Terraform: Watch/Worlds/Burn

This new book has just arrived: Terraform: Watch/Worlds/Burn. It’s a collection of stories from Terraform, Vice’s science fiction story hub – my story #CivilWarVintage is in there. 

I’m excited to read what else is in here – there’s one from Tim Maughan that I don’t think I’ve read, plus Cory Doctorow, Bruce Sterling, Jeff Vandermeer, Laurie Penny. I’m probably most excited about the people I don’t know, though. I’ve read quite a few of these before as they previously appeared on Terraform, but there are new things too.

The reviews have been good (Kirkus: “read these short, biting, vibrant stories for their wit, inventiveness, and verve,”) but I was surprised by several that thought the collection as a whole was excessively dystopic. Kirkus, again: “Overall, this collection presents a sort of paranoid/defiant vision of the future in which everything and everyone is for sale but almost everything of value has been lost.” 

That’s fascinating! I’m immediately curious: is this because of where we are? The years since Terraform launched in 2014 have been fairly dark in themselves. It’s a truism that science fiction is always, really, about the present – and the years since the 2008 financial crash have been, for most people, increasingly economically precarious and politically divided. Black Mirror took what lots of science fiction was already doing – showing the dark and funny logical end points of the assumptions of our everyday technology – and made it something families watched on a Friday evening. But I couldn’t actually watch a lot of Black Mirror: it was, indeed, too depressing. 

I’ve noticed a lot of calls for fiction submissions recently (from competitions and magazines) are explicitly asking for solution-focused futuristic stories. Particularly when it comes to cli-fi (climate-fiction) stories. They don’t want to publish visions of disasters or ecological breakdown that don’t at least contain some seed of a solution that we can work towards. That also seems fair to me: there’s a lot of discussion around whether the narrative of ‘the planet is fucked, we’re all going to die’ is strategically dangerous because it encourages people to give up. That’s a disaster in itself, when actually everything we do now can still help ameliorate the worst version of the future.

So I can see why there has been a quiet backlash against the kind of SF that shows miserable futures. However, I actually disagree that the stories in Watch/Worlds/Burn are depressing. The stories in W/W/B are mostly about people trying to connect with each other despite technology: trying to make the best of human connections that have been co-opted by technology for profit. I’m actually not a pessimist about the internet or technology in itself: I think the way the internet has connected people is incredible. Humans are all about connection and so communication technologies have changed our world for the better and will continue to. But the ultimate purpose of a technology (or a system or organisation, for that matter) determines its shape, and our technologies are for making money, not connecting people. Connecting people is a by-product. When the point is to make a profit, the shape of the resulting technology by definition puts profit over connection. 

The dystopic part is that most of us spend our time trying to get around the technologies that we have to use. We have to navigate constant ads, trying to avoid getting sucked in and spending money on stuff that doesn’t help us. We spend ages blocking abusive users and bots. We pay extra for internet blockers that will stop us from using technology when it’s not good for us, fighting a war with companies that are incentivised to hold our attention for every moment we’re awake (and to reduce our sleep, if possible, to maximise that). If you can’t afford or can’t use the right kind of tech, you’re increasingly excluded from living a normal life – not just socially but practically, since you won’t be able to access services. These ‘inconveniences’ are not really mistakes: these technologies are designed to extract as much money from us as possible, and sometimes the proxy for that money is time and attention. 

And a reminder from Rachel Coldicutt last week, that our technologies are extractive because the social/economic/political reality that we’re living in is extractive: 

We all know this, and we work around it. We come up with hacks to stop us using our phones at times when we need to be focused elsewhere. We come up with side hustles to ameliorate the fact that jobs with good salaries and pensions are hard to come by. Become marketing experts to try and be on the winning end of all those social media ads that flood our minds. Read the MoneySaving Expert every week to make sure you know every banking loophole, every extra bit of cash you might be able to add to your little pile. Use social media to connect with people even though it’s like trying to form stable relationships on a wildly pitching, sinking ship. 

