The feed is the greatest psychological and mental manipulation tool that has ever been invented. Every day, billions of people open apps and scroll through algorithmically-selected content designed to emotively engage us. Through the feed, we enter an intellectual stupor, downloading information to our brains without critical thought, without filters. Who ultimately controls those feeds, and can they use that control to change not just the emotions of their audience, but our very understanding of reality?
The feed and its discontents is the theme undergirding Bandwidth, the latest science fiction novel by Eliot Peper, which was released today by Amazon Publishing imprint 47North. The novel, the author’s sixth, is the story of Dag Calhoun, a lobbyist who gets caught up in a war over climate change and the world’s response to it. In this telling, activists fight not through picket signs and petitions, but instead with the modern weaponry of algorithms — controlling the feeds of global leaders to change their very understanding of the world.
The book is straight out of the Peper oeuvre, combining a thriller plot with a deeper introspection of technology and its effect on our actions and our futures. It’s an engaging, electric read, but also one that forces us to confront the state of the world today and our impact as an industry on politics.
The book is also the latest milestone in the entrepreneurial writing career of Peper, who migrated from the startup and VC worlds to pursue his creative passions full-time. He describes his background as “a bit of a pinball career path,” studying international environmental policy, working at a plasma arc startup in the clean energy space, and then working at a venture firm.
Yet through all of those experiences, something was gnawing on him about the content that he was reading, particularly about business. “Folks don’t want to publicize some of their less overtly positive experiences,” Peper said. “They don’t want to throw shade on other people, so business books sometimes miss some of the human experiences.”
Peper, who has been a voracious reader his entire life, thought he could offer that missing link by writing speculative fiction. “Writing fiction, you have to synthesize your ideas about the world,” he explained, and “put that all in a story that is compelling and illuminates something about the world for readers.” That led to his first trilogy of novels called the Uncommon Stock series, which are thrillers set against the backdrop of a fast-growing startup and show the sorts of highs and lows (and danger!) you don’t get in the business shelves.
Over time though, Peper has grown more philosophical about technology and its role in society, using his plots to explore ever more complicated connections of accelerating technological change. “We live in this world where our institutions and the tools we use every day are changing fast,” he explains, arguing that “my grandparents wouldn’t understand many, many things about my life today.” Peper often gets ideas for novels from the news and general events happening, and uses the medium of the novel to explore their nuances in-depth.
That sort of thinking shows up in Cumulus, his fourth novel about an eponymous company which utilizes its vast user data to provide better transportation services called Fleet, but also uses that data to attempt to block criticism of the company. Peper, who is a native of Oakland, California, integrates the vast inequality that technology has created in Silicon Valley into the core of the plot.
For Bandwidth, Peper wanted to respond to the challenges of the 2016 election, and the challenges of managing one’s own media diet. “In 2016 with the presidential campaign running in full swing, it felt that there was so much news that it was almost hard to escape from,” he said. “I really wanted to take more agency in the ideas and the stories I was inviting into my own heart.”
That thinking led Peper to start speculating on what would happen if you controlled that intake. “If you could personally curate the media diet of someone else, could you control their thinking … could you change their world view? That was the seed of Bandwidth,” he said.
Bandwidth is the first work in a trilogy, although each novel will be independent, set in the same universe but with different characters and themes. The next book is called Borderless, and will focus on the decline of the nation state, and comes out October 30th.
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