A New History of the Future in 100 Objects
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2020
384 pp. Trade, $21.95
The subtitle for this new book by Adrian Hon, CEO of the London-based game design company Six to Start, reads "A Fiction." While this is true, A New History of the Future in 100 Objects is woven from references and nods to past, similar projects, and the reader's even modest awareness of the rapidly evolving 21st century technological landscape.
Hon notes being prompted by A History of the World in 100 Objects, a joint venture undertaken by the British Museum and BBC Radio 4. One hundred separate radio episodes, each narrated by British Museum director Neil MacGregor, retold the history of humanity through its made objects. The radio broadcasts began in January 2010 and continued for 20 weeks. A book by MacGregor with the same title was published in October 2010. In 2016, a touring exhibition of some of the objects in the radio programs toured internationally. Today, the entire radio series is available for download, and an audio version of MacGregor's book is available for sale.
Hon also acknowledges his gratitude to Vernor Vinge, Iain Banks, Neal Stephenson, Kim Stanley Robinson, Lewis Hyde, Ted Chiang, George Orwell, Stanislaw Lem, and other writers who imagined future worlds.
Hugo Gernsbeck should certainly be added to this list of influential writers. Gernsbeck founded the magazine Amazing Stories which consistently introduced new objects, mostly technological, and thus became prophetic regarding a vision of what the future world might become. Also worth mentioning is Motel of the Mysteries (1979) by David Macauley, a tongue-in-cheek archeological explanation of objects unearthed in 4022 from a motel buried by an unknown catastrophe in 1985. Macauley's explanations of objects is both interesting and insightful
The same is true of Hon's new book, A History of the World in 100 Objects, which builds on the influences just mentioned. In 2082, Hon, as an unnamed narrator, selects (creates) 100 objects and artifacts, offering a history for each. Each object/artifact is described in a few pages. Taken together these descriptions provide a fictional history of the twenty-first century.
The 100 objects described by Hon include smart drugs, disaster kits, an advanced form of emojis that replaced written communication, ubiquitous deliverbots, amplified teams, necklaces that relay subvocal (silent) communications, international partnerships, medical advancements, a cure for hate, a new way to watch television, active clothing, surveillance devices, a guide for making friends with post-humans, artificial worlds on asteroids, pro-democracy movements, a collective providing financial support for artists, invitations to immigrants to revitalize urban areas abandoned by changing demographics, and conversational toys supported by "a complex combination of crowdfunding, outsourced manufacturing, international politics, and five million freelance actors" (3).
As Hon notes, A History of the World in 100 Objects is a fiction. But readers will find connections with current events and/or objects and artifacts that could be, looking ahead, early iterations for those described by Hon. Many examples of current technology are only a benign update or two away from Hon's descriptions. Ankle monitoring devices and deliverbots are examples. Other current trends might prompt chilling results, for example downvoting networks that identify and erase undesirables and enhanced interrogation via virtual reality. A History of the World in 100 Objects is ingeniously imaginative in its detailing the things the future might leave behind. In his descriptions of these objects, Hon both reminisces about our current state and prompts us to think about what might become. The future after all belongs to what we create. Smart readers will want to act before it is too late.