Policymaking in an Infomocracy: An interview with Malka Older

Policymaking in an Infomocracy: An interview with Malka Older

An interview with Malka Older, writer, aid worker, and academic, on policy planning as speculative writing, benevolent surveillance, and the ongoing work of democracy.
Malka Older
Author + Aid Worker + Academic
Nisa Malli
Senior Policy Analyst
March 3, 2020
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Malka Older is a writer, aid worker, and academic. Her doctoral work on the sociology of organizations explored the dynamics of multi-level governance and disaster response to Hurricane Katrina and the 2011 Japan tsunami. She has previously been a Senior Fellow for Technology and Risk at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. Her first trilogy, The Centenal Cycle, is an award-winning cyberpunk political thriller set twenty years after the dismantlement of nation-states, the implementation of global microdemocracy, and the coming to power of an international NGO devoted to fair elections and information-dissemination. The books explore a highly-networked, high-tech future with universal translators, gun-disarmament technology, and personal flying craft, and the very present-day problems of ensuring democratic elections and good governance amidst global flows of people, money, information, and resources. She is also the creator and lead writer of the Serial Box series Ninth Step Station, about peacekeeping and border policing in a future Japan, and a writer for the series Machina, about competing tech start-ups racing to build the AI needed to colonize Mars.

We spoke with Malka about policy planning and scenarios as speculative writing, the socio-economic potential of benevolent surveillance and data collection, and the ongoing work of upholding democracy.

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"...corporations [are] blurring the line between the private sector and the nation state. We see corporations doing things like suing nation states. They figure out ways to put themselves on the same footing as governments, while at the same time, they are not bound by the same things governments are."

Malka Older

Nisa: I’ll start by asking if you could set the scene for our readers. When in time does The Centenal Cycle trilogy take place and what were the key developments in history that took us from our present to this future?

Malka: The books take place about 60 years from now, give or take. I never put an exact date, but it’s roughly sometime around the 2060’s or 2070’s. The future in which they take place is one in which the nation state is mostly gone. There are some holdouts and some vestigial countries that keep playing by the rules that we play by now. But most of the world has switched to a system that I call microdemocracy, in which the basic unit is a jurisdiction of 100,000 people. It’s based on population rather than territory, meaning that they might be different physical sizes but each of these units, whether it’s a couple of really dense city blocks or acres of rural area, can vote for any government out of all the governments that exist in the world at that time. So you have a scatterplot of these governments. You might be walking through a city and change into a different government as you cross the street. And if you are a government, you have constituents in units all over the world.

All of this is facilitated and held together by a giant bureaucracy dedicated to information management, called Information, which is responsible for, on the one hand, all the physical infrastructure of information and the internet, surveillance, and all of the lines of communication that crisscross the world, but also for collecting all this information and making it available to everybody, as available and accessible as possible. So it’s not just a Big Brother state that collects information and holds it away from everybody else. It’s this idea of pushing that information out to everybody, whether that means annotating public speeches that aren’t strictly truthful, providing background data of studies to support any claims that are being made, or providing audio and translation and articles at different reading levels. It’s  an enormous organization of people who are managing all the information that exists in the world.

In terms of how we got there, I’ll be honest that I left that somewhat undefined in the book because to me, it was less important to make this something that made perfect sense as a progression from where we are. It’s not a leap from where we are in terms of the technology, either the digital technology or the organizational technology, because we have most of the things that are involved in this system already. We already have large cities that are formed of multiple municipalities that have slightly different rules that change when you drive from one to another. And we already have countries that are not geographically contiguous, from Alaska to Gibraltar. We have lots of examples of governments that function in some of the same ways I’ve described. But obviously the ‘political will’ problem makes it difficult to imagine getting from where we are now to such a different system. I wanted to give an example of how things could be different to provide that contrast to where we are now, without necessarily going through the steps to get there. That said, I’ve done a little bit of work and thinking about what could take us from one to the other. And there are some hints in the books about how this happens. There are a couple of civil action lawsuits that take place about misinformation, both on the parts of the cable news networks and on the parts of advertising companies, that bring very large settlements, and the interest from these settlements is part of what’s used to set up Information.

