How to see our world in a new light

A conversation with Eliot Peper on the conclusion of his Analog trilogy

Startups are ultimately vessels of speculation, of new products, new markets, and innovations the world has never seen. While data and information are important components for exploring the frontiers of the possible, perhaps the best way is through stories and fiction, and especially speculative fiction.

We’ve been fortunate at Extra Crunch to have noted novelist Eliot Peper write a guide to the novels that are and should be helping founders build startups in Silicon Valley these days. This week, Eliot published the final book in his Analog trilogy, which explores contemporary issues through a futuristic technology lens. With Breach, he brings to a close his tale of algorithmic geopolitics that started with Bandwidth (which I reviewed on TechCrunch) and continued with Borderless, all the while exploring topics of privacy, social media psychops, and the future of democracy.

I wanted to catch up with Eliot and chat not only about his latest work, but also the themes inherent in the novels as well as his process for generating new ideas and seeing the world from a new perspective, a skill critical for any creative or founder.

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Danny: Why do you write in the first place? Why write a whole trilogy? Why did you do all this work the last couple of years?

Eliot: So I write for a few reasons, but the very first one is that I write because I love to read. I love stories, and I love learning about the world. And when I started writing novels, there was a book that I wanted to read that I couldn’t find. I actually actively looked to try to find a novel that included the various things that I wanted out of it. There were business books written about entrepreneurship, but there was very little fiction that took place in the tech world or fiction that, you know, for someone who has worked in the tech world, felt like it actually captured the human experience of that world.

And so that’s why I started working on my very, very first book. And I fell in love with the process, and I discovered that, one of the exciting things about technology is that it can give you leverage, and I realized that stories work in a really similar way. They’re both entertaining, but they can also leave us with something, they can leave us changed, they can leave us with new ideas that we can actually implement in our lives.

I always like to say that stories are like Trojan horses for ideas, right? And the very fact that I can use that metaphor proves the point. The Iliad was written thousands of years ago, and yet we all understand that metaphor today, even if we’ve never read the story.

Danny: Talking about stories, this is not only the end of a trilogy, but it’s also the end of your second trilogy, because you also had the Uncommon Stock series and now the Analog series. What was different the second time you went through the trilogy writing process?

Eliot: So the Uncommon Stock series I knew was going to be a trilogy, so I wrote it as a trilogy. I wrote Bandwidth [the Analog trilogy’s first book] as a standalone novel, with no plan at all to ever even return to the world in which the story takes place, let alone make a trilogy out of it.

But when I handed the novel to my editor, she challenged me and said, ‘Hey, I think there’s more to do in this future, there’s more to explore here.’ I came back to her, and I said, ‘You know what, I think you’re right.’ However, I’m going to write three books, and they’re all going to have different protagonists, and we’re going to deal with different teams. And they’re going to have separate narrative arcs, so that readers can actually enter at any book, and get something really profound out of it. If they read the others, that would enrich the overall experience, but that is not required. And so that became a huge creative challenge for me. Because while I was returning to the same world, I was writing three standalone novels.

I’m really glad it turned out that way. Because with Bandwidth, I zeroed in on how digital feeds shape the geopolitics of climate change and what that means for our future. In Borderless, I took that a step forward.

Danny: How did your background prepare you to write these novels?

Eliot: I’m a child of immigrants, my dad is Dutch, my mom is Canadian. I grew up in a multicultural household in a very diverse city in Oakland. When we grow up, we all learn, okay, you’re an American, that means x, y, z, you’re a citizen, these are the political borders, etc, etc. But what our country means is an invention, a technology as much as the computer is. And so with Borderless, I really started to think a lot about that.

The year I started working on the book, my wife and I volunteered with a local nonprofit in the Bay Area to host an Ugandan refugee in our home and he wound up staying with us for nine months. He’s now become a part of our family, he’s a very close friend, and he’s a wonderful, wonderful human being.

And the process of hosting him and seeing the world, seeing, you know, our little world in Oakland through his eyes, just reinforces things further how strange nation states are as a unit of organization, and also how they’re evolving because we now have an economy that’s global, we have an internet that’s global, we have all of these things that don’t abide by those traditional boundaries, and that are starting to subvert them. So Borderless extrapolates that out. Like, what if we take that to a real extreme, where a tech platform actually begins to topple the whole nation-state system?

honglouwawa via Getty Images

Danny: When you consider your own thinking about these themes, what changed from from Bandwidth to Breach?

Eliot: It made me realize that when we look at big problems, like climate change or like how people are worried about how the internet might be sort of subverting their thinking, when we think about the big picture issues, we often want big solutions. We have too many emissions going into the world, so let’s have the UN pass a resolution.

