Science Fiction and the History of Computing

Science Fiction and Computing: Essays on Interlinked Domains (Book Cover)

David Ferro recently posted on the SIGCIS mailing list about the release of his and Eric Swedin's new edited volume, Science Fiction and Computing. This is a sequel, of sorts, to a workshop at the Society for the History of Technology meeting in Tacoma last fall. I thought it would be appropriate to re-post this announcement here for further publicity and discussion, given the extent to which the book is a product of this community. As David wrote, the contributors (other than the editors themselves) include Thomas Haigh, Janet Abbate, Paul Ceruzzi, David A. Kirby, Rafael Alvarado, Theirry Bardini, Joshua Cuneo, Richard McKinney, Graham Murphy, Lisa Nocks, Chris Pak, Jaakko Suominen, Alfredo Suppia, Howard Tayler, David Toomey, and Gary Westfahl. (You can find the Table of Contents here.) This whole topic is fascinating to me. To my mind, the role of imagination and dreams in the history of technology in general is a crucial one. The best discussion of this that I've found is Patrice Flichy's Internet Imaginaire, which argues that utopian thinking is not some unachievable distraction from the real world, but one of the basic engines of technological change. Science fiction has surely played a significant role in this process during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, providing a rich landscape of visions for the future for technologists to draw from (this is part of the argument of Thomas Disch's The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of, which Tom Haigh cited at the workshop last year). But I wonder also about the role of documents that sit on the borderland between science fiction and essays; what one might call "speculative non-fiction." In the history of computing, for example, Vannevar Bush's 1945 speculative article in the Atlantic Monthly, "As We May Think", is known to have played a major role in Douglas Engelbart's vision of augmenting human capabilities through interactive computing. In sum, I look forward to reading the book, and would love to see comments from any who've already done so!


I'm looking forward to seeing it too -- should be getting my contributor's copy soon. In the meantime, my chapter "Technology's Other Storytellers: Science Fiction as History of Technology" is available as an online preprint on my personal website.

To follow this up I'm aiming to do some work along the lines you suggest. With Bernardo Batiz-Lazo and Dave Stearns, both SIGCIS members, I've just drafted a paper applying something like Filchy's "imaginaire" concept (which we acknowledge) to the role of the cashless society vision in shaping the banking industry during the 1960s. Basically they know the banking and payment processing history and I've been thinking about the role of the future in shaping history so it was a great fit. The paper is also tying it to the idea of "institutional isomophism," looking at the role of shared future visions in driving convergence of organizational forms within an industry.