A Meta-Study and Content Analysis of Science Fiction in Computer Science Research

Jordan, Philipp
Robertson, Scott P.
Communication and Information Science
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The depictions of advanced devices, innovative interactions and future technologies in science fiction are a regular topic in popular news and tech magazines. While actual studies concerning the usage of science fiction in computer science research are scarce and if any, rely mostly on anecdotal evidence and scattered oral accounts, such investigations are critical to better understand the potential utility and latent shortcomings of science fiction for computing research, innovation and education. Through a content analysis of science communication, this dissertation endeavors to shed light on the relationship between both domains. Based on a dataset of n=1647 computer science publications, retrieved in the IEEE Xplore Digital Library via a faceted, full-text search for `science fiction’, this dissertation presents a study of science communication. A random sample of n=500 records of the principal dataset is subjected to a detailed, qualitative content analysis over 10 variables, including an inter-rater agreement evaluation of n=125 publications between two raters for two interpretative variables – the type of research paper and the contextual usage of the science fiction referral. The results of the study show that science fiction, in the grand scheme of things, is a niche topic in computer science research. Within that margin, however, the results demonstrate that science fiction referrals appear primarily in opinion-type research contributions, most often for reasons of drawing inspiration and innovation into the research paper. In addition, the analysis of science fiction referrals, across paper types and contexts over time, indicates a transition and diversification from initially, informal contributions toward later on, a broader diversity of research publication types. Also, the study shows that science fiction films are more often referenced than science writings. Most recently, in publications from 2014-2017, an emphasis on a broad and diverse set of concrete, visual, science fiction – potentially indicating a shift away of scientists from written, interpretative science fiction – can be observed. The analysis of the most frequent, specific science fiction referrals reflects a narrow, mostly western-originated selection of the most popular, influential and iconic science fiction authors, writings, films, and characters of the 20th century, among those, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer, the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, including its main antagonist, HAL 9000. The results and implications of this study can guide computer scientists and educators to consciously utilize science fiction in their research and scholarship and therefore, contribute to forthcoming, innovative HCI and computer science research, application, and education. In addition, the results provide insight into the appropriation of popular culture within a technical-oriented, professional, academic science communication repository. Building upon extensive prior work, this dissertation moreover provides a methodological framework, which allows the meaningful discovery of interdisciplinary relations between computer science research and culture & art.
Computer science, Communication, Information science, Computer Science, Content Analysis, Human-computer Interaction, Science Fiction, Science Studies
212 pages
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