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MORPH: Pop goes technology

MORPH: Pop goes technology

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The recent announcement of a proposed submarine telecommunications cable between Singapore and Australia was hardly surprising. Sure, expanding the region's broadband capacity is an issue which is seen as fundamental to the growth of our industry. But for me, the news was just another example of how IT reality is more often than not borne out of a fictional concept. It makes you look beyond the technology to the motives and agendas involved in its application.

It brought to mind, of all things, a fictional work by an author who over the past 10 years has become synonymous with cyberculture - Neal Stephenson.

In fact, Cryptonomicon - the novel in question - runs more along the lines of historical fiction than a subculture of the science fiction genre. It tells the story of the role cryptography played in winning the Second World War, swinging between the past and seemingly the present day to a start-up company (ironically named "Epiphyte") involved in, among other things, laying undersea cables across Asia.

Its characters are mixtures of real life geniuses - the father of the computer, Alan Turing, for example - and war heroes who make John Wayne look positively still-legged in his zeal to serve his country.

Society has become particularly introspective in relation to its technology industry of late, spurred on by works from the likes of Arthur C. Clarke, stories that portray us on space stations and in a world where videoconferencing and computers are a way of life. But in 2001, the real breakthrough lies in technology's coming-of-age. That science fiction has evolved to explore not only the future, but also the past, speaks volumes for the maturity of the computer industry.

Of course, Cryptonomicon, as the name suggests, is a dense work encapsulating so many ideas that readers are bound to personalise their application of its themes. That is the nature of a novel. But if you are in the business of information technology and that business is encompassing more and more of every day life with each passing minute, then you can be pretty sure you will be able to read something of everyday life into nearly every page of this work - even if the protagonist of the moment is a morphine-addicted US marine salvaging information from an enemy U-boat before it sinks.

Science fiction appeals to the type of mind excited by the application of new technology. So excited that despite the moral warnings often contained within the text, they are compelled to push boundaries just to see if it can be done. Isn't this how the first computer viruses evolved?

It has also pervaded popular culture to the point where phrases coined in novels end up as part of the vernacular. The term "cyberspace" may have been coined by author William Gibson in his collection of short stories entitled Burning Chrome, but it crops up as an analogy for the Internet with monotonous regularity.

Gibson is regarded as the father of cyberculture. His 1984 novel Neuromancer is considered the first "cyberpunk" text. Ironically, he admits to knowing little about the way computers work and utilising them little in his everyday life. But his vision of the Internet has been showcased as the way of the future time and again. "Cyberspace is where we do our banking," he was once quoted as saying. "It is where the stock market takes place."

Traditionally, science fiction authors have envisioned mankind thousands of years into the future. That period has contracted progressively. Nowadays the time frame is likely to be just decades, sometimes less.

Both Gibson and Stephenson consider their works to be equally about the present and the future. The "what if" factor is less about speculation and more about the future application of technologies that are already upon us, if only in their infancy. Authors ask "what if" this technology was used in a particular way, and stimulated by their vision, the industry works to bring it to reality.

"But what about quantum computers? And what if mathematical techniques are developed that can simplify the factoring of large numbers?" argues one of the characters in Cryptonomicon, speculating on current encryption keys.

Like personal computing, the cyber movement is a phenomenon that arose in the early 1980s. But its source stretches far beyond, running a remarkably similar course to the technology it seeks to explore. Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, a short story which was later translated to the cinema as Blade Runner, was first published in 1968, the same year Lawrence Roberts and the DARPA-funded community went live with ARPANET, the Internet's predecessor.

Traditionally the cyberpunk milieu is dark. The characters live very much for the moment, rarely looking to the future. This is in contrast to the technology world today where the future -the near future at least - is very much a primary factor in the decision-making process. The dot-com phenomenon demonstrated this pointedly: investors forked out untold sums of money for anticipated returns based on exponential projections years into the future. They wanted to believe the hype, hoped to be part of the new paradigm, and of course make a lot of money in the process. It became hard to tell market reality from marketing fiction.

Turning the industry on its head became the rule rather than the exception. Yes, it all came crashing down, but it also opened another channel to the consumer and legitimised technology on another level. Learning about a concept, no matter how unattainable it may seem, opens doors in the minds of the public, doors that may previously have been closed. The dot-com crash may now be infamous, but it has also helped marry technology with sound business practises, and the industry can only profit from it.

It is not so dissimilar to that of telling a story - and more memorable because it is real.

When science fiction becomes fact, it lends a legitimacy to the original medium. So when you strap on your wearable PC, or simply slip your Palm into your back pocket, ask yourself how the market was not only conceived, but popularised. The realm of high technology and popular culture are increasingly becoming one and the same.


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