Malka Older on the future of democracy

The best science fiction writers can bring down the most powerful of institutions with a single sentence, and erect new ones in a paragraph. In her debut science fiction thriller Infomocracy, Malka Older mines her extensive experience in governance research to craft not only a nuanced vision for the future of democracy, but a globe-trotting adventure with a diverse cast that explores electioneering, information warfare, and human ambition.

The story takes place a few decades from now in a world where Information, a theoretically nonpartisan internet monopoly, controls the network infrastructure for global micro-democracy. Instead of today’s nation states, Infomocracy’s political units are groups of 100,000 people (dubbed “centenals”) who can choose their respective governments from a large menu of potential options with their own unique policy priorities. At the height of the election cycle, a campaign staffer for one of the leading parties finds himself entangled with a subversive activist and a special agent from the implacable Information. What follows will make you rethink our own embattled institutions.

Politics is a hard problem, and Older doesn’t oversimplify into utopia or dystopia. The complexity Infomocracy portrays is refreshing and grounded in Older’s personal history. Before turning novelist, she spent a decade as a humanitarian aid worker supervising major programs, implementing economic development initiatives, and responding to natural disasters and complex emergencies in Sri Lanka, Uganda, Darfur, Indonesia, Japan, and Mali. She is a Senior Fellow for Technology and Risk at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and her doctoral research examines the unique challenges and paradoxes that acute crises pose for good governance. Writers of hard science fiction pride themselves on the technical credibility of the inventions their stories document. Older brings that attention to detail to the realm of political science, imagining a future sure to electrify policy wonks and geeks alike. The best science fiction leaves us breathless, not just because of its entertainment value, but because it changes how we see the world we inhabit. In today’s charged political climate, Infomocracy forces us to question our assumptions about the future of democracy.

In the following conversation, we discuss how technology is changing political institutions and what future governments might look like.


Is American democracy broken?

American democracy was never quite democracy, and it was designed that way out of concern about what the democratic experiment would look like. It doesn’t only feature checks and balances on the branches of government; it’s also got checks and balances on the people (and, of course, was based on an entirely different notion of who “the people” are).

Over the centuries since then, we’ve made it more democratic in some ways – most notably by expanding the franchise, but also, for example, by changing senate elections to a direct vote. On the other hand, (some of) those in power have also sought to adapt the system to their own needs: gerrymandering congressional districts, tweaking party rules and primaries, and finding more and more ways to make money off of political positions.

So I’m not sure I’d say American democracy is broken. I would say we haven’t really given democracy a full try yet. We started off as a partial democracy, and have been fighting over how to expand or dilute it. Right now does feel like a particularly low ebb as institutions are being weakened, but at the same time we see that civil society is growing stronger.

The other thing to remember is that democracy alone is not enough for good, participatory, equal government. It’s too easy for a democracy to become oppression by the majority, or devolve into demagoguery. Democracy requires, at a minimum, a solid basis in human rights that the majority can’t overrule and an educated electorate. The former is always under debate, and the latter is a major problem for us right now.

How do we evaluate the success or failure of the ongoing experiment that is our political system?

In terms of evaluating our system, again I think we have to look beyond democracy. Democracy is a tool for achieving good governance and its many benefits, not an end in itself. We need to ask first if our system is inclusive, equal, participatory, because democracy is founded on the idea that the more people actively involved in government, the better that government will be.

If we don’t believe that any more than we should stop calling ourselves democratic and come up with something new, but so far those principles seem to be borne out (as far as we can tell, given that we haven’t really tried them completely) and democracy is the best system we’ve developed as yet.

Then we need to look at whether the system is functioning on a basic level – are decisions being made, are programs being implemented and evaluated? Checking on the conditions faced by the most vulnerable (whether through poverty, disability, age, marginalization, or some other status) is a good start for evaluating both types of criteria.

How is technology changing politics and policy?

While technology is changing our politics somewhat, I think the more intriguing question is why isn’t it changing our politics more?

One answer is that our government has largely fallen behind on tech, and isn’t devoting enough time or attention to it, with cybersecurity as just the most basic example. But part of the reason for that is that technological disruption is threatening to those in power, and particularly to those who don’t like to see change of any kind.

There are all sorts of interesting democratic experiments we could do with current technology. While we see some of them in the private sector, for example in the form of new apps to help people learn about candidates and issues or share experiences across the political divide, more fundamental changes are going to be hard to push through people who have spent their careers honing their political skills for a certain playing field, and who don’t want to see it change now.

Where do we go from here?

There are a couple of answers, along the axes realistic <-> idealistic (I’m trying not to do depressing right now, realism is already there) and short-term <-> long-term.

