Democracy in the age of Information: A spotlight on Infomocracy, and a Q&A with its author Malka Older

Gautham Shenoy March 24, 2018 17 min

Aristocracy. Autocracy. Plutocracy. Theocracy. Noocracy. Lottocracy. Particracy. Gerontocracy. There’s no end to the many forms of government that have been proposed and/or tried at some point in history. But the one form that has survived the longest, and currently the one we see predominantly worldwide – in one form or the other is Democracy.

One amongst the many reasons behind democracy’s longevity is its ability to change and evolve, but the one thing that has not changed, and is at the heart of it everywhere, irrespective of what form of democracy is followed, is the Election. Now, science fiction authors have never been ones to shy away from talking about power and politics, but a story that revolves around the process of democracy in an age of technology, and data – while proposing its own variant of the system – and set in an election year is a rare find. I can only think of two. The first is not a novel, but a short story, 1955’s Franchise by Isaac Asimov, and then too, the way it goes, the election itself is avoided, so to speak. The second is a 2016 novel called Infomocracy by Malka Older.

An election year political thriller, Infomocracy is set in the latter half of the 21st century where democracy has evolved into micro-democracy, and where countries exist in name only. Because instead of the traditional nation-states, the whole of the earth is divided into voting blocs called ‘Centenals’, with each centenal consisting of exactly a lakh people, or in other words 100,000 voters. Thus, there are centenals in sparsely populated rural areas that can span many miles, or centenals that can be geographically as small as a square-kilometre in densely populated cities. Parties still exist – each with their own agendas, and policies – vying with one another to form the government in the maximum number of centenals across the world, so that they can become the Supermajority. Voters everywhere can vote for any party or government who they think is good for their centenal, and with borders not being what they used to be, people are free to move to a centenal of their choosing, not necessarily even in the same hemisphere. And you can have two centenals very next to each other – on either side of the street even – where the laws are different. If one allows busking, the other doesn’t. You could walk from the dirty, littered street of one centenal into the spick-and-sparkling avenues of another in a hundred steps. The government of one centenal may have completely banned smoking, while the one a few streets away could allow you to dabble in any kind of party drug even.

Speaking of parties, you have parties like Heritage, which pioneered the model of forming a government based on a coalition of corporations, and with laws to suit those economic interests, and the idealist Policy1st party, that believes in fairness, transparency, and putting policy first, not leaders. You also have corporate parties like PhilipMorris, originally formed by the tobacco firm, now a conglomerate including other like-minded businesses, and NomadCowmen, a small government of Sahelian pastoral nomads, and even RastaGov, a small government taking its policy platform from Rastafarian principles.

But the biggest player in the micro-democracy of Infomocracy is Information (capital I), a corporation described as a search-engine monopoly, but for all practical purposes the repository of all data of all people across the world, and the chief mover behind the switch to micro-democracy. Think of Information as a very important international public utility, every single social media platform you can think of – rolled into one, with a bit of the UN’s powers thrown in for good measure. Information is in charge of not just conducting the elections in a free and fair manner, whose stated mission is to give people all the data – including information about the political parties and current events – that they need to an informed choice, in a non-partisan and accurate manner (See the Q&A below for a quick glance on how things that led to this).

Also read: When Big Brother meets Big Data, we get to live in glass houses!

Left: The author of Infomocracy, Malka Older. Right: Cover of the paperback edition of Infomocracy.

Infomocracy begins on the eve of the third worldwide election (one election cycle is 10 years), with the Heritage government having secured the Supermajority in both the previous elections. The stakes are high for all players, especially for Policy1st. Then there’s a government called Liberty, which is making big inroads, a front-runner for the Supermajority, who is harking back to nationalism, dog-whistling about expansionism, maybe even hinting at a war (unheard of!).

In the midst of all this we follow the people through whose eyes, and experiences the story unfolds: Ken, a young (undercover) campaign researcher for Policy1st who’s trying to do the right thing while gunning for a rise up the ranks, Mishima, an Information agent and special operative/analyst who sees patterns in the data, because of her “narrative disorder” – that causes her to see everything that happens as if it were part of a planned strategy – and who’s trying to make sure that nothing disrupts the election. Rounding off the chief cast of characters are Domaine, an anarchist of sorts who looks at the election as one more opportunity to continue his fight against the pax democratica and the system that he thinks is not fair or right, and Yoriko, a taxi-driver in Okinawa who gets caught up in events beyond her control, wishing she’d rather not.

The fever pitch rises as the election nears – so does the damage and body count – and with danger, intrigue, secrets unveiled, and political machinations at every step, with people wanting to derail the election, the integrity of Information at stake, Infomocracy quite nicely paces itself until the final denouement.

While Infomocracy tends towards what could be seen as wish-fulfillment in places, Older does not oversimplify the world of Infomocracy into a simple utopia or a dystopia, and neither does she spare her carefully built world any criticism either. Because Infomocracy does what every good sci-fi tale ought to do: Posit a ‘what-if’ question, and examine its myriad implications on people and society, and while talking about the future, bring the present sharply into focus. And at no point does Older patronize the reader, and Infomocracy is refreshingly complex, with great world-building, and small background details about technology, and life in the future, that flesh out the world the book is set in. Infomocracy – that sets off the Centenal Cycle of 3 books – is an essential read if you like intelligent sci-fi dealing with the convergence of politics and technology, data and democracy, and exploring possible futures, in a way that gives you present-day chills.

