Karl Schroeder is one of the best authors in the current generation of hard science fiction writers. He’s also an accomplished futurist who works in strategic foresight for the design firm Idea Couture. His latest novel, Lockstep, presents a fresh take on the idea of human civilization in space.
This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is produced by John Joseph Adams and hosted by David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the host and guests discuss various geeky topics.
Your new novel is called Lockstep, and it has one of the most interesting science fictional premises I’ve heard in a long time, this idea of the Locksteps. I want to get to that in just a second, but first I want to talk about the setting of the book. This book is set in interstellar space, in several light years’ worth of space between our solar system and Alpha Centauri. I think most people would imagine that there’s not much there, but in your novel there’s a lot there, so tell us about that.
A couple years ago I stumbled across an astronomy paper, I believe it was called “Nomads of the Galaxy,” talking about observations that had been made using microlensing techniques, which is basically looking at stars winking because something passed in front of them, very, very distant in the galaxy. But what the people doing the study were finding was that the number of winks was extremely high, and what this implied was that there could be up to 100,000 free-floating planets for every star in the galaxy, and by free-floating I mean interstellar wanderers, nomads, orphan worlds. Most of them would be really tiny, like the size of Pluto or even much smaller, but a few would be Earth-sized or even bigger, and if every star in the galaxy has this retinue of dark angels following it around then, wow, that was a fantastic setting, and I had to do something with it.
Why don’t you tell us what kind of technologies it would take for people to live on these small planets out in the middle of interstellar space? How would we get our food, water, energy, and so on?
This is where it gets fun, because when you first think of colonizing Pluto or places beyond that it seems like a bleak and horrible thing to do. You’re going basically to the back of beyond, further than the back of beyond, to a place where our sun is no brighter than any other star in the sky, and it’s absolute zero outside. You’re on a tiny iceball which is too big to be called a comet but too small to be called a planet. What are you going to do there? How are you possibly going to be able to live? The solution, and it’s a kind of solution that actually has evolved here on Earth—if you ever get the chance to go up to the high arctic, to the tundra, you’ll find in the summer these tiny little arctic wildflowers which look so incredibly delicate, but they’ve survived in that incredibly harsh environment for millions of years. We had a little bit of a taste of their winter this winter in North America. It’s amazing that they could do it, but they use a very simple and straightforward trick: They’re dormant most of the time. There’s a very brief arctic summer, and during that brief flowering these plants and the animals that live off of them undergo a burst of growth, and they exploit that energy as quickly as they can, as much as they can, and then they go dormant again. I took that as a great model to follow and designed the civilization of the Locksteps around it.
The civilization of the Locksteps relies very heavily on going dormant in these hibernation beds that you call cicada beds. Why don’t you tell us about that technology, and why are they called cicada beds?
First of all, I’d kind of like to say why I would go this crazy route rather than just writing a book in which people skip between stars faster than light, and the reason is because Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, these are great stories—they only suffer from one problem. They’re all impossible. As far as we know, Einstein discovered a rule that’s ironclad across the cosmos: You cannot travel faster than light. If you cannot travel faster than light, then all of these stories become fantasies. People have tried to figure out way to accelerate starships up to close to light speed, and you’d basically have to take enough energy to blow up a planet to do something like that. It’s crazy. It’s absolutely ridiculous to even try. But there is another way and it involves hibernation. It involves cold sleep, and it turns out that is, although we don’t know how to do it right now, a much easier problem to solve than the problem of faster-than-light travel or even near-light-speed travel. There might, in the end, be a way to travel faster than light, but there’s probably only one way. But there’s probably many different routes to achieving hibernation technology that would actually work.
So why’d you decide to call them cicada beds?
Because the civilization itself works a lot like cicadas do. They as a species have evolved to all wake simultaneously, essentially, for their brief mating period. This is because any male who wakes outside of the cycle, well, he simply won’t find a mate, so they’ve—over however long, millions of years maybe—they’ve developed a system whereby they wake and sleep in lockstep. The cicadas all come alive at the same time, they have this brief flowering like those arctic flowers I mentioned, and then the next generation comes along.
