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.

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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.

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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.
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