A History of the Future in 100 Objects

June 13, 2014

The future will be a lot like the present, only more.

There’s a quote by science fiction editor Gardner Dozois (by way of Cory Doctorow) that

the job of a science fiction writer was to notice the car and the movie theater and anticipate the drive-in—and then go on to predict the sexual revolution.

In other words, science fiction is at its most interesting not when it predicts the technological future, but when it predicts technology’s effects on our social future. Adrian Hon’s A History of the Future in 100 Objects is at its best when it does just that. A series of 100 vignettes about imagined 21st-century technologies, the book remains very much about who we are today in this century’s adolescence.

One technology, locked simulation interrogation, is a statement on waterboarding and our society’s consent to tortures which leave no physical scars. In locked simulation interrogation, victims are put into a virtual reality in which all manner of physical and mental agonies can be inflicted upon them without any damage to their physical body in the outside world. It’s a possibility made all the more chilling by its banal name.

We might perhaps avoid such atrocities being committed in our names by a political innovation of the 2020s, delegated authority. This is a system by which voters can delegate their votes on specific kinds of issues to trusted experts, instead of voting for a single attractive and charismatic figure backed by a monolithic and financially compromised party machine to make all of the decisions. For example, “You might delegate votes on economic issues to a respected professor and votes on environmental issues to a principled non-profit.” Hon isn’t entirely optimistic: the systems proves ruinous in the U.S. for all the reasons our current system is so dysfunctional, but beginning in smaller countries and with time, it might lead to a more responsive, less winner-takes-all kind of politics.

Another fascinating possibility is a kind of chemical Christianity, a pharmaceutical treatment that makes you more empathetic and generous, less subject to fleeting temptations, and better able to form deep, lasting relationships with those around you (those in your church, in this scenario.) The author wonders,

Some might say that this would be an improvement on my personality, that I would become more serene and less vulnerable to ‘temptation’; others that my individuality would be eroded by an insidious form of desire modification.

This idea dovetails with another in the book, the cure for hate, a gene therapy treatment that eliminates the neurological roots of hate. I find it fascinating and terrifying that we may be able to rewrite our personalities. On the one hand, of course it could be wonderful just to choose to be better people. We generally know the right thing to do, we just often lack the will to do it. On the other, I’ve never met a technology that didn’t magnify both the good and the bad qualities of its users, and there’s no going back on decisions that modify your very decision-making apparatus.

These are just a handful of the 100 objects (check more out on the book’s website), most of which really got me thinking about the kinds of worlds we may be living in decades hence. By all accounts, it’s going to be an interesting century, so you’d better start reading up on it.