We’ve been admonished not to start new podcasts during the pandemic, but I’ve never been good at taking orders.
The first episode, with the extraordinary LX Beckett, is available here.
Life is a mess. It’s becoming harder and harder to imagine the world past next Thursday.
But imagining the future is the key to creating it. So I want you to join me on the Adventure to a Better World.
To start us off, I wanted to talk science fiction author Lex Beckett. Their latest, called Gamechanger, is all about imagining a future we want to live in, and it’s one my favorite books of the last ten years. Lex, you’re joining me in the middle of a pandemic—thank you so much for making the time and headspace to hang out today.
LB: Thank you for having me, and for liking Gamechanger so much. That’s very gratifyng.
So let’s get everyone on the same page. I would love to hear your elevator pitch for this book.
LB: What I really wanted to do was write a book about the world 100 years from now, after we’ve made it. After we’ve survived. And the primary thing we’ve thought about having to survive—until recently—was climate change.
Part of what I found so compelling about this story is that it is in the future, it is not dystopian, it is not utopian, it’s just optimistic and fairly practical.
LB: I think that’s a pretty good definition of my personality, honestly. I don’t really believe in pure utopias, or pure dystopias. Humans design systems. Sometimes when they’re well thought out and well implemented, we design really great systems. Over time, those systems erode and humans who feel disenfranchised by those systems sabotage them, and they work less and less well until you have to replace them. So Gamechanger is really about a society that replaces our current systems—our economic system, or systems of government, a lot of social mores, without becoming unrecognizable. It’s a society that’s been going on just long enough that people are starting to consider whether or not they want to hack it.
We’ll get deeper into those systems—part of why Gamechanger makes sense for me is that you’ve really gone into the systems thinking that makes your culture and society function in that story. But before we get into that piece I would love to understand more about how you developed your lens for imagining the future.
LB: For a number of years, I had been somewhat obsessed with and trying to write about an internet shaming. And I tried many different short stories essentially about a reporter who pushed an interview too far, made himself look really bad, and ended up on the other end of an internet shitstorm. The sort of thing that happens to people on Facebook and Twitter now, but sort of to the Nth degree. After a few false starts I wrote a novella called Freezing Rain, a Chance of Falling. About exactly this. This reporter whose livelihood is tied to how popular he is on the internet, and when he screws up and becomes wildly unpopular, he loses his press pass, all of his various subscriptions to things, the rate you pay for them goes up when you’re unpopular, your rent goes up… So suddenly he’s flat broke and desperate and hated.
So was this before M¡lo Y***nopolis essentially had this exact thing happen to his fucked up circus of hate?
LB: It was before!
So you essentially predicted the future with this.
LB: I did, although the future was there to be predicted. I read this article about consulting companies that help people rehabilitate their social media profile. So for example if you’re the woman who took a picture of herself in front of a veterans’ memorial, giving it the finger, and found herself villified on the internet, you could go to these companies and say “I don’t want this to be the first thing that comes up everytime someone Googles my name.”
…That’s a business now.
I guess it has to be.
LB: It has to be. So I wrote it before Y***nopolis, I wrote it before China implemented its social capital money system, but just before—I kind of cringed. And in that story, and this often happens with my work, I start off with something shorter and it explodes into something longer and more complicated, I had the basic infrastructure of cloudsight, the social capital regulator in Gamechanger. I had the beginnings of widespread carbon remediation. So, that character Drow, who is also in the book, his landlord is renting out his back yard for carbon growing project, so he’s growing bamboo and Drow is getting an offset on his rent by maintaining the greenhouse. That story is set 15 years from now, and that’s all only starting. When I wrote Gamechanger, I was imagining the generation after that. So Drow is born into a generation known as “the setback,” the pangs of which we are experiencing as we speak.
LB: My imagined historical timeline is the setback generation’s kids go through a period called “the clawback,” which is the most violent of those periods, and which results in a literal clawing back of wealth from the super rich and corporations, and the establishment of a different kind of global economy. The actual book takes place in “the bounceback,” the first generation to really see benefits from climate remediation, and who grow up with a sense of optimism that while the job may be unfinished, it’s going to be successfully completed. For right or wrong, they believe it’s going to be okay.
So Gamechanger had an impact on me because what you’re describing ends up being a sort of cognitive degreaser. It takes a lot of problems that seem intractable and kind of projects forward like this is doable, it’s going to be messy, but we could get past this. Who in your history helped you develop the ability to imagine such things? In terms of stories and storytellers, who helped you develop a muscle to make this possible?
LB: Ooh, so many. I think some of the hardest books I’ve read in terms of parsing out complicated worldbuilding, are Verner Vinge’s Fire Upon the Deep and Deepness in the Sky. I felt like I read those and I didn’t understand anything that had happened, so I had to go back and dig through all of those. A lot of the individual bits of the book were built on the backs of non-fiction writers. A lot of the economics come out thinking about Debt: The First 5000 Years.
Oh, Graeber! He’s fantastic.
LB: And his ideas about money, his elucidation of flaws in capitalist theory I hadn’t really considered. His emphasis on communitarianism, which isn’t quite what he calls it but that’s what it boils down to. The Well Tempered City, by Jonathan Rose, was another one. It literally talks about what it’s going to take to build cities for what’s sometimes called the VUCA age.
The VUCA age?
LB: Volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.
Oh is THAT what we’re going to call the future?
LB: That is what we’re going to call the future. It means we’re going to have problems that move very quickly—we’re all seeing that happen right now—
LB: Where the outcomes are uncertain, where the solutions are complex, and the decisions we might have to make, even though we will have to make them quickly, we will not always be able to predict the results until we’ve tried stuff.
I did not know there was such a tidy encapsulation—
LB: I know! I feel like I am the only person who knows this word—I go ‘we have a word for this exact thing and I’ve seen it on the internet so I know it’s not just me and that one guy who wrote the book.’
What a relief. We could stop right now and I feel like we’ve delivered value.
You mentioned that, in your timeline of the future, we’re living right now in the beginnings of the setback.
And the setback leads to the clawback, which is about redistribution. That redistribution leads to the bounceback, where we can start to actually rebuild the world in a way that we can feel okay with.
LB: Yeah. In any historical revolution, we know as humans we put tidy brackets on when it happened. But we know those are porous boundaries, we say the industrial revolution happened at a certain time but really it never ended. So, I’m thinking a lot about this right now because I’ve been writing a bunch of short pieces set in the clawback and how the clawback bleeds into the bounceback is not something I could set a specific date for. I always thought we would go from setback to clawback in a rapid fashion after a crisis.
Okay! Yes, that’s where I want to go. Why?
LB: Another book I read—you can tell I read a lot of pop sociology—I read The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg. The Power of Habit talks about when you have an entrenched sytem where, especially if the people at the top of the system are seeing benefits and not seeing consequences for whatever flaws that system may have, it is very difficult to get that system to change until there is a crisis that essentially affects everyone within that system. The example he used for that particular argument was actually a hospital that had accidentally posioned a number of patients with bad meds. What had happened was that the consequences of killing a few patients accidentally reached all the way up into the doctors. So you have a crisis so big it can’t be ignored, it affects everyone at every level of the system, and what generally happens next is regime change. Management change. Good leadership and an incentive to everyone at all levels of the system to buy into whatever the change was. So this particular hospital, they broomed out their management, the management brough in more stringent medication protocols, and then they did things to make everyone feel like they were included in making a positive change. So when I imagine the setback giving way to the clawback, I’m imagining what’s happening to us now. I’m imagining something happening that is so big and impossible to ignore, and that affects people who are seen by the entire world to matter.
So when Tom Hanks gets the coronavirus, for example, that was a breakthrough moment, right. We as a culture were all kind of trying to follow the lead of the elites, who were like ‘this will probably be fine.’ But as soon as Tom Hanks gets it, we all have this sort of parasocial relationship with Tom Hanks ‘cause he’s been in all these movies, and we love the movies, and now he’s affected, so suddenly it’s real.
LB: You know, I kind of run with a socially-conscious crowd of people who generally buy into my view of, for example, environmentalism, and I’d say “there might be a crisis that is world changing,” and they’ll say “but this happened and this happened and this happened,” and I’ll invariably say—and now I feel quite bad about it—yes but it didn’t happen to Manhattan.
Mm-hmm. And in Gamechanger you imagine that something happens to MANHATTAN.
LB: Yes! YES! Oh, I shouldn’t sound so excited about this, oh my god.
It’s not a huge spoiler, it’s just part of the backdrop of your future—
LB: It’s one of the clawback disasters.
Okay, tell us an example of what you imagined could happen to Manhattan to make it non-viable.
LB: So I read this article—all of my conversations start with ‘I read this article’—about Manhattan’s water system. Manhattan’s fresh water comes into the city via two massive pipes that were built over a century ago.
That’s terrifying if you stop right there.
LB: They are so old that the safety locks in them may or may not work, but they are afraid to test them, in case they don’t.
Can you say more about what a safety lock in such a pipe would do?
LB: It’s been awhile since I read that article, but it’s essentially the big version of say the locks you see in a submarine to stop water flowing. I believe the idea behind those locks is to shut down parts of the system so you can do maintenance. Or if there was contamination and you needed to stop the flow of water.
So if they needed to make an intervention on the water system, it is not clear if the primary system that would allow that even functions.
LB: Right. Or, alternately, if they closed them and couldn’t re-open them again. Or if the water supply failed for any other reason. They’re just old. Like any piece of infrastructure they need replacing. And New York has known about this for decades. And they have had a project going intermittently to replace those two waterflows—I apologize to all engineers everywhere for my inaccurate terminology—with a new pipe that draws water out of the Philadelphia watershed and would supply all of Manhattan and would be state of the art, and a redundant system to the other two. Sometimes they haven’t had funds for it and stopped digging for decades. Even if they went all out for it now, they can’t just whip it together suddenly if something goes wrong.
It’s not an overnight project.
LB: It’s not an overnight project. The keyword if anyone wants to Google this is “sandhog”
Sandhog. Decades of neglected infrastructure, the bill suddenly comes due, and as a result, Manhattan is non-viable as a metropollis.
LB: Exactly. And in the book this coincides with the plague breaking out in Boston, because plagues are semi-regular events in the setback.
Oh, oh goody. Are you sure you’re not a timetraveler?
LB: laughs So New York’s water system fails, Boston falls to a plague, and all of these areas, the US relies on disasters being localized enough that other states can bail each other out. I read this today! In the Atlantic. Because that’s how it was assumed the US would deal with a plague, that it would happen in only a few states and that the other states would have surplus hospital capacity.
Did they not know about the aeroplane?
LB: I dunno, you’re realistic, it gets expensive, right?
laughs I guess so. So you have cascading crises and what that leads to is that there is no amount of elite protection which can insulate you from these crises. And that leads us to a clawing back because…
LB: I would have said until a couple of weeks ago that that part of the book was wildly optimistic. The idea that anyone would seriously consider taking money from the rich for any reason, it didn’t seem very practical. And then the only other politician in the US whose name I know, Elizabeth Warren, started talking about a wealth tax. But then I thought ‘yeah but she’s not going to get very far if that’s her platform.’ And now of course we are looking at governments looking at legislating something that looks shockingly like universal basic income for the short term.
They’re flirting, right?
LB: They’re not full on french kissing yet, but there’s been a little big of tongue. Because Gamechanger is also a universal basic income future.
So the clawback happens not necessarily because of violence enacted French revolution-style with guillotines and that kind of stuff, but the violence happens because of elite incompetence essentially, and the bill coming due for that, and everyone has a to pay it, including the elites. And that leads us to the consensus?
LB: It’s unevenly distributed. The clawback is unevenly distributed. These are the stories I’m writing now. I’m writing a lot of stories set in a period where many billionaires and trillionaires can kind of see the writing on the wall and they’re moving to countries they think won’t confiscate their wealth at a government level. And they’re engaging in megaphilanthropy. ‘Hey, I, Jeff Bezos,’ for example, will move to this part of Canada and create a massive climate remediation/infrastructure jobs program. But please let me keep writing my own checks. So there’s a bit of that going around, maneuvering for position to see if they can kind of ride it out. As, for example, the super wealthy rode out the Great Depression, right?
LB: The wealth inequality was, believe it or not, not nearly as unequal as it is now.
It’s hard to fathom the level of distortion that we just live in everyday, as far as wealth inequality goes.
LB: It’s stunning.
You can back to you know, A People’s History of the United States, and see that in the 1600’s, we still had this problem. But the amount of wealth that can exist today really doesn’t have a lot of precedent—we can’t really fit it into our brains.
LB: No, you need concretes. So when someone tells me the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation decided to eliminate Malaria in India—or, sorry, Polio—they can do that. And you’re like ‘more power to them, I love that.” But, they shouldn’t have to.
It shouldn’t be possible for them to take on a project, as individuals, of that scope?
LB: Yeah. It shouldn’t be possible, it shouldn’t be necessary. I give a little monthly thing to John Green and Hank Green Project for Partners in Health.
What do they do?
LB: They’re building healthcare infrastructure in Kona, which is the poorest region of Sierra Leone. Where the maternal and infant deathrate for childbirth is horrifying, and it’s all stuff that most countries can prevent with one hand tied behind their back. And it costs so little of my admittedly modest income to do that, because again, things are so unequal. The same charitable donation if I gave it to anything in Canada it would go nowhere as far.
But the extreme inequality between the industrialized west and these parts of Africa in desperate need, lets you have that leverage.
LB: Exactly. And I get an email from them every month saying here are the actual people who didn’t die of cancer because they can now have chemo drugs. Which they just couldn’t before. The drugs were around, but they couldn’t get them.
Everything we’ve been talking about, so far, feels like a symptom of a fetish, an obsession, in the west, with individualism, and enshrining the rights of the individual to, in some cases, run off with literally as much cash as they can get away with, right.
And meanwhile to put in no mechanisms to ensure the community as a whole is healthy. I feel like we see that through this pandemic being demonstrated in dramatic ways. Is this something we can overcome to reach a more optimistic future?
LB: I think it may be one of those things that always has to be reset. That as people and as cultures we want freedom, we want the ability to be individuals, we don’t want to be so collectivist that we’re in our neighbors’ laps all the time in various ways. But, even if we strike a good balance, outliers on both ends start pulling on the social fabric. It mutates and then it needs a reassessment. But that too might be a very individualistic way of looking at it. I grew up in this culture and I’ve certainly felt that pull over the last few days. ‘Well, I almost certainly don’t have the coronavirus so it’s no big deal if I go out and hit three stores in a row.’ There’s that impulse, right? And it is very much that “I, I, I—I don’t want to be inconvenienced, my life is so easy, I like it easy, easy’s great!” But as we’re looking at cultural curves, one of the countries that’s got one of the best looking curves right now in terms of controlling coronavirus is Japan, which is thought of as having a very conformist culture. And, you know, what’s being put out there—I don’t understand the nuances of this, I haven’t researched this—but this is a culture that when the government says ‘stay home’ people friggin’ stay home.
Have you been to Japan?
LB: I have not.
I’ll give you, for me, what was one of the most striking things about Japan, on a recent visit. I was in the subway, and the subways alone of Japan—Japan is like taking a trip to the future. You can go on vacation 20-50 years into the future if you can rustle up the cash to go to Japan. And inside the subway station was a sink with a drinking fountain. And this is such a mundane utility to have in the subway. But anyone could go up there and they could refill a bottle of water out of this drinking fountain or otherwise use the sink, it was just there, available to people. In the United States, where I am, the subway won’t even give you a bathroom to use, much less a sink for drinking water.
LB: And odds are if it was available, it would be pretty… skanky.
Right. This thing was—you would eat out of this sink it was so nice. So it’s really interesting how the differences in individualist vs. more community-centric cultures lead to outcomes. And I don’t want to portray Japan as some sort of utopia, but it’s all a way of saying is there a way to migrate closer to that extreme and away from the Connecticut suburbs that really didn’t want a coronavirus testing facility down the street from them?
LB: I think—studies show that big crises have more potential to disrupt sacred cows and assumed values. I would like to think that a lot of people will take as the lesson from this crisis that we are all in this together. And people are saying that—at least they’re saying it in Canada, I don’t know what they’re saying in the US. There will always be people who won’t buy in. But we know that when the core of society is sort of… I don’t want to say paying lipservice. When something becomes a central value in society even when everyone doesn’t buy in—
LB: Yeah, a certain amount of consensus, it has a lot of social power. What I would is that people start to realize in the cultures where it’s been a little ‘I can do my own thing no matter what’ that there is a little looking outward. And a sense that even if you don’t really care that much about your fellow human beings who you don’t know in the abstract—and there are people like that and that’s fine. But that they understand that their wellbeing is your wellbeing.
LB: So I’m hoping we move a little closer to that idea, collectively, in the US, Canada, the UK specifically, because those are the countries I sort of know best.
And it turns out oh shit, we all have the same biology.
LB: Yeah! Shocking!
What are we going to do? laughs
What comes out of this for me is that I think it’s very plausible that what you’re describing is how it works. You’re talking about crises injecting energy into all of our human systems, and that energy being used to transform those systems. And it makes sense in the abstract, it certainly makes sense in the midst of a pandemic, but one of the things that you point out is that this isn’t free. And it’s not even cheap.
