Is Microsoft co-opting sci-fi’s techno-optimism vs skepticism debate?

Space plane
The space plane from 2001 A Space Odyssey is also an ad for (now defunct) Pan American Airways.

Many high-profile science fiction writers are bemoaning the tone and content of 21st century sci-fi and fantasy. It’s too dark, too depressing, too filled with rampaging robots, malevolent AIs, and oppressive governments. The trend is hurting humanity by discouraging the kind of can-do-ism that got America to the moon and beyond. We need to revive the innocence and naivete of a time when we trusted technology to solve our problems, they say.

Corporate America agrees. On Tuesday, Microsoft released a free ebook titled Future Visions: Original Science Fiction Inspired by Microsoft. The company invited science fiction luminaries Elizabeth Bear, Greg Bear, David Brin, Nancy Kress, Ann Leckie, Jack McDevitt, Seanan McGuire and Robert J. Sawyer, as well as graphic novelist Blue Delliquanti to its research labs and asked them to imagine worlds with Cortana, Hololens, and its take on quantum computing as the world-fixing (and profitable) products MS hopes they’ll become. The concept is as creepy as it is laughable.

Thanks very much, Bear et al. You’ve just sold out our technology-driven future to a corporate giant with a reputation going back to its “embrace and extend” strategic philosophy of the 1990s condemned by the US Justice Department. Contributing to Future Visions is possibly the dumbest thing a techno-optimistic author could ever do to the utopian side of the utopia/dystopia debate.

Corporate interests have a long history of attaching themselves to positive futures, as they perceive them. In the 1950s and 60s, General Electric produced a series of comic books that “educated” boys about science and engineering within the context of GE products. In the classic shuttle/station docking sequence of the 1969 motion picture 2001: A Space Odyssey, a prominent (now defunct) Pan American airlines logo is visible on the shuttle for several minutes. The station hotel is run by Howard Johnson’s. A character’s video call to his daughter is made on AT&T equipment (then called the Bell System).

Almost the opposite may be true for the ongoing trend of dystopian movies and films. The website Brands and Films notes that Hunger Games has an “almost total absence of any brands” in either the books or films. Big companies must be, um, hungry for a return to a Disney-esque view of the future, because the mainstream dystopian view isn’t brand-friendly. They’re probably thrilled at the publication of Project Heiroglyph, Neal Stephenson’s anthology of “uplifting” sci-fi stories, especially if the book heralds a resurgence of brand-promoting utopian storytelling.

More importantly for science fiction as a genre, the participation by these authors in a content marketing / public relations campaign for Microsoft damages the credibility and saleability of their work in the future. I’ve heard more than one sci-fi fan say the Future Vision’s authors’ stature is diminished by this project. When Microsoft approached them, they should’ve run away screaming, no matter how much the cash-flush behemoth offered in pay and prestige.

Science fiction writers play a leading role in the public debate about technology and its social impact. Authors who attach their name to a specific company’s vision imply an endorsement and skew the debate toward one view of the future at the expense of other views with less resources to promote them. Next time around, they should don an ethical chastity belt and keep the corporate co-opters from scaling the walls of their integrity.

3 thoughts on “Is Microsoft co-opting sci-fi’s techno-optimism vs skepticism debate?

  1. Kudos for a thoughtful and no-punches-pulled take on this issue. I’ve been afraid to read (or even take a peek at) Future Visions, for fear of what it would do to my image of some authors I respect. Just the fact that they were willing to sign on to this “creepy and laughable” project has put quite enough of a dent in that respect.


    1. Thanks, Karl. It’s interesting that most of the pushback I’ve received on this post supports the project. (Mostly on Facebook.) Everyone says I should read the stories first before commenting. I don’t get it. Wouldn’t that be doing exactly what MS wants me to do? Wouldn’t I be falling into the trap I’m describing? I don’t have a problem with the content. It’s the underlying motivations of Microsoft that creeps me out.


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