Three Amazing Sci-Fi Writers Talk About the Future — of Tech, Politics, Privacy, Climate, and More
Earlier this month, three amazing new science fiction authors were generous enough to hop on to a video conference with me for two hours of in-depth conversation about their work and the future of technology, politics, privacy, climate change, and much more. Those three writers are:
- Malka Older, who just published State Tectonics, the third and final book in The Centenal Cycle that started with Infomocracy;
- Ada Palmer, author of the Hugo award-winning Too Like the Lightning, the first book in her four-part Terra Ignota series; and
- Eliot Peper, whose latest novel Borderless just came out. It’s his eighth novel, and the second in his Analog series of novels.
I thought it would be fun to bring these three writers together not only because I love their books, and because they have all burst upon the scene at around the same time, but because all three of their new series are focused on something that I’m super-interested in: the future of government and governance in the digital age.
What do citizenship and borders mean — what should they mean — in a globally networked world? How can we protect the legitimacy of our political institutions in the face of rampant digital disinformation and manipulation? Is global corporate power threatening national sovereignty, and is that a good or a bad thing? If the modern system of nation-states that has lasted for nearly half a millennium becomes a thing of the past, what system will replace it?
We talk about all that and more in this unique interview, which hopefully will only be the first of many, so stay tuned!
Full Transcript of Interview with Malka Older, Ada Palmer, and Eliot Peper
[note: the timestamps given below are about 25 seconds ahead of version of the video that was ultimately posted to YouTube]
Kevin: [00:00:25] Hi, everybody. Whoever is watching this this is Kevin Bankston. Nice to meet you. I am the director of the Open Technology Institute at New America working on Internet and tech policy trying to make sure all communities have access to an Internet that is both open and secure. That’s my day job. But related to that job and kind of one of the inspirations for me getting a job like that is science fiction, and in particular something that’s been interesting me a lot lately is the interplay between science fiction and real world tech and policy and innovation and science fiction as a tool for thinking through those things. Because I find that super valuable in my own work. And in the past few years, three writers in particular have been not only really entertaining to me in their work but really helpful to me in conceptualizing the future of the Internet and information technology and governance in a networked world, and I want to get them all together to talk about the themes of their latest work in a way that I thought might be interesting to a lot of other tech and policy and sci-fi nerds. So this interview which will range from an hour to two hours, depending on like how engaged we get, will be posted to my Medium page — Kevin Bankston at Medium — where I also have some writing about sci-fi and stuff. But enough about me. The people who we’re really here to talk to and to see talk to each other. This is an interview of all of us interviewing all of us. We have Malka Older (give away of Malka?). Malka, in addition to being an expert in disaster response and governance of disaster responses — something she’s getting a Ph.D. in — is a sci-fi author and just completed the third book in her three book series The Sentinel Cycle. This is the third book “State Tectonics,” which just came out and which I just finished. This was her first series, her first novels. And all three are great. She is here as I am in D.C. Are you in D.C. today, Malka. Or in Paris?
Malka: [00:02:53] I’m in Paris.
Kevin: [00:02:54] Lucky you. Well, thank you for doing this.
Malka: [00:02:58] Can’t you tell from the like arty backdrop?
Kevin: [00:03:04] Is that an AirBnB?
Malka: [00:03:06] No. This is actually my, the center that I study at, which is literally, so it’s literally like a sociology department of a major university in a reconfigured … I think it was a church. So it’s like a beautiful space with you know circular windows and skylights and … Yeah, it’s, it’s gorgeous. I am humbled.
Kevin: [00:03:33] Just like the characters and the world in her books, Malka is quite cosmopolitan and roaming the world.
Malka: [00:03:42] [Garbled] jetlag.
Kevin: [00:03:44] That is a key component of that life. We also have, you cannot see but you can hear Eliot Peper who is out in the Bay Area. He’s a startup entrepreneur and strategist who also is a sci-fi novelist. I believe he’s now written eight novels and is in the middle of a series of three books, I believe series, where he just put out the second book “Borderless.” The first book was called “Bandwidth.” That’s the Analogue Series. Malka’s series was the Sentinel Cycle. And finally we have Ada Palmer, a professor at University of Chicago specializing in Renaissance history and expertise that in interesting ways has fed into her novels. She is also a new novelist who is in the middle of a series called the Terra Ignota series. Three books have come out so far with a fourth coming in 2020. There’s the Hugo-nominated “Too Like the Lightning” — way to go, Ada! — “Seven Surrenders” and “Will the Battle.” So welcome all three of you. Thank you for making the time in the middle of I’m sure your busy days and busy lives.
Ada: [00:04:55] This is the fun part. This is the part to look forward to.
Kevin: [00:04:58] I’m glad, I’m glad I could provide that. The main reason I’m talking to you three together is because a key thing that you are tackling in your newest series is the question of the future of governance in a networked world or in the case of Ada book’s a flying car networked world — we’ll get to that — including ideas about nonlocalized or distributed government or government by or through corporations or entities descended from corporations. Malka and Elliott are also especially specifically envisioning worlds that where there’s a single dominant maybe Google-like or Facebook-like or telecom monopoly-like dominant, global information provider, which obviously hits on themes that are relevant today and to our … and so, so obviously that’s particularly relevant to our current technical and political environment because y’all are all in various ways also hitting on issues of political intrigue and power. There are spies everywhere in your books and lobbyists. So and finally y’all are all new or newish sci-fi writers, and I expect y’all all have interesting, fresh perspectives on the field, where the field is going and where your sci-fi fits in the sci-fi canon as it were because it definitely does fit in the sci-fi canon. Y’all are that awesome. So in terms of format there are definitely going to be questions for each of you directly and sometimes the question that I’ll address to everybody and y’all should also feel free to talk to each other and ask each other questions and engage in dialogue. Mild spoil warning: We’re going to try and avoid very “plotty” spoilers but sort of broader thematic spoilers or general directions that the books are going in maybe revealed. So be prepared for that. So without further ado and enoug with the talking from me, I’m going to invite each of you to briefly introduce — well, we’ve introduced you — but, but introduce your books, particularly your latest series, in terms of like what’s the world, who’s it about, what’s the main conflict. I would say elevator pitch but maybe a little longer than an elevator pitch. Let’s say your space elevator pitch and first.
Ada: [00:07:45] And we have four space elevators. They are all equatorial.
Kevin: [00:07:48] Oh, yeah, you do have space elevators, which is … So yeah, I mean it’s actually …
Ada: [00:07:55] Gabon, the Maldives and Borneo, those are the four.
Kevin: [00:08:00] Which all makes geographical sense. So just a very brief introduction. It’s worth noting that Eliot’s books are relatively near future in the next few decades. Malka’s books are on the later end of the 21st century, while Adas books happen in the 2400s, so much farther future. So we have an interesting progression of near future to bit farther future to much farther future, which I think is an interesting progression and we’ll talk about that. So let’s go in chronological order of your futures. Eliot, tell us about the Analog Series.
Eliot: [00:08:46] Yeah, I’m actually hoping that if, that if we can squint a little bit maybe, maybe all of these series can be in the same timeline.
Kevin: [00:08:57] I have thought about how your book would be as a prequel to either of Ada’s or Malka’s work.
Eliot: [00:09:02] Yes. So you know I think that the sort of the overarching question that really informs a lot of my fiction is is what does it mean to live a good life in an age of acceleration? Right? Where we’re at this unique sort of historical moment where, and I’m actually really excited to hear Ada talk about that. You know where, where the structures that shape our lives are are changing fast. Like my life is really different from my grandparents’ life which … And it’s likely that our grandchildren’s lives will also be very very different from our own, which, which is you know a change of pace from most of human history. And so that, that’s sort of that, at a very high level, that’s the theme I’m always looking to tackle. The Analog Series takes place, as you said, a few decades in the future where there’s this ubiquitous digital feed that, that sort of stiches everything together. So the easiest way to imagine it would be, you know, take Google, take Facebook, take every tech company you’ve ever heard of and, and lump them all together and then multiply that by a thousand. Right? So you know everybody, everybody has this digital layer that intermediates their experience of the world. It’s also the cognition behind every object. So every car, every vehicle, every you know like your home is a computer you live in, your car’s computer that drives you, a hospital a computer that you know you go to to get, when you’re sick. So there’s this ubiquitous digital feed, and it’s run by a multinational company called Commonwealth. And the first book really wrestles with how feeds shapes our own psychology, how they, how they shape our lives. So you know just like we have a physical diets that you know power our bodies, our information diet is a big part of what makes us who we are. You know, we are the stories we tell ourselves. Right? And so you know the stories we tell ourselves are informed both by our personal experience and also by the stories and ideas that other people share with us and that and that we, the media we consume. And so in this, in book one, it sort of imagines what would happen if, if someone, not … didn’t just sort of curate your individual feed but did it in order to manipulate your psychology on a very personal level. So you know listeners, people listening to this interview might… You know. You’ve probably noticed in the news a lot of stories about you know Facebook, advertising news being used to manipulate voter, voters’ opinion and stuff like that. But that’s also done, that’s gone on a very broad scale. Right? We’re targeting a specific audience of people. In “Bandwidth” that question gets much more personal. Like what if we actually had a team of psychologists and programmers who were working to very, very finely tune someone’s worldview without them knowing it? And that, that’s sort of where book one, what book one’s about and it applies that scenario to looking at the geopolitics of climate change. So. You know. How do we actually wrestle with a global problem in a world that’s still broken up into countries but that has political countries but that has this global issue that people are trying to reconcile and wrestle with? So that’s book one and book two sort of takes, takes that to the next step. So book two really focuses on the different protagonists and has a pretty independent plot, and it focuses on almost the sort of faultline between D.C. and Silicon Valley in the sense of you know when we have these new global services that are accruing more and more power how they challenge our traditional concept of the nation state and what that might look like. And then book three, which comes out next year, takes that one step further and really asks the question of OK, well, you know if some of our old systems of governance get displaced how do these new, new players come to terms with their own scale? Right? So how do you. How do you actually build a new kind of governance for a new kind of world? And yeah, I think that’s a pretty good overview of the Analog Series.
Kevin: [00:13:42] What’s the title of the third book, if you know.
Eliot: [00:13:46] “Breach.” Comes out in May.
Kevin: [00:13:49] Excellent. Yeah, obviously it’s very timely, the subject matter of your books. And you know us policy nerds in D.C., we’re all grappling with how do we deal with the fact that we’ve sort of built this emerging manipulation layer to the Internet that no one seems to have a whole lot of control over and that can be used to subvert democracy, amongst other things. And then also questions of how do we know what is true? Who do we trust as an information source? And that sort of thing, which is also a key theme of Malka’s books. Malka, you want to tell us about your stuff?
Malka: [00:14:24] Nice segue.
