Visions of a Stepford society

16 Feb 2006

Remember that scene in Minority Report where Tom Cruise’s character is on the run from the law and a voice somewhere says: “John Anderton, you could use a Guinness right now!” Rather than simply being product placement in a major movie, that kind of scenario is actually closer than we think.

Somewhere on a former RAF base in Suffolk, it is BT employee Ian Pearson’s (pictured) duty to predict the future.

Adastral Park, which once resounded with the roar of Spitfires, now hums with a quiet monotony as scientists shuffle between its myriad of concrete buildings.

Pearson says by the end of 2006 we will witness the advent of mobile phones with 100GB of storage and Blu-Ray DVDs with up to 100 terabytes (that’s 100,000GB!) of storage. If you think that’s fantastic, the future beyond 2010 may have you scared to leave your home.

He acknowledges the danger that creating new technologies poses. For example, by putting cameras on mobile phones, who could have predicted the trend of ‘happy slapping’ that has already resulted in a murder in the UK? Not to mention the dangers posed by paedophiles accessing the internet or using camera phones.

“The danger with creating new technology today is that for every benefit there is a potential downside,” Pearson admits. “Scientists and technologists are walking a fine line.”

The future beyond 2010 that Pearson is preoccupied with threatens to be both wonderful and downright threatening. He talks of smart devices that improve our health and wealth and eradicate loneliness. After that he talks of cultural pollution caused by marketers and nouveau hippies backlashing against a Stepford society controlled by big business and government. A society where tax-paying, law-abiding citizens are controlled while gangsters roam free. Sound familiar, anyone?

Some of the technologies currently being developed in time for 2015 sound like the stuff of science fiction. “Active contact lenses are currently being developed that integrate with a mobile device in your pocket to enable images and text to be overlaid on the real world,” he says. “You could make your boyfriend or girlfriend look like Brad Pitt or Claudia Schiffer. This will be feasible in 2010 and on the market by 2015.”

Pearson also highlighted the onset of smart make-up that would contain tiny computer particles that would allow video images to be visible on the human body. Other trends that will emerge from this, he says, include video tattoos and wearable video layers such as a virtual keyboard on your forearm or that appears in your field of vision through your glasses or contact lenses.

Another aspect of life in the next 20 years will be the onset of cultural pollution caused by aggressive marketing — think Minority Report — and Pearson says scientists are developing solutions to prevent this. For example, a digital badge that creates a multi-layered force field around the person to filter out intrusive advertising.

Other possibilities Pearson hints at is the ability to make the world around you see what you want it to see. For example, a single person walking into a bar or nightclub could send out a wireless signal to see if there are other available singletons in the immediate area interested in hooking up. “Some 70pc of text messaging today is flirting, so why not have information sent to appropriate people … negotiate digitally before you agree to meet that person?”

Pearson ends his briefing by indicating that scientists are working to develop consciousness in machines by 2015 — another suggestion from the world of science fiction. And why not? Doesn’t the urban legend suggest the mobile phone was inspired by Star Trek?

“It’s a vicious circle,” Pearson concludes, “we invent technology to make our lives better, but in other ways we could be heading towards a new Dark Age.”

By John Kennedy