Malka Older

High-Tech Dystopia and Utopia

Air Date: October 28, 2019

Techno-political thriller writer and humanitarian aid worker Malka Older discusses the challenges of the Cyber Age.

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I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Today’s subject is high tech dystopia and our guest is the preeminent writer of science fiction political thrillers. Malka Older is author of “Infomocracy” named one of the best books of 2016 by the Washington Post and author of sequels, “Null States” and “State Tectonics.” The full trilogy was nominated for the prestigious Hugo Award for Science Fiction. A humanitarian aid worker, an expert, Older was a fellow for technology and risk at the Carnegie Council for Ethics and has supported global programs in agency wide strategy for disaster risk reduction from Africa and Asia to the United States. Welcome Malka. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.

OLDER: Thank you. It’s so good to be here.

HEFFNER: Where do we draw the line between utopia and dystopia? Where is the future going?

OLDER: Honestly for me as a science fiction writer, the middle ground is the most interesting place to be because both utopia and dystopia, are these kind of extremes that, you know, hopefully in the case of dystopia we’re not going to reach. I think that seems a little more likely now than utopia. But you know utopia was invented as an ideal. It was invented as this, this place where nothing is wrong, which is for again, a storywriter, not a very interesting place to be. And dystopia has become a label that I think we might throw around a little too freely. I think a lot of the stories that we talk about, as dystopias are not so far from what’s happening in the real world today. You know, if you look at Margaret Atwood’s book “A Handmaid’s Tale” she said that these are things that have happened in the world.

Everything that happens in that book has happened in the world and as much of it is still happening. And if you look at things like “The Hunger Games” which kind of started some of this trend, this current trend of dystopias although it is set in a future where the technology is a bit different, many of the things, the strategies that are used by the bad guys in those books are things that happen today. And so, you know, I think we can, we can certainly imagine worse dystopias than those into the future, but the more fertile space for us to think about, to imagine different futures is in the middle. We can’t, there’s not a whole lot of use in imaging a perfect system and there’s not a whole lot of use in imagining an impregnable, terrifying, absolutely lockdown horror system. But what we can do is think about working to make our own system better incrementally. We can think about radical change and then imagine the ways that it both will make things better and will have some unintended negative consequences and we can think about negative futures as a warning to people.

HEFFNER: How do you define those terms today? Utopia and dystopia because Orwell had his definitions, Huxley had his definitions; you have your definitions based on your own work. How would you define it in a casual sense and then in an academic sense too? I guess the casual sense is more appropriate for any layperson watching. What to you is dystopia and utopia today, you think of subjugation, you think of genocide, you think of the disenfranchisement of people as being synonymous with dystopia. I just am wondering what’s the criteria? Dystopia seems more real than utopia today as you’re saying.

OLDER: I think that is part of the problem that I have with the colloquial definition that gets thrown around so much is that, you know, we can use that as a distancing mechanism. We can talk about all the, all of these things that you mentioned as dystopian, but a dystopia is something that’s not real, right, in the same way that a utopia is. If they are opposites, utopia is unattainable. And so dystopia is, you know, hopefully also unattainable. Utopia is a system that functions perfectly. And so a dystopia then for me is a negative system that you can’t actually get out of. Well most of the narratives that we write, most of the fiction that we write that we call dystopian is about actually resistance. It’s about emerging from a bad situation. And most of the ways that we use the adjective in real life, we talk about things in our lives that are dystopian and you know, while I think it’s, it’s, it’s worthwhile to call attention to just how bad those things are that you mentioned. The use of the word also suggest something that’s fictional, something that’s, you know, an exaggeration, that’s a hyperbole. And so I think that’s a little bit dangerous because I think we need to keep in mind that many of these narratives, many of these fictions like Margaret Atwood’s are bad things that actually happen like, like “1984” to a certain extent as well. Although I think that Orwell did take it you know, he took it to the extreme of being in a situation that the protagonist couldn’t get out of, that the world couldn’t get out of.

HEFFNER: Some of the circumstances are counterfactual; the idea of what if the confederacy had won, what if the Axis powers had won instead of the Allied powers. So, you know, the man in High Castle but in America today, the realities for southern states in particular is that Jim Crow won. The confederacy didn’t win, but Jim Crow won. Brown versus Board of Education was decided in the just way. And yet our schools today are more segregated by studies than ever before, you know.

