No One’s Driving

Vast systems, from automated supply chains to high-frequency trading, now undergird our daily lives — and we’re losing control of all of them

A photo collage of a shipping dock, a graph of a stock market activity, and an automated warehouse
A photo collage of a shipping dock, a graph of a stock market activity, and an automated warehouse
Photo illustration, sources: Jesper Klausen/Science Photo Library/Sukanya Sitthikongsak/yoh4nn/Getty Images

Welcome to No One’s Driving — a column by novelist and tech writer Tim Maughan about how to understand a world governed by systems and technologies that are spiraling out of control.

One of the dominant themes of the last few years is that nothing makes sense. Donald Trump is president, QAnon has mainstreamed fringe conspiracy theories, and hundreds of thousands are dead from a pandemic and climate change while many Americans do not believe that the pandemic or climate change are deadly. It’s incomprehensible.

I am here to tell you that the reason so much of the world seems incomprehensible is that it is incomprehensible. From social media to the global economy to supply chains, our lives rest precariously on systems that have become so complex, and we have yielded so much of it to technologies and autonomous actors that no one totally comprehends it all. …

In order to stop a power grab from surveillance companies and tech giants, we need to define what policing is

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Officers watch the streets of Camden, NJ on high definition monitors from the city’s police headquarters on May 24, 2017. Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

The weeks of uprisings across America in response to the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and countless others have been overshadowed by just one thing: the response to that response. Protests against police brutality and violence have been met with unprecedented police brutality and violence.

As frightening as it has been to watch, the response also provides a glimmer of hope: For perhaps the first time, a serious discussion about defunding the police is taking place in mainstream American politics and media. “Regardless of your view on police power — whether you want to get rid of the police or simply to make them less violent, here’s an immediate demand we can all make: Cut the number of police in half and cut their budget in half,” the organizer Mariame Kaba wrote in the New York Times. …

What ‘Blade Runner,’ cyberpunk, and Octavia Butler had to say about the age we’re entering now

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Photo: Ning Li/Getty Images

When you imagine the future, what’s the first date that comes into your mind? 2050? 2070? The year that pops into your head is almost certainly related to how old you are — some point within our lifetimes yet distant enough to be mysterious, still just outside our grasp. For those of us growing up in the 1980s and ’90s — and for a large number of science fiction writers working in those decades — the 2020s felt like that future. A decade we would presumably live to see but also seemed sufficiently far away that it could be a world full of new technologies, social movements, or political changes. …

Over the summer of 2014, writer Tim Maughan accompanied the Unknown Fields Division — ‘a nomadic design studio’ lead by speculative architects Liam Young and Kate Davies — on an expedition to follow the supply chain back to the source of our consumer goods. On the way they visited Shenzhen, China’s most successful Special Economic Zone. This story was inspired by a visit to one of Shenzhen’s many electronics factories, where GPS tracking and vehicle monitoring units designed to retrofit buses for ‘smart city’ projects were being tested.


Dai takes the next unit off the green conveyor belt in front of him, flips it over in his hands, and places it on the testing station. A cartoon girl’s voice starts to redundantly talk him through what he has to do from the tiny speaker hanging above his desk, her enthusiasm distant and fading through AM radio crackles. …

Using design fiction to cut through the relentless TEDTalk-like optimism of ed tech marketing

By sava saheli singh and Tim Maughan

People talk about the future of technology in education as though it’s right around the corner, but most of us get to that corner and see it disappearing around the next. This innovation-obsessed cycle continues as we are endlessly dissatisfied with how little difference these promises make to the people implicated in these futures. …

Before ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Alien,’ a failed project would change Hollywood forever

Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune — a galaxy spanning tale of power, religion, and aristocratic family rivalries that served as an analogy for everything from middle east oil-politics and the environment to feminism and ‘60s drug culture — was a book that undeniably changed science fiction literature forever. It seemed fitting then that in 1975 the experimental Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky would set out to adapt the book into a movie that would change cinema forever. …

“’City as Canvas’ is a reminder that this is, in a very literal sense, criminal artwork”

The title of The Museum of New York City’s latest street art retrospective — City as Canvas — seems little more than a clever name at first glance; a literal description of an art form that takes the very fabric of urban spaces — the brick and concrete of walls, the steel and plastic of subway cars — as its medium of choice. …

They sit cross-legged, facing each other, six thousand miles apart. Then he strokes her cheek.

Once, when she’d been working on the Turkmenistan pipeline project, they’d been relegated to just a video feed for all contact. It seemed archaic, cold. Heavily pixelated due to ancient bandwidth levels. ‘Ghetto compression’ she’d called it, and they’d laughed because that’s what talking about poor people always made them do.

But even then, as he watched her sleep in that barebones foreign hotel room, he’d found a way to interact, silently moving his finger tips in front of the pin-hole of his tablet’s camera; filtering light passing through their portal to play shadows across her unaware face. …

For a workshop on future London, five individuals — Arup, Social Life, Re.Work, Commonplace, Tim Maughan and Nesta—created 10 Future Londoners for the year 2023. This is a short fictional piece describing the working day of 19 year old Nicki, a zero hours retail contractor.

0714, Wanstead

Nicki is awake even before her mum calls her from the other side of the door. She’s sat up in bed, crackly FM radio ebbing from tiny supermarket grade speakers, her fingers flicking across her charity shop grade tablet’s touchscreen. She’s close to shutting down two auctions when a third pushes itself across her screen with its familiar white and green branded arrogance. Starbucks. Oxford Circus. …


Tim Maughan

Writer. Debut novel INFINITE DETAIL out now on FSG. Bylines at BBC, Motherboard, New Scientist.

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