The role of science fiction on innovation in R&D centers

(Conference of Thomas Michaud in Lawrence (Kansas, USA), SFRA conferences, July 2008)

This article studies the uses of science fiction in R&D centers. It is the result of five years of sociological immersion in these environments, and especially in the space and telecommunication fields. Several generalities have been deduced from this research and permit to better understand the role of the imaginary in the process of technological innovation. Science fiction provokes various points of views and opinions in R&D centers, and it cannot be absolutely asserted that the genre contributes positively or negatively to innovation. Dozens of researchers, scientists, engineers, and project managers have been interviewed during this study, and their purposes have permitted to propose a typology of the different opinions of scientists about science fiction. This sociological approach does not aim to demonstrate that science fiction anticipates the future. Most of the critics of this work are of the opinion that nothing could predict the future and that prophecies profit of the credulity of the people, relaying the point of view of Thomas Aquinas even if most of them were Marxists and materialists, refusing that an ideology coming mostly from the United States or England dominate the construction of the technological future of the capitalist world. The perception that science fiction predicts the future is very common in society, but academicians do not appreciate this. However, it is interesting to study pragmatically the various opinions of the influence this artistic genre has in R&D centers. 

Several participants believe that science fiction plays a role in science, that it constitutes “a mythology”, “a collective unconscious”, “a common imaginary” or “an ideology”. These four concepts differ in the point of view of social sciences, but it is interesting to establish with scientists and engineers that they are surrounded by science fiction, several of them stating that they “realize science-fiction” or “live in a science fiction world”. Several of those interviewed admitted that they have written science fiction before, during, or after their researches in order to represent or extrapolate their specific approach. In their opinion, it is easier to communicate around a science fictional representation of an expected innovation than with a long scientific explanation. R&D laboratories use videos, or artistic movies to represent future innovations. This practice has been used from the end of the 1970th in France, in a prospective perspective. Companies, EDF for example, have created several technofictions about telematics that led to the creation of the Minitel network, a precursor to the Internet which equipped the entire French territory. Scientists of France Telecom often joke by estimating that if a nuclear war destroys the Internet, the French population could reuse the Minitel network to communicate. These technofictions extrapolate scenarios about the impact of new technologies on the daily life of users in their home environment. Several scientists also write books of science fiction. Jules Verne read scientific reviews before writing science fiction. Science fiction is a necessary delirium contributing to the process of innovation by stimulating the imaginary of scientists, mostly in brainstorming sessions where the genre is sometimes used to illustrate an idea or a concept. The European Space Agency (ESA) has created the ITSF Report that presents several inventions of science fiction in the space field that could be used in projects or in scientific programs. Several experts have established a list of prospective ideas in the space field, for example the space elevator which was inspired by Arthur C. Clarke’s science fiction representations of the colonization of planets in various films and novels. The ITSF Report helps to legitimize projects for investors as well as for taxpayers. Science fiction represents for several futurologists inspired by materialism the desires of social classes. Because of this, it is important to study the science fiction imaginary of a market in order to establish the desired innovations of a group. This practice, described in the book La fabrique du futur, by Musso, Ponthou and Seulliet, is very common in R&D centers. Laurent Ponthou, chief of a R&D section oriented towards the research on future services is very interested by the imaginary dimension of innovation. However, he assesses that science fiction is not enough, and that the innovator must also search in the other genres of arts, like painting and music. If it is interesting to study science fiction to establish what is the collective imaginary of a group, this marketing approach is not enough. The techno push marketing must study and use other types of concepts found in other fields to invent, propose and impose innovations not only replicate those present in science fiction. A science study permits to establish that science fiction is very appreciated in R&D centers. Even if engineers are often aware that the science fiction imaginary is not very serious and should be eliminated from scientific speech, most of those interviewed about the process of innovation have admitted that their projects were linked to a novel or film they had appreciated when they were teenagers. It has been established that science fiction is a complement to the academic formation that contributes to creativity. Engineers in prospective have admitted the influence of science fiction in the construction of their visions of the future. Several of them first study science fiction before extrapolating a scenario based strictly on academic and technically based research. For example, planners for manned missions to Mars acknowledge the inspiration of science fiction movies on their technical creation. In addition, they take inspiration from these movies to more clearly estimate the stakes and to optimize the various aspects of their plans. In the field of virtual reality, engineers watch movies like The Matrix, or read books like Snow Crash to improve their motivation and to be part of a community of scientists that shares the same view. Soon after the publication of the book by Neal Stephenson, Cybertown appeared on the Internet. This first virtual world enabled users to visit a futuristic American town where they can have a job, a pet, and a flat. These virtual worlds became more and more complex with the increase in the speed of the Internet network. Second life is the most famous and most developed virtual world, but several big informatics companies developing their own virtual worlds. Today, many virtual worlds exist, with each adapted to a specific type of user. For example, Banja, an island with many Rastafarian parties, caters to those with Rastafarian attitudes. Children appreciate Disney’s Toontown and adults can meet in The Palace, a virtual site where they can chat and use avatars.  These games are very popular and attract thousands of users every day and exist as a consequence of the vision of Neal Stephenson. Scientists in R&D centers share the utopia of a virtual world utopia in which users can immerse themselves and therefore work on technologies adapted to this collective desire.  Immersion with helmets introduced by science fiction writers at the beginning of the 1980th is the next step. Although their vision of the future of the Internet network has often been very precise and realized several years after the introduction of the concept, cyberpunks suffer a negative reputation as members of a dark underground where people suffer from mental illness and consume drugs. This has led to categorize the genre as schizophrenic in a psychiatric sense. Despite this belief, it has contributed to the process of technological innovation, and the helmets of virtual immersion are already being made available by several companies.