The cicada beds in Lockstep: They’re literally beds. They’re the same beds you sleep on any other night, but on one night out of every month they quietly, after you’ve gone to sleep, set you into deep, deep hibernation, and eventually most of the Lockstep world stays freezing solid, and you stay that way for thirty years, and so does everyone else. The entire civilization goes dormant for thirty years, and then wakes for a month, and goes to sleep for thirty years, and wakes for a month, which is, of course, insane. There’s no rational reason why you would do something like that on a place like Earth, but when you get out between the stars to these nomad worlds, all of a sudden it becomes not just a viable way to live, but perhaps the best way to live, because in that brief flowering you can use up all the resources that your robots and mechanized industries have been slowly gathering and building over the last thirty years. You can have a party for a month, go to sleep, wake up the next day, and party for another month, and it doesn’t matter the size of the world you’re on. The smallest comet and the largest planet can participate equally in this civilization, but even better, you can travel. You can go to any one of thousands of worlds. If it takes you thirty years to get there at some slow sub-light speed, it doesn’t matter, because it feels to you and to everyone else as if it’s overnight.
The beauty of this system is that it actually might be possible, unlike any of the other space operas out there that require some form of faster-than-light travel or handwaving technology that magically makes the distances of interstellar space go away. This model takes them into account. It requires one thing, hibernation technology way beyond what we’ve got right now, but what it requires isn’t impossible.
I thought it was interesting, speaking of faster-than-light travel, you say that “I misjudged the fervor with which people cling to the belief that the light speed limit will just somehow magically and handwavingly get engineered around.” What have been some of the most vociferous kinds of response like that that you’ve gotten?
Outrage, really. “No, of course we can do this. Of course faster-than-light travel will be invented, and shame on you for saying that it won’t.” It’s all very well to say that it could be invented, and in fact, I will freely admit that we don’t know that it can’t be invented. You can’t prove that faster-than-light travel will never be invented, but you also can’t prove that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. There’s all kinds of things out there that you can’t prove don’t exist, but that really does us no good, and you can spend the rest of your life dreaming and wishing that faster-than-light travel could be invented, and I think you should certainly try to find out whether it can be. Or you can actually get the same result as you would get from faster than light travel by other means.
What are some of the potential drawbacks or practical problems with the lockstep system that you’ve heard from readers, and what would be your responses to those?
First of all, it’s crazy because the end result as the hero of the novel, Toby, finds out is that forty years of lifespan for a person living in the lockstep encompasses 14,000 years in real time, and on the lit worlds, places like Earth and Mars, civilizations rise and fall; transhuman entities come into being; ripples through the universe devouring everything in sight; there are wars; there are collapses; and there are rebirths, and all the while, out in the darkness, the locksteps are just chugging slowly forward. “Why would you go to these places rather than go to the exciting worlds where things are happening?” is one objection. The answer to that is that you can travel. You can travel to thousands and thousands of different worlds if you live in the lockstep. If you don’t live in the lockstep and you live in real time, there’s probably ten planets that you might be able to visit in your lifetime, or if you do travel between the stars, it’s a one-way journey, either for you or for the people that you leave behind who will be dead before you get home.
Another objection is that clearly the locksteps are going to be vulnerable while they’re asleep. Those thirty-year spans are perfect opportunities for raiders to come in and steal all your stuff, and that’s true, but it’s only the human beings who have to fall asleep in the lockstep. Their defenses can be awake, or at least alert and ready to be awakened at all times. Another objection is that economically, obviously any planet that runs in real time will outperform the lockstep, like the thirty years and one month one, by a factor of 360 to 1. That might be true, but any world that operates like that will also be using its resources at a rate that’s 360 times faster than the lockstep, and more importantly, any world that’s running real time will have far fewer trading partners per lifetime, if you will, per lifetime of its citizen, than a lockstep. If you live in a lockstep, you can get trading goods from worlds that are light years away, from thousands of different planets, and you can trade with all of those planets. Subjectively, for you, it seems as if you send away for something, buy something that’s maybe a light year away, and it arrives a month from now. If you’re living in the lit worlds, living in real time, all of these things take much longer, and your number of trading partners is smaller. You’re living in a much more impoverished civilization, basically.