If you read the news headlines today, it seems like the world is just going down in flames, right? We have nationalist reactionary politics on every side, we have all of these things that just feel horrible. And when I see those things that just makes me want a big fix, I’m like, ‘oh, my god, somebody just make us better.’

We always want the permanent fix, but the world isn’t static.

I think that working through these three books really made me realize that the only place you can start is in your own life, actually in your own life and your own world. That is where those kinds of changes come from.

And a good example of that, actually, was the experience of hosting that refugee. That was really profound, because suddenly, it was no longer this big picture issue where we needed a high-level policy change (which is certainly required), but we actually were building a relationship with another human. In a very personal, very small way, this was not something that was going to scale or fix the whole refugee crisis.

The thing that makes me optimistic, and the reason why I always think of my own books as being optimistic, is because while they may extrapolate disastrous scenarios of technology gone wrong, I certainly believe that we can do something about it. And every one of the characters in all of these books does something about it, right? History is not a king.

Danny: You and I have talked about The Planet Remade by Oliver Morton (my review on Extra Crunch). When we’re talking about actions and making the world a better place, sometimes the solution is obvious, right? But in many cases, the consequences can actually take a really long time to appear. Sometimes, it might take centuries to really understand the long run consequences of some of the decisions we make. How do you consider those consequences, particularly in a region like Silicon Valley that focuses on solutions so heavily?

Eliot: Well, we know that humans aren’t very good at prediction. Whether you look at Wall Street trading, or any other sort of risk market, humans are not good at prediction. And so I think the best tool we have to answer that question is actually not analysis, but imagination.

First, I think that, especially for people who work with technology, especially for people who feel the pace of technological change, it’s incredibly important to really read history to learn about how long timescales work in human systems.

And then the second thing I would really, really recommend as a primer is to read a lot of speculative fiction. When you read speculative fiction, suddenly, you get to travel to these weird, imagined plausible alternative realities. And that can really broaden your thinking, because then when you return to your own life, you have this wider map of how the world might be — not how the world is — which makes your thinking more flexible.

Number three is travel. Travel is very similar to reading speculative fiction, especially if you go to places where you don’t speak the language or where you are a little scared to go because it feels super unfamiliar. When you get off a plane in a foreign country, and you have an experience there, it’ll probably be very challenging, right. But that’s not actually the key. The key is when you fly home and you walk around the place where you live. And you start seeing all of those things that you always used to take for granted. And then you start realizing, ‘Wait, this place where I live, the way that things are is not the way that things have to be. And in fact, there are many, many other ways to live.’

And then the fourth thing is putting the first three into action. Don’t try to, for example, read the latest white paper and put the trend line out as to what the future is going to be. I think it’s much, much more interesting to just notice the details in your own life and then imagine that they are ubiquitous and super important. And the reason that’s important is that there are many, many futures.

Danny: Let’s focus on your latest book Breach. If someone was reading this or considering reading it, and maybe the whole Analog series, what are the major lessons that you were trying to impart on to the reader?

Eliot: The biggest lesson is to return to first principles.

Let me give you an example. You buy a pair of shoes from Amazon Prime and return them, and then they claim that you never sent them back. You suddenly enter this very secret world, you enter this sort of twilight zone. This used to be covered largely by small claims court, but now there’s a shadow adjudication process, which is the entire customer service support system. They’re building a new way to deal with these kind of disputes, and nobody outside of Amazon gets to know what or why the judgment was decided.

But let’s take this example further. Let’s say you work for Amazon, and you are traveling to a conference. Amazon’s going to get your visa for you. They’re going to do the whole process of making sure you can travel on their behalf. You’re essentially an ambassador for them. And they’re clearing the way with their local consultants in their local offices, so you have freedom of movement across national political borders. It’s really weird. It’s almost like you’re a citizen of Amazon, because you get all of these rights that traditionally were just those of the nation state.

And so when I say go back to first principles, what I mean is, when you realize that you’re in a customer service support call — that is actually an education system. What is a court of law? How did we actually set up the judicial system we have in the United States, and why is this one being set up differently? How did these incentive systems work differently? What is the internal logic of each of these systems?

I hope that someone who reads these books will come away looking at the world differently, notice something weird, and then ask why. And then they’re going to ask why again. And then they’re going to ask why again, and then they’re going to ask why again, just like a four year old.

I would love for someone to just be totally absorbed and moved by the journey of getting to know these characters and exploring this future. And then when they come back to their own world, they realize that that is one of the little feeds that they take with them to look at the world.