Q&A with author Andrew Maynard on Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi…
Q&A on the new book “Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi Movies”
Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi Movies (published by Mango) is a new book that explores the relationship between technology and society through twelve science fiction movies.
What’s the book called?
The published title of the book is “Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi Movies”–and it’s available at Amazon.com and other book sellers.
Why that particular title?
The original working title for the book–before I’d really settled on what it was going to become–was actually “The Moviegoer’s Guide to Not F***ing Up The Future”. This was rather quickly shortened to “The Moviegoer’s Guide to the Future.”
This is the title that guided the form and content of the book–a slightly irreverent yet subtly profound exploration on emerging technologies based on science fiction movies, with a nod to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. After reading the first draft though, my editor decided that we needed a title that better-captured the use of science fiction films to explore not only emerging technology trends, but also the moral and ethical questions they raise. Hence “Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi Movies.”
What’s the book about?
At it’s heart, Films from the Future is a book about what it means to innovate responsibly in the face of profoundly transformative advances in science and technology. On the surface, it’s an engaging and entertaining journey through technologies that range from genetic engineering and smart drugs, to nanotechnology, human augmentation, artificial intelligence, and geoengineering. But underneath this, it grapples with some of the greatest challenges facing innovators, tech companies, policy makers and citizens alike in today’s technologically complex age: How do we reap the benefits of innovation without running into serious problems along the way?
This question is more important than ever to companies that cannot afford to be blindsided by unintended consequences of the technologies they’re developing, or to discover that they’ve deeply misread the social and political landscape ahead of them. But it’s just as important to anyone who stands to be impacted by emerging technological capabilities, and who wants a say in how these technologies affect their future.
Where do science fiction movies fit in?
As most people will realize, science fiction movies are pretty bad at predicting future technologies. What they are rather good at though is revealing the complexities around the relationships between technology and society, and the potential dangers of not taking the social side of technology innovation seriously. And the imagination and creativity they represent is a quite wonderful catalyst for breaking down preconceived ideas and institutionalized thinking around the ways in which new technologies can lead to positive or not so positive socially relevant outcomes.
So how did you chose the movies in the book?
Selecting the twelve movies that form the backbone of the book was a long and drawn out process, involving many, many hours in front of the TV! I had a number criteria here. First, I wanted movies that were fun to watch–life’s too short for watching deeply earnest films that are boring as old socks! Next, I needed films that opened the door to exploring specific technological trends and emerging social issues. I also needed them to create a strong narrative arch when knitted together that told a story about convergence between biological-based technologies, materials technologies, and cyber technologies. And I wanted to ensure that, as far as possible, there was some diversity here in style and form, and that these weren’t just a bunch of movies about white guys.
The resulting lineup is eclectic, to say the least. There are a couple of movies that bombed with critics, but nevertheless fit the criteria. And there are some mega-blockbusters that aren’t there, because they didn’t fit the meta-narrative. But I’m pretty happy with the sequence that resulted.
What technologies does the book cover?
The book is intentionally not all-inclusive in the technologies it touches on, and indeed there are some current trends that are not mentioned at all — including self-driving cars, drones, VR/AR, and blockchain. Rather, I set out to explore a backbone around broader trends that span biotech, human augmentation, artificial intelligence, and materials technologies (including nanotechnology). Within this backbone, the book dives into topics like de-extinction, cloning, complex systems, ubiquitous surveillance and big data, smart drugs, bioprinting, automation, human augmentation, AI, superintelligence, synthetic biology, nanotechnology, and geoengineering.
What’s your favorite movie?
I must confess I really like all the movies in the book. But I do have a soft spot for three of them: Never let Me Go, the 1995 anime Ghost in the Shell, and Ex Machina.
Never let Me Go is not a conventional sci-fi movie; in fact, it barely qualifies for the genre at all. And yet, it’s a profoundly moving film that reveals the devastating impacts on a group of individuals of a technology that society deemed so important that it swept deep ethical and moral concerns under the rug. It’s a movie that, I must confess, moves me to tears each time I watch it.
Ghost in the Shell is a very different type of film, but is equally profound. Under the guise of a beautifully animated anime film, Ghost is a deeply philosophical meditation on what it means to be human as it becomes increasingly possible to swap out biological body components for mechanical ones. It’s far from being the easiest film in the bunch to get in to–I use these twelve movies to teach an undergrad class about technology and society, and this is the one they struggle with the most–but it is one of the more insightful ones.
Ex Machina is a movie that divides artificial intelligence and robotics experts. The AI technology it presents, and the scenario it develops, are flawed. But what I love about this movie is that it reveals the possibility of future AIs developing dominance over humans by learning about our biases and limitations, and using these to manipulate us. Scary stuff, and not that implausible.
Who’s the book aimed at?
This is a book that I hope anyone with a passing interest in technological advances and their potential impacts on society will enjoy reading–an interest in science fiction movies certainly isn’t necessary (and you definitely don’t need to have seen the films to enjoy the book). But I think it will be especially interesting to anyone working in the technology sector, or establishing a new tech company, who is aware of the growing social risks around new technologies and wants to get a handle on how to balance socially responsible innovation with financially successful innovation.
Aren’t you worried that the book could be seen as stoking anti-technology fears?
Absolutely not. The underlying message of the book–and one that’s emphasized in the last chapter–is that there’s tremendous potential to change lives for the better using emerging science and technology, but also that with great power comes great responsibility. As technologies become more powerful, and the dynamic between technological capabilities, society, and the planet we live on, more and complex, the one certainty is that if we rush into our technological future with our eyes closed, things will get really messy. Films from the Future helps open the eyes of readers to potential consequences, so we can learn together how to navigate around them, and build the future we want.
What else is there to know?
Not a lot, apart from if you are at all excited by cool science and technology, concerned about how to develop and use them responsibly, and intrigued by how science fiction movies can shed a light on socially responsible tech innovation, please buy the book!