The story behind the story: Into darkness

This week, Futures is delighted to welcome Anike Kirsten with her story Into darkness. Anike is based in South Africa, and you can find out more about her writing by visiting her website or by following her on Twitter. Here, she reveals the inspiration behind her first tale for Futures — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing Into darkness

What really goes on in a singularity? Sure, if we happen to get into one, there’d be the spaghettification problem to contend with, but what if the gravitation wasn’t that strong? Perhaps, in some way we’ve yet to discover through a soon-to-be developed theory of everything, controlled micro black holes could be made to exist for exploration purposes? For science. What would we see? These questions, and many other, wilder ones, set the foundation for Into darkness.

If lights bends at the event horizon and time becomes space inside the black hole, would we be doomed to seeing ourselves repeat a grave mistake over and again with no way of changing the outcome?

The physics and speculations aside, the story was also influenced by Dante’s Inferno, in a contemporary subject to create a new form of imagined Hell. While not relateable, at least not directly, I thought such a micro black hole as an excellent metaphor for the problems of living within the Information Age. What better way to highlight that than to focus on the event and object where information is greatly lost? And as the protagonist finds out, the cost may be too obscure to realize until it’s time to pay.

The story behind the story: Twenty-six seconds on Tetonia-3

This week, Futures is delighted to welcome back Wendy Nikel with her story Twenty-six seconds on Tetonia-3. Regular readers will remember Wendy’s previous stories Cerise sky memoriesLava cake for the ApocalypseThe Memory Ward and Let me sleep when I die. You can find out more about Wendy’s work — and her latest novella The Grandmother Paradox — at her website and by following her on Twitter. Here, she reveals the inspiration for her latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing Twenty-six seconds on Tetonia-3

This story began — as many of mine do — with a writing prompt or, in this case, a mixture of two writing prompts. Sometimes, trying to fit multiple ideas or concepts together helps me to see things in ways that I wouldn’t normally and come up with unusual combinations.

The first prompt was the painting Funeral in Chernobyl Zone by Viktor Shmatŭ. In this image, a truck hauls a casket along a path through a run-down village, with mourners following behind. A sign with an orange triangle warning of contamination hangs on the building in the foreground.

The second prompt was a song by one of my favourite bands, Sparklehorse, entitled, ‘My Yoke is Heavy’. The band uses a lot of surrealist imagery in its lyrics, which inspired things like the animals that inhabit this post-disaster world.

Once I had the world built, all I had to do was ask myself how it came to be that way and what the characters were going to do about it, and the rest of the story fell into place.

SciArt scribbles: Crowdsourcing oral history of India’s science

Many scientists embrace the artistic medium to infuse new ideas into their scientific works. With science-art collaborations, both artists and scientists challenge their ways of thinking as well as the process of artistic and scientific inquiry. Can art hold a mirror to science? Can it help frame and answer uncomfortable questions about science: its practice and its impact on society? Do artistic practices inform science? In short, does art aid evidence?

Nature India’s blog series ‘SciArt Scribbles’ will try to answer some of these questions through the works of some brilliant Indian scientists and artists working at this novel intersection that offers limitless possibilities. You can follow this online conversation with #SciArtscribbles.

Are memories of the generation that transformed India’s science in the 20th century fast fading away? Do India’s contributions get lost in the predominantly western storytelling of science? Jahnavi Phalkey, historian of science and the founding director of Science Gallery Bengaluru, says a new public repository is all set to correct this by documenting the oral history of India’s science.

Jahnavi Phalkey

Science Gallery Bengaluru

The concept of a well-documented ‘intergenerational conversation’ – where one generation passes on their expertise, anecdotes and experiences to the next – is grossly missing in India’s science. While transformative ideas revolutionised the country’s science and engineering in the 20th century, not many in the present generation of scientists might recollect the people behind those sparks.

