Dystopian Shopping Malls of the Future

Walking around Westfield Stratford yesterday reminded me of the dystopian shopping malls of the future, most memorably from Minority Report:

Glass, steel, floating displays, and not a speck of dust to be seen. Dominated by the same shops, the same clothes, and the same food you’ll see in a thousand different malls. All of your individual needs can be met here – all of your needs will be met, because all the high streets have disappeared and we have brought the best the world has to offer, all under one hybrid-glass-open-closed-roof.

And yet, it really didn’t seem that bad. Unlike most dystopian shopping malls, there weren’t armed guards with a hair-trigger mandate to shoot undesirables; in fact there was quite a range of people, rich and (relatively) poor, of all ethnicities and ages and interests. Even some of the food was really quite good and reasonably priced.

I do have problems with mega-shopping malls – they crowd out more interesting and newer shops, they’re ill-suited for rapid changes in habits, they’re corporate-owned public spaces – but like Starbucks, there’s a reason why people visit and like them, even though we know we’re not supposed to. Before dismissing malls of the future and all the people who go to them, it’s worth thinking about the differences between our dystopic visions and reality.

Why The Circle Won’t Happen

(in which, yes, I discuss the plot of the book)

This week, Nest announced a ‘beautiful’ new smoke alarm that’s more advanced, more connected, more user-friendly, and more expensive than anything else on the market. Naturally, the press jumped on it like a Republican on a closed national monument.

It does a lot — it monitors both smoke and carbon monoxide, it’s wirelessly networked and internet connected so you can make sure your house isn’t burning down while you’re on holiday, and it communicates with Nest’s thermostat product.

But it doesn’t have everything. It doesn’t, for example, have a camera. Adding a camera would turn the alarm into a great home security product, one that would let you peek into every room in your house. Sounds great, right? Up until last week, I’d have agreed, but now the very suggestion brings me out in hives. The reason is because I’ve read Dave Eggers latest novel, The Circle.


The Circle is a near-future company that melds Facebook, Twitter, Google (and, to an extent, Apple). Its founders have a zealous conviction in the power of openness, transparency, and most importantly, the sharing of everything that can possibly be shared. As Mae Holland, a new customer support team member, works her way up the ranks at The Circle, we see the company driving forth its message with radically disruptive cheap technology that practically enforces transparency and sharing throughout the world. Things get very dramatic.

All of the characters in the story are basically stand-ins for Silicon Valley types (the VC, the hacker, the evangelist, the skeptic, the oldies, etc.) and the plot is rather predictable – but by god, what a plot it is! Eggers really takes Mark Zuckerberg’s belief that the world would be better if no-one felt they had to keep secrets and runs with it as far as he possibly can, which makes for a very dark world. By the end, I was appalled, and the thought of putting more cameras in my flat seemed suicidal.

Now, I expect that a lot of technically-minded people will object to pretty much every single aspect of novel; I know I did when I began reading it. Many of those objections are legitimate, but like 1984, the question is not whether the technology is correct but whether the philosophy of the world it depicts is one that we believe in — because if it is, then maybe we will end up in something like that world.

Eggers makes a strong case for why we’re heading in the direction of his dystopia. He understands our fear of crime and child abuse; he understands the seductive promise that radical transparency and surveillance could solve those problems and many others besides, like corruption and inefficiency and disaster relief. He extrapolates from our seemingly-compulsive use of social media and casual games, and sees a future where we’ll gradually, willingly, happily hand over our agency and individuality to everyone else to the owners of the communications platform that underpins everything.

It’s an awful future. And it’s one that I don’t believe will happen, and here’s why: Continue reading “Why The Circle Won’t Happen”

A Preview of A History of The Future

Two and a half years ago, I began a Kickstarter project for A History of the Future in 100 Objects, a book that would map out the 21st century in a hundred speculative objects. I wanted to cover more than just technology; I wanted to look at the future of religion, politics, sport, food, health, architecture, transport, work, and, well, everything.

That’s quite a tall order, and of course it ended up being far harder than I anticipated; what I thought might take a year took over twice as long. Let’s just say I learned a lot (if you’re interested in hearing more about it, check out my latest Kickstarter update) about how writing a book at the same time as running a company means that you don’t get evenings or weekends any more.

