When sci-fi becomes reality
Imagine a company that can tell the future – stopping criminals before they commit their misdeeds. Well, it appears that such an entity already exists.
afew months ago, while celebrating a mutual buddy’s birthday at a Chinese restaurant, a friend and I were talking books. I was raving about a science-fiction novel by William Gibson that I was reading and Robyn was telling me about what she had been reading recently.
As the conversation continued, Robyn ventured that the world really doesn’t pay attention to science-fiction writers in the way that it should. I agreed.
Then, last week, I read a fascinating piece called Better Business Through Sci-Fi, and written by Nick Romeo, on
The New Yorker’s website. It told the story of SciFutures, a company set up by Ari Popper.
Five years ago, when he was working in market research, Popper enrolled in a course on science-fiction writing at the University of California in Los Angeles. Once he completed the course, he made the bold decision to found his own company.
The venture was based on the premise that since businesses spend money trying to predict how the world will change, a space where speculative fiction already treads, fiction could be used to service big business. Popper calls it “corporate visioning”.
According to The New Yorker article, Popper’s company, SciFutures, has a network of more than 100 authors who write customised stories for the likes of Visa, Ford, Pepsi and Samsung. The stories range from a few hundred to several thousand words in length.
The same day, I read an article on The Guardian’s website about Palantir, the CIA-backed start-up that was launched in 2004 by PayPal co-founder and Facebook investor Peter Theil, alongside Nathan Gettings, Joe Lonsdale, Stephen Cohen and Alex Karp.
The article was an excerpt from a new book titled Done: The Secret Deals that are Changing our World, which was written by UK investigative journalist Jacques Peretti.
According to him, Palantir uses big data to watch everything people are doing and predicts what they will do next. The idea is to stop crimes before they happen. However, Palantir services the private sector too. Via Palantir Metropolis it provides the analytical tools for hedge funds, banks and financial services firms.
Peretti writes that Palantir tracks everyone from potential terrorist suspects to corporate fraudsters. He states that Bernie Madoff was imprisoned with the help of Palantir and it was used in the US/ Iraq war to track patterns in roadside bombings.
The author quotes Samuel Reading – a former marine who worked in Afghanistan for a US military contractor. “It’s the combination of every analytical tool you could ever dream of,” he said. “You will know every single bad guy in your area.”
Palantir has done work for the CIA, the FBI, the US Marine Corps, the US Air Force and the IRS. Its use by Los Angeles and Chicago police has been controversially received. Critics argue that the data from Palantir has become a new way of reinforcing old prejudices. Peretti writes that Palantir is “immensely secretive”.
“It wields as much real-world power as Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple,” he writes. “But unlike them, Palantir operates so far under the radar, it is special ops.”
Science-fiction readers who have encountered Philip K. Dick’s 1956 short story titled Minority Report are probably thinking that this sounds all too familiar. Dick’s story, which was adapted into a film starring Tom Cruise by Steven Spielberg in 2002, involved a machine that could predict crime before it happened.
It may have taken just less than 50 years but Palantir makes it sound like Dick’s vision has been realised. However, reading the excerpt on Palantir, I was reminded of a 1996 William Gibson novel named Idoru, which I feel is another precursor to a world where it exists. In Idoru, the main character, Colin Laney, has a talent of sifting through vast amounts of mundane data to find “nodal points” of particular relevance.
In the novel, Laney worked for a company called SlitScan, which thrived on destroying media personalities by exposing their secrets. Laney was the data wrangler who could see the patterns in big data.
What Gibson was writing about in 1996 was essentially the kind of data wrangling we see around the world today, conducted by corporates, the military and intelligence agencies.
It seems that Palantir is the realisation of these visions of Dick and Gibson. The fact that there is a push to keep it as secret as possible should make us all very suspicious.
If big business, the military, intelligence services and the police are starting to pay attention to the science-fiction writers, then perhaps it’s time we all started to do the same. ■
The world really doesn’t pay attention to science-fiction writers in the way that it should.