Episode 17: Transcript
Our Opinions Are Correct, Episode 17: Democracy and its discontents
Transcribed by: Keffy Kehrli
Charlie Jane: [00:00:00] Welcome to Our Opinions Are Correct. I’m Charlie Jane Anders. I’m a science fiction writer who obsesses about science.
Annalee: [00:00:08] And I’m Annalee Newitz. I’m a science journalist who writes science fiction.
Charlie Jane: [00:00:11] And today we’re going to be talking about democracy. With the midterm elections coming up on November 6th, we thought it was a good time to just kind of talk about how democracy is portrayed in science fiction. Why is so much science fiction skeptical or cynical or satirical about democracy, and what kind of models does science fiction offer for how we could possibly do democracy better?
We even talked to Malka Older, author of Infomocracy and the Centenal Cycle about how she portrays democracy in her work.
[00:00:39] Intro music plays: Drums with a bass drop and more science fictional bells and percussion.
Annalee: [00:01:04] So, before we get started, we have some exciting news, which is that we finally launched a Patreon, which you can donate to, because you may not realize this, but we are paying for all of the production of this ourselves. We’re paying for the hosting, we’re paying for transcription. So, we love doing this for you, we love talking to you every fortnight but we also think it would be nice if we could break even, and maybe make a little money at some point. So, you can visit our Patreon. We’re at patreon.com/OurOpinionsAreCorrect. There’s tons of extras that we’ll be giving you every fortnight, including audio extras and essays and recommendations and you should check it out and I hope that you become our patron. Which means that we’ll be in some sort of neo-medieval democratization of arts patronage.
[00:01:58] All right, so back to our regularly scheduled program. We’re talking today about democracy and one of the things that is interesting is that there’s certain themes that seem to come up again and again in science fiction where it seems like we don’t like democracy very much. There’s a lot of examples of science fiction that is kind of crapping on democracy.
Charlie Jane: [00:02:22] Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting because I think that a lot of science fiction is very suspicious of the establishment, which for most of the history of science fiction, it’s been written by people living in a democracy of one sort or another, and there’s a lot of suspicion of democracy, there’s a lot of cynicism about it, and there’s a lot of satirical science fiction that kind of pokes at the idea of democracy. We talked before about, before recording the episode, about how there’s a lot of British scifi in particular that takes democracy and kind of looks askance at it.
[00:02:54] For example, I’ve got a clip here from an episode of The Prisoner called “Free For All” where basically—in The Prisoner, number six played by Patrick McGoohan is this spy who’s been kidnapped and taken to this sort of idyllic fake utopia society where they’re trying to break him to get him to reveal his secrets. And one of the ways that they try to break him is by getting him to run for election to be in charge and then he finally has this breakdown and is like, “This is all a horrible sham.”
The Prisoner Clip: [00:03:23] This… farce. This 20th century Bastille that pretends to be a pocket democracy. Why don’t you put us all into solitary confinement and you’ll get what you’re after and have done with it.
Charlie Jane: [00:03:38] You can’t beat Patrick McGoohan’s delivery of scornful, like, “This…”
Annalee: [00:03:45] Also—
Charlie Jane: [00:03:45] “…sham of democracy.”
Annalee: [00:03:46] Yeah, also, I love the 1960s music. Like, the show is so ‘60s, um.
Charlie Jane: [00:03:53] It’s incredibly ‘60s.
Annalee: [00:03:54] It’s amazing how… it may not have aged well, but I think it’s always going to be in our hearts.
Charlie Jane: [00:03:58] Yeah.
Annalee: [00:03:59] And then, you were talking also about more contemporary stuff like Black Mirror and Doctor Who.
Charlie Jane: [00:04:04] Yeah, so like, Black Mirror has a famous episode called The Waldo Moment where basically this guy, this out of work actor becomes the embodiment of this cartoon bear who ends up poking fun at politicians and actually running for election. And here’s just a brief snipped of the moment where Waldo is confronting the labor and conservative politicians and basically telling them they’re completely fake.
Black Mirror Clip: [00:04:30] You’re a joke. You look less human than I do, and I’m a made-up bear with a turquoise cock.
Who are you? You’re just an old attitude with new hair, assuming you’re my superior because I’m not taking you seriously. No one takes you seriously. That’s why no one votes!
Annalee: [00:04:49] The thing I love about this episode is that it’s about how this actor comes up with this meme—he’s actually a comedian—this blue bear meme, and he’s using it to make fun of the political establishment, but then the bear, Waldo, becomes a meme that’s weaponized by this authoritarian government that slowly takes over during the course of the episode. And at one point, there’s this scene that is just burned into my brain where the comedian meets with some Americans from a three letter agency. We never really know which agency it is. Is it the CIA? Is it the NSA? We don’t know. But they’re asking if they can pay him to have his meme to use it for political ends, and we don’t know what they are or how that will happen, but by the end of the episode, spoilers, we do find out and it’s really dark. And I think it’s this—it’s interesting because it’s a typical Black Mirror episode in that it’s all about how social critique, or the critique of democracy, can be taken away and can be turned into its exact opposite. So, it starts as a critique and then it becomes a weapon of the establishment.
Charlie Jane: [00:06:05] Yeah, and it’s very prescient. It, even more than most Black Mirror episodes, it’s very prescient about the ways in which cynicism about democracy was weaponized to destabilized democracy, and you know, in the wake of the 2016 election, and with the 2018 election coming up very, very soon, it’s easy to be cynical right now. It’s easy to sort of see how the main vulnerability in democracy is that people can be hoodwinked, they’re vulnerable to propaganda, which we talked a lot about in the propaganda and mind control episode. People can be controlled and like you mentioned, there’s a Doctor Who episode called “Vengeance on Varos” from the 1980s, where basically there is like a kind of sham democracy where the guy in charge has to run for reelection every once in a while and he doesn’t actually have any real power. He’s not able to offer people any solutions to their problems, but they still get to vote for or against him, and it’s not meaningful because the next guy will face exactly the same lack of power, the same lack of ability to solve anything. And, if they vote against him, he gets electrocuted, and so… it’s very British satire, and it’s like if he gets electrocuted too many times then he dies and somebody else gets to take over. But that’s how it works is that the guy in charge, just like every time he loses a confidence motion from the voters he gets zapped, and burned to a crisp. And it’s really dark and satirical, and there’s a whole thing about how they reuse basically reality TV to distract people from how shitty everything is. It’s super interesting.
[00:07:35] And then, in the United States, you’ve got the classic Cyril Kornbluth story, The Marching Morons, which is basically about a future where because stupid people breed more than smart people allegedly, you end up with a future 500 years from now where like, almost everybody is stupid except for a tiny elite and this guy who’s been put in suspended animation shows up and can basically take over because he’s from the past and he’s smarter. And then, there’s the movie Idiocracy, which has much the same idea except that there isn’t even a smart elite in that version, and it’s sort of this eugenics fantasy of like, because of interbreeding among stupid people, we’re going to end up with like, a stupid species. Like, humans are going to become stupid.
Annalee: [00:08:15] And Idiocracy has become this huge cult favorite in the United States. Lots of people love it, it was written and directed by Mike Judge who went on to do Silicon Valley and a bunch of other popular shows. And so, it’s become something that progressives use to criticize democracy, which, as you said, it’s really a fantasy about eugenics. It’s really a right-wing fantasy. And, let’s not forget that Idiocracy is about—it came out in 2006 and it was about what happens to America under a black president, and the black president is the dumbest of them all, and the only ones who can save them are this white couple who come from the past and are going to start breeding smart people again. It’s a pretty creepy fantasy when you look at it from that perspective.
Charlie Jane: [00:09:02] But yeah, so it’s easy to be cynical and kind of like poke at the downside of democracy, which there is clearly a downside and clearly fear and anxiety and paranoia can be weaponized by the political class to get a lot of people to vote against their own self-interest. And that’s been talked about again and again. It feels like in science fiction, there’s kind of a reflexive like, almost at times lazy cynicism about democracy without having a better alternative. I guess the alternative would be some kind of like elite scientific class of people who govern on behalf of everybody else.
[00:09:37] And, indeed, when we see an advanced society in science fiction, like when we meet advanced aliens on Star Trek, or when we meet advanced creatures, they frequently are ruled by some kind of council of wise, bearded, white dudes or something.
Annalee: [00:09:53] Or, robots.
Charlie Jane: [00:09:53] Or robots. And when we kind of have societies like, I guess the Federation is supposed to be democratic, but it’s never really clear how. When we have societies that are supposed to be advanced, it’s always sort of just hand-waved and Star Wars there’s allegedly there’s this democratic Republic that at the start of the prequels is still in place, but then the prequels are about how basically democracy fails. And Jar Jar Binks gets elected to the senate, and immediately spearheads the drive to launch a dictatorship by the evil emperor guy. And it’s basically democracy is screwed because it’s inherently unsustainable.
Annalee: [00:10:33] Well, and also, even in, say the Federation in Star Trek and then of course the Senate in Star Wars. There’s all these weird ways that people aren’t really elected. In Star Wars, with the Senate, like why is Amidala there? I mean, she’s not an elected official, right? She’s like a princess or a queen or she’s some kind of aristocrat, like I don’t think that her planet elected her princess. I don’t get that sense. I mean, maybe we did in which case that’s kind of awesome. I love the idea that you could be elected Princess and I don’t know, you get something sparkly at the end. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on.
