Fellow Travelers

Over the past few years, I've had the pleasure of interviewing more than twenty of my favorite authors. Our conversations focus on craft, big ideas, and lessons learned. Culture is a single extended conversation about the meaning of life, and we wander its paths in search of insight, however fleeting.

I've finally collected them all in one place: Fellow Travelers. May they aid you on your own journeys as much as they have me on mine.

***

Get new posts delivered straight to your inbox:



This blog exists thanks to the generous support of loyal readers. Become a member.

Formal instruction is never a prerequisite for making good art

When I wrote my first novel, I opened up Microsoft Word and started typing. I didn’t take any classes, attend any workshops, or join any writers groups. Many writers learn a lot from all of those things, but formal instruction is never a prerequisite for making good art.

Complement with this podcast interview about sharing creative work, a brief anatomy of story, and how to build a fanbase.

***

Get new posts delivered straight to your inbox:



This blog exists thanks to the generous support of loyal readers. Become a member.

Cory Doctorow on dystopia as a state of mind

It feels like we’re barreling into dystopia. We elect demagogues who seek to destroy the very institutions they nominally lead. We acquiesce to mass surveillance. We dismiss corruption as “the way things work.” We condemn our grandchildren to suffer accelerating climate change because we can’t get our own act together. We rationalize economic inequality as meritocratic and inevitable. We grow jaded to yet another shooting, yet another act of police brutality, yet another humanitarian crisis. We search desperately for meaning in a world that feels bereft of it. Sometimes, we just want to drop everything and walk away...

Cory Doctorow believes we’re missing the point. Doctorow is a prolific science fiction author, activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and co-editor of Boing Boing. One of his previous novels, Little Brother, is a personal favorite of Edward Snowden. Doctorow contributes to the Guardian, Wired, Locus, and Slate, and is a Research Affiliate at the MIT Media Lab. Few living humans can match the extreme density of ideas that he navigates with apparent ease.

Doctorow’s novel, Walkaway, takes place in a future ravaged by corporate greed, broken systems, and the effects of global warming. Eccentric billionaires cheat each other and everyone else, only to revel in post hoc self justification. Young dropouts struggle to get by on the fringes of society. Scientists work to dramatically extend lifespan for the ultra wealthy, even as hackers begin to upload human minds. Social unrest and brutal authoritarian crackdowns syncopate like a depressing political rhythm section.

All in all, it feels somewhat familiar.

Walkaway is so densely packed with weird and provocative concepts that it’s hard to keep track of them all. But perhaps the most illuminating is that dystopia is not a place, but a state of mind. When the next earthquake hits and the power goes out, do we reach for the shotgun and start looting? Or do we light a candle, dig the cookies out of the cupboard, and share them with the neighbor’s children? The beautiful thing about Doctorow’s novel is that so many characters demonstrate difficult but profound compassion in the worst of circumstances.

Reading Walkaway reminded me of my oma. Against her protestant family’s wishes, she married my Jewish opa in late 1930’s Holland. When World War II started, Opa built a coffin-sized cabinet above the wardrobe. Their neighbor, a wallpaper man, helped disguise it to look like a part of the apartment’s structure. During raids, Opa would hide in the cabinet, holding his breath, as Nazis searched the building. Meanwhile, Oma, protected by her protestant credentials, joined the Dutch Resistance and smuggled people, food, and information even as she raised three children during wartime. In the midst of the Holocaust, she risked everything to help strangers in need.

After the Allies’ bloody victory, Opa was one of the only survivors of his entire extended family and later hand-carved the lenses used to photograph the dark side of the moon. Oma was a awarded a medal by the Dutch Queen and later by the State of Israel. They rarely talked about their experiences, but their fierce, pragmatic kindness kindled hope in a dark world. Dystopia is assuming the worst of strangers. The best way to fight a culture of fear is with a thousand small acts of generosity.

We can walk away, and many do. Sometimes it all feels like too much. But the most interesting aspect of Walkaway is how the protagonists step up and face hard, ugly problems with clear eyes and open hearts. There’s a lesson in there for all of us.

In the following conversation, we discuss humanity's most pernicious assumptions, how we need to update our world views and institutions to accommodate technological change, and the biggest questions we will face in the coming decades.

***

Walkaway is full of both visceral physicality and hotly-debated philosophy. What are the core philosophical questions that will shape the next few decades?

People throw around the terms "positive feedback loop" and "negative feedback loop" so much that they've lost their original sense from engineering. In engineering, "negative feedback" is the damping system: well-designed negative feedback engages whenever a process threatens to run away into some chaotic/catastrophic realm (the term "negative" gives it an unfortunate connotation). "Negative feedback" is the idea that lets us harness our ingenuity without being consumed by it. It's how we can spin up a turbine without having it spin free of its moorings and kill everyone in the room!

In theory, markets have lots of damping mechanisms—loan defaults provide negative feedback to reckless lenders, falling profits provide negative feedback to managers with bad ideas—but accumulated wealth allows for an awful lot of overrides to these mechanisms. CEOs can cook their books to keep shareholders happy, too-big-to-fail financiers can lobby governments for bailouts, expensive climate denial can muddy the waters about the true costs of carbon-intensive industry.

It's hard to distinguish between "healthy" growth—growth we can control—and cancerous, out-of-control growth whose true costs are shuffled around and disguised.

Much of the green left has decided that the answer to this is "de-growth"—reducing the world's population so that we can be less technologically intensive and, perhaps, more tractable.

But the "promethean left" says that growth is the only way out. There's no graceful way to reduce the world's population to 3 billion (or whatever) and the alternative is to use technologically intensive methods to feed and shelter us all without the brutal, deadly and chaotic consequences of a system that has many accelerators but no brakes.

How is technology changing our relationship with our own bodies?

For people who find satisfying and validating lives online—people who find their best subculture, or are able to overcome some cognitive, physical, or temperamental limitation through online discourse—there's an amazingly seductive idea that we are just meatsuits that serve as support systems for the "real" us, the part that lives between our ears.

At the same time, networked technology gives us the power to work and live in highly idiosyncratic ways, from customized UIs to customized views of the daily news to customized physical objects that also have the smarts to customize their action from moment to moment based on our sentiments.

This lets us get a lot more mileage out of our bodies! We can timeshift our conversations with potential collaborators, rather than forcing everyone to converge on common waking hours; our clothes and tools can be fashioned to suit the oddities of our anatomy and mentality, turning once-problematic quirks into potential superpowers.

Then there's the metaphorical colonization of our conception of ourselves; as previous eras have conceptualized their physical beings as analogous to agriculture, or clockwork, or engines, we are today tempted by metaphors of software and hardware.

As the saying goes, "all models are wrong but some models are useful." There are ways in which our minds and bodies are analogous to computers, but many ways in which they are not. Ironically, the fact that computer metaphors sometimes pay dividends in the form of better physical and psychological outcomes encourages us to trust them beyond the point of usefulness, to think of "consciousness" as something "uploadable" and so on.

Your characters wrestle with how their personal beliefs and worldviews aggregate into systems with unintended (often nasty) consequences. What popular assumptions do we hold dear today that are inaccurate and/or self-defeating?

The big one is the belief that, when the chips are down, strangers are barbaric and selfish and untrustworthy. This view is profoundly innumerate: it starts from the proposition that while you, your family, and the people you know are generally kind, honorable, and generous, you are in a tiny minority—and that somehow this tiny minority managed to all find each other, out of a planet of billions of cruel, vicious, and bad people.