Kevin: [00:14:27] I try.
Malka: [00:14:27] So my books take place about 60 years in the future. And this is a future in which the nation state system is largely but not completely dead. So the majority of the world participates in a system called “micro-democracy,” in which the basic unit of jurisdiction is 100,000 people. And that can be, it’s based on population not on territory. So it can be a couple of really dense city blocks somewhere. It could be vast hectares of rural area. And each of these units, which I call sentinels — hence the title of the series — can vote for any government it wants out of all the governments that exist in the world. So in a city, you might be walking around and cross several country borders as you cross the street from place to place, and if you’re, on the other hand, a government, while some governments are quite localized and only hold one or two sentinels, if you’re sort of government with global ambitions, you may have constituents based all over the world. And this entire system is facilitated by a massive global bureaucracy, the UN plus Google called Information, which is a bureaucracy, an organization dedicated to information management, which is both about things like surveillance although a lot of it is pulling other people’s surveillance. But it’s it’s keeping track of all the information as planned, but it’s, it’s also about making sure that all that information gets out to everybody. So this isn’t the kind of surveillance that cloisters everything into you know a government’s databanks or company’s data banks. It’s really about trying to get that information out to people and getting it out also in a usable way. So it’s all a lot of people working on sorting and compiling and doing data visualizations and trying to use information, trying to make sure it’s available to make democracy function as well as making the economy function and and just people’s general quality of lives. So it can get quite in your face. Information will annotate political speeches that they think are skirting close to the borders of truth or they will annotate or fine and take down advertisements that they don’t feel are are really being strictly honest about what they’re advertising and so on. So that’s the basic setup. The first book, “Infomocracy,” takes place during the third global election, so 20 years into the system. It’s still kind of young, but it has some legitimacy because it’s been around for a while.
Kevin: [00:17:11] And so there are these elections every 10 years.
Malka: [00:17:14] Every ten years.
Kevin: [00:17:15] Who runs your sentinel and who the super majority of the overall system is.
Malka: [00:17:19] Right. So the elections when they vote for any government in the world or everything ten years and it they all happen at the same time. So the first book takes place during an election. Shenanigans ensue. The second book is between elections, but there is a special election, a special local election, because of an assassination and also sort of larger plot implications. In the second book, which is called “Null States,” really gets into those parts of the nation state system that have not quite given up the ghost. So that the places that are hold outs from micro-democracy and that are not part that are not covered by Information, so starting to hint at the limits of the system. And then “State Tectonics,” the third book … It just came out. I don’t even want to say that much about it, but …
Kevin: [00:18:06] A lot of stuff happens.
Malka: [00:18:08] A lot of stuff happens. There’s another election. There’s some serious threats to the system and some serious questioning of the system. And yeah that’s the, that’s the nutshell.
Kevin: [00:18:19] Sort of like … I mean, a few detail points. Sort of like Eliot’s Commonwealth Information not only sort of runs the feed of all the information that people get but also runs the infrastructure as well. Right? So it’s sort of almost like a global ISP and information curator.
Malka: [00:18:39] Yeah, and the infrastructure is kind of a key part of it. It also, I mean it’s very, people’s experience of it is quite customizable. So there’s a lot of, people express themselves a lot in how they decide to arrange both what they intake and also what they show in their information, what they allow of themselves to be public. At the same time though, Information does have that kind of limited override of like getting in your face. If you’re trying to watch a football game while there’s a political debate that should be paying attention to, it might let you know.
Kevin: [00:19:14] How charming.
Malka: [00:19:15] Yeah, right.
Kevin: [00:19:15] About how many of these individual governments are there?
Malka: [00:19:21] There are around 2,000 governments in the world. And so again some of them are quite local and some of them are medium sized and some are really global and aggressive. But you know the idea is that if you know you live in a place you only have to convince like 100,000 of your neighbors that the government you really want is this government that has certain cool laws or a certain approach to economic growth or a certain … you know lots of holidays during the year or hires lots of people for their civil service or whatever the different parameters might be of the government that you want. What what kinds of freedoms you want, what kinds of restrictions you want. The idea is that there’s quite a lot of choice. And you’re not restricted by geography in the way we think of now.
Kevin: [00:20:13] So let’s transition to Ada and your world, which is similar to Malka’s is most of the world is covered by a single governance system that includes multiple governments competing and that are not geographically, that have territory all over the world. But instead of thousands, you have seven of them, and they’re called hives.
Ada: [00:20:39] Right. And the constant … instead of 100,000 people the constituent voting unit is one person. All over the world each individual decides which of these different governing systems they feel represent their values and the … and their identity and has a policy that they respect. And you then choose to be a member of that government and wherever you live in the world that government’s laws, what it says is illegal you may not do. What it says is legal you do. You pay taxes to that organization. You participate or vote if it’s a democracy to whatever degree that government is set up to. And if you don’t like the direction your government is going, you can switch in 24 hours, which creates a buyer’s market for government, in a sense, in which governments who want to have citizens and have tax revenue and so on have to compete to be really desirable and appeal to constituents because if you don’t … You know if you suddenly have a tyrant who starts abusing power or moving things in a direction nobody wants, you’ll suddenly shrink and you can lose a huge chunk of your population very quickly if you aren’t going in directions that people like. So it creates a high degree of accountability of these government systems to the individuals who are members of them.
Ada: [00:21:58] And then this mixes with local forms of governance, which is to say cities will still have city wide regulations or towns or geographic regions will have the kinds of local policy they have. So the city of Paris may have particular policies on graffiti being illegal or architecture having to have certain requirements. And anyone who enters the city of Paris has to be bound by those local laws. But as you travel around, the local laws change just as they do for us now. We just don’t actually think very much about the fact that every time you go to a different town you’re under a slightly different law. But here people are used to that and then also have their own personal laws which they have chosen. And the systems they choose among are very different both in, both in political system and in sort of ethic. You know so there’s everything from a very very dynamic democracy to a very sort of corporate oligarchy set up one to one that has an absolute monarchy for people who like the idea of absolute monarchy and like strong government and strong leadership and authoritarianism. There is one there for you. But at the same time, they also have very different sort of strong ethics of what this idea represents.
Ada: [00:23:14] So the the Cousins are very much dedicated to social service and helping people and kindness and charity and generosity and run a lot of hospitals and schools and so on and so people are drawn to that. The Humanists are very into individual human excellence and competition in sports and performance and music and virtuosity.
Kevin: [00:23:33] And they evolved out of the Olympics, like the sports and media industrial complex, right?
Ada: [00:23:39] Right. It was a merger of what had been a transport … so think of Global Entry, right which is a company you sign up for to make transport slightly easier when you travel a lot. So this evolved out of a special version of Global Entry for sports fans that centred around the Olympics to make it easier to travel internationally when you wanted to go see the Olympics or the World Cup or whatever it was, and then over time this had the infrastructure necessary to help people move from place to place because the key to all of this is the system of flying cars which allows you to go from anywhere on earth to anywhere else on earth within about two hours. Once you have that, it’s perfectly practical to live in the Bahamas, work in Paris, have a lunch meeting in Tokyo. You know, get together with you personally, despite being in Paris, to be interviewed for this while your spouse is also living in the Bahamas and works in Buenos Aires and has a lunch meeting in Antarctica. And this is all a reasonable commuting distance for one day. Once you’ve had that for a few generations, it no longer makes sense to people for the geographic unit where you happen to have been born or where you happen to have your house because you got a good real estate dealer or really liked the view to be what determines your political identity.
Ada: [00:24:53] A couple generations into this, almost everyone in the world is effectively living as an ex pat because they’ve decided to have a house in a particular place but your identity is still invested in the group of people you feel share your identity. So this develops into non-geographic nations, some of which have evolved out of new things like the Olympic transit network or the Cousins transit network. Others of course have evolved out of old extant things like the Mitsubishi megacorporation group or the European Union, which has already got the infrastructure to be a non-geographic or semi-non-geographic nation, and people are already discussing the question of whether the EU will ever create a kind of floating citizenship, in which you can be a citizen of the EU but not of any particular member country which before people were talking about a reality was one of the roots I had of this system.
Kevin: [00:25:41] Since we’ve already … I mean, first off a couple of comments: I love the flying car network because it is such a great metaphor for the Internet. It allows you to talk about issues of globalization and the future of borders and governance in a networked world. Instead of having to talk about the damn Internet again, you can talk about flying cars instead.
Ada: [00:26:02] And they do have the Internet, right? And they are all networked and they all have wearable tech so they’re all constantly networked with each other. But to them, that’s just so ubiquitous now. They don’t even think about it anymore. It’s been that way for 400 years. And what we’re seeing in part is what is achieved by being networked technologically and what separately is acheived by being actually physically able to be anywhere at any time? And this is a, this is a society in which no one has ever been farther than a two hour drive from any of their friends or family at any point unless somebody took a trip to the moon.
Ada: [00:26:37] You never feel as if you’re away from your loved ones. You never feel as if you’re isolated. You never feel as if you’re far from action. The whole world is socially collapsed into the social structure of a city and its suburbs, in effect, so that everything is that level of interconnected. And the emotional effect of that is very different from just being connected online even while people are also connected online. So I’m looking at how those two things layer on top of each other. You’re always in instant communication with friends but also in a two hour hug range of friends. And the way those layer to affect the feeling of location and identity and membership. And how far or near you are to the people that you identify as “us” as opposed to “them” is changed.
Kevin: [00:27:26] So I welcome you to, if you’d like, describe anything about the plot of your book, which I find pretty hard to describe concisely, which is a feature not a bug. But I will say that an overriding part of the work is simply this is a system that has stood and stood peacefully for a very long time. But now you’re writing a series so clearly something dramatic has to happen. So things may not be peaceful forever.
Ada: [00:27:55] It’s been in a fairly stable state for a while. The number of these mega-organizations, which are called hives, have been decreasing over time. As the ones that are smallest, people don’t feel as if they’re strong and really represent them and then they tend to merge into the larger ones. So there were dozens of these originally when this system was formed in the chaotic aftermath of something called the Church War, which we know is another global scale conflict that comes in the earlier 22nd century. But yeah, there were dozens. Then there was one dozen. Then there were 10, 9, 8 and now we’re at 7.
Ada: [00:28:33] And they are in a very stable balance. There hasn’t been something you can call a war in three hundred years. There have been instead economic tumults, riots, moments of tension, moments of merger, but never something that is large-scale conflict, which means there’s nobody alive who ever met anybody who ever met anybody who was in a war. And other forms of conflict have moved in so that military forms of conflict are very abstracted. No one is even sure how one would work when there are no borders. How do you organize an army? What is it that you are trying to conquer? So it’s moved into other forms of tension. And I too agree the plot is very difficult to describe particularly because you figure out what the plot is in the middle of the last chapter of Book One. Right?
