Future Tense

Forget the Tricorder

Why gadgets aren’t the coolest part of science fiction.

A tricorder and a lightsaber.
The tricorder and the lightsaber are cool, but the ideas in sci-fi are cooler.

Star Trek replica tricorder photo by Bruno Vincent/Getty Images. Star Wars lightsaber photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images.

This piece is part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University. On Thursday, Oct. 2, Future Tense will host an event in Washington, D.C., on science fiction and public policy, inspired by the new anthology Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future. For more information on the event and to RSVP, visit the New America website; for more on the Hieroglyph project, visit the website of ASU’s Project Hieroglyph.

When we think about science fiction, we tend to focus on the gadgets. And why not? From fanciful technologies like Star Wars’ lightsabers and Back to the Future’s hoverboards to utilitarian innovations like Arthur C. Clarke’s geostationary satellites and Star Trek’s clamshell phones, the genre creates indelible images of the future using tangible items as anchors. The gadget puts the future in human terms, taking a multitude of variables and unknowns and boiling them down into one essential thing that is different. Science fiction scholars even have a word for this breathtaking shiny new thing that sets the tone for the fictional world: novum, a term coined in the 1970s by Darko Suvin.

But throughout the history of science fiction, the most transformative technologies are social and cultural phenomena, not gadgets. The most important “technology” in Isaac Asimov’s Robot trilogy (1950–1955) is not the underlying mechanics of the self-motivated positronic robots (they’re the novum), but rather the Three Laws of Robotics that govern their behavior and the ethical, legal, and cultural structures that form around the robots’ integration into human society. In Ursula Le Guin’s masterful The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), the most shocking and revolutionary innovation is the Ekumen, a peaceful, radically democratic intergalactic version of the United Nations, not the starships or the ansibles—interstellar communications devices powered by quantum entanglement. (You probably have Le Guin to thank for iMessage and Snapchat.) You can see the dark flipside of this triumph of the social and cultural over the technological in classic dystopian works like George Orwell’s 1984, where the most important technologies are doublethink and doublespeak, rather than the dual-function telescreens that deliver both propaganda and surveillance to each and every home.

This makes sense, because when we think carefully about creating a better future, the most difficult challenges are on the level of culture—how we define concepts like community, democracy, fairness, and the good life—rather than tricky engineering challenges. Many of today’s most pressing global crises, from providing clean water to people in the developing world and stamping out infectious diseases to combating climate change, are technologically solved. What we lack is the political and cultural will to reallocate our resources and reorganize our priorities to implement these solutions.

What is true for Asimov, Le Guin, and Orwell is equally true for the science fictional visions of the near future presented in Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, a new anthology featuring stories by contemporary science fiction luminaries like Cory Doctorow, Neal Stephenson, Annalee Newitz, Bruce Sterling, and Elizabeth Bear. (Full disclosure: I work at the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, which produced the book in collaboration with our publisher, William Morrow; Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, ASU, and New America.) For example, Lee Konstantinou’s “Johnny Appledrone vs. the FAA” imagines an alternative Internet free from government and corporate surveillance, powered by swarms of flying DIY drone routers. The drones in the story are barely more sophisticated than what we have now, and Google is already experimenting with flying (well, floating) routers through its Project Loon. The truly transformative element is the emergence of a “dronepunk” movement that uses drones as a symbol and a rallying point for advocacy around issues of privacy, surveillance, and censorship.

Similarly, in Cory Doctorow’s “The Man Who Sold the Moon,” which imagines Burning Man devotees sending Kickstarter-funded 3-D-printing robots to the Moon, the gadget is only an incremental elaboration of 3-D printing and robotics technologies we already have today. The story’s emotional and narrative engine is the Burning Man culture and its ethical devotion to the concept that there is, in fact, such a thing as a free lunch. The protagonists’ big idea is to print out the bricks for a moon base so whoever gets to the moon will be surprised that everything they need to get started has already been provided for them by strangers, for free.

When French philosopher and intellectual celebrity Michel Foucault wrote about “technology,” he defined it quite expansively to include social structures, systems of thought, and processes, not just physical items. As an example, when Foucault thinks about the assembly line as a technology, he’s not thinking about the mechanical conveyer belt that moves items quickly and easily from worker to worker. For him, the more profound aspect of the assembly line is the idea of breaking a complex process into small, discrete tasks so each worker can contribute with maximum efficiency to the overall process without having to understand how to assemble the entire product.

Applied to science fiction, a genre obsessed with flashy, gee-whiz gadgets, Foucault’s definition of technology can help us see that the most important innovations that will shape our future aren’t the gadgets, but the beliefs, values, communities, and relationships that will determine how we use them. And as major corporations like Google and Lowe’s pay more attention to how science fiction can serve as a laboratory for prototyping future gadgets, we should think about how science fiction storytelling itself can be a technology for thinking about the social and cultural changes we’ll need to make to build the future we want to live in.