Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Social Change and the Science Fiction Imagination

guest post by Amy Kind

In “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” the first episode of Star Trek: The Original Series, Captain Kirk pulls out his communicator to hail the Enterprise.[1] At the time this episode aired in September of 1966, this kind of communication device probably struck most viewers as pure fantasy. But, according to a story told in the 2005 documentary, How William Shatner Changed the World, Star Trek’s depiction of the communicator helped turn the fantasy into a reality. Inspired by Star Trek, inventor Martin Cooper worked with a team of engineers to create a genuinely portable phone. The DynaTAC, which made its public debut at a press conference in 1973, was 9 inches tall, weighed 2.5 pounds, and had a battery life that allowed for 35 minutes of talk time.

Cooper has subsequently recanted the story about having been influenced in this way by Star Trek. In a 2015 interview, he claims that the real inspiration for his communication device came many years earlier from the two-way radio wristwatch worn by Dick Tracy in the eponymous comic strip. Whichever of these works was the inspiration, however, this technological development provides a testament to the power of science fiction to change the world.

And this is not the only such testament. Numerous articles suggest various other instances where technology imagined by science fiction authors led to the actual development of such technology. To mention just one illustrative example, an article on Space.com details eleven ideas “that went from science fiction to reality.” In some of these cases, the causal link is undoubtedly exaggerated, but in others, it seems considerably more plausible. Perhaps one of the best examples of such a causal link comes from Igor Sikorsky’s work in aviation – in particular, on helicopters. As described by his son, Sikorsky was deeply inspired by the helicopter described in Jules Verne’s The Clipper of the Clouds:

My father referred to it often. He said it was “imprinted in my memory.” And he often quoted something else from Jules Verne. “Anything that one man can imagine, another man can make real.”

Typically, the kinds of examples mentioned to demonstrate science fiction’s influence relate to what are seen as the traditional themes of science fiction – themes like technological invention, space exploration, and robotics. Interestingly, however, the ability of science fiction to inspire the future is not limited to these kinds of themes. Consider, for example, a recent discussion about the power of science fiction on an episode of the Levar Burton Reads podcast. In a conversation between the podcast host, actor Levar Burton (of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame), and writer and activist Walidah Imarisha, what gets highlighted is the power of science fiction to effect change not in the technological realm but in the social realm. Science fiction, says Imarisha, helps us imagine “a world without borders, a world without prisons, a world without oppression.” And as she underscores, this is really important, because “we can’t build what we can’t imagine.”

This line of thought is part and parcel of what I think of as an optimism about imagination. There are many dimensions to optimism about imagination, but for my purposes here, what’s important is the optimist’s view that imagination can play a key role in bringing about social change. So far I’ve been focused on imagination in the context of science fiction, but that’s not the only context in which such imagining occurs. We see this kind of imagining in political contexts, as when US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez invokes imagination in discussing the Green New Deal. The first big step in bringing it about, she says, is “just closing our eyes and imagining.” Such imagining is also a key tool for organizers and activists more generally – and also for just about anyone who is aiming to make our world a better and more just place.

In making a case for optimism, one might point to various examples of positive change that have occurred throughout our history, and one might point to how much of this change has been brought about by the prodigious powers of imagination manifested by various key figures who have driven such change. But the case for optimism is met with persistent criticism. Those who are more pessimistic question whether imagination can really have the power that the optimists attribute to it. As noted in an essay by Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda, “our imaginations are creatures as limited as we ourselves are. They are not some special, uninfiltrated realm that transcends the messy realities of our lives and minds.” Our imaginations are limited by our experiences and our embodiment – by our race, by our sex and gender, and by our ability status, to name just a few of the relevant sources of limitation.

Confronted with this push-pull between optimism and pessimism, what’s the solution for someone looking to harness the power of imagination to bring about social change? Recently, Shen-yi Liao has argued we would do best not to rely on agent-guided imaginings (or not solely so) but rather on prop-guided imaginings. Drawing an analogy to children’s games of pretense, he notes that the relationship between children’s imagining and props is a two-way street. When children are outside pretending to be Jedi Knights, they will likely look around for some tree branches to serve as light sabers and ignore other objects in their vicinity like rocks and leaves. On the flip side, when children are trying to decide what game of pretend to play, the fact that there are tree branches around might influence them to pretend to be Jedi Knights rather than astronauts. Though our imaginings influence how we use props, our props also influence how we use imaginings.

