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22 Ideas About The Future, book review: Stories that ask searching questions

Exercise your brain with these short, punchy and speculative stories about what technology might really mean for tomorrow.
Written by Mary Branscombe, Contributor
22 Ideas About the Future

22 Ideas About the Future • Edited by Benjamin Greenaway and Stephen Oram • CyberSalon Press • 154 pages • ISBN 978-1739593902 • Price £9.99 

Cybersalon Press

If you don't already know that the technology you use is tracking you and that social networks use algorithms to manipulate your attention, you either haven't been paying attention, or just reading about the issues hasn't been enough to capture your attention and make you care.  

Perhaps speculative fiction can make more of us pay attention to the problems that are piling up, from climate change to economic inequality and AI that's less a killer robot and more 'computer says no' on a global scale. This could reveal what Douglas Rushkoff claims in the introduction to 22 Ideas About The Future are "truths we have hidden from ourselves". 

"You can't read about the world after climate catastrophe without accepting the possibility of climate change to begin with," he suggests. 

The 22 (very) short stories in this collection – originally written to be read aloud at Cybersalon events by a range of authors (including ZDNET's long-time book reviewer Wendy Grossman) – are about 'the relentless march of data-fication'. They aim to provoke and perturb you into demanding a data society that better serves hyper-tracked humans. 

There are some clever ideas here: what if everyone believes the fitness tracker that says you're dead; suppose you have to swap personal data for healthcare and bacon sandwiches become contraband; how embarrassing would it be for your health tracker to rat you out to the family so your adult daughter gets far too much information about your sex life?  

Some of the technology is more fiction than speculation. Are trees really going to talk back and advise us on more planet-friendly banking? Would tricking people into turning their online pitchforks against badly behaving deepfakes really give communities a healthy outlet? 

With such short shorts, there isn't space for the underlying technology and society to emerge naturally for the background, so there's a certain amount of infodump in many of the stories. Others manage to fit strong characters and compelling narratives into just a few pages. Mainly dystopian, there are some more optimistic – and occasionally over-optimistic – views: a recurring theme is that small is beautiful and one tiny startup can overturn the established financial order if it looks like part of the establishment. Only a few of the stories remind you how much technology can make the world better when it's used to connect people. 

The best contributions are both clever and funny, because they're about human nature rather than the technology – in the case of Friday Night Drinks at the Horse and Zoom, laugh-out-loud funny with a group of friends going out for a hybrid drink discovering the different impact of moderation technology on those who show up in person versus online. Without playing favourites, Heartbeat – one of Grossman's two stories in the collection – is perhaps the standout because it's so very plausible: its chilling exploration of what today's technology and politics could mean for someone wanting an abortion is barely an election and a new generation of pregnancy tests away. 

The think-pieces at the end of each section (on what too much data tracking can mean for healthcare, commerce, community and programmable money) are equally variable: some just explain what the stories themselves have already made clear, while others give you interesting background and analysis that adds to them. 

There has been plenty of speculative fiction that deals with many of the topics explored here, but what 22 Ideas About The Future does is present you with a glimpse at the future without having to also resolve the problems. These stories ask questions that you'll mostly have to answer for yourselves.

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