace concept with the novel Neuromancer, in which he created a dystopian, hyper-connected universe filled with hackers, cyberwars, virtual environments, and violent reality shows -- an eerily accurate prediction of life on Earth 30 years later. And subsequent works by Gibson have been equally prophetic. In short, in Neuromancer and throughout his career, Gibson has rather accurately predicted future technologies, including the rise of the Internet and the demise of quality television. In doing so, he has given us language and ideas that have, in many ways, shaped the digital age in which we live.

Gibson's penchant for taking present day cutting-edge science and projecting it into a not-so-distant future is actually rather commonplace. In fact, most sci-fi writers do this to some degree. Even those who are almost completely fanciful about the universes they create sometimes give ideas to up-and-coming scientists. For instance, in his 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, early sci-fi author Jules Verne presented us with "light-propelled" spaceships. That concept sounded utterly crazy until just a few years ago, when scientists developed solar sails, a form of spacecraft propulsion using solar pressure from stars to push large, ultra-thin sails (and any attached cargo) across space at high speeds. It's not exactly what Verne predicted, but it's not far off.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, young scientists are often encouraged to read novels and short stories by Gibson and his sci-fi compatriots, perusing them more for inspiration than entertainment. There is even a burgeoning sci-fi genre called "design fiction," where stories are commissioned by corporations as a way to either spark ideas for technological development or to generate a list of potential uses for products they've already invented but are not sure how to market. Educators, too, are relying on science fiction to stimulate technological creativity. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for instance, instructors Sophia Brueckner and Dan Novy teach a course called "Science Fiction to Science Fabrication." In the class, Brueckner and Novy expose their students to sci-fi short stories, novels, movies and games, and ask them to create functional prototypes of technologies they've either read about or seen. Then the class considers potential uses (and misuses) for their creations. Smithsonian Magazine chronicled the class's latest adventure, writing:

For a project inspired by a scene in Gibson's Neuromancer, students built a device that uses electrodes and wireless technology to enable a user, by making a hand gesture, to stimulate the muscles in the hand of a distant second user, creating the same gesture. The young engineers suggested real-world applications for their prototype, such as physical therapists helping stroke victims to recover use of their limbs. But, Novy says, there was also a deep discussion among the class about the ethical implications of their device. In Gibson's novel, the technology is used to exploit people sexually, turning them into remote-controlled "meat puppets."

Please Don't Turn Me Into a Meat Puppet!

The majority of popular science fiction novels are dystopian rather than utopian in tone. Gibson's many works fall into this category, as do the well-known and much loved sci-fi stories of George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Margaret Atwood, Philip K. Dick, and many other writers. Even stories targeted to kids, like Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game and Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games present dark, sinister, unappealing visions of a tech-driven future. For instance, Ender, the prepubescent genius hero of Card's book, is unwittingly duped by a corrupt government into destroying an entire alien civilization. (Ender believes he's merely participating in a computer simulation.) And Katniss, the 16-year-old heroine of Collins' works, is forced by a corrupt government to participate in a "kill-or-be-killed" reality show. So yeah, in a lot of science fiction the future looks pretty darn bleak.

But does "science reality" look equally bleak?

As mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell famously stated all the way back in 1924, "I am compelled to fear that science will be used to promote the power of dominant groups, rather than to make men happy." It's a sobering thought, and it appears that remnants of Russell's anti-tech sentiment are still present 90 years later. In fact, a recent poll jointly conducted by Smithsonian and the Pew Research Center found that although 59 percent of Americans think technological advances will in general make the world a better place, they're often worried about the specifics of those advances. For instance, 53 percent of Americans believe wearable devices that constantly inform people about the world around them will be a change for the worse; 63 percent believe that personal/commercial drones flying in American airspace are a bad idea; 65 percent are opposed to lifelike robots as primary caregivers for children, the elderly, and the ill; and 66 percent are freaked out by the idea of parents altering a child's DNA to increase the kid's intelligence, health or athletic ability.

What might be really scary for anti-tech folks is that all of these technologies are available this very instant! Google Glass "glasses" are, essentially, eyewear combined with the Internet, providing wearers with an endless supply of information as they move through the world. In Japan, well-programmed therapy robots can nearly always get antisocial children to interact more willingly with other children and also with adults. In fact, troubled kids often respond more readily to therapeutic robots than to human caregivers. Flying drones have been around for years. Small versions are actually available as toys for children (and adults who think they're children). And as for DNA shenanigans, do you remember a sheep named Dolly?

All of this information raises the question: Should we thank sci-fi writers like William Gibson, or should we punch them in the mouth? (Gibson is alive and well and living in Canada.) For the most part, Americans seem divided in their opinions. Yes, we want to live longer, healthier, more productive and emotionally connected lives. Yes, we'd like flying cars and teleportation devices and renewable energy and jetpacks and maybe even the Orgasmatron from Woody Allen's 1973 film Sleeper. But we're not so interested in meat that's "grown" in a laboratory, even if that meat would cure world hunger. Nor are we enthralled with the lack of personal privacy that digital technology already presents, or the ways in which that lack of privacy might be used against us. (See: novels by Gibson, Orwell, Huxley, Atwood, Dick, etc.)

From Dystopia to Utopia

A friend of mine recently returned to California after a weeklong visit with his family, spending time with his parents, his sister and his sister's three teenaged children. He says that his 70-year-old mother complains constantly about her grandkids' use of technology, and the grandkids in turn complain about their grandmother's flat-out refusal to text (or even to turn on her cellphone most of the time). Essentially, Grandma can't understand why the kids bury their noses in digital devices and refuse to connect with her, and the kids can't understand why Grandma won't spend five minutes learning to use her phone, which they see as a refusal by her to connect with them.

This generational disconnect, which I've taken to calling Generation Gap 2.0, is something I've written about extensively over the last year or so, including in my recently published book Closer Together, Further Apart, coauthored with Dr. Jennifer Schneider. Simply put, most young people are more at ease than older people with recent technological breakthroughs. My guess is that if the Smithsonian and Pew Research had divided their survey findings by age, digital natives (younger people) would be almost universally accepting of Google Glass, robotic caregivers, drones and possibly even DNA tinkering -- viewing these technologies as merely the next logical step in human life and evolution -- whereas digital immigrants (older people) would feel quite differently.

In truth, there is nothing inherently wrong with this generational dichotomy. Fear of change is nothing new, and it seems to grow as we get older. As most people in my age range (I'm 52) will probably remember, parents once feared that TV would turn their children's brains to mush. There were even congressional hearings on the matter. Yet several decades later, kids' brains are no more or less mushy. So clearly TV was not the end of life as we know it. And the Internet won't be either. Nor will jetpacks or self-driving cars or any other new technology. Yes, of course, some folks will abuse new technologies, "losing themselves" in them or using them to take advantage of others. But most people will incorporate scientific advances into their worlds in healthy and productive ways that improve their life -- moving toward utopia rather than dystopia.

*This article is based in large part on material presented in the May 2014 issue of Smithsonian Magazine, which was dedicated to the impact of technology on the present and the future.

Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is senior vice president of clinical development with Elements Behavioral Health. An author and subject expert on the relationship between digital technology and human sexuality, he has served as a media specialist for CNN, The Oprah Winfrey Network, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Today Show, among many others. He is author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men and Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Porn, and Love Addiction, and co-author with Dr. Jennifer Schneider of both Untangling the Web: Sex, Porn, and Fantasy Obsession in the Internet Age and, Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships.