Collective Fiction: Introduction
We cannot make a future until we can imagine it, and fictions play a huge role in defining and expanding the range of possible solutions to our problems and directions of development.
In October 2015 Nesta, which publishes The Long + Short, and The Human Mind Project (THMP) ran an all-day workshop on The Roots of Collective Intelligence with speakers including Robin Dunbar, known for his pioneering research on social connections between humans, and Colin Blakemore, Interdisciplinary Neuroscience and Philosophy Chair at the School of Advanced Study of the University of London, who leads the THMP.
The discussions were hugely productive for those in the room (roundups of the talks can be found here, and blogs on the topic here). But they also left questions; how do we live with these ideas, what impact might developments in collective intelligence have on our society, our work, our everyday connections in future?
We asked academics to collaborate with science fiction writers to develop short stories that explored these ideas and the real impact of collective intelligence, of human lives embedded in deeper, faster networks, of interactions with more powerful and uncanny machine intelligences. We hope that by developing these ideas in stories we provide alternative routes into our academics' ambitious and intriguing research, and shine some light on possible roads forward, as we attempt to imagine and plan for a strange future.
– Lydia Nicholas, Senior Researcher, Collective Intelligence, Nesta
More in this series:
By Tim Maughan
It's not often JC has a white girl get in his van, especially not this far along Flatbush. Maybe up near Barclays, sure, when it's raining hard and it's late and they're coming out of a gig and don't want to get soaked walking a few blocks home. But not here, deep in the 'hood, and not at 7.30 in the morning. Pretty much everyone he's picked up at the last three corners were his regulars; nannies from Jamaica and the Islands, all heading up to Park Slope and Prospect Heights, all gotta get there before the white folks they work for head into Manhattan, all riding his van because their immigration status is dubious and they can't risk the subway cameras recognising their faces.
Maybe that's what's up with this white girl, maybe her immigration status is all fucked up too. Not his to ask, none of his business. He just smiles at her and says, "Hey baby girl," and she smiles back from under her long, black hooded cloak as she drops two bucks in the bucket like everybody else. None of his business.
It's still kinda weird though, he thinks, as he watches her apologetically squeeze into a seat next to one of the nannies, her white face lit by the screen-glare of the OLED panel in the headrest of the seat in front of her, pale skin shaded blue and gold by tropical surf and sand. It's not like there's no white folks in East Flatbush these days – when he was a kid coming up round here they were rare, like they wouldn't even come down here because they were so scared, but then rents got so stupid in the rest of Brooklyn that some of them got forced out of all the other neighbourhoods. Pretty soon the rents were getting stupid here too, and the chicken places and the hair salons were giving way to coffee shops and artisan bakeries. Now hordes of white people come spilling out the buildings as he drives down Flatbush Ave every morning, clutching their phones and their coffees, swarming down into the subway entrances, the rich ones pausing on the kerb as the driverless Ubers and Googles instantly pull out of traffic to pick them up. None of them ride the dollar vans. In fact, just about most of them don't even seem to see him, they just look right past him, some occasionally making fleeting, confused eye contact as he stops at a light to let them cross, surprised to see a human behind the wheel.
JC pulls away from the kerb, the whole van pulsing with dancehall bass, detuned 808 kicks and reverb-soaked airhorn hits synched to the bikini-clad dancers flickering across the screens. There are over 20 vans running this route now, but JC's is the best known. The one that sticks out in the traffic, the one people head for when a bunch of them hit an intersection at the same time. Not like the vans are hard to spot anyway, the roads swamped with cookie-cut cloned robot cabs, but his doesn't look like some delivery boy's ride or some plumber's truck. People see him weave through the algorithmically controlled traffic like a clownfish through a school of grey snapper. They feel the bass coming, see the animated GIF party flyers the local promoters pay him to cover the van's doors with; red, gold and green text and the airbrushed faces of island stars looping across palm tree silhouettes on glossy e-paper.
