Learning from Science Fiction

Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction is a fun book and blog about interface design lessons inspired from watching sci-fi movies and TV shows.

Like the gestural interfaces seen in Minority Report, or the lovely voice of Majel Barrett-Roddenberry as the onboard computer of Star Trek’s Enterprise, sci-fi gave glimpses of the Wii and Siri before their inventions. In fact, the iPhone is like my personal tricorder to wayfinding and analyzing my way through the world these days… highly-rated Thai food two blocks away, traffic jam on interstate, etc.

Make It So got me thinking about how sci-fi writers have envisioned the future of learning technologies.

Because we are so far from technologies that could “upload” neural engineered synaptic pathways into the brain, as with Keanu Reeve’s character in the The Matrix, I looked to current or near-term instructional technologies inspired by science fiction.

Beyond the universal translators, virtual reality holodecks, and computer companions such as HAL, I immediately thought of two classic sci-fi novels:

  1. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott
  2. The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson

Ender’s Game focuses on the experiences of students in Battle School and Command School who seek to save the Earth from an aggressive alien species. First published in 1977, Scott describes a simulation-based game system used to to teach warfare skills and tactics. By the way, in 1977 the Atari video game system’s most sophisticated game was pong-style tennis.

Although I don’t like violence, I did like the book’s depiction of learning from experience. The idea of developing skills within safe simulated environments is used in many settings today — especially for high-risk skills or where mistakes can be harmful or cost-prohibitive. Now as then, there is no better instructor than experience. Practice makes performance.


The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer an imperiled future Earth. Stephenson’s protagonist Nell is coached on her hero’s journey by an interactive book that provides personalized learning in real-time. It’s like a sentient Kindle! The book provides instruction responsively to the owner’s environment and immediate needs. The Primer includes a social networking component — human teachers are available to help. The book even includes augmented reality capabilities that help Nell traverse danger. Another aspect of the story I enjoy is the evolution of Nell’s lessons. When she is small — but 5 to 7 if I recall correctly — the book presents lessons through fables and colorful picture stories. As Nell ages and matures, the book’s instruction adapts to her changing needs. Published in 1995, Stephenson accurately foresees new uses of biotechnologies and nanotechnologies as tiny mosquito-sized drones and bio-pathogen defense systems. Although heralding a dystopian future of misused technologies, the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer is the utopian future of electronic performance support systems.