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 Réunion, 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.

Complement with my monthly reading recommendationsmy review of Malka's Null States for the Chicago Review of Books, and my interview with her for Medium.


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Geekiverse interview

I talked to Pete Herr at The Geekiverse about writing the Analog series:

"The Analog series is about how ubiquitous digital feeds shape our lives and politics. It’s about power and love and alienation and kindness and courage and adventure and perseverance. It’s about the decline of the nation-state and the rise of the tech platform. It’s about what happens when borders crumble and seas rise and Arctic sea ice melts and forest fires devour Los Angeles and people still find hope, still strive to build a better future. It’s about how we seem to tear each other apart the more we stitch ourselves together, and what it means to gather up the scraps, and tease out the threads, and weave a new and beautiful and different pattern."

"I recently cleaned out my parent’s basement and discovered a tattered cardboard box in the back corner under a bunch of old toys and dusty ski gear. The box was full of books I had treasured as an adolescent. My middle school gave each eighth-grader a book of their choice as a graduation gift. Standing there in the basement twenty years later, I opened the box to discover my copy of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, spotted with mold spores and complete with a signed note from the principal. That book cast a strange sort of spell on me, threw fresh shadows across my world, and gave me a new perspective on what technology and literature can do."

"While I was planning Breach, my wife and I watched the incredible Netflix documentary Hip-Hop Evolution. It was fascinating watching a genre take shape and learning the origin stories for so many of the songs I had grown up listening to. Right then and there, I knew Emily, the protagonist, had to be a diehard fan of classic hip-hop—it was so her. So I went on social media and asked the internet what her favorite tracks should be. Honestly, I was expecting crickets, so I was shocked when hundreds of suggestions came in, many with extensive notes explaining each song’s context and subtext. I was overwhelmed in the best possible way and created a playlist that collected the crowdsourced recommendations in one place. You can listen to it here."

Start reading the Analog series today.


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Kim Stanley Robinson on how to spark hope in a future ravaged by climate change

Maria Popova says that critical thinking without hope is cynicism and hope without critical thinking is naïveté. Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 finds the golden mean between the two. He challenges us to reevaluate our own assumptions and priorities with a vision of the future that is at once hopeful and pragmatic.

The novel follows a pair of frustrated hackers, a veteran NYPD detective, an obsessive hedge fund manager, a bumbling minor celebrity, two rebellious street urchins, a stoic superintendent, and a dedicated social activist, all of whom happen to live in the same downtown Manhattan building in an area flooded by rising sea levels. Over the course of the book, they uncover a corporate conspiracy, survive ecological disaster, and engineer a new way forward for themselves, and their city.

New York 2140 takes on sweeping themes that are painfully relevant right now. It illustrates the impacts of accelerating anthropogenic climate change, outlines systemic corruption in global political economics, and demarcates the limits and absurdities of high finance. The scale, breadth, and depth at which Robinson wrestles with these issues is staggering and certain to provide fodder for many late-night philosophical debates.

But what makes New York 2140 so affecting is how intimate it feels. Robinson summons characters in all their glory and their flaws, showing us their foibles, mistakes, and nobility. These aren’t cardboard cutouts, they’re real people struggling with real problems that are too messy to fit the utopia/dystopia cookie cutter. Robinson’s deep affection for them is palpable even at their worst moments, and it’s that kernel of humanity that will stay with you long after you’ve turned the final page.

The same goes for the setting. In a genre known for creative world-building, New York 2140 stands out as a love letter written to a very particular place. Robinson takes the long-view on Manhattan, looking back into its history as well as into its future. This adds rich depth and texture, bringing the story alive in a fully realized city that is as conflicted, bold, and vibrant as ever.