OLDER: Yeah. And I think that that’s why I get so hung up on this question of terminology because we do talk about, you know, I think it’s important that we draw those lines about what’s dystopia and what’s just really bad stuff happening in the real world. Because most of the problems we have are these problems of from George Orwell, “doublespeak,” you know, we talk, we say that we live in a democracy. We say that our schools are legally not segregated. And yet we know that our democracy does not function in the way, not only the way that we would like it to, but even if we look at the rules, the way our democracy was designed was to take a step back from letting people have the power. It was designed to leave some of that control in the hands of the elites. We have the Electoral College, we have the Senate.

There were all these mechanisms that were specifically designed for that reason because the founders didn’t quite trust democracy yet. It was a very radical idea and you know, that’s okay if it’s something that we continue to evolve from, but when we tell ourselves we’re already living in a democracy, we’re done, we don’t have to worry about this anymore. We have people power. It’s, you know, that makes it a problem because we don’t evolve it. Like the segregation question that you just brought up. Yes, Brown versus Board of Education was decided and in certain way. But we’ve seen that things like red lining and things like the school zones being decided, you know, getting their, their money from the local tax base and the way that red lining and other housing policies have affected that. And you know, so many ways that we can see that the situation in Baton Rouge where they’re trying to actually seceded a city from the city so that they can have the school zone that they want. All these things are functioning so that our schools are in fact very segregated. And so if we tell ourselves, if we continue to tell ourselves there isn’t a race problem because this was decided at the Supreme Court and everything is fine now, we don’t progress on that. So we need to be very aware of the language that we’re using and the stories that we’re telling ourselves in order to improve, in order to keep taking steps into a better future.

HEFFNER: The idea that technology could be a democratizing force, is that still realistic under the present circumstances?

OLDER: I do think that technology can be a very democratizing force. I think that, you know we’re, it’s a problem again that we, that we blame the specific technology for the problems that we’re having, because we need to remember that books when they were first printed, that was a revolutionary technology that remained in the hands of the elite for a long time. Radio has been used to incite genocide. Television, I think is perhaps a bigger problem in terms of misinformation, still today than the social media that gets so much blame. And we can see well, we can see that there are problems in social media, that there are, you know about storms and there are, there’s Twitter bullying and there’s misinformation that’s being spread in these very specific ways. We can also see ways in which social media and other, more broadly, Internet and digital technology are giving voice to people who didn’t have a voice. When you see the reaction to something on social media to something that a large corporation does or to a media story, it’s such a different dynamic than letters to the editor that get sent in and selected carefully and printed one week later. So we are hearing very different voices if we choose to.

HEFFNER: But right now it seems like social media is the authoritarians best friend to gaslight, gaslight, gaslight.

OLDER: But is it social media or is it

HEFFNER: The human beings behind,

OLDER: The human beings behind, who are doing that, but also the way that social media is set up, I mean that is not the technology itself. That is the large companies that are figuring out ways to profit from the technology.

HEFFNER: Right, But that exploitation of users and our user base, which is the world population, you know, as soon as Facebook made the decision, we talk about this a lot on this show, to be a for profit enterprise it abandoned the promise of genuine democratization. I mean…

OLDER: But is that different from cable news?

HEFFNER: No. But I’m just wondering if, if the ships have sailed in a corporate ecosystem that has certain incentives, how do you recreate another set of incentives that are, that can be equally powerful?

OLDER: Well, you know, I mean, as I said, it’s not so different from cable news or any other technology that has come out and then the people who have power have figured out how to use their power to exploit that for greater power, right? And yet, you know, we’re here recording a television show that has a very different approach and I know of a lot of organizations that are working on ways to create social media platforms that are not bound to these large corporations. Can Facebook itself be saved from what it has become? I don’t know. I mean their user interface is also kind of shot, isn’t it?

HEFFNER: Right.

OLDER: But can Twitter, I don’t know. But there are certainly ways to use that technology to use the immense potential of connectivity on social media and on the Internet in general that are much more democratic, that are much more open, that are much more positive.

But it’s because it’s a new technology, because it’s a new way of people connecting and communicating, we need to learn how to do that. We need to both learn from the perspective of people who are creating and designing those spaces and from the receiver perspective, you know, we need media literacy in the same way that, you know, I remember as a kid kind of learning about advertisements on television and what you can believe and what you can’t believe. And when they had to put the little scroll at the bottom and what that meant, and we need to learn that language for social media.

HEFFNER: Is there a fiction that you have written that you can impart to our viewers that can replace the present in so far as finding those norms that are important for social development and importing them into the technological space now?