People living through this time period, even before we got to the pandemic, in your view, in the future, will recognize some shared PTSD from all of this.
LB: Yes, yes.
And I wonder if that’s something you already see in your communities, since, you know, right-wing nationalism has really been on the march the last few years.
LB: You know, my core community is arty and queer and that’s true on the ground here in Toronto and that’s true in the writing communities I inhabit on the internet. Because as queers we’ve always been vulnerable, a shocking number of the people I know do have PTSD, or CPTSD. I actually have PTSD, for non-queer reasons. I saw a plane crash in my backyard when I was six.
That’ll do it!
LB: Yeah! But I’ve realized how prevalent it is among my cohort. Because it’s more openly talked about now, it’s less stigmatized. There was actually a panel on mental illness in writers—might have been Worldcon, might have been Nebulas. And there were four people I know well sitting up on a panel talking about things like trauma disorders. PTSD is also a thing in Gamechanger because Drow ‘catches it,’ as it were, in the novella I was talking about. Something very traumatic happens to him. And actually has an offshoot of it called “virtual trauamatic stress disorder” which is when you are traumatized by something that happens to you in VR. With accompanying inability to deal with reality on both levels, in some cases.
So there’s no escapism in VR for such a person.
LB: No. I mean, you’re not supposed to design traumatic scenarios in VR. But he gets victimized.
Humans being humans.
LB: Humans being humans. You can see how what’s happening now is going to leave a mark on the psyches of everyone going through it.
I think part of the upside, such as any is, to this pervasive PTSD is that there is better language for discussing it, there is better precedent and stomach for discussing it, there’s consensus that this is a topic that has a broad impact, rather than something to be ashamed of.
LB: I hope so!
Do you imagine as time goes on that we come up with better ways to address this very human, very common situation?
LB: Something that we talk about in the intersectional feminist community is making a significant effort to diversify inclusion of people of color, and women and queers and people with disabilities, into the fold of activism and acces to the world. But somehow, people with disabilities, and that includes people with mental illness, still often come at the back of the line. And I did try to preserve an element of that in Gamechanger. Drow is doing pretty well in life. But what little privilege still exists in that world, he has all of it. In late life, he becomes fairly famous, he’s well respected for his music, he qualifies for a trauma dog.
All the social capital.
LB: Yeah, all the social capital. He gets back. If you read the novella and you feel really bad for him, his life gets a lot better by the time he’s 80.
Yet he’s still struggling.
LB: Yeah and he’s also giving back, he’s working as a peer counselor to other people with troubles, but he comes into a client who seems to be profoundly disconnected from society. And that guy is having enormous trouble, and as his daughter Rubi moves through her portion of the novel, she encounters people who can’t easily access the Sensorium, which is the virtual future internet. They’re still using screens because they’re intolerant to surgical augments. And they are still excluded from certain perks of society because it’s just too much work for them and it’s incumbent on them—as we put things on people with disabilities, right—to solve their own problems without any kind of assistance sometimes. So I kind of wanted to keep that layer of ‘this is the thing we might do last.’ And I do see both the setback and the clawback as periods being potentially devastating to our disabled communities.
And I think what makes your story compelling by avoiding utopianism is that in doing that, you’re able to provide a deeper critique of the places where we are still not where we need to be. And by imagining a future where we’re still fucking that up, right, and letting us look at that like ‘really? We really can’t figure that out even then?’ I want that to light a fire under the reader to say ‘well, when are we going to start? I guess we should start now.’
LB: Yeah. Human history will always be a story about the thing we’re doing really well at the same time as the thing we’re fucking up tragically. But I want my readers to have the opportunity to imagine that we are not going to flame out now, in a big fucking-up tragedy, on a species-ending scale. I want them to imagine there’s a future worth having.
You have imagined tradeoffs. You mentioned that this is a universal basic income-type future, so everyone is able to meet their basic needs. But part of how we accomplish that is, it sounds like most people are not using brand new stuff.
We’re not getting a new iPhone every 14 months.
LB: No. Some of the consumer electronics market has just vanished under the weight of VR augments.
So you don’t need it, necessarily.
LB: You get your surgery when you’re in your teens—which is also when you are sterilized. And then you have access, unless you’re intolerant, which is when you go to using screens, which is what you’ve been doing as a pre-adolescent anyway. You get software updates as you need them, and you subscribe to the things you want. So much of what you “own” in this future is virtual property. You have a media library, you have a virtual home, you have your favorite apps. It’s the fully realized version of the world we’re trying to build for ourselves now on the internet. The sort of rich, globally available information culture.