New York 2140 is a tour through the future of America’s most storied metropolis, and Robinson is an expert guide. He is the New York Times bestselling author of eighteen novels, including the acclaimed Mars trilogy, 2312, and Aurora. A winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards, Robinson is known for his humanist, hopeful science fiction. That social conscience goes beyond his books. He works with the Sierra Nevada Research Institute and was named a “Hero of the Environment” by Time.

In the following conversation, we discuss climate change, the relationship between capitalism and democracy, and the book he wants to read that hasn't yet been written.


Are capitalism and democracy incompatible? What are the core tensions at the heart of their intersection? What does that mean for our personal and public lives?

Compatibility is not the right rubric. Prisoners and jails are compatible. Some say finance and the state are one system, or that they were in conflict both trying for ultimate control, and now finance has won (see Lazzaretto’s Governing By Debt), in which case they are just one contradiction locked into the world system. Democracy is seen by some as real and important, by others as a false front on a world system entirely ruled by oligarchic capitalism.

Whenever speaking at this level it’s an ideological discussion, ideology meaning an imaginary relationship to a real situation, which we all have and need. So with that understood, and speaking in the broadest way, the core tension I see is that democracy intends to create a horizontalization of power, in which power is spread among all the people in a population, while capitalism’s laws of capital accumulation tend to create a verticalized power structure in which the one percent have lots of power while the rest of the population has much less. So the two are in competition over government and its ability to make and enforce the laws.

What it means for us in our personal and public lives (if that is a distinction) is that we’re almost all in the “precariat,” in that our lives are precarious, financially and politically; and we should all be fighting for democracy and against capitalism.

What do smart people get wrong when they think about climate change? What stands in the way of meaningful progress? How do we reframe the conversation?

Smart people? Meaning us, I suppose? What we get wrong, if we do, is to imagine future generations can fix anything we happen to wreck in the planet’s biosphere. The idea is of a thermostat we can push up and down. I think that may not be true, especially for extinctions and ocean acidification. But these are well-known facts.

Meaningful progress? We’ve made a lot of it, the Paris Accord was an important big step, and there’s been lots of other meaningful progress in the last ten years. Now, I write on the day after Scott Pruitt declared his disbelief that our CO2 pollution is the main driver of climate change. Maybe the ability to hold this kind of fantasy without getting fired is one symbol of what is standing in the way of meaningful progress: Trump. But also everyone supporting Trump, and the capitalism Trump represents.

To deal with climate change we need government regulation of the markets, which is anathema to the capitalist “free market” ideology of profit as the only value, so capitalists are forced to deny the facts of the situation, as these create the necessity to put limits on their power and profit.

I don’t think we need to reframe the conversation: These people will not be convinced by a different set of metaphors or debating methods. The framing remains immutable: We are wrecking our own biophysical support system, and need to stop doing that as soon as possible. Stopping that will require the invention and implementation of a post-capitalist, sustainable and just political/economic system.

Are there crossovers between writing science fiction and financial investing? How are imagining the future and betting on it similar or different?

Maybe there are, in that both attempt to create plausible scenarios of futures that may come to pass, and even try to call certain futures into being, while also weighing the likelihood of which ones may happen. Mark Anderson’s Strategic News Service is a particularly fine-grained and well-done kind of near-future science fiction that focuses partly on the financial implications of various reads on the future. But just imagining futures can be relatively unconstrained, and you can propose unlikely or even stupid futures with no repercussions, whereas when you bet that one future is going to happen rather than another, you’ve “got skin in the game” and can lose money when proved wrong.

What role does science fiction play in our culture? In a world obsessed with growth (personal and economic), what does literature offer?

I’ve been saying for some time, we live in a science fiction novel that we are all writing together. Because of that, science fiction is the realism of our time. It’s become the most relevant and dominant art form in our culture. Which is nice.

As for growth, remember to look at de-growth economics, and consider how personal growth and economic growth may be very different and even opposites. It’s not a word to use casually; cancer is growth.

