19th century French science fiction author Jules Verne predicted a tremendous amount of technology that was unheard of in his lifetime, but would become commonplace much later. For example, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea inspired inventors to improve upon submarines, and Paris In The Twentieth Century, written in 1863 but published posthumously in 1994 and set in the 1960s, envisioned a society replete with use of weapons of mass destruction in warfare, gasoline-powered automobiles, skyscrapers, calculators, high-speed trains, mass communication, and capital punishment by electrocution.
It seems as though with the possible exception of the time machine – the advent of which could be fatally disruptive to life as we know it, come to think of it – many forms of technology anticipated in science fiction mythologies often become science fact. For example, in the original Star Trek television series from the 1960s, Captain James Kirk is seen talking to crew members on a small communicator that strangely resembles the cellular phones that would be so ubiquitous forty years later. The electronic notepad on which Captain Kirk writes his Captain’s Log looks like a primitive forerunner to the Palm Pilot or the I-Pad. The officers of the Starship Enterprise use tricorders to check the hospitality of a particular environment, and today’s emergency response teams will use mechanical HAZMAT detectors to check for dangerous chemicals. The bridge of the Enterprise, being windowless, facilitated navigation with the use of a high-definition view screen, even though flat screen television monitors would not appear on the market for decades.
Although closed-circuit television was invented in Germanyin 1942, it would take about another forty years before its use became widespread. However, in the 1960s BBC television series The Prisoner, starring Patrick MacGoohan, who also co-wrote, co-directed and co-produced the series, the use of closed-circuit television is a common and constant feature throughout the Village, the quaint seaside resort town where MacGoohan, known in the series as Number Six, is imprisoned against his will and made the object of a number of nefarious mind-control experiments. In fact, it could be said that Patrick MacGoohan used The Prisoner partly as a forum for warning people about becoming overly reliant on technology. The citizens of The Village are kept placated and docile by an abundance of labor-saving devices, and for the most part, none of them would have it any other way. Fast forward to the epoch of I-Phones, satellite navigators touch-screen tablets and cloud computing, and a common question posed to ardent technophobes (they are out there) is, “Dude, how do you survive without a cell phone?”
In the mid 1990s, the internet had just begun to become available to civilians for home use. Although the computers depicted in the 1995 thriller The Net, starring Sandra Bullock look decidedly primitive by today’s standards, this particular motion picture was indeed prescient – the number of identity theft victims in America alone averages between eight and eleven million every year.
Around the same time The Net was released to theaters, an episode of the popular animated sitcom The Simpsons was aired, centering on Lisa Simpson’s life in 2010 as she prepares to marry. Oddly enough, many of the technological predictions for 2010 in that specific episode – credit cards being used at vending machines, motion-controlled video games, the availability of hundreds if not thousands of cable television channels and the commonality of satellite dishes being used to receive television signal – came true. Even more amazing, the newfangled device seen on the floor of Lisa’s college dorm room looks just a bit like some sort of e-reader or tablet computer, and a taxicab in which she rides with her fiancé oddly seems to bear a passing resemblance to the Toyota Prius, a gasoline-electric hybrid motor car which would be unveiled worldwide in 2001.
Indeed, it seems as though science fiction stories have a funny way of anticipating new technologies and the accompanying trends. In some cases, these stories envisioned developments that nobody ever thought could be possible. Other stories feature settings where machineries in their infancy at the time the respective stories were being written are more commonplace. Perhaps it is the great storytellers who inspire the visions and hard work of the genius inventors who wow us with their brand new state-of-the-art gadgets.