Science fiction has always inspired real-world technological advances. The very first employees of NASA were inspired by the rocket-ship and ray-gun festooned pulp sci-fi of the 1930s and 1940s. Most of the greatest innovators of the last 30 years have found their inspiration in sci-fi novels. Steve Jobs, creepily, recommended 1984 to new hires at Apple. Elon Musk is very public about his love of Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Douglas Adams. Bill Gates grew up on science fiction and he continues to stay abreast of the new stuff: he recently nerded out over Seattle author Neal Stephenson’s most recent novel Seveneves.
In recent years, some have tried to add more intention to that connection between science fiction and science fact, with the hope of inspiring another real-world technological boom. Stephenson himself edited an anthology of willfully optimistic sci-fi titled Hieroglyph a couple years ago because he believed the popularity of dystopian fiction and its attendant trend toward cynicism was having a detrimental effect on scientific development. But it’s hard to formalize any kind of a relationship between fact and fiction; inspiration is a tricky thing to pin down, and you never know which ideas are going to take off.
Berit Anderson, a Seattle-area editor last seen at Crosscut, is trying to tie together science fiction and journalism with her brand-new website Scout.ai. Backed with a board made up of an impressive blend of lit nerds (Seattle sci-fi mainstays Greg Bear and Ramez Naam, Clarion West board member Karen G. Anderson) and public policy nerds (City of Seattle Startup Advocate David Harris, Bullitt Foundation President Denis Hayes), Scout aims to publish a deep investigation of a single facet of our future per week, in the form of journalism and a new piece of fiction.
The most recent “dispatch” from Scout imagines how self-driving cars might shape Seattle. The dispatch is made up of interviews with city planners about why they’re so woefully underprepared for self-driving cars, paired with a fiction set a decade from now, in which Mayor Russell Wilson spends dozens of hours in virtual reality trying to envision how his budget cuts might affect some of Seattle’s poorest residents. “It had taken Seattle 20 years to plan and build one light rail line from downtown Seattle to the airport,” the narrator informs us as Mayor Wilson weighs the options before him, “But it took less than five years from the introduction of electric self-driving taxi services in 2017 to completely disrupt urban and suburban transportation.”
All this talk about the Seattle of the future can get a little airy, so the sci-fi interlude works to ground the reader, to bring some heft to the conversation. A little bit of fiction paradoxically makes the theory feel real. From there, the piece — it’s just credited to “The Scout Team” — pursues some of the local implications of autonomous vehicles, including budget shortfalls, worsened gridlock, and the fact that all our current future-facing investments in transit that do not take self-driving cars into account might be “a waste.” Scout, which is currently in an invite-only beta, also provides forums where community members can participate in conversations. Last week, there were 53 posts about the potential for decentralized online currency Ethereum, including its capacity as a distributor for guaranteed basic income.
Anderson is a warm, enthusiastic woman who has always been in the forecasting business. Her family has produced Future in Review, a newsletter read by titans of industry, since 1995, so she grew up with her head in the future. Once she knew she wanted to start her own media company, she started talking with people in her network only to discover “a real hunger for more conversation about what these technologies mean.” With a staff of four full-time employees, Anderson oversaw a successful Kickstarter campaign that ended up with her as the Editor in Chief and CEO of a hybrid sci-fi-news-community.
“Ironically, I wasn’t a sci-fi fan until a few years ago,” Anderson admits. “I’d been put off by science fiction in the way that I think a lot of women are turned off by science fiction,” thinking that it’s all about “giant phallic rockets running into each other.” But when her book club read Dune, she understood the power of what sci-fi could be: “it’s about politics, and resource scarcity and religious beliefs,” she says, along with “really powerful women characters.” She’s been hooked ever since.
At $12 a month, Scout costs more than many media outlets, but curiosity is running high; “we have several hundred people on our wait list” to join, Anderson says. She thinks the community—a blend of sci-fi nerds, very smart people out on the sci-fi edge of real-world technology, and optimistic policy wonks—will create its own value. For the moment, it’s working. Anderson calls it a “holy shit kind of moment,” wondering at the “power magnet” she’s created. From where she sits, Scout’s future is bright.