So because you are so attached to a digital world, an economy can actually exist based on non-scarce information resources.
And so as a result of that, we don’t need to do the same level of aggressive, planet-destroying consumer electronics manufacturing and shipping.
LB: Yeah. The server farms are still immense, but generally you will own nothing except a couple very precious items you can carry around with you. Or, if you for some reason are incredibly attached to a physical thing that can’t be carried around, you will seek an outlier lifestyle of some kind that will let you have a permanent home and a place to put it. You will have virtual properties, you can live in the same apartment for as long as you want, but the minute you get a job somewhere else you can physically relocate somewhere else and move into a different pop-in apartment right there. All of your virtual stuff, your virtual wallpaper which shows up on your augmented view of your house, follows you. Your food delivery follows you. Your wardrobe is licensed, printed clothes that are designed to wear three or four times and then recycle.
The fastest fashion.
LB: Yeah. And everyone does have a nanotech primer garment. It’s sort of the expensive thing everyone has. It’s part of your universal basic package. Everyone has enough primer to basically wear the Star Trek onesie under their printed clothes. The idea is exactly what you’re talking about. We give you reall great bread and circuses on the internet, please stop owning stuff.
And this seems like an entirely reasonable tradeoff once the fidelity is high enough.
LB: I think so. I used to play Asheron’s Call. I had a cabin. And I paid a mortgage on it. Just like I paid a mortgage on my actual condominum. And I was in an allegiance that had a castle. And I paid part of the mortgage on the castle. And those things were valuable to me! And they didn’t exist.
That was a moment in history, huh? I had a similar experience in Second Life. Where the investment in this thing that only existed in the aether, it still mattered. That was part of what was so compelling to me, once that’s deep enough in your brainstem, I can see this working.
LB: Yeah! I lavish a lot of attention on the first time Rubi wakes up in her lavish bedroom in her sort of Versailles-branded French villa. She’s got some licensed Vigée Le Brun portraits, and it’s got all the gold and all the gilt because that’s kind of what she likes, and yet she’s in Paris for the first time in her life. She’s got this sort of—Galliphilic? Would that be the right word? She’s had this crush on the idea of Paris her whole life, and she’s been gaming in Paris and hanging out there in VR, but she’s never physically been there until the book starts.
And in that scene you fairly well predict another aspect of our future which is a lot of us just hanging out digitally. We need connection, and you’ve got your characters who are spread around the world, who are all interacting with one another, in what feels like a single place. But they’re just all in the aether. Has it been gratifying to see the explosion of that sort of socialization the last couple weeks?
LB: laughs Yes! Although I do want it to be as seemless as it is in my books, where people come to your virtual house and they have their virtual avatar. And if you have Versaille, they probably dress up as pre-revolutionary France people.
Zoom does leave a lot to be desired these days.
LB: I just realized I’m in a Zoom meeting with a bunch of my buds. I’m sitting here, I’m talking to you, and then I’m rubbing my nose because my nose itches, I’m like ‘fuck, I’m on camera!’
People are watching me!
LB: So I just shut off the camera so people won’t have to watch me yammering into a mic. [Anyway,] Rubi goes off to Paris but she still has a couple of visits with her father while he’s still in Toronto, and frequently over the course of a chapter characters basically surf out of reality and off to another website. Making that not overly confusing was something I had to put a good deal of effort into.
I think whatever work needs to happen to make the work, on the reader side, for what it’s worth, I think there’s a lot of value to it in that learning how to imagine that is preparatory for an inevitable future.
LB: I hope it’s a useful thought experiment. And I think you’re right that the fact we’re all virtually visiting with each other more now, and people who hadn’t ever done it before because they didn’t feel comfortable with the technology or they weren’t interested, are going to become more acquainted with it. And then of course it will transition into pop culture stuff more. I could easily imagine the next crop of TV shows after this, you have a lot more of Sense8 without the telepathy kind of stories?
Well have you seen much Broad City?
So in Broad City you have these two young women living in New York who are frequently getting stoned with one another over Facetime.
And it’s just part of the story and they make it work. And it’s actually getting a lot of references right now because it’s like this is how you practice social distancing while still maintaining connections with your friends.
