The Most Pernicious Misconception About Democracy Is That We Think We Are Living in One
Legendary sci-fi writer Malka Older on what happens when real life increasingly resembles a dystopian novel
Malka Older’s new speculative novel, State Tectonics, imagines a radically different world order from the one we know: Instead of residing in sovereign nation states, citizens of Older’s world opt in and out of small, distributed, heterogeneous communities based on their preferences. Some people want a hard line on crime, others prioritize universal health care and education, and still others seek out laissez-faire corporate governance. There’s something for everyone, and if you don’t like it, you can always switch. The entire system is stitched together by “Information,” a massive and highly bureaucratic organization that provides ubiquitous digital infrastructure, fact checks content, and monitors elections. Just like Google, Facebook, and Amazon fight for users today, in Older’s world, a diverse set of governments built atop Information constantly vie to attract citizens.
But even the most well-designed systems can be subverted, and within Information, numerous factions are trying to do just that: circumventing Information’s panopticon, spying on each other, hacking the system, and sowing misinformation—all in the service of seizing power. In the midst of this churning geopolitical maelstrom, a diverse cast of spies, activists, and technocrats struggle to untangle these complex machinations even as they begin to question fundamental aspects of the world they inhabit.
“It’s easy to assume that technological ‘progress’ unfolds in a mostly linear and inevitable way, but that’s far from true.”
State Tectonics, which wraps up Older’s critically acclaimed Centenal Cycle series, may be science fiction, but its speculations are eerily relevant. Reading it, one can’t help but think of current refugee crises, the rise of reactionary nationalism, the inevitability of accelerating data breaches, and the terrifying brinkmanship so evident in Washington. But unlike the bleak scenarios played out in Black Mirror, Older’s world is nuanced, not dystopic, assuring us that even in the midst of disaster, it’s still possible to make a difference with a combination of luck, hard work, and compassion.
When she’s not crafting fictional futures, Older tries to unravel the toughest political problems of the present. As an aid worker with Mercy Corps, she has more than a decade of experience leading humanitarian and development projects and responding to complex emergencies and natural disasters in places like Darfur, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia. In 2015, she was named a senior fellow for technology and risk at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, and her political science research focuses on how governments respond to crisis.
I recently corresponded with Older about her book and the hidden forces shaping the future of democracy.
Medium: Many political thrillers display the trappings of power: backroom deals, canny chiefs of staff, endless maneuvering for advantage. But State Tectonics wrestles with how politics actually works and the ways the internet is rewriting the rules of the game. How is technology changing the structure and flow of political power?
Malka Older: Technology has always affected the structure and flow of political power, giving advantage to the more tech-savvy politicians or sometimes to those who accidentally fell into the sweet spot for a new type of communication. Think of Nixon’s five o’clock shadow during the first TV debate: not only did it affect that election, but it spawned an entire industry of consultants making politicians look their best on TV and pre-selecting the politicians who are able to do so.
What’s interesting to me now is that we see technology being used to influence voters, as well as politicians. In a way that’s a hopeful sign—it means that voters do hold some power in our partial, very imperfect democracy.
What we look at less, I think, is how power changes the structure and flow of technology. It’s easy to assume that technological “progress” unfolds in a mostly linear and inevitable way, but that’s far from true. Some technologies that were possible have not been [widely] adopted because of [entrenched] power, like the electric car. Or because of collective action, like nuclear power, which is less widely used than was expected half a century ago. Imagine all the potential technologies that haven’t been implemented because their inventors weren’t in a position to get venture capitalists interested, and then think about the power and interests driving the technologies we use today.
You’ve spent years dissecting democratic systems as a political scientist. Your novels extrapolate where democracy might be headed. You’ve been in the field directing response to disasters that too often reveal governance failures. What does democracy mean? What common misconceptions of it are the most pernicious? What are the most important forces shaping its evolution?
The most pernicious misconception about democracy is that we are living in one, and I’m not talking about only the U.S. We should never consider our governance system done; we can always work to make it better and more adapted to the moment.
“Information manipulation have always been used, but poor and discriminatory education policies and increasingly sophisticated techniques seem to have made it particularly effective today.”
As for the forces shaping our democracy, on the one hand we have path dependence and vested interests, as the powerful move to consolidate their power and double down on the existing systems that they already know how to game. On the other hand, we can see that the fragmentation of information sources is affecting the entire discourse. A democracy depends on the voters’ decisions, and anyone’s decisions are only as good as the information they are based on. Information manipulation—lies, spins, rumors—have always been used, but poor and discriminatory education policies and increasingly sophisticated techniques seem to have made it particularly effective today.
How do we build better institutions? What lessons can we learn from both history and science fiction?
We can start by being more intentional about our institutions and trying to build them more democratically, rather than ceding them to the powerful. From history (and science fiction—most of it, anyway), we can learn not to search for a single perfect institution, but to leave room for evolution and change.
One of the protagonists of your novel suffers from “narrative disorder,” a medically diagnosable syndrome in this future that combines an addiction to narrative content (think binge-watching Netflix) and a predisposition to interpret, and misinterpret, the world through the stories she projects onto it. What does narrative disorder blind us to? What can it uniquely reveal? How do you manage your own narrative disorder?
The danger with narrative disorder is that we see what we expect to see; we start to believe the story arcs that we ingest over and over again. To take a relatively simple example, casting directors and character actors collude for our version of physiognomy: We have an image of what the bad guy looks like, what the bureaucrat looks like, what the love interest looks like, what the best friend looks like. This can blind us to people’s actual attributes.
On the other hand, since a lot of people act as if they’re in the stories they’ve read/watched, narrative disorder can sometimes give us an intuition for how people will behave.
As for how I manage my own narrative disorder: not well, I’d say. Mostly I feed it novels at a rate of several per week, mostly accessed through overdrive jockeying. But I work hard to fight the tendency toward tropes in my own writing.
What was the creative process like for State Tectonics? Where did it start and how did it evolve along the way? Now that the trilogy is complete, what insights have you gleaned about the craft of writing speculative fiction?
I started with some pending problems that I had to solve, left over from Null States. I knew that I wanted Maryam to be a main point of view character; one of the things I’m really pleased with about this trilogy is the range of female experience I was able to show. I’m actually looking back into my notes file to remember what else I had early on… I was interested in spies, microculture, some generational experience, counter-forces to Information. But from there, I just kept writing and figured it out little by little. I came up with the very last scene fairly early on, but I was 95 percent done before I knew exactly how I got there.
What other books would fans of the Centenal Cycle series love? What was the last book that changed your mind about something important, and how did it do so?
Autonomous by Annalee Newitz, The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders, the Murderbot books by Martha Wells, the Imperial Radch trilogy and Provenance by Ann Leckie, Prey of the Gods by Nicky Drayden, After the Flare by Deji Olukotun. Also Ninth Step Station, the serial I created for Serial Box and co-wrote with Fran Wilde, Curtis Chen, and Jaqueline Koyanagi. Right now I’m slowly reading The Cooking Gene, I don’t know if it’s changed my mind about anything, but it’s teaching me a lot.