Ada: [00:29:23] And that’s when you finally figure out what’s going on and what the plot actually was the whole time. So it begins with a break-in and sort of a mystery in which somebody has stolen a draft of a newspaper article that’s sort of similar to the Times “Man of the Year” article from a newspaper office and then has broken into the top secret or top security space that runs the flying car network and left the stolen newspaper down there, which is a pretty perplexing thing to do. If you have the ability to break into an incredibly important area where you could take the whole world hostage, why would you use your ability to break into it to leave with a rough draft of newspaper article there? And the investigation of this ends up finding out some of the back end, invisible mechanisms that have been in place to let this system vent its tensions and rebalance itself into peace without people seeing it. You see I’m avoiding a lot of.
Kevin: [00:30:25] Indeed, and I won’t push you further on that. But. One quick thing with you, Ada, and then I’m going to broaden it out back to the group. Just, just because we started talking about the hives and naming some of the hives, can we just walk through all seven super briefly?
Ada: [00:30:43] Do you want to name them in an order of your choice and then …?
Kevin: [00:30:46] OK, so there’s the Europeans.
Ada: [00:30:49] Which are not of the European Union. [Garbled] the [core?] of that is …You know I’m a historian and I’m very acutely aware of how much society tends to keep old institutions in place while developing new ones, right? The Roman Senate was created in you know several centuries B.C. and continues to be repurposed under republics and monarchies and empires and kingdoms and Visigoths all the way up through the later Middle Ages because the institution could be used for things, and sometimes it was used to govern land that covers half the earth. And sometimes it was used as the city fire brigade, but it continued to be used so all of the nation states still exist. They exist as sort of social identity groups that you sign up for. They don’t exist as your primary form of government, but if you feel that you are French and being French is important to you, you sign up to be part of the French nation strat, and you pay in addition to the taxes your hive, you pay taxes to the French nation stra. And it does things for you. And those who feel that being part of a traditional nation is part of their identity and they want it to be part of their government, tend to sign up for the European Union, and it is governed by a parliament with representatives from every member nation strat, which includes not only Europe but Canada and the Philippines and New Zealand and Morocco and lots of different places whose nationalist identities have lived on in the form of wanting to be part of a traditionalist organization that feels that your cultural identity should be part of what governs you politically. So that’s what the European Union has become.
Kevin: [00:32:23] So that’s interesting, and this is a sort of conversation where the others should feel free to chime in. But, but what you’re addressing in your book is actually a trend we’re seeing now in the 21st century, which is a like a continual unbundling of the concepts of statehood/nationhood/governance. You know, we have a lot of private actors taking on a lot of governance roles. We have nations of particular cultures or languages or ethnicities you know being divided by certain borders or you know having diasporas. And then you have a lot of obviously contestedness between like how much should my nation align with my state or should it be something else.
Ada: [00:33:06] And we also have diasporas in which there’s a vast range in how much people feel that they have a strong identity within that group. And America is a great place to see this because most people in America are descended from people who are not from the area where we are. To some people, that isn’t very important and your identity as American or your identity as Texan or whatever is the important part of it. But to other people, it’s very important to you that you are descended from people from Ireland or descended from people from Germany or Poland or China.
Ada: [00:33:37] And it isn’t necessarily your actual ancestry that determines it. It’s not as if everyone descended from people in China cares more about that than people descended from elsewhere. But individual people feel that their descent and ethnicity and the diaspora that they’re part of is really important to them or not very important. And so from that I imagined a future where some people decide you know my, my ethnic heritage and my geographically rooted ancestry and my specific native language are important to me. I want those to remain part of my government, and other people think, “You know, those all matter less to me than the fact that I care really deeply about human excellence competing in sport.” I’m going to be a member of the nation where that’s what matters and not the one where the other is part of the governing ethic. Although you can still be in the other hives also being the nation strats so there can be a lots of layering of what you choose.
Kevin: [00:34:30] It’s like a stack. And so there are Humanists, who you just explained. There is the Cousins, who you’ve explained. There’s Mitsubishi, which is sort of an evolved evolution of Pacific Rim corporate governance.
Ada: [00:34:43] Yes, and it has a very corporate structure. It has also got a very East Asian identity in sort of rivalry with the European Union, which has a more European identity, although both of them have people all over the world that are part of that. But that has retained an Occidental/Oriental kind of cultural binary into the future where it is still causing problems as a cultural binary, just as much as it causes problems as a cultural binary today. We also have the Masons, which use the rhetoric of ancient empire. Their foundation myth is that there has always been a secret underground empire well, well into antiquity past Alexander the Great, but that in the age of hive’s they’ve decided at last to reveal themselves so it’s born out of epic myth and conspiracy theory and people who like the idea that there has always been this world-governing empire that is now visible and you can be part of it. So it has the mystique of the Masons and the Illuminati and all of this idea of sculpting the world, but it also has a very strong, centralized authoritarian government with an emperor, and people who like that and like the sense of strength. It’s the largest hive. It has a lot of clout. Many people are drawn to that kind of strength and choose to join it for that reason. They also speak Latin as the sort of revived language of power, though it’s a simplified Latin. And they appropriate the symbology of ancient Mesopotamia, ancient Rome, ancient Greece, ancient Egypt, sort of layered on each other in this vast Mediterranean antiquity element. Then there’s Gourdian. This also evolved out of a corporation. This used to be the largest hive because it was one of the first founded by the person whose idea this was but dwindled, and over time it had been corporate. It’s got a governing ethic which is Brilism, which is this psychological theory founded by a guy called Adolf [Riptor?] Bril around the time that the hives were formed, which uses a very complicated metric of assigning people the series of numbers that that is basically a complicated psych profile. And believes that you can predict people’s actions very thoroughly using the psychological system and that by encouraging rare combinations or groups of people to get together who have rare combinations of psychologies you can increase human dynamism. They’re doing a lot of research into the brain, how to maximize the potential of the human brain. They are at the beginnings of trying to do a mind-machine transfer interface research. And a lot of people find this very exciting, but a lot of people also find it very off putting and alienating. And it’s a kind of hard system to understand if you’re not an insider, and it makes you feel as if they’re always smarter than you are and always watching you. So this has shrunk over time to a still powerful but one of the smaller groups just because it weirds people out even though …
Kevin: [00:37:44] I kept thinking of it as sort of a weird like fusion of Scientology and Harry Seldon’s pyscho history or something.
Ada: [00:37:50] It definitely has elements of both of those.
Kevin: [00:37:54] And then finally perhaps the most interesting are the Utopians.
Ada: [00:37:58] Right. The Utopians who are the smallest hive because they have to everyone else’s PoV an intimidating work requirement. So this is a, this is a future that has a lot of problems, right? It’s not a utopia, but it’s also a future that has a lot of wonderful things about it, one of which is that the average workweek is a 20 hour workweek. People spend most of their time having fun. And in fact when you introduce yourself to someone as a party, at a party, you don’t usually introduce yourself by your occupation. You say, “Hi, I’m a skier and a rose fancier and you know my job is being this but …” But most of your life is your leisure activities, but not Utopians. So Utopia is the hive dedicated to expansion out into space. They are 250 years into a 500-year, actually 270 years, into a 500-year Mars terraforming project. Their capital is Luna City. They have space stations and they work really hard in this collaborative effort to disarm death and reach the stars so they do a lot of research. Any time a Utopian dies, they mark down the cause and do not stop researching it until they’ve solved it and thereby blade by blade disarm death. And you are required when you join the Utopian hive to agree to work beyond the 20 hours a week, to dedicate most of your life to this effort and take quote only those hours of leisure you need to sustain your psychology. Which is actually they’ve … I’s funny that people are often intimidated by this, and in fact the future presents most of that world as being intimidated by it. But it requires you to take the amount of rest and play that you need for your your happiness and satisfaction and productivity, which by their future metric is actually quite a lot. So you don’t even work 40 hours a week most of the time when you’re a Utopian you’re working more like 30 years and 35.
Kevin: [00:39:47] So the Utopians have found an appropriate work life balance, which is …
Ada: [00:39:52] Which is a heavier workload than everyone else, but so they also are a smaller group because a lot of people are intimidated by having to take this oath to give up all of your leisure time and renounce the right to complacency and dedicate yourself to this collaborative project. It’s the, it’s the workaholic, space-oriented hive. And so some people are drawn to that exciting but dangerous and grueling and slow path to the stars. And one of the centerpieces of it is slow, right? It’s going to be another 250 years until they’re living on Mars, and they know it because space turned out to be a lot harder than [???] imagined that it would be. And one of the premises of this whole future is space is coming, but it’s coming slow. And the grueling patience that that requires is demoralizing and difficult and to accept that you’re dedicating your life to building a future you yourself will not get to benefit from. So.
Kevin: [00:40:50] Yeah. So maybe not coming as fast as Elon Musk wants it to but … So clearly there’s a great diversity of governments just amongst your seven, and this world has thousands. But also with a very … there’s this sort of super policy focused governments. There’s a Philip Morris government, which I love. There are some that are tied to particular national or cultural identity like, if I recall correctly, 8 8 8 is the Chinese micro-democratic government, while China itself is sitting out micro-democracy.
Malka: [00:41:20] That is actually like a … I mean, 888 is … has its roots in China but particularly in Chinese I mean trade and like you can imagine it to be the successor to Ali Baba for example. But there are also, there’s also One China, which is a sort of more gung ho Chinese nationalist and version, and then there’s also the nation state of China, parts of which are not along the same borders it has today have remained as a nation state with their whole nation state ideology going on.
Kevin: [00:41:55] So at some point I want to talk about who is in these governmental systems and who is not and where America is because America is mysteriously absent from y’all’s narratives. But I want to I want to bring Elliott back in to talk about something that’s a commonality across all of your books and that actually has become a pretty standard trope in sci-fi over the past 20 years but is rarely discussed in detail. So I want to discuss it in detail, which is the technology, and then the social implications of that, but really the technology that your people in your worlds use to communicate and receive information. Because in the past 20 years or so since you know sci-fi writers saw the, you know, the Internet in its modern popular form, basically everyone in the future has some sort of wearable communications rig. They’ve got something in their ear or they’ve got some contact lenses or they’ve got something that’s like projecting or they’re doing gestural stuff like, you know … The thing that always gets me is whenever you see you know in a story like someone is searching online for something. They’re clearly not typing it out, but you don’t actually know what the input is. You just know that through future technology they are able to do that either by blinking weirdly or gesturing weirdly or doing something or sub-vocalizing. But you never, you often never know exactly how it works, so I’m going to pin y’all down and ask how do the wearable communications tech in your world work? Am I going to start with Elliott.
