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How Science Fiction Got the Communications Future Wrong

The latest installment of our science fiction serial is up:

Silence Like Diamonds – Episode 4: Following the Money.

Need to catch up? Start at the beginning: Silence Like Diamonds – Episode 1: Family Business.

Once you're caught up on your reading, come back here and we'll talk about science fiction's past predictions about the future of communications.

I grew up reading the science fiction of the 1940s through the 1970s -- Asimov to Zelazny, with the original Star Trek in between.

Those writers were a divergent lot, ranging from crew-cut engineers to shaggy hippies. But when it came to predicting the future of technology, they made the same errors. They overestimated technology advances in transportation, and underestimated progress in communications technology.

Consider Star Trek: For transportation, we have people flitting around the galaxy in starships, and beaming point-to-point with matter transmitters.

And yet their communications technology was primitive by 21st century standards. They carried big ol' flip-phones, like the kind your Luddite cousin carries around. These "communicators" didn't run apps -- for that, they carried "tricorders" the size of women's purses.

The Star Trek crew did have a tablet like an iPad, which they called a PADD. It was way bulkier and clumsier than my iPad mini. Also, each document apparently required a separate PADD. You'd sometimes see Captain Picard at a desk littered with PADDs to show he was working really hard.

That was the vision through much of 20th century science fiction: We'd fly around the universe in spaceships, and hop around on Earth in our flying cars. But for communications, we'd use the latest technology featured in the 1939 New York World's Fair.

Twentieth century science fiction loved videophones. The crew of the Enterprise used them when they were hanging around the ship. And they were all over the place on The Jetsons. In my experience in the real 21st century, video-calling adoption is spotty. Some people love it, some people avoid it. And of course we don't use "videophones" to make the calls; we use apps on our smartphones and desktops.

One novel of the period, Little Fuzzy, by H. Beam Piper (1962), posits a couple of fascinating videophone customs that are brilliant -- and wrong. In the world of Little Fuzzy, instead of saying "hello," people start videocalls by shaking their own hands, which Piper explains is a thing Chinese people do when greeting each other. I've never encountered this custom, but perhaps I'm not talking to the right Chinese people.

Also, Piper's characters haven't invented voicemail, but when one character is going to be away from his phone, he hangs a handwritten sign in front of the camera to explain where he's going and when he'll be back.

Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) has videophones too. Also, the character Ben Caxton is a journalist with a communications device at his desk that functions, from the narrator's description, like a fax machine. In the universe of Stranger, these devices are usually shared by many people, but Caxton is such a big-shot he has one for his own self.

The real world of communications turned out to be far more advanced and interesting than the portrayals in Stranger, Little Fuzzy, Trek and other 20th century science fiction. For one thing, those universes are devoid of smartphones.

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Also, science fiction writers of the 20th century failed to anticipate the extent to which so much communications of today would be written. The crew of the Starship Enterprise doesn't text, or send email. In 20th century science fiction, nobody did.

And we don't see anything in 20th century science fiction like today's social media. Captain Kirk has a brother, but you never see Kirk checking Facebook for pictures of his nieces and nephews.

Hopefully, the predictions of future communications tech in Light Reading's science fiction story "Silence Like Diamonds" will prove more accurate. Ask us again in 15 years to see how they hold up.

— Mitch Wagner, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profileFollow me on Facebook, West Coast Bureau Chief, Light Reading. Got a tip about SDN or NFV? Send it to [email protected]

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kq4ym 8/21/2015 | 9:55:16 AM
Re: different view An interesting observation. Being on call to the world because we can now, leaves the traditional SF world in some far off land. Decades ago, what would one think of the ability to communicate instantly with anyone anywhere, and of what benefit might it be. And who could conceive of spending so much of one's day punching a device instead of talking?
Owner/Pu73679 8/11/2015 | 8:08:34 AM
different view Perhaps the reason that older SF seems to be out of sync with today's communications technologies is because none of those authors could have conceived that people would want to be on call, to the world, 24/7/365.

Checking Facebook?  Ummm, why do I care what some acquaintance of an acquaintance of a person vaguely known by someone vaguely known is making for dinner?  Or what their cat or dog or toddler just did?

We were supposed to be colonizing the planets, not thumb-wrestling with ourselves.  And we were supposed to be doing so in true pioneering spirit, relying on ourselves, native intelligence and ingenuity - not enabled by "apps" that would do all the thinking and memorizing for us.  Need to compute a ballistic?  Break out the sliderule.  Now hardly anyone even knows what that is, let alone how to use one.

It's great and wonderful and fun to point out how "wrong" our forebears were about things, until you really start to examine whether or not the path we're heading down is a good one.
Mitch Wagner 8/7/2015 | 10:12:32 AM
Re: How about some binge-reading on light reading? You can binge-read on or after Aug. 25, when the last chapter comes out. 

We live to torture you. :)
Mitch Wagner 8/7/2015 | 10:11:13 AM
Re: Picard with multiple PADDs on his desk... I have a laptop on my desk, an external display for the laptop, also on my desk, a phone in my pocket, iPad mini in the other room (I work from a home office), and later today I'm having a Chromebook delivered. So you may have a point. 
Mitch Wagner 8/7/2015 | 10:09:36 AM
Re: flip phones... mhhf1ve:

Love the smart flip phone! 

Over much of the span of the electronics industry, we saw devices get smaller and less expensive. Phones, on the other hand, are getting bigger. I see people with some real colossi strapped to their belts. 

As for the Star Trek communicator -- it's way cool, but $150 is a lot of money for something that isn't even a phone; it's just a Bluetooth accessory. 
John Barnes 8/7/2015 | 2:23:18 AM
Re: How about some binge-reading on light reading? Well, over at tinyurl.com/JohnBarnesAmazonProfile you can find 30-some things to binge-read your way through ...


I always loved the cut-up stories, myself.  They take me back to my dad reading me the comics every day, and reminding me what happened the day before. But chacun a son gout, as the man remarked when he turned down the red wine.
mhhf1ve 8/6/2015 | 6:49:15 PM
How about some binge-reading on light reading? I can't take a story cut up into paged bits... released over weeks... Where can I binge-read? :P
mhhf1ve 8/6/2015 | 6:44:04 PM
Where is my hoverboard?? Lexus sorta made one, but it's not exactly what anyone was expecting from "the future" -- it requires a specially-built skate park? ppffftt!


mhhf1ve 8/6/2015 | 6:41:58 PM
Picard with multiple PADDs on his desk... That actually seems plausible to me... I currently have 3 laptops on my desk right now... and a desktop computer, too. So my desk doesn't look all that much different from Picard's.

And we have Echo and Siri and Cortana (and Google Now) to act like the Ship's Computer nowadays... 
mhhf1ve 8/6/2015 | 6:37:11 PM
flip phones... You can buy a smart flip phone if you really want one... 


And if you really want to look like a Trekkie:


And no mention of Dick Tracy watches? Who wants to talk into their wrists? 
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