The Edison Effect

I’ve seen several posts, comments, et al. describing the late Steve Jobs as “the Thomas Edison of the 21st Century,” an undeniably true statement. It seems unlikely that anyone else could come along and take the title.

As a writer, though, I find myself looking at the effect of Edison’s inventions – the phonograph, movie camera, and lightbulb, if you hadn’t paid attention in the fifth grade – the ways they affected society, business, even government both in the short term, and across decades as others refined and improved on them. How will the things Jobs created (no quibbling about “invented,” either; Edison had a research lab just like Jobs did, and he still gets credit for the invention itself) have changed the world by the end of the 21st century? What will his inventions (the Apple ][e, Macintosh, Pixar, iPod, iPhone, and iPad, if you weren’t keeping score) have become by then?

Edison’s movie camera has less resemblance to the Red camera of today than the Apple ][e or 1st generation Mac resembles the Macbook Air. There’s a lot of ground to cover before the Mac, the iPhone, or the iPad have altered society to the same degree as movie cameras, recorded music, or affordable lightbulbs. Spend just a few seconds pondering that one and you can see how little the world we live in would resemble one without any one of those three inventions.

So this brings me to what is more-or-less my point: how do we, as authors, delve into that future and see some of where society will go with these devices and the habits (and industries) they create? P. K. Dick saw autonomous robots that could hear what was said to them and respond with words, but he described those robots as having thousands of, essentially, tiny tape decks that could play back the individual words & phrases required to react to the human and his or her words.

Golden Age SF managed to foresee a lot of things, but none of the predicted technologies (that I’ve ever noticed) included digital storage media. Tape and disks abound in old SF. The uses of lasers are also under-predicted. How do we avoid these mistakes?

Trick question, of course; we don’t; because they aren’t mistakes. The things successfully “predicted” by SF tend to get invented in the real world promptly following their debut in fiction. Heinlein’s waldos and waterbeds came from his books, not from a vacuum.

So we do what we can to see where technology is going, in a way that will be believable to the reader and – most importantly – serves the story. The future world Steve will continue to create for decades to come will take care of itself.