The New New

Nike and Boeing Are Paying Sci-Fi Writers to Predict Their Futures

Welcome to the Sci-Fi industrial complex

Brian Merchant
OneZero
Published in
17 min readNov 28, 2018

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Illustration: Nicholas Law

OOne of the most influential product prototypes of the 21st century wasn’t dreamed up in Cupertino or Mountain View. Its development began around a half-century ago, in the pages of a monthly pulp fiction mag.

In 1956, Philip K. Dick published a short story that follows the tribulations of a police chief in a future marked by predictive computers, humans wired to machines, and screen-based video communications. Dick’s work inspired a generation of scientists and engineers to think deeply about that kind of future. To adapt that same story into a $100 million Hollywood film 50 years later, Steven Spielberg sent his production designer, Alex McDowell, to MIT. There, a pioneering researcher — and lifelong Dick fan — named John Underkoffler was experimenting with ways to let people manipulate data with gloved hands. In 2002, a version of his prototype was featured in the film, where it quickly became one of the most important fictional user interfaces since the heyday of Star Trek. Bas Ording, one of the chief UI designers of the original iPhone, told me his work was inspired directly by the gesture-based system showcased in Minority Report.

For the past century, this messy, looping process — in which science fiction writers imagine the fabric of various futures, then the generation reared on those visions sets about bringing them into being — has yielded some of our most enduring technologies and products. The late sci-fi author Thomas Disch called it “creative visualization” and noted there was no more persuasive example of its power “than the way the rocket-ship daydreams of the early twentieth century evolved into NASA’s hardware.” Submarines, cellphones, and e-readers all evolved along these lines.

Minority Report produced a hundred patents and helped rapidly mainstream the concept of gesture-based computing — not just the iPhone but all touchscreen tablets, the Kinect, the Wii — and became cultural shorthand for anyone looking to point their ventures toward the future. Before they even had a script, Spielberg convened a two-day “idea summit” around the film with the intent of establishing a lifelike futureworld. Icons like…

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Brian Merchant
OneZero

Senior editor, OneZero, books, futures, fiction. Author of The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone, founder of Terraform @ Motherboard @ VICE.