“Infinite Detail” Imagines an Apocalypse Many of Us Long For
Tim Maughan and Annalee Newitz discuss whether a world without the internet is a dystopia or a utopia
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Tim Maughan is a technology reporter and fiction writer whose first novel, Infinite Detail, is about an apocalypse many of us dream about. A group of radicals in Bristol use a computer virus to destroy the entire internet, sending our hyper-connected society back to the pre-information age. We follow several characters in the U.S. and England as they cope with what often feels like civilizational collapse, and try to rebuild. Angry, keenly observed, and satirical by turns, the novel explores where contemporary digital politics might lead us. I talked with Tim over the internet, using a device he’s destroyed in his novel, to talk about political science fiction, smart cities, and why dystopia has hope at its core.
Annalee Newitz: As I was reading this novel I kept thinking of the term “cyber-communism.” There are a lot of little strands of cyberpunk in this novel, but it’s really quite different from what’s gone before in the genre because of this really strong focus on leftist politics that are named as such. These aren’t allegorical politics; they grow out of what’s happening politically right now. What are the kinds of political issues that you wanted to tackle, and how do you see them growing out of current issues?
Tim Maughan: It’s not because I want to be disrespectful to the kinds of science fiction that uses metaphor and tropes to discuss current political issues, because science fiction does that, even inadvertently. But that doesn’t appeal to me as a writer. I do enjoy reading books by [Ursula K.] Le Guin and classic science fiction books that tackled social and political issues through metaphor. But I want to write stuff about now that’s explicitly about now, that is kind of putting that out on the table and saying that this is what I’m doing. William Gibson had a tweet a few years ago, after I had already started this book, and he just summed it up perfectly. He said, cyberpunk isn’t particularly relevant anymore, but the tools that cyberpunk created—those narrative tools—he said he would like to see literature use those tools to explore our current situation. I thought, “Ah, that’s what I’m doing!”
AN: So I want to tease this out a little bit. What are the specific political movements you’re thinking of? We have this autonomous community in Bristol, where we spend a lot of time in the book. Are they anarchists? Are they cyber-communists? How would you describe the politics of that group?
TM: Kind of all of the above, really. And that idea came out of the community that I’ve been knocking around in for the last few years. I get invited to events that are this weird mixture of academics and people who call themselves futurists and artists. And it really came out of seeing artists in Europe, going to events in places like Amsterdam and Berlin, or Eyebeam in New York City where I used to hang around a bit. It was really exciting to see artists engaging with these issues, sometimes in very direct and forthright ways.
A person who is a huge influencer on the ideas behind this is Julian Oliver. He’s a New Zealand artist based in Berlin. A lot of his stuff has to do with jamming the internet, disabling WiFi networks, or replacing WiFi networks with other content in public spaces or in gallery spaces. He did a piece that’s like a remote control tank and you can drive it round and it blocks all the WiFi networks within range. He was trying to get people to confront and look directly at these infrastructures that are affecting and monitoring and essentially controlling them.
That was the core inspiration behind New People’s Republic of Stokes Croft—which is a real thing, I should point out. There is an organization in Bristol on Stokes Croft called the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft who are a local anarchists and community group, who do a lot of work in that area. So part of it was growing up in Bristol and seeing that conflict between community groups and social justice groups and anarchist groups and the local community around them. Because Stokes Croft used to be a very working class and very non-white neighborhood traditionally in Bristol.
AN: Cities themselves become characters in this book, and I love the fact that you have city hackers instead of traditional computer hackers. Of course they’re hacking the internet, too, but it’s ultimately city infrastructure hacking. Bristol does become a kind of character, especially as the novel goes on, as we come to understand how it’s changed and how it’s survived the apocalypse. I wondered if you could talk about why you wanted to really hone in on city hacking as opposed to looking at, let’s say, Twitter or other social media.
TM: I was writing this book for a long time, and it changed thematically early in its conception. I personally became very focused on the concept of smart cities and then looking at and writing critiques of the smart city model. It’s interesting that you talk about the cities as characters because the critique of smart cities that interests me the most is that smart cities are generic solutions. They view cities as problems and that there is a generic, off-the-shelf solution for them. That’s kind of the smart cities philosophy. But cities aren’t all the same, in terms of their communities and conflicts. So partly my aim was to give Bristol, and Brooklyn to a lesser extent, a kind of feeling that it was a unique place and couldn’t be pigeon-holed like that. And secondly, it’s a good literary device to get away from boring hacking scenes. People complain that hacking does not translate to the screen, but it translates to novels even worse now. Anyone who tried to read that terrible Bill Clinton hacking novel that came out last year can tell you that.
AN: Wow, did you actually read that? Good job. [laughter]
TM: No! I didn’t, I didn’t. A friend of mine did, and screen-grabbed lots of pages of it to Twitter and it was like, “Oh my god. I hope my book doesn’t read like this.” Because it’s hard to explain hacking concepts, right? And there’s a couple of times in the novel I have to do an infodump and explain what ransomware is, or what the internet of things and backdoors are. And it’s not fun writing that stuff. It’s very hard to do it.
AN: One of the images that really stuck with me from the novel is quite early on when one of our hacker characters, Rush, is in Brooklyn, and he is helping a homeless guy who’s collecting cans. All the cans have RFID tags, and the guy can’t turn them in for money anymore because he can’t prove that he bought them. So Rush takes basically a magic wand out of his pocket, which is an RFID hacking device—it’s an antenna—and he waves it over the cans and quickly resets all of their IDs. And as you’re reading the scene and imagining it—he looks like a wizard, and he is part of, I think, this strong current in the novel of magic realism, where we’re seeing a lot of characters respond to technology as magic or describing it as magic. They even describe branding as magic. There’s a lot of imagery of magic in the novel, and I wonder why did you want to do that? Is part of your point that we have to have this apocalypse partly because we are getting caught up in seeing this technology as magic, or is magic actually a kind of hopeful way of looking at technology? Tell me all about techno-magic.
