What Minority Report tells us about America in 2016

Minority Report is one of the most prescient science fiction movies ever made. It's the second most cited piece of science fiction in policy-making circles after George Orwell's 1984. Steven Spielberg assembled a team of leading futurists and technologists including Kevin Kelly to inform the world the movie takes place in. It's amazing how much they got right, and what that says about America in 2016.

So when the folks at decipherSciFi asked me to come on the podcast and discuss the movie with them, I was delighted. We dig deep into the future of policing, artificial intelligence, prediction, digital democracy, privacy, and the many, many parallels between Minority Report and the world we live in today. If you want to geek out with us on your commute, give it a listen.

Thanks to Nick Farmer for introducing me to decipherSciFi. Thanks to Kevin Bankston for writing an incredible talk/essay which I pillaged ruthlessly for ideas in this interview. Thanks to Berit Anderson and Brett Horvath who produced an amazing Scout dispatch on the future of policing which nails so many of these issues. Thanks to Brad Feld for his various posts about working with the folks at Oblong Industries who created the incredible user interfaces in the film and now build them for the real world.

Listen to the podcast right here.


Enjoy this interview? Then you’ll probably like my reading recommendations curating amazing books that explore the intersection of technology and culture.

Cumulus audiobook now available

The Cumulus audiobook is available now. Give it a listen and let me know what you think.

It’s been been quite a year for audiophiles! The entire Uncommon Series is now available in audio format, the Cumulus audiobook comes out today, and the Neon Fever Dream audiobook is in production and should be available within six weeks or so. Jennifer O’Donnell really brings the characters to life in her narration and the award-winning production team at Brick Shop Audio has been great to work with.

If you haven’t read it yet, Cumulus is a fast-paced science fiction story with a diverse cast set in a near-future San Francisco Bay Area ravaged by economic inequality and persistent surveillance. It’s been praised by folks like Tim O'Reilly, David Brin, Businessweek, Ars Technica, Popular Science, TechCrunch, io9, GeekDad and others. I’ve been shocked and delighted by how the story seems to be resonating and am donating the first six months of proceeds to the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Chapter 510 to support a free and open internet and literacy programs for underprivileged youth in Oakland. You can find out more about the inspiration behind the story here and what I learned from the experience of writing it here.

Two weeks ago I visited Park City to speak at the Future in Review conference, a gathering focused on important tech trends and regularly attended by Silicon Valley luminaries. It was a great community to connect with and I met amazing folks working on everything from fighting international human trafficking, to creating software that enables animal communication and hardware to monitor marine life in the deepest oceans. Every year they host a science fiction author to talk about the far future and it was humbling to follow in the footsteps in some of my favorite writers like Neal Stephenson, Kim Stanley-Robinson, and Cory Doctorow. Berit Anderson, founder of the new hybrid scifi/tech journalism publication Scout, and I discussed the technologies that will shape the next few decades, Elon Musk’s recent Mars announcement, the intersection of geopolitics and tech, and how we’re rocketing towards an unprecedented artistic Renaissance.

Finally, I’m getting momentum on the rough draft of a new novel. It was a rocky start but the story seems to have grown some legs. I can’t wait to see where the characters take it. Now, time to get back to work…


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Uncommon Stock: Exit Strategy audiobook now available

I'm delighted to share that the audiobook of Uncommon Stock: Exit Strategy is now available, you can check it out and start listening right here.

Exit Strategy is the third and final installment in The Uncommon Series, the #1 highest rated financial thriller on Amazon (you can find the audio version of book one here and book two here). The trilogy follows Mara Winkel as she leads her tech startup from garage to IPO and gets caught up in an international conspiracy along the way. I did a ton of research to inform the story, which you can read about here.

Audiobooks can be difficult and expensive to produce, especially for indie writers like me. But it's a format I've adored since I was a child. There's something special about listening to a story that sets my imagination on fire. Just this morning, I finished the audio version of Malka Older's excellent debut novel Infomocracy, a cyberpunk tale about the future of geopolitics that crackles with energy and big ideas (highly recommended). That's why I'm not surprised that the popularity of audiobooks has skyrocketed in recent years, and also why I take production so seriously. I worked with award-winning house Brick Shop Audio on Exit Strategy and Jennifer O'Donnell did a fabulous job narrating the book.

