The world in April 2023
In 2011, my near-future science fiction novel Redcrosse came out. The action was set in 2023, which is just a few short months from now. How clear was my vision?
By Brad Berens
Last week at a film festival, I was trapped in an endless concessions queue that (bonus!) doubled as an internet dead zone. After I had exhausted small talk with my fellow prisoners (“Wow, long line.” “This is going to take a while…” “Yeah…”), I dug around in the Kindle app on my phone for something to read.
I alighted on Redcrosse, the near-future science fiction dystopia I wrote that came out in 2011. It had been some years since I visited that world and that place in my head. In the intervening time two things happened: first, I could read it without focusing only on the things that I’d change. Second, the story of Redcrosse starts on April 27, 2023, which is just 10 months from now. Gulp. Yikes. Zoinks. But wait…
I had a scorecard! I could see how right and wrong I’d been in my predictions about where life in this country was headed. Hence, this column.
Background: In Redcrosse, credit cards and health insurance companies had merged. Visa and Blue Shield became Visa/Shield, etc. The U.S. was cash poor, so for subscribers every economic transaction was tracked. If you had high cholesterol and bought a pepperoni pizza, your insurance premium shot up. This was surveillance capitalism years before Shoshana Zuboff’s celebrated book about it.
That world was bedeviled by nine CyberPlagues—allergies or total intolerances of technologies like electromagnetic fields or processed foods. The plagues made the health insurance/credit card companies even more powerful because if you lost your coverage, you were screwed. The fast-paced, action-packed plot was about a murder, a coverup, and a subsequent investigation by two reluctant investigators with huge consequences for the entire nation.
I had the inspiration for Redcrosse on a train from Norwich to London in the summer of 1997. That first glimmer was a chase scene that happened both in real life (IRL) and online. It became a key action sequence.
What I got right
How pandemics change everything. Although COVID isn’t about tech allergies, our pandemic and the CyberPlagues have the same shape. Both became the most important topic in their worlds for years. Both resulted in increased economic polarization between people with insurance and people without insurance. In both worlds, a lack of clarity about how you can protect yourself and others from infection created both conflicts among people and free-floating hopelessness.
Absolute data corrupts absolutely. The health insurance/credit card companies both compete and collaborate in a tech-driven oligarchy where citizens neither own nor control their own data and have no leverage. The information asymmetries are incalculable. Sound familiar?
Cryptofinance. With no trust that the banks and credit card companies have the best interests of their customers in mind, in Redcrosse, a new collection of cryptobanks emerged where people can store their money and—more importantly—their data in secure and privacy-focused ways. The First Navajo Sovereign Cooperative Cryptobank is where another key action sequence in the book takes place.
Where I was early…
Augmented reality, voice interfaces, and Personal Area Networks (PANs). Computers in Redcrosse are tiny, even smaller than today’s smartphones. People wear gadgets in their ears so they can chat with their computers, like AirPods but smaller. They see digital information on “floppy monitors” that they spread out in front of them, or by using high-tech glasses (like what Apple and others are creating), or A.R. contact lenses. Some people get small RFID chips implanted into their fingertips so they can type on virtual keyboards. We’ll inch closer to these things by April of 2023, but we won’t have arrived.
Self-driving cars. One of the main characters drives a Lexus when he feels like it, but the car does most of the driving and all of the parking. This is true of everybody wealthy enough to afford a car. We’re closer in 2022 than we have been at any previous time to fully autonomous vehicles, but they ain’t here yet.
What I got wrong
Who does the surveillance. In 1997 when I started work on Redcrosse, Google didn’t exist. Facebook didn’t come around until 2004. So I had the credit card companies as the data oligarchs.
Cryptobanks vs. cryptocurrencies. The Cryptobanks were alternatives to conventional banks in Redcrosse, but they were still banks—organizations with branches IRL and online that took advantage of their not-controlled-by-the-Federal government status (the way Native American casinos do today). I didn’t foresee the totally decentralized (and troubled) world of cryptocurrencies built on blockchains. (I did however, imagine something blockchain-esque called “data spreading.”)
Social media. Today, large numbers of people spend huge amounts of time interacting online, and online dating is critical to how people meet their future partners. While there were bulletin boards and online communities in Redcrosse, there were no centralized platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, LinkedIn, TikTok, or Twitter. Revisiting Redcrosse today, the absence of social media is quaint… and a bit refreshing.
When I give keynote talks at conferences, I often talk about how nouns are ephemeral but verbs are forever. Behavior is liquid. You can pour it from one container into another more easily than you can create or destroy it. Organizations often confuse nouns and verbs. Taxi companies thought they were in the business of buying and deploying yellow-painted cars, until Uber came along. Kodak thought it was in the business of pictures on film, until digital cameras and later smartphones came along. But we still need to go from place to place, and people take more pictures today than ever before.
With Redcrosse, I got a lot of the verbs right (what was going to change) and a lot of the nouns wrong (who was going to make those changes).
Today, looking back 11 years after publication and 25 years after inspiration, Redcrosse has morphed from a prediction about the near future to an alternative future that might have happened but didn’t.
There’s are big differences between making predictions based on proprietary trend data, like I do with the Center for the Digital Future, and making predictions based on a set of “what if” questions that form the narrative engine for a science fiction novel. With the novel, I got to live in a new world for an extended period of time and see how it really works.
I don’t know when I’ll write another science fiction novel (the book about Shakespeare as a business genius is first in line right now), but I’ll never stop thinking about the future.
P.S. If any of this piece has moved you to read Redcrosse, it’s currently free on Kindle Unlimited, cheap as an eBook if you don’t subscribe to Kindle Unlimited, and expensive as a paperback.
Brad Berens is the Center’s strategic advisor and a senior research fellow. He is principal at Big Digital Idea Consulting. You can learn more about Brad at www.bradberens.com, follow him on Twitter, and subscribe to his weekly newsletter (only some of his columns are syndicated here).
See all columns from the Center.
July 7, 2022