Big Technology

Why Tech Companies Need Science Fiction Writers on Staff

A little dystopian thinking can go a long way

Alex Kantrowitz
OneZero
Published in
4 min readAug 27, 2020

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Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, and Google logos superimposed over another image of a hand reaching for an open laptop.
Photo illustration. Source: Aitor Diago/Getty Images

One night last spring, my apartment’s buzzer went off. Meg Elison, an award-winning science fiction writer, was waiting downstairs. She’d agreed to come by for a strange experiment.

I was nearly finished with my book, Always Day One, when I asked Elison to visit for dinner. Wael Ghonim, a leader of the social media–fueled Arab Spring, would join as well. Over falafel and kebab, the three of us would discuss the technology I planned to cover in the book and imagine it taken to its most dystopian ends. We’d go full Black Mirror.

Always Day One covers the tech giants’ work culture, so we weren’t talking about killer robots; this was more about collaboration tools and process automation technology. But still, I came away from the experience believing every tech company should hire a science fiction writer, at least if they’re interested in keeping their products safe.

A void of creative, dystopian thinking has caused serious problems in the tech world, especially among the tech giants. Filled with techno-optimists, these companies routinely miss problems they should anticipate. Google didn’t imagine YouTube would radicalize users, Facebook didn’t expect a foreign power would exploit its service, Amazon didn’t think its “Amazon’s Choice” label would recommend malfunctioning thermometers, and so on.

More than product problems, these are planning problems. Some dark thinking could help the tech giants anticipate where things can go wrong, enabling them to prepare before their crises explode. But instead, they build for the best-case scenario. (Amazon employees, for instance, write up ideas for new products in six-page narratives that always end happily.) So, when things break down, they get bad quickly.

Elison, Ghonim, and I gathered that night to poke holes in my largely optimistic assessment of the tech giants’ internal…

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Alex Kantrowitz
OneZero

Veteran journalist covering Big Tech and society. Subscribe to my newsletter here: https://bigtechnology.substack.com.