[00:11:07] I wanted to return to a little bit of what we were talking about before with the idea that democracy is a sham and that the people who elect our officials are basically idiots or morons. And I feel like the movie Wag the Dog, which isn’t precisely scifi, but it is kind of scifi, is like almost the perfect distillation of the kind of American version of this.
[00:11:31] So, the plot of Wag the Dog is basically that the president has had some kind of sex scandal. It came out right before Clinton’s dress stain sex scandal, but it had nothing to do with that, it was obviously made long before. So, the president’s having a sex scandal, and his advisors decide to create a fake war to distract the voting public from worrying about who the president has been sleeping with. And so, Dustin Hoffman plays a Hollywood producer who’s hired to invent a war. And so, we have a clip here from a scene where he’s talking to Robert DeNiro, who’s one of the staffers for the president, and they’re talking about making that war.
Wag the Dog Clip: [00:12:15] Dustin Hoffman: You want me to produce your war?
Robert DeNiro: Not a war, it’s a pageant. We need a theme, a song, some visuals. We need, you know, it’s a pageant.
Dustin Hoffman: It’s… it’s a pageant.
Robert DeNiro: It’s a pageant. That’s what it is.
Dustin Hoffman: Country’s at war.
Robert DeNiro: It’s Miss America and you’re Bert Parks.
Dustin Hoffman: Why Albanian?
Robert DeNiro: Because.
Dustin Hoffman: They have to have something we want.
Robert DeNiro: Well, I’m sure they do.
Dustin Hoffman: What do we have that they want?
Robert DeNiro: Oh, freedom?
Dustin Hoffman: Well, why would they want that?
Robert DeNiro: They’re oppressed?
Dustin Hoffman: No, no, no, no. Fuck freedom. They want to destroy the godless Satan of the United—they want to destroy our way of life, all right? Albanian terrorists have placed a suitcase bomb in Canada in an attempt to infiltrate the bomb into the USA.
Robert DeNiro: Oh, that’s good.
Charlie Jane: [00:12:52] Yeah, and talking about weaponized cynicism, and the idea that becoming more cynical about politics leads to less democracy, I feel like that movie is a perfect example, because it’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy of this idea that the more people believe that our leaders are just making stuff happen in order to distract us, trying to confuse us with fake threats, the more leaders will feel like they should just go ahead and do those things because people are expecting it anyway, and some people will buy it, and why not? It’s sort of like a weirdly… it’s almost circular logic in a way.
Annalee: [00:13:30] Yeah, and it’s so telling in that clip, actually, from Black Mirror where the bear is making fun of the politician by saying, this is why nobody votes. And it’s like, this is why nobody votes. Because they think that their politicians are like, literally memes or that they are just putting on a stage show and it’s like, instead of voting, why not just pay to go see your politician giving a show or—it’s really that kind of cynicism that does wreck democracy and we see it in our fiction and of course we’re seeing it in real life now, too.
[00:14:03] There’s all of this cynicism in science fiction around democracy and there’s all of this anxiety that even when democracy works the electorate itself is broken. And that there’s something wrong with them. They’re either stupid or they’re too cynical, or there’s too many women, or… depending on what perspective you’re taking in your scifi. But, I feel like there’s also a new wave now in science fiction of writers and filmmakers challenging the idea that democracy is dead and trying to either reinvent it, or think about what will happen to democracy in the future. And, what do you think about that? Do you think that we are seeing kind of a rejuvenation of interest in that?
Charlie Jane: [00:14:46] I mean, I think it goes along with the idea that we don’t have to just tell dystopian stories. Like, dystopian stories have a value in kind of helping us to confront the worst-case scenario, helping us to imagine surviving the worst-case scenario, like we’ve talked about before. But, dystopias are inherently based on a really grim view of human nature where we’re all basically just like Hobbesian, nasty, brutish, and short, selfish creatures who will rip each other’s heads off for a chocolate bar or whatever, or half a chocolate bar, and that we’re basically the worst version of primates. Or something.
Annalee: [00:15:23] That we’re like a virus on the face of the planet. Like, as if viruses are so bad, like they…
Charlie Jane: [00:15:28] Yeah, viruses are…
Annalee: [00:15:30] They jumpstarted evolution, come on. Let’s…
Charlie Jane: [00:15:32] They cooperate. They’re often very friendly.
Annalee: [00:15:34] Let’s be the friends of viruses.
Charlie Jane: [00:15:34] A lot of viruses are really good for humans. I think that, you know…
Annalee: [00:15:38] We’ve got a lot of viral DNA in our genome. So, yeah.
