Technology, how it changes, and what it evolves into is a subject close to the heart of science fiction. It’s what forms the speculative world around the stories, and what drives the plot. In some cases, like The Terminator, and The Matrix, it’s the focal point of the entire story.
Looking back on older science fiction can be very telling in terms of how the technology of the day shaped the minds of the authors who created the stories. Sometimes we see a very accurate portrayal of the future, but often the future is quite different from the prediction when we get there. Stanley Kubrick’s classic movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey is an example of both.
While we haven’t been all that interested in returning to the moon since 1972, the movie was used this year as an example of prior art in Samsung’s defense against Apple with regard to tablet design. On the one hand, Kubrick was way off in his assumption the moon would remain a viable target in our space program. On the other, his vision of technological design remains cutting edge well over four decades later.
So how does an author get technology right? How does one accurately prognosticate far into the future to give a realistic picture of it? Looking at a great story of science fiction, whether film or book, how do we tell which technology will be there when the time the story takes place in arrives?
I think one of the ways is by looking at the past for examples, and understanding why something didn’t last. Vinyl records have had a great run, and are still being sold, even in today’s age of downloading music in virtual form only. That’s a pretty good track record for something invented in 1877 by Thomas Edison. A similar format, CD’s had a good run and are still going strong. Laser discs, however, crashed and burned. They were really only around for a decade, and even then really never took off.
Why is that? What made certain formats crash and burn and others last? You probably already know the reasons, and there are a lot of them. They’re fairly simple and obvious, but it all boils down to the fact they combined disadvantages of vinyl with disadvantages of the CD, and not the other way around.
Let’s look at books and see if we can make a prediction. Mass produced paper books have been around since Gutenberg invented movable type printing in 1439. Digital book readers were invented around 1970, but haven’t seen widespread commercial success until this past decade. They’re on the rise now, and with the most recent figures showing sales exploding with 160% growth, compared to a decline in paper over the same period, it’s safe to say they’re the next big thing.
But will they last? Will e-book readers forge on into the future until at some point we finally integrate ourselves with cybernetics and hook in to the virtual world ourselves?
I think not. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge proponent of e-book readers. I own one myself, and I love it. I think they’re a large part of the immediate future, but I don’t think they’ll have the staying power, and here’s why.
We like things bundled. It’s convenient. It’s direct. We buy our connections to the outside world handily bundled into Internet/Cable/Telephone packages. Our phones have become mini-computers, with the ability to play our music, let us surf the web, give us directions, and still occasionally talk on the phone.
And therein lies the problem with e-books. They’re not bundled with anything else. Sure, advocates predict further growth as e-books expand into the realm of the interactive. Providing multimedia content will help, but it won’t be enough.
For the same reason independent GPS devices are going extinct with the advent of the Android and iPhone technology, e-readers will be a thing of the past. Tablets already provide us with an easy to use computer interface that bundles the various aspects of technology in a neat, compact format for us, and they also allow us to download books and read them as easily as we could from an e-reader. We’ll have all of the same advantages of an e-reader on them, with the ability to do a whole lot more.
And sure, tablets are more expensive, but that will change. It always does. Remember how expensive DVD players were when they first hit the market? As recently as 1997, they sold for an average of $735.00. Now you can pick up a cheap one for less than it’d cost to take someone to the movies, without springing for popcorn and drinks. Shoot, you almost can’t go to the movies alone for that price anymore. Prices are always outrageously high when a new product comes out. And they always drop.
Tablets will change the face of this technology, but they won’t do it alone. The one thing they’re lacking is good integration with the telephone. That’s the current problem. We want our phones miniscule, but then you can’t read on them. We want our tablets bigger, but then they make an awkwardly large phone.
This is only a temporary problem, though. Bluetooth technology is already well established, and it will easily bridge the gap. I’d look for technology in the future that combines the two, allowing either a small detachable phone built into tablets, or just running the phone via the tablet with a Bluetooth connection. This will allow you to take your novel to the beach and read in solitude, and when you need to, use it to phone home.
In the end, while it’s still a guess, it’s an educated one. One we can make by studying what has and has not worked in the past. As writers we can use these guesses to provide a more accurate world for our stories. As readers, our speculation of the accuracy of an author’s prediction makes the story more enjoyable. And that’s what it’s all about. Enjoyment.