Emerging Technologies in Fiction

I haven’t talked here about books much, but, well, I am a librarian, after all. It should be no surprise to anyone that I love books, have a lot of books, and learn a lot from books. Much of what I learn is related to my job, one way or another. I’ve talked with a few other emerging technologies librarians about this because, for myself, I cannot imagine doing my job without reading science fiction or speculative fiction. Others can, and do, but I just look at them blankly, with a sense of utter bafflement. I truly cannot imagine being an emerging technologies librarian and not reading science fiction. I’m not the only one who thinks so, of course. Yesterday I stumbled across this workshop from Rosenfeld Media on using science fiction to spark innovation.

Rosenfeld Media: Make It So: Using Science Fiction to Uncover New Interface Opportunities: A full-day workshop with Nathan Shedroff: http://rosenfeldmedia.com/workshops/make-it-so/

A big part of the reason is that this approach works for me is that fiction (of any sort) is storytelling, and storytelling is sensemaking. I’ve written here before, many times, about the importance of storytelling. Most recently, my focus on storytelling has been influenced strongly by the Digital Storytelling Workshop I participated in a year ago. That has influenced my approach to how I want to communicate information to others, and also how I want people to communicate information to me. There are concepts I’ve wanted to put into blogposts, and then I get frustrated and dream up a story. So far, you haven’t seen the stories, but I am really thinking hard about this as a viable way to communicate emerging technologies and science concepts.

Today, I wanted to just toss out a few titles that have particularly inspired me recently.

David Brin’s Existence: http://www.davidbrin.com/existence.html

Please note this book. Since 1998 I’ve been pushing David’s TRANSPARENT SOCIETY as his most important book, and one of the most important reads for anyone in our culture. Period. This is because of its exploration of the tense dynamic between transparency and privacy at levels from personal to national to global. Existence is a fictionalized exploration of the same concepts combined with emerging tech. Many say it is David’s masterpiece, his most important work. This is a must read, but … read it slowly, and really think about it.

Daniel Suarez’s technothriller The Daemon: http://thedaemon.com

I was given a copy of this by fellow librarian Grace York, who thought it would be of interest to me. She commented, “Daniel says that all the technology to do this is available right now!” Daniel is right. The Daemon is a cautionary tale looking at the intersection of gaming, artificial intelligence, and social engineering. That drastically oversimplifies, so let me add that if you have any remote interest in privacy or security, whether online or in person, this is a book I think you should read. Remember, it is all possible NOW. This is not about ten years from now or when your kids grow up.

Tony Ballantyne’s Recursion Trilogy (comprised of Recursion, Capacity, and Divergence): http://blog.worldswithoutend.com/2011/06/the-recursion-trilogy-tony-ballantyne/

You may have seen the phrase “The Singularity is coming!” or the related humorous twist, “I welcome our robot overlords.” Many folk may not even realize these two are related. The idea behind both phrases is that artificial intelligence is making phenomenal progress. Really! When I was in grad school one of the areas in which I was reading was about artificial transcription, having a computer that is able to listen to human speech and turn it into written (typed) words. I never believed this would happen in my life, but about 5 or 6 years ago Bolt Beranek & Newman (BBN) came up with a public search engine for podcasts that did this. Then that tech was incorporated into Youtube. It isn’t perfect, but it is still incredible.

So, artificial intelligence. So what happens when the computers get smarter than the people? That is what folk are calling The Singularity. The Recursion Trilogy explores the Singularity from the point of view of humans involved, although some of them become less or more human as the story progresses. This is a relatively gentle variant of the story, which allows the author to explore quite a variety of tech related to simulations, holograms, augmented reality, and much more. All I have to say is I hope that when this really happens, they find humans as amusing as is the case in this book. Does that offend you? Well, read it, and think about what it means to be human, really.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy (comprised of Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars):
– Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars_trilogy
– Mangalawiki http://kimstanleyrobinson.info/w/index.php5?title=Mars_trilogy

These books give me goosebumps. Goosebumps like watching the first Moon Landing, the sense of doors not just opening, but dissolving into something previously unimaginable. I’ve been buying multiple copies, giving them away, insisting people read this.

I love NASA and remember fondly when I was a child, sitting on the floor as close to the television as my parents would allow, with the whole family watching the rockets blast off from Cape Canaveral. These days, the closest I get to that experience is when I log into Second Life to watch the NASA TV with friends there. One day, we were watching the last launch of the shuttle or something like that, and I was raving about Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, saying it was very possibly the most important trilogy I’ve read in my life. All of a sudden, Paradox Olbers chimed in, agreeing with me, that this IS the best trilogy ever. Paradox is a grand old man of the NASA and astronomy community in Second Life, so when folks heard him say this, everyone paid attention.

So, what is it that excites me so much about these? They are incredibly well crafted, and examine the possible story of humans settling on Mars through a surprisingly large cast of well-developed characters, each of which comes with his or her own bias and slant. Some characters become a lens into understanding the tech, but others reveal thoughts on the psychological complications or historical context and significance. Where the book does talk about tech, I have the sense that angels were whispering in Robinson’s ear. The only thing that is off is the timeline. Robinson forecasts the development of an enormous range of new technologies. For the earlier ones, he forecast they’d emerge around 2040 or so, but the timeline is off — they are happening now. Now! When I read these books, I don’t feel so much of a willing suspension of disbelief as a sense of a tiny peephole into the future, that this happened already, and I just have to live long enough to confirm it. I could go on at length about specifics into ideas in the book that excited me, or the remarkable craft of the actual storytelling, but this is only one blogpost, so instead, perhaps you should just read these. Warning, to read them closely, plan on spending a few months at it. This is dense reading.


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