Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Nonfiction

Author Spotlight: Ramez Naam

One of the main aspects of “Water” is the fact that companies have turned water, the most essential thing for humans, into a profitable market. We see this today as well, with the huge market that already exists for bottled water. There are hints at other advertising techniques, too, with the clothing store’s mannequin and the way that the restaurant’s menu shifts, but the main focus is on bottled water, so why did you decide to have the emphasis be on water?

The story “Water” is really sort of an alternate reality of my novels Nexus and Crux. In my novels, this sort of brain-computer and brain-to-brain linking technology is developed by scientists and the main conflict is between governments that want to restrict it or use it to control people (think “war on drugs,” “war on terror,” or the recent NSA revelations) and hackers and subculture elements who want to see it liberated.

One of the most interesting comments I got about Nexus was, “Hey, great novel—but you left out the whole corporate angle. Wouldn’t this be massively used for advertising?”

So I wanted to explore that. And when I set out to do so, I wanted to do it with a product that was as ubiquitous and banal as possible—something that you literally run into on a daily basis. Sure—you could use direct neural marketing to sell sports cars. But in a lot of ways it’s actually creepier and more interesting when it’s so pervasive that it’s being used to sell something as commonplace as a bottle of water.

There are multiple comparisons between marketing and war. Do you feel like advertising really is a “battleground?” Why the focus on a “war” between companies?

Absolutely. We tend to think of the corporate world as being full of behemoths. But it’s actually fiercely Darwinian. If Darwin were alive today, he’d have a field day studying how corporations live, die, combine, reproduce, mutate, fragment, and so much more. That’s something that anti-corporate motifs in fiction miss a lot. The big companies are occasionally in cahoots with each other. But far more often, they’re trying to eat each other’s lunch! It’s all-out war, only with marketing techniques and promotions and new product launches (and the occasional patent wars and corporate espionage) as the weapons, instead of guns.

The speed of the story, and the way in which all of the AIs almost instantaneously share information, feels like the speed of real life technology. Every day there are new technological products vying for our time and money. How critical was portraying this rapid pace to you? Do you feel that the speed in which technology and advertising can shift was important in the overall theme of “Water”?

I was influenced by current trends in high-speed algorithmic trading. On many days now, a majority of the trades being made on the stock market are being made by algorithms, not by humans. And the structure of the market is such that an advantage of a few milliseconds is huge. You have trading firms investing in high-speed fiber connections and massively accelerated hardware to try to shave a millisecond or two off their trading times. Because if you can be the first to buy a stock that you know is about to go up, or the first to sell a stock you know is about to go down, you do so at a better price, and make a bigger profit.

Now, the same isn’t true of in-store ads today. Those are primarily made of static paper and cardboard. But the cost of displays is coming down to the point that eventually those ads will be digital. And once they are—why not run experiments where you test different ads against each other and see which one sells more product? And if you find some new market conditions, why not roll that new info—and the new ads—out to all your stores at once?

At the end of the story, Simon is bombarded with ads like he’s never experienced before, and it’s incredibly intriguing to think about someone who has never experienced ads before, but now has to see them literally everywhere. It would be like an insane neural overload. How do you think this would actually work in life today? You show Simon’s terror and then acquiescence to NutriYum in a powerful way, so how did you plan that last scene out? What were the most important ideas to fit in there?

Heh heh heh. I just like torturing people, I guess. And that scene is poetic justice. So for me, a whole lot of the story, at the emotional level, is building up to that moment of dark justice. It’s not even a good guy winning. It’s a bad guy suffering at the hands of some other bad guy, really.

Will it actually be like that? Oh, I doubt it. People don’t tend to be very keen on letting others into their heads without permission. But it was fun to play with. And as an allegory for much that already happens in pervasive advertising, it was enjoyable.

The ending evokes an interesting idea of being told that you should like something and so you do. This is much more intense than the advertisements we have now, because it directly stimulates pleasure centers, but even in today’s society we see celebrities telling us to buy certain products or the happiest people we’ve ever seen eating at certain restaurants. How did today’s advertising techniques affect the way that you showed this idea and emotion at the end of the story?

If you read the ending carefully, it’s doing a bit more than telling Simon that he should like this. It’s building up a craving, a sense of need, a sense of deep insufficiency.

That, I think, is the most insidious form of advertising there is—the kind that tells you that you’re not really good enough or happy enough or pretty enough or accomplished enough unless you buy this product or wear this brand or take this vacation or what not. I think, in particular, that sort of advertising is aimed at women in society.

What’s hitting Simon isn’t quite that complex. It’s actually invoking a deep biological need—an overwhelming thirst—that the bottle of water can quench. But again, it’s an allegory for the forms of advertising that are aimed at hitting the viewer’s self-esteem as a way to sell products.

No, I don’t actually know how well that sort of advertising actually works to sell products. In fact, there’s a deep debate about how well most advertising works, period. But, really, advertising that’s aimed at hitting self-esteem? Not cool.

A summary for your book More than Human, which is about biological enhancement, uses this sentence at the end: “Ultimately More Than Human concludes that we should embrace, rather than fear, the power to alter ourselves—that in the hands of millions of individuals and families, it stands to benefit society more than to harm it.” But in “Water” you focus on the harm that biological enhancements, like neural implants, could potentially cause humanity. Do you believe that biological enhancement could be a benefit to society as long as it is used properly and not exploited as is the case in “Water”? Where is the line in the sand for you as far as biological enhancement goes?

In general, when you look at new technologies, mostly they’ve done more good than harm, particularly when they’re widely disseminated. That doesn’t mean they do zero harm. If you say with a straight face “new technology X is going to be amazing and have no downsides whatsoever” then you’re—forgive me—an idiot.

But if you say “new technology X is going to ruin the world” then the burden of proof is on you. Because while every new technology has caused social ills—the internet makes child porn and online hate easier, cars create smog, airplanes are used in war, the mechanical loom put human clothworkers out of work—overall, the world has gotten better and better, and a great deal of that has been because of technology.

And by the way, some of the smartest people ever to have lived have been very, very worried about new technologies. Socrates, pretty famously, worried that mass literacy would be terrible for society, because it would weaken the minds of the young. Well, big respect to Socrates, but how wrong he was!

So in all my writing, I’m a technological optimist. But to be a credible optimist, you have to acknowledge the kinds of things that could go wrong. And you should be willing to put forth ideas on how to reduce those risks. Maybe we need sensible laws and regulations around those things.

As far as the line in the sand: Mostly for me it’s about choice. The places where technology really looks like a nightmare for society have been those where only a few people have had control. Why did the USSR fear copy machines? Because they put information technology in the hands of the masses. Why was the world of 1984 so horrible? Because the government had a monopoly on information technology. The same is true for biotech and Brave New World. Mostly, the key is to get technology widely disseminated and use the law to protect the rights of individuals to make choices for themselves. And also to ensure things like safety, like protection from being ripped off or defrauded by companies selling this stuff, etc.

What’s coming up next for you?

My first two novels, Nexus and Crux both came out in the last twelve months. I was stoked to see that Nexus made NPR’s list of the Best Books of 2013! So now I’m writing the third and final book in that trilogy, Apex. It’ll be out in 2014. And then we’ll see!

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Bradley Englert

BradleyEnglertBradley Englert is currently an undergrad at Western Kentucky University where he studies English, creative writing, and film. He enjoys writing fiction and directing short films. One day he hopes to have something written in italics in this section.