The future of collaboration may look something like … Twitter’s Magical Realism Bot. Created by sibling team Ali and Chris Rodley, it randomly recombines words and phrases from an ever-growing database of inputs. The results are absurdist, weird, whimsical: “An old woman knocks at your door. You answer it, and she hands you a constellation.” “Every day, a software developer starts to look more and more like Cleopatra.” “There is a library in Paris where you can borrow question marks instead of books.” People ascribe intentionality and coherence to these verbal mash-ups; in the end, they sound like stories drawn from a wild imagination. A bot’s output, engineered by humans, creates a unique hybrid artform.
Magical Realism Bot is a pleasant social media diversion—somewhat at odds with our historical fear of working hand in (mechanical) hand with robots. A century ago, when Karel Čapek’s play R. U. R., or Rossum’s Universal Robots debuted in Prague, his “roboti” lived as enslaved creations, until they rebelled and destroyed humankind (thus immortalizing a common science-fictional trope). Čapek’s play is a cautionary tale about how humans treat others who are deemed lesser, but it also holds a lesson about collaboration: Technology reflects the social and moral standards we program into it. For every Magical Realism Bot, there are countless more bots that sow discord, perpetuate falsehoods, and advocate violence. Technology isn’t to blame for bigotry, but tech has certainly made it more curatable.
Today’s collaborative tension between humans and machines is not a binary divide between master and servant—who overthrows whom—but a question of integration and its social and ethical implications. Instead of creating robots to perform human labor, people build apps to mechanize human abilities. 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. We run the risk of collaborating ourselves into auto-automatons.
As an editor of science fiction, I think about these questions and possibilities constantly. How are our impulses to fear, to hope, and to wonder built into the root directories of our tech? Will we become more machine-like, or realize the humanity in the algorithm? Will our answers fall somewhere in symbiotic in-between spaces yet unrealized? At WIRED’s behest, I asked six of my favorite writers for short stories on these subjects. Some focused on individual industries, like medicine and advertising; others explored themes of memory and consciousness. All of them, in the tradition of Čapek, extrapolate our future of work in ways that appeal to our lighter and darker sensibilities. As we roll them out between now and the end of the year, we hope you find them both inspirational and cautionary—an apt combination during these fragmented times.