Q&A with Eliot Peper, author of Bandwidth
This time out on The Adjacent Possible were getting back to discussing speculative fiction with Eliot Peper, the author of Bandwidth. The novel is set in a plausible near-future where clandestine organizations, influence peddlers and governments look to manipulate social feeds to sway opinion, blackmail & coerce, and shape the course of global events. It’s a timely novel, and a great summer read that has received positive acclaim from all corners, including The New York Times.
The Adjacent Possible: Your novel, Bandwidth, addresses several real-world issues. When writing a science fiction novel, what were the considerations that led you to focus on things like social media, privacy and the environment?
Eliot Peper: For me, everything starts with curiosity. I read widely, listen to loads of podcasts, engage with a diverse set of researchers and technologists, and generally try to follow my enthusiasm. When you give yourself permission to dive down rabbit holes, sometimes you come across thought-provoking tidbits and access new perspectives.
Questions fascinate me more than answers, and I’m always trying to identify interesting contradictions in the world we live in. How does the media I consume shape my own personal worldview, and what happens if I invest my attention more thoughtfully? What does it mean if we choose to build a panopticon because of convenience, not coercion? Aren’t our social and political institutions just another kind of technology, and isn’t our technology a new form of human institution?
These were the kinds of questions that seemed to be simmering beneath the headlines as I worked through the rough draft of Bandwidth in 2016. Writing the book was my way of exploring their possibilities and imagining a future shaped by them.
The AP: Your interpretation of social media in the world of Bandwidth reminded me a little of what Google Glass thought it was going to be: a constant feed of data. Can you dive a little deeper into how you envisioned “the feed?”
EP: Planes are computers we fly in. Stoves are computers we cook on. Buildings are computers we inhabit. Nearly every manufactured object has a chip in it, and we deploy sensors to make everything that isn’t already a computer machine-readable. In doing so, we are building a digital shadow world, an imperfect and evolving reflection of the physical world we walk around in every day.
We are building a digital shadow world, an imperfect and evolving reflection of the physical world we walk around in every day.
The feed is the internet on steroids. It is what you might get if you tossed Google, Amazon, Baidu, Apple, Tencent, and Facebook in a cauldron along with a couple of highly-classified ingredients and let the whole thing ferment for a few decades. It is the sum of human knowledge, the forum for trillions of conversations, the clearinghouse for all transactions, the hub of culture and media, the engine behind every connected device, the ubiquitous digital layer that every resident of this particular future takes for granted. The feed can feel more real than reality. It is the most useful, beautiful, and dangerous of humanity’s inventions.
The AP: Security and privacy issues abound in the real world as well as in Bandwidth. Do you see that as the major issue of technology today?
EP: Government agencies and major corporations spy on citizens with terrifying sophistication and yet can’t seem to protect their own data. Hospitals regularly have their networks taken hostage by remote scam artists looking to make a quick buck. “Breach” is now a frequent fixture in the news cycle.
Software is powerful because of its incredible ability to create scalable solutions to shared problems, and yet that scale makes software a high-value target for bad actors. But digital security operates by different rules than traditional physical security, and many of our leaders have failed to update their assumptions.
It’s not just that security and privacy are major issues in the world today, the very definitions of “secure” and “private” need to adapt to meet the promise and constraints of the digital.
They are not alone. Many of us, even the tech-savvy readers of this newsletter, still struggle to wrap our heads around what it means to live in a fully-networked world. It’s not just that security and privacy are major issues in the world today, the very definitions of “secure” and “private” need to adapt to meet the promise and constraints of the digital.
The AP: What was the inspiration for the organization on the Island? They reminded me of Greenpeace/PETA in some respects, with advanced, science fiction-level tech.
EP: In so much of popular culture, hackers are made out to be megalomaniacal jerks, troubled geniuses, or hopelessly naive anarchists. I wanted to explore something more complicated. What does it mean for good people to do bad things? How about bad people doing good things? Don’t many seemingly simple questions about ends justifying means wind up becoming recursive? What prices would you pay to fix a broken system? Hollywood loves black and white distinctions, but truth is often cloaked in shades of gray.
The AP: Tell me about Scout, and how you incorporate science fiction into that work?
Scout is a publication that explores the social implications of technology through journalism and science fiction. Among other things, we’ve published a widely-shared dispatch on social media manipulation of the 2016 presidential election and an interview series exploring the big ideas of renowned science fiction authors. The guiding principle behind our editorial vision is that rigorous speculation is a powerful analytical tool. Imagining the future can inform our understanding of the present.