To preserve these nuggets from history, my team and I at the Science Gallery Bengaluru are putting together a public archive of India’s science. Called Re:Collect, this crowd-sourced online repository will house recordings of conversations with free India’s first generation of scientists, engineers, and laboratory technicians about their life and times, giving us a peek into an era gone by. In short, we will document memories of science in action.

The repository is India’s first attempt to draw on the public’s curiosity, especially of the young, to unearth, document, and appreciate India’s rich science and technology history. Our inspiration came from two highly successful volunteer driven public digital archives – P Sainath’s People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI) and Guneeta Singh Bhalla’s 1947 Partition Archive.

What Sainath  says about the need for a people’s archive is equally true for the history of science in India, “Without any systematic record, visual or oral, to educate us – let alone motivate us – to save this incredible diversity, we are losing worlds and voices … of which future generations will know little or nothing.”

We will plug into a network of institutional archives willing to accept documents and objects we discover. Our first institutional chapter will be hosted at the Archives and Publication Cell, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), shortly to be followed by another chapter at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (IITM).

Positioning India in the global science narrative

The story of science is mostly told as a story of Europe and North America. Stories and contributions from India and other parts of the world are lost in this narrative. We thought about how we might be able to change that skew.

While it was heartening to see new institutional archives opening their wares up, we found very few oral histories and no significant collection of personal papers of scientists and engineers. Such material is essential to write the history of scientific practice, credible biographies and thought-provoking prosopographies such as Gary Wersky’s The Visible College: The Collective Biography of British Scientific Socialists of the 1930s (1978), Marwa Elshakry’s Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1850-1930 (2013) and Michael Boulter’s more recent Bloomsbury Scientists: Science and Art in the Wake of Darwin (2017).

Not too long ago, at the Science Museum London, I worked on what was dubbed as a blockbuster exhibition on India for which I was looking for interesting objects and stories behind them. Given my research in history of science, I knew it would be difficult, though I did not then appreciate just how much! King’s College London, where I was employed at the time, came to the rescue with seed funding for research on the exhibition and this is how Re:Collect was born. 

The process of archiving

Through the initial seed fund from King’s, I created a list of over 1,000 senior scientists and engineers born before India’s Independence in 1947, organised by their current city of domicile. Based on our learning from comparable projects, science communicator Shaun O’Boyle, designer Madhushree Kamak and I developed handbooks to generate material for the project. We have an established protocol for audio and audio-visual recording of interviews in laboratories, for creating their audio-summaries and transcripts, and for documenting objects and instruments of historical interest.

Re:Collect India will be driven by the young and not-so-young volunteers  ̶  they could be students, scientists, historians, artists or anyone interested in the history of science and technology in India. These volunteers will interview the first generation of free India’s scientists, engineers, and technicians preferably in their laboratories or field-site. They may even video record the interview as long as it adheres to the standards specified by the protocol. We want to encourage the need to listen to and capture the stories that these interviewees want to tell.

Field experiments are tricky and often throw up hilarious moments. Re:Collect will capture the joy of doing experimental research. In this photo, meteorologist Anna Mani works with a colleague on a radiosonde, a balloon-borne weather-measuring equipment.

World Meteorological Organization

The conversations will essentially capture the enthusiasm, challenges, setback, struggles of teaching, conducting research, establishing disciplines, institutions, and building equipment in India after Independence. We will encourage the documentation of objects in teaching and research. The resulting conversations about scientific practice will become an oral history archive, and also generate an object inventory.

India’s voices in science

As India comes under the spotlight in what promises to be the Asian century, general recognition of India’s struggles and accomplishments in science remains woefully inadequate both at home and abroad. This global lack of awareness is untenable especially when India is being seen as an engineering powerhouse with huge potential in scientific research.

Our archive, therefore, will have three strands – a digital public archive of people in science, an inventory of historical objects in teaching and research, and an open access exhibition website with stories of science in action. In due course, we would like to add full text official and credible reports related to science and engineering in India. As a bonus, we hope the process will help generate donations of personal papers and objects to institutional archives.

