Science Fiction

In Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Veldt,” two children play in their “nursery,” a sort of home holodeck where they can conjure up any scene in which to play. Bradbury always had a wonderfully clunky sort of technobabble; in this case, as the father tells the mother, “it’s all dimensional superreactionary, supersensitive color film and mental tape film behind glass screens. It’s all odorophonics and sonics, Lydia. Here’s my handkerchief.”

Naturally, the nursery never shipped. It’s not a real thing, and there’s no mental tape film in 3M’s labs. But Bradbury wasn’t an engineer, and his story isn’t a patent application. It was a work of imagination — yet still guided by a sense of the practical.

Most concept devices, like last week’s eye-mounted display from Google, are works of imagination, and are usually good or bad concepts according to how well they manage the aspect of practicality. Sometimes they’re dead ends, pie in the sky. But often works of imagination are crystallizations of collective fear and desire: manifest destiny, in this case, for an industry.

What was “The Veldt” about? It certainly wasn’t a techno-fantasy about how cool our entertainment devices would be in the future. It was an example of Bradbury’s most common theme, the loss of humanity through, in this case, a surrogate for parenting, as embodied by a sort of mega-TV. In this way, although it has been 60 years since the story was written, and the nursery has yet to appear, it’s still true in the most important way it was meant to be true. The story was a vessel for a feeling that is still relevant.

There’s no reason to suggest that Google’s Project Glass video is any different from the many concept videos we’ve seen in the past. But like Bradbury’s story, the take-away isn’t the piece of technology, but the idea it embodies. People are quick to jump on Google as a company that, for one thing, doesn’t really make hardware, and for another, a company that has killed off half the projects it has started. Real artists ship, they say. But before the artists can do their part, the engineers have to do theirs. And what they create isn’t exactly art.

How often does a product come out that didn’t have some ugly, bulky precursor? Somebody has to make one, after all. Devices don’t spring fully formed from their creators’ foreheads. We quickly forget the failures that preceded the glorious success because they aren’t something we want to think about. But they existed, and they were not without utility. They beat the path that their successors followed, then fell exhausted by the wayside.

A brief tangent, if the reader will permit it. There’s a fallacy often used as an argument against evolution: “what good is half an eye?” That is to say: the complicated structure that is the eye and its supporting wetware doesn’t work if you only have part of it, so why and how would it evolve if it was no good until its final stage? People make that same mistake when looking at a device like this. What good is this video, this concept, if Google isn’t shipping it this year? What both arguments ignore or miss is that, in fact, the transitional forms of both the eye and the breakthrough device are necessary to the final product. They’re points on a path. Before the eye, the eyespot. Before the iPhone, the Palm Pilot.

What Google is doing is positing the iPhone as they build the Palm Pilot. Remember, ten years ago, Apple was no more able to make the iPhone than Palm. Palm decided to make ugly, functional things and Apple deferred, looking ahead. Google is trying to do both. It’s a bit early to be calling the success or failure of what is essentially a fictional device (the real one, though we’ve seen it, has not been truly demonstrated), but it is at least an honest, compelling, and even realistic concept.

Project Glass is a vessel for a vision, so to speak, as “The Veldt” was a vessel for a concern. It’s a vision of the connected internet, mobile and ubiquitous, and totally divorced from the handset-based ecosystem that Apple took by storm and molded to its own advantage.

Google must have looked around at the crowded, tooth-and-nail spaces they’re in right now, and one imagines its lip curling in distaste. They feel they barely managed to ship Android in time. They’re struggling for relevance in social. Browsers, the soldiers that formed their invincible phalanx for a decade, are fundamentally changing. Can you blame them for averting their eyes, and directing them towards the horizon?

It must be refreshing sight. A fantasy, maybe, but everything we have today started as a fantasy. But importantly, it’s not a mirage. Sergey Brin is actually wearing an early version of the things. They’re as ugly as sin and nowhere near the level of functionality shown in the video. Why should it be otherwise? Apple made the Newton. Was it a mistake?

Intel has roadmaps looking forward a decade or more, roadmaps that assume their engineers will accomplish die shrinks and material research and nanolithography methods that aren’t even imaginable today. No one is calling them frauds because they are showing a product they won’t ship for years to come. They’re writing their own story because that’s something they can do. When you are on the forefront of technology, science fiction stops looking like science fiction and it starts looking more like a long-term business plan. Perhaps Google’s plan is overoptimistic. That’s not something you can tell at the outset, however, and it seems cynical to assume so.

The prudent archer, says Machiavelli, aims for the horizon, knowing that the arrow will fall short of his mark — but hopefully on the target. So it is with those futurists who mix their imagination with knowledge. Ray Bradbury’s nursery has yet to appear, but the lesson it teaches is no less real. Google’s Project Glass is about as real as the 6nm transistors planned for production by Intel around 2020. Which is to say, imaginary — until it isn’t.