LEIPZIG, Germany—Spreading computer viruses with human DNA. Stalking romantic partners with malware. Recording someone’s every move with Internet-connected security cameras. Modern hacking methods often sound like science fiction plots, which may be why award-winning author Charlie Stross delivered the keynote address at Europe’s largest hacker confab, the Chaos Communication Congress, at the end of December.
With dozens of books under his belt, you might think that the famed wordsmith of Accelerando and Halting State, and more recently of Empire Games and The Apocalypse Codex, would be excited to see some of the ideas he explored as fiction become real-world developments. But the Edinburgh, Scotland-based author argues that the near future is broken.
“Nobody in 2007 was expecting a Nazi revival in 2017, right?” he quips. “There is stuff that is just totally screwing my mind over whenever I think about it, whenever I look around the Internet for half an hour these days.”
The manipulation of technology to manipulate others and cash in, Stross says, devalues technological development and distribution. He points to systems designed to maximize ad revenue by scraping video from kids’ TV shows, slapping random keywords on them, and uploading them to YouTube.
That practice is not so different, he says, from cryptojacking, or using a person’s computer to mine cryptocurrency without their permission. Both involve taking advantage of unsuspecting consumers. And both have an impact on Stross’ thinking and writing, he says. One thing he’d like to see in the near future: a way to authenticate videos and photos so they can’t be fraudulently used.
What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
You’ve written more than your fair share of dystopian science fiction. How close are we to living in one of your books?
Running at high speed with the brakes off, I’m afraid. The only thing preventing this from being a full-on dystopia is that a full-on dystopia requires an absolute evil at the top who’s committed to it. Even dictators want to die of old age in their beds, surrounded by their loved ones, yeah?
The classic lesson in this is Stalin, who had a stroke and died of hypothermia, half-paralyzed in his bed. No doctors dared to go into his bedroom to rescue him because if they did, and he died, they’d be executed. This is how reigns of fear deteriorate.
We have some insane surveillance tools, but so far, touch wood, the people on the top are benevolent enough not to use them against us. At least in the West, they’re using them to make out like bandits and steal everything that isn’t nailed down, and to hurt particular people they hate, but they’re not trying to turn the world into 1984.
We heard Michael Hayden say in 2014 that the U.S. kills people based on metadata. That’s something that most people thought still belonged in spy novels.
An interesting word I ran across on Twitter today is necropolitics, which is about defining whose lives matter. If your U.S. government is killing people in drone strikes, you can do that with impunity in Afghanistan. But if you tried organizing drone strikes over, say, Dallas, there’d be a near-riot instantly in Congress.
It all comes down to who you are and where you stand. That’s also the message of The Handmaid’s Tale. I’d like to think that all human beings are of at least equal potential merit, and we shouldn’t be doing this shit, but what strikes me most about American politics in particular is that people attribute far more power to the presidency than it actually has.
It’s becoming fairly clear that Barack Obama had an agenda—and still has one. He’s doing interviews in a fairly circumspect way, and I think that to some extent, his hands were tied by the very office he occupied. The president is the head of a team of 400 people and is very thoroughly constrained not only by the Constitution, but by precedent.
Trump is a classic example of a weak leader who is completely directionless and is allowing everything to drift. As for what’s happening in the United Kingdom, oh dear God. “Strong and stable,” my ass.
Does this turn of events change how you think about the stories you want to tell?
It just tends to depress me. As human beings, we have to live in a society where everything we write about the future is a reflection of our concerns about the present. When George Orwell was writing 1984 in 1947, 1948, it was against a background of his experience fighting Stalin in the Spanish Civil War, being opposed to Nazis during the Second World War, the beginnings of the Cold War.
He was writing about totalitarianism, the shadow that loomed over Europe. If you take Stalin or Hitler away from Orwell’s universe, you don’t get 1984. He’d probably be writing something else. Similarly, my current work tends to reflect what’s going on around us, but I don’t pretend to have any effective answers.
Our society has gotten so structurally complex that when you use the Internet as a rapid-communications medium, we have no herd immunity to the contagious memes, the mental disorders. Similarly, the creation and population of early cities between 5,000 and 8,000 years ago, where people lived cheek by jowl with livestock, brought about epidemics like the plague.
I think we’re in the same position now with communications technology. Many people in places like Indonesia, when polled, say they don’t have Internet access, but they’re on Facebook. They don’t know they’re online or on the Internet.
What specific technological developments have you worried?
I’m rather skeptical about space exploration. I love it, but space colonization? That’s much, much harder, and it wouldn’t cure what ails us on this planet at all.
You can’t just take human beings to Mars and grow food in a dome. You’ve got to transplant an entire human-supporting ecosystem to Mars. If you want civilization to survive a collapse on Earth, you’ve got to actually have a fully self-sustaining civilization, which means everything from raising babies to looking after pensioners. And not only educating niche specialties, but educating the high-end educators who can keep perpetuating them so you don’t have loss of institutional flexibility and knowledge.
I made a back-of-the-envelope guess as to what the minimum viable size for an extraterrestrial human civilization would be, if you took Earth out of the equation. I think the actual figure is somewhere between 7 million and 70 million people. We are currently living in an advancing technosphere, which has maybe a billion people directly involved in it and making progress.
Think how many people it took to produce the Apollo program. About a third of a million people worked on it, but that doesn’t count the people who fed them, the people who made their clothes, the teachers who educated them.
If you want to fan out and look at the people who were two degrees away from the engineers working on the Apollo program, you probably have 30 or 40 million directly involved, and the Apollo program did not colonize the moon—not by a long shot.
If Earth has had a catastrophic ecosystem collapse, and it’s uninhabitable, it’s still going to be easier to build your dome cities on Earth because at least you’ve got all the scrap lying around to be recovered.
So how do technological moonshots, both literal and figurative, affect the inherent elitism in technology? I’m thinking of how privacy technology is rapidly becoming accessible only to those who can afford it.
It’s an ideological touchstone for a lot of people. Space colonization and artificial intelligence are fantasies that allow the elite to escape engagement with the problems the rest of us have to deal with.
Elon Musk wants to retire to Mars. Elon Musk doesn’t like public transport. I’m not going to throw stones at him for trying to get us off fossil fuels for transport, or make space transportation cheap. I think these are very good goals, but his stated motivation for pursuing them over the long term is a bit questionable.
If you want privacy, you have to work for it hard. I hate the fact that all of us are expected to be our network security administrators this decade, but if you are a network security administrator, you have a reasonable chance of securing your privacy or at least being aware of its limits. Or could you pay somebody else to do it.
Privacy is accessible only to people with enough spare time to do it or enough money to pay for it. And yeah, this is fairly wrong.
What kinds of technology would you like to see soon?
I think we should see cryptographic signing of raw images and JPEGs coming off phones and cameras. We’re going to need that in the decade ahead because photo manipulation is getting automated and very, very effective.
Just to be able to verify that something was taken on a particular type of camera or at particular GPS coordinates or at a particular time—knowing that the EXIF tags weren’t modified—is going to be essential for our news media.
But I don’t know if we’re going to get that until after there’s been a couple of really serious crime scandals, where somebody has been sentenced for murder or something based on fake camera footage. That’s going to happen sooner or later.