Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Tuesday 24/05/2005Whoop! Whoop! Scanners are picking up the distinctive emissions of a futurologist, Captain.

Tuesday 24/05/2005

Whoop! Whoop! Scanners are picking up the distinctive emissions of a futurologist, Captain. Identity... Ian Pearson, from the BeeTee homeworld. Futurology is a peculiar business — a particularly soulless brand of sci-fi where the characters exist only to press buttons. As futurologists tend to be employed by companies that make gadgets or sell services that interact in some way with gadgets, the futures they ologise are mini-utopias created entirely by gadgets. Trust us, is the theme, and we shall deliver you from evil. Thanks, but I've heard that one. As has anyone who's come into contact with the cracking satirical SF dystopias that came out of the gee-whizz Madison Avenue days of America half a century ago (Try The Space Merchants by Pohl and Kornbluth to see just how little has changed).

To give him his due, Pearson's eye-swivel rate is far below the worst of the species — but that means he falls into the second common trap. If you're not positing something that's too good to be true, it's too trite to be interesting. Today's pronouncement is that we shall all have 'force fields' surrounding us, protecting us from the yammering intrusion of marketing messages carried aloft on the sea of wireless connectivity that even now rises to engulf us all. Well, yes — but then I could describe my spyware, adware, virus and intrusion firewall software in exactly those terms. Am I sheltering behind a force field, or just running some software?

Working out what the future holds and deciding whether we want it that way is very important: foresight is what makes us human and justifies the power that some give, some take. There is nothing wrong with playing spacemen in the meadows of what-iffery. But I'd be much more interested if BT sponsored a bright, imaginative and insightful chap whose primary interests weren't in gizmo-laden extrapolations, but in the morality and social implications of companies operating in a very pro-corporate and technical environment. What if BT had managed to impose that patent on hyperlinks? What will happen if everything SCO wants to be true, is true? In the painfully bright world of the corporate future, what is the relationship between us and the company — who owns what, and who has the right to do what?

These are the questions which matter, the questions good SF and exceptional sci-fi tackles head-on and futurologists tend to shove under the nano-woven active-surface technocarpet. I don't mind the force fields, but let's uncloak some of the motivations too.