Working Futures, An Anthology Of Speculative Fiction About The Future Of Work
from the coming-next-week dept
I’m excited to announce that next week we’ll be releasing a project that we’ve been working on for almost two years, since its original conception: Working Futures, an anthology of speculative fiction about the future of work. A year and a half ago, we asked folks here to help out and participate in a survey that would help us in working through a longer process to get people to better think about what the future of work might look like. As we noted then, there are plenty of reasonable concerns about the future of jobs and employment and, to date, there have mainly been two responses from people, neither of which has been particularly satisfying. There are those who’ve insisted that the future will be terrible and all the jobs will be automated away and we’ll have a vast hellscape remaining, and those who insist that these things generally work themselves out… but who never seem to provide any specifics.
We wanted to see what would happen if we tried to bridge that gap, by combining the expertise of people who have spent lots of time thinking about the implications of technology and work, with that of science and speculative fiction writers who specialize in crafting narratives about these kinds of future issues. To do this, we went through a long but fun process to generate interesting near-future speculative fiction over this question. The end result of this is the book to be released next week, Working Futures.
Rather than just tossing it out to science fiction writers, we wanted to involve a variety of different experts in the process to keep things within a reasonable sphere. The process was as follows:
- We started with an online survey, to get a sense of both what driving forces people thought would be the most likely to impact the future of work, and which ones would also have the most impact. We got over 1,000 responses to our survey, which allowed us to create a scenario planning “game” out of a special deck of cards.
- We invited about 50 people to an event in San Francisco, with a diverse range of interests, expertise and backgrounds — including technologists, labor activists, investors, philanthropists, journalists, entrepreneurs, writers, designers and more, and we used our card deck to do a modified version of traditional scenario planning, to look at a bunch of potential futures.
- Out of this day-long event, we generated 10 futuristic possible scenarios. It’s important to note that none of these are predictions. Scenario planning is not in the business of predicting the future, but merely figuring out what possible futures are plausible, so that people can begin to think through the consequences of them, as well as understand what leading indicators there might be that we’re heading in one direction or another. Most scenario planning exercises generate between 3 and 5 scenarios. We ended up with 10, because the focus of this project was a bit more broad than in traditional scenario planning.
- We then took our packet of 10 scenarios and handed them off to a bunch of science fiction authors, with a call to submit speculative fiction short stories inspired by the scenarios. To be clear, we told them they could take loose inspiration from the scenarios, rather than having to follow any of them exactly, and left it open to them to pick and choose what they wanted from the scenarios.
- Out of all that, we ended up commissioning and agreeing to publish 14 total stories (to be fair, two of them are my own stories), all of which, in some way or another, touch on the future of work. The book (in both ebook and paperback format) will be available starting next week, at which point, we’ll make the special scenario planning card deck we created available as well, so you can create your own scenarios too.
We’ve been working on this project for a very long time and are excited to finally get the result into people’s hands — and to give you a taste, below this post, we’ve got a portion of one of the stories in the book, Ross Pruden’s A Quiet Lie. If you want to see what happens, you’ll have to get the whole book…
A Quiet Lie
By Ross Pruden
Ken Harper stood on his front porch surveying the fields before him and nodded to himself in satisfaction. The robotic beasts were edging down their prescribed paths as instructed and little needed to be done to ensure they stayed on track. He glanced at the sky to see if clouds would threaten the machines? solar chargers but he saw only blue. Turning to get his cup of tepid coffee from the porch railing, he walked towards the door but stopped when he heard the familiar whirr of an approaching drone.
Ken took a sip from his cup while watching the smooth red and white orb descend, its propellers muffled by protection blisters. The drone floated gently over the wrought iron table near him on the porch. Its innards opened and gently placed a tiny box on the table, then the drone resumed its upward flight. Ken picked the box up and smiled wistfully?he?d been waiting for this.
Inside, he opened the box and removed a set of translucent glasses. He mounted the stairs and walked into his study, locking the door. Settling in at his desk, he reviewed the instructions included in the tiny packaging. Next, he told his computer to open a web page, and within seconds he was reviewing a Terms of Service Agreement. Alongside the legalese, a video call box appeared; someone from the site was asking to talk to him. Ken clicked ?Answer? and a young man with a short afro and kind eyes appeared. ?Hello, my name is David,? he said with a welcoming grin. ?I?ll be walking you through the sign-up process. Is this your first time using Pylon??
?Yes, it is. Daughter suggested I use it.?
?Very well. You should read our Terms of Service on your own time, but let me just give you a quick synopsis, if that?s alright.?
Ken shifted in his seat a little, ?Sure, go ahead.?
?To provide you with effective counseling, Pylon needs to know a fair amount about you?personal identity information, your work history, access to your social network connections, and so on. Pylon uses 1,028-bit fractal encryption on any data you share with us and we strongly encourage you to enable encryption on your end, as well.
?Pylon never stores any information about you on our servers without a two-key verification and we can only access your unencrypted data while in a live session. That means that if there is ever a data breach, hackers will only see encrypted gibberish.