Charlie Jane: [00:15:41] Exactly. We should be grateful to viruses
[00:15:44] But yeah, so, there’s this—it basically comes down to your view of human nature and whether humans can be cooperative, whether we can rise above our differences, whether we can actually overcome things like racism and xenophobia, which are often the ways that people are turned into kind of negative, angry version of the electorate. The kind of mob version of the electorate. I feel like there have been stories like Walkaway by Cory Doctorow, we’ve talked about on a few episodes where basically it’s a version of the future where people are kind of anarchist, but kind of cooperative, and kind of like working together. I feel like there’s been a little mini-renaissance in anarchist science fiction recently with people like Margaret Killjoy, also writing a lot of anarchist stories. And there are a bunch of classic stories like The Door into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski, which is about a kind of peaceful society of amphibious people who have collective decision making and kind of live in harmony. And there’s also The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin, which kind of offers a flawed, it even says, an ambiguous utopia. It’s a flawed, but still idealistic and kind of encouraging, optimistic version of anarchism and collective decision making on the moon where all the anarchists live. Which I think is Urras.
Annalee: [00:17:00] And there’s also Margie Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, classic ‘70s feminist scifi, where in the future, you have—it’s a kind of anarchist democracy, where people are living in a sort of stable state ecological utopia, and even non-human animals are kind of included in decision making. There’s a character who kind of talks to her cat about housing issues and so it’s very beautiful and they’ve done things in that world, like figure out ways to have men breast feed and to kind of reallocate domestic labor and things like that. So, it’s very utopian.
[00:17:42] I am a fan of Tobias Buckell’s novel Sly Mongoose which is part of a larger series, but it’s definitely stand-alone. He imagines a democratic society where everyone has a brain implant and they can collectively do decision making and voting just like right from their brain. And he definitely does not represent it as being a perfect system, but it’s just another way of approaching how do you get a mass of people to agree to things when, in fact, you need to be making decisions every second in a sense to have your society continue functioning. Like, how do you do that? Which is a question that we ask in the United States all the time. I think there’s a way in which science fiction invites us to think about the possibilities for making decisions in a group, in a way that doesn’t lead to disaster or incredible conflict.
[00:18:41] And we see this also in fantasy novels, which I feel like we haven’t really touched on a lot, but I think in some ways in fantasy where you see sort of magical creatures that are inhabiting the same space as humans, there’s all of these hints at the idea that there’s way different types of government that are out there, and they could be explored. And, of course, Max Gladstone does that a lot in his work where we see sort of magical systems of government.
Charlie Jane: [00:19:09] And what about 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson? Doesn’t he sort of depict a potential democratic future?
Annalee: [00:19:15] Yeah, I think he’s imagining a democratic future. He’s imagining kind of a future UN. It’s interesting because he uses the same kind of landscape, or I should say, planetscape as The Expanse. It’s the sort of—basically the same kind of volume of space that’s being affected. But, of course, The Expanse, it is also nominally a kind of democracy, but it’s sort of the worst-case scenario. Whereas in 2312, lots of terrible things have happened, but people are making an effort to try to, say, remediate the problems of climate change. And one of the things that’s a huge theme in Robinson’s work is the idea that when we have dramatic climate disasters, planetary disasters like that, then it becomes an opportunity for people to reimagine their relationships with each other and form new kinds of communities and new kinds of groups to just deal with an engineering problem. Which is: how do you get Florida back up out of the ocean. One of the most dramatic moments in 2312 is when this group that has been working for, I think centuries, at least decades on the problem of raising Florida out of the water again succeeds, and they’re finally able to do it using a combination of biotechnology and regular technology. And they’re also doing things like re-wilding the mid-west by growing wolves inside of asteroids and then shooting them to earth. Which is another great scene, actually.
Charlie Jane: [00:20:49] That is awesome.
Annalee: [00:20:49] It sounds bizarre but it’s actually just a beautiful scene. And, I think, again, that’s one of the things that science fiction can do, is remind us that the ways that we come together as groups and as political entities don’t have to be tied to the nation-state. They can be tied to things like, planetary protection. They can be tied to a political notion that has nothing to do with nationalism. It could be tied to, like I said, ecological remediation. It can be tied to the idea of gender equality, or anarchism.
Charlie Jane: [00:21:22] And I think my final thought about this is that it’s easy to tell stories about democracy being broken. It’s easy to tell stories where everything sucks and the system is messed up and the mass of humanity is basically irredeemably terrible.
Annalee: [00:21:37] And dumb.