Last week, the first review of the audiobook came out and made all that work and investment feel worth it (you can read the full review here). "Exit Strategy leaves nothing in the tank. Action-packed from the beginning as Mozaik fights to stay afloat and tries to bring down the biggest money laundering schemes in the world. Every page bleeds with realism and authenticity. The production quality was perfect and you couldn’t ask for a better narrator."

I hope you agree with Brian's assessment, and would love to here what you think if you give it a listen. We're now working on producing audiobooks for both Cumulus and Neon Fever Dream.

It's been a busy month since my last missive. GeekDad ran a glowing review of Cumulus that includes an in-depth interview with me on how to dissect technology trends, what companies need to do in order to succeed with innovation, and the real world issues that inspired the story. Cumulus also reached 100 reviews on Amazon, which got me unreasonably excited. I really love hearing what you think of the stories, and reader reviews make a surprisingly large impact.

In late August, we hosted a party to celebrate the release of both Cumulus and Neon Fever Dream. As always, it was a delight to chat with friends and fans about the books. Novels might be penned by authors, but they only come alive in readers' imaginations.

Shortly after the party, we madly packed our gear and set out to spend a week in the desert at Burning Man. This was our third Burn, and it was as profoundly fun and transformative an experience as ever. One special treat this time around was hearing from Burners who'd read Neon Fever Dream, including one who gave copies to everyone who attended their playa wedding. Black Rock City is a temporary city humming with creativity and adventure and if you haven't visited, you might want to consider adding it to your bucket list.

Finally, next week I head out to give a talk at this year's Future in Review conference in Park City, Utah. Future in Review is a conference focused on the next 5-10 years of tech and regularly attended by Elon Musk, Vinod Khosla, Craig Venter, Paul & Irwin Jacobs, Larry Brilliant, Paul Allen, and Michael Dell. David Brin, Cory Doctorow, Ramez Naam, Kim Stanley-Robinson, and Neal Stephenson have all been featured science fiction authors in the past few years and I'm honored to participate this time around. I love telling stories live as well as on the printed page, and between this and my Talk at Google a few months ago, it's been a fun summer for speaking.

This is an update from my author newsletter, which you can sign up for here.

Waking up from Neon Fever Dream

This is an update from my author newsletter, which you can sign up for here.

Whenever a book comes out, I'm always filled with an odd mixture of conflicting emotions. I'm excited to share it and see it widely read, but I know that the work has to speak for itself. I'm thrilled to hear what readers think, but nervous that it might not resonate with them. I'm both anxious and relieved that a creative project I poured my heart into is finally out in the wild.

Neon Fever Dream came out two weeks ago. In addition to a number of blog reviews, Popular Science ran a review, TechCrunch ran an excerpt, La Soga ran an interview, Rocketship.fm ran a podcast, Don Houts ran a review, Talkshow.im hosted a chat, Product Hunt featured it, and Hugo and Nebula award-winner David Brin praised it in his reading roundup. You can even see a funny picture of me at Burning Man in this little photo-essay I wrote about the inspirations behind the book. Right now, we're frantically gearing up to head back to the desert at the end of the month.

But more than anything, I've been delighted to hear from you. You've shared your loves, hates, questions, comments, and detailed accounts of what the story made you think and feel. Even before the book came out, advance readers taught me about everything from the institutional dynamics within the LDS Church to the onset time for rigor mortis. With Cumulus, you refined the story's intelligence tradecraft, gear transmission mechanics, and so many other important factors. For The Uncommon Series, you helped me understand what it actually feels like for a CEO to go through an IPO and how expert money launderers manipulate the financial system. I'm lucky to have readers with sharp eyes and even sharper minds.

Any attention Neon Fever Dream earns is also thanks to you. Grassroots word-of-mouth helps art succeed by including it in our larger communal conversation. It's the cultural equivalent of compound interest. Things that might seem small or unimportant make a surprisingly large impact over the long run. So when you recommend it to a friend or leave a review, you're accomplishing far more than you might imagine.

After releasing a book, my next step is always to dive into a fresh manuscript. Last week, I started drafting a new story. Gene Wolfe once told Neil Gaiman, "You never learn how to write a novel, you just learn how to write the novel that you're writing." Time to see what's at the bottom of this rabbit hole. Wish me luck.

Neon Fever Dream is out today

I'm delighted to share that my new novel, Neon Fever Dream, is now available. You can get it right here in beautifully-designed digital or trade paperback formats.

