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Using science fiction to understand the future of the web

Eliot Peper’s near-future SF novels ask questions about social media, the internet, and the future of government.
Written by Simon Bisson, Contributor
Eliot Peper's Analog novels: Bandwidth, Borderless, and Breach.

Eliot Peper's Analog novels: Bandwidth, Borderless, and Breach.

One of the things that fascinates me is the point where our storytelling crosses over with how we look at the world the day after tomorrow. It's the point where near-term science fiction and futurism meet, the combination of the two not so much a prediction of tomorrow, but instead a way of putting out feelers that tell us a story of a world that might be.

It's a mode of storytelling that's particularly hard, one where the speed of events can rapidly overtake a story as it passes through the slow process of publishing. Roy Amara's eponymous law says "We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run". It's an adage that seems particularly apt when we look at how the world changes. Tomorrow looks much like today, but who can tell the shape of things to come in just five years?

We're in something of a golden age for futurist fiction at the moment, spurred by the rapid rise in importance of technologies that make it easy to shape the behavior of society, by affecting the beliefs of individuals. We may not know the actual magnitude of the impact of social media on the balance of the politics in recent years, but we know enough to know there was an effect. Novels by writers like Ada Palmer, Malka Older, and Eliot Peper are exploring the worlds we're building, asking questions and suggesting answers.

We're living in a world that's increasingly connected, and in the same moment, increasingly divided. How do we square the circle of the technologies that are at the base of this paradox?

That's the question at the heart of Eliot Peper's Analog novels, the third of which is due out in May. I recently finished reading an advance copy of Breach and it's left me with a lot to think about. Having spoken to Peper at events in the past, I'm pretty sure that's the result he wants.

Eliot Peper

Eliot Peper

Eliot Peper

So what is it that drives the story of Bandwidth, Borderless, and Breach?

Set a few years from now, Peper's tomorrow is familiar yet utterly changed. Firestorms have erased much of Southern California, and warming seas have left the shores of Canada and Alaska free of ice. But that aside, the biggest change has been the rise of the Feed, a mix of social media, augmented reality, and ubiquitous computing that has taken the modern net and put it all into the hands of one company: Commonwealth. Each book focuses on the evolution of the Feed, and of Commonwealth as a company.

In Bandwidth a hacked Feed takes a corporate lobbyist on a journey that shows just how much power Commonwealth has, power that it and its leaders have been loath to use. Pushed on his journey by a group of activist hackers, he has to use his personal network to understand what has happened to his Feed and how he needs to respond to the world.

Borderless takes the evolution of Commonwealth on a step further. A freelance spy who'd been one of the people who helped the first book's protagonist finds herself asked to influence the internal politics of Commonwealth. Blackmailing and blackmailed, she ends up showing Commonwealth's leaders that they are as much a state as any physical state, a realization that upturns the global status quo.

Almost a decade later, the story comes full circle in Breach, as the one-time activist social hacker who broke the feed has to come to terms with what she did to her friends and family, as at the same time Commonwealth faces its next major challenge.

SEE: Sensor'd enterprise: IoT, ML, and big data (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

There's a lot to Peper's story; it's driven by people finding purpose, finding ways of fixing an increasingly broken and unbalanced world. The three main characters are vivid, broken people, who have lost themselves in work and are shattered out of those patterns by the world. In helping remake the world, they're themselves remade.

But what of Commonwealth? It's easy to see it as a metaphor for one of the big social media services: a Facebook, a Google, a Twitter. In Bandwidth, bandwidth is all it sees itself as, a neutral place where the Feed is what each user wants, curated by algorithms. But as it learns that the Feed can be corrupted and used to manipulate not just individuals, but the world, it has to learn how to be responsible for the its network and for its users.

By Borderless, Commonwealth has started to change. It's already instituted measures to help reduce carbon pollution, and is in a position to have a more directed impact on the world. As we move into Breach, we're presented with a sovereign Commonwealth that's slowly weakening the nation states around it, running a global currency and aware of its role, and needing to change from corporation to something else.

Peper's work is reminiscent of a practical approach to the early techno-Utopian fantasies of an Internet that was a force for good, not just for cat pictures. He's taking John Perry Barlow's Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace and turning it into a manifesto for the future of the social internet. But can we use these tools to unveil the better angels of our nature?

Like the best futurist fiction, Peper's Analog trilogy leaves you both satisfied and unsatisfied, content with a story that ends well, but asking questions about how we can go from our current informational wild west to something democratic, something we all have a say in, that's for all of us and not solely built to generate shareholder value. These are big questions, and it's good that the final pages of Breach leave us asking them.

After all, if we don't know what questions to ask, how can we build a better world?


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