The sometimes uneasy alliance between high-tech and sci-fi

As someone who loves high-tech almost as much as I love science fiction, it’s been something of an eye-opener to realize that the two have an often-awkward relationship. And this is especially the case for movies or TV shows – watch them again, 10, 20, 30 or even 40 years after they were made, and you’ll be amazed at how dated the technology looks.

It’s not always the case, of course – movies like Blade Runner push the tech to the background, so it’s less noticeable. But in general, just wait ‘til you see a computer room or a piece of “state of the art” technology and you’ll wince, or laugh, or both.

Generally, 1970s and 1980s “future tech” – especially in BBC TV shows such as Dr Who or Blake’s 7 – feature computer consoles as banks of blinking lights, plus good old analog switches. This is the pre-widespread adoption of LED era so the indicator lights are big, round and clunky, or you’ll see a bank of square colored buttons. What’s most striking is that there’s hardly a display panel in place – except perhaps a cryptic, low-tech readout that characters in the drama will study before proclaiming “incoming enemy targets detected in quadrant four, sector five – closing fast!” When there is a display, what’s shown is usually a telescope-like view of what’s going on “out there”, whether this is on the surface or in deep space. Text or even icons on displays is rarely, if ever, shown.

Watch enough 20-plus year-old sci-fi and one thing in particular will jump out: “futuristic alien technology”, like that of the Blake’s 7 Liberator, is just a joke: the computer room comes straight out of a 1970s IBM publicity shot. Today, this doesn’t balance so well with the storylines – for example in one episode a female robot is so realistic that the entire crew are initially duped. Eventually they cotton-on, and open up the side of her head (we aren’t treated to the explanation of how they get the “a ha” moment and decide to tear open her skull). When we get to look inside her head, it looks like she’s powered by a Sinclair ZX81!

Some shows, such as the 2000s remake of Battlestar Galactica, have taken the tech credibility gap into account and de-tune the technology, or put it into human form, although our real world smartphones and tablets tend to look a lot more advanced that most technology you’ll see touted in sci-fi.

That is, except for the ability to beam people around the universe, of course. Popularized in Star Trek and plagiarized in Blake’s Seven with a nod to Willy Wonka, real-time matter transfer is still pretty damn cool – and probably extremely fatal.

Also I’m still searching for one piece of technology that I’ve really, badly wanted since the 1970s: Dr Who’s famous sonic screwdriver. To this day haven’t found anything in my local hardware store that comes remotely close.

It looks like the staples of the future science fiction world are capabilities such as speeding around the universe at improbable velocities, zapping people with a single shot of a photon gun, and communicating with anyone, at any time, from a handheld device that never needs powering up – and never shows the dreaded “no service” message. Mind you, I shudder to imagine how much Captain Kirk is paying in roaming charges.

Beam me up, Scottie.

Simon Jones, Managing Director, OnPR, GmbH

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