It's far likelier that the people you know are representative of the world: generally good, sometimes careless or selfish, and, on the whole, wanting to make things better for everyone.

How is technological abundance already undermining historical institutions and empowering new ones? What does it mean to be a walkaway today?

The copyright wars of the past 20 years are a good example of the ways in which abundance disorders our minds. We created copyrights and other limited monopolies to "promote the useful arts" (as the U.S. Constitution has it), but these were relentlessly converted from a utilitarian policy—we create exclusive rights to the extent that this produces more creative works—to a moral right to own "your" creations (a work of mental gymnastics that requires that you relegate all the stuff you pilfered to make your work as being in a separate category of creativity that doesn't give rise to these moral rights, while elevating your own creation to a more important status that does attract them).

Today, there are modes of production and reproduction that militate for a much more limited—and in many cases nonexistent—set of exclusive rights, both as a matter of economic growth, as well as creative freedom and human rights (universal access to all human knowledge is nothing to sneeze at!).

But at national and intergovernmental bodies, we are incapable of considering that this might be the case. Instead, we're *strengthening" "intellectual property rights"—allowing GM to claim that the copyright in a car-engine's software gives the automaker the power to decide who can fix that engine.

There are a lot of people carving out weird, walkaway-ish existences in our world—itinerant hackers and roving activists and makers of all description. I see a lot of this in the so-called millennial circles, thanks to the lack of other options—communal living, couch-surfing, gigging, and taking the streets in the name of Occupy and Black Lives Matter.

What did your creative process look like for Walkaway? How has your work for the Electronic Frontier Foundation informed your fiction, and vice versa?

My creative process for all my books is pretty much the same. I set a word target and write that many words, every day, even on days when I feel like the words suck. I finish mid-sentence every day so I have an easily extended rough edge for the next day.

I trawl the web all the time for blog posts for Boing Boing, and writing them up for public consumption helps me think them through and sets up my subconscious to look for unobvious and interesting connections between seemingly disparate phenomena that I can bring out in fiction.

Working for EFF keeps me very engaged in the fundamental justice of a networked world, and exposes me to a constant stream of people working on cool and important things, a front-row seat for the weirdest, most important, often least-sexy, and thus most obscure fights in our modern age.

In addition to myriad new technologies, Walkaway imagines new political realities. What political science fiction books have changed the way you think about society?

I was profoundly moved by Kim Stanley Robinson's utopian novel Pacific Edge, which imagines a heavily industrialized, high-tech society where selfishness is a vice that can't be openly practiced. It's odd how rare that is.

Bruce Sterling's novel Distraction introduced a networked politics grounded in making and smart-matter and loose, networked affinity groups long before these were obvious things in our world. It's decades old, and still futuristic.

Not content with resignation, Walkaway’s protagonists put everything on the line against unassailable odds again and again and again without surrendering their ideals. When you face ugly truths or impending dystopia in the real world, how do you fight on? In your darkest moments, from what reservoirs do you draw strength?

To be honest, I often despair. But experience has taught me that the landscape shifts, and that seemingly hopeless situations acquire new avenues and paths of action, given time and perturbation. So when I feel like giving up, I go through the motions, power through, and fake it until things start to look up.

It's pretty much the same as my approach to so-called "writer's block," which, for me, manifests as the sense that the words I'm writing are terrible. I know from hard-worn experience that I'm capable of writing unworthy words—but I also know that there is *no* correlation between the way I feel about the words I'm typing and how I'll view them given the time and distance to look on them dispassionately.

So my cure for "writer's block" is to remind myself, intellectually, that my emotional certainty that I'm writing shitty words is an illusion, and I just need to keep putting down sentences until the feeling passes.

***


Find more Fellow Traveler interviews right here and subscribe to my newsletter to find out when new ones drop.

***

Eliot Peper is the author of Bandwidth, Borderless, Breach, Cumulus, True Blue, Neon Fever Dream, and the Uncommon Series. He's helped build technology businesses, survived dengue fever, translated Virgil's Aeneid from the original Latin, worked as an entrepreneur-in-residence at a venture capital firm, and explored the ancient Himalayan kingdom of Mustang. His books have been praised by the New York Times Book Review, the Verge, Popular Science, Businessweek, TechCrunch, io9, and Ars Technica, and he has been a speaker at places like Google, SXSW, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Comic Con, and Future in Review.
***

Get new posts delivered straight to your inbox:



This blog exists thanks to the generous support of loyal readers. Become a member.

Alexander Weinstein on how technology is changing what it means to be human

Technology is something we often think about in abstract terms. We read the latest trend reports, keep an eye on new scientific papers, or maybe just browse Wired every once in awhile. We know technology is important. But its prevalence belies its impact. We complain about the wifi as we soar around the world in the belly of an aerospace engineering miracle, rocketing us to our destination at hundreds of miles an hour thousands of feet in the air.

Living in an age of wonders, we suffer from boredom.

In his magnificent collection Children of the New World, Alexander Weinstein’s masterfully crafted science fiction short stories illuminate the impacts of technology on our most intimate personal lives. A family adopts a robot to provide companionship for their only child. A team of hipster entrepreneurs make a living constructing artificial memories for enthusiastic fans even as their real world relationships collapse. A washed-up extreme skier struggles with false pride and flagging celebrity as climate change renders his calling obsolete.

Weinstein tackles topics as diverse and difficult as food system risk, virtual relationships, and the neurolinguistic effects of digital media with equal aplomb. Every tale will suck you in and spit you out with a thousand ideas, as riveting and provocative as a literary Black Mirror.

Taken as a whole, Children of the New World is a bold and harrowing book in constant pursuit of what technology means to us in the deepest sense. Where some science fiction shines on its technical merits, Weinstein’s stories summon worlds rife with thought experiment but also reveal the raw, subtle, and, conflicted inner lives we all lead.

In the following conversation, we discuss what it means to be human in a world dominated by technology, how speculative short stories can reveal hidden answers to important questions, and what we should to prepare for the new world we are barreling into.

***

How is technology challenging our conception of what it means to be human? What does tomorrow hold for our internal lives?

I find that many of our newest cyberspace technologies lead us away from inner contemplation and instead make us much more attached to the material world. This is interesting, because in many ways the internet is the exact opposite of material. There’s nothing solid to hold onto—we may think we’re crushing small pieces of candy, but they’re just programs and pixels. Similarly, when we introduce virtual reality into the mix, there are fully realized landscapes that seem material to us but are completely fabricated.

So technology is making many of our human interactions intangible rather than physical. Our text-messages go LOL-ing down an invisible echo chamber. We reach out to online dating profiles and have our desires stoked or quelled by their virtual responses. And we all have hypothetical Facebook friends—people we haven’t seen in decades, but who we know just had a great meal, or a baby, or got married. We don’t actually hear their voices or hang out with them in person though, and so these old acquaintances might as well be AI programs!

All of this leads us to a diminishment of some of the central elements of what it means to be human: To have actual physical contact with others, to learn empathy for strangers (rather than swiping them into the trash as our dating apps would have us do), to be able to sit quietly with another person without the need of checking a virtual screen. So I think technology is changing our ability to be present in a very deep and meaningful way.

Of course there are plenty of wonderful things about technology—the way it can help to motivate social action (and boy do we need active resistance these days). It allows us to find friends who might otherwise have been lost forever, and couples do meet online and fall in love. These are wonderful aspects of the internet, and I think when used well, it can bring people together. More importantly, we’ll likely need technology to help get us out of some of the ecological predicaments we’ve created (i.e. the need for wind/solar power and clean drinking water). But on the day-to-day social level, the Internet seems to be moving us toward a more robotic consciousness.

How do you tease out the personal, emotional, and philosophical implications of technological innovation? What thought experiments did you perform while working on this book?

Many of the stories in Children of the New World emerged from my own bumbling attempts to use technology. For example, "Saying Goodbye to Yang," came from my computer crashing. One night my computer died, taking with it much of my work. I was pretty devastated because I had an emotional connection to the laptop (it had traveled with me through three states, been with me when I got into an MFA program, etc.) and I began to cry. At that moment, I realized I was emotionally connected to my electronics! So my laptop became Yang, the robot child who malfunctions in the story.

In other cases, I needed to experience the emotional component to fully understand the technological metaphor I was working with. For example, in "Openness," the characters are dealing with a kind of psychic technology where they can virtually access people’s inner lives and send mental text-messages. The idea for the psychic technology came quite quickly. I was on a crowded bus in Boston, and I suddenly thought of how useful/horrifying it would be if we could project our likes/dislikes/preferences onto a visual aura around our bodies. You could look across a room and know that a stranger enjoyed Tom Waits, or hated cats, or was originally from Maine, and, in turn, you could psychically message people who shared your interests. So the technology of the story was fully formed, but I couldn’t yet place the human conflict of the story.

It was about two years later, as I was going through a break-up with a woman I loved dearly, that the human element of the story took shape. The break-up dealt with putting up emotional walls—and as we were navigating this, I suddenly understood how the psychic technology of layers was a metaphor for the emotional barriers which arise in a romantic relationship. This became the central theme of "Openness" which explores the way in which we can retract our “layers” from those closest to us.

So, rather than consciously trying to work out the emotional/psychological implications of my stories, it’s often my own life and the trials of the heart that provide the deeper plot/conflict/themes in my fiction.

What present observations or realizations inspired the futures portrayed in these stories? What important details in our own lives do we regularly overlook?

Alongside the technological satire that my stories present, I’m working with two main themes: Ecological/social disaster & human kindness.

In terms of ecological/social disaster, I’m regularly appalled by the governmental and corporate decisions that destroy our culture and our environment. I’m thinking here of fracking, the destruction of Flint’s water supply by corporate/political greed, coal mining and mountaintop removal, the Dakota Access Pipeline, attacks on Native Americans and indigenous tribes worldwide... I could go on. All of these major human rights atrocities are happening right now, and they’re often overlooked in our daily lives (unless we happen to be the recipients of the attacks… which, alas, we all ultimately will be if we don’t stand up together).

The dystopian landscapes in my stories are just a bit further down the line than where we find ourselves now. In "Heartland," a family is selling off the topsoil of their yard and peddling their children’s online privacy to survive. In "Migration," everyone has moved into virtual worlds while the cities become ghost towns of mini-malls and empty car dealerships. There are oil spills, American wars against Buddhists, and second Ice Ages ravaging the planet. All of this came directly from looking at the disasters we are engaged in on a daily basis.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is my faith and optimism for human goodness. While the backdrop of my stories are dystopian, my characters are still trying to love well, to understand what it means to care for one another, and to become better people. It’s often these small but profound daily acts of love and kindness which we can also lose sight of.

Being with an old friend in contented quiet, lifting your child high into the air, showing kindness to a stranger, or telling those close to you that you love them: There’s a great medicine in all of these things, and it’s these moments of love, for my family, for fatherhood, for friendship and love, which I’m also striving to portray in my fiction.

What does your creative process look like? What was the darkest moment you faced writing this collection, and how did you get through it?

I always have paper close at hand—because I find that when stories suddenly “bite” I want to get them onto land as soon as possible. This might mean that if I’m driving, I have to pull over to the side of the road (somewhere safe) and write for an hour. Or I might be getting ready to go to sleep—and I’ll have a flash of the plot of a short story. Rather than go to sleep, I’ll turn the light back on, get out my journal, and begin writing (sometimes for the next 2-3 hours) even though I have class to teach in the morning.

I write by hand first—it allows me to be much looser and more experimental in the first draft. This way, I can make a mess on the page without worrying about it, and I have fun while I’m drafting. I take each story from the handwritten page to the computer, and from there I’m usually drafting/revising/editing the piece anywhere from eight to a dozen times. My stories take six months to a year to reach completion. Luckily, I have at least 4 or 5 stories working at a time, all in various stages of completion, so I don’t really notice how long it takes for each story’s gestation period.

As for the darkest moment, it’s more a question of which one! When I first started sending work out, I didn’t know how hard it would be to get published. I’d waited many years to submit my work to literary journals, had chiseled my stories, and thought I’d get published quickly. Well, my first publication didn’t come until 94 rejections later! During that time, I would literally come home after teaching on a Monday and find a dozen rejections in my inbox! So that was a hard time. And there have been many of these dark nights of the artistic soul along the way. In retrospect, though, these moments made me a stronger writer. I learned that regardless of acceptance or rejection, I was going to keep writing, and this was deeply liberating.

What makes the best short stories great?

For me, the story either has to engage the heart or the imagination (and even better when it can achieve both). My favorite stories touch my heart and, in this way, increase my sense of compassion, empathy, and understanding for the world. Writers like James Baldwin, Grace Paley, and George Saunders (just to name a few) work in this mode.

There are also stories which create a deep sense of awe and wonder. I’m thinking here of the work of Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, and Stephen Millhauser. And of course there are other forms of greatness. I love the experimentalists and high-wire meta-fictionalists like John Barth, Tatyana Tolstaya, and Michael Martone.

I suppose, in all these cases, what unifies the work is that the story transports me to a place of deeper awareness.

What are the most common mistakes short story writers make? How do you approach teaching creative writing? What questions should writers ask themselves when they embark on a new project?

I only have to look at all the mistakes I made early on to remember the most familiar pitfalls! The biggest pitfall may be the wish to be seen as cool, or intelligent, or scathing, or avant-garde, or ironic, etc. I would never have admitted it at the time, but early on I totally wanted people to like me because of my work. What I’ve learned is that the moment this ego-level anxiety takes over, the story and characters become compromised.

There’s also the problem of trying to do too much in a short story. It’s the commonly taught adage of “killing your darlings.” Over time I’ve found that I’m often cutting out more than I’m adding, and so learning how and when you’re putting too much into a story is a skill, so you don’t overstock a piece with ideas that are best saved for another story.

Recently, I’ve found myself teaching away from plot. I still explain the idea of conflict, the Freytag pyramid, internal and external character development, and other traditional “rules” of fiction. But I think what’s crucial is to invite students to play within their writing again.

Many writers are worried about all the above issues (being accepted by their peers, accomplishing what they need to make a “successful” short story, worrying about publication, etc.) And so, inviting writers to return to that creative space, where their imagination can play, is a vital first step.

This philosophy is what led to me founding The Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. I wanted to create a place where writers could explore their craft and support one another. I believe that when we stop worrying about what it is we’re “meant” to do in our writing, the subconscious steps in to produce meaningful work. Later, we’ll have to use our editorial skills to shape the work but early on just allowing oneself to lean into the exploration can transform our craft.