The Re:Collect experience and our online orientation workshops will help volunteers develop useful new skills. Our citizen archivists may want to become storytellers and vice versa. We would, of course, respect the interviewees’ intellectual ownership of their story, and always acknowledge the volunteer’s contributions.

Re.Collect will capture the collective energy and camaraderie that builds and pushes the pursuit of science. Rajeshvari Chatterjee (centre), the first woman engineer from Indian Institute of Science, works with colleagues at the Department of Electrical Communication Engineering.) 

APC, IISc

Institutions of science and their archives, especially in India, are seldom accessible to the layperson. Moreover, written documents fail to capture the excitement, the tragedy and the occasional triumph of everyday science. Video and spoken-word recordings of conversations, accompanying historical and contemporary photographs, and supporting documents are, therefore, more appropriate as public resources.

Besides the collaborations with IISc and IITM, we are exploring partnerships with universities in India and abroad to host the website and the digital repository. We will also be actively seeking collaborations with people who can use materials from the repository for research, writing, filmmaking, and pedagogy.

As people across generations meet and talk to each other, the young will meet the experienced. The stories shared will shed light on institution building and leadership in science, on the trials and travails of doing experimental research in India  ̶  all immensely useful learning for an early career scientist or an engineer. Moreover, the material itself will lay the foundations for future history writing; and more generally, the project will help create a historical sensibility around science in India.

[Jahnavi Phalkey is the author of Atomic State: Big Science in Twentieth Century India, and director-producer of the film Cyclotron.]

Suggested reading:

SciArt scribbles:CRISPR and the smell of rain

SciArt scribbles: Bringing art and science together for greater good

SciArt scribbles: The mellifluous gene editor

SciArt scribbles: The molecule painter

SciArt scribbles: Coupling creation and analysis with collages

SciArt scribbles: Technology to aid dance

SciArt scribbles: Music to tackle PhD blues

SciArt scribbles: Playing science out

Artists on science: scientists on art

The story behind the story: In the spaces of strangers

This week, Futures is exploring the murky world of mind transference courtesy of In the spaces of strangers by L. P. Lee. An English Eurasian writer based in London,  L. P. Lee splits her work between fiction and screenwriting. You can find out more about her work at her website. Here, she reveals what inspired her latest tale — as ever, it pays to the read the story first.

Writing In the spaces of strangers

The story came about when I started looking into the idea that we’ll one day be able to upload our minds and live outside of the bodies that we were born into. It’s fascinating that there are neuroscientists and start-ups exploring how to turn these ideas into reality.

It makes you wonder how people, with all the baggage that they bring to the table and their varied ways of navigating society, might put this kind of technology to use.

I was curious about how it could play out if people from different backgrounds in British society started transferring across to each other, as opposed to uploading to a computer. It’s a flight of fancy, where brains are bits of machinery that can be emptied and refilled again. In my story, I wanted to explore what could happen in a relationship of power imbalance between two individuals.

Although there’s the potential for mind uploading to move us forward and be the next step in human evolution, possibly it will enable baser, more vampiric instincts too.

Nuclear fusion: Creating artificial stars

Too little does the public hear about nuclear fusion — a process in which two light nuclei collide at high speed and fuse into a heavier nucleus — which is surprising considering the need for alternative energy sources and fusion’s promise to deliver limitless clean and safe energy. If the word fusion brings anything to the mind of the wider public, this is likely related to ITER, a research reactor under construction in France that has repeatedly made the news by over blowing its budget and being substantially behind schedule. Is this all there is to know about fusion? By all means, no. “Let there be light – the 100 years journey to fusion” brings the audience on a fascinating journey across time and ideas into the complex landscape of past and present fusion research.