Eliot: [00:43:39] You may be starting with the wrong person. I worked incredibly hard to never describe basically any gizmos in my book so you won’t be able to do it now. Yeah.
Kevin: [00:43:53] So is it handwaving? That’s not a criticism. That’s a, that’s a reasonable strategy. But you know I’m curious how many people is it handwaving, for how many people is I have it all figured out but I don’t want to like do info dumps to explain it. I want verisimilitude. Like I’d love to, So I’d love to …
Eliot: [00:44:10] Yeah.
Kevin: [00:44:11] Feel out y’all’s process on that question as well.
Eliot: [00:44:14] Yes, so I mean the way that I tend to think about it is that, is I try to, I always try to look at it through the point of view of character. Right? So when I’m writing about a future world that has a bunch of things that are different than our current world in it, I’m always curious about how, what matters to the people I’m writing about. Like when I, if I drive to meet a friend for lunch here in Oakland, I spend zero time thinking about like the internal combustion engine. Right? That is like powering the car that I take to lunch. I’m thinking about what I’m going to order, what I’m going to ask my friend about, you know, and the other things I have going on later in the day. So I actually just don’t, even though technology shapes many aspects of my life and what I do, I don’t actually spend that much time thinking about technology while I’m going through my life. Right? And so, so that’s how I try to portray the future when I’m, when I’m you know like in terms of worldbuilding, right? Like how, like I think a lot about what’s going on behind the scenes but then the characters I’m writing are noticing what matters to them. And so one way, one sneaky way for me to answer your question might be that that it can actually be sort of difficult. Like for example, if you are a resident of a future that is unlike the present we inhabit, if you’re not thinking about all those changes, are those changes all that invisible to the reader in the present? Right? Like is that you know, because that also might make everything feel a little shallow. So one of the ways that I tried to play with that in this analog series is with what the series is named for. There’s actually a private social club called Analog that the characters visit occasionally, and in this social club the ubiquitous feed that characterizes this future is blocked. Right? So the minute you step through the entrance the feed disappears. Now, you could imagine this as like you go to a meditation retreat or something today — right? — and they take away your phone. Like you can imagine that. And you can also imagine how that could even be disorienting for a person today. Someone who is used to having their phone all the time. You know, people actually, it feels different when they’re in a meditation retreat. But in this future where the feed is really present in everything you do all the time, it is extremely disorienting for characters to step out of its umbrella. Right? And so I found that having that club … Sorry go ahead.
Kevin: [00:47:08] I was going to say just for the listeners, just so it’s clear in their mind, what we’re basically talking about — and this is true in Malka’s world as well — is that there’s an augmented reality where you’re seeing annotations and extra information and advertisements all the time in your field of vision. Although to some extent that is within your control in terms of filters or whatnot, but but overall your general experience in the world is heavily augmented visually.
Kevin: [00:47:34] Yeah. So so in this future, yeah, your entire world, your, like every moment of your life experience is mediated by this digital layer. Right? And so when you step away from that, when it’s suddenly taken from you, that is incredibly disorienting for characters in the book. Like they, like … I don’t know. I mean, I guess it’s almost like having, you might have nausea as a reaction to it or you might just feel totally, totally isolated because you’re so used to being connected all the time. And I actually started to think about that as like a useful worldbuilding tool because I was talking to a designer friend who was talking about how he uses negative, like negative space, white space, in making things. So like imagine if you’re designing a logo or something like that, part of what you’re looking at when you look at the logo is the logo itself, and then part of what you’re, part of what frames the emotional impact of whatever you’re looking at is the white space around it. Right? That like the negative space in design and art is a big part of the ultimate impact that art makes on the viewer. And so I thought that that might be a really fun thing to play with in these books because by you know sort of taking away what makes some of this world futuristic, it reveals like how futuristic it really is. Right? So you know, rather than me having to think about the internal combustion engine when I’m driving to lunch, if you forced me to ride a pony to lunch, I might think a lot about how I wished I had a car. So that’s sort of how I like one interesting way I try to play with that in the book.
Kevin: [00:49:30] I will avoid being ridiculous reductionist and putting you down on are they lenses or glasses? And how do they interact with them?
Eliot: [00:49:40] Or you welcome to try. I’m just not going to answer.
Kevin: [00:49:41] I’ll take your answer in the spirit is was intended. But Malka, can you talk …
Eliot: [00:49:48] Actually one more thing on that. Can I just throw one more thing there? So one of the reasons why I chose to be really annoying as, you know, and not answer that and not answer that question in the book is that one of the things I love in reading speculative fiction is that I really like having to imagine things for myself. Right? In fact, that’s one of the things that I … one of the reasons why I far prefer reading speculative fiction to watching movies. Right? Like to watching science fiction movies, which I also love. Don’t get me wrong. But the experience of reading speculative fiction is having these new worlds like open up in front of you. Right? And you actually have to do a lot of mental work. Like you are building … You know we do … As writers we do our best to give you the clues, right? But like you know, readers are actually the ones building up that world in their head. And I feel like having a bunch of open questions or sort of teasing questions, things that invite you to imagine things in your own way. That’s actually a big part of the fun. And so that, like, I actually really try to play with it when I’m writing, and it’s one of the things that I actually really love about Malka and Ada’s books is that they, they … I mean, it feels like pop rocks for my imagination. Right? Like, oh my god! Like this is so much, like I just love it. Yeah.
Malka: [00:51:18] I love that image of pop rocks for the imagination and I also, I mean, I totally agree on so much of what Eliot just said. I, so there’s the imagination work, but for me, also. I really think of it as going to a foreign country. And for me, you know, I spent a lot of my kind of career before this going to new countries and living there for a while and just learning by living in the place. And I love that, and I love the feeling of just seeing stuff you don’t understand and then gradually learning it so that it becomes part of your normal and your worldview. I think it’s a really powerful way of assimilating stuff and accumulating knowledge as well. So if someone tells you something, that’s one thing, but if you figure it out for yourself based on the clues in your environment, I think that’s much more, it gives it much more weight in your consciousness and it’s much more powerful an experience. So for me in my books, you know, that’s also something that I really do try to leave stuff that’s partially explained or that’s hinted at or even you know that it’s mentioned somewhere but not explained it all and it’s explained a little bit further somewhere else or you see something somewhere else that will explain it. And so that’s, that’s a big part of it for me as well. And also you know Eliot has this fantastic club, which is a great like section in his books every time people go in there. But I also you know do a similar thing in my books, in usually much more catastrophic ways, where this ubiquitous font of information disappears for one reason or another. Or particularly in the second book, people go places where it’s less comprehensive, where there’s less coverage, where it’s slow — which is just unthinkable in kind of the mainstream world. So I think that that kind of the use of the negative to give a sense for the experience is really powerful and useful. And I think the original question was something totally different.
Ada: [00:53:27] The flow is good.
Malka: [00:53:30] I think in the future people will wear technology. I had a couple, I did have a couple of things that I wanted to happen with wearable technology in my books. One of them … And a lot of it has to do with this whole play on information and the value of it and the ways of using it. So a lot of the things that happened in my books are that people are able to see their information at sort of what I call the “eyeball level” so that it’s being projected basically at their lens and they can see it but nobody else can see it. Or they can use their wearable tech to project it in a sort of a way that two people or three people or a small group can look at it. So there’s a little bit of this sense that wearable tech is something that both enables secrecy and also enables sharing. And I talk about projectors. I’m not going to go into too much more detail than that.
Kevin: [00:54:29] Well, it’s pretty clear in your books that yes that, that in terms of your visual interface it’s projected and that projection can be shared. And there’s clearly a lot of a gestural element. There’s, there’s … you … very evocative little mentions of specific moves that people make to do specific things, which I found really interesting. I won’t ask you for like a dictionary of gestures for your interface. Ada, your technology is more focused on an ear piece, but I’m curious if you could talk a little bit about how that works.
Ada: [00:55:05] Again the core of it is, I think it’s, I agree with the other two, you don’t want to describe it too much both so that the imagination can do it and because when you over describe things date really quickly, right? And you can find short stories where people are in space, and they’re going into the wrecked space station. And they pull out their phone and turn the screen to white to use the light to look around in the space station, and you’re like, oh, that was written before cell phones had flashlights. Whereas when you don’t need to put in those levels of detail — just she shone the light — it doesn’t have that problem. I think another important thing to think about that that these stories have done well is we always use plural interfaces. We don’t have one way we input information into a computer. People use a mouse and a keyboard, and some people use a trackball, and some people use voice dictation, and some people have it wired, and some people have it wireless. Similarly there’s no one way people go to work. Some people ride a bicycle. Some people take a train. Some people use underground. So there’s not going to be one interface for this kind of technology either. So we know many people have an earpiece, and many people have lenses. And we see a lot of people use that as if it’s the most common technology, but the Utopians have a visor which covers the eyes and the upper part of the face. And we see people bring up information on handheld tablets. We also see people bring up information on screens that are built into the walls. We also see people project things using their trackers. We also see people send things from their system to somebody else’s wearable system. We also see people wire their trackers together with a wire. We also see [wired?] people [wire?] their [tracker?] with a wire to their robot techie pine hedgehog pet monster computer thing. Or plug yourself into your unicorn. So there’s an enormous plurality of technological interfaces just as there is now. And so we see [garbled]. But there’s always going to be a plurality of technological interfaces. There are always going to be different ways people want to interface with stuff because they have different needs. They’re always going to be people who are in different places mentally on the sensory spectrum and so prefer to have different kinds of interfaces. And so a one interface system is to me less realistic as well as less interesting than one where we just see a whole lot of plural interface happening. So you know the the ubiquitous thing clipped on your ear and lenses are there in many ways because they’re so standard that I don’t have to describe them at all. You are familiar with this just like I don’t have to describe this flying car. You have seen a hundred thousand flying cars. You can imagine your favorite flying car. There it is. Your flying car. Have a nice Flying Car Day. I don’t need to describe the flying car because you know it already. You know this genre, and you know the thing on here and you know the lenses. You know the genre. I could have made up a different thing. A thing you clipped on your nose or sat on the top of your head or was a mesh web that went through your hair or something. But then I would have had to bother to describe it in much more detail than … What I wanted was this is simple. As Eliot said, the characters don’t think about it very much, and that makes the technology be present but the flow focus on the social consequences of it. I also have to say, Eliot, I really want to see somebody write an essay comparing your Analog Club to the Anime “Time of Eve,” which is in a world filled with robots and humanoid, humanoid, humanoid robots and people, and then there’s a special club you go to where for once you don’t get to know who’s a robot and who’s a human. And just the idea of …
Kevin: [00:58:40] Oh that is super cool.
Ada: [00:58:41] Cool private space where the ubiquitous information saturation is gone. But in one of them it’s an information saturation that curates the world and in the other it’s in information saturation that always tells you what power relation you should have with different people around you. And I would love to see an essay comparing those two. It’d be brilliant.
