Ten popular Bandwidth highlights, annotated

A while back, Goodreads asked me to annotate ten of the most popular Kindle highlights in Bandwidth. I love snatching glimpses into other people’s creative processes, and these notes give you a sneak peek into mine.

Let’s dive right in. The highlights from the novel are indented and my notes follow.

There was a deeper silence behind the music. A quiet no mere noise could fill. It took a moment to register. His feed. His feed was gone. Not dimmed, not marginalized. Gone. Dag swayed on his feet. His window into the digital infinite, that whirling vortex of endless global conversation, had been slammed shut. It was always there in the periphery, the low murmur of the entirety of human culture, as present and comforting as the sound of waves from inside a beach house. A vast, pulsing constellation of voices, information, art, commentary, and dramas, distilled through the algorithmic sieve to the intimately relevant personal feed. So second nature that it was obvious only now, in its absence. It was as if he had gone suddenly, inexplicably deaf.

Years ago, a designer friend explained to me how white space—the empty areas surrounding design elements—is just as powerful and important as the designs themselves.

The seed he planted grew into Analog—the off-grid social club that hosts so many of Bandwidth‘s crucial scenes. I realized that a powerful way to demonstrate the methods by which a ubiquitous digital feed shaped the lives of people living in this particular future was to cut them off from that feed.

Dag’s shock at having the feed stripped away illuminates the depth of its influence.

It was a painful lesson, but eventually I realized that building something meaningful requires you to let go of the obsession with perfection. It requires empowering others and trusting them to do their part, even if they do it differently than you might have. But trust is a two-way street. Autonomy means you’re held accountable.

In some ways, every novel is really about the act of writing a novel. This is one of those places where that truth gleams out through the interstices of its tightly woven nest of story.

Great lobbyists are like novelists, they use lies to tell a deeper truth.

Although the idea for Bandwidth had been gestating for a while, I had a number of false starts. Who among the cast would be the protagonist? Was this a contemporary tale, or would it take place decades hence? What might that future look like?

At one point, I thought that the hero might be a stand-up comedian. I am so glad I didn’t go down that route. I’m not nearly funny enough to do justice to a comedian’s inner life. But the jump from comedian to lobbyist was shorter than you might think. Both professions require a finely tuned sense of observation and an intuition for the invisible systems that shape our world and lives. As a novelist, I’m keenly aware of the parallels with writing fiction.

It was from that milieu that Dag began to emerge. A striver with a keen eye for the dynamics and incentives that guide and warp society. A survivor who was willing to do what it took to win. A seeker who couldn’t deny his own failings once he finally achieved true introspection.

Characters rarely stride onto the page fully formed, like a stage actor entering from the wings. Instead, they start as a blurred sketch, and only become more solid, more real, as the story progresses. Like all of us, they define themselves through their actions, and I always know that a character is becoming a human being when they start doing things that surprise me. By the end of the rough draft, Dag and the rest of the cast had become dear friends.

Like memory, history was synthetic. Humans thought of both as factual records, but study after study confirmed that they were more like dreams, narratives constructed and reconstructed by the mind to fit the demands of the present, not the reality of the past.

I’ve always felt that writing history and science fiction are related endeavors. Both involve living life with an eye toward gleaning theories of how the world became what it is and the forces shaping what it might become. Both involve not only putting yourself into someone else’s shoes, but doing so for people who inhabit a context totally foreign to your own. Both involve combining analysis and imagination. That is not to say that science fiction and history are equivalent, only that they are distant cousins to each other, as dreams are to memory.

Shankar Vedantam wrote that those who travel with the current will always feel they are good swimmers, while those who swim against the current may never realize they are better swimmers than they imagine.

Vedantam’s beautiful metaphor powerfully highlights the ways in which we so often draw false conclusions about individual successes and failures—forever discounting the major role that hidden variables like bias and luck play in determining outcomes.

If there’s one thing I believe, it’s that optimism compounds better than cynicism. You can either complain about how some French noble predetermined your desire for a lawn, or laugh at how ridiculous life is and build yourself a rock garden. It all depends on your point of view. And at the end of the day, your point of view makes all the difference in the world.

It’s a facile misconception to believe that any problem has an ultimate and final resolution—be it personal, social, political, moral, or technical. Problems can be solved, and yet every solution begets new problems. Problems are inevitable and soluble. That’s what keeps life interesting.

