Readers and viewers have long enjoyed science fiction for the chance to escape into strange new worlds, but an observant reader may see some familiar elements in those futuristic stories. Although we’re still waiting on flying cars and cheap personal jetpacks, some writers and artists working in sci-fi years ago created visions that bear a remarkable resemblance to the world we know today. Company leaders in particular may find concepts that remind them of the current environment for digital business.

Here are a few of the milestone works of science fiction that have inspired the people developing new technologies and tools. They offer different views of what a future with close ties to technology could look like, and may hold some lessons for forward-thinking business leaders. We can look at these to examine the responsibilities of business owners and professionals in an increasingly technological world. What are the risks? What are the opportunities? How can we use tech to make businesses better for people rather than worse? Let’s find out.

The Early Ideals: Star Trek

Gene Roddenberry’s famed 60s-era television show had the sparks of many inventions that at the time seemed impossibly futuristic. Today, many have become commonplace. While the “PADD” predicted the modern tablet computer, and the medical tri-corder of Dr. McCoy hinted at the impressive diagnostic tools to come, some of the most telling predictions made by Star Trek were not about specific tools. The original series was based on the premise that technology could make the entire universe a utopia.

This manifests in some interesting aspects of life on the USS Enterprise that the characters took for granted, and that may now seem eerily familiar. One of the most relevant for today’s businesses is the ease of real-time communication and access to information. When Captain Kirk needs to direct his team, he simply flips open a communicator and gives the orders. Or when he needs to learn more about a remote planet, he simply calls out, “Computer” and asks for the data he needs.

While these worked as convenient plot points, they also harkened to an ideal world where information is exchanged instantly. This is the positive view of what technology can accomplish for us, and it is important for business owners to keep that optimism about the possibilities inherent in new ideas and creations. After all (at least according to Star Trek) tech can make even the most dire interplanetary problems a piece of cake to solve when used wisely!

A Darker Vision: Blade Runner

Philip K. Dick’s books and short stories offer many chilling visions of what our lives in a digital world may turn into. Ridley Scott used one of his novels as the basis for the movie Blade Runner, which also has themes related to technology and how it impacts our lives. This film creates an aura of fear and angst because of the pervasive and sometimes dangerous use of technology.

Blade Runner can be analyzed as a cautionary tale about what could happen if technology and corporations have unchecked access across a culture. It focuses on “replicants,” genetically engineered robots that appear identical to humans. These robots, which have preset life spans and can be implanted with false memories, are forbidden on Earth, and if they return to the planet they are hunted down and destroyed. Much of the film addresses just how empathetic these short-lived creations can be, especially in comparison with the sometimes cruel actions of the people in the film.

Artistically, it’s a nod to film noir, and the darkness implies a worry about the world presented to the viewer. Replicants are produced by powerful mega-corporations that cast a long shadow over the oppressively urban planet. Any sign of nature or wildlife has been extinguished, and the planet has become a tense, uncertain place. There’s a distrust of the technologies present in the movie’s culture, possibly because the replicants are so similar to humans. That creates uncomfortable questions about identity and purpose, some of which are being discussed today in the context and pervasiveness of social media.

The Near Future: Minority Report

Minority Report appeared in theaters in 2002, another movie based on the fiction of Philip K. Dick. In this world, three “precogs” — humans who can see the future — are used by law enforcement to arrest people before they commit crimes. The film presents a world where media and technology are present to the point of being inserted ubiquitously into people’s daily lives.

The vision includes a legal gray area, where potential criminals are taken into custody and sentenced before they have done anything wrong (and without a chance to mount a defense). The advanced technology that allows the precogs to identify criminals-to-be is believed to be so infallible that it begins to infringe on the individual rights humanity takes for granted. Tech becomes an integral part of life, with people subjected to a constant barrage of personalized advertisements, and where personal data is collected to be used as official identification.

Minority Report shows that there are legal ramifications to any activity in the digital world. Our existing framework of laws can’t always move fast enough to keep pace with changes in technology. How much Internet speech is protected by the first amendment? When and where do intellectual property rights extend online? How much control can people exercise over their personal information? Those questions are being asked and hotly debated today.

Of course, it’s impossible to say whether a dystopian or utopian view of the future is more likely to come true. But there are some lessons for smart business owners in these works of science fiction. Technology is powerful, but it can be a double-edged sword. The source of control over technology is also essential to understand. Each of the above examples include scenarios of when technology escapes the control of its creators and causes chaos. Perhaps we are never fully holding the reins in a digital world, but it’s key to know how the system functions and how to work intelligently within it.

Thankfully, businesses have an opportunity to use these tools to make better customer experiences, protect their privacy instead of violate it, and build relationships instead of alienate people. That’s the benefit of social media — and it’s a benefit that many science fiction films have yet to fully explore.

Have you seen signs of your favorite sci-fi stories come to life? Let us know in the comments!

[Image credit: John Greenaway]