You mentioned the protagonist, Toby. Do you just want to say a bit about the characters and the plot of the book?
Everything I’ve said so far sounds very complicated and kind of abstract. The story itself is kind of a family drama, as a matter of fact. It all circles around Toby McGonigal, who is just coming of age when his family pulls up their roots and moves past the edge of the solar system to a homestead on the micro-planet Sedna. They do this because everything in the solar system is owned by the trillionaires. There’s no possibility for any wealth to be appropriated by anyone else anymore, so they want to escape. They want a homestead in a place where they could actually make something for themselves.
It’s kind of a desperate gamble. While Toby is taking a journey between Sedna and one of the nearby comets, an accident occurs, and he has to go into cold sleep to ride it out because his life support is failing. When he awakes, he discovers that he’s awoken to a completely different world because so much time has passed. Rather than cold emptiness and interstellar space, he’s surrounded by the lockstep empire, which is the oldest civilization known to man all of a sudden. Worse than that, he appears to be some kind of messiah for some kind of major religion in this civilization that he knows absolutely nothing about. Even worse, or even stranger than that, his younger brother and his younger sister are still alive, and for some reason they’re gunning for him. The book follows Toby as he tries to find out what the heck is going on, and also evade his inexplicable murderous siblings as they come after him.
One detail I really liked is that when Toby first wakes up, somebody talks to him and their voice sounds strange because they’re in an atmosphere that has more argon in the air. Could you talk about that?
The planet is “Lowdown.” That’s the name of it, and it’s got argon and neon in the atmosphere, which you can get on these trans-plutonian objects. It’s been hypothesized that Pluto has a large neon atmosphere. So one of the things the locals do is they pump oxygen into it. You can certainly breathe that mixture, although you tend to get intoxicated if there’s too much argon. You’ve got to keep the balance right. One of the things they do is they use the sky as a giant neon light and light their cities that way. It’s an incredible place of bizarre environments.
Another world has cities under the ice in a Europa environment, a global ocean under an icecap. Another one is a little cloud civilization of aerostats, two mile-wide spheres with life support inside them, floating in the sky of a super-Earth. So there’s nothing like Earth out there, but there are things that are really cool and places that have thrived using the lockstep method.
The Europa-like world you mentioned, I thought it was really interesting. You describe how it has water toward the core, and the gravitational force actually compresses the water into a substance harder than steel.
You don’t want to go down too far in that world. You certainly don’t want to drown. They’ll never find you. There’s that, and there’s, of course, the impossible cold that you have to deal with, but what happens is that during these month-long flowerings where the people in the lockstep extravagantly use their energies to turn their back on all of these harsh conditions and create Earth-like or exotic but wonderful environments for themselves, and to them that’s their whole life. They live that way all of the time, so it’s not a bleak and cold place for them at all.
Another idea I really liked was this idea that Toby’s been in suspended animation for 12,000 years, and so that means that there’s been 12,000 years for new diseases to develop that he might be susceptible to.
Civilizations have risen and fallen; languages, cultures, religions come and gone, but because the lockstep is always there, it’s developed into some kind of backup for humanity and for human civilization. So some catastrophe will happen, rogue A.I.s become godlike and devour everything, human civilizations fight wars and blow up each other’s planets and everyone gets blown back into the Stone Age, and then the lockstep wakes up, and they look around and say, “Oh, it happened again.” And they send their people in, and they rebuild the civilization, and over tens of thousands of years it happens repeatedly, and they’re always there to pick up the pieces. They literally do a backup and restore of human civilization repeatedly. One of the reasons they can do this is because, of course, they’re so insignificant as far as everyone else is concerned. They are in suspended animation nearly all of the time, and they’re in the places no one wants to go to, these little worlds between the stars. So no one has any incentive to go after them.
Another interesting implication of that is that the newest immigrants to the lockstep civilizations have the longest cultural histories.
