Hacking the cult of the future

An interview with novelist and journalist Tim Maughan

Still from Where the City Can’t See (2016), a short film directed by Liam Young and written by Tim Maughan.

For the past decade, Tim Maughan has been writing non-fiction and near-future fiction about the entanglement of augmented reality, hypercapitalism and invasive personal technology. In 2019 his debut novel Infinite Detail (MCD/FSG) was published. It was selected as The Guardian’s Science Fiction and Fantasy Book of The Year 2019 and shortlisted for the 2020 Locus Magazine Best First Novel Award.

Infinite Detail is a provocative work, imagining the collapse of society after a massive hack attack destroys the internet. It’s been called ‘dystopian’ but that’s not quite right. Maughan asks us to consider the psychological ramifications of such a breakdown. Is a global technological reset the only way out?

Infinite Detail is a novel about digital ghosts and the hauntings of new technology. It’s about alienation in the midst of a hyper-connected world. It’s about so-called smart cities and why they should be burned to the ground. It’s about starting again from the ruins of hypercapitalism. It’s funny and cynical but not nihilistic.

But is it science fiction? I spoke to Tim about the limits of genre, the cult of Elon Musk, the escalating complexity of online surveillance, and how the pandemic has killed prediction.

In the Robot Skies (2016). Directed by Liam Young, written by Tim Maughan. ‘The world’s first narrative shot entirely through autonomous drones. In this near-future city, drones form both agents of state surveillance but also become co-opted as the aerial vehicles through which two teens fall in love.’

SIMON: For the newsletter, I’ve been discussing the pandemic and its impact on the creative mind. What’s the point in writing fiction when the world is on fire? You’ve been sounding warning bells about imminent global collapse, so do you have have any thoughts on that conundrum?

TIM: I’m lucky at the moment because I have quite a lot of work and I’ve been weirdly busy, but at the same time it’s been incredibly hard. I can get work done if I’ve got a deadline and I know somebody’s paying me for it, because I’m working on fear.

I was meant to be writing a second novel this year, but I’ve actually scrapped two novel ideas in the last four or five months. They just seemed completely irrelevant to what was happening outside.

One of the ideas was for a book about gentrification and technology set in New York. Unusually for me, it was told from a middle-class kind of viewpoint as well as a working-class viewpoint.

It was about how technology interferes in personal relationship dramas, but it began to feel too trivial. I didn’t want to be writing about rich people in Brooklyn. When everything started going bad with the pandemic and the riots, there was just too much of a disconnect from what was happening in the moment.

Are you a science fiction writer? Your work doesn’t feel like it’s that far in the future, and it doesn’t feel removed from current technology. It occupies a sort of in-between zone, which suits the volatile world we live in. It’s more likely to weather the storms than predictive science fiction. In your story Paintwork (2011), QR codes are central to the narrative. Today that specific technology might seem dated, but it doesn’t detract from the story because in your writing it’s inconsequential what the tech is.

Thank you for saying that. Technology is there as a metaphor. Often I’m talking about concepts that don’t particularly translate to literature. It’s more to do with how private, personal, corporate and public spaces interact. Something like AR becomes a really powerful metaphor because it explores what public space means when it’s filled with advertising that you can’t see, with advertising that’s non-existent. That’s more interesting to me than just talking about technology.

I do a certain amount of foresight work for clients, which requires me to be in tune with predictions about technology and society. They usually call me when the prediction work has already been done and then I work out the pros and cons in pieces of fiction.

Accurate prediction comes from having an understanding of how capitalism works. You need to be cynical and look at worst-case scenarios and then back-engineer from that. It’s easy to spot the trends. The rise of someone like Trump isn’t particularly surprising. Anyone who watched The Running Man when it first came out could’ve seen it.

But that kind of prediction industry stuff is hilarious to me. It’s so wild because people don’t want to follow the very clear path of capitalism. They want to hear the myths of the future that Silicon Valley generates. They don’t want to hear that things are going to be really bad because capitalism doesn’t have a way of coping with climate change and it’s going to break up countries and cities and divide them along class lines. But that’s the information that you need to know if you’re running a business, not whatever’s in some Elon Musk concept video that will never happen.

Paintwork (2013). Written by Tim Maughan. Still photography by Laurie Eagle, computer animation by Alan Tabrett. ‘Set in near-future Bristol, Paintwork follows augmented reality graffiti artist 3Cube as she illegally transforms billboards into high-tech street art.’

Elon blocked you on Twitter. I think you called him out one too many times.

Yeah, and it’s not just because he’s funny and I hate him. It’s because he owns the concept of the future but in a way that makes it impossible to have other conversations. I go to all these workshops and events where people say: ‘Let’s talk about the future of transit in cities.’ Everyone’s trying to make buses efficient or make sure that certain neighbourhoods have access to transit, but then there’s always someone who goes: ‘What about driverless cars? What about electric cars? What about Elon’s tunnels? What if we move to Mars?’

He’s occupied people’s attention spans with this over-simplification of what the future could be.