Not that I’d take back the experience. I’m proud of the book. It’s not perfect by any means, but I think that among the hundred chapters that make up the book, from factual articles to newspaper reports to interviews to short stories, there are some new ideas and new expressions of old ideas that many people have never seen before. And that’s all I could ask for.

You can see a preview of A History of the Future right now on the official website, and in fact the eBook is for sale on Amazon and via Gumroad now as well. However, the ‘proper’ launch of the book will be later this month after I talk about it on Radio 4 and at the Futurefest conference, and after it’s available as a physical book — hence why I’m not making too much noise about it.

The energy I poured into the book meant that I didn’t have time to write here. I’m looking forward to coming back, though.

6. Smart Drugs

2019; Unified Korea

Can we change who we are? For millennia, we’ve eagerly bought potions and medicines that promised to make us smarter and wiser, and for just as long, we’ve been bitterly disappointed. Yet we kept coming back; there was just something irresistible about improving ourselves without any effort.

And then the promises came true.

Today, we might pity those who never had access to personality reconstruction and metacognitive mapping, but it’s easy to forget that mind-altering substances have always given a cruder kind of relief and variety to our lives.From alcohol and caffeine to cannabis and amphetamines, we’ve never lacked ways to stimulate and relax our minds.

It was much trickier, however, to create drugs that increase elements of our intelligence, like improved attention or wakefulness, without harmful side-effects. It wasn’t until the teens and 20s that we had the tools to produce the first true cognitive enhancers, or ‘smart drugs’. Completely unprecedented in history, they caused quite a stir.

I have a range of samples lined up here, provided generously by Prof. Arienne Niyonshuti at the Kigali Museum of Medicine. All of them are from the first wave of readily available consumer-grade smart drugs in 2019. On the left here, we’ve got an orange pill called Tricity, which improves memory formation and recall; next to it, there’s a square chocolate that helps with language; a green pill, Numony, that reduces tiredness and stress; and finally on the right I have a pill of the most well-known smart drug: Ceretin, a wide-spectrum cognitive enhancer.

So, let’s try one out! Here’s a glass of water… and I think I’ll take the Ceretin. Now, I’m told that we’re not supposed to take these drugs any more since they get automatically expunged by our neural laces, but I’ve had Prof. Niyonshuti’s team temporarily disable my lace’s usual functions aside from recording. Prof. Niyonshuti will now explain exactly what’s going on in my brain right now:

“We can see quite clearly that the active components of Ceretin are entering your bloodstream, crossing the blood-brain barrier, and altering the behaviour of your synaptic neurotransmitter receptors in the frontal cortex and cerebellum. It takes a few minutes for the drugs to take effect, though, so we’ll wait a little while before giving you the cognitive tests I’ve prepared.”

What’s extraordinary about these drugs is that their creators actually had very little idea about how they operated. Scientists could observe their effects and check for any harmful side-effects, and they had hypotheses about their method of action, but they would lack anything even approaching a complete model of the brain for at least another decade.

It looks like the Ceretin has now taken effect, so I’m going to take a few old-fashioned tests to assess my memory skills, along with reasoning and attention. I won’t bore you with the details, but they basically involve things like predicting the next symbol in a series, and distractor tests.

…And here are the results! Across the board, my cognitive performance has increased anywhere from fourteen to twenty percent compared to the tests I took beforehand. These results don’t prove anything in themselves, of course — I’m just one person, and this wasn’t a double-blinded experiment — but I definitely feel a fair bit sharper. I can only imagine how appealing it must have felt back then.

These weren’t the first smart drugs on the market — modafinil, an ‘alertness’ drug, was released in the 2000s — but they were the first to gain widespread popularity. The biggest markets for drugs like Ceretin tended to be countries such as China, Japan, Singapore, and Unified Korea, where they were heavily advertised on Starcraft and ZRG casts; North America and the EU lagged behind due to safety concerns.

Smart drugs helped students gain an edge when it came to the exams that controlled entry to meritocracies; they also eked out another percentage point of inaccurately-measured ‘productivity’ in large corporations. However, their high cost prompted violent protests by those who argued that they should either be made freely available or banned — with mandatory drug testing before exams. One Unified Korean chaebol, NSK, provided Mnemosyne for all of its thirty thousand employees.