I’m still trying to wrap my brain around that one, and I wish, in retrospect, that I had spent more time on this idea in the novel. I might have to write another book to follow this thread, but yeah, for the people who started the lockstep only forty years has passed, which is why Toby’s brother and sister are still around, but for people who are joining the lockstep now, who are recent immigrants, it’s been around for over 10,000 years, and it’s literally the oldest, most stable culture that they know, and it’s woven into all of the myths and stories that they know going back into the mists of time. So they are the ones who are most familiar with the lockstep, and this paradox is something . . . wow, you could play with this for ages. It’s a fun concept, and one that I came across fairly late in the creative process because, of course, I was dealing with so many of the other implications as I went along, and all of the possibilities. It’s quite possible that there are other implications that are equally cool and bizarre that we just haven’t thought of yet.
Do you have specific plans to write any more fiction set in this universe?
I do have some ideas. There are ways to turn this around. You can look at this civilization from within lockstep time or you can look at it from real time, and the story can be told from both points of view, and intersections can happen as well. I do have a short story set in the universe called “Jubilee,” which you can download right now. It’s a Tor Books original. It’s available from, say, Kobo or Amazon, it’s like a dollar or two dollars to download. That explores some of the real-time implications of having a lockstep around if you live on a planet. There’s many possibilities yet in this world.
People can also read the story for free on Tor.com, at least, that’s what I did. It’s a terrific story. It’s basically told from the point of view of, as you say, people who live in real time, and there’s this kind of Romeo and Juliet . . . well why don’t you tell us a little bit more about the story.
It’s a really pretty banal story of young love, in some ways. It’s two kids who meet, fall in love, and exchange letters, but the thing is that they live in different locksteps. One lockstep could have a sleep to wake ration of 360 to 1, so 360 months asleep and one month awake, another lockstep could have another ration of let’s say 270 months of sleep to one month awake. This boy and this girl are from two locksteps that go in and out of phase with one another. In other words, they’re both awake at the same time only once every 900 years of real time. In order to be able to courier their letters between them they have to use the people who live in real time who see both of the civilizations whenever they awake, so they send their letters through a hereditary courier system, basically. And the story is of the last set of letters exchanged between them and of the courier who delivers them.
It was so interesting to me because it’s almost like you have this legend, this famous story of young love like Romeo and Juliet that everybody knows, that’s existed for thousands of years, but it’s still going on at the same time too. So it’s almost like these ultimate kind of fans get to interact and meet with Romeo and Juliet in a way.
If you just start to think about it, all kinds of other stories could be recast in the same way. “Sleeping Beauty” is the obvious one. But I made myself a list one day of myths and legends that fit perfectly into the lockstep universe, and there’s a whole bunch of them, so I’m very pleased, because, in a way, it’s like having discovered something, and now I get to explore it, but also the readers get to explore it, and the writers get to explore it, now that the idea is out there, anybody can write a story set in a universe like this. Nobody owns these ideas, so I’m curious to see what other people might do with the concept.
To what extent are there precursors to this idea in science fiction that you’re familiar with?
There are a lot. A lot of people have done similar things over the years. There’s really no new ideas. We all borrow and steal from each other, so I’m not going to claim some kind of tremendous originality here. What lockstep is is this synthesis of different ideas that people like everyone from Fred Pohl to Greg Egan have played with at one time or another. There are lots of explorations of hibernation and its implications that have been done, and of near-light speed, and of deep space civilizations. The trick here, or the innovation, is really only the synchronization of the cicada beds and the lockstep concept itself. The rest is, as I say, very well developed by many other writers over the years.
Some people I saw online mentioned Phillip Jose Farmer’s Dayworld series where it’s a much more modest thing, but the idea basically is that Earth is overpopulated, and so there are only enough apartments for 1/6th of the population, so 80% of the population at any given time is in hibernation, and then you wake up one day a week and share the same apartment with six other people who you never meet.
I haven’t read those stories, but it doesn’t surprise me. It never surprises me when I come up with an idea, and I get really excited about it, and then I find out that somebody did it potentially forty years ago. It’s fine, and that is another thing that you can do with the lockstep; in fact, in the novel we encounter planets where there are multiple locksteps that are out of phase with one another, and they share the resources of the world exactly as they do in Farmer’s story.