If our technology is a bit depressing, it’s because our society is a bit depressing. But the ways people get around those depressing limitations is really interesting, and not depressing at all!

Opening the book at random, I’ve found: 

  • Sam Biddle’s User Settings, about the lengths a woman goes to to delete the archive of all her chats
  • Peter Milne Greiner’s Tropical Premises, about an AI emerging into self-awareness
  • Wole Talabi’s Parse. Error. Reset. about a world where people use alter-ego clones to navigate awkward social occasions (I haven’t done that justice, there’s a lot more to it)

Although Talabi’s story is probably the darkest (although also the most interesting), they all have the seeds within them of people trying to escape the crap circumstances they’ve been trapped in. 

But if we do want to see visions of the kind of technology we could make, where can we look? I’ve written here before about how dystopia versus utopia is a terrible way of classifying societies, but if we’re looking for fictions that depict futures that are better than the present, I have two I’ve read recently. The first is Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future. I got this as a gift in hardback in 2020 and it’s taken me two years to finish it (this is more a verdict on my reading stamina than on the book). In some ways it stretches the concept of the novel, as this is more of a lightly-fictionalised policy manual, with whole chapters that explain financial and technical mechanisms we can use to create the right incentives to sequester carbon and reduce carbon emissions. On the other hand, it’s also got interesting characters and heartbreak and horror and triumph. Also, entire chapters from the point of view of protons, carbon atoms, and the market itself. It’s definitely part of the literature that wants to tell us how to jump the tracks into an alternate future. 

The second is Monica Byrne’s The Actual Star. Split into three strands, this follows the collapse of an Mayan kingdom in the 11th century, a teenage girl’s religious experience in the 21st century (which launches the religion of the 3rd strand), and the struggle over religious orthodoxy in a utopian society in the 31st-century. In the year-3012 strand, members of future-earth society are aided by fugitech, a collection of technologies that originated in refugee-technology during the upheaval of the 21st century. These use AI (ai) as personal advisors, have a second-skin called a pelt that protects them in any environment and can heal and remake their body, and use the aug (augmented reality) to communicate with others and participate in global discussion and society. Narratively, it works for this future Earth to have technologies that don’t cause huge problems for their users, because the tension and conflict in the story are social and religious in origin, not due to problems with technology. In this story, the technology just… works. 

It doesn’t, as the MFTF does, show us a direct route from our world to that one (for instance, part of the reason this future society works is because the population has been greatly reduced over the millennium) but it does give us a vision of technologies that are personal, adaptable, private, owned by the user, do not force a person to use them in a particular way, and allow humans to connect more effectively with each other. I also like the origin-story that they were created by people who, turfed out of their normal lives and constantly on the move, needed technologies that would serve them, not a state or a company. 

As a side-note, both MFTF and TAS see the 21st century as the century of the refugee, where more humans will find themselves forcibly on the move (due to climate change) than ever in recorded history. In MFTF the most heartbreaking chapters are from the point of view of the refugee characters (one towards the end had me in tears) while TAS takes it as the kicking-off point for a new religion of transience, where settling down and even maintaining permanent relationships have become taboo. 

So, neither of these novels are utopian in a simplistic sense, and neither of them ignores the problems that we’re going to have to work through. But where W/W/B shows people struggling to make the most out of the world we’ve got now, these two books show us having made the leap to something else. They’re all worth reading. 

Work in the future

Work in the FutureIt’s taken me a couple of weeks to post about this book, which was published in mid-March, so that the finished copies arrived on my doorstep (literally on the doorstep, of course, as the postman had to put them down and back away) just after the lockdown had begun.

It’s a book I’ve been working on intermittently for quite a while, and was based on a conference I ran alongside Robert Skidelsky in 2018, about the way work is likely to change in response to automation. It’s a massive topic, and one that there have been no end of books/reports/articles about in the last few years, but this one is slightly different in that it starts by looking at the history of work and the broader sociology of work, not just how tech is changing it.