Of course, it was impossible to stop smart drugs from being illegally imported and sold in other countries at inflated prices. This caused further tensions in highly unequal countries like the US, where they became another symbol of the power the rich had to simply ‘buy’ success. In 2024, President Martinez addressed the issue head-on by legalising not just smart drugs but also recreational drugs, and allowing for the production of cheap ‘generic’ smart drugs just five years after their initial release to market.

Smart drugs had their downsides. Though it was difficult to tell at the time, we now know that the benefits conferred by any given first or second-generation smart drug usually came at the expense of other cognitive functions like creativity, long-term memory formation, or empathy. The drugs also contributed to the damaging ‘speed-up’ culture of the time, increasing the pressure on already-frantic workers.

It’s time to turn my lace back on now, and that means the Ceretin will be flushed out within a few seconds. While it’s doing that, it’s fascinating to look back on how smart drugs, however crude they were, paved the way for our laces. Not long after the first wave, researchers were testing ways of combining them with portable transcranial magnetic stimulation, which offered superior temporal and spatial resolution to drugs, truly changing people’s mental capacities and even personalities. But it all started here, with these four pills…

Follow me at @adrianhon and @futureobjects

A History of the Future in 100 Objects will be available on Kindle, iPhone and iPad this summer as an eBook and iOS Newsstand app. A lovely coffee-table book will be out this autumn.

3. The Guide

2015; Seattle, US

What is the good life? Philosophers, wise men, preachers, televangelists, self-help gurus — all have tried to answer the question of how we should live and thrive as humans. Some have been driven by a sense of moral duty and religious zeal, others by a quest for power and money, but over the millennia, they have never lacked a wide and willing audience, eager to better themselves and the world around them.

Unlike those who came before her, the guru who created one of the early 21st century’s most novel moral instructions wasn’t an eloquent writer or a charismatic performer. She was a programmer, and she made an application called The Guide to Greatness. Most knew it more simply as The Guide.

Sophia Moreno was the only child of Ernesto and Claudia Morena; Ernesto was a union representative at a chemical engineering plant in their home town of Santo Andre, while Claudia taught physics at UFABC. Sophia had a quiet childhood spent playing games and studying hard, and it wasn’t until she studied computer science in Rio de Janeiro that she stepped onto a path that would change the world.

On arriving in Rio, Sophia struggled with depression as she tried to fit in with her new surroundings and peers. She flirted with religion, falling in with an evangelical Christian student society for a few months; then just as quickly she left, burying herself in work. Over the next two years, she excelled at her studies, regularly scoring in the top 5% of her class and earning a placement at Amazon in Seattle.

But according to her friends, Sophia felt unfulfilled at her development job “shaving milliseconds off the shopping experience” and soon left to pursue her own projects. Her first independently made app was a comparison shopping utility and sold 5,000 copies. Her second app, an exam revision helper, sold a mere 700 copies.

Sophia’s third app was The Guide, launched in 2015 after a year of development. Within twelve days, it had sold 10,000 copies. In twelve weeks, it reached a million; in twelve months, 8 million; and after two years, 100 million copies.

“The Guide is about connections. Look around you. At the clothes on your body, the chair you’re sitting on, the walls beside you, and the phone in front of you. Everything we touch, eat, watch, and play is created by other people in this world.”

That’s the message that greets users when they first launch The Guide. It continues:

“Every one of us wants to become happy and successful and strong, but we can’t do that if we just focus on ourselves and ignore those whose lives touch us. Everything and everyone is connected, every second of every day. The Guide will show you how to see those connections, how to harness them, and how to help yourself and everyone around you to gain strength.”

Let’s face it — it’s not very original. But as a smartphone app that users kept right by their sides day and night, The Guide was in a unique position to directly interact and intervene in its followers’ lives. It helped them set and achieve goals, and it guided their behaviour in more subtle ways, from special greetings when they woke up, to inspirational messages before important meetings marked in their calendars. Naturally, being integrated with the burgeoning online social networks of the day, The Guide had a wide network of supporters from its very first day, so users could find like-minded souls instantly.

