Start the Week explores the digital future

Listen on Monday morning to Radio 4: you’ll find the wild and wonderful writer Nick Harkaway, design guru Anab Jain, business expert Charles Arthur and myself discussing the digital future with Andrew Marr.

Arc, New Scientist’s new digital quarterly of futures and science fiction, regularly darkens the hand towels at Anab’s outfit Superflux as we prepare a year of events, interventions, pop-up surprises and generally making things up. Nick Harkaway, on the other hand – well, you’ll have to wait till Monday to find out what we’re up to with him. Even Charles Arthur is formerly of the New Scientist (and the Independent, during Andrew Marr’s stint there in the late 1990s).

I think some of this lack-of-separation set alarm bells ringing somewhere because the show’s producer rang us all beforehand telling us not to be nice to each other. (Face to face, it’s the obvious thing to do; on air, it’s an excruciating waste of the listener’s time.)

This got me thinking about how we behave on different media. Susan Greenfield’s belief that we’re all going to hell in a handcart because of our love of new media has become the stuff of parody and legend; still, she’s on to something. We learn to behave differently as we engage through different media; we develop new responses, new forms of interaction – even new ethical codes. Not all of these have to be pretty.

It’s a stalwart reader – or an obtuse one – who takes much comfort from Charles Arthur’s new book Digital Wars: Apple, Google, Microsoft and the Battle for the Internet. The pace at which the digital economy is deskilling the workforce is breathtaking: the very idea of “digital commerce” is being called into question as the number of serious players on the web falls toward single figures. The internet doesn’t like democracy. The internet doesn’t want to be free. The internet wants to be a vertical monopoly. It wants to be Hollywood, circa 1930. Or, just possibly, something worse.

Nick Harkaway thinks we can still harness this grinning Stalinist golem to our own humble, human needs. The Blind Giant: Being Human in a Digital World is his attempt to resuscitate the idea of the internet as a civic space. Myself, I think the tide is against him, but he makes a hell of a splash.

Anab is a designer, entrepreneur, TED Fellow and founder of Superflux, a multidisciplinary design company. (I guess you need a CV of that sort if you want to be profiled in both Popular Science and Marie Claire.) It’s Superflux’s job to realise ideas about the future in props, videos, stories and working models. Superflux designs everything from mechanical bees to prosthetic vision systems for the blind, seeing these concepts through from drawing board to real-world trials. Anab is upfront about the fact that her work is provocative. It might not be a great idea to let the world’s bee population go hang and rely instead on synthetic pollinators. “But the technology that could allow this is waiting to happen. If we don’t create these experience prototypes and stories, it’s difficult for us to fully interrogate the technology before it’s out in the world.”

I don’t think it’s any accident that, as we try to imagine our digital future, we reach, not just for stories, not just for opinions, but also for props, for things we can handle; for toys, basically. “Futurism” is a very serious-sounding idea; yet 99 per cent of the job is – has to be – play.