I think the big question worth asking oneself when starting a new project is: What’s the inherent feeling of this piece? The answer may be a mood (based on the setting), or the voice of a main character, or some piece of life which still sticks in your heart like a splinter and which only the written word will dislodge. Write toward that feeling, listen to its melodic scale, and keep digging to excavate the story. Then, later, when the short story/poem/novel has been unearthed, you can begin to ask questions like: What haven’t I unearthed yet? What will help give this more shape? What parts don’t I need?

What should we keep in mind as we hurtle towards the new world?

Kindness, compassion, empathy, love, and activism. If we ask ourselves how we can make this world a better place, that’s a good daily practice. Then our job is to look around, to see who is suffering, and work toward ensuring justice, equality, and wellbeing for our fellow humans and the earth community.

I’m still deeply hopeful that we can avoid the technological futures I write about in Children of the New World, along with the dystopian realities that our present corporate and political leaders are creating. And I’m hopeful that we’ll find ourselves in a world with a much greater sense of equality and love.

***


Find more Fellow Traveler interviews right here and subscribe to my newsletter to find out when new ones drop.

***

Eliot Peper is the author of Bandwidth, Borderless, Breach, Cumulus, True Blue, Neon Fever Dream, and the Uncommon Series. He's helped build technology businesses, survived dengue fever, translated Virgil's Aeneid from the original Latin, worked as an entrepreneur-in-residence at a venture capital firm, and explored the ancient Himalayan kingdom of Mustang. His books have been praised by the New York Times Book Review, the Verge, Popular Science, Businessweek, TechCrunch, io9, and Ars Technica, and he has been a speaker at places like Google, SXSW, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Comic Con, and Future in Review.
***

Get new posts delivered straight to your inbox:



This blog exists thanks to the generous support of loyal readers. Become a member.

Annalee Newitz on who owns the future

Ownership often feels like a natural law. We all know what’s ours, and sometimes covet what isn’t. Hedge fund managers trade against each other in an endless cycle of one-upmanship. Kindergarteners refuse to share. Some master bathrooms have jealously guarded twin sinks. The pursuit of rational self-interest is what fuels the economy, right? Where would we be without our stuff?

But private property isn’t like gravity or special relativity. It’s a product of human imagination, what Yuval Noah Harari would call a “collective fiction.” Your house is only “yours” because we all agree to abide by a set of rules that assign you dominion over the plot and the building that stands on it. The deed is a ritual object that demands we respect the conventions it represents. If the government wants to build a highway through your neighborhood, their eminent domain seizure will show you just how quickly those rules can be rewritten.

A mountain of legal precedent and rich cultural history frame how we define ownership for physical objects, but we only decided to allow things like ideas, inventions, or digital goods to be considered private property relatively recently, and it turns out that physical objects aren’t always great analogies for the ownership of things like DNA sequences, software, or pop songs. Advances in computing, biotech, and a host of other areas confound the picture further, and raise entirely new questions.

These are the questions Annalee Newitz wrestles with in her debut novel, Autonomous.

Autonomous is an electrifying science fiction adventure that maps out the future of biotech, AI, and robotics. The story is fun, fast-paced, and jam-packed with sharp speculation on everything from patent law to human trafficking. As the diverse, quirky cast barrels through countless unexpected plot twists, Newitz deftly tees up thought experiments that explore the consequences of allowing things like source code and genes to become private property. This entertaining brainteaser of a novel will rope you in with its hackers, pirates, and robots, and leave you wondering whether we are already living with, or perhaps under, real AIs that we just happen to call corporations, financial markets, and legal systems.

The breadth and rigor of extrapolation in Autonomous is mind-bending, and Newitz, a veteran journalist, draws on the expertise she’s developed reporting on science, technology, and the future to construct a vision of tomorrow that stands up to serious scrutiny. She’s an editor-at-large for Ars Technica, founded io9, and has written for a wide array of publications including Wired, the New Yorker, and New Scientist. Newitz’s nonfiction book Scatter, Adapt, and Remember lays out how human ingenuity will help us avoid mass extinction and echoes of this underlying message of pragmatic hope in the face of disaster reverberate through Autonomous.

In the following conversation, we discuss the life and death implications of intellectual property law, the vital roles that journalism and science fiction play in our culture, the future of ownership, and who owns of the future.

***

The creation, economics, and control of intellectual property are integral to the future Autonomous portrays. Why is IP such an important issue in this version of tomorrow? What core contradictions are inherent in our definition of IP today and what side effects do they already have?

I started really thinking about this question when I was working as a policy analyst at EFF back in the mid-00s. At that time, folks like Lawrence Lessig and Wendy Seltzer were worried that IP expansionalism was going to undermine free speech (which it did). I worked on a project with Jason Schultz, now at NYU, that was dedicated to challenging overbroad tech patents by asking the PTO to re-examine and nullify patents on ridiculous "inventions" like recording a concert and putting it online. This was kind of at the dawn of the era of patent trolls, and we were trying to fight back. In Autonomous, my character Jack Chen is in some ways continuing that fight we and many other activists started. I wanted to dramatize how these problems of patent trolling and IP hoarding aren't just wonky issues, but truly a matter of life and death. When you consider how pharma and biotech companies use dirty tricks to extend the lifespan of their patents, you can see immediately that intellectual property regimes exert tremendous power over our lives. A guy like Martin Shkreli is just the first of many pharma robber barons that we're going to see.

Taking that a step further, how is technology changing the definitions of private property, money, and ownership? How do our current versions of these ideas fit into historical context? How might they change a few decades down the road?

Maybe a better question is how do ideas of private property and money change the way we build new technologies? These ideas become a prison house that impedes innovation. The quest for profit warps the way we design technology, and leads to situations where billions of people become vulnerable to shady outfits like Cambridge Analytica, the company that used Facebook data to spread disinformation during the recent US presidential election. On the bright side, humans are inventive little creatures and we are always coming up with ways to circumvent rules, whether they are hard coded or part of a clickthrough agreement.

How do these ideas apply to human trafficking and modern slavery, issues that are painfully relevant today and that Autonomous extrapolates? How are the internet, AI, and synthetic biology changing our conceptions of human rights and shaping how we choose to apply or defend them? What should we do today to build a future we actually might want to live in?

One of the most chilling comments I've heard from more than one AI developer is that the goal is to create happy slaves. Of course, usually the people who say this don't mean it literally--they assume that some putative future AI will behave exactly like a servant but without all the baggage of being resentful about their lowly roles in society. As a corollary, you have Elon Musk saying that AI are on the verge of becoming sentient and crushing us all, so we need to program them with failsafes. What will these failsafes be? Some version of Asimov's Three Laws, which force conscious beings to place another being's needs ahead of their own? I'm grateful that ethicists like Damian Williams are already questioning these ideas, pointing out that any being which is "conscious" will not enjoy slavery. Of course we don't know how to define human consciousness and intelligence, as AI researcher Joanna Bryson has pointed out, so it's hard to say what's likely to happen with these issues as we move forward.

Part of me thinks we may never really have AI as many science fiction writers (including me) have depicted it. Maybe AI will be more like a prosthesis for human brains, making us "smarter" but also more vulnerable to brain hacking. Nicky Drayden, author of Prey of Gods, has talked about this idea a lot. Maybe we should be planning for a cyborg future, rather than a future of easily-distinguishable humans vs. robots.

