Webstock 09 : Annalee Newitz

Live blogging Your Business Plan is Science Fiction presentation at Webstock 09 by American journalist Annalee Newitz:

Science Fiction is a public arena, where we talk about how science and technology will impact our lives. It can impact business in an inspiring way. It inspires people in the laboratory in terms of new creations online and offline.

Science Fiction is a public discussion and then they go into the lab with the idea – the area of innovation – so that is no longer public. This feedback loop can be represented as follows:

Sci Fi – public space

Laboratory – innovation, private space

Business – commerce space

Science Fiction is a kind of cultural baggage.  It’s heavy but you need it if you want to change your underwear.

The idea of the tri-corders in Star Trek is appealing to us. Like a smartphone. We are nearly there! So this is an example of how science fiction can impact future business products. William Gibson coined “cyberspace” in his book the Neuromancer. His notion of “cyberspace” is a metaphor, not a prediction. We now live in the vocabulary that Gibson and his contemporaries invented for us. This is crucial to undertanding the way we use the Internet.

The movie Tron from 1982 predicts today’s notion of cyberspace. The hero Tron is a security program that fights for the user in cyberspace. We are still living in that vocabulary. Similarly, The Matrix Movie from 1999 uses almost the same vocabulary as Tron, in that you have a version of yourself in the real world and a mini version in the Matrix and you need to be rescued by the hero. So we are still living in the same sci fi vocabulary as we were in the early 80’s but with better special effects.

A Tale of Two Androids

Cylons from Battlestar Galactica are working against humans.  Early on, the Android platform from Google was designed to replicate a cylon from Battlestar Galactica. The start up screen for Android was even the evil cylon red eye. So why did they abandon that metaphor and change it to the cute friendly droid that we see now for Android? First up, friendly droid is reminiscent of R2D2 from Star Wars, he is a happy, silly, approachable robot. He’s never an angry bot. You never imagine R2D2 will plot an uprising against humans.

So that’s an example of how a product coming to market was influenced by a sci fi myth.

Wearable computers are also packed inside a sci fi myth. Our language for describing wearable computers far outstrips the products available. E.g. Batman and IronMan movies show humans using wearable computers to give themselves special powers. So we have the notion that wearable computers can make us into super heroes. There are already technologies that are already available. Like the projected phone on hand revealed at TED and exoskeletons, which in a real sense give humans super powers and have military applications. So these type of technologies are already prompting the question: do they make me a superhero or a supervillain?

The Segway personal transporter failed in the marketplace because it wasn’t superpowered enough. It played into the idea of us wanting to be super powered, but it wasn’t very fast, didn’t do anything super exciting so ended up as kind of dorky.

Many wearable bluetooth devices default to protected mode as a safety feature to prevent evil hacking nasties. So it’s the traditional Super Villains vs Super Heroes scenario just like in a recent Dr Who episode. That’s another example of sci fi behind developing technologies.

Dollhouse is a brand new sci fi show on US television. The premise is about a new kind of computer interface – a brain computer interface. A rogue scientist has developed a technology to erase memories and re-program brains with new personalities. Ninjas and sex companions are the most requested personality types. This suggests more interest in neurotechnologies, which are already available e.g. BrainGate and the neuro pacemaker, which are both brain computer interface systems.

There are a lot of anxieties around this storyline and it’s a staple of sci fi stories e.g. Frankenstein. People fear new interfaces because it asks the question ” Can I be programmed like a computer?” We are comfortable with one-way interfaces but not two-way.  We see computers as the happy droid, not the angry cylon. But as long as we can control how the interface works, we are comfortable.

One of the absurd ways that interface designers deal with this fear, is to create a sense of privacy around networks where you provide information. For example, FaceBook takes a LOT of personal information and it tries to reassure you by giving you the ability to add *privacy* levels. You control the flow of data. Apparently.  It’s an illusory sense of control because there are many ways to get to the *private* data via hacks, other entities, etc. Yet another odd connection between sci fi and everyday technologies. You don’t fear that Facebook is going to suck your brain out. But maybe you should. Assumption of control is the key.

So how do you escape from science fiction if you’re designing stuff? [Here she showed an image from a sci fi horror comic instead of the usual cute puppy slide to break up the presentation. ] Here’s how:

1) Work within the narrative – build somethng into the product that people recognize and relate to.

2) Tell new stories that counteract the old ones – build stories that counteract the nasty sci fi stories e.g. the bluetooth default on phones is OFF now.

3) Pay attention to the fears expressed and address them – listen to the consumer trends, hear their fears. Watch, listen, learn and apply. Make sure your users don’t enter a Frankenstein story when trialling your products.

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About Kalena Jordan

In my day job, I’m Director of Studies and tutor at the online training institution Search Engine College. In my spare time, I’m a search engine agony aunt and SEO to global clients. I’ve been marketing websites online since 1996 and blogging about search since 2002. To learn more, visit