TM: Exactly. Yes is the answer to both those things, I think. Some friends of mine, Natalie Kane and Tobias Revell, created a piece of work called Haunted Machines. Their interest is in how technology is perceived in magic, and what the intentions are for that. It’s something that goes back to the Apple catchphrase: “It’s just magic. It just works.” The idea of technology being magic also obscures how it works and where it is in the environment—it gets back to all those issues we have with urban infrastructure, especially surveillance.
What’s important about that scene where Rush is playing the wizard and magically fixing these cans is that the canner Frank doesn’t understand what the hell he’s doing and thinks Rush is crazy, right? And that’s the crux of the book, that this technology affects people who don’t understand it or even know that it exists and then abandons them. I kind of wanted the reader to be introduced to this character of the canner Frank, maybe have some empathy for him or maybe not because he’s a bit old and crotchety and maybe a little bit racist, even, if you read between the lines. But I wanted readers to see that he’s a person who has a role in society who has just been abandoned because of technological progress. And I think the magic thing plays into that. Magic is an interesting way of explaining technology as a metaphor, but it’s also a way of obscuring and denying us understanding of how it works and its implications.
AN: One of the ideas in the book is the radicals have destroyed the internet through what is basically a magical piece of technology. We have this magical reset where we don’t have the internet anymore, and then one of the themes that we see again and again in the book is that even though there has been this huge change, people keep making the same mistakes and trying to rebuild the machines that caused their problems in the first place. This fits in with your idea of magic, because it appears that we never really understand what the problems were in the first place.
TM: Yes, exactly. And it’s that lack of understanding about what we’re doing that leads to [the radicals] not having a plan for afterwards.
AN: Yeah, that was so interesting to me. I wonder if you could talk about that idea of not having a plan for afterwards.
TM: So, as I was coming towards finishing the book, I wasn’t quite sure how to tie it up at the end and I knew I wanted to make a point about failed revolutions and stuff. Around that time, Astra Taylor wrote this fantastic article for The Baffler called “Against Activism.” It was about the difference between activism and organizing, and it was just brilliant. Everything clicked into place, and I said, “This is what the ending of my book needs to be about.” Protesting is important, it’s vital, it’s empowering, but without organization alongside it, without long-term organization, it doesn’t often count for much. A similar argument was made by Adam Curtis in his last film. He makes the argument that in the sixties, a lot of bourgeois white people dedicated their lives to the civil rights movement. They dropped out of their careers, they turned their academic and legal practices over to just the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. Because they were able to have the white privilege to go to do that. But he argues that now, because of network culture, we’ve moved away from that. You can easily be involved in protests, but it doesn’t have a lot of the same long-term impact.
I was at an event giving a reading last year, and someone asked, “Do you consider yourself an activist?” I said no partly because of Astra Taylor. I’m not an activist. I write fiction, which is an incredibly selfish and narcissistic thing to do. Real activists, real organizers, dedicate their lives to these issues and I think that’s a really important distinction to make. In the Curtis documentary, he talks about “Occupy” a lot and how “Occupy” was incredibly exciting at the time. I was back in the U.K. when it was happening but little Occupy movements were springing up over there and it was very exciting to see people come together and kind of give up their lives to a certain extent. But the lack of focus and organization beyond that is why it didn’t work. That’s the argument Adam Curtis makes. I wouldn’t want to be as dismissive to Occupy as he probably is, but what he says rings true to the larger extent. Occupy is criticized a lot for not having a firm set of demands. And what came next? Well, what came next was a few people, the leaders of the movement, have lucrative speaking careers or work at Google. So I kind of wanted to tap into that a little bit and say, “Look, it’s exciting for us to have moments we can participate in activism through the internet, but unless we have a long term plan about what we want to see as a replacement for it, it’s almost as useful as being apathetic.”
AN: I want to circle back to something that you said just earlier. You said fiction is navel-gazing. But at the same time, you’re saying, well the problem of these movements is that they want to tear something down, but they don’t have this long term plan. Don’t you think fiction is part of the process of coming up with the long term plan? You first have to imagine something coming next. You can’t—
TM: Yeah, I think you’re right. And the aim of the book wasn’t to do that specifically, but it is there, right in the very end, on the final pages. Spoiler alert! I think there’s a glimmer of hope in this book. There’s a glimmer of hope in all my stuff. I get called dystopian a lot which is a term I don’t feel particularly comfortable with.
AN: Yeah, I always tell people it’s more like “topian.” There’s some good and some bad, just like the present. [laughter]
TM: Yes, exactly. I think that there’s a glimmer of hope in dystopia from the start if you’re going to use that term. Dystopias are always about someone trying to push back against the system even if they fail and that is hopeful. Dystopias are about imagining change because the characters are trying to imagine something different to what’s being presented. So yeah, I think fiction’s incredibly important in doing that and, like you say, it’s a really good structure for exercises about alternate futures. Will I write one specifically like that? I don’t know, maybe. I might have a book somewhere down the pipeline that’s almost explicitly doing that but right now it feels like the urgency is on pointing out problems. The point of Infinite Detail is that it’s vital that we have alternatives.