As for literature, it offers meaning. It’s a different form of value. To put it in science fictional terms, it offers telepathy, in that you get to experience what it’s like to be inside other people’s thinking (this movies can’t do, they have other strengths) and it takes you to other times and places and shows you, with thick texture, as if lived, what they might have been like. In both cases these experiences are fictional, but real.

What was your creative process for New York 2140? The world it portrays is so rich with ecological, economic, historical, literary, and local detail, how did you go about researching it?

I went to New York and walked around, and also recalled all my previous visits, and had a friend drive me to places I had never been to before, like Coney Island, the Cloisters, Queens and Hells Gate. Then I read a lot. It was tremendous fun, I fell in love with the place, and while there I was on the hunt in a very exciting way. That may not last now that I’m done writing the book, but I really enjoyed it while it lasted, and I’m sure I’ll always remain in awe of the city and happy to visit it. It’s a stunning, beautiful place.

What book have you recently read that changed your life? What books or authors have most inspired you? What story do you want to read that hasn’t been written yet?

I’ve been reading Thoreau’s journals over the last ten years, and he is very inspirational. The journals are much bigger than Walden, as well as longer (about 7,000 pages). I also really enjoyed Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet.

I would like to read a plausible and detailed near-future postcapitalist eco-utopian novel that describes everything going well for everyone and the whole biosphere, all over the world. I think I may have to write that one myself, which is either good or bad, depending on when I think about it.

When you find yourself in a dark place, where do you seek hope?

Outdoors! Sometimes in my garden, or in the Sierras when I can get there, or the beach. Anyway, somewhere outdoors, and hopefully in the sun. That always helps. We evolved to be there.


Pick up a copy of New York 2140 right here.

Complement with my conversation with Kim Stanley Robinson about the geopolitical consequences of lunar exploration, my conversation with Daniel Suarez on the future of CRISPR, and this East Bay Express feature on how technology redefines the nation-state in my novel Borderless.


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New Books in Science Fiction podcast interview

I went on the New Books in Science Fiction podcast to talk to about the social implications of technology, the meaning of justice in an age of algorithms, and the near-future extrapolated in my new novel, Breach:

Complement with How to see our world in a new light, Eliot Peper Imagines a Future Ruled by Social Media, and Three Amazing Sci-Fi Writers Talk About the Future—of Tech, Politics, Privacy, Climate, and More.


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FactorDaily on Breach

FactorDaily ran a glowing, thought-provoking review of Breach:

"We must turn to fiction like the Analog Novels to see what the future could look like, what it could hold in store for us and what we could do to ensure it’s a good one. Read Eliot Peper’s Breach while it’s still fiction."

Complement with my FactorDaily interview about Bandwidth, ZDNet on the Analog Novels, and Kevin Bankston interviewing me, Malka Older, and Ada Palmer about the future of governance.


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America at its best

In 2017, my wife and I hosted a Ugandan refugee for nine months as he began the profoundly difficult process of building a new life.

Today, he has his own apartment, works a full-time job in which he takes immense pride, and just got his Green Card.

He is America at its best.

Complement with this profile that explores my grandparents' difficult journey to the US, this conversation about how technology is challenging traditional political borders, and renovating the American Dream.


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Daniel Suarez on the future according to CRISPR

Synthetic biology is changing what it means to be human. For thousands of years, we’ve used technology to shape biology. We domesticated and bred plants and animals, trained our minds with meditation and asceticism, drove species to extinction, and ingested alcohol and narcotics to alter our own brain chemistry. More recently, we’ve upped the ante with modern pharmaceuticals, implants, medical devices, biofeedback training, and prosthetics.

But these myriad accomplishments pale in comparison to synbio.

Advances in computational biology and genetic editing techniques like CRISPR empower us to reassemble the building blocks of life. We are producing spider silk from yeast, designing drought-resistant plants to survive the privations of climate change, growing meat in petri dishes, editing cells in adult humans in an attempt to cure HPV, and embedding computer viruses in DNA. In his near-future thriller, Change Agent, Daniel Suarez prototypes the cascading consequences of this revolutionary technology.