The documentary, directed by Mila Aung-Thwin and Van Ryoko, was released in March 2017, and explores the world of fusion mainly through the eyes of four of its protagonists, each bringing a different point of view.

Credit: Heath Cairns

Mark Henderson works at ITER, a reactor based on a tokamak design, in which a powerful magnetic field confines the plasma in a toroidal shape. ITER is poised to become the biggest fusion reactor in the world, and its goal is to demonstrate that fusion at the power-plant scale is feasible. At ITER, Henderson is in charge of the systems heating the plasma.

Eric Lerner develops a fusion concept called dense plasma focus, in which large electrical currents run through the plasma, harnessing its natural instabilities to confine and compress it; this type of reactor has the advantage of being much smaller and cheaper than other designs, but technologically is not as advanced. “The first error of the governments in the 1970s was to put all their eggs in the tokamak basket”, he comments. “But actually we still don’t know which route will lead to practical and economical fusion: you should invest not in ideas you think will work, but in all ideas you can’t prove won’t work”.

Michel Laberge is the founder of General Fusion, a private company developing a fusion power device that, instead of employing magnetic fields, uses pistons to compress liquid metal surrounding the plasma to create fusion conditions. “It’s pistons and its’ rings, it’s metal and pipes, it’s plumbing,” he explains. “Turning that into a power plant would actually be not that complicated. I have a saying, I tell my engineers: if you can’t find it at Home Depot it doesn’t go in the machine.”

Finally, Sibylle Gunter is the scientific director of Wendelstein 7-X, an experimental reactor in Germany that is the largest stellarator device in the world. Stellarators, which have worst plasma confinement than tokamaks but can run continuously — an important advantage for future power plants — are based on complicated coils optimized to generate a specific magnetic field configuration. Although stellarators are technologically behind tokamaks, some believe it is stellarators that will eventually deliver fusion on the grid.

The documentary takes the audience right at the beginning of the history of fusion, to the time when, in 1939, Hans Bethe understood the proton–proton reaction that powers stars. A decade later, in the USSR, a self-educated Red Army sergeant posted to a remote island suggested a concept that would become the tokamak; physicist Andrei Sakharov completed the projects for the first reactor in 1950. That same year, the claim (then proven fraudulent) that fusion had been achieved in Argentina inspired Lyman Spitzer, an American physicist, to develop the stellarator. The importance of international collaboration to achieve fusion was recognized already during the cold war (it helped that fusion has no military applications), and in 1985 Gorbachev and Reagan agreed to start a collaborative international project to develop fusion energy, laying the basis for the ITER project.

Among scientists, a period of tremendous enthusiasm in the 1960s was followed by a decade of doubt and skepticism when it was realized that the problem was more complex than initially thought. In the 1980s, on the wake of a new wave of enthusiasm, it was believed that fusion would be on the grid within 50 years, and indeed until 2000 advances were fast. But to take the next step a new machine was needed, bigger, more complex: ITER, which is likely the most complex machine ever built.  I know I will be retired by the time ITER is successful” says Henderson, “so I’m like the guy building a cathedral, who knows he is gonna […] spend his entire career putting bricks together, but he will never see the end piece.

Indeed, ITER is more than a decade behind schedule — first plasma was originally planned for 2016 — and several billion dollars over budget. In a management assessment back in 2013 the problem was pinned down as poor management, ill-defined decision-making processes and poor communications within the project. In 2015 a new Director General was appointed, Bernard Bigot. ITER now has a new date for first plasma, Christmas 2025. “I think ITER will probably work; it will demonstrate that fusion is doable,” says Laberge. “They are gonna blow their budget and their schedule big time, it will burn money at twice the rate you need to, but it will get built and it will work, and this will give a big shot in the arm of fusion.”

One point everybody seems to agree on is that more funding is needed to develop fusion. “The more money you put in, the faster the return. And we have really being putting in peanuts,” comments Henderson. “Fusion is about 20 billions for 20 years. One billion a year. One fancy bridge a year. Peanuts! Let’s do it!” says Laberge. “How long it will take to achieve fusion? At current levels of financing, it will take approximately the age of the universe,” concludes Lerner.