Eliot: [00:59:01] Oh, I’m now going to have to watch it. That sounds really, really, really cool. You know one thing that that makes me think about actually is … You know, because Kevin, you’re asking sort of like about how actual technologies are treated in science fiction, right? They’ve got like wearables or what have you. And I think it’s sort of funny that flying cars are like the prototypical, like, it’s coming, like, science fiction future trope. And I feel like I’ve never actually seen or read anything that does anything interesting with flying cars except for Ada’s book, in which they are like profoundly cool and thought provoking and counter-intuitive. It’s really, it’s fascinating and actually went back to something Malka said, which is that you know reading science fiction and [??] fiction is in many ways like traveling to a foreign country where you don’t know the language and you don’t know the rules and you [don’t?] have to figure it all out, right? And those flying cars change what that means, changes where what a foreign country means, what it means to visit a foreign country. And the thing that I always find is so fascinating about travel today and about you know reading speculative fiction is that when you’re there you have to figure out all these new rules. You have to figure out how this other world works and all the assumptions that are baked into it and adapt yourself to those circumstances. But often the part that strikes me as the most profound is when you return home. Right? Like when you return home for the first time and suddenly all your previous cultural functions are revealed in like a very very intimate way. Right? Like a way that you can’t [blind?] yourself to. And I think that that’s, that’s really cool. I don’t know. It just made me think that.
Ada: [01:00:45] Well, I think all three of our books fall into the category that I like to call social science fiction, which is a really neat category that’s much more interested in the human impact and the societal wide impact of the technology than in the nitty gritty of the technology itself. You know and when thinking about flying cars, to me it’s much more important what does that flying car do to change what it means to live in a city or to live not in a city or to live on one continent or to live on an island in the middle of the ocean. That’s more interesting to me than how does the engine work and what is the fuel system? And you do think through how does the engine work and what is the fuel system and you work it all out in incredible detail. And then it never matters, and you don’t mention it in the book. It’s about the social science questions.
Kevin: [01:01:30] Well, that’s a great … I’m sorry go ahead, Malka.
Malka: [01:01:32] Well, I was just going to say I found it incredibly freeing to write in writing science fiction to be able to say I’m going to invent a technology that does this, and I don’t have to invent it. I don’t have to like work out how it works because you know it’s in the future. It’s there. And and that, yeah, that for me also you know this social stuff was so interesting and so important, and to be able to really focus on that in that way it was just great.
Kevin: [01:02:01] That’s a great segue because I want to start talking a bit more about the actual social questions y’all are trying to grapple with in your writing, starting with concepts of statehood and governance and nationhood. I mean taking it back to the interface issue one common trope across Malka and Ada’s books is every time you cross borders, which you do a whole lot, you have to deal with an info dump you know tweaked to your preferences, but some sort of info about okay you’re changing jurisdictions, here’s what you need to know about the law here so you don’t screw up, which I found very entertaining and reminded me … It took me back to “Snow Crash,” Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash,” a cyberpunk novel in the 90s. Taking this to your point, Ada, about not be over specific about technology, I reread it recentl,y and there was a lot of technical details that are quite dated, including the presence of a fax machine in the first place.
Malka: [01:03:06] I mean they still exist today.
Eliot: [01:03:09] That’s amazing.
Kevin: [01:03:10] But the way it was presented as, oh, how cool this guy has a fax machine in his car or something like that. But you know …
Eliot: [01:03:18] Hey, people still use Fortran.
Ada: [01:03:21] I think today to have a fax machine in your care, but it would be cool today in the way making your own ham radio or having a printing press is cool.
Malka: [01:03:34] A printing press in your car, now that’s the way to go.
Kevin: [01:03:36] Yeah, that would be cool. It’s a balkanized governance world where the federal government has shriveled in the U.S. to the extent that it basically just controls its own like headquarters and stuff and is very de-powered. You have these burb claves, which are sort of small geographic governments often arranged around ethnic or economic identity. The Mafia is a government and has a monopoly on pizza delivery. And it, both in terms of that book and other cyberpunk depictions of sort of the confusion of corporate and real governance, the distributed you know growingly distributed nature of governance and you know global governance networks etc., I always felt that there was an inherent ambivalence there. Like sometimes it read as libertarian fantasy. Sometimes it read as satirical take on libertarian fantasy. Sometimes it just you know seemed to reflect a clear concern about growing corporate power in the Reagan 80s. And I’m curious how, you know, what you think, how how your work is approaching that stuff. Because in some ways y’alls works appear to be fairly positive about some of the aspects of these governments. I mean, for example, Malka, clearly you have some strong beliefs about why borderlessness and like the freedom of people to move between borders and make affirmative choices about their governance is profoundly important. Yet at the same time, there are also problematic issues with your government system. Same with Ada. I do read and, you know, Eliot as well … You seem to be noting the sort of growth of corporate governance but at the same time for all of you many of your protagonists are aligned with those forces. And actually in Malka’s world, I’d say the antagonists are the people who are in other sci-fi would be the cool rebels trying to overthrow the totalizing like power. And so I’d love for any and all of you to expand in whatever way you’d like about what is, what is the personal or political theory underlying what you’re doing in terms of what, what you’re seeing in the world, what you believe. I know this is a very big unfocused question, but I’m hoping to get some big unfocused answers.
Eliot: [01:06:15] I mean, I feel like …
Kevin: [01:06:16] Go ahead, Elliot. [???] Malka because I’ve heard her talking about these things before, but you go for it.
Eliot: [01:06:23] Yeah I mean I think that like the cyberpunk sort of era, classic cyberpunk era, to me sort of feels almost like punk rock. Right? Like which is of the same era as well. But it is, like there’s that really that sense of rebellion in it that, that is part of what makes it super fun. One of the things that, Malka, I know we sort of joked about was before but like one of the things I really like about Ada and Malka’s books and I really try to do in my books is to like not have them be utopian or dystopian. Right? Like to not, to have it be shades of grey, to have it really play in the middle. And I think that you know when when you look at the world today right? I mean, it’s very easy to be ambivalent about the governance systems we currently live in. You know, here in the U.S. it’s like you know you have civil servants doing incredibly important work even under an administration that feels completely dystopian. Right? So there’s like there are all of these really weird angles on it, and sort of like how Ada was talking about how important it is to remember that different kinds of interfaces … that not all interfaces sort of collapsed into one way of using something. I think the same applies to our, to political systems, right? And that some of my favorite fiction, science fiction being written today, actually helps reveal complexity, right? Rather than breaking everything down to like one simple “what if” question, one simple experiment, it’s actually like, oh, my god, look how, look how these little, look how all of these changes can sort of percolate into worlds that are completely different from our own. So, you know, that that’s actually one of the things I’ve really enjoyed if I’m trying to think of reading science fiction today versus the books that I also really love from the late 80s and early 90s that are in that near-future zone.
Ada: [01:08:36] Yeah I … Go, Malka.
Malka: [01:08:37] Go ahead. It’s ok.
Ada: [01:08:37] Especially here I think again as a historian and you never see things get unilaterally all better or all worse on one, at once with a big change, or almost never. So if you look at any given period and compare it to the period 100 years later, realistically what you get — and this is what I depicted — is a bunch of changes in different directions. So this is a pretty good future. If you made 20 axes of how good the world is, it’s probably better on 12 of them, worse on three of them and about the same on the other ones. It’s made a bunch of progress in a bunch of directions. A couple of them have been genuinely bad, at least from the point of view of our own society. So this is a future which has a 20-hour workweek, a 150-year lifespan, unprecedented political self-determination, delicious food, minimal poverty if any within the structures of the hive system, severe censorship, severe religious restrictions, tensions between Europe and Asia are still there in bad ways and tensions over gender are still there and different bad ways. Right? So a bunch of stuff is better. A bunch of other stuff is not better. One or two things are arguably worse, and it still has a lot of growing to do. If people want to think of this as a future that is aiming to be excellent on all metrics, and I think that is what a realistic, better-than-now future would look like. I think in many ways that’s what now looks like from the perspective of a century or two ago. There are definitely some things that are worse. There are definitely some things that are better.
Kevin: [01:10:28] Well, and one of the things that’s worse from my perspective in your future, and especially Malka’s, is the near total surveillance of everybody and everything that you know at this point most characters just accept it as a matter of course.
Ada: [01:10:41] Yes, and don’t question it any more, don’t think about whether it would be a problem. That’s even more alarming than it being there is there being no one who thinks that it’s a problem that it.
Kevin: [01:10:51] And one of the entertaining things about the books is the even the protagonists have norms and beliefs about the world that are appropriate for your worlds but to a modern reader or a reader from the past would be like, “Oh, my god!” But they take it as a matter of course, and it never actually becomes an issue in the story because it wouldn’t be an issue in the story for them. It would just be the way the world works.
Malka: [01:11:17] Yeah, I have big opinions about that part, as well as about the borders part. I don’t know if you want me to go back and start with the political philosophy or government …
Kevin: [01:11:26] Whatever … Well, let’s start with the surveillance thing then.
Malka: [01:11:30] Yeah, since we’re into it. I understand why people find this disturbing, and I think it’s why my book ended up on a lot of lists of dystopias even though … I mean Ada was very specific with her calculation of where her book ends. Mine, I think it’s probably similar. There’s a lot of things that are better.
Ada: [01:11:48] Mine ended up on a lot of lists of dystopia also. It’s fascinating.
Malka: [01:11:51] Right?
Kevin: [01:11:51] It doesn’t make any sense. I mean, I don’t think either of your books are dystopian but yeah. I’m sorry, continue.
Malka: [01:11:56] I think that there’s a whole paper to be written about like what people think makes a dystopia, but my thing on the surveillance particularly is that it’s really not far … Like if we’re going to talk about axes again, it’s like, maybe depending obviously on how you do your units, but it’s like a notch or two further than where we are now. But the data, all pretty much public, as opposed to where we are now where the data is being held by people who do stuff with it and sell it mostly.
