The risk of writing speculative fiction in a time when the world appears to be hurtling forward at a dizzying pace is that you may end up overtaken by events. In his new novel, Bandwidth, Eliot Peper creates a near future where one digital company controls access to nearly all of the world’s information and media — and where a group of insurgents decides to manipulate that feed for their own purposes.
That might sound familiar, but Peper finished Bandwidth well before anyone had ever heard of Cambridge Analytica. The Oakland, California–based novelist, who consults for tech companies and VC investors in his spare time, has a knack for exploring how the growing pervasiveness of tech will shape how we live, work, and even think.
“There’s a tech backlash right now focused on social media platforms, but I would encourage readers to take that a step further.”
I recently spoke with Peper about the tech behind the world of Bandwidth, how he slimmed down his own information diet, and why he doesn’t see his work — which takes place in a world that has been burned by severe climate change — as dystopic. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Bryan Walsh: You were writing Bandwidth in late 2016. What was on your mind when you were creating this world?
Eliot Peper: For Bandwidth, it was actually a feeling I had about my own life. One of the things that I was noticing, and I think this was influenced by the very divisive news cycle leading up to the 2016 election, was that I wasn’t enjoying reading journalism as much. There was just so much out there, and I noticed, as I was reading the news, that I became emotionally upset.
Well, I was a journalist at a weekly news magazine at that time, and I can tell you I wasn’t really enjoying doing it either.
Oh my God, I can only imagine. I was noticing that you have friends sharing many articles that are fueled by outrage. That outrage is very legitimate, but it is not the emotional state I like to have as my baseline. One of the things I realized was how haphazardly I had been investing my time and attention.
“What if instead of just trying to change one behavior — voting — you try to algorithmically stack the deck?”
I realized that if I wanted to change the situation, I would actually have to take control of my own media diet. So I started reading books that I had an inherent interest in rather than because they were part of the height of the cultural conversation or the political conversation at the time. I became much more specific and thoughtful about which stories I wanted to read so I would actually have reason for investing that time and attention.
And what changed? What did you notice?
It changed how I was thinking about the world. It changed the emotional state from which I lived on a day-to-day basis. I learned way more and was much happier.
When I got into the requisite Thanksgiving politics conversations that so many Americans were having at that time of year, I found that I actually had different perspectives than a lot of people I normally would agree with because I had been reading different stuff. That made me realize that to a large extent, what we read impacts who we are. The media we consume shapes our worldviews.
In Bandwidth, you have a company called Commonwealth that is, as you’ve described it, Amazon plus Google plus Facebook times 1,000. It feeds everyone their media directly. And then you have a band of activists who can hack Commonwealth, as it’s known, and by controlling the media people are being fed, essentially manipulate them. Do you think that’s realistic?
In the story, one of the characters uses this analogy to hard versus soft martial arts. Karate is a famous hard martial art. It’s all about strikes and punches and jabs. Then you have martial arts like aikido, where you turn the actions of your opponents against them in a way they might not anticipate. That’s what we’re seeing in the news today with Cambridge Analytica and all the scandals around it — a much more interesting and potentially disturbing manipulation of our digital lives.
“Stories are the original virtual reality.”
Trying to use targeted ads to change one single behavior is a first step, but you can go much, much deeper. What if instead of just trying to change one behavior — voting — you try to algorithmically stack the deck? What the folks who are manipulating the feed in Bandwidth are trying to do really surgically is change the worldview of powerful individuals. Rather than needing to convince them about an issue, they’ve already shaped their values. They’re actually trying to do it from the inside out, instead of from the outside in. If I can actually convince you of the truth in my perspective on the world, I no longer need to manipulate you. You’re actually going to be my ambassador for those values.
Isn’t that kind of scary, especially in light of the Cambridge Analytica scandal?
We need to be cognizant of the incentive behind the people and things we interact with. In the case of Facebook, for example, you have a company with an advertising business model. And that can privilege emotional engagement in a way that clearly leads to really negative outcomes in media.
If you travel to Mexico, the newspapers’ front pages are often covered in really gory car accident pictures. And it’s obvious why: It grabs your attention, and people buy the papers more often. If we want to avoid getting cheated, we need to be really self-aware about the incentives and reasoning behind the different digital services we use. And Facebook is clearly an example of that.