Regardless, I believe that any effort to create robot slaves is bound to affect how we treat each other. You can't have slavery sectioned off into one part of the culture, because slavery is a system that affects everyone. Once we start seeing humanoid beings as slaves, it's only a matter of time before we see other humans that way too. Indeed, slavery is still alive and well in our culture. It takes the form of prisons, of forced labor on fishing vessels, and what amounts to indentured work at tech manufacturing plants. We already treat each other like robot slaves. In Autonomous, I've tried to suggest that it won't be robots who enslave humans in the future—instead, it will be corporations who enslave robots and humans.

What can Autonomous’s treatment of “repos” teach us about the present and future of journalism? As surveillance and disinformation vie to capture our attention and shape our worldviews, what can we do to empower ourselves? Can we be free and were we ever free? What does freedom mean in a world with a ubiquitous digital substrate?

What do you mean by "free"? Can you be free to harass people on Twitter and create free speech zones for racism on Reddit? Apparently, yes. Can you be free to moderate and regulate digital tools that make it easy to automate the process of driving vulnerable groups out of public conversations? Nope. New information tech is going to force us to reevaluate what free speech really means. I think the rise of automated disinformation will push this process along, too. Journalism will definitely survive, and proliferate into new formats. But we will need both new regulations and new kinds of media education to protect people from scams and malevolent agitators.

How has your own work as a journalist and editor influenced your work as a novelist and vice versa? How do your creative and research processes differ? What surprised you most about the experience of writing fiction?

My journalism is integral to my fiction writing process. I get a ton of ideas while reporting on tech and science, and there are a lot of themes that cross from my nonfiction into my fiction. What's pleasurable about writing fiction is that I never have to worry that I'll write something that ruins a person's day—or their career. I can torment my fictional characters as much as I want! I think what surprised me, however, was how much I still felt that my fiction needed fact checking. I ran my novel by several scientists to make sure I wasn't saying anything that would inspire facepalms. Scientists are among my favorite readers, and I consider my science fiction to be the cultural wing of the scientific project. So it's very important for me to get science right, even while spinning crazy futuristic lies about it.

What role does science fiction play in our culture? What role does it play in your life? What sparked the technological thought experiments Autonomous depicts? What inspired its speculative social and political institutions?

For me, science fiction is about hope. Even at its darkest, it provides us with a way to think about our problems in the safe space of our imaginations. I wanted to offer readers a picture of how people cope with oppression and unfair institutions in their everyday lives. Some characters try to work within the system, while others go completely rogue. Still others just want to survive, and simply doing that is a huge accomplishment. No matter how fucked up things get, people will always resist. And they'll do it by telling each other stories, and making connections with each other. To me, friendship is the smallest measurable unit of political resistance. This is something that LA Kauffman captures so beautifully in her book Direct Action, which is about protest movements after the 1960s. So I guess you could say I'm inspired by small alliances between people, and by the big movements that arise to challenge oppressive institutions.

What books have fundamentally changed the way you see the world? What have you read recently that you simply can’t get out of your head? Who are some of your biggest creative influences?

There are tons. Like a lot of politically-minded scifi nerds, I've been a longtime fan of Fredric Jameson. And Judith Butler's early work contributed a lot to my robot character Paladin's gender troubles. My biggest SF influences are probably Octavia Butler, Iain M. Banks, Joanna Russ, and (more recently) NK Jemisin. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with the books of Ursula Le Guin, Lawrence Yep, and Ray Bradbury. I'm also one of those weirdos who loves to read books similar to the books I'm writing or have written, and I adored reading Ann Leckie, Malka Older, and Martha Wells during the whole process of bringing out Autonomous--though mostly I read them after I was finished, so I can't say I was influenced by them so much as in total admiration of their work. I'm also a huge fan of many science journalists, including Rose Eveleth, Ed Yong, Lizzy Wade, Maddie Stone, Sarah Zhang, and Charles Mann. And many, many more. My days are divided between reading scientific journals, science journalism, and science fiction. I can't believe how lucky I am to have a career where I get to do this. I feel like I've tricked people into letting me do what I love. As long as I stay tricky, my life will be pretty good.

***

Pick up your copy of Autonomous.

Find more Fellow Traveler interviews right here and subscribe to my newsletter to find out when new ones drop.

***

Eliot Peper is the author of Bandwidth, Borderless, Breach, Cumulus, True Blue, Neon Fever Dream, and the Uncommon Series. He's helped build technology businesses, survived dengue fever, translated Virgil's Aeneid from the original Latin, worked as an entrepreneur-in-residence at a venture capital firm, and explored the ancient Himalayan kingdom of Mustang. His books have been praised by the New York Times Book Review, the Verge, Popular Science, Businessweek, TechCrunch, io9, and Ars Technica, and he has been a speaker at places like Google, SXSW, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Comic Con, and Future in Review.

***

Get new posts delivered straight to your inbox:



This blog exists thanks to the generous support of loyal readers. Become a member.

Omar El Akkad on how to avoid American ruin

It feels like America is tearing itself apart. The federal government is alternatively self-destructive or deadlocked. Filter bubbles enclose us in their comfortable but toxic embrace. Most Americans struggle to eke out a living even as corporate profits surge. Propagandists reverse engineer algorithms to deliver automated misinformation at scale. Outrage is the new normal.

The rollercoaster isn’t fun anymore, but we can’t get off.

William Gibson famously noted that the future is already here—it's just not very evenly distributed. Many have followed that line of thinking by studying weird pockets of early adopters in order to identify new technology trends. But the future is shaped at least as much by cultural, political, and social factors as by technology. Omar El Akkad spent ten years as a journalist covering the Arab Spring, Black Lives Matter, and the U.S. War in Afghanistan. He braved war zones, detention camps, and mass protests to catch a glimpse of the forces shaping our world and synthesized those insights in his critically-acclaimed debut novel, American War.

American War paints a raw and haunting picture of the compounding nature of violence and the dark places into which the road of divisiveness leads. The protagonist is born into abject poverty, grows up in a refugee camp with no prospects or agency, is radicalized by foreign agents profiting from the ensuing chaos, suffers savage persecution at a brutal detention facility, and ultimately launches an attack that will decimate a divided nation. She is a terrorist. But El Akkad invites us into her mind and heart so that, although we cannot condone her actions, we understand them.

The bleak future imagined in American War feels disturbingly possible under the onslaught of harrowing headlines. But dystopian visions didn’t start with The Hunger Games. Grimm’s fairy tales are chock full of murder, rape, manipulation, and mutilation. “Hansel and Gretel” is a story about cannibalism. These narratives don’t just captivate us with violence. In providing safe spaces to face darkness in our imaginations, they prepare us to face darkness in our own lives.

With American War, El Akkad draws on his experience in places where a dark future has already arrived to extrapolate a broken United States. His writing is at once a warning and a demonstration of how critical empathy is to building a future we actually want to live in. To last, that better future needs to be more evenly distributed.

In the following conversation, we discuss the psychology of extremism, the universality of suffering, the importance of cultivating empathy, and the price of power.

***

What difficult truths about the price of power do we ignore? What second and third order effects does our denial blind us to?

