Future Tense

Future Tense Newsletter: Make the Future Great Again

A hand holds a crystal ball in front of a beach sunrise or sunset.
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Politics are in the air, like that ominous reddish glow suffocating much of the West in recent weeks on account of all those tragic wild fires.

This coming week we get our first presidential debate. Finally. A chance for Donald Trump and Joe Biden to shake hands and have a respectful, reasoned exchange of views on the future of the unfairly maligned Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act; the need to reform the Stored Communications Act; the wisdom of replicating Europe’s General Data Privacy Regulation; the merits of taking antitrust action against Google for its manipulation of search results or against Amazon for its treatment of third-party sellers on its platform. Maybe we will even see the candidates reflect humbly on humanity’s place in the universe, in light of the breaking news from Venus.

A man can hope. But yes, it’s unlikely. The debate will probably be all tense, no future—maybe not as heated as a debate between 2016 Lindsey Graham and 2020 Lindsey Graham, but close.

I read back through several presidential debate transcripts from recent cycles, planning to share with you some of the highlights of past exchanges around pressing technology issues … And so, um, anyone heard about Venus?

To be fair, Bill Clinton did talk a lot about building a bridge to the 21st century, and how connecting all schools to the internet was part of the effort. Sadly, hackneyed as his bridge mantra became, that’s a standout from the past quarter-century.

I realize it would be unrealistic for us to expect a nuanced presidential debate about how technology is transforming society, or how government can best foster continued innovation. But it is entirely legitimate to expect a constructive, inspiring, articulation of a proposed future that we can rally behind.

This, I worry, has been one of the victims of our increasingly polarized, destructive politics: the future. Our political discourse keeps shrinking, turning inward and backward—a politics of nostalgia, a fight over what needs to be restored. We need to figure out how to place the future back at the forefront of our politics, how to make it great again. Sell me a bridge to somewhere, anywhere, beyond the specter of post-Election Day litigation.

Then again, there are those who feel like politics themselves have become obsolete and redundant. My former New America colleague Fuzz Hogan used to joke that we should avoid the hassle of voting and instead cede our decision-making to a collective AI of those who know us best: Twitter, Facebook, Google, Amazon, etc. The composite of you known to them could seamlessly make a choice for you, which might be more representative of your views and interests than what you come up with yourself when filling the ballot, especially when you consider how much more informed the A.I. would be about those pesky down-ballot choices.

In “The State Machine,” our Future Tense Fiction story published today, Sri Lankan author Yudhanjaya Wijeratne portrays a future in which an all-knowing A.I. governs for us. What’s refreshing about Yudha’s story is that he doesn’t just posit this “State Machine” as a finished product in some distant future—he sketches the development of the A.I. by having the story’s protagonist be a grad student working on a thesis about the A.I.’s development from its early days as a video game, and the many iterations that followed. Echoing Fuzz’s office banter about how Google might know you better than you do, the State Machine in Yudha’s story is “infinitely smarter than those who think they control it.” Though a façade of political activity endures for the sake of appearances, the State Machine has essentially rendered politics obsolete because it “takes the input of public opinion and produces an output of corresponding laws and policies.”

At one point in the story, an estranged couple dwell on this uncomfortable realization: “Neither of us see as much as the State Machine does; to each other we are just idealized versions of ourselves, projections, half-lies and half-truths, not the real data trail we all leave behind.”

What is most refreshing about Yudha’s remarkable story is how it breaks from the usual, slave-or-master robot dichotomy. But I won’t give away the ultimate plot twist. Read the story, and then our response essay, written by machine learning expert S.B. Divya.

More from the recent past of Future Tense:

Future Tense Recommends

If you’re looking for a unique sci-fi series, I highly recommend HBO’s Raised by Wolves, a visually original and deeply imaginative story of a nascent human colony. The series offers a fresh angle on the future dominance of artificial intelligence. It’s not always comfortable, but part of its allure lies in its refusal to give the audience an unambiguous protagonist.—Jamie Holmes, Future Tense fellow and author of 12 Seconds of Silence: How a Team of Inventors, Tinkerers, and Spies Took Down a Nazi Superweapon

Wish We’d Published This

Presidential campaigns have always gone to great lengths to secure the nominations of all sorts of power brokers, but this year more than ever online influencers feel a lot more valuable as validators than a union boss or a governor. And trying to influence the influencers from your Delaware basement feels like peak pandemic politics, which is why I appreciated Rebecca Heilweil’s report for Vox Recode’s Open Sourced project on the Biden campaign’s social media effort.

What Next TBD

This week on Slate’s technology podcast, guest host Celeste Headlee talks to Paul Offit, co-inventor of a rotavirus vaccine and member of the FDA’s vaccine advisory committee, about why a COVID-19 vaccine won’t be the end of the pandemic. Last week, Celeste spoke with Abrahm Lustgarten, senior reporter at ProPublica, about the coming great climate migration.

Zoom on Over

On Wednesday, shake off your presidential debate hangover by joining Future Tense at noon Eastern for an engaging conversation on one of the topics Joe and Don should grapple with, but probably won’t: whether we’re losing the promise of one, global internet.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.