I was immediately drawn in by the narrative voice of “Love Engine Optimization.” It walks a thin line between digital phishing and grooming. What made you decide on this particular voice and first-person point of view for the story?
The story had to be told from the point of view of the seducer. If the story were told from Jane’s point of view, we might never get a sense of how much and how often others use her private data without her knowledge or consent. Sam is cocky and overconfident precisely because she has access to all Jane’s private data without her knowledge. Ultimately, Sam sees Jane as just another collection of pixels on the screen, i.e. a form of data, and never a person. I wanted the reader to ask themselves, “Am I Sam, or am I Jane?”
What was the inspiration behind “Love Engine Optimization”?
I read this blog post by Hugh Howey called “The End of Privacy and Capitalism” (bit.ly/1pQBinn) where he argues that privacy is obsolete. I like Hugh and his work, but I call bullshit. There are just some things we need to keep private in order to have a healthy and functional society. We have all these devices now that record our data and send it into the cloud. Your phone tracks your location via GPS. Google, Facebook, and your internet provider know what sites you visit and build highly detailed profiles of your likes and interests. With Alexa and Siri and Cortana, your conversations are being sent into the cloud for analysis. Smartwatches record your heart rate, respiration, and sleep patterns. Department stores have hidden cell phone and WiFi trackers in their mannequins to see which sections you spend the most time in. There are smartglasses which measure your brainwaves, etc., etc. It is likely that, as technology improves, more of what we assume is private will be broadcasted out to the world for unknown actors to use. Most importantly, they might use this data without our consent or awareness in order to manipulate our behaviors. I find that very frightening.
Most of us don’t consider the long-term ramifications of having so much of our private data being sent into the cloud. I’m not talking about what porn sites we visit. I’m talking about our highly personalized psycho-emotional profile. There is evidence this kind of deep psychological profiling was used to influence the recent presidential election in the United States. People’s psychological profiles—created without their consent or awareness—were used to manipulate their voting behavior. These were not generalized ads targeting a broad demographic. These were highly specific, individualized ads targeting unique personality types. And this is just the beginning, because as more and more of our private data goes into the cloud, it will be that much easier for bad actors to use it to manipulate us.
I’m no Luddite, though. Obviously these technologies can have positive applications. But it’s foolish to rush to adopt them without carefully considering the ramifications of giving up so much of our personal data. Hence, “Love Engine Optimization,” which to me is a horror story inside a science-fictional mask. I want to scare the hell out of people.
Social media has been lauded as both the savior, and ruination, of modern intimacy. Here you wield the vast potential of social media as a conductor would a baton, grand sweeping gestures laden with intricate details. You have a strong presence on many media platforms. What sort of research did you do to prepare for this story?
I’m a full-stack software developer and work with a lot of different technologies every day. Edward Snowden’s revelations never surprised me, because I saw from the beginning how the open nature of the internet could be abused. The Mirai botnet, for example, one of the largest denial of service attacks in history, which took out a huge chunk of the US internet for nearly a day, was caused by a single person.
And I also read a lot about narcissism. Social media is the narcissist’s medium of choice, because the individual can tailor her image however she wants. Social media gives the illusion of ultimate control over how one is perceived, and to the narcissist, how they are perceived is who they are.
Sam is the ultimate narcissist, incapable of seeing Jane as an individual, with her own needs and desires. Jane exists only as an object to fulfill Sam’s needs. Sam is the ultimate product of modern alienation. You almost feel sorry for her, because you see how incapable she is of finding real human intimacy. This is only partly her fault.
Sam is equal parts genius, entitled loser, resistance fighter, and damaged goods. Not only is she a woman with a solid footing in the computer and social sciences, she is human enough to use her skills for selfish means. When writing, how conscious are you of creating a fully realized character? Do you set out with a clear image in mind, or do certain character traits grow organically from the work itself?
With Sam, I started from the first three sentences, which came to me whole: “I rooted her system on the first day. It was the only way to be sure. Sure that she’d love me.” That set me right off knowing that Sam is (a) ruthless, (b) clever, and (c) desperate. Her character evolved from there. I don’t think characters are very interesting if they are all evil or all good. Even though Sam is using the system to manipulate people, the system also manipulates her. She is as much a victim as she is an abuser. She’s a product of a system that alienates many, especially those that are most intimately connected with it.
Not only are you a prolific writer, you are also an accomplished editor and the co-host for the Fantastic Fiction readings. If you could speak to the up and coming writers of the world, what would you tell them about the benefits of being widely read? How can reading help them grow as writers?
I’ve noticed the greatest improvement in my work after reading works of fiction outside of the genres I write in. But I don’t have an agenda when I read. I pick up whatever interests me at the moment. For some reason this usually means that about every third or fourth book is nonfiction. I would never dare tell others what to read, other than what interests them. But I’ve never felt that limiting one’s breadth of knowledge is a good thing. Why wouldn’t you want to read widely?
And continuing with the question of reading, to whom do you turn when you want to get your genre fiction on? Who keeps you turning the page?
I’m currently reading the graphic novel series Injection and Trees, which I’m enjoying. I also love Kim Stanley Robinson’s and Iain M. Bank’s visionary science fiction. I devour the stories of Jeffrey Ford and Laird Barron. I recently read Never Now Always, a novella by Desirina Boskovich, and loved it. The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma was fantastic. Pretty much whatever I’m reading at the moment is my favorite.
Spread the word!