Why sci-fi is obsessed with the near future

Sci-fi has rooted itself in technology and concerns of the short term, rather than the far-flung

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Speculative designers

Speculative designer Jessica Charlesworth passes a display of sticky notes of various ideas, topics, and headlines used for brainstorming. (Antonio Perez, Chicago Tribune / March 30, 2014)

In the West Town loft that Jessica Charlesworth shares with husband, Tim Parsons, along the back wall, on a row of metal filing cabinets, a kaleidoscope of Post-it notes waved in a soft draft, each a kind of dispatch from the future. I leaned in to decipher the scribbles: "Plans to build solar farms on the moon," I read aloud.

Charlesworth nodded.

I read the next note: "4-D printing." And the note beside that note: "Invisibility research in China."

I looked at her, confused.

She was still nodding. "That last one," she said in her London lilt, "that's happening. Actually, they all are."

She should know.

Charlesworth and Parsons, both of whom teach design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, are leading figures in the hot field of speculative design, which means that they not only dream of the future, but they also consider and study the ramifications of design on the future. As she puts it, they study "emerging possibilities." They build prototypes, look at how technologies can be used and misused, picture plausibilities, probabilities.

"What I try to install in students is that you have no idea the potential of a technology by just looking at whatever it is now," Charlesworth said. "What happens when ideas leave the lab is — well, we look at possibilities. For instance, what happens if someone, say, grows cells in their home for the purpose of eating cells for food?"

"Eating?" I asked.

She shrugged. "Sure. A future possibility."

"So then how far out do you ask students to consider the future? One hundred, two hundred years?"

"About 10 to 15 years is average," she said. "There's plenty there."

She uses classic science fiction to spur imaginations, she explained. Students read Orwell and Bradbury, they watch Kubrick. But she's just as likely, she said, to focus on the factual research of contemporary engineers.

And that means what for science fiction? I asked. Can distant futures compete with almost-nows?

"Actually," she said, "the science fiction I like is more about almost-now, with small variables made to the look of the world to let us know it's the future: Things changed, but the world is fundamentally the world."

Which is a nice working definition of science fiction in 2014: Today, with bits of tomorrow.

Indeed, I saw "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" later that night, and it featured driverless cars, militarized hovercraft/helicopter hybrids, "satellites that can read a terrorist's DNA before he steps out of a spider hole." It's set in the present, and nothing on-screen seems improbable. Before the movie started, there was a trailer for "Transcendence," which opens Friday. In it, Johnny Depp plays an artificial-intelligence expert who seemingly skirts death by fusing his consciousness with a computer. It sounded eerily like Ray Kurzweil, the tireless real-world promoter of an inevitable human-computer "singularity," and … director of engineering at Google.

It's never too soon to plan for your future.

Helpfully, in theaters, at bookstores, on TV, that future is now. And a genre that once dreamed big, that envisioned new worlds and dimensions, that used the future itself as a metaphor for the problems of the present, has turned inward. Mars was once a destination; now, we can't see beyond the ramifications of our cellphones.

"Did you see 'Her'?" Charlesworth asked. "That's a vision of everyday life. Not shining metal spaceship surfaces of old sci-fi so much as lots of wooden furniture. Quite, quite convincing."

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