Whether you love technology or loath it, there’s no denying its tireless march toward ubiquity. It permeates our existence already, whether it’s the burgeoning Internet-of-Things to automatic uploads of our identities and memories to the amorphous “cloud.” One thing is certain. We’re surrendering our autonomy at the same time we are granting machines theirs. One day, we may lose our ability conduct our daily existence without the aid of Artificial Intelligence driven assistants. We’ll be at our most vulnerable.
The Feed, Nick Clark Windo’s debut novel, deals with what humanity will become in the future should a catastrophic event wipe out all forms of technology. It’s an insightful book set in an apocalyptic future, part Mad Max, part The Road, and part Black Mirror. He set aside some time to take some of our questions.
SCIENTIFIC INQUIRER: Where did the inspiration for this story come from?
NICK CLARK WINDO: It came from a few places, because there are different themes in there and they were all inspired by different things. They felt like they resonated well together so the story itself is the product of all of those things influencing each other. In terms of The Feed itself, the implant that’s in our brains and gives us instant access to infinite knowledge and unlimited communication, that came long before Elon Musk and others announced their ambitions for brain-computer interfaces. It actually came about because I got slightly addicted to Twitter in its early days, and rather sensitively suffered from insomnia as a result. I was checking my feed up until the moment I went to sleep and it directly influenced the speed of my dreams, giving rise to sleepless nights and the question: What will happen to us as humans when tech is linked directly do us?
SCINQ: There’s a definite pessimism in your book regarding technology and the environment. Can you explain your stance on each?
NCW: I’m a pessimist with high hopes. This isn’t just in terms of what I think about technology, the environment or even humans generally, it’s how I seem to look at life. So I hope – I really, really hope – that we as a race will continue to achieve huge technological advances and make amazing discoveries and behave with interest and humility…but do I think we’ll always use those advancements for good? For the good of the environment and, indeed, ourselves? That’s where my pessimism kicks in, because history so far suggests otherwise. And the thing is, as we’ve seen with the technology of warfare, we reach a point where the impact of what we do becomes profound and probably more powerful than we deserve. So now, AI for example, or indeed this human/tech synthesis, it seems like we’re (amazingly and brilliantly) becoming very powerful and doing things that can’t be undone. We’re throwing our weight around as a species, and I really hope that we don’t break anything.
SCINQ: Do you feel that humans are doomed to squander what they have, even when they try to save it?
NCW: Please see previous answer! I don’t know. I worry so but I hope not. And I think we have to change our mindsets a little bit. In the opening to his brilliant book, Straw Dogs, John Gray riffs off James Lovelace and lays out four possible eventualities to our relationship with the planet. The good news is the planet survives even if we don’t – and isn’t that heartening to know? Everything is transitory, everything we’re doing, everything we’re building. The Feed is looking to find some beauty in that. It’s heartbreaking but comforting somehow, too.
SCINQ:The book’s structure and narrative are intricate and certain subtle shifts within a character’s personality are very well done. Was it difficult plotting the twists and turns?
NCW: Thank you. I knew from early on some of the twists I think you’re referring to, probably before I started writing the novel. The question was how to smooth them into the narrative so they felt surprising to the reader but not too surprising – how do you introduce an idea subtly so it’s not a complete rug-pull when it pays off? That I found to be a question of re-drafting. I re-drafted a lot!
SCINQ:Why do you think stories in post-apocalyptic settings are so popular these days?
NCW: Well, the world feels fragile at the moment, doesn’t it? There seem to be so many options for what might cause an apocalypse. So it lets out a little bit of fear to see it happen on screen or read about it in a book and see that individuals survive (we all see ourselves as individuals, don’t we, and fancy our chances of survival as such). Also I think there’s a lot of beauty in a post-apocalyptic setting. Whether it’s nature taking back our ruins, or the peace in a time when a lot of the other people are gone, there’s a romanticism to that return to simplicity. Even if bits of it are trying to kill you.
SCINQ:In your book, The Feed is something like the modern internet on lots of steroids. It is ubiquitous, omniscient, and ultra-invasive. But then it collapses and most information is lost. Can you discuss the role of Knowledge in your book?
NCW: Knowledge underpins our way of life – we’re entirely dependent on it. But we long ago passed the point where any one person can know everything that matters, and technology is too complex for most people to have the specialist knowledge to fix it. You can’t even open the hood of a car and fancy your chances any more. I find that juxtaposition fascinating and really quite terrifying. It means that in extremis things would spiral out of control quickly. And yet, in that post-apocalyptic world the knowledge that people need to survive is incredibly simple. And there’s a happiness that comes with that. So I wonder whether increasing knowledge and capability leads to greater happiness or not?
SCINQ:Finally, The Feed seems to imply that memory is at the essence of who we are, as individuals and as a collective. Is that true?
NCW: Ah! I don’t know. It’s something I wrestle with a lot, and I guess a lot of writers do. Without a doubt I’m a different person from who I was twenty years ago or even five, or even a year ago, and yet I’m the same individual. And who I am now is analysing what happens to me through the prism of my experience, so my memories must have some impact on the essence of who I am now. At the same time, I can be very forgetful, and I’ll behave repeatedly in ways that haven’t been effective previously – so what’s with that? As a collective, maybe something similar happens: we grow older individually and try to pass on some of that experience to people younger than us who, like us when we were younger, don’t have the benefit of experience and so disregard it…until they’re older and more experienced. We do seem to be quite cyclical like that!
IMAGE SOURCE: Harper Collins
WORDS: Marc Landas
The Scientific Inquirer needs your support. Please visit our Patreon page and discover ways that you can make a difference. http://bit.ly/2jjiagi