A lot of governments in the book are based on corporations and one of the things that we see happening now is corporations blurring the line between the private sector and the nation state. We see corporations doing things like suing nation states. They figure out ways to put themselves on the same footing as governments, while at the same time, they are not bound by the same things governments are. Saying they are multinational is also a way of saying they are outside of national constraints. And at the same time, these corporations are really good at convincing people to buy their products. And that seems to me like a combination of circumstances that could, in the right conditions, lead to very powerful actors believing that they could win in a new kind of democracy.

"There's something that comes particularly from 1984 as a cultural artifact that links the idea of surveillance and information control with dystopia."

Malka Older

Nisa: One of the things I loved about the series is how hopeful this future feels: guns are no longer a problem, civil and interstate war is rare. It feels like an optimistic vision of democracy with the potential of publicly-held and free information and data. And where the labor needed to generate and analyze it is done by securely-employed bureaucrats for an international NGO rather than through mTurk or subcontracted content moderation farms. Can you talk a bit about writing optimistic features versus pessimistic ones or realistic features versus unrealistic features?

Malka: I did think of the book as fairly hopeful and optimistic. I was really surprised that it was called a dystopia quite frequently in reviews. It’s often on lists like “The Top 10 Dystopian Novels You Need to Read After Watching Black Mirror” or “Other Dystopian Novels to Read Once You’ve Finished With 1984.” I’m always surprised by that but a lot of people do find it very scary.

There’s something that comes particularly from 1984 as a cultural artifact that links the idea of surveillance and information control with dystopia. Even though what I described in the book is quite distinct, in terms of not cloistering the information, not keeping the information for one actor as a form of power, but getting it out everywhere. Still, people are very disturbed by the amount of surveillance in the book, even though it’s honestly not that much more than we have now, it’s just done by a very different actor. I think there’s a place for very worthwhile, pessimistic or dystopian fiction, as well as optimistic or hopepunk fiction. I tend to lean towards the latter, because there’s a lot of depressing stuff in reality, and I like to get away from that. I completely understand that other people, both as readers and writers, work differently and exploring some of that depressing stuff through fiction is one of the ways that they get away from it.

It’s great to have a diversity of fiction and a diversity of futures available from all these different perspectives. But both utopias and, in a strict sense of the word, dystopias, tend to be pretty uninteresting as fiction because they are such absolutes.

Nisa: I was on a panel earlier this week at the University of Ottawa on Dys/U/topias and the Future of Political Economy and one of my old professors made the argument case that the far right wing has cornered the imaginary and the vision for utopias and that there’s very few books being published that are democratic, and optimistic about the future, and of course, I thought of yours as one example.

Malka: I was asked in an interview once about other books that deal with democracy in an optimistic way, and it’s awfully hard to think of any. Although, I have to say that we have a tendency to think of democracy as a utopia in terms of something that’s finished, that’s done. We’ve been trained to think of democracy as the wedding at the end of an Elizabethian play, at which point it’s finished. It’s a happy ending. But we know, rationally that, as with marriages, life doesn’t end at the wedding, the marriage goes on. Modern literature has explored that extensively but democracy still has the idea that once you become a democracy, you’re all set, and if there are problems with it, it’s because of corruption or because it’s not a true democracy. There hasn’t been a lot of exploration and I think there’s an unwillingness to face up to the ways in which democracies can vary and be imperfect and can be as difficult to sustain as the happily-ever-after wedding feeling throughout a marriage.

"We have a tendency to think of democracy as a utopia in terms of something that's finished, that's done. We've been trained to think of democracy as the wedding at the end of an Elizabethian play, at which point it's finished. It's a happy ending."

Malka Older

Nisa: The vast majority of your characters in the series are political actors of some kind. You have politicians, bureaucrats, staffers, soldiers, and election analysts. I’m curious whether these kinds of  bureaucratic NGO jobs are more common in a microdemocracy, and what other changes to work might happen just from having this high volume of accurate, freely-distributed, and well-annotated information?