One of Musk’s scariest aspects is the legion of fans who pile on and attack anyone who dares to criticise him. They’re a cult with their refusal to be swayed from that over-simplified future.

Yes, and the Silicon Valley philosophy is that if you can imagine something, that if you try hard enough, you can make it happen. But what’s he achieved so far? Okay, fair play, he made an electric car. And PayPal. That’s kind of the crux of it. He’s the PayPal guy. People like to think of him as the king of space, but really, in terms of actually achieving anything, he’s PayPal. That’s a lot less sexy.

Why were the conditions ideal for Musk to come along and create his cult? Why this moment in time?

It’s really the PayPal thing. People get very rich making a lot of money out of very boring practical platforms. They build this kind of boring internet infrastructure that makes everyone reliant on it. Musk is different because he comes along and there’s this bubble philosophy around what he does, you know: ‘If you want something, go and build it.’

But don’t admit that you’re already privileged, that you come from a family of South African diamond miners. Pretend that you’re doing it from scratch. You find a problem, you fix it. I mean, you’re not going to be able to build a cult around Jeff Bezos, right? But there’s a certain amount of colour around the guy that made the first driverless car. He’s got his weird pop-star girlfriend and Kanye West is his mate. He’s the playboy that makes exciting stuff but he’s also lying to you about your self-driving car and about taking you to Mars.

Still, he’s the guy his cult followers want to be. They’re fascinating, really. They like to believe that they’re very intelligent. They think that if you go to university and do an engineering degree then you must be a smart guy. But they just have this amazing disconnect where they don’t think critically about the impact of anything.

A Model Employee (2019). Directed by Leila Khalilzadeh, written by Tim Maughan. ‘To keep her day job at a local restaurant, Neeta, an aspiring DJ, has to wear a tracking wristband. As it tracks her life outside of work, she tries to fool the system, but a new device upgrade means trouble.’

Your writing explores the helplessness that many people feel in the data age, a rising panic brought on by complex surveillance and data-mining systems that know our desires better than we do. People suddenly realise that they’re trapped in interlocking systems and have been for some time.

That’s a big issue for sure but I have a more fundamental concern, which is that my data is being used to model predictive behavioural and demographic changes. Google, for example, are making policy decisions without us really realising.

When I lived in Brooklyn, my wife and I were in a neighbourhood that became gentrified. We got kicked out of our apartment and we had to move, and then I started to understand how data collection is tied to geography and location. I realised that just existing and having a data footprint and moving to a non-white neighbourhood turned us into this dangerous vector of gentrification.

Amazon knows where I live. Google knows where I live. The food delivery company knows where I live, and it knows what sort of food I buy. Amazon knows what sort of books I read and what TV shows I watch. They build this racialised and class-driven profile of who people are through algorithms that work on stereotypes and prejudiced decisions. And from that, they build up a physical, predictive map of who lives in certain neighbourhoods.

It’s become a cliché to say that data is sentient, yet it can feel that way. That’s where the anxiety kicks in, the creeping dread that your free will has been brainjacked by unfathomable forces.

Yeah, it is a cliché. I get uncomfortable about that kind of terminology. It feels a little too easy to go there, but it’s certainly an organism. It’s a system that we don’t understand, it’s semi-automated and increasingly we have less control over it. And when you’re talking about things like containerisation and supply chains, it gets even more complex. You start trying to talk about global economies and things like algorithmic trading and how ultimately that will strip control away from politicians and governments.

A few years ago, I was at an AI conference run by Kate Crawford and Meredith Whittaker. There were lots of panels and discussions about the impact of algorithms and the accountability and ethics of AI, and at one point this guy at the back stood up and he was visibly upset. He was a developer and he was like: ‘You can’t blame us. You can’t hold us responsible for the decisions an algorithm makes.’ Someone asked why, and he said: ‘Because we don’t understand what they’re doing.’ And he was really angry with us, but he couldn’t understand our anger that he’d made something but didn’t know how it worked.

Look at Zuckerberg giving evidence in Washington. He says he doesn’t know how advertising works on his platform, and that’s probably because there’s a whole team of maybe a couple of thousand people who work just on advertising for Facebook. They don’t understand what’s happening on their website. No human can. And the website itself probably is struggling to understand, in inverted commas, what’s happening.

These systems become huge, all-powerful monopolies when they should have been broken up or nationalised. But now no one knows how they work.

Teaser for Where the City Can’t See (2016). Directed by Liam Young, written by Tim Maughan. ‘The world’s first narrative fiction film shot entirely with laser scanners. Set in the Chinese owned and controlled Detroit Economic Zone (DEZ) and shot using the same scanning technologies used in autonomous vehicles, we see this near-future city through the eyes of the robots that manage it.’

I think that’s the essence of Infinite Detail: how to break apart and decentralise uncontrollable digital platforms by force when all other avenues have failed.

Yeah, and it’s an idealistic philosophy. It’s okay to have idealistic impulses as long as you understand also their weak points. For example, if you don’t plan for it, it can actually be quite dangerous. I guess you could call me a Marxist, I don’t really know, but my core belief still revolves around the kind of materialistic class analysis of capitalism. But I would like to believe in some kind of state to ensure standards of life and having access to important things like healthcare because I can’t trust private industry to do it.