“I realized…I would actually have to take control of my own media diet.”
The other part of the question is who do we want to trust? If you think fake news or Cambridge Analytica was bad, wait until you see video and audio that are perfect simulacrums for an actual person — and we’re already beginning to see that. Digital media itself will no longer be proof of anything. And once recorded media ceases to be evidence of anything, what do we do next?
How do you imagine that future?
Whenever I try to think about the future, I try to think about history. So, I think that the yellow journalism period at the turn of the 20th century is fascinating, because you suddenly had printing presses that allowed people to publish anything — and most of what they published was optimized for emotional engagement.
There was a famous story of a UK paper at the time that completely invented a fake moon landing. They had a whole series of articles that followed the news of this moon landing, and everyone thought it was real. Of course, it was total bullshit. But what happened is that, initially, because the technology was new, a lot of people thought, “Well, hey, if it’s printed in a newspaper it must be true.”
It’s like War of the Worlds on the radio.
Precisely. The same thing happened with television. And the same thing today is happening with the internet. We had this assumption that, for the most part, the things we see on the internet must be trustworthy. And now we’re going through that rough coming of age where we’re discovering that’s no longer the case.
And so if you look to history, what happened after the yellow journalism period?
People started demanding trustworthy sources. And that’s where many of the big respected media brands of the 20th century were born, like the New York Times, like NPR. It wasn’t that the medium itself was untrustworthy. It was that we had to learn how to be more critical of what we were consuming in the medium. That actually created new opportunities for people who wanted to build trustworthy brands using that medium.
In the future, won’t digital companies try to create this trust? I imagine it’s going to be very much in the interest of a Facebook or a Twitter to try to ferret out what’s real and what’s fake and say, “We have a standard that you can trust.”
That makes perfect sense. In Bandwidth, the backstory behind Commonwealth is that it became so powerful and ubiquitous because they established themselves as the place on the internet that was absolutely trustworthy. A place where you could trust the infrastructure, just like how when we go in an elevator, we want to trust that it’s not going to fall and kill you.
That’s the danger we face on the internet today. You’re putting your data out into the world, and you’re trusting all of these people you’ve never met to protect it for you. And many of them do a really, really, really crappy job.
And right now, no one really feels safe on the internet.
There’s a tech backlash right now focused on social media platforms, but I would encourage readers to take that a step further. Take that same danger and map it onto other parts of life where computers are already a big component. And suddenly you realize that trusting the information infrastructure we use is going to be the challenge of the 21st century.
The other major theme in Bandwidth is climate change. This is a future where wildfires have turned Southern California into cinders, where the Arctic has melted, where climate refugees are everywhere. Do you think that’s where we’re headed?
Oh, I think it’s far too late to head this future off. The question is how do we create a civilization that is resilient in the face of these guaranteed challenges? We need to build new technologies and new human institutions to help us adapt. And we’ll need to make difficult decisions to prevent the situation from getting worse.
What role do you think near-future speculative fiction can play in helping that process along?
At its best, fiction challenges us with difficult questions rather than simply providing answers. Fiction allows us to take the hardest realities that we might face personally, like the loss of a loved one, or that we may face as a society, like climate change, and it allows us to engage with them, not only intellectually but also emotionally. It’s not an analysis. It’s not a report. We’re seeing people struggle with these things, and that gives us a new perspective on them.
Stories are the original virtual reality. They pull us out of our day to day, and suddenly we’re living in this different world.
Do you see the future that you’re writing about as dystopic?
I really don’t. Whenever I’m working on a new book, I always ask myself, where is the nuance? Where are the gray areas that are worth exploring? And I look at that both on a character level and with the world-building, with how I imagine the future itself. I think there are many things in Bandwidth that are actually very positive: National inequality has gone down in the U.S., and health care is much more available. There are a bunch of wonderful things about this future, including the convenience of having Commonwealth, a convenient and ubiquitous digital layer of personalized data on top of everything.
I always try to see where is the conflict? Because I find that conflict interesting. It’s that place where the choice between good and evil is much more confusing than we think it ought to be.