In the most immediate, I think we can look to the current expansion of civil society as a positive new avenue for deepening our democracy. Democracy is, fundamentally, about people being involved in politics, and that has been weakening for many decades, both from the top (voter suppression, lobbyists, etc.) and from the bottom (apathy, cynicism, etc.) in ways that interact.

It would be lovely if, going forward, some of the energy and renewed interest got channeled into structural and systemic ways to increase and enrich participation. Some of that should be legal – so, real pushes on voter rights and enlarging the franchise (for example, to felons) – but some of it can be less formal, around norms instead of laws.

For example, we’re seeing a lot of amazing engagement at congressional town halls, and there’s a risk there that politicians will start avoiding the town hall format. Making sure that it’s an expected norm for politicians to participate in unfiltered town halls throughout both campaigns and terms could become important. We also really need to find ways to expand civic knowledge, from a basic level of how our (partial) democracy works through media literacy.

Longer term, I’d like to see more creativity and experimentation focused on improving our democracy. As I said above, we see some of that happening in the private sector and sometimes in local governments, both here and abroad, but at a large scale it’s going to be difficult to push through significant changes, because the system is designed to prevent them.

There’s some merit in that—think about how difficult policy and policy evaluation is made when we change direction every four years—but also a lot of risk in missing chances to improve, or save, or democratic principles.

What is micro-democracy? How is the political future depicted in Infomocracy structured? Is it purely a thought experiment or is it a concept you want to see implemented?

Micro-democracy (in my definition; there are others) is a system of government that shrinks the population for the basic jurisdictional unit; in theory this lessens the risks of oppression by majority, since smaller groups are more likely to find common ground and majorities are likely to be less overwhelming. Note that it doesn’t solve the problem, although the overall system also favors relatively free immigration, which will also help.

The micro-democracy in Infomocracy is based on units of roughly 100,000 people each. So imagine if those county-based electoral maps you see with scattered dots of blue and red were actually maps of two different countries with different laws, budgets, governments.

In Infomocracy, however, these units have far more choice. There are some 2000 governments worldwide, offering different collections of policies and laws. So someone living in Boston could be a co-citizen, living under the same system of government, with people living in Oslo and in Dakar and Hue, while their neighbors a couple of blocks over in Boston might have an entirely different set of laws and leaders.

This may sound farfetched, but in fact similar set-ups exist today, in places like Alaska and Gibraltar and Réunion, although those are determined by the history of colonialism rather than by choice. We can also look at urban areas or rural counties that comprise several municipal governments, in which driving over an invisible boundary gives you different traffic laws, school systems, and local taxes.

My purpose was never to propose micro-democracy as the single best way to evolve democracy, although I do think it has a lot of attractive elements. Rather, I wanted to get people thinking about the possibilities we’re not exploring, and the technical capacity we’re not taking advantage of.

I do think it would be great for people to have more choice in their government, and to not be bound by geographic location or by historical conquests. The nation-state has brought a lot of pain and horror over the years, as has the regressive idea that size and territory are necessarily important factors for national success. I think we’re well due for some changes there, although once again those in power will fight to postpone them as long as possible.

There are lots of other ways of approaching the problem, though. The United States, the European Union, ASEAN, MercoSur and other federal and supra-national organizations are experimenting with different balances between the benefits of size and umbrella government policies, and the need for local self-determination. These systems are never static, and governments continue to evolve and experiment, if often in slow and contradictory ways.

Meanwhile political scientists, techies, and science fiction writers have more freedom to think outside the box and propose wild, innovative solutions. I’m interested to see what else comes up.

What do most people get wrong when they think about disaster response and governance?

People tend to think disaster response is about experts swooping in from outside and saving lives. That very rarely happens. Most disaster assistance, especially of the life-saving kind, is carried out by locals: neighbors or neighboring communities. By the time outside experts get there, it’s about supporting people who have lost everything and laying the groundwork for recovery.

Also, people often think of disasters as exceptional, one-off, unexpected events, unconnected to normal life or regular questions of governance. In fact, disasters are deeply connected to the mundane problems of government.

Poverty, low education, racism, lack of health care, lack of public transportation, poor building codes and construction, non-democratic systems—all these things make people more vulnerable to the effects of natural hazards and exacerbate both the risks and effects of technological and industrial accidents. And we know enough about those factors, as well as about geology, meteorology, food security, and climate to know what kind of disasters are likely and how they will play out, if not exactly when they will happen.

Both cases I study for my doctoral thesis, Hurricane Katrina and the 2011 Japan tsunami, were predicted in detail: not just that a hurricane in New Orleans would be devastating, but that people without cars would have difficulty evacuating; not just that that area of Japan was due for a tsunami, but that offshore oil tanks and boat fuel would cause large fires.

