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Journalist Rose Eveleth Imagines Future Worlds In New Book

NOEL KING, HOST:

Imagine a world where global warming has caused sea levels to rise so high that some of us live underwater or a world run by artificial intelligence where there are some big benefits and also some huge drawbacks. Rose Eveleth is a journalist who covers the future in her podcast, "Flash Forward." I talked to her about her new book of comics and essays in which she imagines some future possible worlds.

ROSE EVELETH: It's really important to be realistic about the future. You know, I often joke that the ways in which "Flash Forward" operates is kind of showing you the futures we don't want and the futures that we do want because, you know, it's sort of a classic problem. If you don't know what you're working against, if you don't know what could happen on the dark side, it's hard to really get energized to make that not happen, right? And this is the function of dystopian fiction throughout history - right? - to sort of say like, hey, if we keep going this way or we make these certain decisions, it might not actually be as good as you want. It might not be the world that you want to live in. And so that's kind of the function to me of some of these dystopian comics. It's not saying - you know, I'm not in the business of predictions. None of the things in the book or on the show are things I think are definitely going to happen. It's more about thinking through, OK, if we make this choice, what happens? And if we make that choice, what happens?

KING: Let's talk about one of the comics called "Welcome To Tomorrowville" by Ben Passmore. He's the artist. So the setup is there is a couple. They live together. We assume maybe they're married and the mom of one of them is visiting. We assume that she's in her 60s or 70s. She doesn't really like technology. And there's a very clever thing that Ben does, which is he has one of the men say she's a millennial. She didn't grow up with smart cities like we did. So we know that this is some time - I mean, I am a millennial. I'm thinking, like, this is probably 20, 30 years in the future. Tell me about this essay because there was a lot in it that definitely reminded me of the world we're in now.

EVELETH: Yeah, smart cities are a thing that if you are a technology reporter like me, you get pitched all the time, right? And it raises so many questions. Like, what does it mean to be smart? Smart for who? You know, who gets to decide what smartness is in the context of a city? Is it just sort of interconnected streetlights or is it this bigger sort of surveillance state thing? And there's lots of ways that the smart city can be interesting and useful and helpful to people and also ways in which it can be pretty dark. You know, Ben's comic gets into the ways in which certain kinds of surveillance work really great for certain people and not so great for other people and what happens when you get accidentally tagged as, you know, dangerous or as a threat to this city by these systems. And this is a thing that we know happens, right? There's lots and lots of evidence that facial recognition systems, for example, you know, see Black faces worse than they see white faces, right? We know this from a vast body of evidence.

And then kind of thinking through what does that mean when you apply a technology like that to an entire city - right? - and it's all connected and it can track you wherever you go. And, you know, sometimes that's nice. There are some things in that comic that talk about the ways in which that can improve the lives of some people and it can make things more convenient and it can make things better or faster or more efficient. But at what cost and who wins in those systems is kind of the big questions at that chapter and that comic asks.

KING: As somebody who's been studying the future for a long time, do you have an answer to that rhetorical question, who tends to win when it comes to the future?

EVELETH: You know, I think that the most obvious answer is the people with power, right? People with power tend to be able to set what happens and tend to set the - at least the terms of the conversation at the very least. That could be political power, that could be financial power, that could be sort of socioeconomic status. It could be all sorts of things. But one of the things that I really hope to do in my work in the book and the show is to kind of remind people that you are not Jeff Bezos, right? Probably. Unless you are and you're listening. I don't know (laughter).

KING: Well, he might be.

EVELETH: Right.

(LAUGHTER)

EVELETH: But the average person - right? - doesn't have that kind of power. And it would be foolish to say, like, you alone can, you know, make the future or whatever. But there are actually things that we can do and the smart city is actually a great example. You know, a bunch of folks in Toronto were able to stop Alphabet, which is Google's parent company, from installing a smart city system that they thought did not serve the community. And they were able to make that happen. Now, technically, the official reason that Google didn't do it or Alphabet didn't end up doing it was pandemic related. But I think sort of everyone agrees that there were some other things going on there. And I think that those kinds of stories are really useful because, you know, even if you can't single-handedly set the course of the future, all of us have something that we can do. And there's always a way to get involved in sort of imagining better futures and making them happen.

KING: Rose Eveleth is host of the podcast "Flash Forward" and author of the new book, "Flash Forward: An Illustrated Guide To Possible (And Not So Possible) Tomorrows." Rose, thanks so much. This was really fun.

EVELETH: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF KETTEL'S "QUICKPIG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.