I think empathy is a muscle and, like all muscles, will atrophy if left unused. The more insulated we are from the suffering of others, the more inclined we are to ignore or exoticize it. I happen to live in a relatively peaceful part of the world, where it is very easy to assume that those people all the way on the other side of the planet – who have to deal daily with drone killings and indefinite occupation and all the other hallmarks of modern warfare – are somehow fundamentally different, fundamentally foreign.

I wrote American War in large part to argue that suffering is a universal language – that any of us, subjected to brutality or injustice, tend to react the same way. This really shouldn’t be all that controversial a position to take, but the notion that we have an obligation to understand how and why people become radicalized is, in this day and age, fairly contentious.

We tend not to think about these people until they’ve done whatever horrible thing they’re going to be remembered for, until their radicalization reaches its bloody apex. I wanted to write about everything that comes before that point.

What inspired the story’s central allegory? What real or fictional precedents shaped it? What does history teach us about cultures fractured by moral bankruptcy? What does progress mean for a divided nation?

The closest I can come to a genesis moment for the novel, or at least when I first started thinking about the ideas that would lead me to write the novel, is a distant recollection I have of watching a news interview many years ago.

This was early in the days of the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, and there had just been widespread protests in several Afghan villages against the US military presence. The person being interviewed was some kind of foreign affairs expert (I don’t remember if it was on CNN or some other news network) and the interviewer asked him something to the effect of “Why do they hate us so much?”

As part of his answer, the expert noted that sometimes the U.S. special forces have to go into these villages and conduct nighttime raids looking for insurgents, and that during these raids they will sometimes ransack the villagers’ houses or hold the women and children at gunpoint. And then he helpfully added, “And you know, in Afghan culture that sort of thing is considered very offensive.”

I remember thinking, name me one culture on Earth that wouldn’t consider this sort of thing offensive.

That’s when I first started thinking about a story that would transpose the effects of conflict, take suffering that to the Western world is very distant and make it immediate, close to home. The point being to argue that, were we to find ourselves on the losing end of a war, on the receiving end of mass violence, we would behave much the same way.

I think all nations are divided to a certain extent, the modern concept of the nation-state being largely arbitrary to begin with. I think a divided nation can survive, but only if it honestly acknowledges its divisions and the reasons for them. Any nation that refuses to do so inevitably commits violence against itself.

What false assumptions do we make about the psychology of extremism? How can we better understand those whose views we oppose? Once we do, what comes next?

One of the hardest things I’ve had to do while speaking about my novel this year is argue that it is possible—even necessary—to make an effort to understand why somebody will resort to acts of great evil, and that to understand does not mean to condone or support. I think we’ve been conditioned, especially in the last 16 years, to reject the idea that our enemies can have motivations more complex than searing, mindless hatred. But I think we have an obligation to understand how somebody can be made evil, how damage begets damage. I’m not sure there’s any other way to go about putting an end to evil than to understand the way it takes shape.

As for what comes next, I don’t know. I’m not a diplomat or a politician or an expert of any kind. I only know that, if a solution to the great violence of our age exists, an understanding of the motivations of those we hate and those who hate us is a necessary prerequisite.

How did your reporting influence your fiction, and vice versa? How did you research the book? What did your creative process look like?

A lot of the things I experienced during my 10 years of journalism made their way into the book. In some cases, the influence was superficial. For example, the layout of the refugee camp in the novel is based on scenery from the NATO airfield in Kandahar and the military base in Guantanamo Bay. One chapter in the book, which takes place in a detention camp called Sugarloaf, is also based on things that took place in the detention camps at Guantanamo Bay and other U.S. facilities.

In other cases, the influence is less overt. Thematically, much of the novel is predicated on the idea of symmetry, the notion that we are more alike than different. This, in turn, was influenced by many of the echoes I saw when covering stories all over the globe. For example, two of the most important stories I covered—the Arab Spring protests in Cairo and the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson—contained many of the same elements, from the heavily militarized police presence to the masses who were so fed up with systemic injustice they risked facing down that presence.

I wrote the novel while I was still working full-time as a journalist, and so I wrote almost exclusively between the hours of midnight and five in the morning, and did most of my editing on the weekends. It was a difficult schedule to keep for the full year it took me to write the first draft, but writing fiction is all I’ve ever wanted to do with my life, and it was important to me that, even if American War didn’t end up being a good book, that it still be the best book I could make it.

What role does journalism play in society? How is it changing? What role does speculative fiction play and how is it changing?

Journalism, more than any other organ of society, defends civic accountability. It is the means by which we calibrate common truths, and the light we shed on those who would deliberately distort or ignore those truths.

We live in an age where many of the most powerful human beings on this planet—including members of the current Presidential administration—seem to no longer register any distinction between the truth and what they’d like the truth to be. This is an incredibly dangerous state of affairs, and journalism is our best defense against it.

That’s why it’s so disheartening to see the journalism industry’s entire business model essentially upended by various technology companies that appear to have no concern whatsoever for what long-term damage a society bereft of good journalism will suffer. I’m not sure anyone has figured out a good way for traditional media outlets to make enough money to support strong journalism, and I think a lot of powerful people are going to get away with a lot of misconduct as a result.

Speculative fiction to me is a kind of extrapolation. Ironically, of all literary genres, I think it is one of the most concerned with the present moment, even though speculative fiction novels tend to be set in some distant future or alternate timeline. That said, I think the term has become a little too easy to dismiss in this age when reality often feels more fictional than fiction. I tend to think of my work more as dislocative fiction—I take things that happened to people far away and I make them happen to people close to home.

What books, fiction or nonfiction, have shaped the way you see the world? What avenues would you recommend readers explore after finishing American War?

I grew up reading a lot of American writers, and American writers are still among my favorite – from Melville and Faulkner to Baldwin and Morrison. Many of my favorite young writers are also American, including Garth Greenwell, whose novel What Belongs to You is one of the most beautiful and honest love stories I’ve ever read.

The book that influenced me most when I was writing American War was Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee (whose novel A Death in the Family is the most beautiful book I’ve ever read). It’s an account of several sharecroppers living in the South around the time of the Great Depression, and it remains one of the great masterworks in its obsessive, careful chronicling of a life.

American War feels like a natural extension of the country’s current engineered turmoil. What can Americans do today to avoid living the future that the novel portrays?

You know, even to this day, I don’t think of American War as primarily an American novel. The novel is set in an allegorical America, but the elements of the story belong to other people. In that sense, I never intended American War to function as a kind of prophecy, and I certainly hope it never proves prophetic. (After all, I live in this country and so would much rather it not tear itself apart.)

I think, despite all the mythology around American exceptionalism, the recipe for avoiding ruin in this country is no different than in any other country. It contains only two ingredients: ensure that your systems of power reflect the diversity of your population as a whole, and acknowledge the entirety of your history, no matter how painful.


Find more Fellow Traveler interviews right here and subscribe to my newsletter to find out when new ones drop.

***

Eliot Peper is the author of Bandwidth, Borderless, Breach, Cumulus, True Blue, Neon Fever Dream, and the Uncommon Series. He's helped build technology businesses, survived dengue fever, translated Virgil's Aeneid from the original Latin, worked as an entrepreneur-in-residence at a venture capital firm, and explored the ancient Himalayan kingdom of Mustang. His books have been praised by the New York Times Book Review, the Verge, Popular Science, Businessweek, TechCrunch, io9, and Ars Technica, and he has been a speaker at places like Google, SXSW, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Comic Con, and Future in Review.
***

Get new posts delivered straight to your inbox:



This blog exists thanks to the generous support of loyal readers. Become a member.