Neon Fever Dream is about a dark secret hidden in the swirling dust and exultant revelry of Burning Man. It's a fast-paced thriller with a diverse cast that weaves together everything from the ripple effects of the Sri Lankan civil war to the impacts of new technology on international organized crime. The story required substantial research and I'm really excited about how it came together.

In 2013, my wife and I travelled through Asia and East Africa for nine months. We spent 33 days on a trek through Himalayan backcountry in Nepal, scrambled up crags in northern Ethiopia, and dove the colorful reefs off the northern tip of Sumatra. But perhaps the most otherworldly place we visited was Burning Man, where we went immediately after our wheels hit American tarmac.

Burning Man was powerful precisely because it was so hard to define. Rather than a wild narcotic-infused bonanza, we discovered that the atmosphere was far more diverse and creative. Lacking the formal structure of a large music festival with stages and schedules, each participant's experience was shaped by where they wandered when, and whom they happened to meet. It wasn't a party. It was a temporary community populated by artists, technologists, doers, makers, scientists, goofballs, geeks, and freaks united not by their interests, but by a proactive mandate to accept, support, and give.

Much like spending time in a foreign country, Burning Man made us question the things we took for granted in our everyday lives. Friendships formed quickly and spontaneously. We have since returned, and plan to do so regularly.

Burning Man was a wonderful port of reentry into the United States. At the same time, it reminded us of the impossible adversity people face every day in many of the countries we had just returned from. While we were playing on the playa, the Maldives was wracked by political upheaval, our favorite bookshop in Kathmandu went up in flames, and Sri Lankan dissidents disappeared without a trace.

That was the seed of Neon Fever Dream. International intrigue makes for a compelling page-turner, but in the real world such machinations tear people's lives apart. A few of those lives might collide against the incomparable backdrop of Burning Man. Stranger things have happened, particularly in Black Rock City.

From there the story grew and changed, taking on its particular shape. A friend-of-a-friend became involved in a federal investigation of Tongan Crips in Utah. My wife and I took some Krav Maga classes in Oakland. A refugee taxi driver told me about how his loved ones had been persecuted by the Karuna Faction. I met journalists and security experts following the evolving relationship between the expansion of technological surveillance capabilities and the role of international criminal organizations. The pieces fell into place.

We often read nonfiction to learn about the world around us. But fiction offers something else, a chance to explore our own subjective experience of living in that world. It gives us a glimpse into the minds and hearts of other human beings. It empowers us to escape and in escaping, reflect. The most powerful stories compel us, move us, and leave us with more questions than answers.

Give it a read and let me know what you think.

The technological trends that will shape the next 30 years

An interview with Kevin Kelly, Senior Maverick at Wired Magazine and author of The Inevitable.

The Inevitable by Kevin Kelly is the most interesting nonfiction book I've read about the future in a long time. I constantly found myself rereading passages and marking pages to come back to later. Kevin has been an enthusiastic observer of both the human condition and the state of technology for decades as a cofounder of Wired, and his insights are deep, provocative, and wide ranging. In his own words, "When answers become cheap, good questions become more difficult and therefore more valuable." The Inevitable raises many important questions that will shape the next few decades.

Kevin was generous enough to answer a few questions I had after finishing the book. Read on to find out why most people fail when they try to make predictions, what the future holds for the creative class, and why The Inevitable will be Kevin's last print book. See these notes by the estimable Derek Sivers for more background.


If none of the important things of the next 100 years have been invented yet, how do you generate or select the next project or idea to pursue?

It is wide open! Most new ideas -- including my own -- will fail in the long term, but the ones that will succeed in becoming dominant in the next decades are most likely to come from the edge, as they have always. I'm good at working on the edge, so I look for ideas that are NOT popular at first, that seem marginal, niche, barely plausible. I'm looking for the places where technology is abused, misused, or unsupervised in order to get a glimpse of its natural inherent leanings. Where the edges go, the center follows later.

David Pogue points out that what differentiates your work as a futurist is that you have an incredible track record of getting it right. What are the most common mistakes you see people make when they try to make predictions? Why do so many intelligent analysts get it wrong?

The most difficult part about looking at the future is unlearning what we know. There is so much baked into our generally held assumptions that tend to blind us -- all of us. You have to keep questioning the assumptions. But at the same time, most assumptions of what is correct are actually correct! So you have to keep knocking at the door, even though most times it yields nothing: "Is this really true? Who says? Why? Do I really believe it? What if it is wrong? What happens then?" That can be exhausting, frustrating, unproductive, so unless it becomes a habit, it gets old fast. You also have to question without too much stake in the answers.  You want to have strong opinions loosely held, ready to shift rapidly when needed. Most people have trouble changing their minds. I like to have my mind changed.

