Kevin E. Patterson

Book Review: Sci-Fi Prototyping (what's steampunk got to do with it?)

In the Intel store here at work, they sell a PC skin: We don’t watch sci-fi movies. We live them.

As Intel employees (“Sponsors of Tomorrow“), we are privileged to see amazing things happen with Intel architecture every day, but we’re not alone in living the sci-fi life. Intel futurist Brian David Johnson knows science fiction is also participatory and inclusive. It needs to be, if we want to have a productive dialog about technology. “The future is not set … the future is made everyday by the actions of people,” he writes in his book Science Fiction Prototyping.

The May issue of Wired featured a ‘hierarchy of geekdom’ with ‘collectible card-game nerds’ at the bottom, film buffs at the top. One of my takeaways from Brian’s book is an upending of such hierarchies, the vital social capital of science fiction irrespective of media. It’s why you can find the Intel futurist hanging with audiences at San Diego Comic-Con International, Norwescon and (next month) New York Comic Con, when he isn’t connecting with scientists and pop stars around the globe.

Science fiction, the kind based on hard science, informs science fact, and Brian helps foster dialog by sponsoring cool outreach programs like The Tomorrow Project. Science fiction helps us all have a meaningful dialog about technology: “Your future is truly in your hands.” That dialog in turn helps Intel develop a practical vision for computers and gadgets in the year 2020 and beyond.

A science fiction (SF) prototype is a work based on science fact that facilitates exploration of the effects that a particular technology will have. Brian cites the 1983 movie War Games as a pivotal work that helped him decide what he wanted to be when he grew up. Apart from its entertainment value, War Games is a SF prototype about humans losing control of the US missile system. (Ironically, war gaming is also what enterprise IT managers call network security stress tests, a “what if” attack on their own network, a kind of sci-fi prototype performance art.)

In drawing from influences as diverse as Mary Shelley, Stephen Hawking, and Alan Moore, Brian provides examples of SF prototyping. He demonstrates that futurecasting is not just for corporate boffins in a chapter titled “How to Build Your Own SF Prototype in Five Steps or Less.”

Step 1: Pick your science and build your world
It’s usually more exciting to pick a piece of emerging research or science because the implications and effects of it are most likely not widely understood

Step 2: The scientific inflection point
The effect this new science or technology might have on the daily lives, governments and systems in your story

Step 3: Ramifications of the science on people
Have they adapted to the problems or opportunities the science has brought about?

Step 4: The human inflection point
What your characters will do to either adapt themselves to the science or technology you’ve introduced … or alter the science to suit themselves

Step 5: What did we learn?

Brian taps other subject matter experts to provide best (and worst) practices in turning your SF prototype into fiction, short film, or comic book. Science Fiction Prototyping is a cookbook for DIY futurism and, the author reminds us throughout, it is fiction. SF prototyping is not about accurate prediction. “The goal of SF prototyping is a conversation between science and the possibility of the future.”

“I don’t think SF prototyping has much predictive value,” agrees author Corey Doctorow in one of the book’s many interviews. “It’s the beginning of a critical process by which the use is sound.” It’s also a twisted path full of unintended consequences. SF prototyping as an extreme form of scenario planning.

Once you’ve developed your SF prototype, what’s next? Brian cites one of the cool projects Intel futurecasting has been associated with, the first Tomorrow Project, as well as how SF prototyping can be used in design and product development. He provides a case study taking a story to construction of actual technology … “from fact to fiction and then back to fact once again.”

You don’t have to actually take a SF prototype into product development in order to participate. As Intel co-founder Robert Noyce once said, “Don’t be encumbered by history. Go off and do something wonderful.” This especially applies to the DIY aspect of SF prototyping: You can create your own or be part of the conversation. It’s a point the new Tomorrow Project Seattle book from University of Washington (and which Intel is a sponsor) drives home: Amateur and professional creators joined by a common power to use science fiction to capture people’s imagination and change the way we think. And then there’s actually living out your art as a SF prototype via steampunk culture, captured in an upcoming documentary, Vintage Tomorrows.

Science Fiction Prototyping invites us to join the conversation. If the future is unwritten it might be because it hasn’t been written by you yet.

If you’re attending New York Comic Con (Oct 13-16) say “hi” to Brian David Johnson and the rest of us from Intel and see what’s new in futurism, gaming, and digital entertainment.



Kevin E. Patterson

About Kevin E. Patterson

Kevin is a consumer campaign manager in Intel Americas, creating integrated marketing programs for technologies beyond the PC and for techsetter audiences. His campaigns have included broadcast TV, digital signage, and online media. In his 12 years with Intel he has been an enterprise campaign manager, founding an IT community with members in over 160 countries. That community is now known as the Intel IT Center, which earned him an Intel Marketing Excellence Award. He also co-created/piloted a measurement for online advertising which earned a 2011 ARF Ogilvy Award, also now deployed globally. Previously, he worked at marketing agencies for clients such as The World Bank, Lexus, GE, and Ford. He has a Master's Degree in English Lit and is a comic book geek.

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