Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Stross on imagining 2016

Charlie Stross is a talented science fiction writer. Here he writes about what it's like to to imagine the world of 2016 - merely 10 years ahead. Emphases mine.
Charlie's Diary: Thoughts from the coal face

... The near future is frustratingly like the present, only different. I'm surrounded by electronics and media today that would have been bizarre and exotic back in 1986, never mind 1976 — but I'm still basically sitting in an office chair at a desk, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, typing away with some rock'n'roll on the stereo. Difference from 1996: there's a download going, the progress bar is ticking away tens of megabytes instead of tens of kilobytes, and the music's playing via streaming MP3s rather than CDs. Difference from 1996: back then, the word processor had a green screen and a 10Mb hard disk, and the music was playing on cassette tape. But the organizing parameters were the same — this is a writer in his study writing. How do you signal that the story is set ten years in the future, without succumbing to spurious futurism?

6. History inserts itself into our lives, seamlessly. When did you last get through a day without hearing some kind of off-hand reference to 9/11 or the Iraq war? Kids these days are learning about Margaret Thatcher in history lessons at school. In ten years time there'll be some other iceberg-like intrusion of History into the zeitgeist: the question is, what? (My money's on something energy or environment related, and big.)

7. Trying to get into the head of a 28-year-old British professional circa 2016 — the people this novel is about — is an interesting exercise, even though people of this generation are easy enough to track down right now: the trouble is, if I ask them questions now, I'm asking a bunch of 18 year olds. Whereas what I'm interested in is what they'll be thinking when they're 28 ...

You were one year old when the Cold War ended. You were thirteen when the war on terror broke out, and eighteen or nineteen when Tony Blair was forced to resign as Prime Minister. You graduated university owing £35,000 in student loans, at a time when the price of entry into the housing market in the UK was over £150,000 (about 4-5 times annual income; the typical age of first time buyers was 35 and rising by more than 12 months per year). Unless you picked the right career (and a high-earning one at that) you can't expect to ever own your own home unless your parents die and leave you one. On the other hand, you can reasonably expect to work until you're 70-75, because the pension system is a broken mess. The one ray of hope was that your health and life expectancy are superior to any previous generation — you can reasonably expect to live to over a hundred years, if you manage to avoid succumbing to diseases of affluence.

For comparison, when I graduated university in 1986, I had no student loans, first homes cost £30,000— or about 2-2.5 times annual income — and the retirement age was 60-65. So it should be no surprise if the generation of 1988 has very different expectations of their future life from the generation of 1964.

8. Agatha Christie once said, "when I was young I never expected to be so poor that I couldn't afford a servant, or so rich that I could afford a motor car." Yet these were the prevailing parameters from 1945 to the present. I might equally well say that when I was eighteen I never expected to be so poor I couldn't afford a four bedroom house, or so rich that I could afford a computer. What terms of reference will these people use to define their relative affluence and poverty? Motor cars and domestic robots? (Too facile.) Children and immortality treatment? (Too crudely obvious.) Privacy and ubiquity? (Too abstract.) ...

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