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What will D.C. look like in a century? Will it be dealing with any of the same issues we have today? We can’t know for certain—but we can guess. That’s the idea behind Dispatches from 2120, a new speculative series written by Josh Kramer and published weekly for the next six weeks by local newsletter 730DC. Kramer, a freelance writer and artist (and City Paper contributor) has worked with 730DC before, writing pieces on Metrobus’ cash surcharge and the importance of going to your ANC meeting, but Dispatches from 2120 is especially ambitious. It’s modeled after other works of “speculative journalism,” Kramer says, like Sam Greenspan’s podcast Bellwether and the New York Times’ “Op-Eds From the Future,” and written in the style of 730DC’s daily newsletter. It’s also got plenty of multimedia components, including a weekly narrative comic, an Instagram Live event, and contributions from other artists. The team plans to incorporate reader responses, as well. Kramer spoke with City Paper about the project, its scope, and its aims.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
WCP: What is Dispatches from 2120?
Josh Kramer: Dispatches from 2120 is a six-week, limited-run fictional newsletter project published by 730DC, and it is imagining the city that we live in 100 years from now. It’s the idea that you can do research about contemporary issues and ideas—racism, infrastructure, urban life—and you can use that research and that knowledge to create a piece of fiction set in an imaginative future or alternate reality. The readers of 730DC, to begin with, are an audience who care about housing and transit and homelessness and education, and this newsletter kind of speaks to that. It’s kind of pushing people to think about these issues in a much, much different context than they’re used to.
It’s nice to get immersed in fiction. I actually read a piece of speculative fiction that was set in D.C. in the future, and it didn’t deal with D.C. culture at all, and I hate that! A big pet peeve is the fact that our city is just a placeholder for [the federal] government, and obviously it’s not. Obviously, 700,000 people and growing live here, and we are a large mid-Atlantic city on the East Coast with our own stuff going on, so I liked the ability to portray that, besides just being the capital of the United States. And, spoiler alert: In the newsletter, that’s changing.
WCP: Did you come up with this entirely on your own?
JK: It was a collaborative process, kind of a conversation with two of the editors at 730DC, Hayden Higgins and Lily Strelich. I’ve worked with them before on my other 730DC projects. At the beginning of the year, before coronavirus, we’d been talking about doing a limited-run series already, because I had some ideas. After meeting in person to talk about this and going back and forth, this was the one that we were immediately like, “Oh, this is the most fun and the most out there, and probably the most difficult, but probably the most rewarding if we get this right.”
WCP: How did the pandemic affect this project?
JK: The pandemic has shaped the narrative quite a bit, as have the protests for racial justice, and I’m so glad to have that context in there—which you may not see in the first one, so you’ll have to trust me. With the pandemic, with the presidential election, everyone feels super stressed out all the time and like they’re living through something they’ll remember for the rest of their lives. It’s almost a cliche to say we’re living through history being written right now. But so much of our daily existence and preoccupation right now is thinking about what is next year going to look like? What will the next four years look like? And I’m looking at a broader horizon, because I think that matters, too, not only what will the pandemic do to us next year, but what will it do to us in 100 years? In the newsletter, the “winter stay-at-home school season” is just something that’s offhandedly mentioned. There is a reference to the COVID-19 and COVID-25 memorials on the National Mall.
WCP: What did the process behind this project look like?
JK: The first thing I did was make a massive document that we now refer to as “the Bible,” the way you would with a television show—there’s a “Bible” of what is true in this universe and what is not. I got their feedback on it and sent it to some people I respect, who maybe have more expertise than I do on things like technology or urban planning. From there, we did a huge spreadsheet and tried to figure out what would go in the six individual editions, and then, with a rough layout, started putting them together and coming up with storylines that would carry over from issue to issue.
WCP: What kind of research did you do to figure out which things you’d bring into the future?
