We’re ready for our screen test


Does science fiction predict the future of tech for those of us stuck in the present or is it all on the screen? Peter Coffee is in the director’s chair.

Boldly going
Boldly going

With a new Star Trek movie upon us, it’s almost a requirement that we acknowledge the features of modern life that were introduced (or if not pioneered, then at least first popularized) in that fictional world.

It’s probably no coincidence that these nearly-real Trek techs are all in the realm of connecting people with other people (or simulations thereof). We’re deeply wired to want to interact with others, and our ability to share knowledge throughout a community and across the generations gives us our closest approximations to traveling at the speed of light – or even into the future.

We’ve been less successful at repealing the laws of physics, for example in areas like traveling faster than light (let alone rematerializing an object in another location). Perhaps the most annoying gap, though, between the world of Trek and our present reality is defined by two words: “On screen!”

Oh, the power. If we could actually say, “I’d like to see what’s happening…there.” Apparently, there is no need for cameras to be present: in some cases, the command is being given to observe an event that is clearly destroying anything like a camera, anywhere near what’s happening.

It doesn’t matter how far away, or how adverse the environment surrounding whatever is going on: “On screen” gets us a real-time, high-definition view.

In another way, however, we could claim that we already have an on-screen power that the starship captains have yet to imagine: a growing variety of methods and applications for combining our more local and limited real-world viewing with carefully constructed fantasies and illusions. Some people call it “augmented reality”, although there’s debate about what qualifies for that label: purists derogate mere location-aware behavior, compared to applications (such as field service) requiring far more coupling and interaction.

See that coming?

Trivially, of course, there’s the in-the-moment example of Pokémon Go: the superposition of simple fictional creatures and objects onto our views of what’s right in front of us, creating a kind of involvement that has propelled both extraordinary commercialization and distressing levels of stupidity.

As often happens, those who say that no one saw this coming are probably those who have not been reading William Gibson: he discussed the notion of “locative art”, in which an artist could simulate the addition of literal or conceptual elements into a real-world place and space, in his novel Spook Country nearly a decade ago.

The difference between Gibson and real life—and again, this seems in my experience to be a common occurrence—is that Gibson was not prepared to project the broad and inexpensive availability of the enabling technology as aggressively as the real world achieved it. The book appeared at the same time as the rather expensive and quite limited-capability first-generation iPhone: Gibson’s scenario of needing bulky and presumably expensive virtual-reality viewing sets should therefore not be ridiculed as overly conservative.

In fact, there are far more dramatic examples of fiction grossly under-estimating technical progress, including even the canon of “Star Trek.” In 1989, the robotic character “Data” was said to have a speed (in rough terms) that was on the order of 30 to 40 thousand times as fast as the real world’s fastest computer at that time. The episode’s fictional date was 323 years in the future – but only 26 years after the episode appeared, the world’s fastest computer was already hundreds of times faster than the fictional 23rd-century Trekbot.

The compound effects of exponential growth are more than most people are willing to extrapolate in public.

Getting back to what I want most, a real-world “on screen,” we can see something of the sort in a pair of concept videos that I have often used as an example: Corning’s “Day Made of Glass” series, parts I and II. These videos make a key point: that for all our fascination with the abstractions of bits and protocols, it takes extraordinary materials-science alchemy to manifest those fantasies as experiences that we can take wherever they will yield value.

With that magic happening all around us, we can and must ask the hard questions about what it’s important to see – and what we must be careful not to filter out of our world view, lest we see only that which we already want to believe. The whole point of being able to say, “On screen!”, is to find out what’s actually happening – not merely to confirm what we already thought to be true.

Image credit - Paramount