With its beautiful images, helpful animations and an engaging soundtrack, the documentary, which is all narrated through interviews and original clips, is informative and enjoyable. It does not shy away from the challenges and doubts about the feasibility of a complex project such as ITER, but keeps a positive outlook.  It is a welcome reminder that achieving fusion is an extremely important goal, and all potential avenues need to be explored. Whether expert on fusion or curious onlooker, in “Let there be light” there is something for everyone.

The story behind the story: Remember

This week Futures is delighted to welcome A. J. Lee with her story Remember — a cautionary tale about cryogenics. Here, we discover what inspired this piece — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing Remember

Despite the scepticism about cryonics, people have been freezing themselves in the hope of future resuscitation since the mid-1960s. We don’t yet know enough about the human brain to revive these frozen people. And we certainly don’t know enough to create brain-accessible memory storage that mimics real memories. But it seems likely that the two could go hand-in-hand.

And, it seems to me, one of the two is more likely to be adopted quickly: the one that helps us, personally and immediately. If you could have Remembers, wouldn’t you? Of course, people are desperate to live forever — but who would want their loved ones to be the first to be thawed? Knowing how the first version of any current tech product looks alongside its later version, and knowing you’ve only got one shot at it … wouldn’t you rather wait?
In 2016, a court ruled that a 14-year-old girl, who was dying of cancer, could be cryogenically frozen. I read that piece then, and since then the ideas in it have been percolating in my (warm, unpreserved, entirely fallible) brain. The same questions that I think we all ask when we hear about cryonics (Will she ever be thawed? What will the world look like when she is? Is this even possible, or is it a scam?), but also a new-to-me thought: she was so young, young enough that unlike many of the other people who turn to cryonics on their deathbeds her peers may still be alive when she is revived. What will they be like when she returns?
These two separate lines of thought — the scientific one about all the other possibilities brought up by a more thorough understanding of the human brain, and the human one brought up when we apply those scientific concepts — brought me to Jen and Dan’s story. Just like many of us today, Dan lives in a space in between technologies — he has Remembers, but he isn’t quite sure how to use them, and he’s aware of cryonics without fully knowing what’s possible. How could he not long for a clear representation, a clear reminder, of his own half-remembered youth?

Interactions: John Hammersley

After a PhD in theoretical physics (specifically, holography and the ADS/CFT correspondence), John left academia and later co-founded Overleaf in 2012. He has been developing Overleaf ever since to bring it to more and more users.

What did you train in? What are you doing now?

My background is in mathematics and physics; I completed an MPhys at Warwick in 2004, before heading up to Durham for my PhD, which I completed in 2008. I then moved out of academia into industry, working for Ultra PRT, the company behind the world’s first driverless taxi system. I joined the company as a research scientist, and my role later broadened out to be bid manager for the various projects the company was involved in.

How did Overleaf start?

When joining Ultra PRT, I was lucky enough to be mentored by Prof. Martin Lowson, a former rocket scientist and aeronautical engineer. He founded Ultra PRT out of Bristol University in the mid-nineties, and always maintained a strong link with academia, encouraging us to write up and share our research into large scale driverless taxi systems with the wider community. This involved collaborations both internally and with others at partner universities/organizations, and it was whilst collaborating on these research papers that we discovered Etherpad, a new browser-based collaboration tool. This made it easy for us to share and collaborate on notes, but because we typically use LaTeX for our papers, it wasn’t quite what we needed.

So one weekend, my co-founder Dr John Lees-Miller built the prototype for Overleaf (then called WriteLaTeX), which allowed us all to collaborate in the browser on LaTeX documents, and would generate a PDF output by compiling the LaTeX on a server. We also found that this greatly lowered the barriers to collaborating with others who were new to LaTeX, as there was nothing to install — all that’s needed is a web browser. Usage of the site continued to grow through word-of-mouth and being featured on sites such as HackerNews, and in late 2012 we decided to found our own company and work on Overleaf full time!