Kevin: [01:12:25] And so two things about your world — just so the listeners know if they haven’t read it — one is there are feed cameras everywhere across micro-democracy. So people can and do see everything that happens in public, search what happened in public, write algorithms to go search for particular people at the moment or in the past. And then also less clear but definitely referred to is a lot of your activity on the network is visible by other people because you mention a lot of times where people are trying to do research but then trying to obscure it so no one else notices that they’re doing that research. And that part really freaks me out. But …
Malka: [01:13:05] Yeah, but that’s all .,, I mean, how, have you searched something lately and then looked at your ads? And have you looked up in any public space lately? Because there are cameras everywhere. And some cities and places more than others. I mean particularly places like I think Great Britain is extremely camera-fied, and there are other places as well. But you know in the US as well, there are a lot of cameras around, but we don’t notice them partly because we’re used to them and partly because the data from them isn’t available to everybody. So we know that everything we search is turning, is being used for data by the companies whose infrastructure we’re searching on. And I think for a lot of us there’s, there’s a part of it that kind of that kind of goes, well, so they’re giving us, me, these ads for something I search for that I’m not going to buy. Ha ha ha, that’s funny. But we also know that they’re using it in a bunch of other ways that aren’t at all clear to us. And we know that they keep it for a long time, and we know that they can sell it. And you know similarly the cameras, you know, we think, oh, it’s been used by the government, it’s being used by the police and blah, blah, blah. You know, something happens — who knows? — maybe it’ll be useful for me. But we don’t, we don’t really think about it on a day-to-day basis the larger implications of that. And so I think you know the fact … I think it’s scary for people in my books because it has made so explicit. But it’s actually a situation that has, has kind of diffused the data capitalism issue and also diffused the panopticon issue of state surveillance to a large extent, not completely because there are still secrets, obviously, because it’s a thriller. You know, there are still some things that governments try to hide. There’s still some things that individuals try to hide. There is privacy, you know, in non-public spaces, and I should note too that there is, in the second book mentioned, there is a government that has decided to opt out of feed cameras and doesn’t have any, although there are some temporary ones put in for elections to allow for complete monitoring of it so. So, yes, it’s really interesting to me that people find this as disturbing as they do because I think it’s not far off from where we are, and most of what we have, not the public cameras so much, but certainly the searches on, our web searches, are things that we’ve agreed to semi-voluntarily.
Kevin: [01:15:29] Yeah. So I’m curious … Side note I will also say I also read as somewhat dystopian just the level of control that information has over public discourse and its ability to censor and whatnot. But you grapple with that yourself in the book. But on this surveillance point — pardon me — I’m wondering if you have read David [Branes?] book or related essays about the transparent society. Yeah, the transparent society. Where his basic argument — and he wrote this in the early 90s I want to say — is, the technology is proliferating. It’s going to be increasingly impossible to keep things private. The only answer to that — to avoid structural injustice because the powerful will always be able to watch you and you know unless we make big changes always be able to keep secrets — is to simply speed the adoption of all these technologies to monitor everybody, and we can all see everything that’s happening. And that is going to magically address, address the issue. I mean, one of the, one of the common critiques of that was that’s a very easy thing for a empowered white man to say but there are other populations who maybe would not be comfortable with that and for good reason. But at the same time, it does feel like your book is working out a transparent society scenario where you know you’ve traded to some extent privacy for a broader accountability and transparency across the society.
Malka: [01:17:07] Yeah, that is, that is true. I mean, I think my critique of that is like you don’t need [hurry it?]. You’re Google. You can just let go of all the data that you own. I mean it doesn’t require that. You don’t have to say, “Let’s push it forward farther.” You can just start with where you are right now because a lot of that data is already existing and held and monetized. And so, yeah, I mean I did not write that part, the surveillance part, as a good thing. I wrote it more as a like seemingly inevitable thing at this moment. But I did write the availability of it as — I don’t know — not necessarily completely good thing either but one of the maybe better outcomes I can imagine given the inevitability of that degree of surveillance moving forward. But I also think it’s, you know, I think it’s really important to note that privacy is very culturally specific and what we think of as private versus what our grandprents think of as private versus what someone in a different country might think of as private are very very different. And so you know I think … I understand … I think the privacy is very important, and I think that infringement of privacy is a really serious thing, but it’s not something that you can just say without some relativity or some specificity as to what you’re talking about. And so you know if I think it’s a valid question you know if most of the people in my book don’t feel that their privacy is being infringed, yeah, it’s because they’re used to it, but that’s also why we are comfortable walking around without hats on. Literally that was a privacy issue for for people in our culture a couple of hundred years ago, and it’s a privacy issue for people in other …
Ada: [01:18:55] Eighty years ago.
Malka: [01:18:57] Eighty years ago.
Ada: [01:18:58] During World War II, the British government put, put restrictions, put rationing restrictions on clothing, and they didn’t put rationing restrictions on women’s hats because they felt that women who weren’t able to have hats would be so demoralized that it would crush the female contribution to the war effort if women couldn’t have their hats. And now like, you know, no woman …
Malka: [01:19:22] Privacy.
Ada: [01:19:25] It’s a cultural construct and it does evolve and change over time exactly as you’re saying.
Malka: [01:19:31] Yeah.
Kevin: [01:19:32] So you know, oh go ahead. Sorry.
Malka: [01:19:37] I was just continuing that.
Kevin: [01:19:39] Go for it, Elliot.
Eliot: [01:19:41] Oh, I was just gonna say, you know, I think like I agree with all that, and looking at like a very near future I feel like the other, the other angle to think about this from is … You know when you look at things that are a big part, part of the sort of techno-monopolies today. You know, like machine learning is sort of the new you know the the the new elephant in the room when you’re when you’re looking at how people are using data, right? And, and when you’re using you know machine learning and and AI, there is obvious tendency towards monopolization because you have, the more data you have better algorithm algorithms you can build, which means you’re going to get better and more data, which means you can hire better people because that’s the only place where they can do, you know, build the best product, which means you’ve got more users, which means, you know. It’s just self-reinforcing, right? And so I, so you know I think that the funny, that the difference between … and my books really play that out in the very near future, right? Like that’s why, how Commonwealth and why Commonwealth has become so ubiquitous, but like it hasn’t made the jump to where the world looks, like in Malka’s books, where now things are more open for a really specific reason. And that is that having all of that data gives you a lot of power, and people in power rarely give it up for fun. Right? And I think that that is something that disturbs me looking around the world today. It’s not just that there are cameras or that we carry trackers in our pockets, although not in our ears — right?- necessarily, all over the place all the time. It’s that like, that like the people who get the benefit from that are doing the selling, right? And like Google could make its data more transparent, but why would it, right? Like why would those folks actually choose to give up something that gives them an enormous amount of power whether it’s political or economic or social? And I think that that, like, that’s going to be a big thing that we have to wrestle with in the coming decades. Right? And I hope we end up in a scenario that is similar to Infomocracy or to the Terra Ignota books because I think that that’s, you know, that that’s … Like they have, they have created a new social contract around data and surveillance that isn’t perfect but like actually sort of compares quite nicely to the social contract we have about data and surveillance today, even though it involves almost zero privacy.
Ada: [01:22:34] I mean the balance in the Terra Ignota books is that because governments are in some senses answerable to people, because people can leave if they want to people trust them with this data more.
Ada: [01:22:49] And when you see people interact with their trackers it’s as a safety web, right? This is the thing that moniters my heart beat, that offers to call the police if it detects that I’m in trouble, that makes sure that my friends can find me. In the second chapter, we have a government-mandated moment where the narrative breaks off to remind you how important it is to keep your tracker on in case you get attacked by criminals in some circumstances.
Ada: [01:23:13] People think of it as a safety device, and they trust the hive governments with this information because they have themselves voluntarily chosen that government. Now they’re not necessarily fully correct to trust the governments as much as they do with this because governments can exploit as well as using data for good, but it’s a transformation in the way people imagine their governments. None of these people think of these governments as having the capacity to do anything Orwellian because every citizen has the capacity to leave at any time. And when we think about surveillance, we really very much think about it and the warning bells go off when it resembles Orwell. That is the archetype we use in our minds to to as when government or when data is being used too much, when surveillance is being used too much, which is why when uses of data don’t resemble that our alarm bells don’t go off as much. And in this future where the use of data doesn’t resemble that in people’s minds at all, people don’t think about surveillance as having any kind of sinister application. But that’s also cultural just as cultural as women desperately feeling that they need their hats.
Kevin: [01:24:32] I’m gonna take it back to, just because we never got to Malka on borders and borderlessness and consumer choice in government.
Malka: [01:24:45] Where to start? So I mean, I agree with Ada and in that a big part of what’s going on in my books is that, in my books it’s because, it’s not just because the amount of choice. It’s also because of the shift from territory to population. But that there is, it is more of a question of governments trying to sell you citizenship than you begging the government to give you citizenship, which is how it should be in the world. I’m just going to say that. But yeah. Even in my world, it’s you know people want to have more population. This makes more sense also in our economy today. I’m just saying this is not just a humanist thing it’s also just rational and makes more sense. But so people, people want to have more population to come into their governments. That gives them more sentinels, more units, even if more people move into the same physical territory. And people have a lot of choice. People can choose without being tied down to the place, the continent, the location that they’re in. So there is, there’s that aspect to it too. But for me, you know I think we’re … Mine is mainly kind of a negative push against the nation state. I mean I’m just very very frustrated with the nation state as a concept. I think it’s a lot of bad things to the world. It’s also something that you know you could see maybe as a step in a progression, but we’ve lingered there for I think as long as it’s useful. So I think you know my book is much less about trying to come up with a utopic or even you know a better proposal. I think there’s definitely some aspects that are better, but it’s less about trying to come up with a proposal than about trying to get a different view of where we are now. And look at the things that we could change very easily if we wanted to. That we should change one way or another, whether it’s as radical as what I talk about in my book or whether it’s something that’s a little more incremental or more similar to where we are today. But things need to change. And you know I think too my book is very focused on democracy and on how that works going forward. And we have a fundamental contradiction within democracy in the way it’s run now and the idea that you can choose and you can run your government but you can’t choose which governments belong to. So I’m really in the books trying to suggest that, that there are these these contradictions and these, these choices that have been made in ways that don’t really make sense for anyone except in some limited way for the people in power but not even that much and look at how things might might run differently. I also think so … But I do think that we’re in, we’re in an interesting place. We’re in a sort of a transitional place in terms of the nation state that we can see how things are starting to shift and the potential for things to look different. I think we’re also in this really interesting place, as you kind of hit on in it the intro, with you know non-governmental entities that are starting to function more like governments. I mean the government as we think of it now is actually really young and new. And so you know even to talk about it in those terms is sort of a stretch because there have always been non-governmental entities that function like what we think of as government but anyway. Setting all that aside, you know we’re looking at a corporations that are multinationals that are able to in many ways set their own laws and their own rules, that are able to have, that are able to influence governments, nation-state governments, in ways that we traditionally think only other nation states can influence them. And I think, you know, for me something that’s really interesting and that, that speaks to the origins of the system in my book is that we’re getting to a place where you know we kind of have this, you know, we have a pretty widespread adoption of democracy, and we have a pretty widespread acceptance of the legitimacy of democracy as, and even a prioritization of the legitamacy of democracy over other government forms as a way of picking government. And we have a lot of corporations that are really good at getting people to vote for them, in voting with their money. And so I think we’re … that’s going to be a dynamic that could play out in really interesting ways in terms of shifting government because it’s actually in the interest of a lot of these corporations to expand democracy to include themselves one way or another. And so that’s, that is certainly not a utopic prediction on my part, but it’s a dynamic that I think plays into the world view in my books.
