Science fiction has long been viewed as the clichéd pursuit of hapless nerds or those with otherwise poor upper body strength. While the trope may not be entirely inaccurate— we’re looking at you, Comi Con— it’s also a cliché that fails to recognize the true power of speculative fiction as a real-world tool.
Science fiction is a device used to help culture as a whole navigate the tumult created by periods of technological advancement— Jules Vernes being one of the first to emerge at the closing of the industrial revolution. At its best, it’s the application of imagination to contemporary technological knowledge to create a sort of simulation of future potentials. Or, said more simply, science fiction is the first testing ground for the future of technology, the place where we explore what different advances could mean moving forward for the human condition.
The result of this dynamic is that science fiction not only precedes many technological advances, it also informs them. One can point to numerous science-fiction masterworks that identify technologies well before their time— H.G. Wells wrote the atomic bomb 30 years before it was dropped, Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 preceded the flat panel TV by 40+ years, and Minority Report’s portrayal of the computer interface was 12 years ahead of anything resembling it (e.g. Leap Motion). By imagining the world in a certain way, these writers are setting in motion a cascade that makes their fictional visions a reality.
So let’s do a little experiment. Let’s identify some bit of technology that people are particularly interested in today and examine the implications of its portrayal in contemporary sci-fi. You know, the “teenage sex” of technology— the type of thing that everyone is thinking of, says they’re doing, but in reality has no idea what they’re talking about.
We’re talking about wearables.
As technology has grown smaller, it’s almost become a forgone conclusion that it will become more and more integrated with our physical beings. We can all seem to agree on this based on the number of iterations we’ve made on the pedometer. The disputes start to arise when we talk about how and what wearables are going to do moving forward— beyond their current state of pretty blinking lights.
While there are some great explorations of wearables such as the episode of NPR’s Invisibilia about Thad Starner— a man who has had a computer strapped to his face for the past 20 years. Pieces like this, while incredibly interesting and insightful, don't give a clear vision of the future. So rather than focusing on our own postulations, let’s leave it to the experts— legitimate sci-fi writers— and look at four award-winning pieces of science-fiction that have explored the future of wearables beyond the next five years.
Ready Player One — tech: OASIS
Ready Player One, published in 2011, is set in a dystopian future where a huge portion of everyday life takes place in a digital environment called OASIS. People interface with OASIS through systems with varying levels of complexity, but at the very least are composed of haptic gloves and eyewear that projects directly onto the wearer’s retinas. Everyone in OASIS has an avatar that they can build to look anyway they want. Everything from watching television to attending school is done on OASIS. The platform is the center of society, an ever present construction that is almost impossible to avoid.
While the technology in this book isn’t particularly imaginative— the eyewear doesn’t read as much more advanced than Oculus Rift or even Google Cardboard— the institutions are more interesting. Much of what drives the story is the idea of watching other people playing games online. The idea of just watching people play games instead of playing them yourself might seem like a ridiculous idea to some of the olds reading this, but Amazon just bought the video game live streaming platform Twitch for $1 billion dollars. Famous players like “Pew Die Pie” has 35M followers on youtube.
Rainbows End — Tech Wearable contacts and haptic embedded clothing
Different from Ready Player One’s two distinct digital and real worlds, Rainbow’s End, published in 2006, portrays a world where the digital and real world are overlayed. People wear contact lenses that effectively create a HUD of augmented reality layered on top of the world around them. They also wear tech enabled clothing that allow them to input information into the world through micro-gestures, unnoticeable to those around them.
The technology in this world is pervasive, and all but mandatory— viewing laptop users as traditionalists at best, and luddites at worst. But this view of wearables, while being more ubiquitous, is far more integrated into reality. Not only is it a foundational aspect of how school is taught, it’s also important for students to learn to create augmented realities of their own, the qualities of which create a sort of social hierarchy. This kind of integration creates a blurred line between reality and its digital augmentations as we wear more and smarter technology.
Hominids — tech: The Companion, a physically embedded wearable powered by blood flow
Without getting into the plot— which is complicated, but incredibly fun— the wearable technology in Hominids, published in 2002, is far more physically invasive than either Rainbow’s End or Ready Player One, but simultaneously less invasive on the everyday human experience. The ‘companion’ is an implant given to everyone very early in their lives. It is embedded under the skin in a person's forearm and powered by the wearer’s blood flow; essentially a small hydroelectric plant is spun by attaching it to arteries. The screen displays through the wearer’s skin, and is only lit when it needs to be. Everyone also has small cochlear implants that allow their companion to speak directly into their ear without anyone else hearing. The wearer has constant access to all the world's information, including communicating with others, through this embedded device. The implant also, through more advanced tech, takes a constant 360º recording around the wearer, which they own, and can only be accessed by anyone else in the event of a crime or other accusation.
The view of wearables in Hominids is far more optimistic and hopeful about how wearable technology could amplify our lives without getting in the way— mostly by abstaining from visual additions. It also has one of the more novel depictions of wearable tech, both in the way it’s powered, and also integrated. (Two examples of contemporary tech moving in this direction are electronic tattoos and blood-powered electronics)
The Culture books, published from 1987 - 2012, take place in the far future and revolve around a utopian civilization called The Culture. The far flung stories written by recently deceased Ian M. Banks span time and space across 10 distinct novels— The Player of Games being arguably the best.
Technology is far advanced, the centerpiece being the Minds— advanced super sentient AIs that essentially run The Culture (if anything really runs The Culture). The Neural Lace is an elective device planted into human brains in the form of a seed and grows to touch every synapse of the brain it inhabits. It allows users to communicate with the Minds and other AIs via thinking, it also acts as a way of backing up their “Mind State,” essentially creating a copy of people’s minds for backup.
The Culture is utopian— despite the occasional hiccups which the books revolve around— so the interactions with wearables are generally viewed as positive. However, at the point technology has reached in this novel, wearables are also not seen as fundamentally necessary since you can just speak to machines and accomplish essentially the same task. In many ways, they’re viewed as a sort of eccentricity that doesn’t really have a purpose in everyday life. This might paint wearables as a sort of transitionary phase in a technological developmental timeline. (A contemporary example of tech moving this way can be found in the cortical modem.)
So what does it all mean for us?
These books, others like them, as well as the television shows and films we consume, should serve to get us thinking about what our relationship with technology looks like. If these books do only one thing, it should be to force us to be critical in the way we allow technology into our lives, regardless of whether the decision is to include it or not.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of only envisioning dystopian futures where nothing turns out right, projecting a pervasively cynical eye and wagging fingers mumbling something about “the kids these days.” A harder task is to participate in the imagining of a world where our relationship with technology is additive and beneficial, even if that takes the form of cautionary parables and watch-outs. Thankfully, Sci-fi writers do this for us, we need them. They’re our sherpas into the great wide tomorrow, ushering us into the future. The possibilities for what wearables will look like in the future are truly infinite, but sharing stories about what form they might take is just a very human way to explore that infinity together.