If you had to, could you pick one visionary most responsible for shaping today's technology? Many might be quick to nominate people like Jobs, Gates, or Zuckerberg. Those who are a bit more in the know would probably name the likes of Kurzweil, Tomlinson (R.I.P.), or Berners-Lee.
But there is a very strong argument to be made that tech's most influential thinker is actually actor Paul Reubens (AKA Pee-wee Herman).
When technology is removed from its scientific context, we are left with magic. Consider the fantastical power to conjure songs out of thin air; communicate in real-time with people on the other side of the planet; or instantly know about any topic in the world for free at any time of day. We are all wizards in 2016.
But behind each piece of engineered magic, there is a creator. Somebody had to want to create a thing that did not yet exist. Ideas come from any number of sources, but it's interesting how many notable future-makers cite inspiration from the imaginary doohickeys they saw depicted in movies, books, or TV.
Even if make-believe gadgets don't offer a direct blueprint, they can be credited with planting the idea for something cool that really should exist. For example, engineer Simon Lake was inspired to develop the modern submarine after reading Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea. Martin Cooper, the godfather of modern wireless communications, has stated that his work was directly influenced by Dick Tracy's wristwatch. An early goal of the original Google team was to create something akin to "the computer on Star Trek."
Now consider the manic Saturday morning show Pee-wee's Playhouse, which aired on CBS between 1986 and 1990. This triple espresso shot of a program consisted of an excitable man-child and his "playhouse" full of sentient (some might even say "smart") objects.
While Pee-wee's non-human friends were brought to TV life via rudimentary puppets and animation, they managed to make an undeniable impact on the show's surprisingly varied audience, which consisted of everything from school-aged children and college-age stoners. Today, the original Playhouse audience is anywhere between their late 20s and late 40s. This also happens to be the demographic where we find many of today's cutting-edge engineers, tech CEOs, angel investors, and other assorted futurati.
I don't know any technologists who specifically cite Pee-wee as an influence on their work, but it's hard to ignore the eerie similarities between today's technology and the Playhouse's sentient inhabitants.
One particularly prescient example is Pee-wee's "Picturephone" booth, which allowed him to see and speak with people from the far reaches of his trippy universe. Today, this ability to both see and hear each other across great distances is painfully routine and accessible through machines we keep in our pockets. While there were indeed some crude attempts at visual communication in the late 1980s, the technology was pure fantasy to most viewers at the time.
Pee-wee was far from the first person to hint at seamless video communication, but it's not hard to imagine an impressionable member of Pee-wee's late-1980s audience going on to help develop Skype, FaceTime, or Google Hangouts. Perhaps this connection is grasping at straws, but the timing sure works out.
Also consider the Playhouse's "Magic Screen," which acted as a window and a door to Pee-wee's wider world. It's interesting to note the bezel-laden shape of the magic screen, particularly how flat it was. The Magic Screen was far skinnier than any of the tube-based TVs its visage was broadcast on. While flat-panel displays have been around—in some form—for decades, the technological breakthroughs that allowed them to become ubiquitous have only been available in the past 20 years or so.
It's also not difficult to see modern-day echoes in playhousemates like the wish-granting, gibberish-spouting Jambi or location-aware Globey. These interactive friends' abilities to answer questions and solve problems aren't so removed from those of increasingly capable AI-enabled assistants like Cortana, Siri, or Alexa. While far more charismatic, there's not much Globey brings to the picture that Google Maps doesn't do better now.
If we take a step back, we can see the Playhouse for what it is: An early version of The Internet of Things which allows people to communicate with their household devices (and communicate with each other). Setting your smart bulb isn't so different than conversing with a talking chandelier if you think about it.
This post might come off as a desperate bout of nostalgia, but I don't have any particular emotional attachment to Playhouse. While I was at the correct age for the show, I somehow just missed that boat. But as it happens, in the run-up to the new Pee-wee movie, the entire Playhouse run has made its way to Netflix and I've had the opportunity to watch them with my toddler son (he's mostly into all the noise, color, and commotion).
As someone who writes about technology, I was struck by how these bits of magic and fantasy have become real—in some way. (Check out that gallery above and you can decide how much Pee-wee really predicted.) It's difficult to imagine that the small portion of the Playhouse audience that did go on to become engineers didn't carry a little bit of the show with them.
If it's true that fiction eventually creates reality in its own image, then perhaps we should look at science fiction and fantasy less as fits of escapism and more as a window into what might be.