Interviews

Connect’s Julian Gough: We’re Being Algorithmically Sorted & Controlled

 

Author photo © Juliana Socher

Julian Gough’s novel Connect is a science fiction thriller set in a world on the verge of a technological breakthrough that could change the world forever. We chatted with Gough about his novel, Minecraft, the future of the surveillance state, biohacking, DIY pandemics, and so much more.

Unbound Worlds: You famously wrote the ending for Minecraft. Has that earned you any kind of unexpected fame? Do younger players know who you are?

Julian Gough: Well, Notch (the developer of the game, Markus Persson) was very generous, when he commissioned me to write the ending, he gave me total freedom. And I thought such an unusual game deserved, and could handle, an unusual ending. But I guess it’s a rather strange and controversial ending to a game, especially a game which, up until the very end, when you kill the Ender Dragon, has had no real text or narrative. So, nine and a half minutes of slowly scrolling text about levels of reality, and consciousness, and your relationship to the universe, really freaked out a lot of people. Some in a good way, some in a bad way. You get these crazy, super-intense responses. One guy said Satan had clearly spoken through me and that he was going to kill me, and then he challenged me to a duel. Women have proposed to me. I assume they were joking, but it’s hard to tell on the internet. But mostly it’s just very sweet. I mean I’ll give you a pretty typical example, this is a message I just got via Twitter.

“My six year old son just finished reading your poem and I haven’t been able to get him to stop crying for half an hour. He said that it is beautiful. I think he thought you were writing specifically to him. He said he loves that you told him he was good and that he was not alone. He loves Minecraft and this poem just made it even better for him. Thank you.”

Mostly it’s stuff like that. Very positive. But intense! Lots of tears, lots of people say they cried. Yes, writing my very small piece of Minecraft was quite an experience. I normally write literary fiction, which is a much quieter, more repressed world. Although I’m sure some people want to kill me in the Irish literary world too, they just don’t say it out loud.

But no, I’m not famous. Writers are never really famous, which is good. Fame these days tends to be toxic. I think I’m the fifth name in the Minecraft credits, but no one reads the credits. Most people just assume Notch wrote it, which suits me fine. He’s very patient when people ask him on Twitter about “his” ending. He always tells them I wrote it. And he said recently that he thinks the ending is perfect, so that was lovely to hear. But yes, sometimes I’m at an event and parents will tell their kids I wrote the End Poem, and the kids look at me like I just beamed from space. It’s sweet. I have just the right amount of fame, a pinch of it, as seasoning. Not the meal.

UW: There are some parallels between the addictive word of Minecraft and MMORPGs and the immersive game world of Connect. Did you have our own global gaming culture in mind when you were plotting out the novel?

JG: Sure. But I didn’t want to get into the details and the drama of game-playing in a virtual world, because I wanted the book to stay focused on Colt and Naomi’s real-world problems. So yes, Colt is a brilliant teenage coder who helps design a globally popular, open source, totally immersive game world; but he doesn’t actually like playing games in it with others, because he is bad with people, he can’t read them. He just wants to build a virtual world that maps onto, but is better than, his own. And he mostly treats the gameworld as a sandbox: he likes to test it, tweak it, perfect it, hang out in it. That may come from me. As a kid, I spent a lot of time writing my own computer games in BASIC, and I probably spent more time writing them than playing them.

So Connect was influenced by games, but also by written SF of course; there are scenes where I’m tipping my hat to William Gibson, or Philip K. Dick, or Frederik Pohl (a writer I think is greatly underrated). But the biggest influences, on the structure and the pacing, were probably a couple of movies; Alien and Terminator 2. Big, emotionally engaging, highly kinetic stories, where a woman has to fight to survive in a hostile technological world. And I wanted the book to be very visual, filmic; the prose delivers the scenes straight to your inner eye. The writing doesn’t stand between you and what is happening; there are no literary flourishes, blurring the action by taking you out of the story and back into the language. The writing should, ideally, vanish. That was a fun change, after writing a couple of highly literary novels where the language was the hero. Here, plot and character are the heroes. Language serves them. Low-ego prose. I enjoyed that.

UW: Colt, the teenager in the novel, is caught in what might appear to be the ultimate custody battle. It must be something that more than a few readers can relate to, even if their own moms aren’t scientific geniuses, or their dads don’t have access to high tech gadgets and weaponry. Thoughts?

JG: Yeah, I was probably obsessed with the subject when I was writing the book, because my own first marriage was falling apart. I don’t want to talk about that, because it would involve invading someone else’s privacy, but I’ll just say that everybody behaved very well, very decently and fairly and there was no battle, no conflict. But you think about all the other possibilities, sure. How it could go horribly wrong, how it does go wrong for others. For a kid, if there is a custody battle, it’s like being the hero in a Greek myth: Gods and Goddesses are fighting over your fate, far above your head, and you have only very limited power to affect the outcome. Zeus and Hera get to decide your fate.