The Guide launched with 20,000 words of text divided up into 100 lessons, along with 25 interactive and replayable exercises, ranging from games to help users identify things in their surroundings that gave them joy, to emotion and thought journals. Naturally, The Guide took full advantage of the foolish ‘gamification’ craze of the teens, hooking unwitting users with the lure of experience points and levelling up. Sociologist and app historian Professor Colin Leigh explains its sensational success:

“The Guide directly addressed the lack of community and purpose felt by many in rich countries experiencing the ‘speed-up’. Traditional religious groups were too conservative to take full advantage of new technology, and the corporations and organisations that did have the expertise simply weren’t interested in more spiritual matters. Moreno’s background as a ‘generalist’ creator marked a genuine turning point.”

Not all of the millions who bought The Guide were active participants. Some bought it out of curiosity, others used it more as a positive-psychology productivity app. Even so, over a third used the app every day and took part in the Community Rituals that became so crucial to the app’s lasting success.

These rituals included everything from dinners and parties to exercise clubs, celebrations, and protests, and helped cement the bonds between followers in the real world. The fact that they were expected to actually turn up somewhere and meet with strangers in order to progress in The Guide set a surprisingly high bar, but it was later understood to be a real insight on Moreno’s part: she had correctly understood that the retreat of organised religion and comparable social structures had left a vacuum that people desperately wanted to fill.

For a while, it seemed as if The Guide itself was becoming a kind of religion. However, despite Moreno continuing to provide updates to the app over a span of three years, it became increasingly clear that she was deeply ambivalent about the success of The Guide. She made no public statements beyond what was in the Guide itself and left no records of her thoughts that we can find today, assiduously encrypting and then deleting them before her death. Most scholars speculate that the weight of responsibility she felt towards her followers was more than she wanted to bear.

Four years after its launch, Sophia Moreno sent out one final update. In it, she explained that she was delighted and proud of what her followers had accomplished, but now it was time for them to pursue their own ‘paths to strength’ independently.

The Guide’s user base fractured overnight. Some larger groups began developing their own open-source versions of the app, while competing apps made a landgrab for users, offering to transfer the achievements and experience points they had earned in The Guide to their own apps. As quickly as The Guide rose, it vanished.

Sophia Moreno retreated from public life, living off her revenues from The Guide and occasionally releasing artistic experiments. Yet her app, as short-lived as it was, proved there was a desire for a philosophy of life that complemented a market-based mindset with one rooted in communities and gifts. As for established religions, it was a startling reminder that their strength was not to be taken for granted.

Follow me at @adrianhon and @futureobjects

A History of the Future in 100 Objects will be available on Kindle, iPhone and iPad this summer as an eBook and iOS Newsstand app. A lovely coffee-table book will be out this autumn.

1. Ankle Surveillance Monitor

2014, San Jose, US

“Six months doesn’t sound so bad. I mean, compared to the guys I’ve met who were in for five years or fifteen years, I had it good. But it’s still plenty long enough to lose your job. Lose your family. Even lose your friends, people you thought you could rely on. Seemed like more than enough punishment for carrying some weed.”

In 2014, Ralph Turner, a 25-year-old truck driver and father of two, was arrested in San Jose on suspicion of possessing marijuana. Turner had been carrying over 30 grams, and after a short trial he was convicted and given a mandatory sentence of six months in prison.

California’s prisons were full to bursting, and with the state in the midst of a severe and extended budget crisis, it couldn’t afford to build any more. Faced with no alternatives, the court enrolled Ralph Turner into a pilot probation programme aimed at low risk offenders.

Turner was taken to an induction centre and shown a short video, and then his cell number was entered into a computer. A technician looped a measuring tape around Turner’s ankle and after a short wait, snapped a light plastic ring into place. He was free to go, and inadvertently became one of the first people to benefit from America’s slow turn away from its ruinously expensive and ineffective penal system.

The object I’m holding right now, an ‘ankle monitor’, is a thin ring of plastic, maybe half a centimeter thick if you count the inner padding. Inside the plastic is a simple computer, a radio, and a microphone array.

Like earlier monitors, it can locate the wearer by satellite positioning and send a warning if they’re leaving or approaching restricted areas. But Turner’s monitor is a little different: its microphone array constantly records and streams every nearby sound to a remote server, so if the wearer is suspected of violating their probation, the relevant audio section can be decrypted by court order. More controversially, in a concession to public fears, the monitor doesn’t just relay its position to the police and judicial system, it also informs a whole range of ‘concerned parties’ including schools, hospitals, and airports.