Charlie Jane: [00:21:38] And dumb. And it’s easy to kind of— because that’s a kind of story that we’re very familiar with and it’s a fun kind of individual versus society kind of story to tell. And, it plays to all of our biases and also it’s a very easy story to tell because there’s an easy conflict that you can put in there. And, it’s much harder to tell optimistic stories and stories in which society isn’t entirely broken and there are problems but we do address them, and we can work together. And I think that, you know, some of the best authors have actually turned their minds to trying to imagine how people can work together. I think that that’s something that is one strand in science fiction alongside the kind of cynical, satirical strand of like, we’re screwed and everything’s terrible. I think it’s… it’s possible, it’s doable. It requires more faith in human nature, and also maybe more storytelling ingenuity to make it work. But it can be done and it has been done.
Annalee: [00:22:32] Absolutely. And I think that both in reality and in fiction, it’s easier to destroy a democracy than it is to build one. And, that’s why, like you said, it’s, people are attracted to stories where everything is falling apart because that’s an easy story to tell, but the worldbuilding required, again, both in reality and in fiction to really imagine and jumpstart something that is a democratic process or a democratic group, that is the hard work, and that is what we are trying to do in a lot of these stories that we’ve been talking about.
[00:23:09] I get so upset at stories that dismiss all of humanity as being stupid. Because, like you said, it just plays to all of our biases and what if we actually admit that we don’t even know how to define intelligence anyway, and also, that humanity is incredibly varied and that we’re gonna have a future that’s weirder than we ever thought, and let’s try to build structures—imaginary structures that could maybe hold humanity and hold us together, as a group and not drive us apart.
Charlie Jane: [00:23:41] Yeah, I think humanity is a mass of contradictions. We’re capable of being incredibly selfless and idealistic, and we’re also capable of being incredibly selfish and cruel, and we contain both. And we need stories that recognize that, and that don’t just default to the most negative version. I think that one of the reasons why I’m kind of tired of the rash of apocalyptic stories we’ve had is that always after the apocalypse we end up with some form of governance where it’s basically like the strong man, the tribe, the survivalist, where like the toughest guy is in charge. Usually, an actual guy.
Annalee: [00:24:14] Usually a white guy.
Charlie Jane: [00:24:15] Yeah, usually a white guy, and it’s like… we need the one cop on The Walking Dead to like be in charge and tell us where to go. And like—
Annalee: [00:24:22] Totally.
Charlie Jane: [00:24:22] --how to survive the zombies.
Annalee: [00:24:23] Or on Lost… it’s the same thing on Lost where it’s like the White Guy who will unite us all against the island or whatever.
Charlie Jane: [00:24:30] Yeah. Against the Tailies and the Others and I don’t even know.
Annalee: [00:24:33] And everything. All the stuff. Yeah, exactly. That’s why, you know, Octavia Butler’s post-apocalyptic series, The Parable of the Sower and The Parable of the Talents is a great kind of rejoinder to these stories. Because it is about reimagining democracy through spirituality, actually, through the invention of a new religion founded by a black woman, and it’s about people who are trying to have egalitarian groups and egalitarian societies in the wake of an apocalyptic event.
[00:25:02] I also just read a great novel by Carrie Vaughn called Bannerless which is similarly a post-apocalyptic story set in California just like the Octavia Butler series that I mentioned, and that’s also about building a new democracy along what I think is supposed to be old 101 freeway maybe. It’s a long and old road, and it’s a group of people who are united by culture but also they have a kind of connected law enforcement group. And so the way that they kind of articulate their connectedness is that they all adhere to certain laws. And the laws have to do with things like, not hoarding food, and having a sustainable relationship with the ecosystem. It’s like all things that are nice. It’s basically an agrarian society, but it’s a great book. And it is difficult. It’s hard to imagine that world, and I fel like Vaughn did a really good job.
Charlie Jane: [00:25:54] One of the authors who is doing the most to imagine the future of democracy is Malka Older who wrote the Centenal series, which starts with Infomocracy. And that takes place in a future where basically she has what’s called micro-democracy, which, how does that work?
Annalee: [00:26:11] So, the reason why this series is called The Centenal series is because these micro-democracy areas are tiny groups of 100,000 people, hence Centenal, for a hundred. They’re each their own kind of mini-state, and they elect their own party to run that mini-state and then there are global elections where they elect a party that runs the entire world. There are political units at different levels. So there’s the global level and then there’s these hyper-local levels of the centenal. And what it allows is a world where you have incredible diversity of political systems and political parties, ranging from hardcore authoritarian fascism to eco-topian feminist anarchy. All of those are—may even be right along side each other. Like, you might cross the street into a new centenal, and suddenly you’re subject to whole new set of laws and regulations. But the idea is that it creates much greater freedom and it creates the ability for all of the globe to work together and it’s all kind of held together by a Google-like organization that provides information to people and manages elections.