JK: A lot of it is based on what I’m interested in and what I want to explore. I write about the bus, I write about slow streets, I write about housing occasionally, and I’m very interested in urbanism and the things that affect our city. Something that might not be obvious is that I spent a lot of time researching the 1920s. That was really helpful, for me to think, “It’s the year 2020 now, let me look back 100 years ago, and let me see what they had in the ’20s that we still have, let me see what was brand new, what was important to them then, and let me try to extrapolate that 100 years into the future.”
WCP: Why try speculative fiction? What does fiction allow us to learn?
JK: Hayden was just telling me that this was the kind of project that they wanted to position themselves to support; 730DC wanted to be able to provide a space for experimentation that works with the rest of their content.
I’m not trying to be 100 percent predictive. I’m trying to show something that, based on my research, is likely, something that is based on fact, but my version of it is meant to push the reader a little bit. In almost all of the editions, there’s a lot about trees—you might be reading the first one and think, “Why is there so much about trees? Why does he keep revisiting various things about trees?” There are genetically engineered cherry blossoms; “Arborist” is always capitalized and highly respected; everyone knows all the Latin names of trees, and all of this stuff serves a purpose. In this version of the future, our current climate change has moved into something else that is a world-defining climate catastrophe, and society has become a lot more interested in this idea of carbon sinks and carbon sequestration in the roots of trees. That’s a pretty nitty-gritty idea. That’s an idea that hasn’t really taken root, sorry for the pun, in society at large, but I think it’s a really interesting idea to explore and I’d like to dig into what the cultural ramifications are of a society that cares a lot more about trees.
WCP: Looking at the first issue, I’m interested in why your futuristic newsletter is full of links to contemporary sources. What do you hope to accomplish with that?
JK: It does a couple things. This was our big mystery: We’re writing a piece of fiction; how do we make it clear that this is based on real things, and how do we make it feel urgent and in the moment? By putting lots of links in there to contemporary websites and news articles, we wanted to make it so that if someone was shocked by something or had no idea what we were talking about, they could spend a few minutes and hopefully gain some useful context.
WCP: You’ve mentioned Instagram components, a comic, and incorporating reader contributions for this project. What’s the ecosystem of the larger project?
JK: I’m a cartoonist, and that’s my background. I couldn’t help myself. I wanted there to be some kind of visual component, because the writing wasn’t enough for me. That’s why I did the comic, which is about nine or 10 panels for each chapter, and that’s going to come out on the same day as each edition. It’s kind of a little sweet love story. Some people may not be interested in comics, but I would encourage everybody to look at everything—you get much more of a broad experience looking at everything.
I know some D.C. artists and designers, and I reached out to them early on, so there’s some really exciting stuff built into the actual weekly newsletters: watercolor-style paintings of animals that have gone extinct, the logo for a sports team that I don’t want to spoil.
We wanted to create some space for everyone that wanted to participate and shape this version of the future, and we want to bring in as many people as who want to contribute, because there’s so much stuff I didn’t even get to touch on. We’re still figuring this out—we want to have the flexibility to send out some bonus messages, to post things to Twitter and Instagram or Medium—basically, the better it is, the more people we want to show it to. We’re definitely open, because there’s a whole universe out there, and I’d love other people in the spirit of improv to grab onto it and say, “Yes, this exists, but also this.”
I’m also doing an event on Instagram Live on Aug. 17 at 7 p.m., and that’s going to be a lot of fun. Lily from 730DC is going to host and talk to me about the project. It’s going to be an ask-me anything-style event, where I’m also going to be drawing the comic and showing how I actually draw it on paper.
WCP: You say Dispatches from 2120 is neither fully optimistic nor cynical, but how do you feel about the future of our city?
JK: I’m bullish, in the way that people invest in index funds: I agree that the long-run picture is good, but things may get worse before they get better. I can be cynical like any other journalist, but I am optimistic in that I think technology and people who have a vested interest in the future of the city are doing the best they can to make it equitable and prosperous for everyone.