Most sweeping surveys of what to expect in the coming decades focus on economic and geopolitical implications, but The Inevitable goes far beyond that. What does the future hold for artists, writers, and creatives? What practical steps would you recommend we take to set ourselves up for success over the long term? 

There will be a thousand new creative genres developed in the next two decades. Each of these forms will breed a new crop of stars that did not exist the year before. Cultivate a techno literacy. The tech will constantly change faster than you can master it, so you master life long learning. Aim lower; you don't need a million fans; it's a world of niches. The biggest challenge is to think different while being connected. It's easy to think different while in isolation; it is easy to be connected. It is vastly harder to see different, make different, be different while connected to 7 billion humans all the time.  Taking vacations and sabbaticals from the hive mind become important; cultivating a lateral view, nurturing the orthogonal will be essential. Not living in Silicon Valley will probably be an advantage.

In the ever-propagating multiverse of the cloud, we will rely more and more on filters to deliver us the stuff we want. You discuss some potential ways to escape the filter bubble or overfitting problem. But if relevance is what captures attention and attention is the scarcest resource, isn’t building filter bubbles commercially optimal because that attention drives profits higher?

Social media is less than 2,000 days old. It is unclear to date whether or not overfitting a filter optimizes commercial profits, or whether or not consumers want to optimize relevance. We simply don’t know yet. But we do know that if a service tends not to produce what consumers ultimately want, they will leave and use a different service. So it is very much in the commercial interests of social media to provide its customers with the attention tools they need. Since neither side yet know what those tools are, this will be an ongoing development.

Books are one of the primary examples used in The Inevitable to illustrate the forces shaping our future. How are you applying those insights to your own work as an author?

This will be my last native text book, meaning the last book I write in print. My "books" in the future will either be born as update-able digital e-books, or will be very visual photobooks, or will be bookish videos, or full bore virtual realities. At some point these processes may throw off a printed book, but that will only be a derivative of the more native digital form.

In addition to providing a blueprint of what to expect over the next 30 years, you provide “fly through” subjective glimpses of what our lives might be like that read like science fiction. What role do science and speculative fiction play in our culture? What are some of your favorite science fiction novels that you think “get it right”?

I think the Speilberg film Minority Report got it right, but I am very biased because I was part of the group of futurists hired by Speilberg to create believable world of 2050. He got it right because he kept asking the right questions. In general science fiction is under-appreciated for its vast influence on science itself, and even on culture. Hundreds of thousands of engineers are working on projects today because they saw some product in a science fiction story that they want to make real. With the advent of computer-generated science fiction films, we can witness sci-fi's power. I would expect sci-fi worlds, a la Star Wars and Star Trek, to continue to grow in popularity, particularly as these worlds enter VR. VR may indeed become the greatest platform for science fiction, where the audience can experience the future rather than just watch it.

Watch my Google Talk

Last month, Google invited me to come give a talk about Cumulus. They filmed the entire event and you can watch it right here:


We discussed science fiction, creative process, social impacts of technology, venture capital investing, and predicting the future. I've always been amazed by the busy intersection of speculative fiction, engineering, and policy. There's a lot of background on Cumulus and The Uncommon Series, the big ideas the stories wrestle with, and the inspirations behind them. I fielded questions on how my work as a technology strategist influences my fiction and vice versa, the counterintuitive commonalities between artists and entrepreneurs, and what to expect from my next novel. It was a fascinating conversation and I was honored to talk through these issues with folks that are literally building the future.

Ann Farmer orchestrated the entire event and I am deeply indebted to her for suggesting it. The Talks at Google program has hosted some of my favorite writers, including folks like Neal Stephenson, George R.R. Martin, and Michael Lewis. But one of the coolest things about the experience was the interviewers. David Allison leads teams and builds products inside Google and previously was the CTO of Nulu and Brightscope. Rick Klau is a partner at Google Ventures (now called gv). Both David and Rick have been dedicated early readers since my very first novel, and have generously helped vet the technologies presented in the books. That meant that we could go deep during the interview, tackling the toughest questions buried in the stories.

Watch it and let me know what you think.