?Pylon will never knowingly share any of your data with any third party. Everything said in session is considered completely confidential and all session notes are accessed through a limited-time two-key verification.?
?Hold on, what?s two-key verification??
?You know how safety deposit boxes work? The banker has a key and the customer has a key.?
?Same thing, only digitally. Unless the counselor has your express permission to open your files, they stay encrypted.?
?Great. Can I just approve the TOS now??
David laughed softly. ?Of course, but Pylon insists patients review the TOS until they feel satisfied before proceeding. If you?re satisfied with my explanation, I?ll sign off now; feel free to call me back when you?re done reading the TOS. Just click the ?Call Back? button on your screen. I may be leaving the office here in a minute so it?s likely you?ll get Clancy, my co-worker.?
?Thanks, David. I?ll call you right back.?
Ken hung up and skimmed over the TOS. It was lengthy and sweeping in scope. Pylon needed access to a lot of information, but not any more than was expected, really? not for this deep level of mental health care. Psychiatry had morphed into understanding the human psyche not just as its own system, but as a system interacting with other systems (i.e., humans). With access to deep data analysis, that meant no longer merely taking a patient at their word?you could now gather empirical data alongside a patient?s subjective interpretations. Thus, to fully understand a patient?s emotional state, you needed to both gather objective data about them individually (Where and when did they grow up? What shows were they watching? What news did they share with others? What do they do when they?re bored?), but also objective data about how they related to the group, meaning their past (Who were their family members?), their most active social connections (How many people do they know? How many would they consider friends? Which ones and why?), their environment (What kind of chair do they work in? What?s their sleep cycle?)? Once the patient gave Pylon explicit approval, Pylon subtly harvested all these seemingly insignificant data points across any relevant technological platform that touched the patient?s daily life. Data from all kinds of sources would be routed through a complicated AI algorithm on Pylon?s servers to predict?with shocking accuracy?what kinds of improvements could be made to address whatever was causing distress in the patient. No kind of data was deemed too trivial to record. If it could be measured, it was collected, analyzed, and compared against thousands of other anonymized patient data to form a baseline of ?normal? mental behavior. Armed with this dizzying array of information, Pylon?s AI could reliably detect deviancies that predisposed a patient to harm themselves, or others? and do it far better than most human psychiatrists.
After 10 minutes, Ken finally called back Pylon and Clancy answered this time. She had straight auburn hair in a bob and sky blue eyes. ?Hello, Mr. Harper. David told me you?d be calling back. Have you finished reading the Terms of Service agreement??
?Yes. It all looks fine.?
?Excellent. I?ve registered your retinal scan as a signature, so if you?re ready, we can begin the next phase of orientation.?
?Certainly. What do I do??
?You must have received the eyewear, correct??
Ken suppressed a smile: this was a courtesy question?of course Clancy knew he?d received the eyewear; she?d likely seen a notification on her screen, or someone had, and anticipated him calling in not long thereafter.
?Yes, it arrived by drone a few minutes ago.?
?Are you alone and will you be alone for at least the next hour??
?Yes, nobody will be interfering with us.?
?Great. Have you examined the eyewear at all??
?Just a little.?
?Okay. How familiar are you with this process??
?Not at all. I?m doing this at my daughter?s request so I really don?t know much.?
?That?s totally fine. I?m here to walk you through it. First, you can take the glasses out of their case.?
Ken gingerly pulled the glasses out of the box again and opened them up. They looked fragile, almost like hard and translucent paper. ?Should I put them on now??
?Absolutely. They?ve been custom-made to fit you so you shouldn?t even notice you have them on.?
Ken put on the glasses. The transparency was impressive. They were featherlight, and the inlaid optics were designed to further augment the transparency. It was easy to imagine he wasn?t wearing them at all, which was the whole idea.
?Okay, excellent.? Clancy looked off to one side of her screen. ?The eyewear serves two functions: it takes micro readings of your facial movements, but it?s also a VR headset. Are you sitting down now, Mr. Harper??
?Okay, I?m going to try something now and I want you to just relax.?
?Okay.? Ken?s heart began to beat faster, acting out of reflex? this was safe, right?
?Go ahead and close your eyes for me.?
Ken closed his eyes.
?Excellent. Now, with your eyes still closed, tell me what you hear.?
Ken listened and the sound of the room he was in changed. He wasn?t sure how, but the eyewear?s temple tips must have had speakers in them, maybe with noise-cancelling? ?It sounds like the room has changed somehow. Like the furniture isn?t in the right place? or when you sense someone has walked into the room.?
?Good. Keep your eyes closed for now, but in the next minute, you?re going to feel the urge to take off your eyewear. That?s normal and no harm will come to you if you do. However, for best results, we strongly recommend against it. When you?re ready, slowly open your eyes.?
Ken opened his eyes and audibly gasped. On the outside, the eyewear must have become fully opaque because inside it was a faithful reproduction of what Ken presumed was a psychiatrist?s office. Clancy was opposite him, ?sitting? only half a meter away, and a small monitor screen sat on a desk to her right. In reality, she could be thousands of miles away, but it felt like they were in the same room.