The real question is how to summon necessary courage, curiosity, and compassion as we face and solve the problems life brings our way. Believing that a better future is possible is the first step towards contributing to it.

Acting on a whim, he ducked into what turned out to be a bookstore. Every book faced cover-out from the dense forest of shelves, and Dag was immediately absorbed in scanning the thousands of titles on offer. Most of the books were in Mandarin or English, with some Spanish and Arabic thrown in for good measure. As he grazed, Dag occasionally picked up a book and flipped through it, only to replace it on the shelf. Books are sharks, he remembered reading somewhere once. There were sharks before there were dinosaurs, and the reason sharks are still in the ocean is that nothing is better at being a shark than a shark. As antique media went, books were still far more popular even than vinyl, surprising analysts who predicted time and again that the feed would render them obsolete. Perhaps being outside the feed was in fact part of the appeal, offering readers something similar to what Analog patrons sought. Of course, that line about sharks must have been from a twentieth-century source, for the metaphor broke down now that the marine predators were all but extinct. With luck, today’s vote would shift civilization’s direction onto a path that might allow for such species to return in a distant, happier future.

The wonderful line about books being sharks is from the brilliant Terry Pratchett, whose richly imagined Discworld series of fantasy novels does a better job distilling the social, political, psychological, and technological forces shaping our culture and extrapolating their consequences than any explicit analysis I’ve ever read.

Discovery consisted not in exploring new lands but in looking at the world through fresh eyes.

I’ve always loved the feeling of getting off a plane and entering a new country where I don’t speak the language. It’s thrilling and challenging and sometimes overwhelming to throw yourself into the unknown like that—wandering foreign streets, tasting strange foods, miming your way to a bathroom.

But my favorite part about traveling to distant lands is the experience of returning home to discover that things you took for granted reveal themselves for what they are, that basic truths are unveiled as cultural assumptions, and that there is so much beauty and wonder right in front of us all the time every day if we take the time to really look.

We are the stories we tell ourselves. The world existed at the cusp of history just as Dag lived at the cusp of his feed. Collective and individual identities might be shaped by circumstance, but only acquiescence guaranteed them to be determined by it.

If we are the stories we tell ourselves, what happens when someone else controls the narrative? What does it take for a cynic to rediscover authenticity? How is technology changing the structure and exercise of power?

These were some of the recurring questions that surfaced again and again as I worked my way through Bandwidth chapter by chapter, scene by scene, word by word. They are questions I am forced to consider every day when I succumb to the distraction of social media, find myself ignoring injustice because it all just seems to be too much, or contemplate just how out of touch our social institutions are from a world of accelerating innovation.

These are dark thoughts, and there is a dark vein running through Bandwidth. But whenever I struggle, I try to channel Dag’s passion for history. I’d rather live in 2021 than in 1921. Or 1821. Or 1721. Or any other time. Dag would never trade his future for our present.

By historical standards, most people alive today enjoy miracles that the emperors of old could only dream of (and likely didn’t). We are a lucky and privileged few, and whatever corruption and injustice we seek to overcome isn’t new or unique. And that leads us to a challenging conclusion.

The world is what we make it.

If we throw up our hands when the going gets tough, we get what we deserve. So take a deep breath, do some gentle stretching, and make the world a better place. Do a favor for a stranger. Be kind when instinct calls for harshness. Question your assumptions. Make good art. Tell your loved ones how grateful you are to have them in your life. Lend a hand to those in need. Take real risks to do the right thing.

Oh, and remember that in an age of acceleration, contemplation is power. The feed can only define you if you let it.

Schemes begat schemes begat schemes. Outside the false constraints of sport, there was no such thing as decisive victory. There was only the blind fumbling of the fallible, of which history was its record.

One key difference between narrative and reality is that while fiction often builds toward a crux upon which the future depends, in the real world there is no endgame.

Instead, the world keeps turning, actions beget reactions, yesterday’s heroes become tomorrow’s villains, ideas wax and wane, and we live through it all straining to hear the signal in the noise.

It is this strange cascade of successive, interdependent new beginnings that simultaneously brim with meaning and are destined to fade that my novels explore.

Complement with Cory Doctorow on Bandwidth, the East Bay Express on Borderless, and this podcast interview about writing the Analog trilogy. If you want to stay in touch, the best way to follow my writing is to subscribe to my newsletter.