Science Fiction

This morning (Amman time) I taught a class to a middle school in Jordan. It was the opening to a big daylong event where the parents were invited and the superintendant said some formal words.

Ostensibly, my lecture was about design in the COVID-19 world. That was the pretext from which I obtained the opportunity. Actually, I turned it into a Q&A where I answered questions about what it’s to invent things.

Some of the questions were technical like “How do you advertise your products?” and “What programming language(s) do you use?” When a nerd asked about Arduinos I was happy to answer that we used a few in the prototyping stage.

Technical stuff consists of things you can learn in school…eventually…in theory. The more interesting questions (from my perspective) concerned open-ended topics like “What did you learn?” How am I supposed to explain to middle schoolers what it’s like to carry on when all hope seems lost?

Another interesting question was “Where do you get inspiration?” It was asked more than once. I was surprised by how quickly, precisely and consistently I answered the same three words each time. “Read science fiction.” These are middle schoolers and they’re living in the science fiction’s golden age.

I am getting better at interfacing with schools. The first time I guest lectured to middle schoolers I gave the teacher nightmares. The students loved my blunt honesty. The teacher did too; he was worried the parents would complain. None did, but I learned my lesson. It is more efficient—and produces less collateral damage—if I can point children to George Orwell and Paul Graham rather than attempting to foment mischief directly.

For me, the golden age of science fiction was 9 to 17, with a peak from 12 to 14. Following that, I have studied science and faced the real world instead. When I returned to science fiction the magic was gone. I would read a story and think to myself “I know, from personal experience, that’s not how things work.”

I am a technical entrepreneur. My job is to build the future. To build the future you must balance conviction against skepticism. Rationalism is full of advice on cultivating skepticism. Science is an unrivaled tool for cultivating conviction within its domain. However, the vanguard of progress is beyond the reach of science. Peer review is not a fountain of inspiration. I cannot afford to lack imagination.

If you want, as an adult, to maintain the imagination you had as a kid then you have to do for real the things you merely imagined doing as a kid. Turn science fiction into science fact.