Back to the Future

 

1984

1984 by George Orwell (1948)

One of the strange things about technology is that it narrates the future, but that future goes forever unrealised. Because, well: it’s the future. One way to check future vision prospectively against actual results in reality is to compare the earlier predicted worldview with our contemporary context.

Some visionaries got it scarily accurate. George Orwell’s 1984 (1948) predicted widespread, invasive government scrutiny, and you only need to open a newspaper (or should that be ‘refresh your browser’?) to see Wikileaks-style leaks rumbling on, here via the Panama Papers, nearly a decade after its first exposé hit in 2006. Similarly, William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) read to me as political commentary on computer hacking in today’s context, rather than the prescient study of a global network system (hello, internet) that was intended when it was first published over 30 years ago.

But when we watch Back to the Future, or even 2001: A Space Odyssey, we think it’s funny because here we are living those imaginatively conceived futures, and things are more similar than different.

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Back to the Future, Dir. Robert Zemeckis (1985)

We do use portable mobile technology, and the internet age has borne out David Harvey’s idea of time-space compression in avenues beyond even his study of flows of capital (1989). But food pills haven’t replaced meals and we are still a long way from flying cars. It sometimes feels like the opposite: seeing the hysteria generated in popular media by Google’s self-driving vehicles, flying cars seems far beyond our graspable realm right now.

That’s why the SAGE & ESRC competition to describe ‘The World in 2065’ last autumn was so interesting to me. How can we conceive of life 50 years away when we find it so hard to conceptualise some of the technology mediating our lives today? With that in mind, here’s my entry, slightly edited for brevity:

‘Walking down a city street, you feel a buzz from the phone in your pocket. Looking at the screen, you read a message from the coffee shop on the next block. ‘We’ve got a new batch of that Javanese coffee you said you liked last week. Come and try it now and we’ll upgrade you to grande for free!’

This is not a vision of the world in 2065, it’s what the world could look like this year. Locative technology – that is, the GPS system in your smartphone that can track your location – is now sophisticated enough that it can link your position in space with corporations who could cleverly use the data to nudge you towards their products, all as you walk the street in real time. The only reason we haven’t seen this targeted mobile marketing on our high streets yet is because it the extent to which our online data is shared between developers, governments and corporations would unnerve us unless introduced in a way that benefits us as consumers.

By 2065 digital technology and location-based services will be central to how we chart space, how we connect with people, and how we use the services, shops and social venues around us. In fifty years, the idea of being locatable in space won’t be novel, and it might not even be concerning: it will simply be a fact of life. We won’t need to ask where our friends or family are, because our devices will pinpoint them on maps projected onto our kitchen counter or our spectacles. We will communicate with wearable technology – not just the digital watches being developed today but also tiny complex microchips, worn as jewellery or even implanted into the skin. These devices will map our movements, our health, and even our appetites to others including, in all likelihood, private corporations. After all, what better way is there to attract customers into your restaurant than by engineering conversation with someone nearby who you know is hungry and has been on their feet for several hours? Combine this knowledge with their credit card transactions – a penchant for Italian food, a recent holiday to Tuscany – and the restaurant can make the customer feel like the only thing they want to eat is a stonebaked pizza. In this way, corporations will know as much about us as we know ourselves – and maybe more.

If this sounds dystopian, we should consider the positives too. In 50 years, mobile technologies will help ambulances reach medical emergencies even more efficiently than they do now. A phone app released this year maps off-duty doctors onto your local city, so that if one is nearby, they can dash to your pinned location even quicker than paramedics. This kind of crowdsourced community may develop in beneficial, altruistic ways that we cannot even imagine. Friends and family will feel closer than ever, despite a growth in migration and global networking. Crime and security will be streamlined, with criminal activity mapped even before it happens by aggregating the locational data of known hotspots.

But crime and punishment raise some of the biggest questions, too. Many baulk at the idea of an electronic tag monitoring offenders today, but fifty years from now the whole population might be tracked in a similar way. The argument ‘if you’ve got nothing to hide, it shouldn’t matter’ will sweep before it the valid objections of civil liberties in the same way that app developers currently sell users’ personal data to corporations today. After all, as a dating app user, you share incredibly personal data not just with potential dates, but with third parties to whom your statistics, behaviours and likes are highly valuable. And you sacrifice this data because you get something out of the exchange too: a convenient social networking tool.

Mobile and pervasive digital technology, like the radio, the phone, and the television before it, is the future. It is therefore vital that we consider the questions these technologies raise. What do we lose when we lose our privacy?’

 

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House of Commons, London Parliament

It was fascinating to see different people’s ideas of what the social sciences will look like in 2065. Other entrants sketched out a vision of climate change or the future of British lawmaking. My piece was shortlisted into the top 10, and my supervisor and I were invited to the Houses of Parliament, where we met Dr. Alan Gillespie, the director of the ESRC, and MP Kelvin Hopkins (and where I later got told off by security guards for trying to access the MPs terrace so I could see the river from Parliament).

I didn’t win, but it was a great experience and proof that stepping outside of the ‘bubble’ of your PhD project can be a stimulating, generative exercise. The winning entry is definitely worth a read. It envisages a new political scenario where London is fully privatised… a dystopian future indeed.

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My article in print (SAGE)

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