Who is using Overleaf today?

Today over four million people worldwide are using Overleaf! These range from students taking their first steps with LaTeX, through to large scale collaborations between hundreds of the world’s leading scientists. I’m always amazed at the wide range of uses people find for LaTeX and Overleaf. For example, one of the first projects on Overleaf that wasn’t one of our research papers was a set of wedding invitations!

We also see Overleaf helping to extend LaTeX out into fields where it’s less common, such as in the humanities and social sciences (for example, see this a short interview with Brian Lucey, Professor of Finance at Trinity College, Dublin, who started using LaTeX through Overleaf and is now part of our Advisor programme).

We’re also collaborating with partners in the publishing industry to try to help streamline the authoring, submission and publication workflows for journals and preprint servers, by providing updated templates and simple submission links. Overleaf is the natural place for authors and editors to be able to check that all the files for a submission are present, and that there are no compilation errors within a manuscript. Because of the built-in error reporting, and friendly interface, it also helps when there are any problems to resolve!

What I personally find most exciting is that Overleaf is helping students create and share their work in ways not easily possibly before. For example, the ‘Nano Ninjas’ — a group of 7th and 8th Graders in the US — used Overleaf to write up the engineering notebook from their school Robotics challenge! They won an award for their notebook, and have shared it in full on Overleaf as a template for future students to see and take inspiration from!

You can read more about the Nano Ninjas here, and some of their members also went on to form ‘The Three Musketeers’. It’s amazing to see, and hopefully provides an inspiration to future researchers and scientists everywhere 🙂

 What are the main challenges when starting a company? Do you have any advice to share?

There’s a lot I could talk about here! Although, I’m a bit reluctant to start by listing out challenges; you have to be somewhat naively optimistic to start a company, and focusing too much on any perceived challenges can be (wrongly) off-putting. So I’ll focus on advice instead.

If four points is too many, just read point four: don’t run out of money!

  1. Take everyone’s advice with a pinch of salt: we all give advice based on our own experiences, and in the early days it’s easy to get side-tracked by advice that’s well-meaning, but not relevant for you.
  2. Talk to people about your idea as early as you can, but don’t be put off if the first people you talk to seem a bit confused as to what you’re proposing. It’s natural, as you’re still developing the idea, and it’ll help highlight where you need to be able to explain your idea more clearly. Early on, you’ll need positive reaction for motivation, early adoption for validation, and any critical feedback for development. But remember to take any advice they give you with a pinch of salt 🙂
  3. Focus on solving the immediate problems that you need to get done to get yourself to the next stage (whether that’s finding a co-founder, building the MVP, or getting feedback from your first users), and don’t worry too much about things beyond that. At the start this is focusing one week or one month at a time, and certainly no more than six months ahead. If you focus too much on the long term, you’ll find it takes you too long to get the important stuff done now, and you’ll run out of time/money.
  4. Finally, and most importantly, it’s the CEO’s main job to make sure you don’t run out of money — whoever the CEO is in your founding team needs know how long you have with initial money you’ve saved/raised to get started, and needs to focus on getting the next funding secured before this runs out. If you run out of money, it doesn’t matter how close you are to solving any of the other problems; that’s usually game over.

I also wrote on a similar topic in a blog for ErrantScience, and in my Reddit AMA from a few years ago. If you’re interested in my longer thoughts on this, those are both good follow-on reads.

If you are starting a company, good luck, and feel free to reach out to me directly if you think I can help! If it’s in the #TechForGood space, I’d also recommend talking to the Bethnal Green Ventures team; they’re very friendly, and have a lot of experience helping start-ups develop in the very early stages. We were part of their summer cohort in 2013, and I still help out as a mentor and alumni!

