If scientists consumed more science fiction, maybe they’d realize how easily hubris can kill us all. I understand to a degree why they probably don’t…I am a total geek and my teachers had to force me to read something from the fiction section when I was 9. I saw no point in reading something that was made up when I was much more interested in understanding the planets and stars and how the human body worked. I’m still not a big fiction reader, but I have learned the value of the literary arts and am thankful that my third grade teacher and the school librarian ganged up on me to get me out of my comfort zone.
Science Fiction Spurs Invention
My dad has always been interested in any sort of science fiction movie. I remember growing up watching all sorts of classics as well as extremely obscure old films. Science fiction has inspired all sorts of inventions. We all carry smartphones and tablets around that are just as small and probably more sophisticated than the PADDs used by Starfleet in Star Trek: The Next Generation. We can almost ask Siri and Alexa to locate our spouse…or Captain Picard…with voice recognition and crude artificial intelligence algorithms. Cellphones that flip open like Captain Kirk’s communicator are now regarded as passé. It would seem that many wonderful ideas dreamt up by science fiction writers and filmmakers have come to pass hundreds of years before we actually thought they’d be possible. Others, like warp drive, transporters, holodecks, and light sabers look like they have a long way yet to go.
But while all of that is fascinating, it’s not what bothers me. What irks me is the development of technology that sounds great on the surface, but sounds an awful lot (if not exactly) like technologies that threatened to destroy civilization or all of humanity in science fiction. Some technologies have been pushed into mainstream use by corporations eager to reap the rewards of successful research and development—without truly investigating the effects of their use. While science fiction may inspire many wonderful advancements, it also offers many precautionary tales about hubris destroying the very thing science sought to improve. Even science fact—simple history—offers tales of hubris that go ignored when lots of money sits on the table.
Thomas Midgley—Inventor of Not One, but TWO Disastrous Solutions
For a real-life example, let’s consider Thomas Midgley Jr., an American engineer and chemist who solved some tough technical problems for General Motors in the first half of the 20th Century.