Today cranked up to 12: An overview of the near-future novel, Bandwidth and a Q&A with the author, Eliot Peper

Gautham Shenoy November 10, 2018 11 min

“The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed,” said William Gibson famously, and truly. If the future is about how easy it will would be to ‘hack minds’ and manipulate people by controlling their digital feed, about mega-corporations vying for that scarce resource – your attention, about companies as powerful as governments that profit from exploiting an Earth forever changed by global heating, then one could say it’s already here, albeit ‘unevenly distributed’. It is these trends that are at the heart of Eliot Peper’s Bandwidth, in which he extrapolates them by taking them to the extreme by asking ‘what if this goes on?’ to arrive at one vision of a possible future that awaits us.

A bestselling author of books such as Cumulus, and the Uncommon series that explore the intersection of technology and society, Eliot Peper is a strategist with a background in VC firms and start-ups, consultant and as an Editor at Scout.ai leads their Incoming Transmissions series that highlights big ideas from books that ‘illuminate the present by examining the future’. And Bandwidth fits that description quite well.

In the near-future world of Bandwidth, Dag Calhoun is a lobbyist, and a rising star at one of the biggest political lobbying firms in the world, whose clients include the 1% who he helps get richer from the catastrophe that is climate change. A smooth operator with morals convenient to him, his past success includes winning an oil baron billions in refugee contracts by convincing the government to abandon California to its wildfires. It is this oil baron that Dag ends up working for again to help to stave off a global hydrocarbon tax so he can continue to bleed the almost-melted Arctic for its oil and other resources without any consequences. But it is when working on behalf of another client, Commonwealth – a monopolistic mega-corporation whose network fuels the world’s connectivity – that his world is upended by a mysterious lady, a femme fatale if you will. It’s soon revealed that she leads a secretive activist group known as The Island (so named for their island lair), whose mission is to take the fight to these corporations in the global war over climate change. Their plan – in which they want Dag to be their double agent – is to save the world. Their weapon of choice? The Feed.

In the world of Bandwidth, The Feed is how people interact with the world, and is as much a character as any of the human actors, and equally flawed. Everyone has their own private Feed and through it is how people carry on their personal/private communication and conversations and how they keep up with current events and indulge in their favourite topics. So all-pervasive is the Feed that forms the very fabric of every person’s every interaction with his or her world. And is this Feed that The Island’s activists seek to hack, and hijack to serve their own ends by manipulating the private feeds of powerful politicians and individuals so as to veer them towards their line of thinking, with a form of digital brainwashing.

A fast-paced and action-packed novel that hits the ground running, Bandwidth is near-term technological speculation at its most thrilling. From power brokers, hacktivists and megacorporations to musings on the dark side of ubiquitous technology, feeds & algorithms, geopolitics in the time of climate change and surveillance, Bandwidth throws Dag Calhoun at the centre of it all as he comes to grips with who he is, what he wants to be and the price he is willing to pay to ‘make the world a better place’.

A thought-provoking novel whose setting is the near future, the world of Bandwidth nonetheless feels all too familiar – uncomfortably so at times – that it reads, in parts, less like a vision of a possible tomorrow than a plausible alternative reality. So it was to know more the world of Bandwidth, what went into its making, his influences, and his thoughts on the nature of feeds, I reached out to Eliot Peper for a Q&A in which we also spoke about the nature of science fiction and the power of contemplation. Here goes:

Left: Bandwidth, an Analog novel. Right: Eliot Peper.

Gautham Shenoy: Your book is set in the near future, but allowing for ‘an uneven distribution of the future’, are we already in Bandwidth’s timeline?

Eliot Peper: Science fiction appears to be about the future but is actually about the present. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is set in an imagined 1984 but actually tells us far more about burgeoning state surveillance in 1948, the year it was written. That Orwell’s story still resonates today speaks to the timeless power of imaginative literature that transports us, only to deliver us back to our own lives, having changed. Sometimes I think that the timeline in which we happen to find ourselves is far stranger even than that of Bandwidth.

Shenoy: Is an algorithmically-curated reality and emotional manipulation by the feed an inevitability? We have already seen it happen with Facebook and the 2016 US elections for instance. Are echo chambers and walled gardens a foregone conclusion?

Peper: To a very great extent, we are products of our environment. The accident of birth sets our starting conditions, defining everything from our citizenship to our socioeconomic status. Our parents raise us and our peers, friends, and community influence us in countless ways. None of us exists in isolation, we live in relationship to each other. That interdependency extends to the cultures we live in, the tools we use, and the media we consume. Haruki Murakami wrote that “if you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” The internet tightens this feedback loop and the feed, in its full ubiquity, ratchets everything to a logical extreme.

The thing to remember is that the way to avoid manipulation is by seizing control of our own media diet, asking hard questions without easy answers, and constantly pushing ourselves to confront our innermost assumptions. The feed can only control you if you let it.

Also read: Democracy in the age of Information: A spotlight on Infomocracy, and a Q&A with its author, Malka Older

Shenoy: One of the big takeouts for me from Bandwidth was the fact that internet – and any iteration of it to come – is infrastructure essential to life and living, nay our modern civilisation itself. With each passing day it is getting increasingly tougher, well-nigh impossible to disengage, let alone go off-the-grid. Is that a fair reading? If yes, is there an antidote?

