Science-fiction (SF) is an art genre that tells stories of alternative worlds based on fictional science and technology. SF-stories are – unlike fantasy – plausible and comprehensible. They can be utopian, but often enough they are dystopian: ruthless political systems support self-absorbed business leaders and their cynical products.
In a series of articles in different formats, we will show the value of SF-literacy for decision-makers in business.
Science-fiction serves as inspiration for new tech-based products. Most often, these products are extremes: desirable like an autonomous medical pod or terrible like a the . But utopian products are not as innocent, just as dystopian products are not as infernal. Both hypes are cynical, because they focus on the technology, not what is best for humans. Along with them go equally cynical and pathetic corporate leaders who rake in profits at the expense of humanity.
The “real” science-fiction lies in between utopia and dystopia, it celebrates the human in its blurry, messy and confusing ways, being good and bad at the same time.
How do products and leaders look like in an ambivalent world?
Enjoy the Letter Exchange between Isabella Hermann and Patricia von Papstein.
Isabella to Patricia, August 2021
Exploring science-fiction as an inspiration for new tech-based products has become more and more popular. Former science-fiction tech like tablets, video calling or digital assistants have already come true, so wouldn't it be great if universal language translators, medical tricorders or even autonomous medical pods became reality soon?
These products are presented as positive and desirable, but aren’t they rather metaphors for human unachievable dreams of easily understanding each other and of being always healthy? Do we really want to have a chip in our ears or brains all the time which filters our conversations? Do we really want to lie in a coffin like tank to get rid of diseases? And what about malfunctions, unintended consequences or even alternative, non-technical solutions?
Just as some products are shown as utopian tech-fix solutions, there are others that are presented as harbingers of an inhumane world – a bleak technology tyranny, in which products take away our humanness. The near-future series Black Mirror (all five seasons available on Netflix) shows in its stand-alone episodes technical innovations and products, which at first sight seem to be highly innovative and progressive.
But at second sight they lead into bleak and oppressive societies: humanoid robots become creepy and shallow (episode Be right back; here a short scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IlXIXArW-uo), a chip in your head recording your memories turns out to be a killer of new experiences and privacy (episode The entire history of you; here a short scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hrkhUHjgo7Y), a society in which everyone can rate everyone for their social performance turns into an illiberal system (episode Nosedive; here a short scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T4Oe3f9pe4o).
What Black Mirror teaches us: technology is always embedded in a social context and will have ugly and unforeseeable consequences if we just let it run its course. But it also entertains us with increasingly absurd shocking dystopias: a purifying horror show similar to the catharsis in a Greek tragedy. And in fact, compared to Black Mirror our real world seems (still) quite alright.
However, tech-companies and entrepreneurs with their “just do it”-attitude towards product invention create positive narratives, where Black Mirror tells dystopian stories. David Hanson’s robot Sophia, Elon Musk’s Neuralink brain-computer-interface and all kinds of scoring and gamification models are celebrated despite the gloomy parallel universe of the popular science-fiction series. In the end, both the capitalist techno-utopias promoted by business leaders and the sensationalist technophobian worlds of many science-fiction films and series are about marketing, not about the future – since the future will be neither this nor that but both at the same time.
Patricia, having focused on products, now it’s your turn: Which role model does SF offer to business leaders?
Patricia to Isabella, August 2021
What a prelude. How to place the clue for my answer about leadership qualities of business leaders in SF films?
First of all: Mainstream SF films celebrate the bad guys as a blueprint of the future business leader. The applause for cynical products goes in these sci-fi plots hand in hand with an adoration for corporations that rule the global economy with an iron fist. They are described as masters of destroying all fun-loving expressions and aspirations of the human society. These tyrant corporations are run by business leaders, who are caught in emotional “crumble” and obsessed with a compulsive ambition.
Let me refer to the SF film “The Island” to illustrate how the bad guy business leader idol is celebrated.
How does the film “The Island” outline the stereotype of the self-absorbed leader as a business idol? We see Dr Bernard Merrick, the Head of Merrick Biotech, a company that has developed a technology to grow human clones for organ harvesting. Health care business market opportunity X.O. The customers of Merrick Biotech are persons who can afford the breeding of their healthy, individual clone in case they need cloned organs to replace their original ones if they get sick or frail.
The character of Dr Merrick represents the “cold and calculating” attitude of a leader who feels entitled to push science to a dubious limit. He is never disturbed by doubts or ethical concerns.
Here a short scene from the film that illustrates Merrick´s behavior.
As a film viewer we are seduced not to blame him. The idol of the business leader, who brushes aside all resistance, lingers in the heads of business owners, may they lead an established business or a start-up. Our internal reasoning salutes. Yes, nasty business longs for ridiculous leaders. Yes, if you want to dominate markets in ahead of the curve business segments the success is not created by the “good-doers”. That´s what business practice teaches every day. Salvation feelings emerge.
But, give us a break! Here SF literacy as we both see it, Isabella, can set in.
Imagine we rewrite the behavior plot for Mr Merrick. For the reason of our own stereotyped business idolizing to the test.
A few unusual directions from my power of imagination treasure chest for Mr Merrick:
Mind strategy A - “Making things hum !”
Merrick gets introduced to real life gardening of plants by a lover and diversifies the business into a producer of agricultural products that need less plowing and no herbicides. Playful! Playful.
Mind strategy B - “Enjoying a secret !”
Merrick brings out a kit that enables to grow clones at home, at a reasonable price which more people than only wealthy persons can pay. But he installs a decay sequence of the clones as well. Wise! Wise!
Mind strategy C – “Sidestepping a barrier!”
Merrick bets on another business, too - health care prevention. The purpose: keeping individuals and groups away from emotional and physical devastation. The clones are only willing to die if the owner can convincingly show how mindful she/he is about her health. Rebellious! Rebellious!
Imagine: Merrick will not any longer be the one-dimensional leader, who is obsessed with a compulsive ambition.
Counter-plausible enough? Leading beyond hell or paradise?
That was fun!
Happy to start the next letter exchange soon.
They jointly explore and object the current science fiction doctrines in business and economy. Because they combine their expertise on a societal level (political science) and on an individual level (psychology) they offer insights into the roles of the individual in structural constellation. Watch them developing science fiction literacy of a new kind, not rehashing the glory or the misery of a predetermined future. Instead, deciphering counter-plausible ways of building business – now and in the future.