Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Did Science Fiction Predict The iPhone?

Can anyone cite an example of science fiction predicting the iPhone?   

Last year, in the February 2012 issue of Scientific American, I read an article by David Pogue with the title "The Future Is for Fools: A few guidelines for anyone attempting to predict the future of technology. " He lists some of science fiction’s memorable predictions such as “...Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘newspad’ (iPad), Ray Bradbury’s ‘thimble radios’ (earbuds), Isaac Asimov’s pocket calculators and George Orwell’s security cameras.”  Yet no mention of smartphones.  So this inspired me to do a Google search for “Did Science Fiction Predict The iPhone” and I found, well, next to nothing. 

In the article "Five Science Fiction Predictions That Came True," Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 novel Return From the Stars is listed as an iPhone/iPad prediction for making “reference to a touch-screen technology.”  Yet, this futuristic device is for a digital book, not a personal phone.  And though I have used the iPhone as an e-reader, I think this is more of a side benefit.  The idea of FaceTime or Skype on an individualized device is not in any of the sci fi I’ve read.  I find this surprising since Gene Roddenberry’s personal communicator set the foundation for smartphones. 

Go back to the 1964 Star Trek episode "The Cage" and you will see the flip-open Starfleet hand-held communicator for the first time.  A whole generation of engineers, in my opinion, had to be inspired by this fictional device, since it seems that by the early 2000s the flip-open cell phone was ubiquitous.  Yet no communicator in the Star Trek pantheon included a touch screen interface.  In fact, Captain Jean-Luc Picard in the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation has to touch the Starfleet Command badge on his 24th Century uniform to communicate with the ship’s computer, but otherwise, voice commands render touch obsolete. 

The closest approximation to an iPhone I’ve seen happened in 1982’s Tron with the Encom touch screen desk.  To my knowledge, CEO Ed Dillinger has the first example of a touch screen keyboard that could interface with the internet.  He communicated with the Master Control Program (MCP), which could then connect to other systems and appropriate their programs.  It’s the iPhone with Siri, except it’s stuck in an office, not unlike a public pay phone that’s rooted on a sidewalk.  And it’s the pay phone model, I think, that led science fiction away from personal smartphones.

Arthur C. Clarke’s 1968 novel 2001: A Space Odyssey and parallel movie script written with Stanley Kubrick introduces the stationary videophone.  Dr. Heywood R. Floyd makes a call from an orbiting space station to his daughter back on Earth.  However, he’s using a Ma Bell device that transmits the live video feed.  Clarke’s/Kubrick’s prediction is that the ubiquitous pay phone monopoly of the United States Ma Bell system (AT&T) will go into space.  This same viewpoint is made in 1984’s Blade Runner.  Rick Deckard makes a call from a pay videophone, which has the same Ma Bell symbol as does Clarke’s/Kubrick’s space station pay phone. 

In the same year as Blade Runner’s release, the Ma Bell monopoly was broken into seven regional “baby bells.” Fast forward to 1995 and Johnny Mnemonic is no longer using a Ma Bell pay phone.  He does use a videophone through his TV, but it’s not portable.  So again, no evidence of an iPhone. 

In fact, just four years before the iPhone’s 2007 release came the remake of Battlestar Galactica which did a one-eighty away from smartphones.  Commander Adama uses throwback corded phones as a precaution against Cyclons hacking into his ship’s wireless network. 

Maybe in our own future hackers will drive us back to land lines.  If so, there aren’t many pay phones left for the public to use since cell phones are sending them to extinction.  According to a 2012 NPR article by Stan Alcorn entitled "Want Free Wi-Fi In New York: Get Near A Pay Phone," the pay phone has “...gone from about 2 million across the country in [the year] 2000 to less than a quarter of that today.”  The article posits that by converting the New York City pay phone network to Wi-Fi hot spots this decline might be stopped.  Or maybe not. 

I wonder if younger generations will ever see a phone booth on a public street?  Ironically, the only experience today’s youth may have with a phone booth will come from science fiction!  There’s that 1963 London police box exterior for the TARDIS in the various versions of Doctor Who, or 1983’s War Games where David Lightman (Matthew Broderick) uses a pull tab from a soda can to hack into a pay phone and thereby avoid using a quarter, or the 1978 Superman movie where Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) goes into a New York phone booth and changes into the man of steel.

Whatever the case, the next generation has embraced the smartphone.  And I’m having trouble with the notion that science fiction may HAVE NOT predicted this revolution.  Please, someone - anyone - give me an answer in the comments section below: Did Science Fiction Predict The iPhone?  And if not, why not?

By Mark Schelske