Kevin: [01:29:24] I definitely do feel that the aspect … that there is a “utopian,” for lack of a better word, but I would say a positive thread in both your and Ada’s books about this concept that government serves me and I actually choose governance and I have the freedom to choose where I live and with whom I engage in governance. That makes me think of, and I’m going to make a pitch here for people to read a book called “Networks and States” by Milton Mueller, who’s an information theorist who does a lot of work around Internet governance. And he has this concept of de-nationalized liberalism, which is basically the concept that all of us around the world have human rights and the ability to communicate and associate and engage in structures of self-governance and community across borders around the world is just a fundamental human right and the way we need to think about it going into the future in a networked world. And I don’t expect either of you have read Milton, but in many ways your books are thinking through his ideas. Or maybe he’s theorizing your ideas. But I do, to bring things to a bit closer to talking specifically about our current political moment, I do wonder if you view the current trend of resurgent nationalism as a last gasp on the way to a world that’s more of a denationalized liberal world? Or do you think that it’s a major retrenchment? Or do you not know and just are hoping in one particularly direction?
Malka: [01:31:11] I’m actually going to question the premise on that because I, you know, I think a lot of people are talking about a resurgence of nationalism. I’m not so sure that it ever went away. And I’m not so sure that … I mean, you know, allowing for like waves and variation and particularly in different places, I’m not convinced that this is something special. I you know I think it’s there. I think it’s important to know it’s there and to work against it in different ways. And you know a big part of the drama in particular my first book is about how there’s this whole new system but not everyone has quite caught up to the idea, and a lot of the governments that exist in this micro-democratic world are based on the old nations and are based on the sort of the nostalgia for people belonging to those kinds of communities. And when they get the opportunity to sort of bring those back out in a aggressive way, they do so. So you know I don’t think it’s something that we can write off, but I also, I’m not sure that you know I think there’s that people talk about it. I mean I’m just saying this because you know I remember when people were … In the 90s people worried about nationalism in Austria. And it came up, and it went, and it … You know, if you just go around the different countries in Europe, it’s been every cycle. There’s a question about this for the past 20 years, 30 years. I don’t know, since the Second World War maybe. Ada, maybe you know more about this than I do to put the details in. But you know it’s important. We should talk about it, but I’m not sure that trend wise you can say that it’s peaking right now.
Ada: [01:32:56] I think it’s peaking in visibility right now is a good way to put it. But that it’s a thing that’s been here, and people are very aware of it right now partly because whenever there’s a big structural change in the way information is organized and in the way political self-organization works it’s often more radicalized groups and more fringy groups that are the early adopters of the effective new communications methods. And this doesn’t apply only to the right. It also applies to the left. It applies to any group of people that has been having trouble organizing itself, that is feeling drowned out in the majority and therefore reaches fastest for a new self-organizing tool. And since we’re in a moment where a bunch of new self-organizing tools have just come into existence, some of the groups that have self-mobilized using them fastest have been the fringier groups, which is totally expected, totally precedented, totally normal and then followed by other groups getting effective at using those things as well. But it makes a moment of power being concentrated in those particular arenas. So I agree that we’re in a moment where nationalism has found a new avenue of violence. It’s been able to reach for a lot of power, but that isn’t a point at which nationalism, which somehow wasn’t there, is suddenly there. I also always zoom out because I’m the historian who works on multisensory timescales. It’s been 20 generations at least in the West since there’s been a generation that didn’t have a huge change in information technology during their lifetimes.
Ada: [01:34:39] Even though we think of the printing press which came in at 1450 as just one innovation, the way it was used and deployed and the way that it transformed and re-transformed information networks as the number of printing presses and the ways printing presses were use changed, it means we have genuinely had 20 straight generations of everyone hitting the age of 50 and feeling like “Oh, man I can’t keep up with these networks of news and new ways of getting stuff that didn’t exist when I was a young person first entering adulthood and political life.” Now the world is totally different from what it was. This has been the transformation of the way information moves, and therefore of the way news moves and therefore of the way political identities are shaped and the way political groups can self-organize has been incredibly dynamic, accelerating over the past 400 years. We’re still in a moment in which it’s accelerating, and in the Terra Ignota world, we learned that they refer to this era as the exponential age, from the Black Death to the World Wars, the age in which the change and rate of change was constantly exponential, implying that afterward at least in the Terra Ignota world there was a non-exponential age in which it became more … less exponential and more just geometric in terms of the rate of change. But all the way through those periods, there have been repeated political tumults, and one of the things that has caused these repeated political tumults — now, as in World War II, as in World War I, you know, as in the Cromwellian interregnum in the 17th century, as in the Italian Wars at the turn of the 16th century — has been the fact that information moves differently and that that changes the speed at which politics operates, the speed at which things far away can influence each other, etc. So I think that that is pretty core to our reminding ourselves that yes we’re in a crisis, tumult feeling thing, but it isn’t a out-of-the-ordinary crisis, tumult feeling thing. The state of the human condition at the moment is the periodic appearance of crisis, tumult feeling things, and they are a growing pain, and they are dangerous, and they do negatively impact many lives just as they also positively impact other lives. But to feel that they are a unique crisis is itself dangerous, particularly because … You know, I’m in the middle of this big research project on the history of censorship, and censorship and censoring bodies are one example of sort of authoritarian or control bodies. They always get created in response to a perceived crisis. There is a perception of crisis, and people then say, “Oh, well to respond to this emergency we will create the Inquisition.” To respond to this emergency, we will create these new limitations on freedom or these new expanded powers for the state that it can use at this point just now because there is a crisis. And one of the things that proves true is that it’s very difficult to then dismantle those new systems later on.
Ada: [01:37:54] And you see this all over the world, whether you’re looking at late medieval France or whether you’re looking at early 20th century New Zealand, which is one of my new favorite arenas in which to research the history of censorship or whether you’re looking at now. One of the things medium term that could do most damage the future we will live to see is if we believe ourselves to be in a crisis and therefore to treat that crisis allow the creation of new limitations on freedom that will then be hard to dismantle. Addressing these things calmly and reminding ourselves that whatever we create now will exist 50 years from now and be able to be repurposed to further limit and harm, we just have to keep remembering that. And I think telling ourselves that crisis is a normal feeling can help us resist falling into the illusion that crisis is an exception, and it’s when we feel it’s an exception that we allow ourselves to make exceptional concessions to treat that crisis.
Kevin: [01:39:00] Well, so that, that’s a good segue to what may be an exceptional crisis which is climate, and climate is certainly at the center of Elliott’s work. Malka’s books also talk a bit about the difficulty of a micro-democratic world actually coping with a global problem like climate change. And if I recall correctly, Ada, in addition to the Church War, perhaps climate was also a contributing factor to the collapse of …
Ada: [01:39:34] I’m very cagey about that.
Kevin: [01:39:35] Yeah, to the collapse of the previous world order. I invite you all to talk about what is the role of science fiction in grappling with this issue. You know, I forget who has said it. I think at this point many people have said it, but I think it’s fair to say that it’s kind of hard to write any science fiction about the future, certainly the foreseeable future, that doesn’t actually address or grapple in some way with climate change because it is so clearly going to be, and I mean already is a major feature of our world. I mean I’ll just say my travels over the past month or so felt like a tour of North America’s climate future. I went to Austin, which was without potable water for a week. Austin, Texas, had a boil-water advisory because unprecedented rains had made the river so high and silty their water filtration couldn’t come up. Then I was lucky enough to go on vacation on the beach in Mexico, south of Cancun, which was inundated by Sargassum seaweed because there is a massive new Sargasso Sea of sargassum developing in the Atlantic because of warmer, because of warmer oceans. And then of course I was supposed to go to San Francisco a couple of weeks ago but then chose not to because of the fires that were turning, you know, much of California into an awful hellscape, which I expect Elliot experienced directly. So, so it’s going down. Like things are happening now, and I’m curious how science fiction can or should be thinking about that and helping us grapple with that. Elliot, you maybe want to kick us off since your book sort of talks about this stuff.
Eliot: [01:41:22] Sure. If you don’t mind. I want to have one little bonus comment on the back of the last question, and I’ll jump into a climate change. Which is that “Borderless” actually deals with a nationalist U.S. government trying to nationalize the global [??] as a response to a perceived crisis. So like literally a case study of what Ada was talking about. And so I have a question for you, Ada, which is if people want to, you know, calm themselves in the face of what feels like unique crisis but isn’t, what is the best book you would recommend for people trying to make sense of those cascading information technology revolutions that most of us remain unaware of?
Ada: [01:42:10] Oof. Let’s see. I guess there’s a couple of different directions that can move … There’s a couple of good histories of books and information, one of which is McKitterick’s “Print Manuscript and the Search for Order.” It’s sort of a specialist book, and it’s a case study in 1450 through 1830. But it really does give you the sense of this being a complicated and multi-stage process and how, you know, you invent a new technology and it continues to change and evolve and saturate gradually even while being the same technology and even while other older technologies like manuscripts are still part of it. I don’t know if that one alone would do it, but it gives you a good taste. For people who are concerned by the question of crisis, I’ve got an essay on my blog exurbe.com. The essay is on progress and historical change, which is a reflection from my own historian’s perspective on how I’ve learned to think about historical change and the degree of human agency within it that a lot of people have found useful on this front. But I also think it’s really useful to read histories of earlier eras to get a sense of how bad they were. We live in our era. We see its problems. They are enormous and in our faces and they are real problems. And speaking as a historian, I’m really glad I live now and not earlier. And I love the Renaissance, but you do not want to live there. And so a really rich history of just about anywhere in an earlier era in time. If you’re doing the Renaissance I recommend Guido Ruggiero’s unimaginatively titled “The Renaissance in Italy.” But any, any close detailed loving history of earlier life will give you a sense that we have enormous problems. We absolutely need to address them, but we have addressed a whole lot of other enormous problems. And anybody who comes to me and says progress isn’t real I say no progress is complicated, and it helps some people more than others because of differentials in power. And it has negative side effects because we are having trouble learning what the effects of our actions will be. And it’s multivalent, and it’s a lot slower, and it’s a lot more ugly than early ideas thought it was. But it’s absolutely real, and here are a hundred things that are not a problem anymore or mostly not a problem anymore. And that makes a big difference to your ability to look at crises and say, yes, we are in the middle of a new perceived crisis. Let’s handle it calmly.
Eliot: [01:45:03] Thank you. That’s great. Oh sorry. Go ahead, Kevin.
