A Q+A with the novelist Tim Maughan, whose disturbing future predictions have had an unfortunate habit of coming true
Why I Made This Future_ is a recurring feature that invites speculative fiction authors, futurists, screenwriters, and so on to discuss how and why they built their fictional future worlds._
here is nothing boring about Tim Maughan’s works of speculative fiction, which concern, for example, the total destruction of the internet as we know it, the insidious possibilities of monetized augmented realities, and the full collapse of global supply networks. He writes such dramatic devastations, he says, to better examine the digital injustices that are perpetrated on ordinary people every day, and which can look rather boring on paper: data profiling and automated trade networks and surveillance capitalism and other drab inflections of our shitty cyberpunk present.
Maughan’s three books, the short story collection Paintwork,the novel Infinite Detail,and the newly released collection, Ghost Hardware, all take place in the same near-future world — the TMCU, as I like to call it. Therein, hyper-accelerated digital capitalism has thrust us all into a world that is perpetually and wholly online, and accessed via spex, augmented reality glasses that are as common as cellphones. Then, the internet is destroyed. It’s 15 minutes into the future, with the rug pulled out from under it. Maughan uses the conceit to investigate the consequences of having so much of our lives hosted, controlled, and in thrall to for-profit digital platforms and systems.
The Guardian called _Infinite Detail _thebest science fiction book of 2019 for a reason — it gets under the skin of the future to expose the ugly guts of the present. Maughan is, above all, a critic — he writes to expose the disturbing trajectories of the technologies, prejudices, and corporate impulses today. I’ve worked with Tim for years, editing his fiction, barging into his audiobook recordings, and lamenting the future on various corporate social media platforms. So, as prediction after prediction of his has glitched into being this year, it seemed a fine time to talk about surveillance, communication breakdown, and resistance to all of the above.
This may be the second installment of Why I Made This Future, but it could as well be called Why I Warned Against This Present.
The interview has been edited for length, clarity, and obscenity reduction.
*Brian Merchant: *So, Tim Maughan—
Tim Maughan: That’s me.
Brian Merchant: Wonderful. Let’s start with the big one: Why did you feel compelled to create the future of Infinite Detail and Ghost Hardware — and what are, in your mind, its key cornerstones?
*Tim Maughan: *For me, I’m creating a fictionalized version of the world that we live in. The three books I’ve published so far, ironically, in a very science fictional kind of way, are all set in the same world. In Paintwork, I was wanting to talk about technology and the privatization of public space — so augmented reality became this really good tool for doing that. So that spills on into another story I wrote that’s set in the same setting, and augmented reality is a key theme in Ghost Hardware.
*Brian Merchant: *I appreciate your critique of pervasive digital consumerism through the spex. In both Infinite Detail _and _Ghost Hardware,spex are basically the new iPhones — ubiquitous AR glasses that have their own operating system — everyone’s got one, before the world collapses.
*Tim Maughan: *They were very fictionalized but very… I would call it generic. I’m certainly not the first person to write about these technologies. They’re AR glasses that you put on that overlay a digital network over the reality you exist in, which is not an alien concept to most people. For me, it’s a really exciting literary device because a lot of the stuff I’m interested in talking about — network culture, digital systems, social media, even supply chains — these are not things that are easy to write about in literature. They’re incredibly boring to write about. So generating a very visual metaphor for dealing with them was what I was looking for in using AR.
*Brian Merchant: *And spex are a useful mechanism to interrogate surveillance practices, digital commerce, and so on. There’s a memorable scene that takes place after the city updates its policy so that you need spex to get credits for recycling cans. Can you talk a little bit about that, and then what all this mass digitalization and commoditization ultimately leads to?
*Tim Maughan: *Anybody who lives in the city has seen canners. They go through recycling, both the public and the residential recycling, and take items that need recycling, go and recycle them and get micropayments for each one. You glance at them and you think they’re homeless, which, as a matter of fact, the majority of people doing this work are not homeless, it turns out. In New York, many are cab drivers struggling to compete with Uber.
And the idea in the book is that this new technology that’s being brought in where RFID tags on every bottle and some facial recognition and machine learning is going on in stores. The system, the network, which is in New York in the book, knows when a can has been bought, who it’s been bought by, and who puts it in a recycling bin. And then it gives that payment directly to that person, the idea being it streamlines recycling and it gives people more of an incentive to recycle.
It’s a cool idea, but with these really horrible implications. I actually originally got the idea, and you’ll probably remember this — it was in the Bay Area, it was in San Francisco, maybe like 2013, 2014. There was a story about a bunch of guys, Latino guys in the neighborhood, who every Sunday would get together and play five-five soccer on these five-by-five soccer field pitches in their neighborhood. And they’d do that, it was a tradition that had been going on for decades.
One Sunday they turned up there, and the field was completely overrun by white guys wearing Dropbox T-shirts. And they were like, “Well, this is our field.” And the guy turned to them and said, “No, but we booked it.” And he said, “Well, what do you mean? What do you mean you booked it?” And he pointed at the sign, a flyer that had been stuck up at some point in the previous week saying, “In the future if you want to use these playing fields you have to book them. You can do it by downloading this app to your smartphone.” And the guy that was talking to him goes, “I haven’t got a smartphone. This is my culture. This is what we do.” And the guys go well, I’m sorry, but that’s how it works now. You need a smartphone.”
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