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Interview: Nick Wolven on “We’re So Very Sorry for Your Recent Tragic Loss”

– Tell us a bit about “We’re So Very Sorry For Your Recent Tragic Loss.”

Adam Gopnik did this profile of Michel Houellebecq in the New Yorker a while ago. It’s all about the nature of satire. Gopnik says at one point that a satirist is someone who “likes to take what’s happening now and imagine what would happen if it kept on happening.” Which makes all sci-fi writers satirists of a kind, I guess–except that in most sci-fi, what keeps on happening is awesome: the spaceships get better, the robots get smarter, everything’s on a grander scale. So you could maybe say that satire is like sci-fi, but with less awesomeness.

This story is satire. It asks what things will be like if we keep doing what we’re doing, using technology the way we’re currently using it. Specifically, it asks what’ll happen if we use the incipient “internet of things” the way we’re already using our internet of screens. The results are fairly Black Mirrorish.

 

– What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

Well, I think tech is in a pretty bleak place right now. Communications tech, anyway. Especially if you contrast it with the kinds of dreams we were dreaming twenty years ago. The guiding ethos has gone from being populist to consumerist–which always means the advertisers are running the show. You create some service or gadget or content that gets people hooked, which delivers customer feedback, which allows you to create even more addictive services and gadgets and content … it’s a merry-go-round. There are still some people working on interesting ideas, but we’re seeing a lot more of what I’d call gratuitous innovation, little tweaks and upgrades, new services that are basically rebranded variations on old services, all of it designed around that old adman’s gambit: you flatter the consumer with this kind of phony attention, then sucker-punch him with status anxiety. We did this with cars for sixty, seventy years, tinkering in the margins, trying to make the business of transportation work on the same principles as the fashion industry. We did it with drugs. For that matter, we did it with marriage.

 

– What kind of research, if any, did you do for this story?

It’s probably obvious. I’d been reading a lot of Luddite-lit when I wrote this. So not hard research, but certainly relevant background. Nick Carr, Sherry Turkle, Lanier, Postman, plus old-school cultural critics like Lasch and Lippmann and Galbraith. I mean, all tech criticism is really cultural criticism in disguise. My grandfather used to have some saying to the effect that a cynic is just an idealist who’s aging badly. I think what you see with a lot of these so-called Luddites is this almost mystical belief in the transformative power of technology. Definitely with Lanier, somewhat with Carr–they’re like these big grouchy grumpuses on the outside, but inside they’re stuffed with wispy cottony woo-woo. They really believe that every laptop holds a clue to our humanity. So I find them paradoxically inspiring. The standard counter in the popular press is to say something like, “What’s wrong with technology? Look, I just used my phone to find a new hair salon.” It’s the complacency of that second attitude that I find depressing.

 

– What would you want a reader to take away from this story?

Most people just read short stories so they can figure out where to submit their own short stories. So I guess I hope to give a reader something more enjoyable than a quarter hour of market research.

Earlier this year I did read one short story that literally made me jump to my feet. I remember standing up in my subway car, clenching my fists, thinking to myself, “Holy shit, this is literature, I’m reading literature.” What made it great was it was so unexpected. I’d never heard of the author before. I mean, my stop was coming up anyway, but I did jump up prematurely, if you know what I mean. I had an urge to pace. You always hope for that kind of wild surmise, but it comes along pretty rarely.

 

– What are you working on now?

Nothing I do with my time could ever be described as work. But I’m getting interested in psychometrics, AI, and the concept of randomness. They’re related in interesting ways. Psychometrics is all about how we measure our minds, and any system of measurement has biases, simplifications. So that has a lot of implications for AI, and vice versa. I should mention that I’m an AI skeptic, though. And randomness is key to probability theory, which is key to statistics, which is key to accurate measurement. So to the extent that we’re taking a numerical approach to the study of mind, this curious concept, randomness, is going to be increasingly important for understanding what it means to be human.

Actually, randomness is super interesting, even though no one can quite define it. Information theory, hierarchical complexity, even things like time and causality, they all seem to go back to this notion that no one understands very well. Predictable unpredictability, it’s like a kind of magic key for connecting the ideal world of math with the messiness of observed reality. So I’m banging together a sci-fi novel that plays with those ideas.

“We’re So Very Sorry for Your Recent Tragic Loss” appears in the September/October 2015 issue of F&SF.  Buy it here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1509.htm

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