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How Science Fiction Got the Communications Future Wrong

Captain Kirk never checked Facebook.

Mitch Wagner

August 4, 2015

4 Min Read
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.

Get the latest mobile news, analysis, and opinion on Light Reading's dedicated mobile content channel.

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].

About the Author(s)

Mitch Wagner

Executive Editor, Light Reading

San Diego-based Mitch Wagner is many things. As well as being "our guy" on the West Coast (of the US, not Scotland, or anywhere else with indifferent meteorological conditions), he's a husband (to his wife), dissatisfied Democrat, American (so he could be President some day), nonobservant Jew, and science fiction fan. Not necessarily in that order.

He's also one half of a special duo, along with Minnie, who is the co-habitor of the West Coast Bureau and Light Reading's primary chewer of sticks, though she is not the only one on the team who regularly munches on bark.

Wagner, whose previous positions include Editor-in-Chief at Internet Evolution and Executive Editor at InformationWeek, will be responsible for tracking and reporting on developments in Silicon Valley and other US West Coast hotspots of communications technology innovation.

Beats: Software-defined networking (SDN), network functions virtualization (NFV), IP networking, and colored foods (such as 'green rice').

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