A novel can, among other things, process the writer’s traumas, process their fears — and you hope that helps some readers process their traumas and fears. And a novel, especially a science fiction or fantasy novel, can make big, bold physical metaphors out of ordinary situations, can scale them up so they are more clearly visible. Can make them myth-sized. And I think you’re right, the battle between Colt’s mother and father in Connect is very much the ultimate custody battle. A very male force and a very female force are fighting for his soul, and it escalates and escalates until eventually the future of the world is at stake. Which is how it sometimes feels for a kid in that situation!

UW: Though faced with a terrifying challenge, Naomi is an extremely capable person. Do you have any strong women in your own life to whom you’ve looked for inspiration?

JG: Well, most women are strong. They have to be. That’s the default. And I think if you put most people under pressure, men or women, they will usually rise to the occasion. Dealing with terrifying challenges lifts people up a level. Or destroys them, of course. So Naomi doesn’t feel capable, at the start; it’s by dealing with a challenge that could kill her kid, maybe even destroy the world, that she becomes extremely capable, because she has to.

The idea that fictional women must be modeled on real women, and fictional men on real men, always struck me as odd. Writing a novel, you often take aspects of personality from people you know, and place them in characters that are not necessarily the same sex or gender as the original, real-world model. I wrote my first novel, Juno & Juliet, partly to understand a woman I had loved, and I did that partly by imagining how my own life would have been different had I been a woman. Writing is an act of radical empathy: so in Connect, on a banal, day-to-day level, Naomi has to deal with a shitty, sexist, male boss. I found that fascinating to write. To really try to understand what that must feel like. And on a broader level, Naomi has to deal with the problem of being a woman in a very male, technological, militarised America. But her character draws on aspects of my own character, and on friends of mine, both male and female. Likewise, Naomi’s teenage son, Colt, draws on aspects of my own character, but also on my daughter, and on some computer game developers I know, both male and female. Creating a complicated character is… complicated. You take what you need from wherever you find it. For instance, there are aspects of Naomi’s sexuality that draw just a little on the real life of Laura Albert, the woman who wrote in the male persona of JT LeRoy. Because Laura Albert has some weird, interesting things to say about sex, and how desire can get bent out of shape. I thought that would work for Naomi’s character, and I didn’t have all that information in my own personal toolbox, my own store of experiences. So I borrowed some of it from Laura Albert. But it’s funny; if, as a male writer, you write about female sexuality, there is an assumption that you are doing it to titillate, rather than explore character. So that earned me a very puzzled review in the British newspaper, the Observer, calling Connect “…a gonzo hybrid between The Matrix and Fifty Shades of Grey, written in its best moments with the pace and wit of Dave Eggers’s The Circle.” Well, I’ll take it. But, trust me, if you’re expecting Fifty Shades of Grey, you will be disappointed! As for The Matrix… maybe. I think we had the same influences: Philip K. Dick and so on.

UW: The novel offers alternately terrifying and promising glimpses into biomedical research, and its DIY cousin biohacking. The world of Connect is one which someone might be able to grow a new limb, but also where an especially precocious teen might murder his classmates with a bug cooked up at home. CRISPR has made a lot of waves over the past few years, and I’m wondering if you see these as things we might actually have to deal with in the future.

JG: We’re dealing with them right now. The tech is way ahead of where most people think it is, and, all over the world, we are making big decisions about gene editing technology, with very limited understanding of the potential consequences. In China, where the researchers face almost none of the regulatory hurdles Americans and Europeans face, they are doing stuff that was wild science fiction only a few years ago.

I have a friend, a research scientist who leads one of the world’s best teams for the manipulation of DNA, he has papers published in Nature Genetics and so on, and his whole world has been turned upside down by CRISPR. Research that could only be carried out at a dozen labs on earth can now be carried out by almost anyone. The impact has been explosive. And CRISPR itself is being superseded by even better, faster, more accurate tools that zip the DNA back together better.

Kids will use CRISPR, and the even better tools coming through now, to fuck shit up, because that’s what kids do. And if terrorists want to terrorise, they will use bioweapons too. But it’s hard to build a lethal super-bug in your garage, for the same reason it’s hard to build a lethal super-bug in nature; the more lethal it is, the more difficult it is to get it to spread, because it kills its host too fast. And lethal bugs are hard to handle. My guess is, a lot of kids and terrorists are going to accidentally injure or kill themselves with their home-made superbug, long before they get a chance to spread it.

So, will there be terrorist attacks using bio weapons? Sure. Will there be lonely, depressed boys building bio weapons in their bedrooms and releasing them in their schools? Sure. But will they wipe out humanity? Probably not.

Really, it will probably play out in a less apocalyptic way. Goth kids will mess around with squid ink DNA and chicken embryos, and genetically engineer one-foot high, matte-black dinosaurs that they will walk around on leashes like dogs.

The real worry will be at the nation-state level.

