A sci-fi novelist on what he learned writing a trilogy of speculative novels that extrapolate how feeds shape our lives, politics, and future
Feeds shape our world. 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.
Feeds are inevitable to the extent that they are 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 we use to try to distill what we want from all that’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, and their incomprehensibility to most users, give their masters enormous hidden power.
In a world awash in information, the curator is king. Behind each digital throne is an algorithm, a specialized artificial intelligence that is powered by data. More data means better machine learning which attracts more talent that build better products that attract more users that generate more data. Rinse, repeat. This positive feedback loop means that A.I. tends toward centralization. Centralization means monopoly and monopoly means power. That’s why companies like Google and Facebook post annual revenues that dwarf the gross domestic product of some countries.
As technology changes the structure and flow of power, how should we adapt the ways in which we share power and hold those in power to account? The obvious answer is to draft new laws, and governments are attempting to do just that — with decidedly mixed results. But even if national governments manage to make good policy, the internet is challenging their ability to enforce it.
In a world awash in information, the curator is king.
Growing up, I learned that countries defined our political world: 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 new by historical standards — invented as a part of the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years’ War.
Over the past few centuries, nation-states became the dominant form of governance, but technology has stitched the world together in ways that ignore political borders. The economy is global. The internet is global. Corporations operate globally. Many of the greatest challenges we face, like climate change, are inherently global.
When problems transcend the scope of nation-states, we can’t expect nation-states to solve them, and yet multilateral institutions like the United Nations often lack the power to take substantive action. Our system is in violent flux and the cracks are spreading. Trade wars and resurgent nationalism are ugly reactions rooted in fear of the unknown. A blank page is a dangerous thing — we must imagine new forms of governance and draft a new “treaty” with courage, humility, and compassion.
What might that actually look like? That’s the question I’ve been wrestling with over the course of writing three novels that extrapolate how a future tech platform might itself become sovereign and democratic. 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, which was published on May 14, explores what might come next — how we need to reinvent ourselves and our institutions to build a better 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 lodestone. 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 encourages us to look at our reality through fresh eyes. It challenges us to flex our empathy and imagination. As feeds remake our personal and political lives, we will need all the empathy and imagination we can get.