The fake-Gucci spex on his dashboard buzz angrily, and he picks them up and slips them onto his face. Data fills the space around him, the spex already signed into the illicit CopWatchWiki space. Text chat between over van drivers, call outs from corner hustlers, shouts from the ticket scalpers down at the Barclay's centre. Everyone that needs to do business in south Brooklyn without – let's put it this way – unwanted attention from NYPD jacked in and sharing what they're seeing, the wiki's unseen bots constantly beavering away to build an ever-shifting map of police movements across the borough. JC is subscribed to a bunch of alerts and it's one that's making his spex growl at him now, a crisp red icon bouncing in the sky just above the horizon, eight blocks ahead where Atlantic crosses Flatbush. He blinks at it and it unravels into more details; windows of text-speak slang and spex-cam footage. Sitting in the shadows of downtown Brooklyn's forest of luxury condo towers a van full of the city's finest, slurping Doughnut Plant coffee and leaning against hastily erected plastic barriers like sloppy, third rate gangsters. JC sucks his teeth. Impromptu roving checkpoint. Pulling vehicles with human drivers. Tactical precautionary anti-terror operations. Threat level: elevated. Bumbaclats.
He blinks through menus to check his options, huge translucent arrows materialising in the air in front of the van, the road below him pulsing red to show alternative routes. He sighs. His papers are actually all in order, his private bus permit – as hard as they are to get these days – up to date and sat right there in the glove box. But stopping will be a pain in the ass, lose him time, put the undocumented ladies in the back through some unnecessary hassle. Depending how deep these cops wanna go with their bullshit checks, it could get nasty. The customer always comes first.
He takes a hard left, cutting across two lanes of traffic, knowing it'll all come to a perfect, algorithmically judged stop just in time to let him through. Robotic reactions ensure no collisions as he veers across Atlantic. The van skids and the nannies slide across pleather seats. Teeth are sucked, air is exhaled, someone cusses him out in creole.
"It's okay ladies, it's okay ladies, just a little detour," he says loudly but reassuringly over the synthesised reggae throb. "JC going to get you to work on time, nice and easy." Through the rear view mirror he winks at the white girl and she smiles back at him, eyes twinkling blue like Montego Bay rock pools. Cute.
It's not often Guang has a white girl get in his van, especially not when he's heading into Manhattan. This one got in outside the Trader Joe's on Court, which is basically the last stop before the bridge, and that just makes no sense to him. Why'd she want to get a van over the bridge from here? She could jump on a 2 train and be uptown in minutes. Quicker than he can get her there, especially at 8 in the morning. Makes no damn sense for her at all.
You say Chinatown to most people, even most New Yorkers, and they think downtown Manhattan. Truth is – and hell, Guang himself didn't know this when he first got here – there's a whole bunch of Chinatowns. That's his van run, linking them all together. He kicks off in Brooklyn at the one down in Sunset Park, then straight up and over the Manhattan bridge to the big one, then back again over the Williamsburg bridge and the two in Queens: Elmhurst, and and then all the way up to Flushing. The Fujian Express, he calls it. He almost never picks up white people, no blacks or latinos either for that matter. Just Chinese. Restaurant workers, cleaners, laundry staff. Kids that work minimal hustling fake bags, watches and spex on Canal. Sad, tired looking girls making 20 bucks a day doing nails in the salons in SoHo and the Village. They ride with him because it's cheap, because most of them don't speak or read enough English to work out the MTA, and because the second they step through one of those turnstiles their face will be in the system, and it'll follow them everywhere they go, and then it's just a matter of time until Immigration catches up with them. He knows, he's seen it happen – shouting in the street, hammering on doors, red and blue lights through his windows at 4am.
Plus they ride with him because he's quick. He can get you from Manhattan to Flushing in less than 40 minutes – that's half the time the subway takes, even if all the trains line up for you, you know exactly where to swap, and where to wait on each platform to make the quickest connections. The Fujian Express runs direct, no messing about.
Plus beyond that he's also just quick. Like, fast. The fastest van on the route. Always pushing the speed limits, always weaving in and out of the robot traffic, always one step ahead of the game. Like every other van driver he's always got one retina tuned into the CopWatchWiki, but he's got a little extra secret advantage that keeps him a few moves ahead. A little black box of illicit electronics taped under the dashboard and 'toothed to his spex. Something his cousin brought him back from Shenzhen last year – the counterfeit brains of a Google cab squeezed into an old Samsung smartphone case, an illegal node in an inhuman network. With it, he can see things only the driverless cars can see – crossing signals changing two intersections from now, lanes slowing six blocks ahead, traffic patterns morphing in real time two boroughs away. He can see when an MTA bus pulls out into traffic, when a fire truck is going to plough down a one-way, and when some kid's ball bounces into the road. It's a lot of data – the shared knowledge of a city's worth of robot cars, pushed into his eyeballs as a barrage of numbers, geometries, and LIDAR scans – more than he can take in, but over the months he's learned what to watch and what to ignore, to ride it, to understand the shifting patterns. Plus when he gets up to Queens it starts to thin out to almost nothing – there's no data where the robot cars don't go. Sometimes it feels like him and his passengers live in a different city: an unknown, economic no-go zone for the robots, devoid of fares and valuable data, a city they don’t even see is there.
