Strange Bedfellows? What Tech PR and Sci-Fi Have in Common
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If you are a science fiction enthusiast like me, you’re well aware of big upcoming events like the theatrical release of the movie Dune, slated for October of next year. I’m excited about seeing this new version, which is said to reflect the classic book more effectively. And hopefully, it will expunge bad memories of David Lynch’s campy 1984 version. I know many others in the tech sector are as excited about the new Dune as I am. It is the rare movie that makes the front page of a major tech publication more than a year before its release.
I believe there is a real, meaningful intersection between technology PR, technology professionals and science fiction. Dune isn’t the only franchise that tech people love. From Star Trek to Star Wars and shows like Battlestar Galactica, we seem to consume them all. Who among us hasn’t walked the halls of a technology company without seeing at least a few cubicles decorated with sci-fi action figures and memorabilia? When I see this stuff, I’m reminded of the incredible flights of fancy we find in books, movies, TV shows, and even comics and the interplay between sci-fi and the tech economy.
Tech is the engine that enables fantasy to become reality. For example, do you remember the high-tech touch screen used by Tom Cruise in Minority Report? When that movie came out, it seemed incredibly far-fetched that one could use gestures to control a computer screen — yet today, manipulating machines with gestures is an everyday thing. From Jules Verne’s Nautilus to the communicators used by the crew of the Starship Enterprise, sci-fi has always imagined the fantastic stuff that one day gets built as part of our real future. I mean, an Apple Watch is really the same as Dick Tracy’s wrist radio. The trend of smaller, lighter and faster devices always starts with a “what if?” or “wouldn’t it be cool if?”
While this might seem a stretch — and those people who aren’t tuned into sci-fi may not get it — those who are can, in fact, “grok” what I am saying! Grok is a commonly used tech term, and it means an intuitive understanding of something, like software code. This term was first introduced by the sci-fi writer Robert A. Heinlein in the 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land and has become part of a common language among techies. And while I occasionally need to explain grok to PR newbies, they quickly get it, and we all grok together.
Similarly, many folks at my firm have learned that the term “borg” is shorthand for the bad guys. The original borgs were born as villains in Star Trek, surviving through more than one iteration, and have been described as “cybernetic organisms linked in a hive mind” that “co-opt the technology and knowledge of other alien species,” among other things. In the real world, the borg usually takes form as a big, menacing competitor seeking to crush its competition — and we all know what that looks like.
Further proof that tech PR and sci-fi are intertwined can also be found during personal interactions, even in the unlikeliest of moments. Once, during a new business meeting, I met a rock star tech CEO who was both charismatic and intimidating, and we somehow began conversing about our favorite sci-fi books and authors. This informal chat was the perfect icebreaker and resulted in an incredibly positive meeting, once we had established common ground over Star Wars, Star Trek and The Terminator. Part of being in tech and appreciating sci-fi is having (or being able to see) a clear future vision. For many of us, this sci-fi-driven connection creates a common language and lets us lock in together and execute against a vision.
Never ones to let any detail slip, techies sometimes take the media and popular culture to task when they get things wrong. There are numerous movies about tech which are ripe for lampooning. Who can forget Harrison Ford in Firewall or Sandra Bullock in The Net? As it turns out, pretty much everybody. But, on the other hand, tech folks can be kind when sci-fi gets it right in terms of subjects such as programming.
Sci-fi even has applicability for PR people daily. For example, we’ve leveraged our enthusiasm for sci-fi to obtain media coverage for our clients. A few years back, during its early seasons, the show Westworld was a Silicon Valley obsession. Using the show as a hook, my agency built a proactive media relations strategy for an artificial intelligence (AI) client. We trend-jacked some of the most compelling future-state technologies on the show and illustrated how our client’s work mapped to the development of similar solutions. As a result, the firm generated a significant amount of thought leadership coverage for our client, thanks to successfully linking them to the latest in sci-fi and wrapping their technology into the entertainment-driven buzz.
I see no end to the marriage of sci-fi and tech and its integration with tech PR. Sci-fi is, of course, all about dreaming and storytelling, but it gives us many points of personal connection too. Ultimately sci-fi frees us up to wonder and imagine — an important quality in an industry that spends its days making fantasy into reality — and that’s great by me.