Malka: That’s certainly part of the hope of the people who promote Information and try to start the system, that it will lead to more seriousness and economic and human investment in those things. Some people have mentioned that the books give a bit of a skewed perspective because the characters are people who are engaged with the political process and care about it. Although, I think the books made clear that there are quite a lot of people who don’t. One of the fundamental tensions in the book is the way that Information is there to provide all this data and facilitate the democratic process. But there are so many people who just don’t care and just want to be watching football when there’s a debate on or who have an incredible capacity to ignore all that available information.

We tend to think that the economy and the way that professions are proportioned, for example, is inevitable, but of course it’s not. There are a lot of things that can change that and I’d like to imagine worlds where caregivers, for example, are paid a lot more than executives, because goodness knows they’re working just as hard. It’s nice to picture this kind of world because there is this emphasis on different ways of governing, there are a lot more jobs for people to think about and work on those different ways of governing.

Nisa: I want to pivot a bit and ask about technology. How do you approach writing about technology when you’re writing a near future? Particularly one where most of the tech is, if not already on the market, at least technologically possible already?

Malka: When I started writing the book, I was honestly a bit intimidated by the idea of trying to predict what sort of tech would be in the future. I chose that 60 to 70 year window consciously because I wanted it to be close enough to this world to be a good comparison. But I also wanted enough distance so that it wouldn’t immediately be made unbelievable by something that changes in the next year or two, or five or ten. If you look back 60 or 70 years from now, and think of people who might have been trying to imagine the world we’re in today, it is unimaginable. Even the people who are most connected to technology would not have pictured this world and what the Internet has done to change it. I think it was very useful for me to let go of the idea that I was predicting what was going to happen. I came up with technological ideas that seemed interesting to me in one way or another or things that I needed for a plot point. Books are wishful thinking. For example, there’s this thing called a crow, which is a means of transportation that goes up only as high as it needs to go, in a direct line between two points. It’s a low-altitude flying machine. When I started writing the book, I was working for an NGO. I had a global position and I went on something like 17 international trips in 11 months. I was really tired of airplanes. I just wanted to have this flying Winnebago to take me everywhere. There are a lot of things like that in the books. There’s the technology that’s used to neutralize guns, which isn’t completely fail-safe but still changes the balance of the military and crime.

"When you think about planning processes or simulations, those are fiction. They are imaginings of what the future could be like and they're often not based on data or fact to any greater degree than many of the science fiction books or short stories that we read and write."

Malka Older

Nisa: I really want the the technology where you can order your clothes to your exact specifications online and immediately 3D print them wherever you are. 

Malka: We’re not there, but we’re not super far off from that. That’s a pretty quick extrapolation from a combination of online custom tailoring, and 3D printing. There are stores where you can scan yourself and get a model of yourself printed. A lot of these wilder leaps were really me going, “wouldn’t this be cool?”

Nisa: You came out with a book of short stories this fall called …and Other Disasters, which is excellent. One of the stories has an offhand reference to science fiction writers being brought into government research centers to help imagine what alien species could look like before we make contact. So I want to ask, what do you think the role of science fiction should be or what is the role of science fiction in policymaking and in public policy discourse?

Malka: There’s some really important potential roles for science fiction, and I wrote an essay which is going to come out in Uncanny Magazine about the way that we are, in fact, surrounded by speculative fiction that just isn’t called that. When you think about planning processes or simulations, those are fiction. They are imaginings of what the future could be like and they’re often not based on data or fact to any greater degree than many of the science fiction books or short stories that we read and write. These seem more factual because of the way they’re framed and the way we’ve been taught to interpret those framings and the language and the context. I say this as someone who has both developed simulations and written many, many proposals for projects of various kinds. They’re guesswork and they’re fiction. I think that being conscious of that fact and being able to embrace the freedom of fiction and recognize that fiction is often based very much on both the kinds of facts and data that are used for reports and proposals, and also in a different kind of truth which has to do with things like relationships and emotional truth. If you’re not writing characters that make sense in fiction, your fiction is unlikely to do well. Usually people will notice if the characters ring false, if the relationships between the characters ring false, if the way the characters navigate the setting doesn’t work.