But as the saying goes, “nothing is truly new.” I’m not surprised that other people have done it before. The thing is to not say, “Oh it’s been done before,” and not try and do something new with it. All of these ideas are playgrounds for us all to try and extend and see what new things we can come up with, and that’s all I’ve done with lockstep.
You mentioned that most of the labor in this universe is done by robots, and there were some really interesting economics in the novel. Could you talk about that?
I encountered a problem—and I’ve encountered this with most of my books, actually—which Frank Herbert encountered when he was writing Dune. He wanted to have a particular kind of civilization, but that civilization would be essentially ridiculous and impossible if artificial intelligence and robots existed. So he, in the case of Dune, used the Butlerian Jihad. It was this holy war to destroy artificial intelligences, basically a political reason why there would not be A.I. in that particular universe. I did something sort of similar with the technology in lockstep. It was going to be a world much like the world Toby had known. In other words, his brother and sister don’t change much, even though technology advances spectacularly quickly around them. They just basically draw a line in the sand and say, “Okay, if you’re going to live here, you’re going to live this way.”
But the robot economy itself is essentially based on Rome. Rather than having hundreds of slaves, each person in the lockstep has a number of robots. It’s illegal for corporations to own robots; they can only own single-purpose machines. Only an individual can own robots, so what people do is they send their robots out as a workforce, essentially as their slaves to do the work for them, and they reap the profits. Except that what happens in the novel is that some people subcontract some of the robots. It saves wear and tear on the robots.
Just in our society right now, we’re having an increasing problem of technology rendering labor obsolete. Do you think that this idea of banning corporations from owning robots has any sort of analogue to something we might try today?
Maybe. We have this, certainly in the U.S., this legal concept of the corporation as a legal individual, which always struck me as kind of a dodgy concept. If a corporation can be a legal individual, then why not other things that are not strictly abstract entities, like, say, ecosystems, rivers, mountains? There’s a lot of flex and play in what we can consider to be a person and what we consider can own things. Actually, a lot of this is going to be highlighted very strongly in the next few years as bitcoin and the things that you can do with the bitcoin protocol start to hit the mainstream. We do need to create structures like virtual nations and virtual corporations on the bitcoin blockchain. So, far from being abstract, issues like this are actually going to become concrete real fast for us.
I went to a lecture recently by Jaron Lanier—he wrote a book called Who Owns the Future?—and his solution to this problem with technology making labor obsolete was something along the lines of micropayments for anytime you did something useful on the internet. I’ve also heard in Switzerland they’re experimenting with a certain guaranteed minimum income for anybody, so it doesn’t matter if technology renders all labor obsolete. Everyone is still provided for, in a sense.
A guaranteed minimum wage is kind of a no-brainer. We’ve experimented with it both in the U.S. and up here in Canada. The Canadian experiment was quite successful. If you don’t have a structure like that, eventually you get to a situation where you know you don’t need the workforce at all, but then you also don’t have any consumers. You have no one to buy the products that you’re making if they don’t have some source of income. So either you jack up corporate taxes and you feed that back to people as a guaranteed minimum income, or you find out some other way of continuing the circulation of wealth in society, so that it actually produces more wealth. Otherwise, it just gets concentrated as a kind of singularity event and that’s it.
I actually saw you say on Twitter, “This conversation has me wondering about leapfrogging, guaranteeing basic income via guaranteed ownership of certain assets.”
That’s just one thing I floated out there. Another idea that I’ve been exploring over the last few days is the idea of smart currency, a self-redistributing currency. In other words, it’s a bitcoin-like currency that looks around itself in the wallet and says, “Oh, there’s a million other of me here. It’s too crowded in here. I’m going to leave.” If there gets to be too much concentration of wealth, the currency itself, not any kind of legislature, or any kind of body, or any kind of human power structure, but the currency itself, redistributes a small fraction of itself into empty wallets on a random basis. You can do this with the kind of smart currencies that are made possible by bitcoin. So that’s another example of a possibility of a way to approach the problem. I’m sure there are many others. You can attach these ideas to various ideologies.