Science fiction is used as a vision in the sense of marketing as it proposes an extrapolation of the applications to the developed technology in the markets. Leaders or project managers often believe in a technological fiction or utopia. The leader is a key element in the strategy of the company. He must establish a strong vision which motivates employees in order to create a competitive advantage over competitors in the market. Organizational behavior is very useful in understanding the role of the leader’s vision and psychology in the success of a project. For example, Bill Gates and computer scientists in the 1970s and 1980s had a vision of a world revolutionized by the interconnection of computers. Several artists called this project “cyberspace” or “global metaverse” and planned to create virtual worlds in which users could be immersed. This vision led to the creation of a very dynamic computer industry, which was most prevalent in the United States and in Japan, two countries where this vision was very popular and stimulated by the industry of the imaginary like Hollywood and mass media. It is interesting to establish that there is a parallel between the geographical zones developing this type of utopist vision, and the dynamism of change and innovation. On the other hand, countries who do not believe in this vision follow leaders and produce little in the way of innovation. This means that it is very important to believe in a strong vision, like an utopia, an ideology, or a religion to become successful. In the case of business, as explained by Howard Segal, it is technological utopianism which led to the development of the United States at the end of the nineteenth century. In the contemporary era, the faith in technology has been developed by technophile movements like science fiction, and other artistic pieces of art. Such movements have stimulated the imaginary and the productivity of workers, who are motivated by dreams of leaders who need to manage by proposing a federative imaginary. These phenomena function as a common ideology to dominant and dominated classes. Leaders of big business projects believe in science fiction perspectives. Many new technologies have a basis in fictions. The colonization of Mars has inspired hundreds of novels, and mainly since the beginning of the 1980th, the creation of computer networks has been a central theme in science fiction. Biotechnology also inspired the biopunk movement. Each period of science fiction reflects and inspires new innovation waves. Science fiction is comprised of micro-ideologies that constitute a dominant stream in the innovative territories of the capitalist world. Moreover, the proletariat agrees with this ideology which is evidenced by the consumption of these cultural products. Science fiction has been the ideological and imaginary cement of the capitalist world since the end of the Second World War, and moreover from the start of the Apollo project. In Space and the American Imagination, Howard Mc Curdy describes the long construction of the space dream, and how Star Trek and several other science fiction movies have contributed to stimulate the motivation of the American people to launch astronauts to the moon. In this sense, science fiction is used like propaganda by military R&D centers. In a large perspective, it can also be considered like the military imaginary of Western societies, because the best and worst social and technological evolutions are presented in these pieces of art. It helps to inform society of the dangers presented by global warming, asteroids and epidemics, and to show all the different possibilities of fighting against them. If science fiction can scare parts of the population because it is often violent and presents death as a normal element of the narration, it is also an important media of information about global risks. That explains why women do not like science fiction that they assimilate to madness. They are afraid of it, because they feel that the scenarios are not realistic and they dislike violence. On the other hand, men like it, because they must protect society from big risks. Science fiction is a way to be informed of new major discoveries in the fields of science and technology, and of the different perils evaluated by the headquarters of armies or the engineers of top secret R&D centers. For Frederic Jameson, “cyberpunk constitutes a kind of laboratory experiment in which the geographical-cultural light spectrum and bandwidths of the new system are registered. It is a literature of the new stereotypes thrown up by a system in full expansion, which, like the explosion of a nova, sends out a variety of uncharted signals and signs of new communities and new and artificially differentiated ethnies”[1]. Science fiction can be used to study the new trends of a society because it reveals the verso, the marginal places or ideologies that could become mass markets. William Gibson describes this professional activity in Pattern Recognition in which a character searches the “cool” that represents the present alternative and the future norm. Bukatman has estimated that science fiction is a schizoculture, because normal people are afraid of it and it proposes extrapolations of potential futures or parallel worlds[2]. However, it would be a mistake to condemn science fiction as madness because it can be used to anticipate the evolution of societies or markets, which is the reason why R&D centers study it. They are considered by several experts like heterotopias in the sense of Foucault[3], which is to say that R&D centers are zones of marginality in which experimental ideas can be developed. Foucault studied madness in several books, and R&D centers that use art to develop new concepts can be assimilated to places where madness is experimented in the perspective to create innovations, the anti-psychiatric hospital in which madness is repressed. In R&D centers, ideas that disturb the normal order of societies are explored by very qualified scientists who try to develop concepts by avoiding unethical aspects of fictions that can disturb the future introduction of innovations in the markets. Schizophrenia is therefore a useful tool for capitalism, that finds in it new ideas to innovate. Deleuze and Guattari have also explained that schizophrenia and capitalism can collaborate. Indeed, desiring machines invest the social field and contribute to innovation and creation. This sociological study has established that most of the scientists interviewed have a desired machine (or imaginary machine, also called utopian technologies) to promote in their researches in order to make their project a success. Art and more specifically science fiction are very useful for innovators who reinterpret these concepts, redesigning them to propose final objects that are very attractive to customers. Science fiction is very often assimilated to a kind of schizophrenia, sometimes to a pathological delirium in the psychiatric order. However, it is very appreciated in the scientific society where it is a source of inspiration. It is also used to study the imaginary of customers and to create advertisings. Strategic marketing is a branch of R&D that uses science fiction to study the desires of customers through imaginary archetypes. This Jungian approach aims to investigate the psyche of consumers, in order to adapt to customer desires and to the evolution of the markets. For example, it is important to know a new utopian technology to be sure to allocate big enough budgets to adequate projects. That is why several researchers in R&D centers work on science fiction through business intelligence. It is well known that NASA and governments collaborate with science fiction writers to extrapolate scenarios, to define original strategies, and to evaluate risks.  

