Science Fiction in Context
Why science fiction for teaching a humanities’ perspective on technology and science? Well, why not! Science fiction texts are products of a culture surrounded by discourse related to science and technology. As I’ve said elsewhere:
Knowledge advances because discourse communities communicate with their
members, but, if experts only communicated with other experts, knowledge would
not diffuse to other audiences. Technical and scientific information pass to general audiences through a variety of ways: popular press articles, textbooks, media, and even science fiction. (Toscano, 2012, p. 19)
Science fiction “incorporates science and technology as major themes, communicating ideas and values surrounding technology even if the technology is not real (e.g., alien spacecraft)” (Toscano, 2012, p. 22). The authors and the technologies are products of a particular time period, so we can say the culture mediates their beliefs, in the case of the authors; social “demand” determines what gets produced, in the case of the artifact; the media (or discourse in general) re/interprets the value of the technology for the audience; and users incorporate the new technologies into their lives. Consider this:
[S]cience fiction acclimates audiences to technology by adhering to a dichotomy. Science fiction narratives often present technology as benevolent or malevolent. The technologies that enslave humanity in films such as the Terminator series reflect a dis-ease in a culture that increasingly seems to give up autonomy to machines. In contemporary, real-life factories, robots and other automated technologies are more efficient than human labor and often make certain jobs obsolete, thus, contributing to anxiety about advancements in technology taking away jobs. Also, many science fiction narratives comment on the increased surveillance possible with technology (as is the case in Orwell’s  1984). On the other hand, narratives such as the Star Trek universe of films, television shows, and literature predominantly reflect an attitude of benevolence in technologies. In this universe, technology allows diverse groups (in the form of various alien life forms) to combine forces and explore the universe; medical treatments are expertly diagnosed by waving hand-held devices over patients; and weapons ‘‘humanely’’ stun victims. (Toscano, 2012, pp. 22-23)
Contemporaries–People, Events, & Technology–to H. G. Wells
H. G. Wells was a product of his time period. Yes, he was an individual and, perhaps, a genius. There’s certainly no refuting his vivid imagination. Yet he wouldn’t have dreamed* what he did had he not been inspired by his surroundings. In classes where we discuss The Time Machine, we consider Wells’s frame of reference. As a British subject, he’d have been well aware of The Empire’s colonial aspirations.
*”It’s alright / We’ve told you what to dream”
–Pink Floyd, 1975, “Welcome to the Machine“
The Boer War and Technology
In the first decade of the 20th Century, the focus on science and technology moved from being dominated by commercial concerns (light bulbs, telegraphs, automobiles–all in the nascent stage) to being dominated by military interests. Of course, there’s no exact date for when this happened, but cultural observers recognized it. Many technologies had “tactical and practical uses.” Guglielmo Marconi pitched his wireless invention as having both commercial and military potential.
In fact, his wireless was used in a battle during the Boer War (1880-1881 and 1899-1902). Marconi, as did other inventors, used to discuss their inventions in places like the Royal Institution and the Royal Society of Arts, Britain. These venues were places journalists, the public, and other scientists/engineers went to hear about the latest and greatest technologies. Because these presentations were about newly created technologies, the experts had to convince the audience of their merit or potential. These presentations were also places for inventors to explain away deficiencies that others might have heard about.
In the 1900 presentation to the Royal Institution of Great Britain, Marconi responds to a situation where his early wireless invention didn’t work appropriately. Much like Apple not wanting 3rd parties to writing software without being authorized, Marconi only wanted his approved devices (and, eventually, telegraphers) to be used; otherwise, he couldn’t ensure they would work. He blames human error when explaining why his system was defective during the Boer War in South Africa. Some assistants went to help, but there were no proper “poles, kites, or balloons” (Marconi 1900, p. 295). The crew had to use inferior makeshift kites that weren’t as effective (Marconi 1900, p. 295). Marconi made it clear that the wireless was still a good system but its assumed “partial failure was due to the lack of proper preparation on the part of the local military authorities, and has no bearing on the practicability and utility of the system when carried out under normal conditions.” (Marconi 1900, p. 295).
The problems above could have been harmful to Marconi’s reputation (ethos) and, therefore, harmful to the wireless system. Imagine the public hearing that Marconi’s assistants using any apparatus failed to establish communication. Regardless of inferior equipment, observers could still perceive the results as a system failure, and that perception would be hard to overcome. Marconi (1900) himself stated “that if I had been on the spot myself I should have refused to open any station until the officers had provided the means for elevating the wire, which, as you know, is essential to success” (Marconi 1900, p. 296). Marconi creates the idea of a flawless invention to convince his audience of its potential existence. Of course, having a viable military application would bolster Marconi’s economic potential, so he offers with confidence “that before the campaign is ended wireless telegraphy will have proved its utility in actual warfare” (1900, p. 296). Marconi even foreshadows the wireless’s military usefulness when he invites the audience to “agree with me that it is much to be regretted that the system could not be got into these towns prior to the commencement of hostilities” (1900, p. 296).
Marconi, G. (1900, Feb 2). Wireless telegraphy. Smithsonian Annual Report, 1901, 287-296. (Original published in Proceedings of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, 16(2), 247-256)
Toscano, A. A. (2012). Marconi’s Wireless and the Rhetoric of a New Technology. Dordrecht: Springer.
There was another group that took technology as a muse quite far–The Italian Futurists. Time permitting, we’ll discuss some of their contributions.