In an interview earlier this year with the New York Times (paywall), Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said he could have never imagined a future in which the software he developed would be used to interfere with elections. But many have warned about the potential for misuse, and it’s not a stretch to think that the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which involved the misuse of data from millions of Facebook users, is just the tip of the iceberg. Shortly after that interview, Facebook announced a new dating service, extending its reach further into our personal lives and our personal data. How will people use—or abuse—this tool, and what will the consequences be?
Tech ethics may seem like an abstract concept best left to philosophers and lawyers, but you don’t need to pass the bar or get a PhD to predict the unintended consequences of technology—you may just need to read books and watch movies.
Speaking in my professional capacity as a dystopian science fiction writer, it is hard to imagine a more foolish proposition than putting Mark Zuckerberg in charge of my romantic life.
— son of an asylum seeker, father of an immigrant (@doctorow) May 1, 2018
Through fictional stories, creative thinkers of the past and present can help technologists anticipate challenges and opportunities created by technology. Lowe’s Innovation Labs and ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination are already employing science-fiction writers to better understand the future of technology and humans. The Design Futures Initiative hosts conferences and meetups on “speculative design” that bring scientists, researchers, designers, writers, and filmmakers together to envision the future.
As Facebook and Uber dominated headlines, the fiction enthusiasts at Luminary Labs generated a list of books, movies, and television shows that should be on every technologist’s radar. We came up with nearly 100 suggestions in less than an hour and whittled the list down to 40 works of fiction; If you care about the impact of technology on our lives and want to imagine a wider range of possibilities, start with this small sampling of stories.
The following list may include spoilers, and links point to Wikipedia sources that summarize plotlines in further detail.
1984, in which “Big Brother” and the “Thought Police” use surveillance and manipulation to maintain power.
Tron, in which a tech exec is blackmailed by his own virtual intelligence software.
WALL-E, in which pollution destroys the earth and humans retreat to space, where they become obese and weak “due to microgravity and reliance on an automated lifestyle.”
WarGames, in which a computer simulation attempts to start a nuclear war.
Westworld, in which humans live out their wildest fantasies in a theme park staffed by enslaved androids.
While many popular books and movies lean toward the dystopian, the future is unwritten. Awareness of possible consequences can help us make better choices; the key is to be able to foresee as many different outcomes as possible. Every technologist needs an education in ethics, and that education should include fictional stories that expand the imagination.