... my theory is we need the kind of SF that inspires people to explore science and technology and invent new things. Good SF gives us ideas to aim for as it imagines solutions we want in some relatively conceivable manner, or it extrapolates on existing technology that gives us a rough idea of where to go and how to get there. Having these goals and at least vague directions, we get inspired to do things with science and technology.
Steve and I have been going back and forth about these issues (1,2,3) for some time now. My feeling is that every time we start talking about a concept of the future that revolves around what to invent or how to invent it, we are doomed to fall short if we don't think first and foremost about who is going to be inventing those things and why — what kind of human being. The real things we need to be thinking about inventing are not gadgetry or infrastructures. They will be new ways of living, of which those gadgets or infrastructures will play a major role.
Now, just typing this makes me realize we might have no way to plan such a thing, that the only way we can move towards such a future is by an inch-by-inch slouching towards that particular Bethlehem. The problem with designing a future and then attempting to implement it is that the designs (and the designers) inevitably ignore major aspects of human nature. The future can only be built incrementally, because we carry the baggage of the present around with us no matter where we are. We can only discard the past, and implement the future, a bit at a time — and that includes the kinds of people we are.
We have tried to think about the future man before, and the ways we implemented that (or failed to do so) speak for themselves. The social experiments of the 1960s and 1970s attempted to produce a new kind of person and a new society, but the vast majority of that experimentation delivered only the most incremental changes. The changes brought on by technology have been far more normative by many orders of magnitude than any such experiments — but again, that does not mean all the changes have been positive, or liberating, or have resulted in a better and more humane kind of human being. They can, but I'm not convinced we can get there by simply inventing something normative and crossing our fingers. For every one of these things we invent, we need to undertake at least as much effort to learn how to employ it humanely and responsibly.
There has to be some way to teach ourselves how to regard our own future work with care and respect, and not simply to do it because it's worth cashing in on. We measure too much of the value of our technical expertise in terms of its market value, which is nothing more than what other people think it's worth paying for. And if someone's idea of value is dictated entirely by what the market has borne, they will be all the more inclined to simply buy the newest iteration of a given toy. (Small wonder the real innovation in, say, the smartphone market has been in the software, not the hardware.)
Consider the way various companies are now attempting to commercialize space travel. Right now it seems to amount to a plaything for the rich, but if the whole thing becomes a commercial concern and competition drives cost down to the point where a trip to the moon and back becomes halfway affordable, that would on the whole be a good thing. After all, one could argue that the original NASA-style space exploration was no less crassly commercial in its own way (after all, aerospace = defense, right?). But none of this — either the NASA model or the corporate model — helps us produce a social framework for the use of such things. That falls to us to develop, and we consistently fail to do so. We seem to think those things will just manifest spontaneously, like a fairy ring in the forest.
So — if I see SF having a place in all of this, it's in giving people a socially cautionary and skeptical way to think about this stuff ahead of time, and to have a sense of what kind of person is needed to deploy it all responsibly. This requires far more than just the Michael Crichton scare-fiction model, or even the Uncle Tom's Cabin / The Jungle mode of crude consciousness-raising. If one of the unspoken missions of all fiction is to provide us with models for how to become better human beings, then SF's mission should be no different, and perhaps all the more urgent since no one else seems willing to do the job.
"Embedded in every [work of fiction] is a utopian vision that, if achieved, would make the words irrelevant, redundant, unnecessary," wrote Dale Peck. He was not writing about SF specifically, but he might as well have been.