OLDER: So in my books, in my trilogy, “The Sentinel Cycle,” which starts with “Infomocracy” I imagine a world in which information management, information and its management is a public good. And so there’s this large international bureaucracy that is sort of a cross between Google and the UN, which is there purely to manage information. It collects information, it puts out information, tries to make information accessible to everyone. So it has, you know, stories with different reading levels. It has audio, it has pictures. It has explanations, it has data visualization. And the, for me, the idea that information is a public good that we should think about in much the same way that we think about electricity, that we think about water, is a very powerful one. You know, one of the theories, one of the frameworks for thinking about what’s going on with social media and with these, these corporations now is the idea of surveillance capitalism, right?

That these companies are profiting, not just from sort of the ads that we see immediately, but really from taking this agglomeration of data that they learn about us as we use them and selling that. And one of the, you know, to imagine making data, all data free and public is one way to turn that around. It’s a very different idea. And I don’t propose in my books that this is, I don’t pose my books as a utopia at all. And I don’t pose it certainly as the only way forward, but I think that it gives us a perspective for thinking about what we’re dealing with today

HEFFNER: That doesn’t exist today. Wikipedia?

OLDER: Wikipedia to a certain extent. And I think actually that Wikipedia is a really interesting example because you know, one of the things that I was looking for was a sort of source that people could agree on because where I was coming from was the problem of trying to have debates about, you know, ideological debates about whatever subject and finding that I was just entirely on a different fact base than my friends and that anywhere I would go to, to point at and say, you know, no, look, this is how the economy is doing. This is what the GDP is; this is what the unemployment rate is. It didn’t matter because they wouldn’t believe the sources that I would cite. And I in turn would not believe the sources that they would cite. And this is a real problem for having any kind of meaningful debate, any kind of meaningful democracy really.

And I do think that Wikipedia is one of the rare sources that is relatively acceptable, I think across a fairly wide swath, maybe not all the way to each extreme. And so, you know, maybe that’s one of the potential ways forward, but it is far from perfect. It is far from universal. It is itself not entirely democratic ‘cause we know that the people who edit it tend to skew towards certain segments of society, which is something that I think they’re working on. And it’s not nearly as pervasive or well supported as what I described in the books. So what I look at is something that is publicly supported much in the way the UN is as, as a just a fundamental thing that underlies society that we need if we are serious about living in democracy. If we want the people to be making decisions about government, we need to take information seriously.

HEFFNER: And of course there are those who would challenge you as the UN, you know, doesn’t have a single universal support in this country.

OLDER Sure. I’m an aid worker who worked for an NGO, so the UN is actually not my favorite organization either. But you know, I will say that the, the idea in the book was partly inspired by a disaster response that I was working on. It was in West Sumatra in 2009. There was an earthquake and the UN has an office specifically for coordination and they brought in a person whose entire job was information management. And it made such a big difference in the response of having one person who was central and that everybody turned to, all the different NGOs. ‘cause it is kind of a chaotic, slightly anarchic environment. And so to have that source of information that people agreed on and that was kind of externally supported was really amazing and I obviously expanded that a lot and, and tied it in to the other ideas that came up just dealing with elections in the world as an adult.

HEFFNER: I think that when Roosevelt conceived of the UN and before him, when, when Wilson conceived of the League, I think that, you know, in the aftermath of those horrors of the First World War, Second World War, there was an understanding of, you know, we’re on the same page, we want a rights-based system that acknowledges our dignity, whether we’re from whatever continent we’re from. And that again, in 2019 is dissipating because of the clash of civilizations, maybe because of the in inequities, when I say clash of civilizations, the exploitation of bigotry, you know, the idea that demagogues are framing, survival and livelihood as a clash of civilization. But beyond civic education and teachable moments, when you describe this common public space, is there a way to reset?

OLDER: We live in a cross border world. We live in a world that has concerns that go beyond national borders and we need institutions that do that as well. And however much people want to believe that they can live in complete isolation, there’s very few, it’s, it’s almost impossible to do that. We live connected to the past. We live connected to each other. And so we do need structures and institutions that can take on that role. In terms of sort of reboot, you know, I mean, I think one thing that you said about the time that the UN and the League were both founded. I mean it’s easy to look back and think that there was a consensus then, but it was very much a partial consensus. You know, not everyone who had just been defeated was agreeing with that defeat or believed it as an ideological defeat, as, as we’re seeing now.