One reason biological weapons were developed by the US and Russia and others, but never deployed, was that anthrax and other old-fashioned bioweapons are so indiscriminate and uncontrollable. That messiness used to be a brake on state use of bioweapons. But CRISPR and the other new techniques for very precise gene manipulation have changed that. Now you can craft a very specific bug to attack a very specific gene. Ethno-bio-terror will be something to watch out for; biological weapons designed to attack genes found mostly in an enemy population and not in the attackers’ population. That’s going to be a temptation for ethnically homogeneous states, or states with ethnically homogeneous enemies. If the Chinese government isn’t developing genetically targeted weapons, I’d be astonished.

But step back from the weapons issue: I think we are entering a very confused era, where the boundaries between genes, and between species, are going to collapse. What it even means to be human will blur. And if you think inequality is bad now, wait till the hedge fund managers can pay to nano-edit their kids’ genes letter by letter. Basically, we need to solve the gross income inequality problem before the 1% become a different species… Of course, gene tech won’t be evolving in a vacuum, it will play into everything else, as all the other technologies advance, and as we deal with, or don’t deal with, all the other problems we have. The next couple of decades will be a wild ride. And it will be good and bad, terrific and terrible, like everything. Back and forth… With luck, we’ll make it into space, where gene manipulation will be REALLY useful. Humans aren’t somehow mysteriously separate from plants, bacteria, everything. We can’t just walk away from earth as we are, and be fine. If we do go into space, we can’t bring our entire ecosystem with us. Much easier change us to suit the new environment than change the new environment to suit us. Great SF writers like John Varley were predicting this long ago; human beings genetically engineered for space, or deep water, or for other planets, other moons.

UW: We’re moving into an age of ubiquitous surveillance and artificial intelligence. Do you think we’ve got a chance of escaping the kinds of dangers hinted at in Connect?

JG: If you live in China: no. The war has already been lost there. They are well on the way to a total surveillance state that will persist until the dysfunctional Chinese economy at some point collapses, and discredits the Communist Party. But the thing is, a lot of people welcome such surveillance. Surveillance societies can make life a lot smoother for the obedient majority — and a lot rougher for the minority that the State disapproves of. If you think you’ll never be in that minority, it’s easy to embrace the joined-up nature of an efficient surveillance state. I just spent six months in Singapore, and it was fascinating, navigating the upsides and downsides of a softly authoritarian state. A much nicer state than China, by the way. In many ways freer; certainly less brutal. But nonetheless, softly authoritarian. And the paradox of surveillance states is that they slowly lose sight of themselves. Singapore has censorship, which then leads to self-censorship; the media are not free; and smart critics like Cherian George get pushed out, which is terrible, because he’s exactly the kind of guy Singapore needs — someone born in Singapore, who is aware of the system’s virtues, but who can gently point out the flaws. (Read his The Air-Conditioned Nation, and Singapore, Incomplete for the best overview of the country.) But the government maintains a kind of fragile legitimacy through providing affordable healthcare and housing, efficient public transport, security, and so on. And that’s not nothing! For most of her citizens, Singapore feels like a far safer, more comfortable place, in every way, than America, let alone Malaysia, just across the bridge. You can see why people grumble, but fear the chaos and disorder of the regional alternatives more.

The problems in Europe and America are slightly different. Jaron Lanier’s new book, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, is the best guide to the problems we face in the West. The problem isn’t simple surveillance any more; it’s that that surveillance is then being used for behaviour manipulation. We are being algorithmically sorted and controlled, and it’s often not even by consciously evil manipulators, which would at least give it dignity; it’s by dumb, corporate-owned AIs, tweaking algorithms to make us more anxious, so we will click on stuff that makes us more anxious, so that we will click on stuff that makes us MORE anxious, so that, ultimately, we will buy an ice cream or a new blusher or penile dysfunction medication, or something to take the edge off the crippling anxiety that we have been blindly pushed into by the algorithms. A third of all teenagers are now depressed. A third! That’s crazy. And the rise in teenage anxiety maps directly onto the rise in smartphone and social media use. I mean, when I was a teenager, there was a guerrilla war going on in my country; my school was run by religious paedophiles; nuclear apocalypse seemed close enough that we were issued booklets by the government telling us to shelter under a table in the case of a nuclear blast; and I STILL wasn’t depressed. Man, those are some powerful Facebook algorithms…

So, social media manipulation of our data is turning out to be deeply negative. It’s sorting us into tribes, and then radicalizing those tribes.

But looking a little further forward, the risks posed by AI are genuinely existential. Once we create machine intelligences greater than our own, that can modify themselves, improve and upgrade themselves, and have access to a technological body — to robot arms, factories, weapons, our communications infrastructure — then we have stepped off a cliff. We can’t rewind. Our control of our destiny is over.

Man, I could write a whole other book about that — the point after Connect’s ending… But for that, follow guys like Eliezer Yudkowsky, of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, who has thought a lot more deeply than I have about the possibility, and the danger, of a runaway intelligence explosion.

The ending to Connect is optimistic about AI, because I’m an optimistic guy, but if I put my coldly rational hat on, I’d have to say the trajectory we are on is not good.

So the next few years will be exciting! Meanwhile, while we are all waiting for the Apocalypse, or Nirvana, I hope people enjoy Connect, and it gives them some interesting ideas, and feelings. And that they like the happy ending.