The theory was that this new generation of ankle monitors could be used for non-violent low risk offenders, such as those convicted of drugs possession or petty theft or vandalism. Not only would they save tens of thousands of dollars per person, they’d also allow the wearers to continue their jobs and live with their families. Coupled with mandatory community service, the monitors seemed to be the best — and only — alternative to a penal system that was too expensive and that barely appeared to reduce crime at all. Expert Amira Goss elaborates:

“Over ten million people worldwide were imprisoned in 2014, and a full quarter of them lived in America, a country with only 5% of the world’s population. Incredibly, most Americans gave little thought to their system of incarceration and if anything, many felt it was too lenient. The fact that prisons only became commonplace as a means of punishment in the 19th century was completely overlooked.

“From a historical perspective, America’s penal system was little different from the old ‘debtors’ prisons’, with many inmates made to work at below minimum wage to pay their way. Not only was it incredibly wasteful, but worse still, it didn’t really work. Recidivism rates were stubbornly high, and even long sentences didn’t seem to deter criminals who had few other options in life. My view is that they became more about retribution, and the very literal removal of criminals from sight — an understandable impulse for severe crimes like murder, but not for petty theft.”

In the years between 1970 and 2014, US incarceration rates increased five-fold thanks to mandatory sentencing laws, privatisation of the prison system, and much stricter attitudes to crime and punishment compared to other rich countries. The human cost of putting close to one in a hundred adults in jail was horrific, and certainly not worth the relatively modest decrease in crime rates, assuming that there was even any causal link.

Prison had become a place that destroyed families and jobs and bred a virulent criminal culture. As befitting the time, though, it wasn’t the human cost that eventually caused the change in direction which led to our ankle monitor; it was the economic cost. By the early 21st century, keeping someone in jail cost almost as much as the average US income.

The new ankle monitors were met with fierce resistance in California from all points along the political spectrum. The ACLU argued that the ankle tags violated human rights on a massive scale, while state Republicans claimed that ‘freeing’ tens of thousands of prisoners would cause a violent crime wave. As revealed by data miners taking advantage of transparency laws enacted in the 50s, much of the opposition was funded by donations from corporations profiting from private prisons, but at the time their warnings were met by a frightened and receptive public.

The government had little choice, though; it simply couldn’t afford the expense of housing so many prisoners. Thanks to a powerful speech from Reverend James Malone, a charismatic religious leader, the public was eventually convinced that it was better to try and reintegrate prisoners with society rather than lose a fortune on them.

The problems began almost immediately. Ankle monitors or not, many wearers weren’t dissuaded from committing crimes, even though they were swiftly apprehended. Hundreds more wearers simply vanished, and troublingly, several wearers were unfairly punished for simple malfunctions of their monitors.

As predicted by security experts, monitors were reverse-engineered in order to spoof and intercept the tracking signals. A firmware update eventually addressed these issues, but for a while, it was possible for anyone with the right equipment to track the wearers. Most damningly, the audio recordings were usually too poor in quality to be useful as evidence, at least until new hardware was released in 2018 and integrated with the wearers’ other sensors.

Yet the government forged on. Too much had been invested to give up now, and the promise of massive savings dazzled their judgement. Three years on, the pilot programme was expanded to all low-risk offenders and taken up by several other cash-strapped states convinced that it was an easy way to save money; in New York and Pennsylvania, the monitors were linked into a flexible community service system that allowed a much wider set of institutions — churches, charities, businesses — to work with offenders through automatic reporting and wireless tracking.

In the vanguard states, sentences became shorter, swifter, and surer. By 2036, the prison population in the US had been cut by a third, saving tens of billions a year — and more importantly, helping millions of offenders stay in work and keep their families intact.

What fascinates us today about ankle monitors is how they represent the dilemmas and compromises that were typical of the early 21st century. It would be a mistake to attribute the sweeping change in the US penal system to a mere piece of technology rather than its human backers and designers, but they still remain a powerful symbol. Social historian Julie Yao observes:

“The monitors were important because they helped to break a spiral of alienation and failure among prisoners. It’s easy for us to think that the Americans of 2014 were somehow heartless, but the truth is that most genuinely believed that prison was the only thing that stopped people from committing crimes, thanks to the sensationalist media.