We see this shift happening as behavioral economics becomes more popular; people are starting to shift away from the idea that they’re rational actors, and that the economy is going to function the way classical economics suggests. Fiction can be a useful tool for doing some of these thought experiments, this planning, these simulations, in ways that are perhaps more realistic to how people act. One side of it is being a bit more realistic in how we imagine the future, accepting that any way we imagine it is a kind of fiction. And the flip side of what fiction can bring is being able to go a little bit wilder and get outside of the box and outside of the path-dependency of the seeming inevitability of continuing things the way they are. A lot of planning and policy thought is stuck on the notion that things are not going to change in any significant way. And fiction is one of the techniques that we can use to imagine radical change. It can help us to warp backwards and think if there are things here in our world that don’t make sense. And we don’t necessarily have to do that radical change but we do need to question the things that we assume are just the way they always have to be.

"It's really important for us to resist inevitability and to resist path-dependence and to be creative in our thinking about the kinds of futures and presents we can create."

Malka Older

Nisa: I absolutely agree. I’ve been giving a talk lately on  how policy work is already operationalized  through texts and through storytelling: in briefing notes, memorandums to cabinet, budgets, and economic statements. And how policymaking already imagines the future through texts and how to respond to it, it’s just usually on four-year electoral mandates or multi-year budgets. It’s not yet fully taking advantage of the potential to think more critically about the stories we tell ourselves about the world and to creatively imagine a role for government in making that change. It tends to get stuck in binary debates of ‘will robots take our jobs’ or ‘should we lower student loan interest rates’ rather than thinking about what future we want and how do we get there? So on this theme, and because you tweet about this regularly and I love it, can you tell us about speculative resistance?

Malka: I use speculative resistance to point out the ways that we need to imagine a better future and believe that it’s possible in order to work towards it in significant ways. We see a lot of apathy and a lot of people who believe that the way things are is the way they have to be. Economics and government contribute to the idea that nation states are just the way that the government system has to work. People think that capitalism is the only economic system that functions and they don’t even notice the differences that exist in the world today. To resist these ideas, we need to be able to come up with alternatives, whether they’re set in the future or not, that feel plausible to people, and that make sense. Setting aside whether they’re attractive or aspirational or not, they need to feel like they’re real, like they’re possible. Fiction is one really important way to do that. Because we tend to believe in stories as long as they’re good stories. And, by good I mean, where the characters and the way they interact with each other make sense to us. It’s really important for us to resist inevitability and to resist path-dependence and to be creative in our thinking about the kinds of futures and presents we can create.

Nisa: We are almost out of time, but is there anything else you wanted to talk about?

Malka: Building on what we’re talking about around the value of telling of telling more creative stories about the world that we want, one of the other things that I get asked a lot about from the book is the concept of narrative disorder. In the book, narrative disorder is a recognized disorder and one of the characters suffers from it. But it’s also understood that most people have some degree of itit’s a spectrum. It’s basically a way of expressing the power that narrative has in our brains and over our lives. Narrative disorder expresses itself through two symptoms. One is an addiction to narrative, wanting to consume more and more, whether it’s through reading, listening, or watching. This is a reflection of our lives in which we have access to so much narrative content. Imagine if you tried to watch everything that’s on Netflix, or read everything that’s available from your library via Overdrive, or try to listen to all of the narrative podcasts. We don’t have time for this and yet, content is being produced at an incredible pace and we continue to look for new content all the time. As we’re consuming this incredible amount of content, one of the things that happens, particularly if you are staying within one cultural mode of that content, which is to say, a specific time and place, you start to expect certain tropes and certain narrative shapes. And because of this expectation, narrative can be compressed into a 15-second advertisement of different images and we’re able to put into place the entire story that goes behind it, because we’re so used to the signals that they’re sending us and using those signals to try to connect the dots and draw the whole shape of the narrative. We start to look for narrative everywhere, like in news stories and in advertisements. As we ingest more, it starts to affect what we expect to happen in real life, regardless of whether our conscious brain says no, this is real life, this isn’t a novel. If we read enough novels, we’re going to start to think that some of that narrative tension is real. We expect the denouement at the right moment, we expect a meet cute in a rom-com, we expect the climax at the right moment. This is why narrative disorder is considered to be a sort of mental disorder, and people are very suspicious of the character who has a strong version of it because it makes you see the world in a different way. But because so many people are working on these same tropes and assumptions, it can also function as a kind of intuition. Even if reality doesn’t work like fiction, people act like it does, which can lead to it being partially true. Narrative disorder emphasizes the idea that we need to be very careful about the stories that we tell and the stories that we ingest. We need to think about the things that seem to be universal in stories and be cautious in how we accept them. We also need to look for other people who are playing out those stories and who see themselves as the hero. We need to come up with new stories and new tropes if we’re going to be able to break free and see different kinds of futures.

