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Th Moviegoer’s Guide to the Future: Beginnings

As The Moviegoer’s Guide to the Future book comes together over the next few weeks, I thought it would be interesting to post excerpts from the early drafts. These will change during editing — drastically so in some cases I suspect. But they might pique your interest, and give you a sense of the flavor of the book.  This one’s from the opening of Chapter 1: In the Beginning.

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. Clark’s short story The Sentinel, I was desperate to see the movie Kubrick and Clark 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 in the evening, everyone else would be.[1]

I must have been especially awkward that evening, 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 exploring our relationship with technology, as well as the universe we live in. 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, enthralled by the realistic space scenes, shocked by the computer HAL’s instinct for self-preservation, and thoroughly mystified by the weird stuff at the end, 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.

Back in 1982, I was entranced by 2001 A Space Odyssey because it exposed me to new ideas, and new ways of imaging the future. Like many fans I suspect, I ended up with quotes from the movie like “Open the pod bay doors HAL” branded into my brain, along with the HAL’s response “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that”. Without realizing it, Kubrick’s movie made me think about a future where smart computers might decide that their self-preservation was more important than the humans who created them. Fast forward to the present, and as we face living in an increasingly complex world, I’m more convinced than ever that, for all their flaws, science fiction movies are a powerful way of exploring the technological futures we face, and how to navigate them. Of course, it can be irritating when scriptwriters and directors play fast and loose with scientific and engineering reality for the sake of telling a good story. But getting too wrapped up in the minutiae of how accurate a science fiction movie is misses the point — these are stories about our relationship with the future, and like all good story telling, they sometimes play around with reality to reveal deeper truths. And as it turns out, this creative freedom can be surprisingly powerful when it comes to thinking about the social benefits and consequences of new technologies, and how we can steer technology innovation toward more beneficial and equitable outcomes.

It’s this human dimension of science fiction movies that I’m particularly interested in. What these movies do rather well is provide us with a glimpse around the corner of our collective near future; to see what might be coming down the pike, and help us start thinking how we might respond to it. And they manage to do this precisely because the script writers and directors aren’t encumbered with the need to stick to today’s reality. Viewed in the right way — and with a good dose of critical thinking of course — science fiction movies can help us think about and prepare for the social consequences of technologies we don’t yet have, but that are coming faster than we imagine.

This is precisely what The Moviegoer’s Guide to the Future sets out to do. Using the twelve movies it’s built around, the book provides glimpses into the technological capabilities we’re building now, and how we might start to think about their beneficial and responsible development and use.  Naturally, the book only scratches the surface of the vast array of technologies that are beginning to emerge, and the opportunities and challenges they present. But through the lens of these movies, it takes readers on a journey into understanding what can go wrong with new technologies, and how we can all help nudge them toward a future that looks better than the present we’re currently in. And it continues that personal journey I started in 1982 with that first, barely conscious glimpse into how science fiction movies can reveal hidden connections between who we are, the society we live in, and the technologies we create.

[1] I’d love to claim that I remember the precise time because of my infallible memory. Sadly, my memory is anything but infallible, which is why I’m grateful for resources like the BBC Genome project, which rather impressively lists British Broadcasting Corporation TV and Radio broadcasts between 1923 and 2009. It’s awesome!


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