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Sci-Fi Cinema's Influence on Real-World Innovation

One of the most significant and enduring communication technologies to have manifested this century is cinema. While numerous arguments have been presented in relation to cinema's effects on society, little attention has been given to niche aspects, or genres, of the cinematic spectrum. Following is a discussion centred around the hypothesis that "Science fiction cinema stimulates real-world scientific, technological and social innovation of the 'soft' deterministic variety".

Like any artistic product, sci-fi cinema has the potential to initiate discussion, to purvey thought and to procreate escapist metaphorical variations on our own reality, thus allowing for in-depth analysis of society from a relatively detached viewpoint. As production and exhibition technology increases the medium's resonance for multiple sensual amplification, cinema creates a hyper-reality that is far more affective in its emotional manipulation that that possible through those media that exclusively target one human sense. In doing so, science fiction cinema can raise questions and pose 'What If…' arguments that theorists and information technology specialists may otherwise fear to approach directly.

In his article appearing in Intersections: Fantasy and Science Fiction (1987), Michael Holquist stated that sci-fi literature and cinematic artefacts directly shaped the Soviet space program. In Western culture, similarly, science fiction cinema has often been a precursor to real-world scientific application and investigation. Developments such as the Star Wars defence system, miniature medical cameras, Xerox Parc's 'Morphing Robots' project and astrophysicist Miguel Alcubierre's 'Warp Drive' investigation have reportedly been inspired by images conveyed in films such as Star Wars (1977), Terminator 2 (1991), Fantasic Voyage (1966) and Star Trek.

The validation of science fiction's supposed direct influences on public behaviour is a increasingly challenging and subjective task, though Brian Stableford has identified three sociological functions present in the genre. (The Sociology of Science Fiction, 1987) The directive function infers that messages embedded within a sci-fi text have direct and significant paradigmatic consequences in the shaping of an individual's psychology. The maintenance function, like the volunteerist view of technological determinism, states that the text is being used disposably by the reader, reiterating the reader's current ideological stance, but not altering the polarity of such attitudes. His third function, that being restorative, takes the view that a reader engages in the reading of a science fiction text passively, using the work purely as a form of cathartic escapism. His study concludes that science fiction creates a high-fidelity hyper-reality that serves both a maintenance and restorative function, and that common and recurring stereotypes and conventions that occur as motifs throughout the genre can have subtle directive effects in the alteration of a person's psychological affiliation. (Stableford, p.43)

While the enduring effects of exposure to such material are more prevalent in sparking a chain of technological ingenuity, Chandler's Ecology of Mediation describes the natural process by which science fiction's potential to inspire the creation of certain tools and practices can progressively lead to subtle transformations in human attitudes and perceptions. An example of this is the heated public backlash in regards to satellite terramapping, smart card distribution, cloning, nuclear war and 'dehumanising' effects of technology. While it remains unjustified to suggest that the masses have had their communication patterns and behaviours directly and significantly altered by science fiction cinema, the effects of the genre are nevertheless tangible and pertinent at the microsocial and soft deterministic levels.

Written by Joshua Smith. © 1998

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