High-Tech Dystopia and Utopia – Malka Older | The Open Mind

High-Tech Dystopia and Utopia – Malka Older | The Open Mind


HEFFNER: 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’s0 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 because 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. because 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
[email protected] for updates on
future programming.

One thought on “High-Tech Dystopia and Utopia – Malka Older | The Open Mind

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *