Thought Leadership and Science Fiction

November 19, 2020

  • Science fiction (SF) has always exerted a major influence on scientific and technological development, from Verne to Star Trek to Gibson and beyond.
  • New research is quantifying SF’s influence and suggests it’s actually accelerating.
  • The world we now live in is so technically advanced it might as well be SF, and effective thought leadership must always be looking around the next corner.


Everywhere science and technology go, science fiction seems to have gotten there first.


Long before we had cell phones, for instance, Kirk was talking to Scotty on a flip phone personal communicator – and the distances these conversations often covered hinted at some sort of hellacious mobile hotspot technology we haven’t begun to get our heads around yet.


Thought Leadership and Science Fiction Blog Image


Jules Verne got to the moon more than a century before Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. New nanobot tech is perhaps only a few years away from what Neal Stephenson envisioned in “The Diamond Age.” Emerging virtual reality (VR) in entertainment and training is gaining on the holodeck. 3D printing is closing in on ST:TNG replicators and maybe – once artificial intelligence (AI) and bioengineering advance a bit more – the prophetic final scene in William Gibson’s “Idoru,” where a digital construct attains full, physical existence, will become a reality.


Okay, but so what? Neanderthals may well have wondered what it was like on the moon. And creation myths are at the foundation of every culture in history. It’s easier to imagine something than to actually build it, though.


True enough, but SF is often a direct inspiration for scientists and technologists.


Gibson’s debut novel, “Neuromancer” – arguably one of the most significant thought leadership documents of the last 50 years – is perhaps the definitive case. Gibson coined the term “cyberspace,” and the spatial metaphor has dominated our development of the Net ever since. Web resources are “sites,” and we “go to” them, for instance. Information highways. The cloud. Online libraries. Discussion forums. And for those who go back far enough, you might remember Mitch Kapor (founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation) and former VP Al Gore comparing it to the agora, the ancient Greek marketplace.


Our 21st century digital reality is hugely influenced by one man’s imagination. The internet is still less visually three-dimensional than what Gibson depicted, but give VR a few more years, integrate it with Second Life and you’re very close.


Now university researchers are studying the importance of SF in shaping scientific and technological development and the results are verifying what generations of sci-tech pros have known for a long time:


[Philipp Jordan at the University of Hawaii and his colleagues] found that researchers use science fiction in a variety of different ways. One is for theoretical design research. Another is to refer to and explore new forms of human-computer interaction, which researchers increasingly think is shaped by science fiction books and films. Then there is the study of human body modification, which is perhaps best explored via the medium of fiction.


“Sci-fi movies, shows or stories do provide an inspiration for the foremost and upcoming human-computer interaction challenges of our time, for example through the discussion of shape-changing interfaces, implantables or digital afterlife ethics,” say Jordan and co.


Even more importantly, the pace of SF’s influence seems to be accelerating.


But the team’s most significant finding is that the role of science fiction seems to be changing. Researchers clearly mention it more often today than at any time in the past. And this data is likely to be just the tip of the iceberg. “We speculate that the explicit referral of sci-fi in human-computer interaction research represents a fraction of the actual inspiration and impact it has had,” they say.


So … what’s the point? A friend really liked the post Evans and I did on IoT and healthcare for Cybersecurity Awareness Month, but asked if maybe it wasn’t just a little … “speculative,” I believe was the word she used.


Well, no, I said. First off, we’re not just speculating about the future, we’re describing today. Second, if we’re gazing into tomorrow, it isn’t far into tomorrow; the things we’re looking at aren’t just plausible, they’re already technically doable.


In the coming weeks our content group will be producing more installments in our popular field guide series. The first will be on one of our most significant current cybersecurity challenges, ransomware, and beyond that we’ll be looking at digital transformation and “future trends.” We’ll address existing technologies and practices that make clear just how “science fiction” the world we live in has already become.


I mean, hey, if we can implant an insulin pump in your body and let you control dosages with a smartphone app, what’s so radical about the idea that someone can medjack your implanted, Bluetooth-connected defibrillator and demand ransom?


We live in … interesting times. And there aren’t many industries where the times are more interesting than cybersecurity. We’re tackling our clients’ most pressing immediate challenges, and we’re also thinking hard about what’s just around the corner.


The future is here. Come explore it with us.

Sam Smith, PhD | Contributor
Sam has worked in technology and communications marketing for more than 20 years and during that time has served a host of Fortune, enterprise and mid-market leaders. He earned his doctorate from the University of Colorado, where he focused on the development and adoption of emerging digital communication technologies.