LB: Getting stoned on FaceTime. Excellent, I will tell my mother.
laughs As far as the platforms where we’re doing our socializing, your future politics are almost entirely mediated by digital platforms. Of course we’ve got our own digital social platforms these days. I feel like there’s a big chasm between the kind of stuff that you imagine that seems to be quasi-community property versus what we have today, where we have a Twitter or a Facebook, which is owned by a massive corporation that really only cares about selling ads, and that doesn’t really care about our civic needs. How do you imagine the transition from one form of platform to another?
LB: There’s comparatively little on the page in Gamechanger about it. There’s a point where Drow and Luce end up in a college lecture about the collapse of the original internet—
I love that scene.
LB: Oh, thank you. I was afraid that everyone in the world would tell me to cut it, so I worked really hard to make it readable.
It’s terrific exposition in that you really get a lot about the story, and it feels like almost a crystal ball predicting the future at the same time, so it really pays rent, for whatever it’s worth.
LB: laughs Thank you. Anyway, in the college lecture they’re attending, and Luce is like ‘I can’t listent to this again, oh my god!’ and the professor says something about the collapse of the original honor/shame culture of the internet—which is these internet shamings I’m talking about—the extent to which I’ve imagined the transition is something along the lines of pressure from governments directly to billionaires saying ‘sort it out,’ as a first step. What I imagine would happen to capitalism would just sweep up those media companies. Advertisers are kind of the lowest of the low in my universe. You have to have a really bad CloudSight rating to have ad-supported stuff. And there just isn’t this culture where if you go outside it’s hard to look around without seeing an advertisement. That’s gone. ‘Cause everyone is paying at least enough of a premium to avoid it. They can wallpaper it out [with VR] so why would they cover our bus shelters in these things? What eventually sweeps them up, and I didn’t want to write a massive textbook on economic theory, so I tried not to go too heavy on it, is that corporations get taken over. They get turned into what we call ‘Crown Corporations’ here in Canada. And as globalization intensifies, one of the systems that gets put in place as a means of trying to police the worst corporate behaviors is called Triage. And the idea is, in each sector every year, there’s sort of an evaluation of all the companies providing a particular good or service. If any of them is found to be not operating for the social good, or simply operating poorly, the guy at the bottom of the herd might literally be dissolved, broken up and given to the other Crown Corporations to sort out.
So it’s like Wikipedia meets the Federal Trade Commission.
LB: Yes. With a little whiff of old-style greek ostracism.
LB: And there’s a pharmaceutical company in the book that it’s mentioned that company got triaged for ‘losing’ some of its age extension drugs. And clearly had been up to some kind of black market bullshit. So they just got wiped from the face of the earth, their assets given to their competitors.
So a corporate death penalty is central to how you imagine reforming the worst of our capitalist impulses.
LB: Corporations may think they are people, but they don’t think because they’re only made of people. And, yeah, I mean who better than companies to have to live under that kind of threat. Not all of the systems in the book are necessarily completely laced with compassion.
And not everything in this continuum necessarily needs it, and you know, profiteering, corrupt corporations, I don’t think they need a hug.
LB: I kind of don’t either. I mean, I want very much in theory to give everyone the benefit of the doubt but I have a little trouble with profiteering and extravagant attempts to take advantage of human suffering.
Timely. Speaking of compassion, I think the far opposite end of your point of view here, I found this really compelling. And I don’t know if I’m not reading the right kind of fiction, but I thought it was incredibly fresh. You imagine a future bureaucracy where kids are involved in investigation and litigation of malfeasance.
LB: Yes. In the bounceback, there is what’s called the Bureau of Pre-Adolescent Affairs. They’re a fairly important government department and the underlying concept is, the political decisions we make today in the VUCA age, very rapidly, and without knowing the consequences, are going to be borne by young people by longer than anyone else.
LB: I think the seed of this came from—someone was telling me they were seeing talk given by Jared Diamond once. And when it got to QA he didn’t let anyone over the age of 25 ask a question.
Really! Oh that’s interesting.
LB: Yeah. This might by apocryphal. But the thinking was, all y’all boomers shut up. Even if you’re 40, no. It’s the 25-year-olds who are facing all this stuff I’m writing about. Let them ask the questions. And I thought yeah! Whatever happens in the world over the next few decades, I can realistically imagine that I’m out in 20 to 30 to 40, at most, years. I’ve got a niece who’s 13. I teach 20-year-olds creative writing. It’s their future we’re dicking with.
So do you feel like your relationship to young people is what allowed you to imagine our whole culture centering their needs like this?