Do you have a favourite Overleaf tip(s)?

If you’re at a university, check if your institution has a site license for Overleaf! You can see the list of institutions here, and if they do, you’ll be able to get a free upgrade to an Overleaf Professional account through that license!

My other top tip isn’t for Overleaf specifically, but can greatly help if you can’t remember the LaTeX command for a symbol — you can use detexify to find it! Simply draw the symbol, and it’ll give you the corresponding LaTeX command!

Finally, if you’re new to LaTeX itself, we’ve put together this short introduction which can be completed in about 30 minutes, to help you get started. Good luck, and if you do use Overleaf, we’d love to hear from you!

 

Alive in the universe

This is a guest post by Sarah Hiddleston 

Nature Middle East has an exciting contribution to the grande dame of art events –The Venice Biennale. For more than 120 years the Biennale has attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors to the floating city, whose sweeping squares, crumbling palazzos and beautiful churches play host to the world’s foremost cutting-edge creative minds. Now in its 58th iteration, it takes as its theme May you live in interesting times and promises to be a showcase of what its artistic director Ralph Rugoff describes as “art’s potential for looking into things that we do not already know”.

Nature Middle East’s film-short charts the contribution of Syrian artist Issam Kourbaj as he examines the nature of reality, life, death, migration and the passage of time. Together with the British poet Ruth Padel, Kourbaj will open a 28-day exhibition entitled Alive in the Universe with a three-piece performance installation at the Palazzo Pesaro Papafava on May 8. The film, shot last year in Kourbaj’s studio in Cambridge, will be shown alongside the installation.

Alive in the Universe is a creative take on the wonder and anguish of existence including some of the most perplexing questions in science. Masterminded by co-curators Caroline Wiseman and David Baldry, it was inspired by Albert Einstein’s dictum that “art is the expression of the profoundest thoughts in the simplest way”. The exhibition seeks to challenge and deepen our understanding of life and death, gender and procreation, the cosmos, water, dark matter, technology and time among others.

Watch: the video  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vpUOx-wTUz4

The story behind the story: Without access

Futures is delighted to welcome back Deborah Walker this week with Without access, her story about the need to stay connected. Regular readers will be familiar with Deborah’s work (there are links to her other stories at the foot of this post), but you can find out more about her writing at her website or by following her on Twitter. Here, she reveals the inspiration behind her latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing Without access

I like my phone, but my teenage daughter really likes it. It’s so important to her. Access is everything. When my teenage niece was denied Wi-Fi access on a recent holiday to Croatia (the brochure had promised access), she had a meltdown. For many of the younger generation access to the Internet has become part of their identity.

Concerns about the time we all spend on our electronic devices have recently resurfaced. Are we enslaved to access? What does this mean for our productivity? For our mental health?

It’s not just parents who are concerned. Half of teenagers think they spend too much time on social media. Teenagers also think that parents are spending too much time on their phones. (But let’s gloss over that.)

People can’t seem to stop checking their phones. A recent survey reveals people checking their phones in the most inappropriate situations: during sex (7%), on the toilet (72%) and even during a funeral (11%). Nearly two-thirds of people said they felt anxious when not connected to the Wi-Fi.

I seem to recall that the social-media giants are implanting measure to help us manage these issues, although I don’t recall what those measures are.

These issues inspired my story. I take my teenage hero to a planet where access is denied. A nightmare planet, inhabited by underground dwellers. Bored out of her tiny mind, my hero goes where she shouldn’t go: into the night of the living dead, except the dead aren’t flesh and blood, they are personalities, and they have access to a horrifying amount of data.

More Futures stories by Deborah:

Contagion in tranquil shades of grey | When the Cold comes | Good for something | Face in the dark | Sybil | Surrendered human | First foot | Glass future | Ovoids | Green future | Auntie Merkel | The frozen hive of her mind