After reading his books, you could be forgiven for thinking it was time for someone — the government, maybe — to put the brakes on technological progress for a while. But he wouldn’t agree with you. In fact, his latest novel, Influx, explores the idea of trying to control technological progress. And it’s just as scary as his previous stories.
Influx, which will be out next Thursday, is the story of Jon Grady, a physicist who invents a machine that can reverse gravity. But before he can share his work with the world, a secret U.S. government agency called the Bureau of Technology Control seizes it and arrests him. He soon learns the BTC has seized many other inventions, including cold fusion reactors and quantum computing systems. Using the technology it’s stockpiled, the BTC has become more powerful than any government. And it’s completely out of control.
I interviewed Suarez about Influx, the real reason that technological innovation has slowed down and why he has reservations about Bitcoin.
TechCrunch: Your previous books focused on the dangers of certain technologies, particularly artificial intelligence, robotics and drones. But your new book focuses on the dangers of withholding or restricting technology. What made you decide to change direction?
Daniel Suarez: I’m not sure I would say that it’s a change of direction. Let me revisit how you describe what I do. I actually love technology. I worked for 18 years as systems analyst in technology. If we are going to be addressing the very major problems that you see before humanity, it is going to be technology that’s going to rescue us, basically. We are going to have to think our way through this and that’s going to involve obviously a lot of people and all these conflicting ideas.
That’s why I push back when people describe my books saying that I’m showing the dangers of technology. Not just the dangers.
I think that for all of the dangers of technology spreading, I think it is more dangerous in some ways that it doesn’t. My simple reason for that is we’ve got 7 billion people on the planet and we have these very serious problems and I think we don’t know who’s going to have the answers to the problems that are coming around the bend. That’s why we really need everybody thinking on it. We need every Einstein on this planet to help us.
Who’s going to have the idea that modifies a technology that brings it to the next level or combines it with another technology? I think in the long run we’re going to be better served by sharing knowledge as opposed to creating silos of it.
The role I see for my books is trying to think through the consequences of various things because a lot of the issues around technology and the nuances in it are not usually widely appreciated. That’s how I view my writing as I sort of explore this terra incognita ahead of us in an effort to try to understand where we might be heading. And I do that using the thriller genre because I think it’s a useful way to explore the territory in a realistic way without boring the crap out of people.
TechCrunch: You wrote this book before the Edward Snowden NSA revelations, but you’ve said that the Snowden revelations weren’t that surprising given the leaks that had come before. Did you have the NSA in mind when you wrote the book?
Suarez: Well, it’s funny that I showed them in the book as sort of hapless victims in a way of the BTC. There was something appealing of course about seeing the NSA being tapped and helpless, trying to figure out how to resist a technologically superior foe. I thought that that was an interesting way to look at things. It’s not just the NSA, but any unseen and unaccountable concentration of power that I’m trying to portray in this story. And right now that might be the NSA, but over time it might change. And I wouldn’t really put a specific nationality on it. It’s a story about progress and an effort to try to retain advantage.
So, yes, it was partly about the NSA but then it’s also partly about the broader issues — the broader issues of control and transparency.
TechCrunch: It feels like the power imbalance isn’t just a political power imbalance but it’s also the lack of understanding and awareness on the part of the public as to how these things work.
Suarez: And possibly interest. It’s been mildly infuriating to me to speak with even friends and people I know who shrug and say “Well, you’re not doing anything wrong, why should you worry about surveillance?” And of course you and I would probably say well, actually, it’s not just people doing things wrong. For example somebody running for Congress 20 years from now I think is going to have a very detailed record to have to defend. “Why were you standing next to this person every day for five years and this person later turned out to be a criminal?”
I think that is why these revelations were powerful. I don’t think that many technology or IT people were surprised by this, but I think it became much more personal with Snowden. Now, it’s dying down again but I think there will be more revelations that hopefully wake people up. We can’t just be passive. Being a citizen in a democracy really does require some interest.
TechCrunch: Were you also thinking at all about the power imbalance between a wealthy nation and a poor nation, both in terms of their military might as well as just access to healthcare or plentiful food?
