Back in 2008, I found myself somewhat hilariously fired by humourless bureaucrats for, among other things, daring to read Nick Harkaway’s debut novel, The Gone-Away World, by the photocopier. The fact that TGAW is merciless in its mockery of, among other things, humourless bureaucrats only added to the delightful, ironic savour of the experience. More recently – which is to say, this year – Nick has released two more books: fiction/SFF work Angelmaker, which is a sort of blackly comedic gangster-spy-steampunk novel set alternately in the modern day and WWII, and non-fiction work The Blind Giant: Being Human in a Digital World, an exploration of the many intersections between digital culture and human life – which, quite coincidentally, the wonderful Nick has consented to discuss with me, despite my tendency to ramble. So, without further ado: Nick Harkaway on The Blind Giant!
Given its subtitle – Being Human in a Digital World – the casual observer could be forgiven for assuming that The Blind Giant focusses more on technology than it does on being human. In fact, I’d contend, the opposite is true: rather than using the digital world as a lens through which to view social issues, it instead uses humanity and the human condition as a means of analysing what part digital culture plays in society.
I think that’s exactly right – when I did an event at the School of Life the other day, one of the people there described the book as ‘a call to active citizenship’. So much of the digital debate is actually a cipher for debates we should be having about our culture, so a lot of what I’m doing is teasing out technological strands from cultural ones…
At the very least, it alternates between these perspectives in a way that makes the technological elements easily comprehensible to the layperson. Being of the geekish persuasion yourself, and given also the book’s iteration of the importance of constant engagement with the world, was it difficult to keep to a particular structural path and within the intended scope?
The aim was to produce a book with a very wide possible readership – something which would be readable whether you were an absolute blazing Luddite or a grade 1 digiphile. My hope is that there’s something of interest for everyone, that the book can be appreciated at a number of levels, but obviously there are limits on that. Staying within scope was relatively easy, because the idea was to go as broad as possible, to show the top metre of the ocean over a wide area rather than attempt to follow a single narrow fishing line down to the bottom – but staying coherent was harder. I was writing fast and sucking in information as I went along, organising it in Scrivener, trying out pathways. It was genuinely an iterative writing process and I could easily still be doing it. My ideas have evolved since the book came out, largely through dialogues with readers and with fascinating people like Anab Jain, Simon Ings and Andrew Keen. But seriously: the contract and the software kept me sane. I didn’t have time to write Gödel, Escher, and Bach.
Early in the book, you talk about the importance of the digital hearth, deliberately choosing a word with ancient, preindustrial connotations. This is a particularly effective image for many reasons, but chief among them – for me, at least – is the simultaneous invocation of the mythic: of the idea of lares and penates, those minor household deities who were honoured as being integral to hearth and home. In our current world, where both the fluidity of texts and the hearth-extending properties of social media have allowed us to define our digital homes through endless recombinations of the ideological, the sacred and the personal, what sort of figures – whether real or imagined, familiar or unknown – do you think have taken on the equivalent roles of our guardian household gods?
That’s part of our problem, in a sense – they’ve faded into us and we haven’t entirely realised it yet. We’re still looking for external sources of influence and protection – we blame the phone for ringing, the Internet for serving up information, the TV for strobing ads at us. And that’s ridiculous. If we ever make self-aware appliances with volition of their own, we can come back to that, but right now we’re alone with ourselves and if something happens it happens because we did it. We allowed it. I think the alienation comes from the metaphor of cyberspace, which proposed a foreign country behind the screen, and I think that’s breaking down now – thank God – as a consequence of the arrival of the touchscreen. When you can drag data around with your finger, it’s no longer other, it’s immediate. Things are not emerging from a TRON landscape in a subatomic alien world, they’re coming from other people using technology. We don’t need household gods in a literal sense – we need to understand that they were always reflections, and accept the role we took from them.
You talk, too, about the problem of ‘locked in’ systems, which – to quote the book – are defined as such ‘because while we might wish to break out of [the system], we cannot do so without also unravelling everything that has been constructed on top of it, and many of those things are hugely profitable and hence powerful and able to defend themselves. They refuse to be undermined, even while the individuals within them might privately recognise the need.’ This is a very apt description, and one which fits a distressingly large number of systems and institutions. I’m especially concerned about its application to our current educational frameworks; secondary school in particular. Given the myriad disconnects between the old world our educational systems were originally built to support and the worlds – both digital and tangible – that exist now, do you think it’s possible that part of what you describe as ‘the growing sense of abandonment and contempt’ that fuelled the anger of youthful participants in the UK riots could stem, however subconsciously, from the awareness that they’re being trained to enter a society that no longer exists?
I think there’s an element of that. They were told they’d always get richer, that that was the natural state of being in an information economy (which we don’t have, by the way, as Ha Joon observes in 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism). They can see in front of them that the pathways they’re on don’t lead anywhere very cool, and that was fine so long as the economy was on the up and they could still expect a rising standard of living. Not any more. Alexis Tsipras told the Guardian the Greek financial situation was part of a war between the people and capitalism. I think he’s almost right: it’s a struggle between sanity and a particular style of finance-based fairydust capitalism which is a bit stupid, a bad iteration which consumes too much fuel and throws up too much waste and benefits a very, very few in the short term. But look, all the rioters knew was that they were getting screwed, and they didn’t like it. That’s what revolutions are in the first place: a sense that you have to push back even if it kills you.
Which locked in system would you most wish to see torn down, and why?