So, the whole trilogy is about a crisis when election security is compromised in one of the global elections and so it’s very—very prescient. She wrote it before 2016, but she was clearly thinking about these issues. And the thing that’s really interesting about Malka Older is that she’s worked for many many years as a human rights worker and is in fact an academic who writes about these issues, and so, she based the Centenal idea, the micro-democracy idea on things that she had seen while working in the field in areas where conflict was creating huge problems for human rights and for kind of political stability.
Charlie Jane: [00:28:10] Yeah, and I was lucky enough to catch up with Malka at the Baltimore Book Festival a while back and I talked to her about these issues, and here’s what she had to tell us.
[00:28:17] Segment change music plays. Drums with a bass line including bass drops.
Charlie Jane: [00:28:30] First of all, where did you get the idea for micro-democracy, and how did that come together for you?
Malka: [00:28:34] So, it was something that came out of a lot of time about thinking about certain problems that were just coming up again and again. Kind of the big one for me was secessionist movements. Like, I just lived and worked in a lot of different places where people were fighting desperately to not be a part of the country they were in and the countries were fighting desperately to keep them there. I mean, it was a huge problem in a lot of these places, and it was also sort of something that after a while you start to think, why is this going on? Why is this causing so many lives and so much damage and just—particularly in the places, and there are a lot of them, that are nominally democracies but they won’t let people choose not to be a part of their country. Just as most of them don’t let people choose to be a part of their country if they want to. So, I was thinking a lot about that, and I was also looking at things like, after presidential elections in the United States, the granularity of the data that we have, that lets us do the pink and blue dots, really at the county and zip code level. And looking at how we have these different countries within a country.
Charlie Jane: [00:29:34] Is your idea basically that the ideal—like, your kind of utopian solution is just more democracy and more granular democracy?
Malka: [00:29:41] I wouldn’t want to call it utopian, because a lot of what my books are about is kind of exploring the places where this goes wrong as well as the places where it works out better than what we have now. Without thinking about it as a utopian thing, I do think that we need to take steps and that we can take steps to improve our democracies. And to also, sort of move beyond some of the path dependency and some of the assumptions and the concepts that we’ve gotten stuck in in this nation-state system that was developed in a very different time both technologically and socially.
Charlie Jane: [00:30:13] Do you think that the nation state is part of the problem?
Malka: [00:30:15] Yes.
Charlie Jane: [00:30:16] It’s like, this enlightenment concept.
Malka: [00:30:19] I think it’s a step. You know, the nation state was kind of a step from where things were before that and the idea of being able to coalesce, particularly when you look at modern nation states like the United States or Australia or Canada, where there was an idea about coalescing around something that wasn’t an inborn identity, whether that was ethnic or religious or linguistic or whatever.
[00:30:42] I think that there was some kind of moving forward about that, but it’s also stuck in this idea that you do have to have a people that kind of match the geographic borders, and that’s so—it’s something that was accomplished to a certain extent, to the extent that it ever was, was accomplished by lots of ethnic cleansing and getting rid of all the Huguenots and also conquering other pieces of the territory to make things fit, and kicking people out and killing ppl. So, you know, the way that it got even to be something that could be aspirational was also horrible. And then it’s also extremely unrealistic to imagine that that would ever stay still. I mean, even when you get to something that people feel like is, oh, a nation state and we have a people and we have a territory. It doesn’t stay still. People move, people change. Demographics are constantly shifting. So, to try and cling to this unrealistic idea is both futile and has just caused so much of the misery over the past century and a half.
Charlie Jane: [00:31:33] So, the granularity you mentioned of the pink and blue dots and everything… you know, what that’s mostly been used for is to kind of hack voting and do things like extreme gerrymandering, and extreme targeting of voters through Facebook to the micro level of like exactly who the most racist person in every county is, we’re gonna reach that person.
Malka: [00:31:54] And then all their friends.
Charlie Jane: [00:31:56] Do you still have hope that that kind of super-granular information and that super-granular awareness of voters can be used for good?
Malka: [00:32:04] Sure, because I think at the same time that it’s used for that, it’s also used for activism, and it’s also used for other ways of trying to bring things together or activate democracy in a better way than it is right now. But you know, I really think, too, that to use that what we need to do is try to change the rules and change the incentives. So, it’s not about using that granularity to win a vote that is much larger than that, but structured in a way so that that granularity is useful to people in a manipulative and very specific way that’s based on those rules and every primary has different rules and the way that people use it in each state is different, and it’s all about this very elaborate system that we’ve developed and then after developing kind of assumed that that’s the way it has to be. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can—there are ways to divide districts that are much less prone to gerrymandering. There are ways that we could vote in a representative of in a tiered way that would make more sense. There’s lots of different options that we can look at to improve our democracies and our governance more broadly, and that’s why I think that speculative fiction, whether it’s science fiction or fantasy, is so important to think about these different ways and to not get stuck in the system that we’re in.