This leads Liao to an important moral: If we want to bring about social change, we might look to props to “guide and constrain our socially situated and ecologically embedded imagination.” This means that one effective way to bring about social change would be to think about what kinds of props are available to us in the world (e.g., monuments, memorials, and all sorts of other artifacts) and to work to make different props available. So, concludes Liao, “we do have to imagine differently to change the world. But to imagine differently, we might also have to change the world.”

Though I don’t think Liao himself is best described as a pessimist, the pessimist might nonetheless take these reflections as grist for their mill.[2] In particular, Liao’s conclusion might seem to suggest that we face an impossible task, a loop into which there is no entry point. We saw above the suggestion by Imarisha that we can’t build what we can’t imagine, but now it seems that we can’t imagine what we haven’t already built. Perhaps imagination can’t really play an important role in social change after all.

I count myself in the optimist camp, and so this is a conclusion that I’d like to resist. Moreover, as my opening reflections about science fiction suggest, the task can’t be an impossible one, because we’ve seen it happen. The various props that we have in the world inspire the imaginations of science fiction writers, and then the science fiction they produce inspires the imaginations of the engineers and inventors, who then create new and different props, which in turn can inspire the imaginations of a new generation of science fiction writers. We know it can be done with technology, and so it seems eminently plausible that something similar can be done with respect to the social domain – and indeed, when we think about the radical social imaginings in works by science fiction authors such as Octavia Butler and Ursula Le Guin (and so many others), it undoubtedly has already been done. Because of this past progress, the science fiction of today begins from new starting points and can push things even further. In short, just as the science fiction imagination can be an important driver in bringing about technological change, it’s also an important driver in bringing about social change.


[1] Since people sometimes get picky about this sort of thing, I’ll clarify that “Where No Man…” is the first episode of season 1, 1x01. The original pilot, “The Cage,” did not air until 1988 and is treated as 0x01, that is, the first episode in season 0.

[2] Liao thinks that this difficult dialectic means that any progress we make is likely to be incremental. But, of course, incremental progress is still progress, and it’s certainly better than no progress at all! [image source]


Gene said...

I'm right with you. I often complain that persistent societal problems stem from a lack of imagination more than anything else.

Howard said...

Or inspiration can come from nature: as in planes, inspired by flying animals.
Do you think that the smart or portable phone could only be inspired by fiction?
I suspect this is an artifact of the extreme division of labor in modern intellectual and economic life
I mean, we'd have to think of numerous cases, perhaps not quite systematically
The wheel: perhaps someone imagined Gods or mythical creatures on wheels or saw how round stones rolled
Or the idea for a computer: that I take it came from mathematical logic.
I think it might have to do with our remove from the natural world and the nature of fiction in our lives opposed to other spheres.
Just wild guesses

Howard said...

The idea of remote unmediated communication has its roots in prayer.
Simply communicating over the ether. The proximate cause may be Dick Tracy.
Do you think the whole idea of remote communication invisibly through the air has its origins in the religious idea of prayer?
Not that I'm religious nor do I want to sidetrack your train of thought
I wonder though

George Gantz said...

Amy - Very thoughtful, thank you. The question of how to inspire people/culture/civilization to a more positive future is is a key point of discussion in the Long Now Movement. "Heirlooms" is a key teaching tool recommended by Bina Venkataraman in her book "The Optimist's Telescope." The 10,000 Year Clock of the Long Now designed by Danny Hillis is clearly an effort to create a monument to helps us imagine a long term future. Roman Krznarick (Good Ancestor) and Vincent Ialenti (Deep Time Reckoning) both offer valuable suggestions on imagining a more positive future. There is also the short story contest of Sapiens Plurum, and the new "Worldviews" contest recently announced by FLi.

We are not lacking in the ability to imagine - but in the ability to inspire. This is where great narratives can be most helpful. Star Trek was a good example. We need more of those.

Sebastian said...

A really brilliant contribution. I like it!

Amy Kind said...

Thanks all! Glad you liked the piece!