In fact, that’s what you find with the various alt-coins that are being created around the bitcoin protocol right now. People are creating alt-coins that represent one or some other political ideology or economic ideology. But you can also just approach this as a pragmatic problem, a problem in systems design, if you will, that in the end the solution might end up appearing to be capitalist, socialist, something else that you have never even imagined before. But the point is to think of imaginative ways to solve the problem.
I saw recently Charles Stross had an essay that unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to really read, but he was basically arguing that bitcoin was going to be a catastrophe. Did you see that?
I’m aware of the essay, and my interest is not in bitcoin as a currency, despite what I’ve just said. Bitcoin is the first throw of a completely new game. Regardless of the deficiencies of bitcoin itself, the protocols that lie behind it are the important thing. The problems that have been solved in creating it are far more important than the details of bitcoin itself. There are issues of societal trust, of law, of governments in general that have been solved in the creation of bitcoin. So for me, bitcoin itself is a distraction. It’s taking us away from examining the deeper implications of what the blockchain technology is actually capable of.
Speaking of the law, there’s a very interesting scene in Lockstep, a scene in a courtroom that essentially seems to suggest that, in the future, A.I.s will make juries, and judges, and lawyers all obsolete. Do you think that’s where we’re headed?
We’re headed there within about six months in terms of contract law. There’s a project called The Ethereum Project that is using the blockchain technology, again the technology behind bitcoin, not the coin itself, to create smart contracts, and what you can do when you have a smart contract is the contract itself lives in the internet. It’s fully distributed, decentralized, not controllable by any central authority, but you can build things like corporations out of it. You can essentially create the legal, contractual structure of a corporation within the decentralized blockchain, and it is a kind of automaton. It will follow the rules that have been laid down for it to the letter. It will never cheat. You can open-source it so everyone can see the code, and everyone can see exactly what it does on the blockchain. It will never cheat. It will always follow the rules. And it will function as the architecture, if you will, of a company. That is 2014. So, if I’m claiming in Lockstep that at some point legal apparatus might be replaced by computerized systems, I’m only barely avoiding being out of date.
Another really interesting thing in the book is some of the politics involved. On one world that Toby visits, there’s something called the DeMarsh model, where there’s a woman who, by some statistical process, has been chosen to be a representative.
There’s a network protocol called Promise Theory where, basically, the nodes of the network do not inherently trust one another. They make promises, and you build up the network according to who actually follows through on their promises. One of the things they found with creating networks in Promise Theory was that these networks tend to develop delegation as an emergent property. Certain nodes would be delegated authority by other nodes because it was simply cheaper in computing cycles, and the reason is—let’s flip this around to human beings—if you as a voter know somebody who always votes the way you vote, why not hand them your vote so you don’t have to bother with the process? This is what delegation of authority actually is, and it’s actually something you can model and build as a network process. So thousands of millions of people vote exactly the same way as this one particular woman in the civilization in Lockstep, so she is actually made into their delegate by the system itself. She’s not voted in. She doesn’t run a campaign. She’s just designated as their representative because she always votes the way they would vote.
I actually heard you say that, in one of your earlier novels, you came up with something like four different new political systems. Are there any political ideas that you’ve come up with that you particularly want to share with people?
In my 2005 novel, Lady of Mazes, yes, I was inventing political systems left, right, and center just because of the way I built the world. That’s a novel that explores the idea that technology is legislation, that introducing a technology is functionally equivalent to legislating some change in society, and in Lady of Mazes, people have the legal rights to determine what technologies will be allowed in their vicinity, shall we say, in their little slice of reality. Because if you don’t have that right, if you can’t control the technology that operates around you, then you don’t control part of the legislative landscape that controls your rights, essentially. So in the course of exploring that idea, I did have to, or I naturally came up with a bunch of different ways of governing. It was a lot of fun.
Back in episode sixty-two, I had my friend Tobias Buckell on the show to talk about ecology in science fiction, and in that episode he said I had to ask you about your idea of Thalience, so I guess this is my chance. I think this is what you were alluding to earlier, when you were talking about the personhood of mountains and streams and things like that, but could you elaborate on what you mean by Thalience?