“Monitors brought punishment and rehabilitation back into the open — but at the massive cost of normalising ubiquitous surveillance, a decision that we all know had serious consequences later in the century.”

We can’t know what Turner was thinking during his six months of monitored probation with his ankle monitor, but inspection of his nascent casters including Facebook, IMs, and text messages shows that he seemed to fare well enough. In an interview years later, Turner remarked, “I didn’t enjoy being a guinea pig one bit, and I sure as hell didn’t appreciate someone being able to listen in on everything that I did. But if you gave me the choice between prison and the monitor, you’re damn right I’d have strapped that thing on my ankle with my own two hands.”

Follow me at @adrianhon and @futureobjects

A History of the Future in 100 Objects will be available on Kindle, iPhone and iPad this summer as an eBook and iOS Newsstand app. A lovely coffee-table book will be out this autumn.

Augmented Reality: Paleofuture in Action

This month’s issue of Harper’s Bazaar magazine has an augmented reality feature in which you use a smartphone to ‘bring the cover to life’. It’s far from the first magazine to do it, and it’s hard to miss adverts on the tube or at bus stops that have some variation of ‘scan this advert to see something cool’. I’ve never actually seen anyone do this, but in the spirit of inquiry I decided to test exactly how long it would take to make this happen.

Here are the steps required for Harper’s Bazaar:

  1. Unlock my iPhone 4
  2. Go to Home Screen
  3. Open the App Store
  4. Switch to the Search tab
  5. Type in ‘Zappar’
  6. Select ‘Zappar’ from the list of apps
  7. Tap to download (3.1MB)
  8. Type in my password
  9. Wait for the download to complete
  10. Open Zappar
  11. Skip the tutorial
  12. Select ‘Harper’s Bazaar’ from the list of ‘zaps’
  13. Tap to download this specific ‘zap’ (4.4MB)
  14. Wait for the download to complete
  15. Tap ‘Zap’ to start the AR feature
  16. Watch the thing

That’s a lot of steps. Going at full speed and using a wifi connection, plus starting from step 2, it took me 90 seconds from start to finish. If I wasn’t in such a hurry I would imagine it’d take about 2 minutes, and if you actually bothered to swipe through the Zappar tutorial you’re looking at 3 minutes.

But at least with a magazine there’s a good chance you’ll be at home when you’re reading it and on a fast wifi connection; plus you might be more inclined to try it since you bought the thing – why anything imagines that someone would do this while walking around outside is beyond me.


It would be OK if what you got was the most awesome augmented reality experience ever, but with Harper’s Bazaar, it was just a video. To be precise, I watched a video superimposed onto a magazine cover that I’m looking at through the camera of my iPhone. My iPhone screen isn’t that huge, and when the video only covers part of the magazine, it’s really quite tiny. If it was a great video, then you’d probably want to watch it on a computer or tablet, or at the very least, full screen on the iPhone; but here it’s just a gimmick, and a bad one at that since it pales in comparison to superior gimmicks that show 3D objects or similar.

So basically my point here is that it’s a big waste of money. What’s new? Precisely nothing at all – we’re just seeing augmented reality go through the classic hype curve in which a new technology makes possible something that we’ve always wanted to have (i.e. Terminator-vision) but in a form that is manifestly unsuited to most applications. Consider:

  • There is no standard platform and it’s not built-in to phones. If you want to view any AR, you must download a special app, and people underestimate the public’s tolerances for downloading any old thing.
  • It’s not hands free, and usually you’re extending your hands right out in front of you. It severely limits interaction possibilities, plus it’s not comfortable to hold that position for more than a few minutes.
  • Most applications are desperately unimaginative, often involving advertising or some kind of navigation system that’s better executed in standard top-down maps.
  • It’s too small. How much useful information can you overlay onto a small screen that only displays a tiny slice of the world? I have no doubt that pictures like this will make kids of the future crack up with laughter and be featured in the Paleofuture blog of 2031:

Screen Shot 2011-12-29 at 13.09.29

None of these challenges are insurmountable, but it’s foolish at best and disingenuous at worst to suggest that smartphone-based AR is anything other than experimental and highly unlikely to provide any conventional return. So, hey, if you’ve got money to burn, by all means play around with AR, although it wouldn’t hurt to try something a bit more interesting; but if you don’t (as is the case for most of the publishing industry), save your cash. No-one wants AR yet because there has been no clear demonstration of its strengths above and beyond what we already have.

Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it.

We don’t need your permission any more

One of the most annoying things in life is asking for permission: permission to build an extension, permission to volunteer at a school, permission to start a business. It’s always irritating to imagine some distant bureaucrat with little interest or understanding of your life in control of your fate.

Almost every sphere of life and work – from education to science to media to retail – involves us asking for permission every time we want make or do anything, whether it’s to start a project, raise funding or get access to the market. The ‘permission system’ suffocates creativity, but it’s so pervasive that we can hardly imagine a different world. Yet it’s finally being dismantled, brick by brick, by the internet, and we’re all going to benefit.

Imagine you’re a bright young filmmaker with a brilliant idea for a new documentary. When you approach a broadcaster, you find that they’re only concentrating on five subject areas this year, so you change your idea accordingly. After some emails, you finally get to pitch your idea to a commissioner who tells you that they’re already making a similar show, so you’ll either have to wait a year or change it drastically. You opt to change it, trying to ignore the feeling that this is a mistake.

Now the commissioner likes your idea, but they’ll have to check what channel controller thinks. A week passes, and unfortunately it seems that your idea doesn’t fit within the channel’s strategic priorities, but you should definitely try again.

After a few rounds of this, you become good at guessing what commissioners will like, and following some dedicated networking, you discover what the channel priorities really are. You learn how to craft ideas that will have the right mix of buzz and relevancy and risk, and you’re rewarded with commissions. In short, you’ve become an expert at creating mediocre ideas to order.

I don’t mean to be hard on the TV industry. The few commissioners that I know are all good people who want to do a good job. But when you’re bombarded by dozens of ideas a week and you always need to get permission from your bosses, it’s safer to stick with tried and tested idea than taking a risk – after all, they don’t want to get fired.

The same story applies to every other industry where the cost of production has been high and the amount of ‘shelf space’ has been limited, whether for books or clothes or computer programmes. Back in the days where it used to cost a lot more to print a book or manufacture a new product and you could only fit so many into a shop, it made sense to be cautious and ensure that investments were made carefully; and since there were fewer people coming up with ideas, the ‘permission bottlenecks’ were also less of a problem.

But the world has changed. With new technology, the cost of producing consumer goods has plummeted; with the internet, we have unlimited shelf space; and with better education, we have billions of people who are capable of coming up with good ideas. Continue reading “We don’t need your permission any more”

A History of the Future in 100 Objects

Last year, I listened to a programme on Radio 4 called A History of the World in 100 Objects. It took 25 hours, or 1500 minutes.

In the show, the BBC and the British Museum attempted to describe the entire span of human history through 100 objects – from a 2 million year-old Olduvai stone cutting tool, to the Rosetta Stone, to a credit card from the present day. Instead of treating history in a tired, abstract way, the format of the show encouraged real energy and specificity; along with four million other listeners, I was riveted.

After the show ended, I immediately thought, “What are the next 100 objects going to be?”

Which 100 objects would future historians in 2100 use to sum up our century? A vat-grown steak? A Chinese flag from Mars? The first driverless car? Smart drugs that change the way we think? And beyond the science and technology, how would the next century change the way in which we live and work? What will families, countries, companies, religions, and nations look like, decades from now?

I couldn’t stop thinking about it – it was the perfect mix of speculation grounded in science fact and science fiction. So I’m creating a new blog called A History of the Future in 100 Objects. I’m going to try and answer those questions through a series of 100 posts, one for each object. Along the way, I want to create a podcast and a newspaper ‘from the future’, and when I’ve finished, I’ll put it all together as a book.


Before I begin, though, I’m raising money to help pay for the podcast and printing the newspapers and books, and I need your help.

If you visit my Kickstarter page, you can pledge money towards the project in return for all sorts of goodies, including getting copies of the newspaper and books.

(Kickstarter is a very neat way of funding projects through individual pledges. A creator – like me – sets up a project and a target amount, and only if the target is reached does any money get paid. So there’s no risk – if I don’t make the target, then you won’t get charged! Plus they take payments on credit cards from around the world, which is handy and much easier than messing about with PayPal).

