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Eliot Peper Imagines A Future Ruled By Social Media

Eliot Peper Imagines A Future Ruled By Social Media

What if a global government became controlled by a multi-national corporation? That’s the premise that drives Eliot Peper’s new novel, Borderless. Too many big-premise books end up being big snores of endless single-toned monologues. But Borderless successfully combines its big premise with characters you care about and ultimately root for, all within a backdrop of immersive visuals and delectable imagery — making this book an all-around treat for the senses.

In this interview, Peper and I discuss globalization, trade wars and just how much of this book is based on his real beliefs about our future.

Borderless is set in a near future world that runs on social media and a pervasive digital feed. Is this future inevitable?

Our world is already shaped by feeds. Google uses hundreds of variables to determine the search results you see. A complex statistical engine produces your personalized Netflix queue. Facebook uses everything it knows about you and your friends to build your timeline. Your credit score is compiled from third party data brokers. Taylor Swift uses facial recognition software to identify stalkers at concerts. Even these Herculean efforts are dwarfed in scale by the Chinese Social Credit System that will integrate data from many disparate public and private sources.

The feed is inevitable to the extent that it is useful. Every minute of every day, 156 million emails are sent, 400 hours of video are uploaded to Youtube, and there are 600 new page edits to Wikipedia. There is so much more information than we can possibly digest, and feeds are the imperfect filters that try to distill what we want from what’s out there. But their imperfections generate horrendous side effects, like unjust parole decisions made on the basis of racially biased data. And even more fundamentally, the sheer scale of feeds gives their masters enormous hidden power. In a world awash in information, the curator is king.

In Borderless, the feed isn’t good or bad. It’s a tool that almost fades into the background of daily life. But today, there is already a growing movement of people opting out of social media, claiming happier and more fulfilled lives. Will a ubiquitous, ever-present feed drive us mad?

A few years back, a designer friend taught me about the concept of negative space—the empty area surrounding this very sentence or the blank background that frames a logo. Emptiness is the context for content. Silence is one of the most powerful tools of music and rhetoric.

In the future Borderless portrays, there’s an exclusive off-grid social club called Analog where the otherwise ubiquitous feed is blocked. For denizens of this future, nothing is more disorienting than having their window to the digital infinite slammed shut, even for just a few moments. The feed powers the cognition behind the cars that drive them around, clears every financial transaction, answers every question, hosts every conversation, and mediates every IRL experience. It is the fascia that stitches together their world and lives. Having it stripped away is profoundly disturbing, and can be enlightening as well.

In the novel, Analog is the negative space that illustrates how deeply ingrained the feed is for the cast. Only in its absence can we observe the extent to which it shapes their lives. Some of them develop a taste for the novelty of disconnection, but just like silent meditation retreats today, the skyrocketing popularity of unplugging illustrates how plugged in we really are.

In Borderless, corporations clash with governments and attempt to strong-arm them into submission. Who would you be more scared to see as a world leader: Trump or Zuckerberg?

Specialized artificial intelligence is powered by data. More data means better algorithms that attract more talent that build better products that attract more users that generate more data. Rinse, repeat. This positive feedback loop means that AI tends toward centralization. Centralization means monopoly and monopoly means power. That’s why companies like Google and Facebook post annual revenues that dwarf the GDP of some countries.

This trend highlights the dangerous fault line between Washington DC and Silicon Valley. People in tech famously fail to grasp the nuances of politics and, as every congressional hearing of Silicon Valley executives confirms, people in politics are desperately ignorant of how technology actually works.

Beneath the surface of every headline about Trump or Zuckerberg is an invisible system in violent flux. As technology changes the structure and flow of power, we must adapt the ways in which we share power and hold those in power to account.

Globalization is a major theme in Borderless. We are already seeing increasing tension stoke the embers of global trade wars. How does technology impact geopolitics?

Growing up, I always thought countries were just how the political world worked: you’re born in a place where you become a citizen with certain rights and rules. But history is often the best guide to the future, and the concept of a “nation state” is brand spanking new by historical standards—invented as a part of the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia.

For the past couple of centuries, nation-states worked fairly well as a form of governance, but their useful life is quickly drawing to a close. The economy is global. The internet is global. Corporations operate globally. Many of the greatest challenges we face, like climate change, are inherently global. The nation-state is making less and less sense as a political unit, and the cracks in the system are spreading. But change is painful. Trade wars and resurgent nationalism are ugly reactions rooted in fear of the unknown. A blank page is a dangerous thing—we must draft a new “treaty” and forge new institutions with courage, humility, and compassion.

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What role does speculative fiction play in helping us think about the future?

Speculative fiction doesn’t predict the future, it imagines myriad possible futures. It forces us to ask: What if this were to go on? How might the world be different? What are the true axes on which history turns? It is an escape and a warning and a lode stone. It is the promise and the threat of new horizons opening up before us. By taking us on journeys through plausible alternative realities, speculative fiction challenges us to look at our reality through fresh eyes. It forces us to confront our most deeply held assumptions. It is the mythology of change. It is how we grapple with our age of acceleration.

Plus, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

Borderless is the second book in the Analog Series. Can you tell us anything about how the trilogy will end?

The Analog Series is a trilogy that shares a world and cast, but each book features a separate protagonist and narrative arc. The stories can be read in any order, each adding context and layers to the others. Bandwidth grapples with the geopolitics of climate change and how feeds shape our lives. Borderless examines the rise of tech platforms and the decline of nation states. Breach explores what might come next — how we need to reinvent ourselves and our institutions to build a better future.

What other books would fans of the Analog Series enjoy?

Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon is a mind-bending labyrinth of a novel that splices the allure and danger of an algorithmically optimized society into a fiendish Borgesian puzzle box. Malka Older’s Infomocracy imagines a new path forward for democracy and will delight policy wonks and science fiction nerds alike. Virginia Heffernan’s Magic and Loss deconstructs the internet as humanity’s most ambitious piece of art. Kevin Kelly’s The Inevitable distills the technology trends that will shape the next few decades. Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter is a wildly imaginative psychological thriller that uses quantum physics to construct a non-stop speculative rollercoaster. Readers can find more of my reading recommendations here.T

By Eliot Peper
Published Oct. 30, 2018

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