tl;dr: I’m launching a speculative fiction series about the criminal justice system. It’s called 40 Futures. This email kicks off volume one. You’ll receive a short story, vignette, or fictional news article with a complementary podcast every Thursday for 10 weeks. If you want to know more, keep reading.
For years, I’ve written about technology and its impact on people ensnared by the justice system. As a journalist, I wrote about stories as they happened. As an opinion writer and researcher, I tried to warn against or promote a particular future. However, writing over the past decade, I’ve watched a generation’s most troubling concerns, like algorithmic bias and consumer surveillance, go largely unheeded as our democratic institutions calcified and novel companies treated our rights and privacy with the abandon of a Bourbon Street reveler hunting for more beads.
This is to say, my non-fiction writing has increasingly felt detached from—and sometimes irrelevant to—the reality and institutions it hoped to impact. Simply put: my writing was feeling more like fiction.
With this realization, I had two choices: run away or embrace it. I chose the latter.
Last summer, I started to write a speculative fiction series about the criminal justice system. This departure has helped me understand the far-off consequences of our actions and why it’s important for us to be bending that arc of history now. I hope it will do the same for you, while keeping you entertained.
What’s coming is a collection of speculations about how technology and science will impact the criminal justice system in years to come. Packaged as vignettes, short stories, and fictional news articles, each is a glimpse at what’s over the horizon. Some of these guesses, I suspect, will be proven right or wrong before the decade is out. Others will take more time for the science to catch up with the application. However, as human trials of computer-brain interfaces are promised this year, countries argue over neurological privacy rights, and the datafication of the human experience intensifies, now is the time to talk about what these events will mean for our justice systems for generations to come.
In total, I aim to write 40 different futures. This started as a small project where I wrote 40 one sentence provocations about where science and tech could take the criminal justice system and the people in it. After sharing that draft with friends, I was then pushed (h/t Keith Porcaro) to turn each into a story. So, with one published piece of fiction to my name, I thought, “Why not write 40?”
I have two specific rules guiding this project. First, the science and technology I write about needs to have a root in the present. I did not want to create new tech from whole cloth or break the laws of science for any of these stories. I wanted our current scientific understanding to be a starting point, even if it is theoretical. Second, the ethics in each story, whether that of the characters or the society itself, need to track the bounds of right and wrong as they currently are. In both cases, these stories presume we are on a scientific and ethical trajectory without a significant rupture in the near future. This might prove to be the least correct assumption I make in this project. However, it was an important guardrail to provide focus and grounding.
Ultimately, I hope this collection will expand the audience of people interested in these topics and inform the conversations we’re having. Many of the technologies in these stories already exist, but haven’t made it into our communities yet. Others, I strongly suspect, are just around the corner. In either instance, the stories I’ve written are each a reminder that, except in rare cases, technology exacerbates existing power dynamics in our society. If that is something we don’t like, then it is our job to provide adverse pressure to these seemingly inevitable trends. Otherwise, we will find ourselves alongside the characters in these stories.
To start, I am releasing ten tales over ten weeks as volume one of this project. Each will publish Thursday mornings in written form and as a podcast where I read the story and provide commentary, which explains how today’s reality gets us to the future I write about. This will not interfere with Monday’s regular newsletter.
I’m not sure what will come of this project, but I’m curious to know your reaction to it. I welcome you to reply to these emails or on Twitter to let me know what you think. Like anything else I write, I hope that this collection will add to discussions about technology and justice and increase the number of people who care about the doors we are opening today and where they may take us in the future.
Thank you for reading.