Suarez: Well, that certainly is part of it. Although I would say that a billionaire in a third world nation lives very much like a billionaire elsewhere. I mean they create an enclave, and they have satellite uplinks and they have jets and things like that. So, yes, the great majority of people in underdeveloped countries would live a much more technologically backward life, although it’s a mix. Again, they might skip the hardwire telephone networks that we have. I’ve never been to Africa, but a number of people that I talked to who have been to various places in Africa talk about how great the cell service is. And here I am in a first-world nation having to seek a hill top to talk to you on the cellphone.
I think technology is spreading and I think one’s experience of technology is going to relate increasingly to class, not so much to country. There are areas in parts of this country that look very technologically backward and abandoned by society in general. I wouldn’t say that they resemble the third world exactly, but they are not experiencing technology and its advantages like the rest of the country.
TechCrunch: If there’s not somebody out there like the Bureau of Technology Control inhibiting progress, what if anything, do you think is actually slowing down scientific progress? Or has progress actually slowed down?
Suarez: I definitely, for the record, don’t believe that there is a BTC squelching progress. But to me it was a fun thought for a story.
Back when I was a kid, the space shuttle was going up. We were going out into space, we were going to do these big things. Everybody assumed we’d have fusion and things like that by now. I think the difficulties of those tasks were certainly underestimated, but I think it is a function of a couple of things. One, I think there is sort of a cosine wave of innovation. I think a new field of innovation will occur, and then a whole bunch of technologies will spring up around that.
You see the long mark of the internet and how it’s really starting to pay off and change society now. We probably thought it was doing that in the 90s, but it really kicked in just recently. But I think a lot of the innovation in Silicon Valley, sort of the venture-backed innovation is more incremental. And I think that’s because investors are looking for returns.
Let’s say a new idea for a company is founded it kicks off rapidly. Very often what happens is a larger player purchases that company and then the founders work at the new subsidiary for a little while, and then they leave and then they start their own ventures that are typically variations on the big idea that they had. And then venture capitalists start investing in variations of that idea. Social media is a great example. There are hundreds and thousands of these social media startups. So I think a lot of this is chasing the same sort of incremental innovation.
In that sense I do think that government, that nation states serve a really vital interest in innovation. The BTC that I was depicting in Influx is really a distortion of it, a sort of a cancerous growth. It’s something that was allowed to get out of control because it was secret. But investing in just pure research and development, the US government, pretty much every major government, has been doing this for a while, and of course these are the types of things that result in the Internet. These things where we don’t see a pay off immediately, so venture capitalists are likely to put the money in.
Low earth orbit, getting into space is another great example. I don’t think you would have seen a lot of companies investing in it in the 60s and 70s unless the government was investing in it. It was incredibly difficult and very expensive thing to do. We didn’t do it just for economic gains. We did it for prestige. We did it for the challenge. And also for strategic importance. And it was only decades later that we started to see venture capitalists talk about going to space. But I think that’s because the big, big problems were being solved at a governmental level.
Now, why aren’t we seeing these huge things solved? It may be part of the innovation cycle, that the next things we’re trying to solve will require either some greatly increased computing power to model these things, some barrier beyond which when we cross it there will be another flowering of real serious innovation akin to the railroad or something like that.
Just a few years after the invention of the piston engine, the Wright Brothers invented the airplane that actually flew. What I think it required was some form of energy that would be light enough to push airplanes into the sky. And almost the minute that was available suddenly that innovation started occurring. So, I think it’s going to be one of these keystone type technologies that opens up a whole new avenue that will result in innovation.
TechCrunch: What’s your research process like? Did you have the idea for the gravity mirror and then research how that could be possible? Or did you get the idea for the gravity mirror from the research that you were doing?
Suarez: The idea came first, and then I had to justify it. That’s not always the case. And of course it changes from book to book depending on how much I know about a topic. For instance cybersecurity I knew quite a bit about. But with Influx, the gravity mirror was really a component of the bigger idea which was the BTC, the idea that you have that we’re really 60, 70 years more advanced than people commonly know, that technology is more advanced and how that would happen and coming up with an innovation that would really, really change things and modifying gravity came to mind.
TechCrunch: Did you have a lot of knowledge about physics before you started researching the book?
Suarez: Not a lot. I’ve always been interested in it just as a curiosity. As a kid I read Cosmos, watched documentaries. I’ve always been interested in science. Space exploration in particular. I’ve written software before that modeled orbital mechanics for various games and things like that. I’m aware of how gravitation projects outward, some of the formulas. But understanding how it might fit into the various models of the universe, string theory and brane cosmology, all those things, I wasn’t aware of those things prior to researching this book. Now that I’ve done it I’m more interested in it than ever.