I can’t pick just one. There are simply too many. Gender inequality has to be the most wasteful human-aspected one one. Petroleum is probably the most interconnected, along with beef farming, which results in famine, soil erosion, environmental damage, poor health in the industrialised world, and economic shenanigans around subsidies. The reason to tear them down is the same throughout: they don’t do what they’re supposed to do. They’re aberrant. They cause problems rather than creating solutions. I’m not saying “no oil” and “no beef” – I’m saying that the entrenched systems around those commodities are obnoxious.
Midway through the book, you make a fascinating and deeply significant point about the correlation between the preservation of online privacy on the one hand, and the retention of intellectual property rights on the other. To quote again, ‘You can’t trash privacy and hope to retain a sense of respect for IP.’ Bearing in mind that this is an enormously complex issue, if you woke up tomorrow as King of Earth, what measurements would you enact to try and foster a united sense of ownership and privacy in the digital sphere?
Well, I’d have anyone who pulled what the FBI just did in the Megaupload case tarred and feathered. To clarify: they took a bunch of data they may not have had a right to from New Zealand and are now defending the action on the ironic basis that because it’s non-physical the law does not apply. I mean, seriously? In a copyright infringement case, this is your position. It’s insane. You can’t respect IP if that’s how it is defended.
More seriously: I think I’d legalise encryption globally and institute powerful protections for keys under – at the moment, in the UK, you can go to prison for refusing to hand yours over. In Russia you can go to prison for just possessing encrypted data. Personal data should have the same robust protections as personal space. I’d need to find a balance between powerful protections for the individual and the rights of a free press, but I’m not sure that’s as tricky as people make out. I’d also require a new policy of reasonable enforcement from content owners, since we’re making me dictator. The problem is that they’ve already gone so far down the bad road that it’s going to be really hard to establish a proper social contract again – but it’s the only way they can go, in the end. The alternative is slow exsanguination.
The notion of deindividuation through adherence to impersonal systems is a terrifying one, particularly as exemplified through experiments like those conducted by Zimbardo and Milgram. It’s also a significant theme in both your novels: The Gone-Away World and, more recently, Angelmaker. In the former, it appears as a chilling warning about unyielding and ultimately sadistic bureaucracies, while in the latter, it comes across in the comparison of personal, ‘friendly’ gangster crime, with its weirdly chivalric rules and its black sense of humour, with the impersonal, devouring autocracy of greed and mechanisation. Despite – because of? – being fictional, these stories seem to treat the deindividuation problem as much more of a binary issue than The Blind Giant, which appears to be more optimistic about the possibility of a viable middle path; perhaps because fiction provides the luxury of usurping such locked in systems as would otherwise prove intractable. Even so, the introduction to Giant, wherein you posit both a dystopian and a utopian future as a starting point for discussion, is still titled Dreams and Nightmares – one of the most archetypal binaries of all. How optimistic are you about our ability to change problematic systems without wholly uprooting them?
I know more about deindividuation now than I did when I wrote TGAW, so inevitably there’s more nuance. I still don’t know nearly enough to answer that question. I tend to think the only way it comes right is at a micro-level: citizen action to rehumanise everyone’s relationships. It’s a big ask, but a necessary one if we want a friendly society. It can start small. Smile at the irritating person on the other side of the ticket office glass, say. Get them to smile back if you can. And so on. Day by day, inch by inch, we inhabit a less divided society. It only works bottom up, though.
On a more positive note, something you blogged about recently was the verisimilitude of coincidence in writing. ‘In the small world of the novel, coincidences can multiply. The people about whom you’re telling the story are the people to whom significant events occur, otherwise you’d be telling the story about other people… We recognise the level of connectedness in the world, and we want it to be appropriate.’ This is definitely something I’ve noticed and appreciated in your fiction, but it also seems a fitting description of the way in which you’ve coherently united disparate (or seemingly disparate) ideas in The Blind Giant. Interconnectedness is obviously relevant to the digital world – arguably, in fact, it’s what it does best. Do you think this has changed or is changing the stories we tell about ourselves and our interactions with the world, and if so, how?
I think we’ve become increasingly aware of our connectedness over the last century. Chains, the story by Frigyes Karinthy which began the ‘six degrees’ discussion, was published in 1929. The mathematics of (pre-digital) social networks became apparent before digitisation really took off, though of course the Internet made the connections more discoverable and concrete. So the answer is probably part of the history of 20th Century storytelling, but I don’t know what it is. The stories we tell about ourselves change constantly, and stay the same.
One final query about informed behaviour: you end the book on what is arguably a cautionary note, exhorting the reader to engage with the world, and to be particularly aware, not only of the choices they make, but the many opportunities they have to make them, and of the idea that being the person we want to be ‘is a matter of constant effort rather than attaining a given state and then forgetting about it.’ This is a timely piece of advice, and one that applies just as significantly to our relationships with equality, privilege, politics and popular culture as to our use of technology and the digital world. With this in mind, how best would you advise people only newly aware of the fluidity of our culture to engage with it critically?
The important thing is to ask questions. That is, after all, the heart of the critical process: you ask what a thing is, whether it is what it appears to be. One of the simplest and most effective tricks in a political or a social context is to ask, of any phenomenon, whether it’s really a noun or a fixed situation, or whether it’s created, constructed, and held in place by a continuing action. Mostly, things are the latter, and when you see how they’re held in place you also see in whose interest it is to maintain that they’re part of the natural order of things. Then it becomes a question of what to do next…