📚 Why fiction is essential to tech
What we have here is a failure to predict the future
💭 How speculative fiction fits into our project
✂️ Excerpts of two fiction-forward Magazine pieces
📖 Our final Flash Fiction contest winner!
AI can “predict” a lot about us: what songs we might like, what things we’re likely to buy, who we’re about to text or call. Sometimes a little data is all it needs to peer into our souls. Of course, this uncanny ability is really a sophisticated kind of imitation; even the most cutting-edge neural networks learn to talk by reading the shit we post online. It points to a key limitation of artificial intelligence: its insights are bound by what has happened in the past1. Which means that when we encounter something world-altering—like a global pandemic—algorithms no longer know what to do.
It’s no surprise that as the gravity of the virus became apparent last spring, people sought out fiction—books like Albert Camus’ “The Plague” flew off the shelves as quickly as toilet paper. The novel that helped me through lockdown was “Severance”, Ling Ma’s inventive and remarkably prescient story about a global pandemic, published just over a year before Covid. I felt less alone knowing that someone had already taken a big leap to anticipate our unthinkable present, and still found a route to hope on the other side.
That’s why I think fiction is essential to tech discourse. You can’t automate this kind of imagination. And against an increasingly pattern-matching world, it’s one of the most important tools we have to dream up something entirely different. So it was my pleasure to edit a few pieces in New_ Public Magazine’s inaugural issue that used fiction to consider emergent technology. Urban planner and futurist Lafayette Cruise contributed a unique short story about a decentralized democracy as seen through the skeptical eyes of a teenage climate refugee. And queer tech policy worker Erik Nikolaus Martin reflects on experiencing liberation in a self-governing World of Warcraft guild, a memory he revisits many years later through reading a novel by Ursula K. Le Guin.
We have brief excerpts of both of these stories below, and the final, award-winning entry of our Flash Fiction contest, which Josh initiated to foster your imagination. We’ve been thrilled with the creativity, and are excited to do more projects like this here in the newsletter going forward. Stories like these don’t just describe our world as is, but expand its possibilities. That, after all, is what this project is all about.
Lafayette Cruise takes us inside a fictional future in which hackers have pioneered a system of decentralized governance. Things get complicated when a climate-displaced teen is unexpectedly asked to join.
A jury of your peer to peers
In this short story, hackers create a system of decentralized governance—but not everyone is included.
Laith recalled that the Network Cooperative emerged after the Cloudbusting in the ‘30s. People formed co-ops to purchase server real estate and digital infrastructure, setting up VPNs and other web services, powered by resources shared by the co-ops. It was designed to give its members greater control over their data and digital communities. And the juries made sure everyone got a say in how the system was run. Supposedly.
Erik Nikolaus Martin shares a personal (nonfiction) story about coming out in a self-governing World of Warcraft guild—and reflects on whether digital liberation is still possible in an age of monopolistic tech platforms.
Liberation in the Western Plaguelands
I felt like queer content in a machine. Could I be something else?
Erik Nikolaus Martin
I know exactly where I first experienced digital liberation, although my memory is entirely in the virtual; I can’t remember where I was sitting or what time of day it was, but this is true of most of my memories playing World of Warcraft. What I do remember is that we traveled the old fashioned way, on wolves, along the old roads where the undead prowl the hills and a sinister haze lingers in the air. We arrived at a great lake, and at the center of it stood an island and a ruined city called Caer Darrow, cast in the crimson shadows of the Western Plaguelands. We were there to tell a story.
Presenting: the winning entry of the Flash Fiction contest we announced in September, by our reader Andrew Nash.
Ring. Ring. Slowly Andrea realized it was the hotline. Why tonight? Although many forgot Mayday as social democracy struggled to find meaning in a neoliberal world — she still believed, and still celebrated. Ring. Ring. The phone wouldn’t answer itself.
They’re coming after you. Look out. Click.
He’d been careful, using static generation to thwart voice recognition, probably a historic pay phone in some forgotten corner of California. But she recognized him.
