Science fiction is a popular source of entertainment, with its descriptions of futuristic societies and their use of technology. Most of it seems closer to magical premonitions than to reliable predictions, but other stories are eerily realistic, based on existing technology and the extrapolation of new developments. In some cases, this means that authors have actually predicted systems that seemed like magic back then, but are widely used now. For example, not many people know that Mark Twain, famous for his novels Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, predicted the internet in his short story “From the London Times of 1904” no later than 1898. In this story, he describes a network of information and communication formed by a system of telephones.
Like the internet a few years ago, cloud computing is currently hailed as one of the most important innovations in technology. But like the internet, multiple science fiction writers already described this system in the previous century. To what extend were they right? Two examples are discussed here.
Apart from raising interesting questions on the anonymity of internet users, Vinge gives an impressively realistic depiction of a state-of-the-art cloud management system: his protagonist rents processor time and data storage space when he needs it. By spreading data and processes over a large network of computers, the cloud, computer users can presently take advantage of speed and space that significantly outreach their computer’s capacities. Because software is hosted by the cloud, simple, out-dated computers can be used as thin clients to access computing power-intensive applications without compatibility issues or downtime. Unlike us, however, the characters from True Names connect their brain directly to the internet with electrodes, and fully immerse themselves into a virtual reality. Our world tends more towards augmented reality: making the digital world physical.
The world Stephenson created in The Diamond Age exists under the influence of wide-spread nanotechnology, resulting in body modification, spy technology, and eventually mind-sharing. But it also has an extensive information and communication network, accessible through personal devices, with centrally run and updated software: not unlike cloud computing. In 1995, this information and communication network was already well-known as the internet, of course. It’s especially Stephenson’s use of a digital book to connect to the network for personalised communication, entertainment, and education that is still innovative now, as it compares to the use of for example tablet PCs as thin clients. The context-sensitive content of the book is closely related to current developments: sensing the user’s location or, using computer vision, even emotions, and providing relevant information. This is hardly possible without a cloud network. Not everything about this book’s computer network is realistic, though, and we probably wouldn’t want it to be: it eventually creates a hive-like mind shared by most of its users, no longer limited to the device for input and output. Fortunately, the cloud only connects computers, not minds. So far.