Podcast interview about how technology shapes society

I went on the Future Fossils podcast to discuss what the future extrapolated in the Analog Novels can teach us about the present:


“We haven’t figured out the new societies we want to build, given the new realities we’ve already invented.”

“If you start thinking about the entire internet as an AI, then Google is not a company that is building what could be in the future some kind of AI program. Rather, Google and its status as a corporation, all of the corporate hierarchies that exist within it, and all of the people working on teams there, are actually just one part of that larger internet AI.”

“I’m not a big believer in unitary self as an idea. I think we are all made up of many selves. We have these competing elements within us, and part of what it means to be human is to stitch these together into a coherent narrative. And we do that on the fly all the time.”

“Your solution is going to create new problems, and the best way to best way to deal with that knowingly is to try to keep an open mind, maintain your state of awareness about the world, and continually challenge your own assumptions.”

“We are living in an age of acceleration—and yet, we have always been confronted by a universe that defies our limited ability to make sense of it.”

“My hope is that by using it like reasonable, mutually respectful people, we can turn the digital world into a place that is still gonna have some of the nasty stuff, but is gonna have a lot of the good stuff.”

Complement with my previous appearance on Future Fossils where we talked about science fiction and scenario planning, imagining a future ruled by social media, and my interview with Kevin Kelly about technology trends that will shape the coming decades.


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Richard MacManus on how to build a career as a professional creator

In 2003, Richard MacManus founded the popular tech blog ReadWriteWeb. Now, he's back with Cybercultural, a newsletter covering how technology is changing cultural industries (books, movies, music, podcasts, etc.). Richard lives at the cutting edge of new media models and he was kind enough to answer a few questions about how to build a career as a professional creator.

What's your thesis for Cybercultural? How has the internet changed since you launched ReadWriteWeb back in 2003? What underlying fundamentals remain true?

Cybercultural is an email newsletter focused on the intersection of technology and the cultural industries. As I noted in my launch post, you only need to look at the likes of Spotify, Netflix and Amazon to realise that digital technology has profoundly changed the way cultural products are produced, distributed, paid for, and consumed.

Cybercultural is also my attempt to tackle the problems that emerged from the Web 2.0 era - a.k.a. the read/write web, which is what I named my previous blog. While I’m glad Web 2.0 gave us the tools to become professional creators (if we have the requisite talent and perseverance), it also made it much tougher for creators—and cultural institutions—to make their mark in a noisy and often superficial online world. So with Cybercultural, I aim to be an advocate for professional creators and the cultural organisations that support them. The major challenges of this era are how to find an audience, how to get peoples’ attention, and how to make money. It's a very challenging environment now, but I want to analyse these issues for the cultural industries and help find solutions.

As for the format, I chose to run it as a subscription email newsletter using Substack. Email newsletters are a format that has never really gone away, unlike blogs - which have, unfortunately, become much more difficult to run nowadays due to the demise of online advertising and RSS Readers. And we can no longer rely on social media to disseminate our content, due to the increasingly opaque algorithms of Facebook, Twitter, et al.

Plenty has changed since I launched ReadWriteWeb in 2003. The business model most of all. RWW made most of its revenue via online advertising and sponsorship, but that's very difficult these days - Facebook and Google have squeezed indie bloggers out. Also there's a lot of noise nowadays, mainly due to social media. As for what underlying fundamentals remain in place, I think it's that anybody can still create something new on the Web and give it a fair crack in the open market. Whether that's a niche media publication, like Cybercultural, or an indie author self-publishing on Amazon's platform, or a musician uploading their music to Bandcamp. The tools are even more plentiful now than they were in 2003, so fundamentally the read/write web is very sound. But the business models are difficult to break through, and it's exceedingly difficult to get peoples attention nowadays.

What frequently misunderstood forces are shaping the future of cultural industries like books, music, blogs, and podcasts? What do those forces mean for professional creators? 

I think one of the fallacies of Web 2.0 was that it created a democratisation of cultural content - that anyone could earn a living by being a content creator and that people would be able to earn their living just by being a part of The Long Tail. But the reality turned out to be quite different from the initial wave of Web 2.0 optimism. In reality, you can't make a living by publishing a book that lives way down in the long tail (I discovered this with my self-published science fiction novel, Presence!). And the same is true of music, movies, blogs, podcasts, etc. The cultural industries has never been a democracy—at best, it's a meritocracy. For some reason, in the early 2000s we all thought the Web would change that and democratize everything.

