Lettie Prell Online
April 10, 2021 8:47am
The Future of Work: 
Economists vs. Science Fiction Writers

I was one of the contributors to WIRED magazine’s slate of science fiction stories exploring the Future of Work in late 2020. So, I did a double-take when the Economist hosted a webinar under the exact same title. That latter discussion, with Economist journalists Miranda Johnson, Avantika Chilkoti and Callum Williams acknowledged that while the pandemic had “dreadful consequences” in the short term, the outlook in the medium- and long-run was largely optimistic. It turns out that people working from home are productive, working longer hours, sending more emails, and attending more meetings. Chilkoti stated it’s hard to measure equipment and travel costs, but virtual meetings “saves the planet” in terms of ecological benefit.

Juxtapose that discussion (and William’s article) with Diana Pho’s discussion of virtual work in her introduction to the WIRED series: “Working from anywhere, we are peppered with bite-sized names that fit our lives into bite-sized bursts of productivity. Zoom. Slack. Discord. Airtable. Notion. Clubhouse. Collaboration means floating heads, pop-up windows, chat threads. While apps give us more freedom and variety in how we manage our time, they also seem to reduce our personalities to calculations divided across various digital platforms.” The same trend is recognized here as with the economists, but with the focus shifted to how this will impact us as individuals and a species.

The science fiction stories in the WIRED series, from Aliette de Bodard, Usman T. Malik, Lexi Pandell, Tade Thompson, Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and me reach still further into speculative space. Some focus on future industries, others on how technology will affect our lives, our memories, our consciousness—how we may come to define humanity itself. Does it matter whether such fictions become true things? No. Yet they’re cultural indicators in their own right, a peek into the collective unconscious, where we’re sorting out our relationship to our technology and our world, and facing both our fears and our hopes for the future.


Lettie Prell is a science fiction writer. She likes to explore the edge where humans and their technology are increasingly merging.

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photo by Camille Renee