Skip to content

On not being surprised by the future

The future is already here. It’s just unevenly distributed
                            William Gibson

A recent discussion about bad television science fiction versus what good science fiction can be illuminates the challenge of coping with today’s technology environment in everyday organizational reality.

It started with a recent speech by Star Trek writer Ron Moore:

At his recent keynote speech at the New York Television Festival, former Star Trek writer and creator of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica Ron Moore revealed the secret formula to writing for Trek.

He described how the writers would just insert "tech" into the scripts whenever they needed to resolve a story or plot line, then they’d have consultants fill in the appropriate words (aka technobabble) later.

"It became the solution to so many plot lines and so many stories," Moore said. "It was so mechanical that we had science consultants who would just come up with the words for us and we’d just write ‘tech’ in the script. You know, Picard would say ‘Commander La Forge, tech the tech to the warp drive.’ I’m serious. If you look at those scripts, you’ll see that."

Moore calls Star Trek’s tech "meaningless"

This triggered an excellent rant by Charlie Stross, one of today’s best science fiction authors, on his blog about Why I Hate Star Trek. Here’s the key point for me:

…I start by trying to draw a cognitive map of a culture, and then establish a handful of characters who are products of (and producers of) that culture. The culture in question differs from our own: there will be knowledge or techniques or tools that we don’t have, and these have social effects and the social effects have second order effects much as integrated circuits are useful and allow the mobile phone industry to exist and to add cheap camera chips to phones: and cheap camera chips in phones lead to happy slapping or sexting and other forms of behaviour that, thirty years ago, would have sounded science fictional. And then I have to work with characters who arise naturally from this culture and take this stuff for granted, and try and think myself inside their heads. Then I start looking for a source of conflict, and work out what cognitive or technological tools my protagonists will likely turn to to deal with it.

… 

The biggest weakness of the entire genre is this: the protagonists don’t tell us anything interesting about the human condition under science fictional circumstances. The scriptwriters and producers have thrown away the key tool that makes SF interesting and useful in the first place, by relegating "tech" to a token afterthought rather than an integral part of plot and characterization. What they end up with is SF written for the Pointy-Haired [studio] Boss, who has an instinctive aversion to ever having to learn anything that might modify their world-view. The characters are divorced from their social and cultural context…

Why I hate Star Trek
Tue, 13 Oct 2009 11:01:45 GMT

There are two common responses to thinking about how technology impacts today’s organizations. In Pointy-Haired Boss mode, the constants of human behavior and motivation are ALL that matter. The background sets might be shinier, but it’s still just a SOAP opera and being in tune with human drama and politics is what separates winners and losers. In technology singularity mode, there are no people to clutter up the shiny sets. Neither of these common approaches is very useful, although both have the useful property of not requiring a great deal of thought or work. Unfortunately, it puts pointy-haired bosses at the mercy of snake-oil salesmen and marginalizes technocrats.

The third way requires that you become more comfortable operating where technology and people collide. Depending on your own background and predispositions you may need to invest time in learning more about people or technology. Both benefit if you get your experience first hand whenever possible. Second hand experience can also make a difference. That can take the form of tracking down the better case studies of organizations succeeding and failing with new technology. I would also advocate adding a dash (or more) of good science fiction, if you have a taste for fiction in general. Here are some suggested starting points:

What have you found helpful? Either in terms of recommended reading or in terms of useful practices?

{ 2 } Trackbacks

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Adina Levin, Jim McGee. Jim McGee said: from McGee's Musings – On Not Being Surprised by the Future – http://bit.ly/dbwUZ [...]

  2. [...] my inbox and browser windows. Doctorow does just the opposite of "teching the tech;" that lazy approach to storytelling of sprinkling random technological terminology into an otherwise ordinary story. Instead he takes a [...]