Synbio shapes every aspect of Change Agent’s world. Agriculture has moved from fields to skyscrapers where bespoke crops generate unprecedented yields. Parents wring hands over whether and how to modify children that could all too easily end up on the losing end of an arms race for desirable traits. Cheaply manufactured designer drugs deliver the perfect high every time. Governments struggle to reform and enforce pertinent regulations and geopolitical power shifts to places with less stringent rules. Biotech corporations profit from the economic boom and strengthen a draconian intellectual property regime that privatizes ownership of life itself.

Change Agent is the future according to CRISPR, and the implications are staggering.

Synbio would never have been possible without the successive leaps and bounds that computing has made over the past few decades, and the information and biological technology revolutions have more in common than you might think. Like cloud computing, offsite sequencing labs have dramatically increased the pace and lowered the costs of research, empowering DIY biohackers alongside career scientists. Like the internet, synbio is not easily restricted by geographic borders or governance, democratizing tools of extraordinary power and raising the spectre of catastrophe. Like social media and online anonymity, genetic manipulation threatens traditional definitions of identity, forcing us to reevaluate what it means to be human.

Suarez riffs on these themes and more, making Change Agent a veritable cornucopia of speculative insights into the second and third order effects of synbio advances. Each detail shines with the warm glow of rigorous polishing. This is science fiction for scientists. Suarez did an enormous amount of research to inform the future he presents, reading countless books and scientific papers, interviewing experts, visiting cutting edge research facilities, and vetting his creations with leaders in the field.

The result is a pulse-pounding thriller in the vein of Michael Crichton. But even after you’ve finished the book and your adrenaline runs down, you’ll be left wondering whether, in our race to hack life and build the future, we are forgetting the moral of Prometheus’ ancient tale.

Suarez was kind enough answer a few questions about how synbio will shape our world, our most common misconceptions about it, where it will impact our personal and professional lives, and what it means for our social and political institutions. He also shares details on his inspirations, research, and creative process.


While CRISPR makes headlines, the applications still feel limited to the lab, remote from our daily lives. But every aspect of the future Change Agent portrays has been revolutionized by this fascinating technology. Why did you choose to explore this particular scientific frontier? How will it shape our world over the coming decades?

I chose CRISPR because it's going to have a huge impact on the world and relatively soon. CRISPR may seem like it's limited to multi-million dollar university and corporate labs, but it's already possible to start genetically editing single-cell organisms at home.

In fact, CRISPR has helped a burgeoning open-source movement in synthetic biology (or 'synbio') that was originally championed by Harvard geneticist George Church.

I was first introduced to synbio a few years ago while on a visit to the MIT Media Lab. Several fascinating projects at MIT were aimed at 'programming' single-cell organisms like bacteria, yeast, and algae to do productive work—from manufacturing pharmaceuticals to biofuels. CRISPR gene-editing (developed in 2012) made creating these synthetic organisms easier. It was clear to me that synbio and CRISPR together were going to spark a revolution in open-source, DIY biotech.

I think the big successes in synbio will be created not by multi-billion dollar labs but by newcomers experimenting without preconceptions—in much the same way that early Internet entrepreneurs disrupted existing gatekeepers. In the context of biology that's both exhilarating and terrifying.

Knowing this, synbio and CRISPR became obvious fodder for a high-tech thriller.

What aspect of synbio is most misunderstood in the popular imagination? What do laypeople get wrong in cocktail conversations and armchair debates? What do experts get wrong when trying to communicate its real promise, risks, and import?

I think the first thing the public gets wrong on this topic is that synbio is decades away from impacting society. Take a drive through South San Francisco and you will find biotech startup after biotech startup, many of them focused on mining DNA data and/or generating DNA-based biotech innovations. CRISPR startups abound worldwide.

