Designing Better Data Futures

Image: Iris Lei for Popular Science

It’s March 2022. We’re 2 decades into the new millennium, 54 years after Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke imagined humanity traveling to Jupiter with HAL as the guide, and 43 years since Octavia Butler imagined time travel as an exploration of history and heritage in her novel Kindred. Science fiction and design have long been key tools in imagining the future — particularly to explore humanity’s relationship with information technology. 

What if we could imagine and build a future where we control our data, what is shared, who it’s shared with, and how it’s used? What if we could use our data to drive responsible innovation — like if our home energy usage data were shared with green energy companies? Or could be used to lower the cost of something like a home mortgage?  We know the technology exists, so what policies and incentives do we need to give control to consumers? How can we catalyze social and political conversations that critically question our current data dynamic?

To explore these questions, we teamed up with the Digital Lab at Consumer Reports, 3 science fiction writers, and a cohort of 17 experts to build short science fiction stories. Each story is set in the US in 2030, exploring alternative realities around our relationship with data. 

Published in partnership with Popular Science, these Alternate Data Realities are a three-story series, exploring near future scenarios in which “we the people” benefit from our own data. 

These stories aren’t utopic – after all, the protagonists still live in an America grappling with worsening climate change, climbing housing prices, and supporting our elderly parents. But these stories explore a different relationship between humanity and data.  Following each story, a response essay from a policy expert offers actionable recommendations on what’s needed for this alternate reality to come to life. 

We hope that these stories reach far and wide to spur imagination and help us break out from our norms to co-design alternative data realities.

Explore the Stories

Shared Data

by Malka Older

At the heart of Shared Data is a hypothesis of a future project and cooperative that could have numerous benefits for consumers- a shared data hub and cooperative that provides real time data, insights, and social interaction spaces for communities to provide mutual aid in real time.

Policy Response by:

Expert Advisors:

The Memory of Tomatoes

by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

A world of the near future where an interesting blend of guarded private spaces, and more intrusive connected technologies co-exist. Where a woman persevering through Alzheimer’s has uploaded her previous thoughts and memories to her own AI via a “neuralink,” and has delegated to her daughter her data access rights – in this instance, to her “smart” pill case.

Policy Response by:

Richard Whitt 

Expert Advisors:

Home@Heart

by Sameem Siddiqui

A sagacious illustration of how we could be convinced to monetize our data in the absence of strong privacy legislation. It tells the story of a young couple of academics who decide to finance their first house through an interest-free loan from a housing union (“Ubiquity”) open to university staff, faculty and students. In exchange, the union requires collection of data of the entire household for 30 years, or until whenever the loan is paid back.

Policy Response by:

Nicolo Zingales 

Expert Advisors:

A big thank you to Consumer Reports, Popular Science, and Mozilla Foundation for their support and partnership in this project. Thank you to Torie Bosch for advice, and sharing learnings from the Slate’s Future Tense. And congratulations to our 3 authors Malka Older, Sameem Siddiqui, and Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, and 17 expert advisors who imagined new realities, and then built the map to make them possible!

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