?This is?? Ken?s jaw stayed open. He looked down at his body and saw his arms and hands within the simulation. He brought his hands together and rubbed the fingers against one another. The simulation was perfectly in sync with his hands. ?Incredible.?
?We?re using the camera on your computer to capture where you are in your room, as well as your body movements and gesticulations. The eyewear displays the VR setting, but it has sensors to take some body readings. Your heartbeat, for example, is a little high. Just take a few deep breaths for me, would you??
Ken did as he was asked. Clancy watched her monitor.
?So far, so good.? Clancy said, smiling. ?How are you enjoying your first trip to a virtual shrink??
Ken laughed and quickly realized she was using humor to put him at ease. It worked. ?Loving it. I wish all my shows were this real. Well? Maybe not all of them.?
Clancy laughed, and glanced back at her monitor. ?I have one more thing to cover. Pylon sometimes uses Print Technology?do you know what that is??
?Not exactly. Print Technology calls on all kinds of personal identification data to create simulations of people you already know?? she spread her arms wide, indicating the whole room, ??in this virtual setting to better aid in the counseling process.?
?Wait?does that mean you access their personal data??
?Only the data you permit us to, and any data we do access is immediately sequestered by the source after we?re done using it, thereby rendering the Print inert.?
Ken paused to think about that.
?Let me give you an example: imagine you have a problem with your boss??
?I?m a farmer?I don?t have a boss.?
?Fair enough. But let?s say you had a problem with a close friend of family member and your counselor thinks you?d benefit from a role-play exercise with that person. In this virtual environment, a Print of that person will look and talk like an actual human, but will be fully computer generated so you can talk to them in complete safety. With your approval, we would request access to your friend?s social media profile and generate their virtual reality doppelg?nger using Print Technology.
?Access to your friend?s information is strictly limited to its creation and use in sessions. Once the session is over, our access expires and the Print becomes just a bunch of ?framing? code without anything inside it.? Seeing Ken?s quizzical look, she continued, ?Think of Pylon as a car, and Print Tech is its engine; not only is that engine composed of 1,000 different parts but each part is anonymously borrowed and returned immediately after the car gets to where it?s going.
?Again, your counselor may call on any person you know to be a Print but only if you give them permission to do so. In order to build a convincing print, we must draw data from over 600 different sources??
?The specifics of data collection fall under Print Tech?s confidentiality agreement with Pylon, but you can imagine how access to merely a person?s social media feed can help simulate their physical appearance. From that same source, timestamps of their social media posts help to deduce other useful information?for instance, if someone is posting at 3AM, then you can calculate how much sleep they might be getting, and probably how grouchy they might be, etc. There is a good reason why Print Tech has the largest and best collection of data scientists on its payroll.
?Because Pylon requires your express permission to gain access to your social networks and any other relevant accounts, getting approval from all those sources can be extremely time-consuming, so the sooner we have your approval, the faster your sessions can begin. As David told you before, when your session is over, all your data?especially your generated Prints?is two-key encrypted. You also have the option to delete all of your data should you decide to not be Pylon?s patient anymore.?
?Wow, that?s great. David didn?t tell me that.?
?It?s a long TOS, isn?t it?? she said in a mockingly conspiratorial tone, then smiled.
Ken chuckled. ?Definitely not boilerplate.?
?Very well. Here is the approval form for the use of Print Technology.? Clancy laid a virtual form on the desk in front of him. ?If you agree to it, we can start your session immediately.?
Ken reviewed the form. ?That?s fine, yes. I agree.?
?Wonderful. I?ve registered your retinal scan as a signature. Okay, well? I?ve covered all the basics. It seems I can leave now and bring in the counselor. His name is Nathaniel Drumming, or Nate. He?s extremely nice, and has been practicing for 32 years. Are you ready??
?Yes, I?m ready.?
Clancy stood and straightened out her blouse while leaving the room. ?Mr. Drumming,? she said, while opening the door. ?Mr. Harper can see you now.? Then she closed the door behind her and the room was quiet again.
Ken looked around the room. For the first time, he realized he must look foolish to anyone seeing him in his study with greyed-out eyewear, scanning his room like a life-size bobblehead. But before he could think about it any longer, the door in the simulation opened slowly and a man of medium height walked in. He was mostly bald, lots of wrinkles around his face, but not over 50, Ken figured. Nate had wire-framed glasses and held a notepad and pen in one hand.
?Hello, Mr. Harper. Don?t get up,? he said with a smile while still standing in the doorway, ?We can?t shake hands, anyway, so don?t worry about it. Before we go any further, I?d like to introduce my colleague, Phyllis Lock.? A middle-aged woman in a purple cashmere shawl appeared in the doorway and stood next to her colleague. ?When I?m not available or need to step out, she can take over for me. We both take copious notes so you may consider her an equal partner in your care. She monitors many of my sessions so she can step in at any time. Is that acceptable to you??
?Yes, that?s okay.?
?Excellent. Thank you, Phyllis. I?ll see you in an hour,? he said, and closed the door. Turning to Ken, he said, ?It?s just us now. What?s on your mind??