Annalee Newitz: The Future Is Coming to Get You

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Scientists and science writers can rattle off all the sci-fi that inspired them to build great things. But Annalee Newitz, editor of io9, thinks that dystopian science fiction is less inspirational, but more influential.

Dystopian sci-fi cautions against our hubris. For example, when Google bought the robotics company Boston Dynamics — which builds robots for the military — journalists couldn’t help but evoke Skynet, the fictional military software company that gives birth to The Terminator. “1984” has become a shorthand for government surveillance, and Edward Snowden name-checked George Orwell when he addressed the British public on Christmas Day 2013. “Part of the reason that people aren’t rioting in the streets,” Newitz tells Kurt Andersen, “is that we have been prepared for this kind of world, precisely by this science fiction.” Frankenstein is often evoked when we hear stories about scientists tinkering with genetics. But that may be a double-edged sword, she says: Frankenstein has become so embedded in our imagination, the public may not be open to positive developments in biotechnology.

As more and more technology saturates our lives, does that make it harder for science fiction writers to do their imagining? “I think it just means that we’re going to see a lot less of a boundary between science fiction as a genre and just fiction.”

(Originally aired: January 24, 2014)

Bonus Track: Kurt Andersen’s extended conversation with Annalee Newitz

  • 9:52 – Dreaming of Electric Sheep: Newitz explains that Blade Runner came out at a time when we were done with “clean dystopias” like Logan’s Run. Instead, we were looking for a way to imagine a more class divided future — still high-tech but corporate controlled. That vision is still so compelling (Beijing? Shanghai?) but it's time to imagine a new kind future. 
  • 12:28 – Elysium: In the film, unlucky souls (including Matt Damon) are stuck on Earth living a Mad Max kind of existence, while an orbital spaceship harbors the elite. It’s a dream of the future where bodies can be easily repaired, and the prospect of living forever is within reach.
  • 16:27 – The Singularity Is Near-ish: Some high tech gurus can’t wait for computers to become self-aware and help us solve all our big problems. But Kurt and Newitz believe The Singularity will be messier and (to paraphrase William Gibson) not evenly distributed.
  • 18:00 – M-M-Max Headroom: This 1980s TV show, which took place “20 minutes into the future” foretold a social media landscape with hackers and corporate execs watching audience attention second by second — except with clunky 20th century technology.
  • 20:00 – How Should We Judge Sci-Fi: It’s easy to judge science fiction based on its predictive qualifies. But Newitz says it's more important to look at how it shows us engaging with technology and what that implies.  

Music Playlist

  1. In the Year 2525 (Exordium Terminus)

    Artist: Zager & Evans
    Album: 2525 / Zager & Evans
    Label: Wounded Bird Records
  2. Specters of the Future

    Artist: Nicolas Jaar
    Album: Space Is Only Noise
    Label: Circus company