I’m really excited about this project – it’s going to be the first book-length piece of writing I’ll have done, and it’s going to combine a lot of my experience from writing about science and technology and thinking about the future. It also touches on a big interest of mine, which is new modes of publishing: I toyed around with pitching the idea to a publisher first, but I want to see how far I can get with the community’s help (that’s you!).

So, if you’re interested in the project, please check out the Kickstarter page and support it – even just a single dollar is really helpful! And if you know anyone who might be interested, please pass the word on.

It’s a brave new world out there – let’s see what’s going to happen…

iPhone 4: The Last Mobile Phone

The iPhone 4 may be the last major advance in mobile phones we’ll ever see. There’ll still be plenty of incremental and useful improvements, but it’s hard to see what kind of attention-grabbing features are left:

  • The Retina screen, at 326 pixels per inch, approaches the limits of human vision; it’s the end of the line for these kinds of displays. The iPhone could do better outdoors, but that doesn’t seem to have been a particularly successful selling point for eInk; and they could go 3D, but I’m not convinced that consumers even want that (not that it’d be too hard anyway).
  • Battery life is now about 10 hours; we’d all be happy if it was longer, but most people have gotten used to recharging their phones every night, so improvements beyond a day or two are not big selling points.
  • Network speed and reliability absolutely could be better, but this is an issue for network operators, not manufacturers like Apple. No doubt when the next super-fast standard (LTE) is widespread, we’ll see a new chip dropped into every phone. So what? It’s still the same phone.
  • At last, the iPhone has two cameras, and the main camera performs very nicely, with good 5MP photos (I always laugh when I hear people boasting about their 8MP mobile phones, given that their photos always end up on Facebook) and 720p HD video. I don’t see many people clamouring for 1080p video.
  • GPS, digital compass and a gyroscope are all built-in now – what more do you need? Unless the Galileo navigation satellites offer significant improvements over GPS for consumer applications, I think we’re at the end of the line here as well.
  • While it’d be nice if you could roll up the iPhone, or it was as thin as a credit card, we’re approaching the point of diminishing returns here. It’s not as if it’s busting anyone’s pockets any more.
  • Speed: Again, diminishing returns – it takes me only a few seconds to load up most apps. With iOS 4’s ‘multitasking’, switching between commonly-used apps is almost instant. Having said that, I’m sure we’ll see dual-core processors at some point and people will get all excited about the battery life improvements and apps taking only two seconds to load instead of three.

You can quibble about the details – maybe I’m wrong about battery life or processor speed – but I don’t see any major technological advances over the horizon that Apple – or any other company – can use as a killer feature. The iPhone 5 and iPhone 6 will be faster, longer-lasting, thinner and lighter, but they’ll still be basically the same. They won’t have three cameras, or ultra-HD video, or a 6″ screen, or a month-long battery. There won’t be much at all that distinguishes the iPhone from the top-of-the-range Android phones*, which will be quick to catch up; and more importantly, there won’t be much that distinguishes the iPhone 6 from the iPhone 7 (certainly not the screen, unless it goes 3D).

In other words, we’ve reached the ultimate destination of hand-held communication devices with displays – that is, mobile phones. It’s not going to get any better than this.

*Other than iOS, of course, which will continue to improve, along with the apps. But how important will the new hardware be for achieving this?

What’s Next?

With the mobile phone reaching a plateau, Apple will have to look elsewhere in order to make the advances in user experience that consumers will pay enormous amounts of cash for. The iPad is one area, the Apple TV is another. But what of personal communication devices?

Apple patent application for 3D viewing glasses

There are some promising candidates, such as subvocalisation tech and the long-awaited augmented reality glasses (which Apple has been researching since at least 2008). Both would promise major improvements in communication, work, and entertainment, but I have yet to see good demonstrations of either tech in practice.


Without them, it’s unlikely that they’re ready for market – remember that the iPod was far from being the first personal MP3 player, and the iPhone was certainly not the first smartphone. Perhaps Apple has some ultra-secret tech up their sleeves, with Foxconn factories just waiting to spin into action – but that’s just a fantasy. Just look how difficult it is to make an iPad, let alone laser-based computer glasses.

It looks like we’re going to spend a few years in limbo between mobile phones and whatever comes next. Good job Apple has the iPad to tide it over.