Recently, I read a post by someone who’d attended a conference. There were no printed programs or any paper material at this event. Everything was accessed via phones and apps. But this person didn’t have a phone and felt embarrassed that they weren’t connected and therefore marked as different to other attendees. They said there were a few others in the same boat.

My first thought was: ‘Why didn’t you all band together and take your concerns to the organisers?’ But that impulse to resist was replaced by deep shame at being unconnected. It strikes me that Infinite Detail explores ‘digital shame’ and how we’re kept online in ways that seem beneficial but are deeply degrading.

Yeah. It’s upsetting. It’s something that people say to me, especially with tech stuff. For example: ‘Should we use facial recognition for this? Should we use facial recognition for that? What are the implications? Should we wait a minute before we do it?’ And I’m like: ‘Just don’t do it.’ They’re not talking about making a COVID vaccine or clean water for Detroit. Do you really need facial recognition to unlock your phone?

But then it’s always an eye opener when I’m being critical about, say, Alexa or voice assistance and how that technology monitors your behaviour, because there’s always someone who quite rightly says: ‘I’m disabled and speech and facial recognition are complete lifesavers for me.’ Of course, these technologies should exist to serve that purpose but the problem is that Google voice, or whatever, runs on the server.

It does that because originally we were told that the systems are very complicated and so they must be run in the cloud. But that makes them surveillance devices, right? If every single word you say to Siri or Alexa is sent to a data centre somewhere, then it becomes an incredibly effective form of surveillance. It doesn’t need to be that way.

It’s heartbreaking because these should be very positive technologies that are doing a lot of good for people and genuinely being helpful for those who need it, but they’ve been incorporated into a model built purely to extract data in the creation of capital. That’s what we need to fight against.

I’m interested in how you’ve built a career as a science fiction writer who explores such weighty concerns. Paintwork, your first major story, was self published and it got really good press. From there, you attracted an agent and a major publishing deal for Infinite Detail. As someone who’s become disillusioned with traditional publishing and the ivory-tower personalities that science fiction in particular promotes, I find it inspiring that you’ve made a living by avoiding this dominant and loud discourse.

The reason I first went into self-publishing was because I couldn’t get my stuff published elsewhere. I exhausted a list of magazine editors who all said the same thing: ‘This is good but it’s not for me.’ I realised that what I was writing just didn’t fit with what science fiction or the community wanted. To be honest, I read science fiction but until I started writing it I wouldn’t consider myself part of the science fiction community. I don’t think you should have to be, but often it doesn’t work like that and that’s my problem with it.

I hope I attract certain people for the right reasons, you know, because they’re good people and I respect them. Eventually I built a living wage out of writing, but a lot of that has stemmed from my non-fiction. I do a lot of consultancy work, which is based off my fiction, but my journalism career actually came out of my fiction.

My writing has gone in different directions but it’s taken a while to get there. Ironically, with COVID and everything going on, this is the first year that I’ve felt stable with money and it’s a disconcerting feeling. I quit my day job in 2012 because I was so bored and since then every year has been precarious.

There’s a pecking order in science fiction that must be followed if you want to be taken seriously or sell books. You probably have to be American, first and foremost.

Yeah. There’s a whole industry, an infrastructure, that has been built up around American science fiction fandom, and about what books succeed and what books don’t, and how many dues you have to pay in order to be accepted as a writer. You have to do certain things in the right way and in the right order. Did you go to the right writing workshop? Were you published in the right magazines? There are lots of criteria that nobody really understands but somehow if you tick enough boxes you get accepted as a proper writer.

Maybe you have to write the right kind of science fiction, too. Like escapism.

I don’t have any issue with a popular science fiction of escapism or wish fulfilment. That’s absolutely fine. People need to escape the world, especially now. Most people have a much harder job than me and they come home, they’re tired at the end of the day and they want to read something and turn off. I get that, but I also hope we can do something else as well. I don’t need a metaphor to talk about how Silicon Valley creates gentrification. I don’t need to set that on another planet. Can’t I just write science fiction about it very directly?

You know, there’s always been a kind of reasonably healthy and exciting sideline that deals in a more literary, more critical science fiction. It sort of reached a peak in the eighties and nineties with Gibson and cyberpunk then it busted out into the mainstream. At the moment, it’s become very marginalised.

It’s very conflicting for me because I’m a science fiction fan. I like the idea of my work being called science fiction because I see science fiction as possibly the most useful, critical literature for decoding the world, but professionally it doesn’t make an awful lot of sense for me.’

Tim Maughan’s latest book is the short-story collection Ghost Hardware (MCD-FSG). For more on Tim’s work, see his website. Tim also maintains an entertaining (and sometimes controversial) Twitter presence, perhaps not for the faint-hearted. His latest column is ‘No One’s Driving’ (OneZero). It’s ‘about how to understand a world governed by systems and technologies that are spiralling out of control’.

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