Even the Fukushima Dai-Ichi crisis was triggered by a problem engineers were well aware of: a station blackout that occurred when the connection to the electricity grid was damaged as were the emergency generators. The United States and Europe have regulations about being prepared for station blackouts; Japan had greater confidence in their grid and did not think them necessary.

What does your research focus on?

My research is on how government organizations, especially local governments, reorganize themselves after a disaster-triggered collapse. I got interested in how governments do emergency management after working for an international NGO in Japan in 2011. I had already worked on a number of international responses, but most were UN-led and NGO-implemented, with some coordination with the host government. In Japan the government itself led the response, and it was a very different experience.

What sparked your interest in the field and where has it taken you?

I originally fell into disaster response by mistake. I had studied development and was working for a local NGO in Sri Lanka on micro-finance and peace-building and other assorted foreigner work like writing proposals when the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami hit. It was a deeply tragic, very difficult event. I ended up working on the response, and found some wonderful friends and colleagues and very satisfying work, and that got me into the field.

Why did you begin writing fiction? How does it interact with your other work?

I’ve always read and written fiction—I still find it much more natural than academic writing or reading. My other interests flow into my fiction, and that makes me think about them in different ways which can then go back and affect those other types of work.

So for example, my doctoral work is focused on relatively small organizations and how they react in extreme crisis, which (combined with my own experience working in organizations) led to quite a bit of organizational thinking and theory in Infomocracy, even though the scale and the situations are different. Then, as I’ve worked through the conundrums I set myself in the novel, I have sometimes gotten ideas for different ways of looking at my research.

How has your creative process evolved over time? What drives you to create art?

I still write in more or less the same way I always have, although if there’s one big change it’s having deadlines. So much of my writing has been done completely on spec, so I was playing around with novels as a way of relaxing after work or school, and it’s different to have your books taken seriously and consequently have both the time and the need to produce them on schedule.

The experience of NaNoWriMo, which I’ve done with varying levels of commitment for many years, was very helpful with that. Once you know you can write (and come up with things to write) quickly, it’s much easier to make yourself do so.

As far as what drives me, most of my books start out as an idea, a feeling, a phrase—or a combination thereof—that sticks with me until I finally write it down. It comes back into my head again and again, from different angles, with new refinements, until I have to accept that it’s going to stay and put it on paper (or, more usually, on a computer screen and hard disk).

Then I start to think about it more actively—where does that feeling come from? How does that idea interact with the world? What comes next?—and if there’s more there, it continues.

What role does science fiction play in our culture?

Science fiction has this really interesting double role. On the one hand, there’s the stereotype of a nerdy subculture, a little uncool, a little out of it, a little weird. But in fact science fiction is both quite mainstream – I mean, Star Wars? Star Trek? These are mass entertainment – and quite influential in real life – in politics, in science, in industry. It’s really strange that it still gets pushed into a corner. (Not to mention the science fiction books that somehow aren’t considered genre and fall into the literature pile instead, like Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, for example.)

I don’t have any big theory on this. Maybe it’s the combined need for and fear of dreaming big, or the incredibly annoying American love-hate relationship with intelligence. Or maybe it’s the combination of science with fiction that unnerves people, the fiction part undermining the scientific cred and the science part scaring away fiction-lovers.

Personally, I don’t think about it too much; I read pretty widely and care much more about the quality than the genre, although in some cases if I’ve been reading a lot in one area I’ll look for something different. Fiction is fiction: tell me a good story that adds something to my perception of the world, and I don’t care whether it has spaceships, dwarves, angsty teenagers, smoking hot dukes, or jaded detectives.

Well, the angsty teenagers might be a tough sell.

Have you ever read a book that changed your life?

I read books that change my life all the time. Anything that gives you a new idea, or teaches you something new, changes your life, whether or not you act on it. Even thinking about the big ones, the ones that you keep thinking back on and turning over in your head, there are too many to count.

What advice can you give to writers just starting out? To people who dream of making a difference through public service? To those interested in learning more about governance?

To writers: read a lot, write a lot, and get out of your comfort zone. Put yourself in someone’s else’s position as much as you can, either by immersing yourself in a different kind of life or by thought experiment.

If you want to make a difference through public service there are many, many different kinds of opportunities. Follow your interests, find something you enjoy, and try to focus on making a difference to the people immediately around you—your colleagues and the people your work focuses on—instead of “changing the world.”

If you want to learn about governance, observe how it impacts your life, try working in it, read about history, follow the news, and participate!


Complement with the East Bay Express on Borderless, government is a technology, so fix it like one, and Alix E. Harrow on opening doors to other worlds.

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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a reading recommendation newsletter, hosts Fellow Travelers, and lives in Oakland, CA.

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