Another thing people may not fully realise is that creators are still reliant on gatekeepers in the cultural industries - and sometimes the power those people wield is alarming. Try to get a book noticed without it getting reviewed in book industry publications, or other publications with a sizable audience (your own breakthrough with Cumulus, for example, happened largely due to a fairly unexpected Ars Technica post). The gatekeeper model that existed prior to the Web hasn't gone away—and if anything it's even more pronounced now, because you need those people to cut through all the internet noise. Sure some gatekeepers are now Web native—e.g. prominent bloggers or people who have amassed large Twitter followings. But as a professional creator, you need them today just as much as you needed someone like a literary agent back in the 20th century.

What new business models are professional creators using to make a living? How should aspiring and experienced creators build resilient careers?

It depends on the sector, but subscriptions is certainly an important (but still nascent) business model. It's what I'm trying with Cybercultural, and it's also happening more and more with the platform companies (Spotify, Amazon, Netflix, Apple, et al). Various cultural sectors are at varying degrees of maturity with the model—arguably Spotify's subscription model is more mature than the newspaper models, since bundling isn't so common yet in news media (although that's starting to change). Another recent trend is crowdfunded subscriptions, especially with Patreon. But as I explored in a recent newsletter, it's much harder than it seems to build a paying subscriber base. The '1000 true fans' theory of Kevin Kelly is appealing and theoretically spot on, but in reality it's very difficult to achieve.

I'm not sure there is such a thing as a "resilient career" among professional creators, since only the elite creators can claim to be financially secure. The rest of us have to constantly innovate and hustle to get attention and earn an income. Perhaps that's as it should be. Once we all get Universal Income, after AI takes all the non-creative jobs, maybe then creators will find it easier to get paid!

Tim O'Reilly famously said, "The problem for most artists isn't piracy, it's obscurity." In a noisy world, how do professional creators become the signal?

I think all you can do is try to contribute something original and meaningful to the world, that nobody else is doing as well as you. Then at least you're a signal worth picking up. As to how people discover you, on the internet it takes a lot of networking and a fair dollop of luck. There's no easy formula. But that's partly why I created Cybercultural, to try and figure this out—and of course, hopefully become a signal myself.

What lessons have you learned from interviewing folks like Zoƫ Keating, Jason Kottke, and other creators who are making a good living making good art?

All of the people I interviewed were passionate about their niche and seemed to have a calling to do what they do, which is something I already knew about from my own experience with RWW (but it's always good to be reminded of it, because sometimes you forget to do what you love). I think Jason Kottke, who has been a blogger for over 20 years, was the most extreme example of this—especially since it's very difficult to make a living as a blogger now. For similar reasons I also really admire how Zoe Keating perseveres in running her career as a DIY musician, given all the economic ups and downs the music industry has endured since Napster.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this set of interviews was how long most of these people took to gather an audience. It took YouTuber Tal Oran 3-4 years to grow his audience and earn enough to go full-time (and even 1-2 years after that, he's still not satisfied with his audience and revenue). It was a similar story for other creators. Brian McCullough launched the Internet History Podcast in February 2014 as a research tool for a book on the same topic, but the book wasn't released till October 2018. Cherie Hu, who I regard as a very promising music journalist, has been doing her email newsletter for well over 3 years now—and is probably only at the base of the mountain in terms of how many subscribers she'll eventually have. Doug Metzger has been doing his fabulous Literature and History podcast for over three years, and has a massive catalog of content now - but has a long way to go till he makes a living from it.

So the big learning for everyone, including me: it takes more time than you think to build a career as a creator, so keep doing what you love and keep at it every day!

Complement with my IndieHackers interview, how to publish your fiction, and three pieces of advice for building a writing career.


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Reviews & Robots on the Analog series

Reviews & Robots published back-to-back reviews of each entry in the Analog trilogy:

‘Bandwidth’ Review: Political Intrigue Amidst a World on the Precipice

"Bandwidth masterfully combines speculative genres, pitting political thriller against climate change science fiction to create a compelling narrative that constantly keeps you on your toes. The character development is spot-on, showing us a protagonist with a difficult past whose career and life choices are coming back to haunt him. The novel surprised me at every turn with its web of intrigue and ever changing loyalties. It’s a wonderful read and I can’t wait to dive into the sequels."

