Roads Not Taken

Nobody predicted mobile phones, and nobody predicted the internet. Or rather, lots of people predicted both of them, but nobody actually figured out what they'd do. This came to my notice most recently when I was re-reading Connie Willis' excellent Doomsday Book, where a good bit of the plot revolves around people not being able to contact each other, and information not being available. Doomsday Book was written in 1993, just before things really took off on the 'net, and it's a look at a future where observational time travel is not only possible, but the tool of academia, where the Tube runs to Oxford, and large scale epidemics are a day-to-day concern. Kids carry full video capable handheld devices, but nobody has any mobile connection devices, and people need to physically visit computer labs to get data.

Star Trek had communicators in the 60s, and today's mobile phones are far smaller, and have far more functions than the one Kirk had. But even the mobile phone companies, at least in Europe, failed to see that the text message functions would be as popular, if not more so, than the call functions (for me, they're 90% of the use I make of my mobile). Cameraphones were definitely not predicted, and they're already making sweeping differences in crime investigation, news propogation, and amateur pornography. The internet - well, you're reading this on the internet, possibly even on a mobile device. There's no really useful way I could get this discussion to you otherwise.

So the result of this is that a lot of our near-future science fiction is becoming alternate reality, what might have been as opposed to what could be. Many writers now are bust working away on the possibilities of genetic engineering, and it may yet happen that that becomes a minor backwater of science, and that subcutaneous glowing symbol implants become the move-and-shake technology of the next decade. Neural interfaces have been a stable of cyberpunk for twenty years, but who's to say that projected holographs might not be a favoured interface? My own personal prediction for the next few years is agent software that tells me "You bought the DMG, and Quicksilver. You read Cybermind, and PVP, and the only television you watch is Kerrang! - therefore, you should vote for Neil Gaiman as the next World President." But that's likely to be superceded by things I haven't yet thought of - something that reads my skin temperature and makes part-decisions for the global legislature based on that and the number of sunspots, maybe.

I'm well supplied with cutting edge science-fiction. What I'd like to see recommendations for, though, are books like Doomsday Book, that are becoming alternate history as time goes on.

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Posted by Drew Shiel at January 21, 2005 11:37 AM | TrackBack

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All of which is why, of course, serious SF writers acknowledge that they are not trying to predict the future, but just explore possibilities.

What I still love are the futures of the 50s; where computers are huge room-sized vacuum-tube monstrosities. Things like that.

Posted by: Randall at January 24, 2005 8:16 AM