by Keith Morrison
©2009 Keith Morrison
One of the greatest faults I see with a lot of writers who work on a piece involving the future: Their remarkable ability to completely overlook possibilities that are building now, and take advantage of them when creating their fictional world. Now, I should be very clear: Im not talking about specific plots, or accurately predicting the future. Rather, Im talking about noticing things which are happening right now and extrapolating them into the future, making those things (and what could flow from them) part of the universe.
Ill give you an example: I carry a BlackBerry. My particular model is a combination phone/web browser/media player/still camera/video camera/audio recorder/document reader/GPS/navigation tool/alarm clock/game device Well, its pretty much what youd expect of a modern smartphone, and it can be a lot more things depending on what apps I load. I can even use it as a modest flashlight, thanks to a specific program that can adjust screen and LED colour and brightness in an emergency.
Until fairly recently, the idea of such a multi-tool was not very easy to find in science fiction. Oh, not to say there werent writers or directors who did have something a little bit like itFredrick Pohls joymaker is in the ballparkbut it was a rare find. However, you cant blame the old authors, since its only been in the last few years that the required combination of technologies has come together. But now that we have them, theyre ubiquitous, and they keep getting better, the continued absence of such devices is looking pretty damn strange. Try to imagine someone in 1920 writing a novel set in 1980 where the telephone doesnt seem to exist for no particular plot-relevant reason, although such a device clearly should impact the plot. Odd, huh?
Consider the recent reboot of Star Trek. Now, had it been a real reboot, a complete reconstruction of that universe from the ground up, think what would happen were the writers to consider just the smartphone, with 200 years of extrapolated improvements. For starters, its a damn good bet that every crew member carries one (well assume no cybernetic implants, and keep it an external device). This gizmo does everything a modern smartphone can, and is hugely flexible. Patient is sick? McCoy attaches his dedicated scanner (through a physical or wireless connection, as needed) and activates the medical apps, which link to the medical computer database, and forwards the results on to Spock because it seems damn peculiar. Spock, currently in his room, is alerted to McCoys message by his unit; he links it to a wall display where he gets a large version of the images McCoy is sending as they talk.
Meanwhile, on the bridge, Kirk is paying attention to the main screen: It seems the landing party have run into some kind of odd structure. Their communicators, aside from being used to chat with the captain, are updating the Enterprise crew on their position and sending biometric data which is being monitored in case of yet another weird alien virusor being eaten, either of these fates being likely to strike a landing party member. At the same time, the team on the ground can receive imagery from orbit, giving them an overview of the area if they need it. (Of course, on a civilized world theyre also fully capable of linking to the local version of GoogleSnardlik for all their mapping needs.) One of the team points her communicator at the structure so the ship is getting a live feed. Meanwhile, in Engineering, Scottys ordered Ensign Newbie up some Jeffries Tube to repair a circuit, which the Ensign is doing while referring to the manual which is loaded on his communicator
And so on and so forth. Not everything I described can be done now, granted. But the thing to keep in mind here is that anyone paying attention to current technology trends would recognize that every single part of my scenario will be possible within the next, oh, say ten years or so. For instance: McCoys scanner? Right now theyre prototyping portable medical ultrasounds which consist of just the small handheld scanner, with the actual processing of the data being handled by an iPhone. I personally have used my phone when I was working on a vehicle outside my home to read the instructions (which Id downloaded online) for doing what I was trying to do.
You see where Im going with this?
