A Dystopian Future Controlled by Technology

From Electric Lit:

In many ways, the world Naomi Alderman portrays in her newest novel, The Future, is not so different from our own: a few tech CEOs have possession of much of the world’s wealth; headlines in the news chronicle a litany of natural disasters incited by the climate crisis; the polarizing forces of social media are very much in play; and people try to find meaning or forms of escape in different places, some of them turning to the remaining beauty of the natural world, others to survivalist message boards where they swap strategies for how to survive any apocalypse and ruminate on religious parables that carry meaning into present day.

The difference between our reality and the fictional one Alderman creates? In The Future, the world ends. And the tech billionaires, through their use of an AI survival program and their unimaginable amount of wealth, leave everyone to suffer while they take refuge in a series of secret bunkers. 

Alderman brings the same propulsive prose and razor-sharp critique of our contemporary landscape that she did in her best-selling novel The Power to The Futurein which she skewers ills propagated by extreme wealth inequality. I had the opportunity to speak with Alderman over Zoom about the importance of community, the value of re-interpreting religious texts in present day, and what it looks like to maintain hope in times of deep crisis.

. . . .

Jacqueline Alnes: The future, not to borrow your title, is such a rich premise for a novel. On one hand, some characters find hope and identity in the future: they spend their time imagining what’s ahead for them and work or scheme to reach those goals. For others, the future is foreboding, rife with natural disasters, pandemics, and other dangers. What was it like exploring these different perceptions?

Naomi Alderman: I have worked in technology for many years and I make games, so I often have to think about the future. In order to make an app, for example, you have to not be targeting whatever the phones are today, you have to think about what’s going to be happening four or five years from now and then try to hit that moving target. Also, I’m a fairly anxious person. Some of that conversation in the book about the future comes out of my own thinking and saying to myself, okay, maybe things are not going to be terrible. Maybe there’s a chance that things are going to be alright. It’s kind of working some hope out on the page.

I have a tendency to think it’s all going to be bad, but at the same time, working in technology, I think it’s probably going to be both good and bad, just like every other historical period. I see people talking about the book now online which is extremely exciting and fun, and I see people saying, Oh, it’s a terrifyingly real possibility and it’s a reality that just feels normal to me now.

JA: I felt like reading the book made some of what tech companies do—in terms of data or privacy—feel more real. Maybe working in tech means you have more of an ongoing awareness?

NA: On Friday, the genetic data company 23andMe announced that they had been hacked and that the hackers have released the information of all Ashkenazi Jews. I registered with that company about ten years ago. I’m an Ashkenazi Jew. God knows how that’s going to play out for me over the rest of my life. I can change everything about myself, but I can’t change my DNA. 

. . . .

JA: Your book made me think about the capabilities of technology. Like the example of the CEOs controlling the weather so that we have no more floods or famine—what a great idea. But then, there’s this underbelly: if the wrong people have access to that power or if the wrong people co-opt it, it becomes a weapon. 

NA: It’s all a tool. Every single thing that we’ve made is a tool. We could decide to use it for the benefit of all other humans and instead what we’re mostly doing is making a few dudes rich and powerful in a way that is going to send them crazy.

In my previous work I’ve thought a lot about power, and it continues to be interesting to me. My conclusion is not a novel conclusion, but I think it needs to be heard every single time: It’s not about the individual person. If you make people that powerful, they will go crazy. You look at Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg challenging each other to a cage fight, you must say to yourself that they have experienced power toxicity. It is affecting their brain functioning and the kindest thing to do would be to take quite a bit of power away from them so they can return to sanity. I guess either we do that in some sort of humane way, or at some point there’s a revolution, which I don’t think will be fun for any of us to live through. 

Link to the rest at Electric Lit