22 Ideas About the Future

Reviewed by James Woudhuysen

22 Ideas about the future, edited by Benjamin Greenaway and Stephen Oram (Cybersalon Press: 2022)

On Sky Arts, over some months, they’ve been playing Alfred Hitchcock Presents. This was a schlocky but nevertheless highly entertaining series of spooky psychodramas, each just 25 minutes long, interrupted by its sponsors, Bristol Myers. Running from 1955 till at least 1957, the films featured stars such as Ralph Meeker, Charles Bronson, Thelma Ritter and the unimpeachable Claude Rains. Hitchcock would appear comically – from inside a space helmet, or at the centre of an enormous spider’s web – in a short spoof before the plot; also, in a splenetic, dour diatribe at the back end.

Perhaps numbered after the 22 in the year 2022, this collection of very short sci-fi stories has the same scary, translucent tone to it as those old Hitchcock shorts. While Hitch directed other directors to capture the southern, sinister and sardonic brightness he later gave us with Psycho, editors Benjamin Greenaway and Stephen Oram have wrung something similar from their contributors here. These are forecasts of the future in fictional form. Not all are successful, but some are fun. 

Together, they present a stinging digital future. ‘Virtually Dead’, by Jule Owen, starts the opening discussion on healthcare with Mike, who has a health dashboard that has declared him dead. Mike can’t convince first his health insurance provider, then his family, friends, bank and the undertaker, that he is still alive.

Benjamin Greenaway gives us Connor, who has a capsule device no larger than a multivitamin, but one that lives in his digestive tract for a full month, reporting ‘wide-spectrum biometrics, accelerometer readings, and location data’. With the capsule Connor can earn Health Miles, for good behaviour. 

Stephen Oram offers Andy and Ellie, who blunder into a shebeen – except that the illicit here isn’t alcohol, but rather sizzling bacon and buttered bread. In the face of 10-year jail terms imposed by the Diet Police, such exotic dishes are eaten underground, away from the mainstream. After that, Britta Schulte imagines someone who has the misfortune always to be digitally notified when mother Claire is ‘in and out of bed at unusual times’. Too much information, indeed!

The tales are dystopian. Apart from Hitchcock’s unforgiving style, they also remind me of the cute sci-fi short stories of my youth – Asimov, Arthur C Clarke and others. When 22 Ideas About The Future turns from healthcare to the retailing sector, however, it reminds me of Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth’s seminal science fiction novel The space merchants (1952). That already satirised the willingness of retailers to attack consumers by any means necessary. Indeed, in the opening pages of that old book, its hero hears ad agency chief Fowler Schocken, the dangerously named boss, dismiss advertising’s opponents. They have, Schocken says:

outlawed compulsive subsonics in our aural advertising – but we’ve bounced back with a list of semantic cue words that tie in with every basic trauma and neurosis in American life today. They listened to the safety cranks and stopped us from projecting our messages on aircar windows – but we bounced back. Lab tells me,” he nodded to our Director of Research across the table, “that soon we’ll be testing a system that projects directly on the retina of the eye.

So if, 70 years ago, IT in the US was fully apprehended as a nasty means of imposing a consumer society on people, what has changed since?

One thing has changed, and that is the preference, expressed several times in this collection, for the small-is-beautiful option. Thus, in George Jacobs’ ‘Viral Advertising’, Dotty’s Coffee Shop, ‘a slick operation, despite the old lady branding’ fully deserves to be hacked by Ren, who ‘was just a good Samaritan doing what he could. This [the sabotage of Dotty] wasn’t the first thing, wouldn’t be the last. He wouldn’t let the high street kill the true independents’. 

Strong stuff. In the next story, there is a Museum Of The High Street (MOTHS), because every household is now directly supplied with food, holobooks and holoclothes by a new kind of shopping trolley – ‘a weird-looking robot made of metal rods’. The world has downsized. In another vision, ‘The Time Travelling Milkman’, by Jane Norris, the retailing of milk dispenses with factory farming, as milk becomes a live event, with small milk herds moving closer to town centres: 

We would need small fields with a handful of cows and a shed selling fresh milk, where local high streets now have empty shuttered Poundland stores. People might come again to know mine and my cows’ names and be able to tell the difference in taste between their creamy summer and thinner winter milk.

Government itself is downsized in ‘Disconnect’, by Wendy Grossman. Communities now get together to rule themselves in digitally connected Independent Registered Associations (IRAs). Geographical IRAs: 

can opt out of council services and negotiate their own contracts for waste, recycling… street cleaning… electricity, water and gas, exploit “naming rights”, and exercise the “right to inclusion”. That one’s really important, so new members share the IRA’s values.

When it is not looking forward to somewhat miniaturized utopias, the collection consistently overestimates the powers – especially the manipulative powers – of the digital; but it is the work of IT enthusiasts, so one can expect this. In the manner of the BBC series The Capture, we are all being played. Thus in Jesse Rowell’s excellent ‘The Valens Program’, we learn this:

People are primed to accept deepfakes… when the campaign aligns to their worldview, political ideologies, or base desires. The Lotus Server aggregates data from consumer behaviour and Internet search history to craft a shared valent event that plays on the fallibility of an individual’s memories and a community’s collective memory. 

Despite the apprehensions of the contributors, there is in fact no need to be paranoid about surveillance. The most important part of surveillance today is anyway the part most frequently omitted: the insidious blurring, at the hands of employers, of private and public life. This kind of manoeuvre is considered neither here, nor by Shoshana Zuboff in her The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2019). 

Still, the final section of 22 Ideas, on digital money, is very timely. In the year that PayPal reinstated the funding mechanism it briefly denied the Free Speech Union, that domain is certainly worth the attention it gets here.

James Woudhuysen is Visiting Professor of Forecasting and Innovation in the Department of Engineering at London South Bank University. He writes, broadcasts and makes speeches about the future.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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