Science fiction contributes to the process of innovation in R&D centers in several ways:

  1. It is used in the fundamental science to study the utopian technologies present in the scientific unconscious of scientists. This method is inspired by psychoanalysis and is the subject of polemics because it could destroy the desire of scientists to make science if they are analyzed excessively. Science fiction is often repressed because it is assimilated to a delirium and several study participants estimated that it should be totally eliminated from the process of innovation because it can lead to the madness of actors. It is necessary to distinguish two types of processes of innovation; One which is founded on a pragmatic rationality and another one which is founded on an utopian rationality.
  2. It is used in projects of prospective to investigate the future of technology. This practice is founded on the belief that science fiction is a prophecy. If science fiction authors rarely estimate that they can predict the future, they prefer asserting that they extrapolate about futuristic tendencies, like William Gibson. However, futurologists appreciate using science fiction to write their reports.
  3. Science fiction is used in marketing. Sociologists and specialists in marketing study the new trends in this field to establish the new evolutions in several technological sectors. Companies study it for the design of their products, but also for their advertisings. The improvement of digital technology permits the creation of worlds of science fictions in which products are integrated and look futuristic, which is interesting because the future is an appreciated value in postmodern cultures.
  4. R&D engineers acknowledge that they realize and live in a world influenced by science fiction. In Paranofictions, traité de savoir-vivre dans une réalité de science-fiction, Ariel Kyrou asserts that the culture of science fiction dominates the globalized world. A science fiction era could be the successor of postmodernism and constitute at least a very important imaginary of the capitalist world, by proposing thousands of new and innovative technologies that are progressively realized in R&D centers.
  5. Science fiction is used as propaganda or as an ideology by leaders of projects or of companies in order to stimulate workers to create and society to consume new products. Science fiction contributes to the process of creative destruction necessary for capitalism to survive. It is necessary and recognized by influential leaders as an important vector of motivation and of change orienting the views of world leaders in postindustrial societies.

If science fiction is not a fundamental element of the policies of R&D centers, it does contribute to the process of innovation in several phases and is moreover considered as an important element of the global culture by big companies.

[1] Jameson Frederic, Archeologies of the future, the desire called utopia and other science fictions, Verso, 2005 P. 385

[2] Bukatman Scott, Terminal identity : the virtual subject in postmodern science fiction, Duke University Press, 1993

[3] Michel Foucault, « Dits et écrits 1984,Des espaces autres » (conférence au Cercle d’études architecturales, 14 mars 1967), in Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité, n°5, octobre 1984, pp. 46-49.

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