Yes, it’s a kind of thorny problem. This came up in my first novel, Ventas. One of the questions I was trying to answer was if you create an artificial intelligence that can think about the world and see problems and try and solve them on its own, is this your own hand in the puppet or is this something independent of you, is this something different? In Ventus, a nanotech-based terraforming system fails to recognize the human colonists when they arrive on the planet and knocks them back into the Stone Age. This system, which is an artificial intelligence, distributed a system that is basically woven through the entire ecosystem and controls the ecosystem. It’s essentially the representative of the trees, and the plants, and the grass, and the animals, and the dirt. And because it has gone its own way, it develops its own perspective, essentially, and that is what I call Thalience. You could call it the awakening of nature.
If you flip that back to current day and to the world we live in now, you can imagine giving a pod of whales a bitcoin wallet, and giving that same pod of whales a distributed economist corporation, the bitcoin or Ethereum-based corporate structure I was talking about earlier, and having it sell its ecosystem services online. You can do the same with a watershed or a river. Already in several nations in South America, natural systems are recognized as having rights. It’s not going to be too long before this becomes a pretty common way to view natural systems that are worldwide. Rights to nature is not so crazy an idea as you might think, because natural systems are always realizing our participation in the economy anyway. We tend to call them externalities. For instance, the wetlands around Toronto, what we call the Toronto Greenbelt, they purify and clean the water that flows down through Toronto into Lake Ontario. To replace that service with water treatment plants would cost x-number of billion dollars, so you can say that that watershed, the Toronto Greenbelt, is worth, or provides, x-number of billion dollars’ worth of ecosystem services. And if it already does that, why not give it its own corporation? Why not give it its own Thalience, essentially?
These are all such interesting ideas and can’t really be covered in the time we have for this segment—
Well, I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words, and I haven’t been able to cover them adequately either. [Laughter]
So people should definitely check out your novels Ventus and Lady of Mazes, and are there other websites or essays or things they should look into?
You can certainly check out the stuff going on around bitcoin, so it would be projects like Ethereum—that would be ethereum.org. And many of the alt-coins like nextcoin which are using alternative approaches to solve the same problems as bitcoin. But there’s just so much out there and so many interesting things going on around governments and economics, a kind of sudden explosion in this space that I don’t think any of us anticipated. So a lot of fun to be had in following through on it.
Then another thing I really wanted to ask you about is that you have a story in Neal Stephenson’s Hieroglyph anthology. Tell us about that story.
That story covers a lot of the ground that we have just been talking about. The Hieroglyph Project is a brilliant idea from Neal Stephenson. A hieroglyph, in his language, is, well, take the rocket ship, the classic, golden-age space opera rocket ship, that’s a hieroglyph. It encapsulates a whole vision of the future, essentially. And what Neal wants to do is deliberately try and invent the next hieroglyph: The idea, the image, the vision that will direct an entire generation of kids to become scientists and engineers and problem solvers. So he’s brought a bunch of people together to write stories and try and craft hieroglyphs. My story in that anthology is about governments. It’s about, if you will, a government singularity event. I will freely admit there will be no Facebook of governments. Governments and government are wicked problems. They are complex, multi-faceted, and they don’t consist of just one problem and there will never be just one solution. The story admits this and shows how solutions from all kinds of different directions can converge in the very near future, a staggering new vision of how we govern ourselves.
On Twitter you said that, in this story, you talk about a website where the only stance allowed is agreement. You can either agree or remain silent.
Yes, why would you do that? Well, it’s because right now the internet is an argument machine. Internet forums are basically designed to cause people to have disagreements and fall out from one another, but they don’t have to be. If you study the way that people reach agreement, one of the core issues is that people disagree because they don’t share the same understanding of the meaning of words. In the story, the website is simply the place where you can define a term or define a concept and say, “This is what I think it means,” and other people can either agree with you about that or not. The community that grows up around shared agreements of the meaning of terms and concepts is a community that can solve problems together; even if they don’t agree on their actual politics, the fact that they agree on what they’re talking about in the first place means that they can actually move forward. What happens on the internet all the time is that people get into arguments in these forums because they don’t even know that the other guy is talking about something completely different using the same words. That’s just an example of one of the small problems that amplifies itself into making the world an ungovernable mess. But that’s solvable, and if you did solve it using just a particular architecture of how our online forums work then we might have a very disproportionate effect on how people cooperate.
