Hochinteressantes Interview mit Neal Stephenson über sein neues Buch Fall; or, Dodge in Hell über ein digitales Jenseits und die Erschaffung digitaler „Seelen“, gleichzeitig ein ätzender Kommentar auf die Realitätsverzerrungen durch Social Media. Ich mag die Idee der neuen Realitäts-Klassen, in dem sich Reiche teure Super-Kuratoren für einen Luxus-Stream leisten können und Arme auf die Massen-Streams der Internet-Giganten angewiesen sind, was heute bereits erste Anzeichen in der Realität zeigt, in der ein paar Superauskenner die kleinen, guten Quellen kennen und die Plattform-Massen auf memetische Momo-Hoaxes reinfällt.
Spannendes Interview und das Buch über eine „digital creation myth“ klingt mal wieder wie ein Must Read. Hier noch der Thread auf Hacker News.
PCMag: So many tech and digital culture concepts are packed into the first few parts of Fall, but I want to start with the “Miasma.” At the beginning of the book, life is essentially as it is today. There are smartphones, social media, and the internet, with ubiquitous sites like Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, and Wikipedia namedropped throughout. 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.
PCMag: As the book progresses, we get this scarily realistic depiction of the spread of misinformation on the internet, the ripple effects of trolls, and the power of information warfare. In this case, it all centers around simulating a nuclear explosion in the remote town of Moab, Utah, that decades later, truthers still believe happened. What’s the larger message you were trying to get across through the Moab hoax?
NS: Well I try not to be too message-y, because I think that people tend to turn on their deflector shields when they see that coming. But actually when I originally wrote an earlier version of the Moab section, it was prior to the events of the 2016 election and at the time 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? So I had to rework that, I spent a fair amount of time reworking the Moab thing to make it less of a prediction and more of a kind of metaphorical statement about where we are.
PCMag: I feel like it’s a common sentiment nowadays to joke about burning the internet down. You got to imagine the particulars of how that might actually be done, which is basically to lean into the skid. Flood the net with bots and toxic posts that drown out real harassment and doxxing to the point where nothing is discernibly real or true anymore. Doesn’t that seem like the way the internet is going anyway?
NS: It’s happening anyway, yeah. The advantage of fiction is that you can make these things happen in a way that’s a lot simpler and cleaner than whatever happened in real life. This is actually a really old idea that I first heard about from Matt Blaze in the mid 1990s when he was talking about the concept called the Encyclopedia Disinformatica, which would just be 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.
So people like Matt were talking about that more than 20 years ago, and it never quite happened. But to follow the internet stuff that’s in this book, it performs a couple of functions. One is just pure wish fulfillment: “Wouldn’t it be cool if… ” but it’s also actually kind of needed in order to set up the technological basis for Bitworld.
PCMag: Before all the Bitworld stuff gets into full swing, part three of the book felt like its own little dystopian microcosm taking those ideas we just talked about to the extreme, with a lot of fascinating tech elements thrown in.
One is this idea of the “post-reality” world, where everyone walks around with AR headsets running their own curated “edit stream” of algorithmically driven content and information keeping everyone in their own personal bubble of reality. The rich can afford their own personal “editors,” and everyone else is subscribing to mass streams. You wrote about the world becoming “Facebooked down to the molecular level.” Can you unpack that concept?
NS: I think the only way to get good content out of the internet is by having humans in the loop. The reason that social media systems are architected the way they are, as I mentioned before, is because humans are expensive and you can’t scale that kind of system to serve billions and billions of people. What that kind of implies is that if you did want a curated, edited stream, that you would have to pay for it.
So that means that access to that kind of higher-quality view of the world becomes a class-based situation where people who’ve got the money to pay for or partially pay for human editors and curators are getting higher-quality info, which I think is just a slight kind of magnification or intensification of the way things are now anyway.
My big picture view of this is that broad access to the facts is empowering to everyone who can get it. The broadening of that power base to include more people comes at the expense of the oligarchs of the world, who are always going to be able to reap power, wealth, and benefits from keeping everybody else in the dark.