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Of Words and of Worlds

It’s an old idea by now that writers can influence technology. How many astronauts and inventors have left orbit or cobbled together a world-beating doodad because of one too many Star Trek episodes?

How has speculative fiction, whether in film, television, book or graphic novel form influenced not just what we make, but what we expect and want, and how we use what we have? How has it influenced our relationship to Web, Internet and mobile technologies?

The Gooseberry

Being of a rather satirical and skeptical bent of mind myself, the writer whose relationship with technology most closely mirrors my own is Terry Pratchett. Pratchett is best known for his series of novels set on “Discworld” (a planet the shape of a dinner plate that travels through the universe on the back of four gigotious elephants, who in turn stand on the back of the cosmic turtle–duh).


Vimes slammed the Gooseberry down on the desk and picked up the small loaf of dwarf bread that for the last few years he’d used as a paperweight.

“Switch off or die,” he growled.

“Now, I can see you’re slightly upset,” said the imp. Looking up at the looming loaf, “but could I ask you to look at things from my point of view? This is my job. This is what I am. I am, therefore I think. And I think we could get along famously if you would only read the manu–please, no! I really could help you!”

His novel Thud, details the frustrations and challenges facing Samuel Vimes, head cop of the Ankh-Morpork city watch. One of those frustrations is a device given to him by his wife. The “Gooseberry” is an imp-powered personal organizer.

Vimes decides finally to set the imp to work at processing an immense amount of his neglected paperwork, looking for criminal patterns of activity. Although he never completely loses his distaste for this irritating device (and refuses to allow it to determine the course of his day), he figures out how to make it work for him. And this is the key: Technology should work for you. You should not have to work for it. Technology works differently for different people. So find your own relationship with it. Don’t fall for the fiction that there is a “right” way to use technology.

Robots, Recruits and Reporters

A non-scientific poll of co-workers brought the Six Million Dollar Man, Orson Card’s Ender’s Game and the comic “Transmetropolitan to the fore.

Audrey‘s work in cybernetics (she has a cyborg army in her basement) can be traced back to the Man, whose sound effect still accompanies her running.

Justin traces his dalliance with the social web back to Card’s book about a militaristic society’s training of one of its soldiers. It “predicted social networks, blogs and online influence.”

Adrienne says of Transmetropolitian’s protagonist, “Spider Jerusalem epitomizes the brainy, badass, afflict-the-comfortable ethos of journalism in a future where technology and the Internet take corruption, injustice and mainstream madness, and the art of reporting about them, to the next level”

So, what about you? Is there a work or a writer or whatever that has influenced how you use tech, or who expresses your feelings about it? Are you a doodadist of note – if so, did speculative fiction influence your career? Developers and programmers, did a specific work open up a window into what a keyboard, a white board and a some Corn Nuts could do? If so, speak up. (And I resent the charge that this is just a cheap way to get book and movie recommendations. They have technology to do that now!*)

Steampunk photo by Pashasha

*Yeah, it’s called a blog. Ha ha! Face!

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