This isn't some distant future. It's starting now, and every month will bring news of CRISPR-related breakthroughs and new ethical dilemmas relating to humanity's increasing ability to manipulate DNA—the building blocks of all living things.

I wouldn't say the experts are getting things wrong. I think industry leaders like Dr. Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR genetic editing, have been very responsible in their public pronouncements about the technology, cautioning entrepreneurs and policymakers to proceed with care and to not let the technology outpace our ability to cope with its social and ethical implications. Researchers have also enacted a voluntary moratorium on editing human embryos.

Will that work? It's worth a shot. What else can they do to restrain risky biotech research, especially across borders? There's no way to put this genie back in the bottle, and the very nature of CRISPR—its low cost and ease of use—will present challenges to those urging caution. Already in China we see CRISPR research underway focused on curing heritable genetic disorders in human embryos. The embryo edits conducted there, if successful, could be shifted from curing disorders to 'gifting' children with genes associated with longer life, stronger bones, faster muscles, or better memories. The long-term effects of such edits are unknown, but the only thing holding back the research at this point is prudent caution—not technical limitations.

And should an edit convey advantages to a child in one place, there will be a biotech race to see who can unlock the next major discovery. And big money will reward the first-movers—even if the ultimate consequences are not clear for a generation or two.

And it is here where I think experts could place more emphasis: Even if a genetic edit seems to convey advantages, that doesn't mean we fully comprehend the complexities involved. We could be editing ourselves into deep trouble.

As any new scientific discovery matures into technology and migrates from the hands of researchers into the world at large, our social and political institutions must evolve to deal with the changes it inevitably precipitates. What are the most important moral, social, and political questions raised by CRISPR and synbio? How do our institutions currently manage them? What new policy frameworks do we need to consider going forward?

One of the key challenges genetic editing and synthetic biology will present to society is whether it's immoral NOT to genetically modify plants, animals, and even humans as humanity contends with the consequences of anthropogenic climate change. I say this because there are long-established, well-organized constituencies on both sides of the GMO debate—corporate and university labs on one hand, and anti-GMO activists on the other. No matter which side you favor, the rationale for both is about to be disrupted.

I, myself, have long been opposed to most GMO's—but not because I thought genetic modification was inherently wrong. What I objected to about GMO's was that patented genetic sequences were being used as a form of intellectual property virus—proprietary DNA cross-pollinating with long-cultivated heirloom seed varieties and then being used as legal leverage to convince farmers to buy into proprietary agriculture 'systems', thus reducing genetic diversity and making food production MORE susceptible to a major disruption.

I also sympathized with the organic food movement because they want food to be the product of a healthy, sustainable, and diverse ecosystem. And let's face it: most people want that.

However, change is the only permanent state in the natural world, and so any effort to force food, animals, and even humanity to remain exactly as they are is doomed to failure—and even worse, if successful, will doom us.

So change is necessary. But what kind of change? In the natural world mutations favor fitness – a state constantly in flux due to the mutations of viruses, bacteria, parasites, predators, and the ever-changing state of our environment. That means there is no 'ideal' organism. There is only an organism best-suited-for-this-moment—and that moment will change.

The latest wild card, however, is anthropogenic climate change. Overwhelming evidence indicates the warming atmosphere stems from fossil fuel use and industrial farming (i.e. deforestation, agricultural run-off, etc.).

Environmental activists can legitimately claim that our warming atmosphere was caused by the same industrial processes to which they've long been opposed. However, as the climate shifts, food crops and animals dependent on specific ranges of temperature and rainfall are perishing. Extinctions are already occurring at 100 to 1,000 times historical rates in what's known as the 'Sixth Extinction' (I recommend Elizabeth Kolbert's 2014 non-fiction book of the same name by for those wanting to know more). At *current* rates 75% of all species on Earth could be extinct in just three human lifetimes.