LB: Partly. I think part of it is I felt very disenfranchised as a young person. There’s always been an element in my writing of adults make decisions and the young people in their path have to cope with them. I have a short story published quite a few years ago called The Children of Port Allain. A town that had lost its lumber mill had decided to set itself up as a place where convicted pedophiles could go after they’d served their prison sentences.
LB: And it’s about the kids who have to live in this town who have made a Crown-funded industry of parole for sexual predators. It was meant to be kind of a bracing story, but the message is like when you’re six, you don’t get to choose whether mom and dad are living downstream from the pulp mill. And maybe you shouldn’t necessarily have that power. But in this society, there’s at least some attempt to give kids a bit of a say. And to essentially give them the swing vote on some of these ambiguous choices.
Just at face value, it makes sense to me to give young people that input. But I think what you’ve clarified here for me, that sells it even more, is this VUCA context, where our decisions can metastisize so quickly. And in that particular context, we really do seem to owe young people more than historically we have given them.
LB: We’re at a unique point in history where life expectancy has never been this long, and it’s decreasing. But we’ve lived in this golden age where people get, in some countries, to live 90+ years. And that is a marvelous thing if your rent’s paid and you have enough to eat and you have access to the medical care that makes the downsides of old age less horrifying. But there’s no guarantees and you could be the person who makes it to 90 and have the last four years of that be terrible! And never have we been in an age where that might be more of a prospect for more people.
Especially the youngest.
LB: Yeah! I can’t imagine how brave a person must be to have a kid now.
I have this conversation a lot. laughs Especially that topic, because I think at the end of the day what a thing to saddle a young person with.
LB: As a Gen X-er, I’ve certainly been aware all the resources the boomers have spent that I will not necessarily be able to access myself. And then as I’ve become older and more financially comfortable, I’ve been able to see the cost looking back at the next generations. And because I do teach 20 year olds, I’m always looking at them and thinking, ‘what is your future? Where are you going to be in 20 years?’ And it’s so interesting, but also sometimes scary.
The scary part is real. I think would love to end with as we wrap this up is, you’ve clearly developed a lot instincts and muscles around grappling with this uncertainly, rapidly changing future. And you nonetheless have managed to find a hopeful point of view on it. And so if you had to offer advice to those who are struggling right now to imagine a future beyond next Thursday?
LB: Well, I’m pretty confident we’re going to get to next Thursday. I mean, today’s Wednesday.
LB: The best thing anyone can do right now is follow healthcare officials and government guidelines about stopping the pandemic. Reducing the harm, whatever they say it takes, if you can do it, do it. Looking beyond that, whatever lens you’re able to look at the world through, whether it’s the headlines on Twitter or you’re reading the BBC once a day, when you see something that speaks to the future you want, like governments cutting universal basic income checks for one month, figure out who your elected representatives are, if you have any, write them, say, ‘go you! Do this forever!’ Now is a time when we need to be engaging with democracy and telling our leaders we don’t want the status quo if this is what the status quo is going to get us. If there is going to be energy arising out of this crisis, and if there’s going to be positive change, it needs to be powered by demands for positive change.
In addition to that, do you have any homework you would like to assign for those listening? We’ve got some folks who’ve got some spare time these days.
LB: Well, if you’ve already read Gamechanger—
LB: But you haven’t read Sarah Pinkser’s Song for a New Day, I would start there.
What do we get there?
LB: Song for a New Day is sort of a social distancing book.
LB: It’s about a near future where nobody gathers in groups bigger than five.
laughs That sounds incredibly relevant, yes.
LB: laughs Isn’t it? And it’s a little bit older but I would also recommend Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly, which is about a democracy getting swept up in a fascist revolution, and then taking their country back.
All right. Lex Beckett, this is at once exactly what I hoped for and so much more than I could have asked for, thank you, thank you so much for taking the time to hang today. I know that we all have cognitive scarcity right now as we deal with everything coming through our feeds. I really appreciate you hanging out.
LB: I really enjoyed the chance to talk about all these things that are in my head and about the book, and about the way we can, we can have a future.
That’s what we need to hear right now. Well, I wish you happy social distancing.
LB: Thank you. You too!
And that’s Lex Beckett. Their book, Gamechanger, as well as the wealth of articles and recommendations and book tips they have offered during our conversation is going to be in the show notes. Thank you so much for making time to listen, thank you for imagining a future, and thank you for coming with me on the Adventure to a Better World.
You’re listening The Motive by Elsiane, kindly provided under license by the artists. Take care of yourself. I’ll check in again soon.