Malka Older on the future of democracy

The best science fiction writers can bring down the most powerful of institutions with a single sentence, and erect new ones in a paragraph. In her debut science fiction thriller Infomocracy, Malka Older mines her extensive experience in governance research to craft not only a nuanced vision for the future of democracy, but a globe-trotting adventure with a diverse cast that explores electioneering, information warfare, and human ambition.

The story takes place a few decades from now in a world where Information, a theoretically nonpartisan internet monopoly, controls the network infrastructure for global micro-democracy. Instead of today’s nation states, Infomocracy’s political units are groups of 100,000 people (dubbed “centenals”) who can choose their respective governments from a large menu of potential options with their own unique policy priorities. At the height of the election cycle, a campaign staffer for one of the leading parties finds himself entangled with a subversive activist and a special agent from the implacable Information. What follows will make you rethink our own embattled institutions.

Politics is a hard problem, and Older doesn’t oversimplify into utopia or dystopia. The complexity Infomocracy portrays is refreshing and grounded in Older’s personal history. Before turning novelist, she spent a decade as a humanitarian aid worker supervising major programs, implementing economic development initiatives, and responding to natural disasters and complex emergencies in Sri Lanka, Uganda, Darfur, Indonesia, Japan, and Mali. She is a Senior Fellow for Technology and Risk at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and her doctoral research examines the unique challenges and paradoxes that acute crises pose for good governance. Writers of hard science fiction pride themselves on the technical credibility of the inventions their stories document. Older brings that attention to detail to the realm of political science, imagining a future sure to electrify policy wonks and geeks alike. The best science fiction leaves us breathless, not just because of its entertainment value, but because it changes how we see the world we inhabit. In today’s charged political climate, Infomocracy forces us to question our assumptions about the future of democracy.

In the following conversation, we discuss how technology is changing political institutions and what future governments might look like.

***

Is American democracy broken?

American democracy was never quite democracy, and it was designed that way out of concern about what the democratic experiment would look like. It doesn’t only feature checks and balances on the branches of government; it’s also got checks and balances on the people (and, of course, was based on an entirely different notion of who “the people” are).

Over the centuries since then, we’ve made it more democratic in some ways – most notably by expanding the franchise, but also, for example, by changing senate elections to a direct vote. On the other hand, (some of) those in power have also sought to adapt the system to their own needs: gerrymandering congressional districts, tweaking party rules and primaries, and finding more and more ways to make money off of political positions.

So I’m not sure I’d say American democracy is broken. I would say we haven’t really given democracy a full try yet. We started off as a partial democracy, and have been fighting over how to expand or dilute it. Right now does feel like a particularly low ebb as institutions are being weakened, but at the same time we see that civil society is growing stronger.

The other thing to remember is that democracy alone is not enough for good, participatory, equal government. It’s too easy for a democracy to become oppression by the majority, or devolve into demagoguery. Democracy requires, at a minimum, a solid basis in human rights that the majority can’t overrule and an educated electorate. The former is always under debate, and the latter is a major problem for us right now.

How do we evaluate the success or failure of the ongoing experiment that is our political system?

In terms of evaluating our system, again I think we have to look beyond democracy. Democracy is a tool for achieving good governance and its many benefits, not an end in itself. We need to ask first if our system is inclusive, equal, participatory, because democracy is founded on the idea that the more people actively involved in government, the better that government will be.

If we don’t believe that any more than we should stop calling ourselves democratic and come up with something new, but so far those principles seem to be borne out (as far as we can tell, given that we haven’t really tried them completely) and democracy is the best system we’ve developed as yet.

Then we need to look at whether the system is functioning on a basic level – are decisions being made, are programs being implemented and evaluated? Checking on the conditions faced by the most vulnerable (whether through poverty, disability, age, marginalization, or some other status) is a good start for evaluating both types of criteria.

How is technology changing politics and policy?

While technology is changing our politics somewhat, I think the more intriguing question is why isn’t it changing our politics more?

One answer is that our government has largely fallen behind on tech, and isn’t devoting enough time or attention to it, with cybersecurity as just the most basic example. But part of the reason for that is that technological disruption is threatening to those in power, and particularly to those who don’t like to see change of any kind.

There are all sorts of interesting democratic experiments we could do with current technology. While we see some of them in the private sector, for example in the form of new apps to help people learn about candidates and issues or share experiences across the political divide, more fundamental changes are going to be hard to push through people who have spent their careers honing their political skills for a certain playing field, and who don’t want to see it change now.

Where do we go from here?

There are a couple of answers, along the axes realistic <-> idealistic (I’m trying not to do depressing right now, realism is already there) and short-term <-> long-term.

In the most immediate, I think we can look to the current expansion of civil society as a positive new avenue for deepening our democracy. Democracy is, fundamentally, about people being involved in politics, and that has been weakening for many decades, both from the top (voter suppression, lobbyists, etc.) and from the bottom (apathy, cynicism, etc.) in ways that interact.

It would be lovely if, going forward, some of the energy and renewed interest got channeled into structural and systemic ways to increase and enrich participation. Some of that should be legal – so, real pushes on voter rights and enlarging the franchise (for example, to felons) – but some of it can be less formal, around norms instead of laws.

For example, we’re seeing a lot of amazing engagement at congressional town halls, and there’s a risk there that politicians will start avoiding the town hall format. Making sure that it’s an expected norm for politicians to participate in unfiltered town halls throughout both campaigns and terms could become important. We also really need to find ways to expand civic knowledge, from a basic level of how our (partial) democracy works through media literacy.

Longer term, I’d like to see more creativity and experimentation focused on improving our democracy. As I said above, we see some of that happening in the private sector and sometimes in local governments, both here and abroad, but at a large scale it’s going to be difficult to push through significant changes, because the system is designed to prevent them.

There’s some merit in that—think about how difficult policy and policy evaluation is made when we change direction every four years—but also a lot of risk in missing chances to improve, or save, or democratic principles.

What is micro-democracy? How is the political future depicted in Infomocracy structured? Is it purely a thought experiment or is it a concept you want to see implemented?

Micro-democracy (in my definition; there are others) is a system of government that shrinks the population for the basic jurisdictional unit; in theory this lessens the risks of oppression by majority, since smaller groups are more likely to find common ground and majorities are likely to be less overwhelming. Note that it doesn’t solve the problem, although the overall system also favors relatively free immigration, which will also help.

The micro-democracy in Infomocracy is based on units of roughly 100,000 people each. So imagine if those county-based electoral maps you see with scattered dots of blue and red were actually maps of two different countries with different laws, budgets, governments.

In Infomocracy, however, these units have far more choice. There are some 2000 governments worldwide, offering different collections of policies and laws. So someone living in Boston could be a co-citizen, living under the same system of government, with people living in Oslo and in Dakar and Hue, while their neighbors a couple of blocks over in Boston might have an entirely different set of laws and leaders.

This may sound farfetched, but in fact similar set-ups exist today, in places like Alaska and Gibraltar and RĂ©union, although those are determined by the history of colonialism rather than by choice. We can also look at urban areas or rural counties that comprise several municipal governments, in which driving over an invisible boundary gives you different traffic laws, school systems, and local taxes.

