When we first announced our short fiction contest, Into the Black, we could never have imagined so many of you would be inspired to write about worlds transformed by unconditional cash and financial stability. When it was all over, 650 of you had sent in stories. There were tales about pizza experiments and lunar wars, stories about scientists and lovers, dancers and robots; indeed there were many, many stories about robots. Lots of you decided to tell a story about the arrival of the very first basic income check, and even more of you told stories about young people trying to find purpose in a world without work. We are humbled by the number of unique perspectives and delighted that so many of you spent time thinking so critically about the future of our economy.
Two stories rose to the top of the pile, and together they took such different positions on the role technology has to play in the economy of the future, that we decided to publish them both.
Our grand prize winner, Rounding Corrections, is innovative in its format as well as its main character.
An AI designed to profile ATM users for marketing purposes, starts noticing people crying when they check their accounts. We see the financial troubles of these ‘weepers’ spelled out in ones and zeros, and follow our unlikely hero, who names themselves ‘George’, as they search for information that could help prevent these hardships. When George finds accounts that have amassed large stockpiles of money, it decides to round down instead of up, and funnel those pennies into a dividend fund. In the end, technology accomplishes what we could not achieve ourselves: a redistribution scheme that holds abusers accountable and ensures no one is left in tears.
The unique formatting of the story makes a lot of sense when you learn it was written by Sandra Haynes, a financial systems analyst at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Although she writes everyday and has kept a diary since she was 16, this is the first story she has ever submitted for publication. “I had been researching Universal Basic Income and I saw the contest and thought: that is a story I want to write,” she said when we spoke last week. She came to the conversation about a basic income through her interest in automation. “I was researching self driving cars and how that would effect not only the marketplace but also people with disabilities,” she said. Thinking about the ways that her father, who is legally blind, might benefit from the development of artificial intelligence led to her decidedly optimistic take, creating a world in which AI not only develops compassion, but also acts on it.
Some of the ‘weeperfiles’ are all too familiar: urgent care bills, tuition payments, unexpected burial costs. Aside from the emotionally evolved AI, the world of Rounding Corrections has not progressed very far past our current reality, in which 6 out of 10 Americans don’t have enough saved to cover a $500 expense.
Sandra herself has had first hand experience with some of the economic forces leading people to consider a basic income as a viable path forward. Accounting is her second career after she lost her job as a textile designer when the mill she was working for in North Carolina shut down. She hopes to use some of the prize money to buy herself a loom and get back to designing fabric.
She comes from a family of storytellers and has been a life long fan of science fiction. Sandra’s favorite authors are Octavia Butler and Sheri S. Tepper, and she seems unsurprised when I tell her that both of the stories we will be publishing were written by women, saying “well, we have economic skin in the game, that’s for sure.”
The writer of our runner-up story is Melissa Fall, who lives and writes in Los Angeles. Her story, The Floor, is a dark detective tale about a woman trying to find her sister in a surveillance state. Unlike the tech optimism set forth by Rounding Corrections, in the world of The Floor, opting into a basic income means opting out of privacy. “Writing the story was a kind of way for me to work through certain anxieties I have about the future,” Melissa said, “to look at the difference between what this policy would look like if it were enacted in a way that would actually be effective, versus the question of is that even possible in our current political climate.” Her story is certainly a cautionary tale, one that exposes the gap between the ideal that a basic income represents and the actual execution of the policy.
But despite her fears about the role technology companies are playing in shaping our future, she is still intrigued by the idea of a basic income. “The most interesting and exciting part of the idea of UBI is the relief of a certain psychological burden” she said, “when i thought of getting an extra $1000 a month, i saw a certain kind of relief.” The prize money will undoubtedly be welcome as she works on her first novel, and she’s quick to realize what the economic stability of a basic income would mean for others too, “It is the ultimate privilege not to worry, isn’t it? Just to be able to know you can go to the doctor or afford the things that you need, that is a kind of freedom that most people don’t have.”
Ironically, it is the same data that AI George aggregates to make a case for a basic income in Rounding Corrections, that shapes the dark world without privacy in The Floor, but these stories agree on one thing: our data is an asset not to be ignored. Together these two works of fiction start to point out some of the complicated questions we are facing today as we look at the role of technology in shaping the economy of the future. Can data be used to increase transparency and expose injustice, or will it inevitably be used to exert power over those with less means? Will our bold ideals be compromised in enacting actual policy? Will fear motivate people to change or is optimism needed to launch really audacious ideas?
Whether technology will be our downfall or our greatest triumph is a question we may never answer, but as we look towards different kinds of policies to provide economic stability and reshape the economy, it is a question worth asking. Speculative fiction is the perfect test kitchen for ideologies, giving us the distance we need to consider where we are, and where we could be going. We look forward to following our winners on their own paths towards the future.
A huge thanks to our judges, who donated their precious time and considerable intellect to this project:
Jenna Wortham, The New York Times
Alexis Madrigal, The Atlantic
Hannu Rajaniemi, Author of The Quantum Thief & forthcoming Summerland
David Barr Kirtley, Host of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy
Keri Putnam, Executive Director at Sundance Institute
Tim Hwang, Director, Ethics and Governance of AI Fund
Angelina Burnett, television writer and producer for Halt and Catch Fire, The Americans
James Cham, partner at Bloomberg Beta
Natalie Foster, co-chair Economic Security Project
Mike Krieger, co-founder and CTO of Instagram