What do we do about this? We try to mitigate climate change, of course. However, synbio and genetic editing might offer our only chance to preserve biodiversity by accelerating evolution to enable the environment to survive our mistakes, while we struggle to create a less polluting, more sustainable modern civilization. In other words, it buys us a little more time to get our act together.

You can see the obvious conflict: There's no guarantee that humanity will mend its polluting ways even if it does modify the genetics of key plants and animals to cope with a warmer, more unpredictable world. Likewise, there's no guarantee that our genetic edits will be capably done – and our track record for comprehending the complex interdependence of genes and creatures within an ecosystem is not good.

And yet, doing nothing is no option either. Animals, plants, and even humanity will not be able to evolve at a speed commensurate with the challenges of climate change. Going back to an 18th century agricultural system simply cannot feed the Earth's seven billion people—much less during times of drastic climate uncertainty.

This brings me back to the two sides in the current GMO debate that I mentioned earlier: corporate and university labs versus anti-GMO activists. Both of their traditional positions will become untenable within a decade.

In an age of low-cost, CRISPR genetic editing and DIY synbio-hacking, it will no longer require a multi-million dollar lab or highly skilled scientists to modify organisms. Even Internet-connected villages in the developing world will theoretically be able to obtain the tools and know-how to modify their traditional crops to withstand droughts, deluges, or new pests.

Corporate labs won't relish the open-source competition—but biology is the *original* open-source.

And who are we to say that people in the developing world must starve rather than modify their crops—especially if my industrialized society was the cause of their changing climate?

An open-source biology movement akin to the rapid spread of the internet presents huge risks and huge opportunities for everyone—not least because this time the code we'll be writing will be the code of life itself.

How will our social and political institutions cope with this level of rapid, fundamental change? Anyone with answers to that question will be much in demand.

The world of Change Agent is filled with technological marvels and nightmares, but one of the most interested parts of the novel is how this new reality challenges the characters to confront age-old philosophical questions about identity. When we can rewrite genes, what does that mean for our sense of self? When nature herself is malleable, how does she interact with nurture in forming who we become? How does synbio interact with persistent surveillance?

Human identity already struggles in the digital age (where people maintain multiple fictional identities in various web-based subcultures).

But I wanted to explore what would happen to our sense of self if literal, physical change at the DNA level was possible. In such a case, what does one generation derive from the previous one? What do children owe to parents? What fundamental assumptions of all human societies are blown to the wind as a result of the ability to rewrite our own genetics?

One possible result might be the final and permanent demise of racism. If everyone could revise their genetic sequence—even as mature people—then physical attributes would have no more weight in the real world than they do in the virtual ones. However, the exclusionary instincts of humanity might move on from phenotypical traits toward our underlying psychology—becoming prejudiced against modes of behavior.

In that sense, our quest to understand ourselves would hinge less upon our physical bodies and more upon our beliefs and actions. However, genetic edits to the human brain—especially those received in adulthood—might call into question the very idea of 'free will.' I suspect individuals in a society with rampant genetic editing will seek to record their DNA 'signature' so that any unintended edits can be quickly detected and reversed.

Control of one's genetic sequence will indeed become a source of legal and ethical debate. Will 'original' recipients of a genetic complement inherited 'naturally' have legal standing to defend against the use of their DNA by others? If artwork on the Internet is routinely lifted and claimed by others, think how much more alarming it would be to find your DNA lifted from a saliva or skin cell sample—and that your physical form is available for purchase in a genetic surgery catalog?

Needless to say, both police work and surveillance become infinitely more challenging in a world where people can transform indistinguishably into others. Fingerprints and DNA analysis wouldn't prove much. Neither would security camera footage.

Reading Change Agent, I was struck by how its core premise spirals into so many recursive thought experiments. In Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, the core “what if” question is limited to whether we could use gene-editing to resurrect dinosaurs. But in Change Agent, the core premise presents a scenario in which nothing remains unchanged or untouched by this Promethean innovation. What research did you do to inform the world you build in the novel? How did you go about generating and vetting ideas? What real world resources did you draw on to develop or strengthen your various theses?