‘Borderless’ Review: Smart Storytelling in a Tech-Driven World

"With well-crafted characters, an intricately woven plot, and a technology-driven society that mirrors our own, Borderless is impossible to put down. This is a spy novel at its finest, wrapped up in the workings of a tech-dependent society whose simplification of service providers has created untold ramifications. Incredibly smart, well-informed storytelling that shows a deep knowledge of politics, public policy, and psychology."

‘Breach’ Review: Loads of Intrigue & A Hells-Yes Protagonist

"I’m obsessed with Emily Kim. She’s this powerful, super-intelligent woman who has used her skills and her presence to grow a silent empire, only to have it all pulled out from under her. There’s always so much at stake in this near-future world."

Complement with this excerpt from Bandwidth in The Verge, this excerpt from Borderless in VICE, and this essay about what inspired Breach.


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How to overcome the post-launch blues

So I had a new novel come out a few weeks ago, and "post-launch blues" are one of the things authors talk about amongst ourselves but rarely mention publicly: the emotional low immediately following the release of a project you've sunk years of life and energy into.

You've got so much buildup and anxiety and excitement and AAAAHHH! IT'S ALL HAPPENING!!! and then... [silence].

But the day after the book came out, knowing post-launch blues were imminent, I went offline and wrote a complete treatment for a brand new project. Spending that time totally absorbed in fresh creative work was rejuvenating in a way I've never experienced before. I plan to rinse and repeat in future.

Complement with how I wrote Breach, why creativity is a form of leadership, and three tips for writers.


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Imagining new institutions for the internet age

What constitutes justice in a world ruled by algorithms? I wrote an essay for Medium about the lessons I learned writing novels that extrapolate a future shaped by a ubiquitous digital feed:


"In a world awash in information, the curator is king. Behind each digital throne is an algorithm, a specialized artificial intelligence that is powered by data. More data means better machine learning which attracts more talent that build better products that attract more users that generate more data. Rinse, repeat. This positive feedback loop means that A.I. tends toward centralization. Centralization means monopoly and monopoly means power."

Complement with this interview with the Chicago Review of Books, this conversation about governance in science fiction with Ada Palmer, Malka Older, and Kevin Bankston, and this TechCrunch feature on Bandwidth.


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How to see our world in a new light

TechCrunch interviewed me about the future extrapolated in my new novel, Breach, and the lessons I learned writing the Analog series:

https://techcrunch.com/2019/05/16/how-to-see-our-world-in-a-new-light/ (paywall)

"When you read speculative fiction, suddenly, you get to travel to these weird, imagined plausible alternative realities. And that can really broaden your thinking, because then when you return to your own life, you have this wider map of how the world might be—not how the world is—which makes your thinking more flexible."

"One of the exciting things about technology is that it can give you leverage, and I realized that stories work in a really similar way. They're entertaining, but they can also leave us with something, they can leave us changed, they can leave us with new ideas that we can actually implement in our lives."

"We always want the permanent fix, but the world isn't static."

"I’m a child of immigrants, my dad is Dutch, my mom is Canadian. I grew up in a multicultural household in a very diverse city: Oakland. When we grow up, we all learn, okay, you're an American, that means x, y, z, you're a citizen, these are the political borders, etc, etc. But what our country means is an invention, a technology as much as the computer is."

"Stories are Trojan horses for ideas. The very fact that I can use that metaphor proves the point. The Iliad was written thousands of years ago, and yet we all understand that metaphor today, even if we've never read the story."

Complement with TechCrunch on Bandwidth, ZDNet on the Analog series, and how and why I wrote Breach.


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What if a giant tech company became sovereign and democratic?

In my new novel Breach, out today, hackers and spies grapple over the future of governance. Dark, lush, and philosophical, Breach is a globe-trotting, near-future thriller brimming with intrigue and big ideas. If you're curious about how technology is changing our lives and world, you're in for a wild ride.

Pick up a copy of Breach right here.

Breach and the Analog novels have earned praise from publications like the New York Times Book Review, TechCrunch, and Ars Technica, and people like Malka Older, Cory Doctorow, and Craig Newmark. Seth Godin says, "The Analog series from Eliot Peper is simply terrific science fiction from the (very) near future–I loved all three."

Each Analog novel can be read independently, and enriches the others. ZDNet ran a thoughtful, comprehensive review of the trilogy if you want some context. Where Bandwidth extrapolates how feeds shape the geopolitics of climate change and Borderless examines how software is subverting nation-states, Breach explores what might come next—how we need to reinvent ourselves and our institutions to build a better future.

