Everything starts with fiction. As one of the world’s top brand designers, Brian Collins, reveals, “Design is hope made visible.” Any leader ever praised or derided as visionary understands this. Leaders like Oprah Winfrey or Elon Musk define futures and marshal resources to attain them. They inspire others to belief and action.
Even more than in the past, fiction will become one of the essential capabilities for our future. Composing a great film or novel will remain a critical endeavor, but narrative seeds contain far more. As technology expands what’s possible, demand will intensify for those who can propose what best to do, and why. Power transfers to individuals or collectives capable of generating the most compelling, desirable, seductive living experiences— for good or ill.
Humans organize and project power via collectively accepted fictions. Yuval Noah Harari comments in Sapiens, “Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.” What is new this century is the intensity, velocity and scale with which technology will enable humanity’s fiction engines to expand, diversify and transform our lived experiences.
Fiction As Reality
Late 20th Century French philosopher Jean Baudrillard proposed that our media-infused world foments what he called hyperreality. Here, signs and symbols acquire meanings untethered from what we’ve traditionally understood as real. “Reality no longer has the time to take on the appearance of reality. It no longer even surpasses fiction: it captures every dream even before it takes on the appearance of a dream.”
We’ve already witnessed the catalytic, destructive force of fake news, one symptom of change overwhelming our ability to cope. We lack a collective appreciation for how deeply our imaginations construct reality. While true for millennia, we face a tempo of imagination-driven turbulence stirring ethical issues we have yet barely considered.
Technology in all forms is the means through which we convert fiction to reality. Vision and technology power the flywheels of progress and peril. They’re flying faster.
Fiction As The Birth Of All
All discoveries begin as fiction. Not a description of the world as we believe it to be, but as it could be. An entrepreneur’s vision that may or may not prevail. A novel scientific hypothesis, grounded in data but facing the academic community’s ire. Fictions become real when relevant communities (customers or colleagues) agree they are so.
Benedict Anderson argues in Imagined Communities that the nation state would not have existed without fiction. Shakespeare and Cervantes creating evolving national languages and identities, Confucian myth and reality generating a cohesive sense of ‘Chineseness’ across a vast, diverse landscapes and peoples.
Science fiction—the best of it grounded in science— provides gardens for fertile minds. Marcus Weldon, President of Nokia Bell Labs, recently observed at TWIN Global 2018, “Sci-fi that endures the test of time does so because it depicts a future that could and should become a reality.” Utopias and dystopias provide guideposts for the future (as explored here). Genres such as magical realism place fantastical concepts within plausible worlds, as in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Technologies enable us to make the fantastical real, but vision precedes possibility. The Wright Brothers would have been unlikely to invent their airplane had they not first imagined.
Seeing What Others Miss
New technologies disclose new horizons, but it’s up to us to see. Before Galileo, the telescope enabled noblemen to spy on each other. It was Galileo’s inspiration to look skyward and arbitrate our place in the universe.
Imagination and experimentation recursively create the future. Vision matters as much— often more— than technologies. What we’re able to see defines available paths.
Thomas Newcomen’s and James Watt’s steam engines of the 18th century ignited the Industrial Revolution. In the 1st century AD, Hero of Alexandria constructed a steam engine known as an aeolipile. (It’s likely he developed the device as a “temple wonder” to increase donations from gullible worshipers.) Many engineers knew of the equipment, but no one did much with the concept for 1600 years. Imagine if clearer vision had prevailed.
Visions, Stories And The Consequences Of Power
Fiction not only suggests possible futures, it also helps navigate change. I recently read an obituary in The Economist (the world’s best obituaries in English!) of Shan Tianfang, China’s favorite storyteller. Rather than spinning visions of the future, “His favorite stories were always the classics.”
During the cataclysmic days of China’s Cultural Revolution, the authorities knocked out his teeth to silence him and exiled him to cart hay and manure. As The Economist reports, “The builders of New China did not need his old tales, those remnants of the imperial and feudal system.”
How wrong they were. In 1978, post-Mao China rehabilitated Shan and interest in his art thrived to this day, across all forms of media. “He reminded China that it needed these tales, after all.” Embracing the past helps us cope with the present and prepare for the future.
Rapidly advancing technologies offer opportunities to resolve formerly intractable challenges and radically extend and enhance our lives. They also confront us with darker paths. Consider the ability to surveil at ever more granular levels in time and space, to respond to any desire, but also to control, manipulate and exploit.
What we envision constructs enclosing walls around what we’re able to pursue, but we should never imagine that our visions contain or constrain the impact of our actions. Vision limits what we create, but not the implications.
In Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein (arguably the birth of science fiction, in 1818), Dr. Frankenstein’s obsession with science overrode all constraints. Henry Clerval was Frankenstein’s closest friend and the story’s conscience. In contrast to the doctor, Clerval’s ethics led his every consideration. Dr. Frankenstein’s monster—a searching, thoughtful creature in Shelley’s work— later murdered Clerval in retribution against his creator.
Approaching death, facing abject failure, Dr. Frankenstein laments, “All my speculations and hopes are as nothing…. Yet another may succeed.” Perhaps we will be that other?
By nature, humans imagine and create. Imagination frames and informs our search for meaning. We will fiction to life, and in so doing engage forces beyond our intention and control. Choose your fictions wisely.