Naomi Alderman On Tech Billionaires as Today’s Villains
In Conversation with Maris Kreizman on The Maris Review Podcast
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from the episode:
Maris Kreizman: You really captured the zeitgeist here. Tell me about the tech billionaire as the villain that we’re all thinking about right now.
Naomi Alderman: Yeah, well, so, I believe now that out of the ten richest people in the world, eight of them are tech billionaires. So, that’s why they’re on our minds these days. I think that sort of crept up on us without us necessarily noticing it as it was happening. And for a long time we thought, oh this is some subsidiary part of life. These are not really the most powerful people. Did you know I was just in Seattle yesterday and there’s a special line for check in for employees of Amazon and Facebook? I just thought, okay, this is what I’m writing about.
Suddenly this is another kind of a passport. And if you have that, you are part of a kind of nation. So, that’s happened and the Telegraph in the UK asked me to write on the subject of why is everybody writing about tech billionaires now? And I wrote a piece which starts with, why is this? Well, why are there so many kings in the plays of Shakespeare? This is the reason. They are extremely powerful now. The fact that we all thought they were nerds 20 years ago means nothing.
MK: Absolutely, and I am fascinated by the fact that you were writing this book long before Elon Musk over Twitter.
NA: That is true.
MK: And we watched as its usefulness kind of tapered off, and one of the big subjects in The Future is the idea that tech can be useful for all sorts of emergencies, can bring us together.
NA: Indeed. There are useful things that we do with it. every day. When somebody was saying to me, well, are you for technology or against it? And I go, well, I don’t think that’s how that works. Um, I think, uh, you know, a technology is a tool. Any tool can, broadly, be used for good things or bad things.
I’m in favor of gun control. So, yes. There are some tools which are clearly intended for use for mostly bad things. But in general, you know, you have a knife, you can use it to cut a salad, or you can harm somebody with it. So, yeah. Technology has done incredible things, and people who are quite a bit younger than me will not remember when, literally, if you didn’t know something, and you weren’t in a library with an encyclopedia, you just had to sort of guess. And go, well, maybe it’s, does anybody here remember what that is? I don’t know. It’s a sort of force multiplier for so many things to be able to now find out stuff.
At the same time as, obviously, it’s causing us all to become incredibly polarized, destroying the public sphere of debate, making us all very anxious and depressed. So those things seem bad.
MK: They sure do. And also, the tech billionaire sort of embodies the rugged individualism of the American Dream, but on steroids.
NA: Yeah. One of the inspirations for the novel was, um, A few years ago, I read a New Yorker article that some of you may have read about the tech billionaires building their bunkers. Did you know that? It was just real. I didn’t make it up. And having worked in the tech industry for the past 20 odd years, and having known some people who are now tech billionaires, I think, yep. That absolutely checks out.
I 100% believe that they would do that, and it speaks to this, as you say, the rugged individualist idea, which is to say, all I need to do is protect myself. And as long as I survive, then I’m fine. I don’t need anybody else. I don’t rely on anybody else. I think, you know, one of the thoughts behind the book is to say, I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think you can leave the rest of us to suffer and die in a terrible climate apocalypse, and then feel great and be great.
MK: It seems like a real sad way to live.
NA: Right. Well, it just historically doesn’t work.
MK: I’m gonna ask you one more question, how do you, as a novelist, convey a sense of optimism in the work, after acknowledging that there is so much fear and so much inequity and so much unknown?
NA: Alright, so, yeah, the novel does end in a somewhat optimistic place. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me to be too easy to write a novel which would end with, and then it all went to shit. That’s what we all think is gonna happen anyway, and it feels there’s something lazy about it, and something that lets us off the hook about it.
Which is to say, if we think we’re fucked, then we get to kind of do nothing. You know, sit on social media, or whatever it is that we’re doing, and just go, well, what could I do? So it seemed to me that there was a kind of moral imperative, actually, to point out that the world still has incredible, wonderful places full of wild beauty, that whatever systems we’ve created as a human society, we can recreate in a different way if we want to. That we literally just lived through several years where we acted as a global community for the first time to prevent, or to at least mitigate a threat to us as a species and if we could do it for that we can do it again.
And all we need to do is to really want to. So I keep quoting this Jewish thing, which I’m going to do again now. It starts, “Lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor” which means, It’s not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you free to refrain from it. Which is to say, just because it’s not going to get finished in our lifetime, and it’s not going to all be fine, and we’re not going to be able to figure out every solution to everything, you’re not just allowed to sit on your bum and wait for the doom to come.
Just get going. Go outside your house. If there’s a piece of trash, pick it up. That’s where you start. Start where you are. I guess if that makes me a cockeyed optimist, I’ll take it. I don’t think I am, actually. I think hope in these times demands a certain kind of toughness.
Naomi Alderman is the bestselling author of The Power, which won the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and was chosen as a book of the year by The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and was recommended as a book of the year by both Barack Obama and Bill Gates. As a novelist, Alderman has been mentored by Margaret Atwood via the Rolex Arts Initiative, she is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and her work has been translated into more than thirty-five languages. As a video games designer, she was lead writer on the groundbreaking alternate reality game Perplex City, and is cocreator of the award-winning smartphone exercise adventure game Zombies, Run!, which has more than 10 million players. She is professor of creative writing at Bath Spa University. She lives in London.