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In the Beginning … Chapter One of “Films from the Future”

Over the next several weeks, I’ll be posting weekly excerpts from Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi Movies. The book can be pre-ordered at Amazon.com


Chapter One

“I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that”—HAL

Beginnings

I first saw Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey on a small black and white TV, tucked in a corner of my parents’ living room. It was January the first 1982, and I was sixteen years old.

I wasn’t a great moviegoer as a teenager. In fact, at that point I could probably count the number of times I’d been to the cinema on one hand. But I was an avid science fiction reader, and having read Arthur C. Clarke’s short story The Sentinel, I was desperate to see the movie Kubrick and Clarke had crafted from it. So much so that every ounce of my teenage brattishness was on full display.

My parents had friends around for dinner that evening, and as usual, the drill was that I was either polite, or invisible. But there was a problem. The only TV in the house was in the living room, which was precisely where, at 7:35 that evening, everyone else would be.

I must have been especially awkward that day, because my parents agreed to let me put on my headphones and watch the TV while they entertained. And so, I snuggled into a corner of the sofa, pulled the black and white portable up, and became selfishly absorbed in Kubrick’s world of the future.

Goodness knows what our guests were thinking!

2001 A Space Odyssey is a movie that’s rich with metaphors that explore our relationship with technology. So much so that, if I could reach back and talk to my sixteen-year old self, I’d say “take note— this is important”. I’d also add, “don’t be such a jerk” for safe measure. However, despite being awed by the opening sequence with its primitive apes and inscrutable black monolith, enthralled by the realistic space scenes, and shocked by the computer HAL’s instinct for self-preservation, it would be another 30 years before I began to realize how powerful the medium of film is; especially when thinking about the future of science and technology in a complex human society …

Welcome to the Future

Google “top science fiction movies”, and you’ll probably be overwhelmed by a deluge of “top 100” lists, “best ever” compilations, and page upon page of the last word (supposedly) on must-watch movies. People are passionate about their science fiction movies, and they have strong opinions about what should be on everyone’s watch-list, and what should not. Some of the movies in this book appear regularly on these lists; Jurassic Park (chapter 2) and Minority Report (chapter 4) for instance. Some are hidden gems that only the most dedicated fans cherish; including films like The Man in the White Suit (chapter 10), and the anime movie Ghost in the Shell (chapter 7). Others are likely to raise eyebrows, and I suspect there’ll be a few movie buffs wondering why the collection includes films like Transcendence (chapter 9) and Inferno (chapter 11).

This is a fair question. After all, why write a book about science fiction movies that aren’t listed as being amongst the best there are? The answer is that this is not a book about great science fiction movies, but a book about how science fiction movies can inspire us to see the world around us and in front of us differently. Each of the movies here has been selected because it provides a jumping-off point for exploring new and intriguing technological capabilities, and the challenges and opportunities these raise. Some of the resulting stories are life-affirming and heart-warming; while others are deeply disturbing. Individually, they provide fascinating accounts of the sometimes-weird and complex landscape around emerging technologies. Together though, they paint a much broader picture of how our technological world is changing, and what this might mean to us and the generations that come after us …

The Power of Convergence

In June 2007, the first generation of the Apple iPhone was released to the public. From the perspective of today’s crowded smartphone marketplace, it’s hard to realize how seismic an event this was at the time. Yet looking back, it started a trend in how we use and interact with technology that continues to reverberate through society to this day.

The iPhone stands as an iconic example of technological convergence–what happens when different strands of innovation intertwine together (a topic we’ll come back to in chapter 9)–and the social and technological transformations that can occur as a result. These days, smartphones integrate hundreds of different technologies: Nanoscale-featured processors and memory chips; advanced materials; cloud computing; image processing; video communication; natural language processing; rudimentary artificial intelligence; biometrics. They’ll even allow you to make phone calls. They are a triumph of our ability to weave together separate technologies to make devices that are not only more than the sum of their parts, but are also transforming the ways we live our lives. But as the capabilities of smartphones and other personal electronics expand, there’s a growing fear of serious unintended consequences; so much so that, in 2018, JANA Partners LLC and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System—two investors in Apple—requested the company actively address the potential impacts of iPhone use on teenagers.

Smartphones are a useful, but still rather crude example of technological convergence. Expanding on this, we’re now beginning to see convergence between biotechnologies, materials science, robotics, artificial intelligence, neurotechnologies, and other areas, that are rapidly catching up with what used to be limited to deeply-futuristic science fiction. This is seen across the movies in this book, from the use of genetic engineering in Jurassic Park (chapter 2) to human augmentation in Ghost in the Shell (chapter 7) …

Spoiler Alert

This is a book that contains spoilers. You have been warned.  It’s not a book to read if you’re one of those people who can’t stand to know what happens before you watch a movie. But I can guarantee that if you read the book before seeing the movies, your experience will be all the richer for it. Even if you’re familiar with the movies, you’ll see them through new eyes after reading the book. And if you decide not to watch the movies at all, that’s okay as well. Certainly, the movies are engaging and entertaining, but at the end of the day, it’s the technologies that are the stars here …

… With that said, it’s time to start the journey, starting with genetic engineering, resurrection biology, and the folly of entrepreneurial arrogance that is so adeptly captured by Stephen Spielberg’s original Jurassic Park. So buckle up, hang on, and enjoy the ride!


Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi Movies is currently available for pre-order on Amazon

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