Although Breach is the third and final Analog novel, the protagonist, Emily Kim, was the first character who revealed herself to me when I began work on the series.

I was hiking through Wildcat Canyon Regional Park with my wife and our conversation teased at the edges of an amorphous story idea. I never know what particular seed will grow into a book and we talked about the invisible forces shaping world events, odd details we noticed in our lives, and speculative questions about how things might be different. It was from this strange cocktail that Emily emerged.

A teenager forced to fend for herself who develops a keen eye for the hidden rules that influence behavior, subverting them to survive and serve the powerless. A rebel with an anachronistic sense of honor who cannot blind herself to the failures of a broken system. A fighter who loves her friends as fiercely as she hates any sign of weakness in herself, who harbors the vain hope that her ruthless pursuit of perfection might help to balance out the injustice of an imperfect world.

Emily is as hard and brilliant as a polished diamond. I couldn’t write her right away. I wasn’t ready for her.

And so I did what Emily would do: I looked at the world around me, and squinted a little bit.

Technology is diverting the structure and flow of power. Computers and capital have stitched together a fractured world into a single variegated civilization, even as reactionary forces desperately try to turn back the clock. The companies that built the internet are forging global empires that Alexander the Great would never have been able to imagine. What were once scrappy startups have become geopolitical players on par with nation-states.

But with scale comes responsibility, a responsibility that digital luminaries have yet to come to terms with. The miraculous tools they’ve developed won them the reins of history, but those same reins curse them with exactly what many technologists have spent their lives trying to avoid: politics.

Technology has endowed us with superpowers, but who gets to decide what to do with them? This is the reckoning that Breach grapples with. This is the crucible that only someone like Emily could face. Someone as hard and brilliant as a diamond, whose facets transform the harsh light of suffering into coruscating rainbows, who learns that being broken is just the beginning.

If we are to avoid a future of disenfranchisement, we must invent new ways to grant as many people as possible as much agency as possible over their lives. We must take the power we’ve earned, and share it. In doing so, we might just find that ceding control can be more liberating than seizing it, that perfection is a mirage, that civilization is a work in progress, that the universe demands nothing more than we choose to give.

I chose to give Emily everything I have, and I hope that her journey will give you a small seed to carry with you that might one day grow into a story of its own.

Writers write, but books take flight only when readers tell other readers about them. If Breach means something to you, please tell your friends about it. Culture is a strange and beautiful garden nourished by word of mouth.

Selected praise:

"The Analog series from Eliot Peper is simply terrific science fiction from the (very) near future—I loved all three."
-Seth Godin, bestselling author and entrepreneur

"Eliot Peper has accomplished the extraordinary, rendering our own world searingly visible through an imaginary future, and producing an entirely plausible fictional universe with its own logics, rules, and legends. Deeply plotted and bracingly narrated, Breach is a joy to read, a puzzle to consider, and a cultural mystery to solve."
-Eva Hagberg Fisher, critically acclaimed author of How To Be Loved

"Like the best futurist fiction, Peper's Analog trilogy leaves you both satisfied and unsatisfied, content with a story that ends well, but asking questions about how we can go from our current informational wild west to something democratic, something we all have a say in, that's for all of us and not solely built to generate shareholder value. These are big questions, and it's good that the final pages of Breach leave us asking them. After all, if we don't know what questions to ask, how can we build a better world?"

"Breach has all the markings of an Eliot Peper novel: It's thought-provoking, exciting, and eminently readable."
-Nick Greene, columnist at Slate

"I’m obsessed with Emily Kim. She’s this powerful, super-intelligent woman who has used her skills and her presence to grow a silent empire, only to have it all pulled out from under her. There’s always so much at stake in this near-future world."
-Reviews & Robots

"One of the smartest writers in the field. Peper creates immensely compelling and frighteningly relevant books."
-Matt Wallace, Hugo Award-winning author, co-host of the Ditch Diggers podcast, and former professional wrestler

"Come for the vision of a 'good' tech monopoly, one that leads the world in dealing with climate change. Stay for the action scenes and history of hip-hop."
-David Beard, editor at the Poynter Institute

Get your copy of Breach right here.

Complement with what inspired Bandwidth, what inspired Borderless, and this podcast interview about the Analog series.