Cover Story

How Do Sci-Fi Authors Imagine the Future of Meetings?

We’re beaming in some ringers for this year’s Meetings Industry Forecast: professional science-fiction authors whose job is to figure out how the world — not to mention the universe — might change.

Illustration by Diego Patino

When it comes to forecasts, the problem is often a lack of imagination. Which itself isn’t all that original an observation, but maybe that proves the point. We think there are only so many ways to describe things.

That includes the future. For 17 years now, we’ve produced an annual Meetings Industry Forecast that always follows the same approach, taking a straightforward look ahead in four sectors related to business events: lodging, exhibitions, travel, and technology. We’re still doing that this year, but we’re prefacing it with something a little more, well, imaginative.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, novelist and business strategist Eliot Peper makes a case for “Why Business Leaders Need to Read More Science Fiction.” Peper’s reasoning:

“By presenting plausible alternative realities, science-fiction stories empower us to confront not just what we think but also how we think and why we think it.” He has a point. Pare away the standard trappings of the genre — starships, androids, lasers, intergalactic wars, etc. — and you often have characters who are trying to figure out what it means to be human (or Martian, or Vulcan), to be alive in the universe as it changes around them. For a science-fiction writer, that can mean imagining how everything will advance or evolve — technology, knowledge, language, culture, customs, and life itself, human and otherwise.

Who better to ponder the coming years for meetings and conventions? So we’ve asked four contemporary science-fiction authors to do just that. 

Does anyone we talked to foresee starships, androids, lasers, intergalactic wars, etc. in our future? Read on.

L to R: Ashby’s the author of books like Company Town, a “posthuman” mystery set in an oil-rig-based city-state of Canada’s Atlantic coast. Chen worked as a software engineer in Silicon Valley before publishing his first novel, the Locus Award–nominated Waypoint Kangaroo, last year. McGuire has won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards — the holy trinity of science-fiction and fantasy writing. Merritt cofounded and now cohosts the sci-fi-themed “Sword & Laser” podcast and video show. 

How do you approach speculating about the future in your writing?

Seanan McGuire I try to focus on what a single point of change could do for society. We can see these little innovations remaking everything, over and over again, throughout human history. Sometimes it’s something positive, like the invention of vaccination. Sometimes it’s something negative, like deforestation introducing new spillover diseases into the population. Either way, from a fictional standpoint, it can be a great place for a story to begin.

Curtis C. Chen That’s going to be a little tricky. You can look back on the history of science fiction and see sometimes, some writers were able to predict things, but most of the time, things don’t really pan out the way people think they will or hope they will. Everyone being on the internet, everyone having basically a computer in their pocket all the time, is not something that a lot of people foresaw back 50, 60, 70 years ago, when computers were just starting to be a thing. When I’m writing a story, I try to frame it in terms of, this is a story about a particular person who has these concerns, so how does this new technology or this future setting influence how they’re living their life and whatever problems they’re having in their life?

‘Take the technology that’s brand new and leapfrog it to being perfected.’

Tom Merritt I do a couple of things. One is a trick that I’ve picked up from reading [science-fiction author] Cory Doctorow’s writings about his own writing, and it’s a trick he’s picked up from other authors as well—which is to take the technology that’s brand new, that maybe hasn’t penetrated into the marketplace broadly, and leapfrog it to being not only old and widely used, but also perfected. That generally tends to help on the technology side, to make it seem like science fiction but keep it believable and grounded in some sort of reality.

Madeline Ashby I try to remain fairly grounded in research that I can do and stuff that I’ve read in science journals or in industry publications, or things like that. So, I try to remain grounded in what is already being worked on and then what I also think is likely to get funded, so there’s a balance between those things. It’s like, well, what is being worked on, and where can I see investment going — not just investment in money, but also time, you know? Is this a thing that people would actually use or do?

Is the hard part not necessarily trying to figure out how technology will advance, but rather how people will make use of it?

Seanan McGuire Oh, absolutely. I wrote a whole trilogy about blogging and citizen journalism (and zombies), and I never guessed how people would begin using micro-blogging platforms, or graphic social media. The reaction .gif was way beyond me. I don’t feel bad about it — no one else saw it coming either — but it definitely shows what was written before the change vs. what was written after it.

‘If VR was ubiquitous and cheap and easy to use, what would people actually use it for?’

Curtis C. Chen Yeah, absolutely. And that is one thing that’s interesting to think about in fiction. It’s a place to sort of do a thought experiment on if this thing actually existed. Like, if VR was ubiquitous and convenient and cheap and easy to use, what would people actually use it for? Once you establish that in the story, then you can start talking about the really science-fiction-y stuff — which is, once you get it into the hands of humans, then this is how it changes our society and our civilization.

Tom Merritt I try to boil it down to, what are the essential things that will always need to be used? What are the parts that won’t change? What are the parts that haven’t changed? I generally try to look at the past as the pattern for the future. Since the invention of writing, we’ve always had written information as one form [of communication]. I will assume that’s not going to go away very fast. It may change, it may evolve. Maybe we’ll all be talking in emojis. It may not be in that form someday, but there will be some visual representation of information. And there’s always some sort of audio exchange. We like to think that with the advent of the printing press that information suddenly became entirely written, but oral transmission of news and teaching certainly never went away.