Then, in addition to writing science fiction, you also do futurism, essentially strategic foresight. You work for this organization called Idea Couture, maybe could you just talk about what you’ve been doing with them and what’s coming up for you?
Idea Couture is a full-service consultancy, and our clients are some of the biggest companies in the world. We have offices all over the world, and I’m one of the futurists working at the company. We explore strategic foresight, which is basically solving the problems that people haven’t realized are problems yet. We don’t try and predict the future. Anyone who says they can predict the future is either crazy or lying. What we do is look for the places where uncertainty lies, where there are critical uncertainties that might affect an organization or business, and then we explore those with the client, find strategies and approaches that are resilient because you can imagine them working in a variety of different possible futures, and then help the client to implement those. It’s one of the services of Idea Couture, which also has a unique approach to using anthropology and ethnography to explore business and consumer spaces. And it’s just a very creative environment to work in, so I’m having a lot of fun there.
Could you give maybe an example of one of the things you came up with that you’re particularly proud of?
Actually, I’ll give you an example not from me, but from my associate Jayar La Fontaine. We were talking about an idea I called “forward warehousing,” where, if you have drone transport, you can create a value proposition such as “five minutes or it’s free.” You can do that by distributing your warehouse goods throughout a city in small shipping containers, if you’ve got enough of them, and drones transport items very quickly. You can always be less than five minutes away from the customer. I thought this was kind of a cute idea, but Jayar took it one step further and said, “Why don’t you add in the idea of the sharing economy to this?” People are doing car sharing and all these things, why not trunk sharing? How much space is unused in the trunk of your car at any one time? Most people probably have almost nothing in their trunks— well, why not use that as your distributing warehouse? You have this vision of cars in parking lots spontaneously popping their trunks open and drones coming out and delivering anything from scotch, to medicine, to pizzas to people nearby. Five minutes or it’s free. And the people who own the car is getting a tiny cut of that as part of the sharing economy. I have no idea whether it would ever be done, but I don’t see any reason why it couldn’t.
Finally, do you have any other books coming out or projects you want to mention?
I just heard a military foresight exercise I did about five years ago, Crisis in Urlia—I wrote a fictionalized scenario of a future military operation—that’s being published now. I’m not sure that that’s actually available to the general public, but that’s quite a lot of fun. It was an interesting blend of science fiction and foresight, so I’m happy that that’s coming out. And I do have a couple of secret projects that I can’t talk about, unfortunately. So there’s more stuff in the offing, but the next major thing coming down the pipeline will be the Hieroglyph Project, which is looking more and more exciting by the day.
I guess we could just say about that other project that essentially the Canadian military hired you to fictionalize a scenario to make it more digestible to military personnel, right?
It’s not so much that, but that when you turn a set of conflicts into fiction, you uncover all kinds of hidden assumptions. Simply by telling a story you realize, “Oh, well, that actually wouldn’t work, would it.” So telling a story by itself is an analytical tool. I’ve done this twice now. The first time was a project called Crisis in Zefra, for the same group, the Canadian military. That was excerpted in Harper’s Magazine a few years back, and this is essentially the sequel to that. I’m fascinated by the intersection of literature analysis and sort of loose storytelling, and how you can end up having a kind of rigorous storytelling come out of it. So these projects are sort of dear to me even though they might not be to more than a subset of the rest of the world. For me, they represent the place where science fiction meets reality and the world can actually be changed by it.
We could keep talking about this stuff all day, but unfortunately I think we should wrap this up now. I’m sure lots of people will want to go check out your books, including your latest book, Lockstep, which I highly recommend. We’re going to wrap things up there, and Karl Schroeder, thanks so much for joining us.
Thank you. It was a lot of fun.
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