Charlie Jane: [00:33:14] And is there other speculative fiction besides yours that you’ve seen kind of wrestling with these issues?
Malka: [00:33:19] Tons. Tons. I mean, I think it’s something that’s getting particularly popular now. And, maybe it always has been. You can look back and look at, like Octavia Butler was certainly thinking about different kinds of governance and some of the challenges that we’re facing right now. I think that Ada Palmer’s work, Max Gladstone’s work, Seth Dickinson. They’re thinking about the ways that governments are representative. They’re thinking about the ways people fight against governments that are not responding to what people need. They’re thinking about the different power structures that reinforce those governments or allow them to change. So, I think there is a lot of thinking going on around that right now.
[00:33:55] You know, I was asked from like a podcast or something that I did, if there were any other examples I could think of of like, happy democratic fiction, and there’s not a lot. I think it’s really hard to find stuff that explores how democracy works because I think we tend to think of democracy as like the happy ending. Once we get it, we’re done. And so then you either have a choice of being kind of cynical about it and saying, “Oh, it’s not really happy, it’s all a mess. It’s a sham.” Or, you know, okay, we’ve kicked authoritarianism, we’re in democracy, it’s over. We’ve reached our evolutionary potential. And that’s really a problem, because that’s how we get stuck thinking, “Oh, it’s democratic, it’s okay. We just need to sit out these four years.” And that’s not true. There’s so many different ways we could be doing democracy, even relatively close to the system we have. Like, there are very small changes we could make that would make a huge difference in the results, or we could really go radical and do something that was—you know, use the technology that we have now. Use the society that we have now to come up with a system that really functions better for everyone.
Charlie Jane: [00:34:55] It’s funny, because science fiction particularly as a genre is all about this heroic individual most of the time, and the mass of people are stupid and brutish and sheep and so the idea that you would want a system of government where the mass actually decides, I feel like there’s just innate suspicion to that in the DNA of science fiction kind of.
Malka: [00:35:17] It’s amazing that democracy is still a radical idea. When you think about, like, real democracy, which we don’t have right now, it’s a radical idea to think—and we come up against that, I think, every time we have an election that doesn’t go our way, we think, is this—can we really trust people? Do we really want our future to be decided by the people in this country, and it’s a hard problem. Especially where we are right now. But, it’s still, you know, there’s a famous quote about it’s the worst system except for all the others, you know. So far, we haven’t come up with anything that works better, and people have tried meritocracies, sort of. And people have tried other ways that sort of sound good and they don’t really seem to work out very well. So, you know, I think we have to consider—I mean, for me I think what’s really important with democracy is considering that we—there are other pieces that are required, like education and information. And we tend to think that like, oh no, you let everybody vote and then it’s fine. And then get upset when people don’t have the information they need to make good choices. We need to think a bit more as a complete system. And yeah, in science fiction, like most of the other genres, there is this tendency to have a single hero. There is a tendency for like, the crisis moment—we have the shapes of these stories really engrained in ourselves after hearing them all our lives. And so, you know, it’s important that we have people who can think in different ways and write stories with different shapes and write ensemble pieces.
[00:36:46] I was just talking to someone in a meeting last week about how American stories tend to be the single hero and then there are other cultures that are more used to having ensemble stories, and how much a difference that makes. Not just in our fiction, but even in stuff like writing whether it’s long form or reporting. They were talking about the way people report on these movements and how this idea of the leaderless movement and how shocking that is, and how that’s a problem for Occupy or whoever else because they’re so unused to seeing something happen without a single leader. And then, they have to find someone and do a profile of them, because that’s the only way that they know how to write a feature length piece about a movement is to find characters. And, you know, it’s normal. We identify with characters. We want to have a person we can look at and think about. But it’s also a weakness in the way we think about how some of these things are happening.
Charlie Jane: [00:37:34] What do you wish you could see more of in science fiction in terms of like wonky kind of storytelling, or in terms of approaches to democracy?
Malka: [00:37:42] I mean, I’m all about the wonkiness. So, I will definitely—like I want there to be a story, and I want there to be fun and adventure and interpersonal relationships of all sorts of kinds, but I love hearing—I love stories like some of the people I mentioned already. Seth, and Max, who write stuff that’s really wonky and really has these interesting thoughts about the way different policies have secondary and tertiary and just these long chains of results of the way people act based on these sort of policies that exist. So, I would love to see more of that. And I’d love to see more really wacky out there crazy ideas of governance. I think we need to think about things that are very radical and different, because that’s how we get to incremental change as well.