Madeline Ashby Oh, for sure. There’s the whole “the street finds its own uses for things” maxim. People are always the weird element. It’s like, no strategy survives contact with the enemy, and no product really survives contact with the customer. The customer will always find a different way to use the thing that you provided to them.

But that’s also because you can design and design and design, but if you haven’t tested and if you haven’t prototyped it, if you haven’t iterated, if you haven’t tested with people — you’re not going to know. That’s the consequence, for example, of testing how hard a machine can squeeze juice and not prepping it against a set of human hands.

How do you see meetings, conventions, and other live events changing or evolving?

Seanan McGuire Honestly,I think we’re already seeing the changes that will be sustainable — things like online schedules
and convention-specific apps — but the fact is, people will always want to gather together, and watching a video or a livestream will never be the same. I think we’re going to see a lot more of a focus on accessibility going forward, as the technology reaches a point where, say, real-time translation is an option, or where we can have people indicating interest before items begin, thus allowing us to allocate space on a modular basis. Convention centers will always be needed. People will always be people.

Curtis C. Chen Like I said, it’s very tricky to predict the future. But I can certainly see when technology enables things and makes things more convenient and in particular cheaper, businesses are probably going to — instead of spending all this money to have people travel to all these different places for conferences and whatever — [they’ll ask,] can we do that virtually? I think what we’re going to see is probably more of that middle ground.

I think of it as this big spectrum. On one end, there’s email, and at the other end is actually being in the room with someone, where you can talk to them and see how they respond and read their body language and all these other things. And there’s a long spectrum in the middle there with phone calls, video conferencing, VR eventually — that is going to offer a lot of different options for people to think about, “Okay, how much time and money do I have to spend on making this meeting happen, and how important is it to have these increasing levels of direct real-time engagement with the person?”

Tom Merritt One of the constant misperceptions is that we meet at conferences in order to see each other, and that if technology makes it easier to do telepresence or videoconferences, that would somehow become less necessary. We could all just stay in our locations and meet virtually. I think there will definitely be implementations of that, but I think fundamentally we like to meet in person because there’s just a different dynamic. Even if virtual reality got so good that we can walk around in a room like a hologram and see everyone as if they’re there, there’s something about just knowing this is the real person in front of me that I think is fairly exciting.

There are a few things that will become easier. So, if I want to show you something right now, it used to be I had to pull out my laptop or pull out a notebook, and now it’s like, “Oh, let me show you on my phone.” I wonder if with augmented reality, it does go the way we are thinking, where it will be something very unobtrusive that you can have on your face at all times and it just projects [information] in your eyeballs. I think it’ll be much easier to be able to present to people. One-on-one interactions, which are incredibly important at conferences, will be easier, because you can pop up maybe a chart or a display in a way that you can both see it nice and big, but you are the only two who can see it. So you don’t have to worry about people walking by and seeing your proprietary information or your NDA [nondisclosure agreement] information. Also, in large keynotes, being able to say, “Here, look at this” — and every single person in the auditorium suddenly in front of them has exactly the information or the visual that they want to see, without people stuck in the cheap seats not being able to really see the screen.

And I’m hoping that transportation ends up innovating in this space. One of the biggest problems of large conferences like the Consumer Electronics Show is just getting around. You spend so much time getting from one place to another that — I don’t know if autonomous cars help make that easier, or whether there’s a way to take better advantage of space. There are hints around it with smart buildings — the ability to just move humans in a more efficient manner from place to place, even within a building, so that you don’t have the crush of people sometimes. I’m very curious if we make progress in that space.

‘We have a trend toward increasing security in travel.’

Madeline Ashby We have a trend toward increasing security in travel, increasing surveillance of people’s devices — in terms of, will your phone get checked at the border, are you going to be allowed to fly with laptops or tablets, can you bring those things, what does it mean if you can’t? And so, I think you’re going to see stuff like prefabbed, wiped tablets that you can pick up at an event or rent for the day, essentially like an Airbnb of tablets or an Uber of tablets, just so that people will have secure devices at their events.

Also, I think greater and more customization. A lot more people are aware now of what the needs are physically of a group in a conference space, whether it’s the need for a quiet room or a decompression zone or a safe space to go. Obviously you see it now at the level of diet, where you can get the vegan, you can get the gluten-free, and so on. I think we’re going to see that elevating to the level of really improving the environment for people of a bunch of different mental-health [orientations]. People who are maybe non-neurotypical or deal with some sort of chronic illness or a chronic mental-health issue might be the next to receive that type of accommodation.

Do you see technology and/or humanity evolving to the point where people no longer need or want to meet in person?

Seanan McGuire No, I don’t. Maybe—maaaaaybe — totally immersive VR, but there will always be people on the other side of the Digital Divide, and always be people for whom nothing replaces being there in person. I think the convention as we know it will be with us for a long, long time to come.

Madeline Ashby I think you would see either end of the experience, where you get events that are totally online and then also events that are really in person. Because the thing about an in-person event is that it’s way easier to secure, and it’s also a way to sort of demonstrate the wealth of an organization. It’s conspicuous consumption to have people in a space together. So I think that there’s a performance aspect as well to consider. It’s not just, is it technologically possible [for people to meet virtually], but also what are the social ramifications of that, and is there a specific reason that we need people to be together? Because if it’s all NDA content that you’re sending over the wires, it’s way better to have people talking to each other in a room.

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso is executive editor of Convene.