Other winning essays
“CITY Inc.” | James Fletcher, King’s College London
“The World in 2065: A rapidly changing climate and a renewed social science” | Gioia Barnbrook, University of Aberdeen
“After ‘posh and white’: the 50 year slog towards achieving educational equality” | Elizabeth Houghton, Lancaster University
“Doubting gender. Or why it is best to leave certain questions unanswered” | Kristin Hübner, University of Warwick
“People will soon be at the very heart of law making” | Louise Thompson, University of Hull (PhD)/ University of Surrey (present)
“One morning in 2065” | Matjaz Vidmar, University of Edinburgh
“Policing in times of financial austerity and beyond: The role of psychology in maximising efficiency” | Rebecca Wheeler, Goldsmiths University of London
“Navigating private life in a public world” | Sam Miles, Queen Mary, University of London
“Keeping pace with the ‘perennial gale of competition’” | Samuel Ian Quigg, University of Surrey
This year, Britain’s Economic and Social Research Council asked early career social scientists to try their hand at what might be called social-science fiction, looking at what strides their particular fields might achieve in the next 50 years. And like the best traditional science fiction, the winning essays were grounded in the evidence and research of today extended by smart analysis of what the future can hold.
Science fiction, err, speculative fiction, is in the business of predicting what the world will look like in years hence. And the best science fiction gives equal weight to both parts of its moniker: science and fiction.
The World in 2065, as the contest was named, received an array of submissions covering a wide variety of topics addressing key issues affecting society such as climate change, gender inequality, education and the law. The contest was co-sponsored by SAGE (the parent of Social Science Space), which like the ESRC is celebrating its 50th birthday this year, and which again like the ESRC is busily writing its own narrative for another successful 50 years.
“Science communication is currently something of a buzz phrase in the academic world, so it was particularly interesting to see how this crop of up-and-coming scientists set about encapsulating their hopes and fears for their disciplines over the next 50 years in under 800 words,” Tash Reith-Banks, one of four judges in the competition, wrote in The Guardian, where she is the production editor for the Science desk. The other three judges were Alan Gillespie, the chair of ESRC since 2009; Miranda Nunhofer, executive director for SAGE; and Martin Ince, a freelance journalist specializing in research and higher education.
Over the next 10 weeks Social Science Space will present the 10 shortlisted essays: the overall winner, two essays honored as ‘highly commended,’ and the seven other essays on the shortlist.
Here, we present the highly commended essay “They know how much oxygen I breathe, which is fine by me ” by Josephine Go Jefferies at the University of Nottingham. You can read her full entry below:
They know how much oxygen I breathe, which is fine by me
By Josephine Go Jefferies
As they say: High! Welcome to the Scafell Pioneering Neighbourhood! Did you enjoy the view of the algae farm terraces on your way up? They’re here to keep us comfortable, rather than for survival per se – although thinking about it, they do provide mitochondrial biofuel to maintain vast server systems, so you could argue they are, in fact, for survival.
So far from sea level, we get most of our potable water through our aspiration of the atmosphere aided by hyaluronic acid supplements. We are clean air fanatics up here, and it’s nice to recycle and know that the quality you put in is what you get out in water terms.
Your visit is sponsored by our historic brigade of mountain rescue volunteers. Now that we’re all moving to higher ground where it’s cooler and drier, we do what we can – and hope you will too, by letting your data be tracked while you’re up here to advance the science of controlling conflagrations from human or natural causes.
I’ve trained as a Mountain Search and Rescue Volunteer, but we’re all standing members of the Fire Service as we anticipate global warming to trigger more drought and forest fires, especially in the lowlands. Our hope is to make wildfire and combustion relics of the past. Only nostalgia buffs and the most privileged innovators can afford to burn oxygen – really, who would want to? We all agree it’s precious.
Firefighting is quite an interesting spectacle. Actually, I don’t know if you’ll ever get to witness one unless it’s during a commemorative public fixture. Planned tabula rasa combats conflagration by asphyxiation – literally dialling down the oxygen in the atmosphere. It’s harder to control oxygen in the more populated areas, but they’re working on it.
Ooh, good question! I think it was someone who thought of reversing the power of flash mobs – I mean, it’s still about solidarity but now it’s kind of organised to maintain the balance of power in society, so everyone does their bit. I think there’s less inequality now, do you know what I mean?
Forgive me, because I’m not an expert, but I think it started with experimental smart cities and they took up the idea from Zuurmond’s infocracies – I mean, the reason we managed to go solar initially is because the server farms required it, right? The power needed to run anticipatory rather than participatory democracies?
Some say they manufacture dissent – for drama, and catharsis – but I think it’s also to flush out the data flow from shadow populations who are more apathetic; making everyone a heavy breather, at least for a little while, you know, just enough to register a reading and get a snapshot of oxygen consumption at a given time. You know what they say: Sport is good. Data rules… right? Anyway, during the spontaneous census they will interview me to see why I’m in favour of this and against that. Just to ensure my opinions haven’t been hacked, you know, to guard against corruption by harmful private interests. Data rules infocracies, and democracies people do!
So how it works is, the actions we take are screened for relevance to any given question. We consent to our acts and opinions being counted, and it’s made transparent in the continuous count so we understand the implications of our acts and opinions as a collective. Any inconsistencies are flagged, and we get an option to compare ourselves against the values of the electorate.
What, actual elections? They’re kind of just ceremonial, really. I guess it’s less dramatic but we’re a more steady community – without all that manipulative rhetoric flying about in what’s left of the news media, making everyone angry and anxious. Life’s tough enough up here without making enemies of your neighbours. The small things seem to matter more these days, which I’m in favour of.
My paid job is to test these wearables designed to optimise blood oxygen saturation. We’re all extreme sportswomen up here! Implants? Nah, it’s easier to upgrade with skins, and surfaces are minimally invasive. Go smooth systems! These info drones help me to train at altitude, and will accompany the family on holiday soon. My Search and Rescue duties, my job and my life are intertwined. There were great ideological battles in the past about work-life balance, but that was before ubiquitous streaming, which gives our team advantages on the happiness meter, earning time-off in lieu. It’s just the idea of time-off, really, but ideas count! I think happiness matters more than bitcredit, care dollars and the million other point schemes you could choose. Anyway, while I’m on holiday, as long as the geo-climatic conditions and my exertion levels show positive alignment, I get professional development credit and a dopamine rush! Everyone’s happy!