Don't believe what you read in the papers - it's pure science fiction

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It used to be that newspapers told you about what had just happened. "Just" is a relative term, of course; in the 18th century, it could mean anything up to several months: "By God! Constantinople has fallen," exclaimed the coffee-house regular, unaware that the city had changed hands three times since. But technology has steadily diminished the gap until "just" can be a matter of hours, or even minutes. And from time to time it's possible to wonder whether we might have overshot in the headlong rush to immediacy. It certainly looked that way this week when the Guardian carried a front-page story about a BT research scientist who was claiming that a chip capable of recording an individual human memory and transferring it into another brain would be practicable within the next 30 years. In 2025, it seems, a grizzled Bob Hoskins will be telling us that "It's good to dahnload", encouraging young people to plug into a communication console and transmit their recent trip to the Glastonbury Festival for Grandma's edification. In a wonderfully comical accompanying photograph, Dr Chris Winter posed with the members of the Soul Catcher 2025 team, all garbed in blue clean-room suits.

The preposterous name tells you as much as you need to know about this project, but even without that clue, one's synapses only had to flash and spark for a few seconds to realise that the report was the purest science fiction, a breathlessly gullible account of a non-event that wasn't even scheduled to take place for another 30 years (and, for many obvious reasons, never will). Dr Winter's claim was philosophically naive as well as being practically far-fetched - an excursion into territory already artistically explored by Philip K Dick, William Gibson and, most recently, Dennis Potter.

Nor was it the only jaunt into science fantasy that you could find in the daily papers this week. Other newspapers gave space to a New Scientist report, which imagined what would happen to London if everyone left for the weekend and didn't come back. Within five years, we were told, a fine lawn of turf and clover would have established itself on composted leaves; after 30 years birch woodland would spring up in open spaces; and after 200 years the large buildings would begin to collapse. Where Dr Winter's story had been an exercise in utopian science fiction, a vision of new possibilities, the ruined London piece was in the apocalyptic mode. It delivered much the same delicious, admonitory frisson as the final shot from Planet of the Apes, in which the time-travelling protagonists stare down from a scrubby bluff to see the Statue of Liberty protruding from the sand, and it bore roughly the same relation to the real world. (Newspapers have not yet conducted any exercises in extra-planetary Hobbitry, the sort of science fiction in which Fetta strokes the lilac pelt of his high- spirited quorn, but it may be only a matter of time.)

One doesn't want to be too pious about these excursions into fiction. Newspapers have long been in the entertainment business, so it is hardly surprising that they would want to secure for themselves some of the intellectual liberties science fiction enjoys. Besides, it chimes with a peculiarly modern habit of mind - one forced on us by the acceleration in technological change that began with the Industrial Revolution. In a passage in his journals, Byron declares his conviction that in the future men will travel by air at unimaginable speeds, a poetic daydream that has its origins not in magic (as it would have done a century or two earlier) but in manufacture. These days, with kids in the Treasury daydreaming about the next millennium, the sort of imaginative speculation that used to be the preserve of artists and writers has found a place at the heart of politics, so it is hardly surprising that newspapers have followed suit. The faster you travel, the more forward visibility you need. As a result, extrapolation - whether it's the terror-struck visions of a BSE-ravaged Britain, which some newspapers carried at the height of the panic, or a more responsible exercises, in social star-gazing - has become a well-established journalistic tool.

But there are dangers in elevating the non-existent over dull reality. Science fiction is always a dangerous temptation for newspapers because an imagined future is so much more exciting than the intractable present, with its confusions and uncertainty. Besides, it may be that the best way of arriving at tomorrow safely is to properly understand what went wrong yesterday.