Friday, July 13, 2018

Flash Forward: A glimpse of future us

I love speculation: the kind that starts during a casual conversation with a friend one evening when neither of you can be bothered to just google the facts behind what you’re discussing, and is still buzzing in your brain when you can’t sleep at 3am. What if Diana isn’t dead? What if money just. . . stopped working? What if the trees can hear us? I tend not to be so into actual conspiracy theories (even the wackier ones are often too closely allied to real life extremist beliefs for my taste), but strange thought experiments, especially the ones you can research exhaustively on the internet, are absolutely my jam.

Flash Forward is a podcast that could have been tailor made to this interest of mine; in it, host and producer Rose Eveleth picks a different possible “future” per episode and investigates what life would be like if it came true. She covers all sorts of things, from more conventional “futurist” subjects like exoskeletons and artificial wombs, to the outcome of the next US census and the disappearance of all bees. My personal favourite episode, though, is called “Popnonymous”, and it asks: what happens to music in a future where all pop stars use avatars, clones, robots or cartoons instead of their real bodies and faces?

It’s an audio rabbit hole that is a delight to fall down — beginning with a montage of fictional media from 2085 covering an avatar controversy between two bands, and continuing via Beyonce clone conspiracies to sobering truths about what it’s actually like to be a musical megastar in the present, let alone the future (one interviewee says that most of the pop stars she’s interviewed “would absolutely take an out if they were given one”).

The episode hops lightly from idea to idea, drawing you further into the argument each time. By the time Rose is at a Hatsune Miku concert (who is an actual pop star avatar from Japan), watching an adult woman cry with joy at the music, I’m completely caught up in the idea that fan-created fictitious pop stars are the future. I’ve tried reading books about technological predictions and the future of media, and I’ve found them universally dull and unlikely. But this episode? It’s fun and intriguing all at the same time.

There’s a lightness of touch to the writing — it’s all very much show, not tell — that I find very easy to get hooked by, yet there are larger issues lurking in the background that linger long after the episode is finished. Avatar singers could democratise the music industry, but they could also make a huge amount of money for a tiny group of individuals. Who owns your pleasure in listening to your favourite song? Thinking about it is still keeping me up at night.

Image by Matt Lubchansky, matt-lub.com and reproduced with permission