TechCrunch: When you research a book, do you do the research and then write the book or is it a concurrent process or a little bit of both?
Suarez: Yeah, it’s a little bit of both. If you ever do [write a book], be aware of this trap. Research is fun and you can spend an endless amount of time on research. After I wrote Daemon I was writing Freedom. I spent a bit too much time on the research. I probably had twice as much stuff than I could actually use. Research is a blast being able to go and pursue and learn something just because you want it because it’s part of a story.
What I’ll try to do is block out the story and then I’ll see where my weak spots are in terms of my knowledge of various subject. And it’s not just technology. It could be knowledge of a country or culture that’s going to be part of the book. And then as I learn those things sometimes the story will change. Actually, pretty much every time the story changes simply because in doing the research I find something really interesting that I want to incorporate more fully or weave into the story. I’d say the research component is probably 50% of the book writing process. For me anyway.
TechCrunch: Are you still doing a lot of IT consulting or are you a full-time writer now?
Suarez: I’ve been full-time writing for a number of years. And it’s been quite a change because I used to work with teams of people on a very knotty, very complex technology problems and that was kind of cool in a way. I really miss that social element.
I sort of mothballed my business a few years back just because the writing turned out very well. There’s a part of me that I do want to keep my hand in the game and of course I’m constantly learning about software and development tools but not in the same way that I did before, to solve a real meaty enterprise level, mission critical problem. It’s because I want to keep up or I see something interesting and I play around with new tools. I don’t actively consult right now, but I do keep up with these things.
TechCrunch: Was that a goal for you, to be a writer? Did you just kind of come into writing on accident or was it something you always wanted to do?
Suarez: Something I’ve always wanted to do. I have an English literature degree, and of course when I was young I wanted to be the next great American novelist. And then I just got busy doing other things. Life intrudes. I tried to write a novel early on. I think I didn’t have the discipline at the time.
I had wide-ranging interests. I was always interested in technology. As a society, America was just trimming every ounce of fat from our communications, transportation, logistics and other networks, that I started thinking of it that it’s becoming a monoculture. A lot of the same machines hooked together.
When we saw things like Conficker sweep through, or Slammer sweep through all these systems, it started making me wonder whether or not we were building a house of cards, a very lightly constructed, not very resilient infrastructure. But if I wrote a whitepaper about that, who the hell would read it? So I started thinking, “Y’know, I’m going to write a thriller.” Because I liked entertaining stories. I would read thrillers occasionally and I thought that that was the best form to really explore the issue and popularize it. And thankfully it worked out pretty well.
TechCrunch: What do you think of Bitcoin? It actually sounds like it was something that would be out of Daemon or Freedom.
Suarez: Yeah, I’ve been watching this pretty closely. I don’t mind Bitcoin. The idea I like very much. But one thing that concerns me is the idea that you are burning a valuable resource to create this fiduciary fiat currency. It is using electrical energy to create this artificial thing that doesn’t have inherent value. It has perceived value. If such a thing could be connected to something that represents inherent value, then I’ll be really, really interested in it. Like maybe it represents joules of electricity or whatever. Something that represents energy available to do work or something like that.
I don’t have any carefully thought out solutions as the people who designed Bitcoin, but I wonder where that’s going to head because let’s say another Bitcoin-like currency were developed once Bitcoin tops out. I wonder if burning all that energy will somehow cause issues later on.
TechCrunch: So, what’s next for you? Are you working on another novel or do you have to do a book tour? What’s on your agenda?
Suarez: I’m going to be going to various locations up north and pretty much west coast. I do a very abbreviated book tours. I’m going South by Southwest in March, I’m going to be on a sci-fi panel there that MIT Media Lab is hosting.
And yes, I am working on another book. I never really talk about the books that I’m working on. It’s something I’ve always not done. But yes, I’m working actually on several books. I don’t know exactly which one I’m going to dedicate all my time to just yet. I’m at a crossroads there.
But there are also other mediums that I’m looking into right now. I’ve done a couple of film deals now for my books and I’d like to try to pursue that as well. I love books, and yet I’m looking at the changes in the publishing industry and I’m thinking I may want to be in other mediums as well. Not exclusively in other mediums because I always love books, but I might try to branch out a little.
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