Peper: Absolutely, and Borderless takes that pervasiveness a step further. I believe an “antidote” is not just impossible, but undesirable. As you correctly point out, the internet has become part of the fabric of civilization, and civilization isn’t something that I want to live without. Despite the negative side effects of technological innovation, some of them big, like climate change, I would still rather be alive today than at any other point in history. Thanks to science, we have less infection, poverty, and violence than ever. Just a few hundred years ago, slavery was considered legal, normal, and economically desirable in many countries! Today, we still have enormous problems, but we can’t deny that some things have improved, and that we have more tools than ever at our disposal to build a better future.

Shenoy: Analog the club, and a love for analog book and devices keep cropping up through the book. Another contrast I noticed was that you called Bandwidth an ‘Analog’ novel. May I ask why?

Peper: In the future Bandwidth describes, Analog is a social club where the pervasive digital feed is notably absent. Because it’s an oasis of disconnection in a connected world, celebrities, powerbrokers, and neophyliacs seek it out in order to converse in secret and experience the almost psychedelic quality of going feedless.

As a writer, Analog provided the narrative equivalent of what designers “negative space”—emptiness that illustrates something by its very absence. By experiencing Analog alongside Bandwidth’s characters, readers glimpse how profoundly the feed shapes those characters’ lives.

Shenoy: Kim Stanley Robinson says that, ‘if you’re going to write realism about our time, science fiction is simply the best genre to do it in…You write science fiction and you’re actually writing about the reality that we’re truly in, and that’s what novels ought to do.’. As a sci-fi fan & reader and as a writer, do you agree? Or just simply, “Why science fiction?”

Peper: I interviewed Stan a while back and he said that “we live in a science fiction novel that we are all writing together.” There is so much about the universe that we don’t understand that science fiction is in many ways the most realistic description of the human experience. We are immersed in mystery, every answer we find generates new questions, and it is precisely the sense of wonder at the onion-like nature of reality that science fiction channels. By taking us on a journey through a plausible alternate reality, science fiction challenges us to examine ourselves with fresh eyes.

Also read: The future is pharma, not free: A review of Annalee Newitz’s debut science fiction novel, Autonomous

Shenoy: In the afterword, you note that ‘in an age of acceleration, contemplation is power’. Can you elaborate on this?

Peper: Technology changes culture, which changes technology, which changes culture, ad infinitum. Innovations in transportation, energy, medicine, agriculture, information, and communications technology have vastly increased the pace of change in our lives to the extent that my grandparents wouldn’t recognize my job, my tools, or the rules that govern my future.

When everything is moving so quickly, it’s easy to lose yourself in the noise and just hope for the best. But to have agency over our own fates, we must make time for reflection. The faster the world seems to move, the more valuable it is to slow down and orient ourselves to what’s really important.

Shenoy: Bandwidth would make a great film in my opinion. If it does get made into a film – which I hope it does – what would be your dream cast?

Peper: I agree! Hopefully, a brilliant filmmaker will decide to act on your intuition. I must admit, I don’t watch enough movies myself to make for a good casting director, but I will say that I think Sam Esmail would be the perfect screenwriter/director/producer.

Shenoy: As an Indian reader I must ask this if, you will indulge me. In the world of Bandwidth, what has happened to/with India?

Peper: As a novelist, the only material I have to draw from is my own personal experience. Most scenes in Bandwidth take place in locations I’ve visited or researched heavily. To my dismay, I have not yet had the opportunity to explore India, and hesitate to prognosticate on its future. I would welcome suggestions from you and readers as to what books might help orient me to India’s history, culture, and worldview. We need to find an excuse for me to visit!

Shenoy: What were your influences in writing Bandwidth? What other books – fiction or non-fiction – would you recommend to someone who enjoyed Bandwidth and wishes to explore these themes further?

Peper: Malka Older’s Infomocracy, Ada Palmer’s Too Like The Lightning, and Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon are all science fiction novels that wrestle with the social implication of technology. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife, Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, and Daniel Glass’s Ultimatum all use fiction to examine climate change. William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter, and Martha Well’s All Systems Red are fast-paced, mind-bending thrillers. Kevin Kelly’s The Inevitable, Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, and Marc Goodman’s Future Crimes are all nonfiction books packed with big ideas about the relationship between innovation and cultural change. Reading is an integral part of my creative process, and I often find gems in unlikely places. Readers can find my reading recommendations here.

Thank you, Mr. Peper, for taking the time out to do this Q&A.

And now, for the New Worlds Weekly giveaway. We’re giving away two copies of Bandwidth, but this time it’s a little different. As Eliot Peper mentions above, he’s looking for suggestions on books that will give him an idea of India’s history, culture, and worldview.

So, to stand a chance to win one of two copies of Bandwidth, all you have to do – as your entry for this giveaway – is suggest any two books on/about India to Eliot Peper. Submit your entry on Twitter – or Facebook – with the hashtag #NWWonFD, or you can leave it as a comment below on or before Saturday, November 17, 2018. All the entries will go into a pot and two winners will be chosen by lucky draw and announced the week after. All the best! And live long and prosper 🖖.


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