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By now they're hurtling into Manhattan, Guang weaving in and out of automated traffic as the sun strobes through the geometry of the bridge’s towers and cables. Ahead of them the skyline rises, the island so densely populated with architecture that it looks like the tallest skyscrapers are forcing the smaller ones into the sea, like bullies making room for themselves in a crowd. He's just cutting up a self-driving FedEx fan – the jolt of it applying its brakes waking a dozing human assistant long enough to give him the finger – when his spex buzz. CopWatch this time – someone up ahead on the bridge has tagged three drones watching the traffic. Shit. He just has time to swap lanes again and kill his speed to something respectable before they loom up above him, three chunks of unlikely floating infrastructure, hanging from six rotorblades each, tethered to petrol-powered generators at the sides of the bridge. They look like grotesque balloons at a kid's birthday party, Guang thinks suddenly, and as he passes underneath one of them he can see its belly is a mess of twitching, parasitic cameras, directional mikes, and chemical sniffers. The third one hovers lower, over the middle of the bridge, a large flat LED sign hanging from its underside, messages scrolling across it in large, yellow-on-black, dot-matrix lettering:
ANTI-TERROR SURVEILLANCE CHECKPOINT
THREAT LEVEL: ELEVATED – BE AWARE OF SUSPICIOUS ACTIVITY
NYPD TACTICAL OPERATIONS
IF YOU SEE SOMETHING – SAY SOMETHING
Guang wonders what's up. CopWatchWiki has been lit up with reports of terror checkpoints all morning, Manhattan and Brooklyn pulsing like a Christmas tree. He laughs to himself. Security theatre bullshit, most likely. NYPD throwing their weight around, pretending they still have as much control over movement around the city as Google and Uber, reminding everyone they're still here.
For some reason though, he glances in the mirror and back at that white girl he picked up at court, squeezed in between the nail girls. She's pulled her hood down over her face, hiding her pale skin and blue eyes from the drone cameras. Guang focuses back on the road, the bridge dropping down into the forest of buildings, the data pouring in through his spex. Makes no sense, her getting a ride from him. No damn sense at all.
It's not often Jorge has a white girl get in his van, but he's damn pleased to see her there. That's what he's talking about, that's what he's been telling everyone. See? When he started this route on his own everyone told him he was crazy, everyone was like "Who wants to get a dollar van from downtown to Williamsburg? You crazy man. Nah."
But Jorge is a business man. He knows his markets. He does his market research.
See, Williamsburg used to be the hippest hood in all Brooklyn, where all those trendy white kids hung out. It still is, to some extent. But that was like – what ten, twelve – years ago now? Now all them hipster kids have grown up. The ones that could afford to stay when the rents went crazy, well they've all got proper jobs now, and kids of their own. And if there's one thing you need to know about New York, it's that where there's rich white folks with jobs and kids, there's work for everyone else. Nannies. Cleaners. Maids. So he spends a lot of time running blacks and Latinos from south Brooklyn and up in Harlem and the Bronx into Williamsburg and Greenpoint to look after white people's kids and clean their homes and offices. Most of them without the proper papers or funds to ride the subway. "That's how the city works," he tells people. "Segregation. People can't live where they work no more. Means you always gotta be finding where they need to go, and take 'em there. That's just business."
But that's not all. Jorge has got something else in his business plan. He figures there's white folks wanting to make the same run too. White kids that want to work in Williamsburg but can't afford to live their either. White kids working the gig economy, doing freelance work, zero hours contractors. Kids bidding online everyday for a few hours work as coders, designers, couriers, baristas, bar staff. Kids that need to be running in and out of Williamsburg and Manhattan all day but can't afford to be wasting any of the precious little dollar they make on MTA passes. "It's a whole new demographic, see?" he tells people. "Whole new business model. You gotta find where people want to go, and take 'em there."