My purpose was never to propose micro-democracy as the single best way to evolve democracy, although I do think it has a lot of attractive elements. Rather, I wanted to get people thinking about the possibilities we’re not exploring, and the technical capacity we’re not taking advantage of.

I do think it would be great for people to have more choice in their government, and to not be bound by geographic location or by historical conquests. The nation-state has brought a lot of pain and horror over the years, as has the regressive idea that size and territory are necessarily important factors for national success. I think we’re well due for some changes there, although once again those in power will fight to postpone them as long as possible.

There are lots of other ways of approaching the problem, though. The United States, the European Union, ASEAN, MercoSur and other federal and supra-national organizations are experimenting with different balances between the benefits of size and umbrella government policies, and the need for local self-determination. These systems are never static, and governments continue to evolve and experiment, if often in slow and contradictory ways.

Meanwhile political scientists, techies, and science fiction writers have more freedom to think outside the box and propose wild, innovative solutions. I’m interested to see what else comes up.

What do most people get wrong when they think about disaster response and governance?

People tend to think disaster response is about experts swooping in from outside and saving lives. That very rarely happens. Most disaster assistance, especially of the life-saving kind, is carried out by locals: neighbors or neighboring communities. By the time outside experts get there, it’s about supporting people who have lost everything and laying the groundwork for recovery.

Also, people often think of disasters as exceptional, one-off, unexpected events, unconnected to normal life or regular questions of governance. In fact, disasters are deeply connected to the mundane problems of government.

Poverty, low education, racism, lack of health care, lack of public transportation, poor building codes and construction, non-democratic systems—all these things make people more vulnerable to the effects of natural hazards and exacerbate both the risks and effects of technological and industrial accidents. And we know enough about those factors, as well as about geology, meteorology, food security, and climate to know what kind of disasters are likely and how they will play out, if not exactly when they will happen.

Both cases I study for my doctoral thesis, Hurricane Katrina and the 2011 Japan tsunami, were predicted in detail: not just that a hurricane in New Orleans would be devastating, but that people without cars would have difficulty evacuating; not just that that area of Japan was due for a tsunami, but that offshore oil tanks and boat fuel would cause large fires.

Even the Fukushima Dai-Ichi crisis was triggered by a problem engineers were well aware of: a station blackout that occurred when the connection to the electricity grid was damaged as were the emergency generators. The United States and Europe have regulations about being prepared for station blackouts; Japan had greater confidence in their grid and did not think them necessary.

What does your research focus on?

My research is on how government organizations, especially local governments, reorganize themselves after a disaster-triggered collapse. I got interested in how governments do emergency management after working for an international NGO in Japan in 2011. I had already worked on a number of international responses, but most were UN-led and NGO-implemented, with some coordination with the host government. In Japan the government itself led the response, and it was a very different experience.

What sparked your interest in the field and where has it taken you?

I originally fell into disaster response by mistake. I had studied development and was working for a local NGO in Sri Lanka on micro-finance and peace-building and other assorted foreigner work like writing proposals when the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami hit. It was a deeply tragic, very difficult event. I ended up working on the response, and found some wonderful friends and colleagues and very satisfying work, and that got me into the field.

Why did you begin writing fiction? How does it interact with your other work?

I’ve always read and written fiction—I still find it much more natural than academic writing or reading. My other interests flow into my fiction, and that makes me think about them in different ways which can then go back and affect those other types of work.

So for example, my doctoral work is focused on relatively small organizations and how they react in extreme crisis, which (combined with my own experience working in organizations) led to quite a bit of organizational thinking and theory in Infomocracy, even though the scale and the situations are different. Then, as I’ve worked through the conundrums I set myself in the novel, I have sometimes gotten ideas for different ways of looking at my research.

How has your creative process evolved over time? What drives you to create art?

I still write in more or less the same way I always have, although if there’s one big change it’s having deadlines. So much of my writing has been done completely on spec, so I was playing around with novels as a way of relaxing after work or school, and it’s different to have your books taken seriously and consequently have both the time and the need to produce them on schedule.

The experience of NaNoWriMo, which I’ve done with varying levels of commitment for many years, was very helpful with that. Once you know you can write (and come up with things to write) quickly, it’s much easier to make yourself do so.

As far as what drives me, most of my books start out as an idea, a feeling, a phrase—or a combination thereof—that sticks with me until I finally write it down. It comes back into my head again and again, from different angles, with new refinements, until I have to accept that it’s going to stay and put it on paper (or, more usually, on a computer screen and hard disk).

Then I start to think about it more actively—where does that feeling come from? How does that idea interact with the world? What comes next?—and if there’s more there, it continues.

What role does science fiction play in our culture?

Science fiction has this really interesting double role. On the one hand, there’s the stereotype of a nerdy subculture, a little uncool, a little out of it, a little weird. But in fact science fiction is both quite mainstream – I mean, Star Wars? Star Trek? These are mass entertainment – and quite influential in real life – in politics, in science, in industry. It’s really strange that it still gets pushed into a corner. (Not to mention the science fiction books that somehow aren’t considered genre and fall into the literature pile instead, like Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, for example.)

I don’t have any big theory on this. Maybe it’s the combined need for and fear of dreaming big, or the incredibly annoying American love-hate relationship with intelligence. Or maybe it’s the combination of science with fiction that unnerves people, the fiction part undermining the scientific cred and the science part scaring away fiction-lovers.

Personally, I don’t think about it too much; I read pretty widely and care much more about the quality than the genre, although in some cases if I’ve been reading a lot in one area I’ll look for something different. Fiction is fiction: tell me a good story that adds something to my perception of the world, and I don’t care whether it has spaceships, dwarves, angsty teenagers, smoking hot dukes, or jaded detectives.

Well, the angsty teenagers might be a tough sell.

Have you ever read a book that changed your life?

I read books that change my life all the time. Anything that gives you a new idea, or teaches you something new, changes your life, whether or not you act on it. Even thinking about the big ones, the ones that you keep thinking back on and turning over in your head, there are too many to count.

What advice can you give to writers just starting out? To people who dream of making a difference through public service? To those interested in learning more about governance?

To writers: read a lot, write a lot, and get out of your comfort zone. Put yourself in someone’s else’s position as much as you can, either by immersing yourself in a different kind of life or by thought experiment.

If you want to make a difference through public service there are many, many different kinds of opportunities. Follow your interests, find something you enjoy, and try to focus on making a difference to the people immediately around you—your colleagues and the people your work focuses on—instead of “changing the world.”

If you want to learn about governance, observe how it impacts your life, try working in it, read about history, follow the news, and participate!

***

Pick up a copy of Infomocracy right here.

Find more Fellow Traveler interviews right here and subscribe to my newsletter to find out when new ones drop.

***

Eliot Peper is the author of Bandwidth, Borderless, Breach, Cumulus, True Blue, Neon Fever Dream, and the Uncommon Series. He's helped build technology businesses, survived dengue fever, translated Virgil's Aeneid from the original Latin, worked as an entrepreneur-in-residence at a venture capital firm, and explored the ancient Himalayan kingdom of Mustang. His books have been praised by the New York Times Book Review, the Verge, Popular Science, Businessweek, TechCrunch, io9, and Ars Technica, and he has been a speaker at places like Google, SXSW, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Comic Con, and Future in Review.
***

Get new posts delivered straight to your inbox:



This blog exists thanks to the generous support of loyal readers. Become a member.