PC Magazine interviewed Neal Stephenson about his new upcoming book Fall; Or, Dodge in Hell, as well as “the digital afterlife, and why social media is a doomsday machine.” [Possible spoilers ahead]:
The hybrid sci-fi/fantasy novel begins in the present day with Richard “Dodge” Forthrast, an eccentric multibillionaire who made his fortune in the video game industry. When a freak accident during a routine medical procedure leaves him brain-dead, his family is left to contend with his request to have his brain preserved until the technology exists to bring him back to life. The near-future world of Fall is full of familiar buzzwords and concepts. Augmented reality headsets, next-gen wireless networks, self-driving vehicles, facial recognition, quantum computing, blockchain and distributed cryptography all feature prominently. Stephenson also spends a lot of time examining how the internet and social media, which Dodge and other characters often refer to in Fall as the Miasma, is irrevocably changing society and altering the fabric of reality…
Q: How would you describe the current state of the internet? Just in a general sense of its role in our daily lives, and where that concept of the Miasma came from for you.
Neal Stephenson: I ended up having a pretty dark view of it, as you can kind of tell from the book. I saw someone recently describe social media in its current state as a doomsday machine, and I think that’s not far off. We’ve turned over our perception of what’s real to algorithmically driven systems that are designed not to have humans in the loop, because if humans are in the loop they’re not scalable and if they’re not scalable they can’t make tons and tons of money.
The result is the situation we see today where no one agrees on what factual reality is and everyone is driven in the direction of content that is “more engaging,” which almost always means that it’s more emotional, it’s less factually based, it’s less rational, and kind of destructive from a basic civics standpoint… I sort of was patting myself on the back for really being on top of things and predicting the future. And then I discovered that the future was way ahead of me. I’ve heard remarks in a similar vein from other science-fiction novelists: do we even have a role anymore?
Stephenson answered questions from Slashdot’s reader in 2004, and since then has “spent years as an advisor for Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ private space company Blue Origin,” the article points out. He’s also currently the “chief futurist” for Magic Leap — though he tells his interviewer that some ideas go back much further.
Part of his new book builds on “a really old idea” from security researcher Matt Blaze, who in the mid-1990s talked about “Encyclopedia Disinformatica”, which Stephenson describes as “a sort of fake Wikipedia containing plausible-sounding but deliberately false information as a way of sending the message to people that they shouldn’t just believe everything that they see on the internet.”