And so it’s, you know, I think it’s a continual fight in my books this system, which functions fairly well, is still hated by a lot of people usually on sort of this the same grounds that we can feel irritated towards the UN, that it’s inefficient, that it’s a big bureaucracy, that it doesn’t do exactly what we needed to do at the time. That we want – much the way we feel about any government. And yet there is a kind of understanding for the most part, not completely but there’s kind of an understanding that we need something. We need some way of organizing ourselves. We need some ways of mediating amongst ourselves. We need structure as a way of trying to make our lives better and move forward because if we can look at something over the past, let’s say 200 years of modernity, it’s that we can actually achieve better quality of life, better health outcomes, longer life, more equality if we create systems for all of us,

HEFFNER: Right, and those systems, you can have isolationism that’s not nativistic. You can have patriotism that’s not xenophobic. I mean…

OLDER: You can try. It’s difficult but it’s possible.

HEFFNER: We’ve had presidents in this country who’ve touted our nationalistic identity, our pride and have not rooted it in a bigoted direction. You know, there, there are degrees of bigotry that we’ve experienced in this country. There are degrees of idealism and liberalism. One of my favorite things that you’ve written recently is for a New York Times Op-Ed “From the Future” series. And it was a piece that you wrote imagining a unification in South America and the possibility of how is the United States going to respond if the South American countries unite and forge an alliance that could be an economic superpower.

OLDER: Actually all of Latin America.

HEFFNER: Latin America as a whole, which is even more frightening to isolationists. So what struck me about this idea is it’s playing on the contemporary question of independence and cross border realities. And, how in the piece you cited the African Union, I mean, there is there’s an alliance now of African countries, but it’s not bolstered and defined as officially as the EU and this question of Brexit, separation of the UK from the EU. But how technology right now, again, I know you’re citing the power of the traditional tube on which we are, but you know, right now it’s being exploited user data for enrichment of corporations and a surveillance state and the authoritarian and authoritarian-esque leaders are basically exploiting that technology to further disunity, disunion, so in this environment in which South and Latin American countries are unifying, how do you hope in 2040 or 2050, when this may well happen, it probably will happen, how is technology poised to calm us down and not to galvanize the force of xenophobia, demagoguery, the dark side of populism?

OLDER: Well, you know, my experience, I was someone who’s fortunate enough to be able to, not just travel, but to live in a lot of different countries. And for example, I worked as a humanitarian aid worker in Darfur in 2006, 2007 and I had never been to Sudan. It was terrifying. Most of my relatives and friends who heard about it were terribly worried and told me to be careful, like that was going to be a useful thing to be. And, you know, I went, I trusted the organization that I was working for and I went and you know, living there, I discovered that it was a place that people live and it was a place that people interact in much the same way they interact here. And I made friends and had a really interesting and worthwhile professional experience and personal experience.

And so for me, and that’s just one example of the places that I’ve been, it didn’t turn out the way that I expected them to be from what I had seen in media. And so I think that the important role that media can play as we, as communication gets faster, as places around the world get closer, as translation technology gets better, is to allow people to experience what other people experience in other parts of the world without having to actually physically go there. Because it’s not an easy thing to do. And so, you know if you are reading global voices, which is grassroots coverage from all over the world, if you are tweeting with people about whatever topic and you realize that they live in some country that you either have never heard of or had some very specific negative thoughts about. If you are interacting on Facebook with a friend of a friend and you love the same book and it turns out they live in a country that you thought of as an enemy, then you start to realize it starts to make it easier to stop thinking about these places as foreign and other.

So there is really that potential for this, for media and for technology. You know, I mean we see it.

HEFFNER: But what do you think media will look like in 2040?

OLDER: What do I think it will look like, what do I hope or what do I think?

HEFFNER: Both.

OLDER: I mean, I would love to see a media that had gotten more decentralized, maybe you know, the public component made stronger, but also the private components more localized, fewer conglomerates less totally focused on clicks. And reading, I’d like to see more rigor in the thing that particularly sort of really bugs me right now is, you know, we have some accountability for reporters, but when most people read right now, if they’re scrolling is a headline and the photo and a tagline and we don’t really know who writes those. And they’re often very different from the article itself and that, I mean, that spreads, that’s what people read. So more accountability across the new ways that people are interacting with media. But you know, really a recognition that if we want to live in the world that we claim we want, when we say we want democracy, we need to have information and education, which is maybe the sort of long-term version of information. We need to have those as robust public parts of our, whatever our governing system is.

HEFFNER: Should we leave our viewers on that wishful thinking or what you really think it’s going to be like in 2040.

OLDER: Yeah. I kind of hate to speculate. It’s, it’s a pretty scary scenario right now.

HEFFNER: Right? Well. Hopefully there are no wars that are generated from deep fake videos that are emerging online. That may happen sooner than 2040 I would,

OLDER: I think we’re already in information warfare, deep information warfare.

HEFFNER: We certainly are. Malka, a pleasure to have you.

OLDER: Thank you so much

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook@OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.