And now Work in the Future has come out, in a world that’s dramatically different to the one where it went to print. That might be a problem for a lot of books appearing just now, but in fact I think it makes this one even more relevant. The trends talked about by our contributors are going to be altered by this crisis but are more likely to accelerate than disappear.

The book starts with a few chapters about the history of work, because the concept of ‘work’ isn’t as straightforward as it might sound. ‘Work’ often gets equated directly with ‘economic activity’ – i.e. money changing hands – but we all know, and the Covid-19 crisis has emphasised, that work is about more than that. In Work in the Future, Richard Sennett and Richard Donkin discuss the way work has changed from the distant past. Andrea Komlosy (author of Work: The Last 1000 Years) shows how work has changed from being mostly a household-based activity to being outside in factories and offices – something that speaks directly to the Covid-19 crisis, as it’s specifically that location of work in shared spaces like offices and factories that is now causing us problems. Then Pierre-Michel Menger, David Spencer, and I, each talk about how attitudes to work have changed: what do we think of as work? Is work a pleasure or a curse?

Covid-19 is changing our attitudes to work again, quite rapidly, as we re-evaluate whose work is most important in our society – and reassess whether those who do it are paid well enough. A few months ago, ‘key worker’ was civil service jargon for ‘doctors, nurses, teachers’ and you mainly saw it in references to London housing; new-build housing developments were meant to include a few homes offered at slightly lower than market rates to ‘key workers’ so that teachers and nurses could live a bit closer to where they worked. As of March 23rd, everyone knows what a key worker is, and the definition has been broadened to include all kinds of people who were ineligible before, like supermarket delivery drivers, adult carers, postal service workers. None of these people were doing a different job six months ago; it’s only that now the government has been forced to recognise how important they are.

A large chunk of the problems posed by automation arise not because technology ‘makes people redundant’ but because the benefits from automation don’t accrue evenly; because much of the time a few companies and the people who own them benefit from the additional profits created by automation. In Work in the Future, Nick Srnicek (author of Platform Capitalism and Inventing the Future) discusses the particular problems platform technology companies in particular pose to the chances for liveable, sustainable work.

Generally the most commonly proposed solution to massive unemployment caused by automation is to redistribute the profits, perhaps by taxing the ‘winners’ heavily and providing a Universal Basic Income (or in some formulations, Universal Basic Services) to everyone else. In Work in the Future, Rachel Kay (researcher at the High Pay Centre) and Irmgard Nubler of the ILO each discuss some of the policy options for dealing with an unequal economy, while David Graeber (author of Bullshit Jobs and Debt) rails against the whole idea of ‘policy-making’ around work and argues that most jobs don’t fulfill any useful purpose anyway.

It’s perhaps the potential responses to mass unemployment caused by automation that are most relevant now, as we face mass unemployment due to a crisis we didn’t foresee. Universal Basic Income has already been established in Spain in response to the need to keep people at home, while the UK government has opted for the more limited furloughing scheme.

The problem with furloughing is – will companies collapse when it’s eventually withdrawn? Companies that can afford the capital investment required for automation might do so because in the long term that might be cheaper, if workers require more space and more complicated, socially-distanced processes than they used to. A paper I saw shared on LinkedIn by another of WitF’s contributors, Carl Benedikt Frey, suggests that 42% of jobs that are lost during this crisis may never return – which is as bad as some of the most drastic assessments of an automation crisis.

I don’t mean to sound pessimistic: it’s possible, in a moment like this, to re-envisage the world in a way that would vastly improve it. It’s true that given the governments that are currently in power (in the UK and the US in particular) I’m a bit sceptical that they’ll take the most visionary or progressive imaginative leaps. It’s still important though, for us to reimagine how technology can help us make more people better off, to make work more meaningful, and if possible to make less of it.