Franz. Why, of all people, Franz? He’d left them for the buzz of Silicon Valley and promise of stock options. While he was never central to the project and he probably wouldn’t name names, she was paralyzed by memories. Franz had been more than a colleague. He’d even asked her to come along to California, but, like her grandmother, Andrea was too stubborn to give up the dream.
Enough memories. This was serious. Franz might have left them — and her — but she knew him well enough to know he wouldn’t be kidding. Time to move.
They’d prepared. Patricia had drilled them while they’d hoped the moment would never come. Paranoid Pat, they teased, but like the best security geeks, she had it in her blood. Andrea reached for the burner.
Ping. Ping. Ping. Philipp looked at the clock. Not a drill. Andrea would have warned him last night at the Rathausplatz Mayday celebration. They’d been seeking beer-inspired wisdom: How had the Right become so good at social media while the Left remained clueless? Which led to shop talk and more beer.
Philipp replied to the Signal message asking how he liked his new refrigerator with a “1”. He was on his way to the bunker. He didn’t notice them until he was unlocking his bike. Fuck, Pat was right. An SUV across the street with two guys in suits. At 3 AM, in Favoriten?
He answered the Signal reply asking how satisfied he was with the refrigerator delivery service with another “1.” In other words, he was being followed and would take evasive actions.
Andrea was luckier, she didn’t see anyone following her, but took a roundabout route just in case. Not only had Pat taught them how to notice tails, but how to lose them. Bikes were perfect for escaping through Vienna’s maze of narrow streets and squares.
When Andrea got to the bunker, she almost didn’t recognize Pat, who, of course was in disguise and already executing the crisis plan. The bunker had been built in the Second World War and forgotten, now it was filled with the smell of coffee brewing and the light falling from a bank of monitors.
The first priority was protecting their infant application. They’d started building it as part of a grant they’d received from the city of Vienna’s digital humanities program. They hadn’t told the city how they’d planned to leverage the project into a new — secure and private — socially responsible social media platform. Their bad.
Now someone important had noticed and didn’t like it one bit. …
I’m just like, a storyteller, man
Can’t get enough speculative fiction? We’ve got a couple of fun, very New_ Public-y recommendations for stories you might enjoy:
🔵 Reviewed here in Aaron A. Reed’s 50 Years of Text Games, “Digital: A Love Story” mimics pre-modern internet BBS messaging. Through carefully-researched 1988 message board posts, creator Christine Love tells a love story in the form of a unique visual novel.
🟣 Each month, Slate posts a new entry in Future Tense Fiction, a collaboration between their Future Tense technology vertical and Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination. There’s always a story, matched with a companion piece of researched analysis.
🔴 We really like this package of eight stories that imagine 2031, commissioned by Storythings, a UK branding and marketing firm, where newsletter reader Matt Locke is one of the directors.
We also asked you on Twitter, and got some great responses:
🧑🏽🏫 Our partners at Unfinished are hosting a virtual book club with the Digital Public Library of America. They’re reading Tim Hwang’s Subprime Attention Crisis: Advertising and the Time Bomb at the Heart of the Internet, and they’ll be talking to the author about the online ad industry, December 9 at 11am EST. Register here.
🎧 Co-director Eli Pariser was on Tech Policy Press’ The Sunday Show podcast, hosted by Justin Hendrix. Eli appeared along with Anil Dash to talk about the Filter Bubble Transparency Act, which has been introduced in both the US House and Senate. If you’re curious about how Eli feels about these bills using a term he came up with, you should listen here, starting around 25 minutes in.
Staying up late, plotting out our next story,
Wilfred and Josh
Flash Fiction Illustration by Josh Kramer. Illustration of Erik’s piece by Sam Sharpe. (Sam’s also a really talent storyteller, buy his comics!) Design for Lafayette’s piece by Josh Kramer. Photo by Ciprian Boiciuc, via Unsplash.
New_ Public is a partnership between the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas, Austin, and the National Conference on Citizenship, and was incubated by New America.