Taking a Page from Science Fiction
Sci-fi writer and entrepreneur Cory Doctorow on thinking out of the box
Last fall Cory Doctorow won the John W. Campbell Award for best new science-fiction writer at the Hugo Awards. Not bad for a 29-year-old who is also the cofounder of a San Francisco start-up called OpenCola.
Doctorow says his writing inspires his technological endeavors and vice versa. In fact, the idea for OpenCola arose partly from the ideas in his upcoming novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. The novel concerns itself with "reputation economies," systems that predict your trust in a stranger based on the fact that he or she is trusted by a friend. OpenCola uses that idea to make software tools that help online publishers of all kinds promote their content.
Doctorow spoke recently to Inc. Technology contributor Alessandra Bianchi about the relationship between science-fiction writing and technological development.
Inc. : How would you characterize the relationship between science fiction and technology?
Doctorow: The best science fiction has always inspired new ways of thinking about technology. The visionary science-fiction writer William Gibson coined the term cyberspace back in the early 1980s. What's interesting is that Gibson is a totally nontechnological person.
Inc. : How does writing about new technology differ from actually developing it?
Doctorow: The job of the science-fiction writer is to build convincing, consistent worlds. The easiest way to do that is to say as little as possible and let the reader fill in the gaps. It's what my colleague Karl Schroeder calls "the backless maiden." In the Arthurian legend, a knight comes to a castle and meets a beautiful, welcoming maiden who stands in front of a candle, and the light shines through her eyes, revealing that she's just a facade. The technology in science fiction is like that backless maiden. The readers insert their own details.
Inc. : But technology companies can't make backless maidens.
Doctorow: No, they certainly can't. When you actually build the technology, you have to make it fully realized. No one person has the perspective and experience to understand the business, social, and technical implications of bringing a new technology to market. Companies bring people together to work in concert and fill in the gaps. That being said, science-fiction writers have to think through what happens when people use the technology -- and think it through in a way that is a lot more rigorous than the way that the average technologist thinks. Science-fiction writers think about technology's alternative uses and broader implications. For example, the Internet was originally conceived by the U.S. military to connect researchers at various universities in a way that wouldn't be disrupted even after a disaster like a nuclear war. It was science-fiction writers who predicted online banking, pornography, chain E-mail, the whole worldwide weirdness that we call the Internet today.
Inc. : But surely, entrepreneurs must have more impetus than writers do to work through the implications of their ideas. After all, they've got bills to pay.
Doctorow: All the more reason for your vision to tunnel. If you think you've got a floor wax, and the bills aren't going to get paid unless you can sell your floor wax, then you go out there and try to sell floor wax. But if it turns out that what you've really got is a dessert topping, that will never occur to you.
Inc. : So entrepreneurs might want to take a page from science fiction?
Doctorow: I think so. Writing science fiction is a game of "what if," a game of thinking of all the varied ways that people will use their technologies. It's that rarefied perspective that leads to rigorous thought, and that's where the really big opportunities are. It helps you see that your floor wax is really a dessert topping, that voice mail can be used as a dating service, that you can give away Netscape Navigator and make money selling Netscape servers. That sort of thinking is what science fiction is all about.
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