Social Science’s Impact on Society, Circa 2065: Matjaz Vidmar


Other winning essays

Overall winner
“CITY Inc.” | James Fletcher, King’s College London
Highly Commended
“The World in 2065: A rapidly changing climate and a renewed social science” | Gioia Barnbrook, University of Aberdeen
“They know how much oxygen I breathe, which is fine by me” | Josephine Go Jefferies, University of Nottingham
“Doubting gender. Or why it is best to leave certain questions unanswered” | Kristin Hübner, University of Warwick
“After ‘posh and white’: the 50 year slog towards achieving educational equality” | Elizabeth Houghton, Lancaster University
“People will soon be at the very heart of law making” | Louise Thompson, University of Hull (PhD)/ University of Surrey (present)
“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 “One morning in 2065” by Matjaz Vidmar of the University of Edinburgh. You can read his full entry below:

“One morning in 2065”

By Matjaz Vidmar

Beep, beep, beep…The alarm goes off ringing – my personal assistant, Thor, is scheduled to wake me up as ever for 7.30am. Would be easy to hit the red button now, kill Thor off, and enjoy some more peaceful slumber next to my wife, but I knew it was not to be.

The red button is not there to avoid getting up in the morning, only to avoid mindfulness and “the Biggy”. Thor is a machine, of course, or not even that, it is a technology which enables total connectivity anywhere and everywhere, and helps me with anything as long as it’s about getting information or communicating.

Beep, beep, beep… The red button seems so tempting…

Matjaz Vidmar
Matjaz Vidmar

“The Biggy”, of course, is the worry that either humans or technology itself could use our personal information inappropriately or against us. Orwell’s Big Brother from 1984, that sort of thing. We call it “the Biggy” now, as a joke, as we hope to have found a solution for it. Every single one of our PA devices has the ultimate switch – press the red button and the thing is off, all power cut! If we notice anything odd or prying, we can just stop the thing – and the PAs know this, too.

Beep, beep. Finally, I hit the blue button – “message accepted”. Thor predictably voices in his clinical tone: “Alarm deactivated. Status check-up in 5 minutes.” He will auto-text me in 5 minutes to ask if I am ready for my run. As I run, he will update me on all the news, read my e-mails, send my replies and put music on, as I like it. He will keep track of my run and let me know when I am slipping off my desired tempo.

Still sounds like Big Brother? Well, apart from being able to switch the thing off, we now also have true democracy and complete control over the “big data”, so no evil masterminds can take over our lives.

Initially there was a struggle (well documented by my colleagues researching public policy), when corporate firms tried to fight off these ideas about free absolute connectivity being a human right – but ultimately they failed. Indeed, how could these profit-driven companies compete with the new co-operatives, which were based on open innovation and have had pre-funded all their technology products, making them free for all customers?

Since this Space Revolution 35 years ago, free internet everywhere is no longer a dream and portable devices like Thor are standard issue to all new-borns since 2050. The co-operatives built large constellations of small satellites, enabling anyone to access the web from anywhere. Soon, people started to truly talk to each other, and political and social change was inevitable. We have done away with the nation state and we now have community administration and global governance, as the free absolute connectivity enables citizens’ participation in all key decisions.

The air is cold and as soon as my feet touch the floor, I shiver just a little – but the heat immediately rises from the PWC carpet and I feel like immersing in a warm pool. I just put on the running suit as Thor texts: “Ready to go?”

I am particularly proud of the PWC – “Personal Warmth Carpet” – and many other technologies which I helped develop with my research in innovation systems and knowledge networks. We started small, with the Scottish Space Sector, but soon the understanding we developed led to national and international interventions, supporting the crowdfunded campaigns with access to technical expertise previously locked away in science labs.

Not all of these interventions worked, but by using our Quantified Correlated Impacts Evaluation framework we were able to weed out the struggling projects and invest more in those which returned sustainable new businesses with great potential. As predicted, as soon as new companies supported by the right tools entered the knowledge network, their success was inevitable.

I reply to Thor: “Sure.” “Unlocking the pressure passage” he responds. I step outside. The sky is pale blue due to the thin, carefully constructed layer of atmosphere, and the warm shimmering white light from the Sun is rising from behind the silvery hills. Who would have thought 50 years ago that being here, living here was possible? But possible it is – as soon as humanity started to leave in peace and harmony, pulling together resources and expertise previously used to fight each other, this became a very small step indeed.

As small as the one I make through the door of the compound, filling my lungs with clean morning air. I start to run, ready for another day of my future – living on the Moon in 2065.

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