Charlie Jane: [00:38:22] Okay, cool. Thank you.
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Charlie Jane: [00:38:36] So, for our final segment of the episode: What I’m obsessed with. Annalee, what are you obsessed with this week?
Annalee: [00:38:41] I am still obsessed with a conversation that I had a couple of weeks ago at ARS Technica Live, which is a series that I do here in the Bay Area in Oakland at Eli’s Mile High Club. And I had a conversation on stage with Alex Stamos who used to be the chief security officer at Facebook, and was there when they discovered the Russian election meddling. And he’s sense become an academic and researcher at Stanford. So, he’s kind of devoted his life now to studying a lot of the issues that he saw first-hand. And the thing that was so interesting about my conversation with my him, which, we’ll put a link to it in the show notes. I highly recommend you check it out. He wanted to think about how the government could intervene next time to prevent something like Russian meddling from happening, and he had this really interesting way of talking about social media platforms that I thought was very clarifying.
And he said, look. When you think about something like Facebook or Twitter or YouTube, you have to think of it as a stack of three different products. The bottom of the stack is just like you existing on the network. Like, you’re a user, you’re talking on Facebook, you’re talking on YouTube, whatever. The second level of the stack is like recommendation engines. So, that’s like your timeline on Facebook, it’s like YouTube recommendations. It’s like whatever is putting content in front of your face. And then, at the top of the stack is advertising, and that’s giving people access to tools to target people.
[00:40:14] And he said that for him, he always wants to start regulation at the top of the stack, because he thinks the further up the stack you go, the less you are concerned about free speech. Because if you’re taking away people’s abilities to use incredibly powerful tools to target people with advertising, that’s very very different than going to the bottom of the stack and talking about who’s allowed to say what. Who’s allowed to be on the platform. And so, I had never thought of it quite that way, and I thought it was just a really helpful way of thinking about how does free speech fit into this and where do we go to regulate it.
[00:40:50] And so, if you want to hear about that and more, definitely check out the latest episode of ARS Technica Live with Alex Stamos.
What are you obsessed with this fortnight?
Charlie Jane: [00:40:58] So, I’ve been obsessively watching a cartoon called Hilda that’s on Netflix. I’m still in the middle of watching it. But, it’s amazing. It’s based on a graphic novel series by a cartoonist called Luke Pearson. And, it’s actually mostly written by a woman named Stephanie Simpson. It’s animated. It’s about a girl named Hilda who grows up in a magical forest with like elves and giants and creatures. And she’s living out there with her mom and her pet deer fox who’s named Twig. And Twig is like half deer, half fox, with like little antlers. It’s so cute. And she makes friends with all elves. She helps a giant to find his long lost girlfriend. And like, it’s super nice, and then her mom makes her move to the city of Trollberg and she’s like, I don’t want to be in the city! I want to be out in the magical forest. But then, she makes friends in Trollberg and she discovers all these magical mysteries in Trollberg and it’s about like moving to the big city and picking up. And she brings one of the elves with her, and she meets a magic raven, and like, it’s all so awesome. It’s really cute. But it’s just also just sweet and funny and the animation style is amazing. It’s like just beautiful and I’m super loving it.
Annalee: [00:42:07] Does it have any models of democracy?
Charlie Jane: [00:42:09] In the episodes I’ve watched so far, we don’t really learn about how Trollberg is operated. It’s a walled city, which is kind of interesting. Maybe to keep the trolls out, I don’t know.
Annalee: [00:42:18] Or keep them in?
Charlie Jane: [00:42:19] No, I think it’s like… we find out early on that it’s land that was taken from the trolls. So, that’s why it’s called Trollberg. So the trolls might be coming back, I don’t know.
Annalee: [00:42:28] Uh-huh. It’s settler colonialism.
Charlie Jane: [00:42:31] Yeah, so I don’t know how that’s going to turn out. But I think that Trollberg is probably nominally a democracy but we’ll find out, maybe.
Annalee: [00:42:38] That sounds great.
Charlie Jane: [00:42:39] Yeah. So, thanks for listening to our show. This has been Our Opinions Are Correct. Please subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Google Play podcasts…
Annalee: [00:42:46] Stitcher.
Charlie Jane: [00:42:46] Stitcher, Libsyn, whatever you use to get podcasts. If you like us, please leave a review on Apple podcasts. Reviews matter a lot. Please subscribe to our Patreon, and thanks so much to Chris Palmer for the music, and Veronica Simonetti for the editing. Thanks.
Annalee: [00:43:01] See you next fortnight!
Charlie Jane: [00:43:03] See you in a fortnight.
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