Part of the inspiration for Change Agent came from reading early disquisitions on the ethical dilemmas relating to CRISPR-editing of human embryos—specifically the potential to create designer babies. That seemed like more of a background element to me. Society grappling with the natural urge of parents to 'better' their children through unnatural means is interesting, but the solution also seemed obvious: authorities and reputable scientists in such a near-future society would seek to regulate the changes being made to human embryos to avoid unanticipated, irreversible genetic consequences for all of humanity.

But what if *mature*, living organisms could be edited—and re-edited? The more I researched that question, the less outlandish the idea appeared. For example, studies using adeno-associated virus (AAV) to spread programmed CRISPR agents through mature organisms have already achieved successes. Most recently a Temple University lab used AAV to lethally edit the HIV virus infecting adult mice—curing the mice.

However, even back in 2015 (when I was doing research for my book) a team at the University of Washington had managed to imbue adult squirrel monkeys with color vision by injecting them with an AAV-based gene therapy.

The researchers injected a mature creature and changed its genetics. From there, the idea of my protagonist having his genetic identity stolen via an injection began to take shape.

Note: Some have suggested that I was inspired by films like Face Off, but Face Off is a story with no basis whatsoever in science. Instead, I arrived at the 'identity switch' conceit by way of developments in genetic editing. More broadly, tales of identity switches go back to Greek mythology, with gods assuming human form to perpetrate mischief. In legend, King Arthur himself was conceived through an identity switch. Later tales like the Prince and the Pauper all the way up to Trading Places continued this archetype. The loss of our own identity is both a terror and a tantalizing possibility, depending on who you are.

What I wanted to do was take recent biotech developments in CRISPR to put a realistic twist on this archetypal tale.

You worked hard to get the technical details right but chose to tell this story as a near-future thriller rather than an essay or nonfiction book about the impacts of synthetic biology. Why is Change Agent a novel? What unique lens does fiction offer on these kinds of questions?

One of the great things about fiction is that it's a license to prototype the future. Unlike a journalist or a scientist, I'm free to write about things as they *could* be—not necessarily as they are. By weaving real and projected science into a (hopefully) entertaining story, I try to make cutting-edge scientific and technological principles much more accessible to a mainstream audience.

My self-imposed goal is to do enough research that a subject matter expert on one of the topics depicted in my books can still suspend their disbelief and enjoy the story along with non-experts. That's tough to do when it comes to subjects like cyber security, robotics, physics, or genetics.

That said, I think novels are still vital in 2017. They permit readers to do a deep dive on a certain topic of interest or familiar characters, and you'll find that a great many popular films and television shows sprang from novels.

Give us a peek behind-the-scenes, what did your creative process look like for Change Agent? When you set out to develop a new vision of the future, how do you go about it in practice? What books have you recently read that changed the way you see the world?

It wasn't that I read any books that *changed* the way I see the world. The catalyst for Change Agent was when I learned about the existence of new, fascinating biotechnologies like CRISPR and synthetic biology. I then went out to educate myself on the current state of that research. In the process I read several key books (which I list in the 'Further Reading' section at the back of Change Agent). In fact, I always include a further reading section in the appendix of my novels because I suspect my readers will be as fascinated as I am by the science behind the subjects I write about.

Of course, I always seek out and interview experts on the topics appearing in my books and often visit key real-world facilities. However, I only do so after I've read widely on a subject. It eliminates the need for elementary questions that waste an expert's time and shows them how serious you are about understanding what it is they do. It also leaves them more time to get to the really interesting stuff.

Complement with Kevin Kelly on the technology trends that will shape the next 30 years, Nick Harkaway on algorithmic futures, and my monthly reading recommendations.


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