Kevin: [01:45:05] I was just going to say I have a recommendation on the score as well, specific to the panic around the crisis around misinformation online and deep aches and trust and whatnot.
Ada: [01:45:19] There’s a long Shakespeare complaint about fake news in Henry the Fourth, Part 2you if you want to feel like this is not a new problem.
Kevin: [01:45:26] Not a new problem, but I’d recommend this “Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism” because if you want to see like an information environment rife with yellow journalism and slander like that’s all we had. It was horrible. And yet that’s exactly what they protected when they wrote that First Amendment was their ability to like ahve heavily politicized public spats and each other.
Ada: [01:45:52] In my video series that I’ve done with Cory Doctorow on the history of censorship, which is going live over the next few weeks, we’ve got a whole session discussing history of news and regulation of news which gives other great detail in that direction.
Malka: [01:46:05] And to the point that … And to the point on crisis and responding to crisis as exceptional, there is a lot of literature on that, and a good place to start is with Clarke and Chess’s “Elite Panic,” which describes … It’s called “Elite Panic,” and it describes how we think of disasters as triggering mass panic, but they almost never actually trigger mass panic. This is a … there’s a ton of disaster literature on the fact that people don’t panic in a crisis, at least not immediately. However, elites tend to panic believing that the masses will panic and threaten the status quo and that can be ugly.
Kevin: [01:46:47] I can totally get down with that theory.
Malka: [01:46:50] Yeah, and it’s … like there is a lot of evidence about this that other people have written about it as well. Kathleen [Tearni?] and Rebecca [Solnit?] wrote about it. So there’s there’s a lot of evidence on this, and you know basically the sort of Hollywood depiction of postcrisis panic is a real problem for the world.
Eliot: [01:47:10] So we are the only people who actually have the bandwidth to panic, right? Everybody else is too busy just trying to live their lives.
Kevin: [01:47:21] Indeed. So we were coming up on two hours, and I want to be respectful of your time. So I’m going to go to Eliot for a few thoughts on climate change and science fiction but then invite you guys to say what y’all are doing next or anything else, any closing thoughts or whatever. There’s still so much more I’d love to talk about, including we never got to the issues of gender in your books. Or race or ethnicity or nationality issues as well. A whole lot of other things I’d love to talk about but.
Ada: [01:47:57] Maybe we can schedule a sequel interview at some point and do it again.
Kevin: [01:48:01] Indeed, I would totally be up for a part two if you guys would.
Ada: [01:48:04] Yeah, definitely.
Eliot: [01:48:04] That would be great.
Kevin: [01:48:06] Fabulous because this has been a lot of fun. But, but Eliot, talk a little bit more about climate in your book or in sci-fi in general. Like, you know, notably for example in your book, Southern California below Los Angeles kind of just a burned out, you know, ember now in your world.
Eliot: [01:48:24] Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I mean in [??] future basically the Arctic has more or less melted. There’s very little sea ice left. Southern California is, yeah, has burned to the ground. And and a bunch of sea levels are rising, all that kind of stuff. But what I was really fascinated by is the geopolitics of climate change. So I went to graduate school and studied under the lead author of a UN’s IPCC report. And I really find it fascinating how the technical side of what we need to do, like it’s very well understood, like climate change is a very well understood problem in the technical perspective in terms of, ok, how do we need to reorganize things to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But it’s a very difficult thing for us to grapple with on the political side. Basically because of the topics we’ve been talking about this whole conversation, right? It’s this global problem. The benefits and and … The cost and benefits are felt very unevenly across different populations that have very different amounts of political power. And it’s really hard for the U.N. to grapple with because they need so much … They need everybody to agree to things. And. And that’s, that’s a really tough one. So, you know, there are a lot a lot of [??] … Well, now most science fiction somehow weaves climate change into the futures it extrapolates. That didn’t used to be the case often because you know climate change just wasn’t that well understood in previous decades. And, but, but what I really want to look at was like, OK, how did people actually decide something about climate change. And the funny thing is that big change usually comes from an irrelevant, a seemingly irrelevant angle. Right? So climate like, like climate change itself like … If you look at late 19th century New York City, everything was covered in manure. Everybody thought cities would never be able to exist because there would be too much horse poop. Right? And that was an enormous transportation problem. They got urbanists together, and everyone was trying to figure out what we do about the manure problem and then you know a few decades later tou have cars totally solving the manure problem. But we don’t really realize that it’s creating this new climate change problem. So again like the big change came from this weird irrelevant angle. And so now that we’re wrestling with the problem of climate change, I sort of thought it would be fun, rather than trying to say, OK how does the U.N. deal with this, right? Or something like how do we get the U.N. to deal with this? Like one of the things that happens in “Bandwidth” is that one of these, you know, ubiquitous sort of, or a very large multinational tech company writes a carbon tax into its terms of service. Right? Because everyone actually has to abide by those. Right? And it’s like almost something we don’t think about. But those, the terms of service is part of our new social contract with, you know, how we, how we work with each other. And in the future because their infrastructure is so, so important, there’s almost no easy way to decline. Right? Or there’s no way … you sort of … If you want to participate in the economy, if you want to participate in most of civilization, you sort of have to accept their terms of service. And so, you know, I wanted to sort of subvert that. Right? Like how do we … Like … How could solutions to the collaboration problems that climate change poses for us as a species, how could weird little things start to become “outside the box” solutions in the same way that the Olympic transportation system becomes one of the major hives in Ada’s book. Right? Where we have these things today that we’re like, oh yeah, I don’t even read the terms of service. Yeah I use gmail. Right? And how that suddenly becomes a really important part of how our sociopolitics shift in the future. I think another good example of this, if you want like a weird example, is Amazon’s dispute resolution. Right? Like if you get, if you buy a product, and it’s defective or whatever, like they have very complex systems on the back end, totally opaque to anyone else, that defines like how you can return it. But then like what if you make a lot returns? What are the rules? How do you talk … How do customer service … how does customer service [??] … And that system is displacing a ton of small claims court action. Right? We used to have laws that were like, OK, if you buy something and like this is like how it works if someone cheats you or there’s some problem. And we certainly have this thing that we thoughts was customer service that actually is sort of a judicial system. Right? Except it’s the judicial system that is not, you know, it is certainly not what we think of as a traditional judicial system, but it’s super convenient. So does that convience now … You know like does power now accrue to convience. So that, that’s really where I want to play with on climate change was, OK, like if we feel like our current politics around climate change are gridlocked, what’s a weird angle that you could come from to sort of shake things up. And that’s what “Bandwidth” plays with.
Kevin: [01:54:16] Well, I think that that, that’s a great example of how science fiction, both in the writing of it and the reading of it, can spur interesting lateral thinking about how to solve problems, which is one of the reasons why I love it and one of the reasons why I wanted to talk to you guys today. So let’s close it out. Let us know what, what you’re doing next. When’s your next book? Whatever, whatever you want to pitch. Let’s just go from left to right, I guess. Ada, what’s up?
Ada: [01:54:48] Sure. So I mentioned already I’ve been doing a big research project in my historian hat as on the history of censorship. This is a collaboration with Cory Doctorow. We filmed a bunch of videos of our discussions with experts who study censorship from lots of different angles and time periods, anything from the Inquisition to the Great Firewall of China. And so those are going to be online on YouTube soon, and then there’ll be some books out of that project — nonfiction books.
Kevin: [01:55:15] What’s the search engine optimization way of searching for that?
Ada: [01:55:20] If you search, I think, “Ada Palmer censorship” — the main web site is voices.uchicago.edu/censorship, so voices.uchicago.edu/censorship — you’ll find everything. You can also google us up through the Kickstarter, which we used to fund the project which then has lots of material. And then the fourth volume of Terra Ignota is three quarters done and due hopefully to come out in 2020 but has been slowed down largely by medical stuff.
Kevin: [01:55:52] Well, we’re all very excited to read it. Malka, what’s up?
Malka: [01:55:59] So I just announced today that I have a short story volume coming out [??] coming out from Mason Jar Press sometime about a year from now, around the end of 2019.
Ada: [01:56:13] Cool.
Malka: [01:56:15] So that’s kind of exciting.
Ada: [01:56:16] Yeah, really exciting. Awesome.
Malka: [01:56:18] Yeah. And more immediately, Ninth-step Station, which is the serial that I created and lead wrote for Cereal Box along with [Fran Weld?], Jacklyn [??] and Curtis Chen, which is just like an amazing lineup, is coming out January 9, I think, on Cereal Box. And that’s like a near future Tokyo, buddy cop, procedural murder mysteries and geopolitics with drones and body [monitors?]. And it’s a ton of fun to write so it should be fun to read as well. And I have a couple of other things coming that I can’t talk about yet but that are exciting.
Kevin: [01:56:58] Eliot?
Eliot: [01:57:01] So I’ve got a new novel out that came out last month, “Borderless,” which we talked a little bit about today. And then the third and final Analog novel comes out next May. It’s called “Breach.” And I guess, I guess the other thing that the readers might enjoy I do a monthly reading recommendation e-mail where I sort of collect all the, all the books that really make a big impact on me. Both Ada and Malka’s books have been repeat offenders, so if you enjoyed this conversation, you’d probably get a kick out of that. And we’ll see, anything else? Oh, I have, I’ve been working on … I wrote a short story and raised a grant to turn it into sort of like a multimedia, custom web site that’s sort of basically like a weird internet experiment. We’re a year into it with like incredible illustrations and some really “outside the box” web design, and that’ll be coming out next year. It’s called True Blue.
Kevin: [01:58:01] Cool. And then for myself I’ll just say I’ve mentioned I’ve been doing some writing about the feedback loop between sci-fi and the real world, and you can find that writing at medium.com/@kevinbankston, where you can also sign up for a newsletter that will monthly-ish inform you of the stuff I’m doing in that realm, including things like this interview. I don’t want to jinx it, but it looks like my first fiction short story will be published early next year but [??] that actually comes off.
Eliot: [01:58:39] I would love to read it.
Kevin: [01:58:40] And then finally I’m excited about seeing both Malkia and Eliot at South by Southwest in March where we’ve organized some panels together. And so I’m excited that I’ll be able to see you guys in person. I’m sorry my cat after two hours of not getting in the way is suddenly deciding he wants to be a part of the conversation. I look forward to seeing both of you at South by Southwest, and Ada, I do hope to meet you in person.
Ada: [01:59:07] My next convention will be Confusion in Detroit in January or is it [??], one or the other.
Kevin: [01:59:15] Well if not there, somewhere else, someday soon. Thank you all so much for being so generous with your time and your insight. It’s been a lot of fun, and I look forward to talking again soon.
Ada: [01:59:26] Yes thank you.
Malka: [01:59:27] Thank you for organizing.
Kevin: [01:59:29] You’re more than welcome. Take care and I’m going to stop recording now. Bye.