by Dan Cohen
Technology follows the imagination.
It’s always been that way. The great leaps in tech (civilian, military, or intelligence sectors) are never entirely accidental. Someone somewhere has an idea, and if they’re capable, tries to wrenchit out of the ether to make it a reality. Sometimes they’re lucky enough to ignite a single spark, which future thinkers might kindle into something tangible; and sometimes they can watch their creation burn to life, casting light into the empty niches of the ware (both hard and soft) worlds. Technology, especially cyber technology, is often built on the backs of predecessors. OS X and SpaceX didn’t just show up out of the blue. They were nuanced upgrades on existing ideas that shifted the paradigm. Great technologies are often improvements on great ideas of the past, and what’s interesting to see is that a lot of these ideas first showed up as pure literary speculations. If the mind is the birthplace of ideas, then the page is often the nursery. Authors of the past were the ones who dreamed up a lot of those things you might take for granted. Things that make up your everyday online experience often blossomed in someone’s imagination multiple generations in the past.
Here are a few cyber technologies that first showed up as nothing (and everything) more than ink and paper.
“Siri, find me the nearest fact that will blow my mind.” Voice control is everywhere these days. With Amazon’s ‘Alexa’ doing your bidding from the bedside table, to your cell phone’s ability to transcribe text while you’re busy navigating a road full of terrible drivers, voice recognition has cropped up just about everywhere. Although VC can trace its physical roots to Bell Laboratories in the 1950’s (yes, Bell as in Alexander Graham Bell. The guy was an innovator!), that system could only recognize digits. It was Hal 9000 from Arthur C. Clarke’s 1968 novel ‘2001 A Space Odyssey’ that inspired the VC we know and recognize today.
“Good morning, Dave.”
‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ by Douglas Adams introduced us to the cute and squirmy concept of a little fish that wiggles into one’s ear and translates in real time, able to decode any language in the known universe. It was a fantastic idea that rightly resonated with a lot of people as quite the fin-tastic apparatus. It was aptly named ‘The Babel Fish’ after the ‘Tower of Babel’ biblical story, which of course aims to explain why people speak different languages. Now there are all sorts of real-time translator apps for your computer or phone, including one called ‘Bablefish’ on Android which can do the same sort of translation for you (minus the slime).
Have you ever heard (or had) a snippet of a conversation that went like this?
Parent: I’m hip. I’m on Facebook now.
Child (rolling eyes): Social media isn’t for old people. Don’t even think about stalking my page.
Interestingly, not only is social media for everyone, but it is quite the old idea. It was proposed all the way back in 1898. Mark Twain’s short story ‘From the London Times in 1904’ predicted not only a basic version of the internet, but the way we might use such a system for personal presentation of our daily lives. Twain called it the ‘Telectroscope’, which may not be quite as snappy as Twitter, but you’ve got to give credit where credit is due.
George Orwell’s eerie portrayal of a 1980’s dystopia (a ‘1984’ without Garbage Pail Kids, ColecoVision, or Wham!) hit a lot of nerves with readers, probably because of its prescience. Orwell predicted tons of censorship, propaganda, and governments that would rule with an iron fist, utilizing the mass surveillance. What he probably didn’t expect was the populace signing up for this mass surveillance via social media (thanks again, Twain!) with open arms and putting all their secrets out in the open. He also probably didn’t expect his foreboding idea of Big Brother to be warped and turned into a reality TV show, which the masses could survey themselves. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.
Although a lot of science-fiction touched on the idea, one novel was eerily close in its predictions. William Gibson’s 1984 cyberpunk masterpiece ‘Neuromancer’ is about a washed-up hacker named Case. Gibson wrote the novel at a time when personal computers were still a new concept, yet he predicted such devices could be turned into a worldwide network where information could be shared and exploited. Neuromancer was the first novel to win the three biggest science fiction awards possible (Nebula, Philip K. Dick, and Hugo) and for good reason, as his ideas were so potent they even inspired such transformative films as ‘The Matrix.’ Neuromancer didn’t predict the abundance of Memes or ‘Gagnam Style’ but hey, you can’t predict them all.
New speculative fiction is coming out all the time, all-across the globe, with ideas that seem outlandish, and impossible, and wildly audacious in scope. But look where we are now. Most of us have a small rectangular device in our pocket right now that has instant access to the entire cache of human knowledge and the ability to communicate with nearly everyone on the globe. The cyber past was quite sensational, but the cyber present is even more so. Who knows what’s in store for the cyber future?
Maybe you should write it.
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