The internet is digitizing reality. It has rewired the world, creating unforeseen ways for information to be shared and consumed. With so much at our fingertips, the tiny slices we manage to glimpse change our perception of reality. If Greek philosopher Heraclitus was blogging today, he would likely amend his famous adage to read, “no person ever steps in the same internet twice, for it’s not the same internet and they are not the same person.”
Our fear of diverging worldviews and loss of privacy provide the foundation for the futuristic political thriller Bandwidth, in which a brain interface keeps humans constantly connected to “the feed.” Up-and-coming lobbyist Dag Calhoun quickly discovers the feed has a backdoor that an idealistic group of activists are leveraging to manipulate the behavior of VIPs through suggestive tweaks. When Dag is drawn inside the activist’s cadre, he has to come to terms with the ethics behind invasive cognitive nudging. Bandwidth creates a compelling world that reflects on our present reality, skewed as it may be.
Eliot Peper is the author of Cumulus, True Blue, Neon Fever Dream, and The Uncommon Series. He is an editor at Scout and an adviser to entrepreneurs and investors. Eliot and I spoke recently about information diets, climate change, and technology’s impact on the world.
You wrote this book before the news came out about Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, and Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Did you predict something like this was going to happen?
Even though science fiction portrays the future, it’s really a window into the present, not a crystal ball. George Orwell’s 1984 was really about 1948, the year it was written. That it has become a perennial bestseller speaks to our recurring fear of authoritarian Big Brothers, not Orwell’s prescience.
William Gibson famously said that, “The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Rather than looking for specific tech or cultural trends and extrapolating them into predictions, I scout for weird pockets of futures that have already arrived.
Google chief economist Hal Varian points out that rich people often constitute such a pocket. Who were the earliest adopters of planes, trains, and automobiles? The top 1% who could afford these unlikely new widgets before anyone else could afford them. I find that hobbyists also provide valuable clues. People who do things for implicit joy often push boundaries that constrain everyone else. The original Silicon Valley was built by nerds playing with stuff for the fun of it.
When I was writing Bandwidth, I was fascinated by how the internet was changing how information flows through society, undermining old media structures, and making the previously impossible possible. Facebook and Google have been harvesting our attention and auctioning it off to advertisers for years, including to political campaigns, and a lot of the current uproar is people finally internalizing the tradeoffs of the business model upon which so much of the internet is built. During Zuckerberg’s recent congressional hearing, it quickly became obvious that quite a few policy makers still don’t understand how Facebook makes money. That’s insane. If we want to build a better future, our political leaders need to learn more about technology and our technologists need to learn more about public service.
Bandwidth riffs on many of these themes and represents one possible future among an infinite array of paths that The Future might take. My hope is that readers who are transported by the story return to view the present with fresh eyes.
Since the power of our “feeds” is a central theme in Bandwidth, what do you hope readers will take from this book about our information diet?
My original inspiration for Bandwidth came during the extended run-up to the 2016 presidential election. I began to notice that I spent a lot of time reading the news, and that I often arrived at those articles based on what friends and publications were sharing on social media. Too often, I finished those stories feeling depressed, disgusted, and disempowered.
Time and attention are fundamentally non-renewable resources. There are only so many hours in the day and I realized how crazy I was to outsource power over those precious hours. We don’t pay attention, we invest it, and I was investing mine thoughtlessly.
So I tried an experiment. Instead of reading the news, I read books. When I did read the news, I was extremely cautious and specific about exactly what I read and why I read it. Instead of pulling up the Facebook app while I was waiting in line at the grocery store, I pulled up the Kindle app. This simple exercise proved to be extraordinarily powerful. It left me feeling better informed, entertained, and inspired.
We are what we read. Our information diet shapes our minds as surely as our diet shapes our bodies. If people take one thing away from Bandwidth, it’s that we need to take our feeds into our own hands. Our identities themselves are at stake.
While technology is a major factor in the story, you don’t get too specific about how the tech works. How do you decide what details are required?
When I drove over to meet a friend for lunch today, I didn’t spend even a passing second thinking about the operation of the internal combustion engine. I just drove my car and then ate a burrito. Technology is often at its finest when it’s invisible.
When I write about possible futures, I think in terms of human stories. Technology has implications for every part of our lives, from how we fall in love to how we make our living and where we choose to go on vacation. In Bandwidth, readers get to experience this future world through the eyes of its denizens, and see how technology affects them directly. Those characters wouldn’t think about the details of their tools any more than I think about the workings of my car. I find this approach can often cut to the heart of deep questions about the human experience of accelerating technological change faster than providing a blueprint to speculative gadgets and gizmos.
The backdrop for this book is a world ravaged by climate change. How do you see our changing relationship with the natural world?
Bandwidth wrestles with the geopolitics of climate change. In this future, Southern California has burnt to the ground, sea levels are rising, and the Arctic has thawed. I studied international environmental policy in graduate school and harbor enduring concern and fascination with the future of the natural world.
For better or for worse, we are now the agents of change on planet earth. Our actions (and inactions) today will shape the futures of our grandchildrens’ grandchildrens’ granchildren as well as every other extant species. That’s a tremendous burden that we are failing to shoulder in spectacular fashion.
And that gets us to the core of what Bandwidth wrestles with: the geopolitics of climate change. When we have all the technological and economic resources we need to do better, why don’t we? It’s a simple question with a complex answer and curious readers should Google “tragedy of the commons” and go from there. The fundamental conflicts in the novel revolve around the subtleties of incentive systems, why and how humans cooperate, and what happens when we don’t. Whether or not we can figure out how to work together better will define the coming century.
There were a few easter eggs in Bandwidth that reference your earlier books. Do you see your future novels as being in the same universe?
I played computer games as a kid and nothing compared to giddy delight of discovering an easter egg, a secret hidden in the game by its makers. Easter eggs were never required to win. They were more like inside jokes. Often self-referential, they formed a strange but enduring bond between players and creators.
Every one of my novels contains easter eggs, some obvious, some less so, and nothing makes me happier than imagining readers enjoying the same thrill I did playing those games back in the day. I’m an enormous fan of David Mitchell’s novels, which are linked together in a vast and intricate web of nonlinear connection that implies a shared universe. The links between my books are more tenuous. At most they imply a multiverse, and I hope readers get a kick out of traversing their alternate dimensions.
Bandwidth by Eliot Peper
Published May 1, 2018