Its not just a technological thing, either: Consider culture and society. Lets take the Roman Catholic Church as an example. As it happens, theres currently a nontrivial level of disagreement between how the RCCs official hierarchy says Catholics should behave, on the one hand, and the actual practices of Catholics in the wild in Western Europe and North America, on the other. And on the gripping hand, note the RCCs continued strength and growth in a more religiously conservative Asia and Africa. From this existing data, its reasonable to extrapolate assorted outcomes: A massive exodus amongst the liberal congregations who bail completely, for instance. If you were a bit more ambitious, you might consider a semi-schism, the splitting of the church into a liberal reformist wing (led by the new position of arch-cardinal) and a traditionalist wing, all theoretically belonging to the same church led by a now figurehead pope at the Vatican, but with real power being held by the two arch-cardinals, one in Mexico City and the other in Nairobi. And one of your characters happens to overhear how the traditionalists are in an uproar over the new reformist leader, Arch-Cardinal Margaret of Ireland
On the other hand, you dont want to get carried away. By sheer coincidence, I started writing this last night and today, on my flightfor some reason, I always seem to write these on aircraftStar Trek is onscreen right now. Theres one scene where Kirk enters a building and closes the door; if you look closely, you see it has an ordinary push-bar opening mechanism on the inside, just like youd see in just about any commercial or public building these days. Now obviously, the reason for this is because they filmed the scene at a location and not a set, but it still makes sense in a fictional context. For the simple requirement of keeping a door closed and being able to open it quickly, a push-bar system is entirely functional. And if you want to see how not to do it, compare that to Space: 1999. The crew of Moonbase Alpha all carried around communicators (which made sense) that did some other things, including acting as a remote to open doors. Finebut the only problem was that it was the only way to open doors! Even to get into an unsecured room, the Alphans had to go through this ridiculously long process of keying commands into the communicator.
Instead of, you know, flipping a handle.
In the same way, the remake of Battlestar Galactica had the ship equipped with ordinary telephone handsets. If you want private communication (so not everyone on the bridge has to yell to talk over the people using their hands-free communicators), and dont want to use wireless anyplace its not absolutely required (remember the ship was built when they were paranoid about the Cylons hacking into their systems), then why not use entirely functional tech? Mind you, Im not saying a Galactican talkbox uses the exact same machinery as a 2009-vintage Terran telephone; after all, the speaker might not use a diaphragm, nor the microphone an electromagnet. But in brute functional terms, theres no reason it shouldnt look pretty much like a normal telephone handset.
This is one of the reasons why you should also look backwards to observe the things that havent changed very much. The materials making it up may be better, but a standard axe for splitting wood would be entirely recognizable and instantly usable for someone from the Paleolithichell, probably as far back as Homo erectus. A secretary from 1900 might take a while to figure out a computer, but he or she would definitely know how to use a keyboard (there is a reason the QWERTY layout is still with us). Then theres sporting equipment: A modern road-racing bicycle may be made of carbon fibre and have gone through wind-tunnel testing to contour the frame for minimal resistance but high-tech engineering or no, a participant in the 1908 Olympics could use that beast (assuming it came with the shoes to lock into the pedals) if hed been given it five minutes before the race started, and I suspect that bicycles for the 2108 Olympics wont have changed much more.
In a way, what you see in fiction is the equivalent of seeing the mutant child of an architect who insists on building everything exactly the same way they built it 100 years ago, and an architect who is so bloody enamoured of whiz-bang cool stuff that he tries to make everything as high-tech as possible without asking if its really necessary and, more importantly, if its actually practical. Because, you know, Id just love to be trapped in the bathroom during a power failure thanks to genius-boy having decided nobody could possibly ever need to open that motion-detecting sliding door without electricity. Or, again heading back to the good old Enterprise, would you really want to design a holding cell that depends on constant power in order to prevent the prisoner from simply walking out when the force field fails, when the same thing could be accomplished with a door and a mechanical lock, entirely operational even if the ship had no power, and a sheet of thick plexiglass? Or even the traditional metal bars?
The lock is actually a good example of what Im talking about: I have an electronic lock on my home, and my fire department recently installed a keyless entry system using a fob to unlock the door. In both cases, however, theres a redundant alternative way inyou can also use a simple key. And, just as important, the actual mechanism of the lock (a retractable hunk of metal that extends from the door) is exactly the same as a regular lock, the same one thats been around for centuries and the same that will be as equally useful centuries hence.
So when youre thinking about the future, remember that some things will change; others wont. The key is thinking about what falls into which category.