Also Read: Fake news often reads or looks on video, like weaponized design fiction: Bruce Sterling

So it was to explore more about the ideas behind Infomocracy, its finer details, the author’s thoughts on democracy – among other things – I reached out to Malka Older for a quick Q&A. Here goes.

Gautham Shenoy: I’d like to first address the elephant in the room – the recent exposé of Cambridge Analytica and Facebook’s (suspected) complicity in it all. It is but natural to be suspicious of any corporation whose only goal is profit (and monopoly). In a New Worlds Weekly Q&A that I had with Bruce Sterling in January, he’d said that Facebook is the bigger threat to Indian democracy right now. And the heart of this threat lies information (no pun intended) and our data that firms are weaponizing to ‘hack democracy’. What is your take on this, given that Infomocracy’s Information is supposed to be the custodian of facts, and the enabler of true voter empowerment?

Malka Older: It’s important to distinguish the specific parameters of Facebook from social media as a concept and, more broadly, the internet. Just like television, radio, and the printed word, the internet is a tool that can be used in pro- or anti-democracy ways. The problem we have now is the parameters of certain companies: the ways that they have found, given a specific technological and regulatory context, to make money; the incentives that work on them and which they set for their users; the value of the data that they can collect based on the rest of the economic landscape.

The difference with Information is that it does not sequester the data it gathers; rather, it tries to make that data available to everyone. If you look at the problems with Facebook and CA, they are tied into surveillance capitalism. Facebook is not trying to hack our democracy; Facebook is trying to make money, and not being too picky about the damage to democracy in the way they do it. Cambridge Analytica is hacking democracy, but because they are paid to do it, and they are paid to do it for their access to data that is not available elsewhere. In the world of Infomocracy, small-i information is a public good, and Information is an international public utility.

That’s not to say that it doesn’t have the potential to be a corrupting force, to be used to hack democracy. I wrote Information knowing that it was both wishful thinking (in the face of echo bubbles distorting our election processes) and a very dangerous concept. But it is slightly different from what we are facing today. I do hope it’s different in a useful way, in the sense of helping us understand what we’re facing and helping us think about alternatives.

Shenoy: While science fiction has never shied away from taking a position or dealing with politics, a deep dive of democracy, and its on-ground, real-world workings have not been explored in-depth before, or the technological enablement of democracy been the focal point. Why do you think this is? And what made you take up democracy as the subject to be explored?

Older: I was part of a webinar in which one of the questions was to think about other, preferably non-dystopian works of literature on democracy, and I was surprised at how difficult it was to come up with one. My theory is that we tend to see democracy as an end-state: something that is complete, a goal, rather than an on-going process that we continue to refine, redefine, and improve. It’s like marriage, which tends to be the happy ending of traditional romance novels rather than a subject of conflict, struggle, and success in itself.

However, while I’ve since thought a lot about this and believe that it’s important that we write more about democracy, Infomocracy was, in its original impulse, really more about the nation-state and its ills, than about democracy.

Shenoy: How did the world that is portrayed in Infomocracy come to be? Could you shed some light on what geopolitical events may have transpired that led to the ‘new world order’ of Infomocracy? We’re seeing people getting increasingly nationalistic, protective of their borders and who gets to live in them, so how did your ‘world without borders’ come to be?

Older: Part of the power of science fiction is the ability to leave this blank; that is, to suggest a future that seems unlikely to come from our present without having to justify it, provided of course that it is internally coherent and makes sense to people as a possible world. In other words, I left it blank on purpose, because the point was the potential of a different system, not a realistic prediction that we are going to end up there! That said, I feel like it has gotten somewhat more plausible since I wrote it, as people push back harder against nationalism, borders, and fake news. In the book, Information is initially funded by civil lawsuits against 1) False advertising by diet soda companies and 2) False reporting by 24-hour cable news companies. Is it so hard to imagine now a civil suit against Facebook? Or that money of that sort might be earmarked for better public information management? At the same time there is continued talk about secession in various places, and a lot of talk about the power of cities, as opposed to countries. Still unlikely, but a little closer.

Shenoy: I noticed many echoes of some real classics of science fiction in Infomocracy. From the cyberpunk of Bruce Sterling, William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, to some cultural, political aspects from Ursula K. Le Guin and Octavia Butler, which tells me that they’re still relevant today as ever (not that I believed otherwise!). How much did the ideas that these authors explored inform your work? What books would you recommend to people once they’re done with Infomocracy, and any specific elements of these books, readers look out for?

Older: The most direct influences were Snowcrash and The West Wing. I’m not sure how conscious of it I was at the time but I think the hyperempathy in the Parable of the Sower had an impact on narrative disorder. Autonomous is a great book for thinking about identity, freedom, ownership, and also government. More different, but also relevant are An Excess Male , An Unkindness of Ghosts , Gibson’s work in general, Eliot Peper’s forthcoming Bandwidth. A non-fiction influence was Frédéric Martel’s Mainstream.