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Well, that's the plan anyway. It's early days still. Business is slow – like today he's just got this white girl and a couple of office cleaning guys – but it's picking up. He needs to fine-tune the route, figure out what works best. What he really wants is to run a van up and down the middle of Brooklyn, direct line between the south and Williamsburg, because that's just a huge gaping hole the MTA can't fill without building more subway lines and there's never going to be more money for that. But he can't get the permit to run that, try as he might. Why? Because the city is corrupt man, totally on the make, taking backhanders from Google and Uber because both of them know that's their prime route in Brooklyn, that's the money ma…
Jorge turns a corner and slams on his brakes. Cops. Road block. NYPD Tactical Operations. His heart sinks.
Did not see that coming, no warning at all. CopWatchWiki ain't worth shit up here in these affluent neighbourhoods. Apart from a few graffiti artists and weed dealers ain't nobody posting to the wiki round here, and all those guys are still in bed at this time of the morning.
Two cops come over and make their way to each side, one tapping on Jorge's window. He winds it down.
"What’s this, dollar van?" he asks him. The other cop is staring through the windows on the other side, scanning the passengers through his Oakley spex.
"Where you going?"
"Williamsburg, Greenpoint. Then back into Manhattan."
"Really?" The cops seems incredulous. "I never heard that route. Frank, you heard this route before? Into Williamsburg?"
"It's new," says Jorge.
"You got a permit?"
"Si. Sure." Jorge reaches into his glove box, pulls out his permit card. Hands it to the cop, who stares at it for a while, scanning barcodes on it with his spex. He shakes his head.
"I dunno. This is all new to me. What you think Frank?"
"Yeah, I'm not sure," says Frank from the other side of the van. "You wanna tell me why two of your passengers faces ain't showing up on our records?"
Jorge is pissed, tries to control himself, breathes deeply. "That illegal?"
"Nah," says the cop by his window. "It's not illegal. Not yet. Is kinda suspicious though, especially on a day we got an elevated threat level alert going down. Maybe y'all should come in to the precinct with us and discuss it."
Jorge's heart drops again. "Seriously?"
"Maybe. What you saying Frank?"
"I dunno. Certainly seems suspicious. I'm pretty hungry though."
"Yeah. Me too. Where you want to eat?"
"That gyro place on Morgan is meant to be good."
The cop looks at Jorge. "You know the place? You eaten there?"
They're just fucking with him now, but Jorge knows what's coming. "Can't say I have."
"It's meant to be good. Real good. But they only take cash. You got any cash on you Frank?"
Frank pats his breast pocket, shakes his head. "Damn. No cash. Must have left it back at the precinct."
"Ah, hell. Me too. So I guess we can pick it up when we run these folks back there… "
Jorge doesn't let him finish his sentence. He just holds his plastic bucket full of dollar notes up the cops face.
"Why, that's mighty generous of you," the cop says, smiling. His gloved hand delves into the bucket and pulls out a fistful of singles. Jorge doesn't want to look, but he guesses it's pretty much all of them.
The cops step away from the van, and wave him on. He pulls away, winding up his window.
"Enjoy your gyro, hijos de puta," he says, waving to them as he drives past.
A few blocks further on, the white girl in the back suddenly speaks. It surprises him.
"This will do great, can you drop me at the next lights?"
"Sure thing." He turns back to look at her, just as she's peeling off her long black hoody and stuffing it into her bag. Underneath she's wearing more black, but it's not what he was expecting. Business suit. Tight. Arabian fabric. Armani or something. Expensive.
Jorge whistles. "Ay. Chica you looking good. Where you going today?"
"Job interview," She's checking her hair in a compact.
Jorge laughs. He pulls the van over to the kerb, exactly where she wanted. "Must be important, you dressed like that. You didn't want to get the subway or a cab?"
She shakes her head, snaps the compact shut. "Nope. Didn't want who I work for now to know where I was going."
Jorge is confused. "They'd know that?"
"Yeah, they'd know. They follow me everywhere they can." She fishes a small wallet from out of her bag, opens it and flashes him a sliver of plastic inside.
Google staff employee ID card.
"Ah. Si. Damn. I understand."
She gets up, opens the van door, starts to climb out.
"Good luck chica, hope you get the job."
"Thanks." She pauses, turns round, smiles at him. Leaning forward she drops something into his bucket. A twenty. "And thanks for the ride. Don't let the hijos de puta grind you down."