From Tomorrow’s World to Click – Elizabeth Kay

Click on Tomorrow’sWorld. And when you do you may well be using a home computer, something that was first featured on a programme by the same name that ran from 1965 to 2003 on BBC TV. At its height it attracted ten million viewers each week, and was a platform for scientific and technological innovations. As it was broadcast live, there were quite few spectacular failures on screen. Some inventions sank without trace, such as the washing line that sang when it rained, whilst others such as the breathalyser and the ATM became part of our everyday life. If you like setting stories in the near the future, as I sometimes do, it’s important to know what’s hot and what’s not. I came across Click by accident, and now it’s an integral part of my week although I usually watch the short version in bed on a Sunday morning. The full version is available on iPlayer. It’s a pleasantly upbeat programme, which neither talks down to you nor blinds you with science. The best way to describe it is in its own words – Click is the BBC’s flagship technology programme. We’re on both TV and radio – across five BBC channels – and can be found on many social networks and iPlayer. The simplest way we’ve worked out to describe what we do is “the best debate on global technology, social media and the internet,” or “your guide to all the latest gadgets, websites, games and computer industry news”.
We live in a high-powered world that changes at a pace never seen before. Our children are more clued-up about it than we are, and the vocabulary associated with it moves equally fast. Whoever would have believed that something as serious as the Ukrainian unrest would have a news item that stated that Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski tweeted that a particular deal was a “good compromise for Ukraine”. On the left is a photo of me in Kiev in happier times. Tweets were the teen thing of yesterday; today, they’re the tool of governments. You need to be careful about politics, though. When I wanted to set a story in Eastern Europe I decided the safest option was to invent an ex-Soviet state of my own – hence the fictional Karetsefia that hosts the cultural exchange in Beware of Men with Moustaches. Predicting what may happen next month, let alone twenty years hence is a risky business.

            I get ideas from Click – but it also warns me when things may well become obsolete. Roofs festooned with black solar panels, for instance – it’s possible that the panels will soon be transparent, which means that a building like the Shard could produce enough power for not just itself, but the surrounding area. Robot window cleaners, crawling over your windows like giant insects eating up the grime. Driverless cars, curved TV screens, The camera ball, which you can throw into the air and see your surroundings from an entirely different perspective. Think about it. An ability to see over walls, into bedrooms, above roofs, a way of planning a really effective break-in. Then there are ways of cloaking your mobile phone. Nice if you’re worried about your banking details getting out, and even better for the criminals who want to co-ordinate their activities without being tracked by the law. Inventions have a habit of heading in directions never anticipated at the outset – just look what happened when they split the atom. What can be really galling is if you predict something, and then six months after you’ve published whatever it is the fantasy becomes reality. Or worse, it’s old hat already. So you have to be really careful, and make sure you’re abreast of the latest technology.
            It’s not just hardware, either. Stem cell research looks set to revolutionise the way we see our bodies. Purpose-grown spare parts may become easily accessible – for the wealthy that is, unless we can revolutionise our brains into more altruistic organs. Aging may only occur in the poor, who will, as ever, be in the majority. Science fiction has, of course tackled these issues in many different ways. One of my favourite John Wyndham books is Trouble with Lichen, a lesser known work which starts with the accidental discovery of a lichen that dramatically slows down aging. The way the story goes isn’t the way you’d expect.

            In 1998 I was one of the winners of the London Writing Competition, with a story called Retrospective which was published a in a collection called Does the Sun Rise over Dagenham? I’d written it some time earlier, when Thatcher’s London was littered with the homeless, and my vision of the future was way out. This was the way it started:

You might say I was lucky to have a job at all, but I don’t think luck comes into it. White males under thirty with the right background are in short supply these days — children are just too expensive for the educated classes. The underclass breed like rabbits, of course. From my window I could see the polystyrene shacks on the green, and I could watch the clogs trying to bum new ecus off the passers-by. I don’t know when we started to call them clogs. It was a sort of word-play on the dispossessed — those who inhabit the crumbly white periphery of our towns and villages, the peasants who might have worn clogs in a bygone age, the human detritus that clogs the machinery of our cities. London has been clogged to the eyeballs for decades. Personally, I try not to look.

The only reason I was watching that morning was because the new computer had arrived, and the manual took up three whole bookshelves. I decided not to rush it, poured myself another cup of inka and watched the leaves fall off the sycamore tree. It was, as you have probably guessed, the rainy season. They used to call it autumn in gentler times, before the hurricanes made wind tunnels between the tower blocks and the rain was acid enough to eat into the architecture as well as the foliage.

So I was wrong on several counts. Computer manuals tend to be virtual these days. We still have coffee, and haven’t had to fall back on ground chicory root. Ecus became euros, and acid rain hasn’t yet destroyed our architecture. Beware, though. Playing the future game is a dicey occupation for an author – but it’s such fun! 


madwippitt said…
Whether it gets its predictions right or wrong, a well written book never dates and becomes redundant when the future catches up with the past! It simply becomes an alternative reality, but is just as fascinating and valid and still just as readable. And yes, hurrah for Wyndham, I love his books too!
Kathleen Jones said…
I'm a Click addict too Elizabeth - fascinated by technology!
Lydia Bennet said…
I agree with Madwippitt, a good book can be a 'what if' whether the supposed scenario happens or not. One common mistake of earlier sci-fi/future writing was to assume technology goes in a straight line, getting techier and techier, but in fact many things go retro either for fun (vinyl is still vibrant on the new music scene and is getting stronger if anything) or through environmental disaster. What always put me off sci-fi was the writers could envisage all kinds of wonderful inventions, planets, ways of life, yet sexism was still rife in their work - women having no role but the domestic one even when housework was done by robots!

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