Shenoy: One of the characters in Infomocracy makes an observation that – and I paraphrase – “Democracy is all about participation. It doesn’t matter who wins or loses, as long as everyone plays the game”. I’m not able to tell if that’s a cynical view of things, or a realistic outlook vis-à-vis the disconnect between representative democracy and participative democracy, a contrast that Infomocracy highlights. Your thoughts on this?

Older: I definitely think it matters who wins and loses, but at the same time we can say that democracy is, pretty literally, all about participation. Democracy is about the people ruling – strictly, it says nothing about whether those choices are “right” or not. It works on the principle that the people will choose in their own interests, and that the repetition of the choice can provide accountability for those who don’t follow their promises. But for democracy to result in (for example) ethical leadership, you need to have ethics be a part of people’s value system and decision process. That’s part of the reason democracy doesn’t stand on its own – we need human rights and other principles, a social contract, to keep the right people winning. Democracy by itself can easily become oppression of the minority by the majority.

At the same time, I don’t think you can claim to believe in democracy, but also claim to know better than the voters who should win (you can, however, complain about who wins – as long as you vote). On the other hand, we have a responsibility to make sure that it is as engaged and informed a participation as possible; that participation doesn’t mean showing up once every x years to cast a vote for the party you have always supported, but that it means being educated enough to understand government, have access to information about the specifics of each election or referendum, and be engaged enough in the community to draw the lines between government decisions and the things that affect your life and your neighbours. Arguments in terms of the lack of those elements are much more compelling to me than vague paternalistic statements about people “voting against their own interests”.

Shenoy: As an Indian reader, I was chuffed to see the mention of Chennai on counting day. Truth be told, I’d have loved to see lots more of India, the world’s biggest democracy after all – how its centenals would look like, its many parties, especially their leaders, given how the cult of personality (and/or one person being the undisputed leader of a party) is strong in Indian politics. Can you shed some light on what you think our life here would be like in a micro-democracy?

Older: I would have loved to get more India in the book; in fact one of the Jakarta sections originally took place in Bangalore, but I changed it because 1) I didn’t feel I knew the setting well enough (I visited Bangalore once, but it was brief and many years ago) and 2) it made some of the later travel logistics complicated. I’ve also been to Jaipur, Jaisalmer and Darjeeling, each time for a relatively short period, so I don’t consider myself any kind of an expert on India, and you would have a much better idea of what it would be like under micro-democracy than I do!

But like a lot of large or even medium-sized nations, India is composed of a lot of smaller identities. One of the important things going on now is that we’re seeing entities like that searching for the balance between autonomy and unity, difference and commonality, the ability to tailor living experiences and the international power of trading blocs. We are seeing this negotiated in various ways – the EU, the US, ASEAN, the AU, Mercosur, and so on. I think the way that this will play out, in the specific context of India – incredibly diverse, also now with a solid more-than-half-century of unity and a lot of potential power in that collective entity – will be fascinating to watch.

Shenoy: I’m also a Manchester United fan, and I was quite thrilled to know that United is still around in the future, and winning matches. GGMU! The big ideas are great of course, but it’s also these small touches that for me, as a reader, truly bring a world alive, make it relatable, and immersive. What other such interesting nuggets did not make it into the book?

Older: Whew! This is a great question, and I had to go back to my notes to look for things that didn’t get in. I think I managed to work most of my tiny ideas for technology and specialised governments (like Sanrio/Hello Kitty) into the book. One thing, that there’s a tiny bit of in book two, but that I wish I had put in the effort to have more of, is thinking about how various kinds of differently-abled people interact in this future.

Thank you, Ms. Older! For taking the time out for this, and for the illuminating answers.

So, if you’re thinking you should perhaps grab a copy of Infomocracy, I have some good news for you! As is practically a New Worlds Weekly tradition by now, we’re doing a giveaway of the book, and it’s extra special this time because the winner will get a copy of Infomocracy that will be autographed – and made out in the winner’s name – by the author, Malka Older herself! All you have to do is tell us what India would look like in a micro-democracy.

What would Indian ‘centenals’ look like in a micro-democracy? What party would still be around, and in what form? What new party do you think will emerge? Will it be a corporate coalition? And what would their policies be? How would a densely populated city like Mumbai deal with a hundred centenals crammed next to each other? These are just some of the questions I could quickly think of. You can answer any one of them (or even all of them, as separate entries). You’re even free to give your own take on an aspect not asked above. But what your entry has to do with essentially is address one detail – however small or big – of India in a micro-democracy as portrayed in Infomocracy.

You can submit your entries in the comment section below, leave a comment on the FactorDaily home page tagging it with #NWWonFD, or even tweet to us with the hashtag #NWWonFD. You can submit multiple entries. But do it before the midnight of Wednesday, April 4th. All the best entries will go into a pot and one lucky winner chosen by a draw on Saturday, 7th April. All the best!

Live Long and Prosper!


Updated at 12:11 pm on March 25, 2018  for typos.

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