The Cultures Ep 323: Virtual Travel Instructions

Listen to episode 323 of my weekly podcast with Andrea Phillips and Naomi Alderman:

  • Look for music from the country
  • Search on BBC Sounds (there’s a prog called World Music Road Trip and also sometimes stuff in From Our Own Correspondent)
  • Also try documentaries, especially Storyville
  • Find the best movie you’ve never seen from that country
  • Internet search for recipes from there
  • Look online for specialist ingredients
  • Is there takeaway from there one could get?
  • Can you do a few minutes of language learning via Duolingo etc? Just enough to say hello, goodbye, please and thank you?
  • Who’s their most famous writer? Read a short story
  • Have they ever had a movie up for best foreign picture Oscar, or best short or best documentary?
  • Where would you stay? Pick a hotel. Have a look on Google Street View to see where you “are”
  • Is there a board game (or video game!) from that country to try?
  • What sights would you try to see if you were there? Can you find virtual tours online?
  • What do people drink in a cafè or bar there?
  • Can you learn to sing something that’s popular there or written there?
  • Put the radio on all day from that country
  • Change your Twitter/social media localisation to that country
  • Is there a bath product/perfume/smell from there?

Postage Without Printing

Royal Mail recently announced it will start collecting parcels from people’s doorsteps for a small fee. While I understand this is pretty normal in the US, it’s a novelty in the UK and makes sending parcels just that little bit easier – all you need to do is buy your postage online and print out a label.

The problem is, not everyone has a printer. I do have a laser printer, which even before COVID was only used for those few tickets and boarding passes that couldn’t be saved to my phone, along with the occasional bits of postage: maybe only print ten or twenty pages a year. So anything that can drive that twenty pages down to zero and therefore eliminate the requirement for a printer entirely – thus saving money, hassle, and the environment – would be a total win.

Tickets and passes can become digital because the thing that needs the pass (you) can display it in a different way than paper (your phone). But postage is different, since the thing (your parcel) does not have an alternate display (its label). That label contains the destination of the parcel in human-readable plaintext, along with other stuff including a QR code verifying the parcel’s selected service (e.g. first class, second class, etc.), weight, dimensions, sender, account details, and so on.

The reason the label needs to be printed is because you can’t rely on humans to reproduce a machine-readable QR code with a pen. So that’s that – we’ll always need printers for postage.

Or do we? What if Royal Mail gave senders a unique string of characters that represented all the information currently in the QR code: something like XXXX-XXXX-XXXX-XXXX? Write that string on the parcel, and voila: no printing required.

Write the Address

Technically you could have only the unique string on the parcel since it has all information required, but I think you’d still want the destination on the parcel as well as a failsafe, and crucially, to make the posties’ lives easier.

Pay After Posting

Under this scheme, the sender would need to assess the postage required for their letter or parcel by weighing and measuring it. That’s not hard but it’s yet another step, and perhaps an unnecessary one since I assume Royal Mail must check whether parcels have the appropriate level of postage required. If they’re already doing that, and if I trust them to do it well, why not just let them charge me whatever’s required so I don’t have to measure and weigh myself?

So I’d set up an account with Royal Mail with my payment information, tell them I was sending something (maybe I’d take a photo), they’d give me my unique string (which now also includes my account info) and at some point during the delivery process they’d charge me for the correct amount.


I admit I have no idea how expensive or annoying it is for Royal Mail to read handwritten addresses versus scanning a QR code. But OCR is pretty good these days and we could help it along by selling cheap rolls of labels with specified areas for the unique string and the destination address, plus some orientation markers.

Something like this

This is more of an idle thought than a deeply-researched proposal: I’m not a postage expert so I’m sure there are obvious flaws. Still, I’ve spent a lot of money and time on posting things – my company has sent tens of thousands of parcels worldwide and I used to do it myself back when I sold Mars maps as a teenager (a story for another time). So I know the pain points on our side, at least!

On Acedia, and my new book A New History of the Future in 100 Objects

My new book, A New History of the Future in 100 Objects, is out today, and you can find it at your favourite local bookstore (via or Amazon US and Amazon UK.

If you’re thinking, “haven’t I read heard of this already?” it’s because this is a new edition of A History of the Future in 100 Objects, published by MIT Press. There are twenty brand new or completely rewritten objects on everything from basic maximum income and a fleet of geo-engineering to funerary monuments for billionaires. I also used the opportunity to weave more intricate links between the objects, while bringing them bang up to date for 2020. 

Here are reviews from the first edition of the book:

…Adrian Hon conjures a detailed and arresting vision of a late 21st century world where technology has helped us advance so far it’s hard to say what it means any more to be human.

Start the Week, BBC Radio 4

Although he exhibits plenty of skepticism, Hon is optimistic at heart. His imagined future is one of technological innovation and social betterment. With so much speculative fiction predicting doom and gloom over the next century, it’s refreshing to see such hopefulness. This is the Jetsons’ future, one that’s bright and beautiful and very, very shiny.


And you can read the first six chapters of the original edition online!

It’s a weird time to be launching any book, let alone one about the future. It was hard enough to remain hopeful and write an optimistic vision of the next sixty years, and it’s still harder to justify sharing that vision when a pandemic rages across the planet and people who I know and love have lived with literal flames on the horizon.