"Rather than thinking in terms of privacy as a kind of absolute or in terms of surveillance, I tend to think more about who owns the data, who has access to the data. The real problem is not just that there are cameras everywhere, but that we don't know who is watching those cameras or who is able to access those cameras at any given time."

Malka Older

Nisa: There’s a line in your first book, “Democracy is of limited usefulness when there are no good choices, or when all the information access in the world can’t make people use it.” So imagine this world you’ve imagined has a much higher demand for free and accurate information access than we have now, in exchange for a fairly high amount of state surveillance. I’m curious what else we give up when we allow that amount of surveillance into our communities and whether that trade-off is necessary.

Malka: The amount of surveillance in the books is a very gentle extrapolation from where we are now. I don’t know if they need to be that connected but I do feel like privacy is a very relative concept. The way that we think of privacy now is very different than the way that it’s been thought of in the past, or the way it’s thought of in different places, and it’s very hard to put that back in the box. I was thinking more in terms of, since we are giving up our privacy anyway, what would I like to see done with all this information? Most of the types of surveillance that I mentioned are already very much in place. It’s hard to walk down the street without seeing surveillance cameras — they’re in private businesses, outside of apartment buildings, in lobbies, and buses and trains and pretty much everywhere.  We already know that whatever we do online is recorded and tracked in some way. If we have smartphoneswhich I don’t, I’m trying to resist, although it’s getting harder and harderpretty much all of our movements are being tracked that way. The difference from the book is that the current situation of surveillance is very fragmented, and a combination of private sector and public sector, as opposed to one monolithic organization. Although, it’s not clear how different it really is from our present when governments are able to subpoena information from the private sector. The other part is that we give away a lot of this information, if not all of it, whenever we accept the terms of service agreements. We’re basically saying, in exchange for having this cool phone, I will let you use my data. But we’re learning that companies are often going far beyond what we legally agreed to, and even what we legally agree to is done in such convoluted terms and there’s an imbalance of information to begin with. That’s really problematic. Rather than thinking in terms of privacy as a kind of absolute or in terms of surveillance, I tend to think more about who owns the data, who has access to the data. The real problem is not just that there are cameras everywhere, but that we don’t know who is watching those cameras or who is able to access those cameras at any given time. Similarly, the fact that all of our online data is being recorded is not necessarily a huge problem, except when we have no way of knowing what the data is contributing to when it’s amalgamated and no recourse or control over how it’s eventually used. All this data that we create in our online trails being in the hands of a corporation that does not need to share it or reveal it, and is using it to make money, or all of that data being available to everybody or held under some sort of very clear and equitable terms where we have much more choice about what’s it’s used for and where we could access our own data. For me, it’s very much about the power structures involved.

Nisa: It goes back to the idea of this book as a hopeful book or an optimistic book, that we, as readers, trust Information far more than our present day selves trust the corporations that are holding our data.

Malka: Although, there’s a lot of mixed feelings about Information in that world and a lot of apathy. There’s a lot of people who just don’t want to deal with Information and regard it with suspicion.

This interview has been edited and shortened for publication.

Through the Policymaker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, Brookfield Institute’s team interviews leading science fiction authors, both Canadian, and international. Join us as we examine the future of work and the economy, on Earth and in space!

For media enquiries, please contact Coralie D’Souza, Director of Communications, Events + Community Relations at the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship.

Malka Older
Author + Aid Worker + Academic
Nisa Malli
Senior Policy Analyst
March 3, 2020
Print Page

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