And then I learned a word that spoke to this sense of paralysis, but also a way beyond it: acedia. It’s so apt I’m going to break the rules of book promotion and share part of Bruce Schneier’s post

Acedia was a malady that apparently plagued many medieval monks. It’s a sense of no longer caring about caring, not because one had become apathetic, but because somehow the whole structure of care had become jammed up.

…Moving around is what we do as creatures, and for that we need horizons. COVID-19 has erased many of the spatial and temporal horizons we rely on, even if we don’t notice them very often. We don’t know how the economy will look, how social life will go on, how our home routines will be changed, how work will be organized, how universities or the arts or local commerce will survive.

What unsettles us is not only fear of change. It’s that, if we can no longer trust in the future, many things become irrelevant, retrospectively pointless. And by that we mean from the perspective of a future whose basic shape we can no longer take for granted. This fundamentally disrupts how we weigh the value of what we are doing right now. It becomes especially hard under these conditions to hold on to the value in activities that, by their very nature, are future-directed, such as education or institution-building.

That’s what many of us are feeling. That’s today’s acedia.

Our horizons have been obscured by the smoke of so many fires that it feels impossible to plan for the future. Worse than impossible: pointless. 

But those horizons remain, and we can see them again by working together and caring for each other, using new tools and building new communities of care. And though my book imagines a hopeful future, this new edition is about hope in the face of desperate challenge. 

It’s about a country that remembers what democracy means, even as they’re governed by all-knowing, AI-enhanced ‘epistocrats’. 

It’s about people who choose to give up what they have to empty out half the world, so humanity has that much better chance of thriving. 

It’s about women poking fun and fighting back at politicians who try to control what they eat.

And it’s about the hundred exciting, scary, funny, tragic things that we will get to see.

Acedia, a lack of care that’s manifest in the world all around us, is something we can get through by caring for each other – and by imagining the future we can earn through that care. I hope my book can help you imagine that future.

If You Can’t Win, Cheat

Coercive gamification turns all of us into cheaters. Should we feel bad about cheating our workplaces and health insurers?

I confess: I cheat at my Apple Watch.

In the Before Times, I used to travel from my home in Edinburgh to Six to Start’s office in London every fortnight. The train took four and a half hours, but I managed to fill it most ways with a mixture of work, reading, and Game of Thrones. The main irritation came from my watch, which nagged me ten minutes before the hour if I’ve been sitting too much.

By default, the Apple Watch displays an “Activity Rings” icon showing how much you’ve moved, exercised, and stood up. You can change your “Move” target, but the Watch insists you do 30 minutes of exercise and stand for at least a minute during 12 hours each day. Miss your goals (which are really Apple’s goals) and you’ll receive passive-aggressive reminders to do better. Hit them, and your Watch will reward you with a shiny achievement badge – and there’s plenty more gamification woven throughout the Watch, like competitions against friends and time-limited challenges.

I know it’s meaningless, but I see those rings every time I lift my wrist and it’s dagger to heart to see them incomplete. Most of the time it’s easy to fill them, but when I’m on a four hour train, there are fewer opportunities to stand. So here’s what I do: at one minute before the hour, I stand up for two minutes so I get “standing” credit for both hours. I can then sit easy for another 118 minutes before rousing myself once more.

Is this cheating? Yes – and no. Who am I really cheating – and when did I even choose to play this game?

Wherever there’s a game, there’s cheating. When I moved to London in the mid-2000s, I discovered I could get a fancy gym membership on the cheap via Prudential Health Insurance (now known as Vitality). Because I was a young and I didn’t smoke, my premium was low, but more importantly, if I earned enough Vitality points I got a discount on the gym membership such that I was practically paying nothing for both the health insurance and the gym.

You could earn Vitality points with self-reported information (“how much do you drink?”) but reaching the higher levels required more work, like buying vegetable from the supermarket, walking more steps during the day, or visiting the gym. I know for a fact that at my gym, several members would regularly tap in, sit in the cafe for fifteen minutes, and then leave – long enough to register as a proper visit. It sounds ridiculous but you could save hundreds of pounds a year by gaming the system. It might have done it once or twice myself. What can I say? It was fun.

These days, health insurers track your movement via your phone, which has led to a thriving trade in “swinging cradles” that make my Apple Watch hack look like child’s play:

It’s funny, but it’s also incredibly sad. Something has gone desperately wrong if insurers and employers are driving people to cheat at being “healthy”. If someone’s bone-tired after clocking off from their low-paid job, no amount of cheery gamification will convince them to walk 10,000 steps rather than drop their phone into a swinging cradle while they collapse on the sofa.

That people would cheat at games shouldn’t surprise us. Not long ago, a friend of mine told me about how his mother and mother-in-law were so obsessed with Draw Something that they’d cheat in order to continue their chain of correct guesses by writing the word “rose” instead of drawing a rose.

To be clear: the point of Draw Something is for one player to draw something and for the other player to correctly guess what it is. That’s how they started out playing, but they became fixated on seeing a particular score going up that when my friend exclaimed, “That’s cheating!” his mum strenuously disagreed. Harmless enough, but it shows our natural human aptitude for cheating.

I didn’t turn on the Activity Rings and its attendant gamification features when I set up my Apple Watch – they’re baked in, just as gamification is baked in to so many other tools and services we use today, willingly or not. What happens when you turn the world into a game, when you coerce people into playing? What happens when you raise the stakes so high people’s livelihoods depend on winning?

You train people to cheat.

Continue reading “If You Can’t Win, Cheat”