Lee Gardner is a senior reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education. He was previously the editor of the Baltimore City Paper.
In the fictional dystopia of Tim Maughan’s novel Infinite Detail, our dependence on urban technology has been suddenly severed.
In his debut novel, British writer Tim Maughan finds an ingenious and plausible way to bring the world as we know it to an end: Someone breaks the internet. A massive denial-of-service attack severs instantly the electronic connections we have come to rely on—local and global, logistical and personal—plunging the world into a new dark age:
Some gather in groups, some sit on the ground looking concussed, confused Others are trying to make their way around the vehicles that jam up the road, self-driving cars and cabs and buses that have ground to a halt, their passengers shouting for help or smashing windows to free themselves.
But Infinite Detail has more than mere dystopia on its mind. Cutting back and forth between New York City and the U.K. port city of Bristol—and between the hardscrabble post-internet world and the uncanny near-future version of our own society that precedes it—Maughan grapples with our sacrifice of privacy for convenience, our dependence on networked technology, and the death and possible second lives of cities. The novel emerged in part from a series of articles he wrote for the BBC and Motherboard that chronicled the head-spinning scale of the modern global supply chain. “I’d seen stuff that made me upset or angry or frustrated or confused in various ways,” says Maughan, now based in Ottawa, Canada. “I found that putting that stuff in fiction was a much more visceral way of getting those issues out and onto the page.”
Maughan spoke with CityLab about the limitations of smart city thinking, graffiti culture in Bristol, and how an email from an algorithm to a container-ship captain helped inspire the story. Our interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Why Bristol? What's your relationship to that location?
The last 10 years I was living in the U.K. were in Bristol. And that's when I started writing a bunch of short fiction, and I just set it there because that was where I was. It’s a weirdly science fictional city in some ways.
I was heavily into the music scene and the graffiti scene. I wrote a short story [called “Paintwork”] in about 2011 about a graffiti artist that hacks smart billboards. And it was just such a very Bristol thing. Bristol’s got this very healthy, very long tradition of graffiti and street art, and because Banksy comes from Bristol, it became kind of elevated in certain ways. The city authorities spent literally decades and millions of pounds trying to clamp down on the graffiti scene and put up weird anti-graffiti technologies all over the city. I don’t know if they still do, but when I left they were sponsoring graffiti festivals. It became so symbolic of the city that it is part of the tourist trade.
I went on to set a bunch of short stories in that same setting, and shortly after I started writing Infinite Detail, about 2012, 2013, I moved to New York, so it became this book about two cities. Basically, I’m contrasting takes on smart city technology.
I gather you’re not a fan.
One of the chief criticisms of smart city technology is that it’s very generic. These technologies are very much off-the-shelf solutions—and “solutions” in quotation marks, because a lot of the smart-city stuff views cities as a problem that needs to be solved.
My view—and Bristol is a good example of this—is that cities exist as a bunch of different conflicts between different priorities and different communities and different infrastructures, and those conflicts are unique to every city. The idea that a top-down solution can be dropped onto every city is really dangerous.
One thing that cities and the internet have in common, it seems, is that they both embody these contradictory impulses people have to be together, and also to maintain privacy.
What’s public and what’s private is increasingly blurred by technology and the internet, and the privatization of public spaces is an issue that the book was trying to tap. What were previously common spaces, or public spaces, are increasing corporatized, even if just by advertising or through surveillance technologies.
In most cities in the world, there’s very little regulation. The use of surveillance technology by the city itself might be regulated, but it’s less regulated for people that own property.
I hadn’t been to Detroit for like maybe two or three years, and I was back a couple months ago, and the city has changed completely. The downtown has been completely renovated. And it’s because of Dan Gilbert, the Quicken Loans guy, who has bought up most of the city. But there was a story maybe five years ago about a few kids who had put graffiti on one of his buildings, and he used his private surveillance network to track them down. This isn’t a a Detroit City or Detroit Police Department surveillance system. It’s just networked cameras on buildings that he owns, and he owns most of the buildings in downtown Detroit.
That idea that you are being watched, that you don’t have privacy in public spaces, which sounds, I guess, oxymoronic in some ways—I think we should be allowed to have an anonymity in public spaces to a certain extent. That’s a real conflict, and I hope the book makes that something that people think about.
It seems like many people, especially here in the States, aren’t very concerned about giving up their privacy for convenience.
That’s the core theme of the book, I think. It’s a common and perhaps overused phrase, but if you’re not paying for the product then you are the product.
I saw a D.C. lobbyist on Twitter just in the last week looking at data that said 70-something percent of people in the U.S. weren’t worried about that tradeoff and were quite happy about that convenience. He then went on to label surveillance capitalism as an “elite moral panic” that only a few people worried about. But it’s hard for people to be upset or concerned about stuff they don’t understand, or don't even know exists, especially in the surveillance context.
We buy into that saying that if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to hide. I think that’s an incredibly dangerous expression, because it simplifies the surveillance argument down to one about law and order. I come from the perspective that that kind of law and order is probably incredibly dangerous in itself. But it’s more to the fact that we are being surveyed for our behavior and our data rather than for moralistic or legal reasons.
A good example is the awful revelations that came out about Alexa, where they interviewed people that were listening in on Alexa stuff and monitoring it on the basis of trying to make the system more effective. Some of them claimed that they had overheard sexual assaults, and there was nothing they could do about it. So they’re not listening to you to see if you've done something wrong. They don't care. They’re mining data and your behavior in order to make decisions, whether they are decisions on what products you’re sold or decisions on how to run a city. They’re decisions that you are contributing to without really having any say in it.
You’ve worked as a journalist to report on lots of these issues. Why use fiction to write about it?
There are a lot of fantastic journalists doing really, really great work around cities or surveillance or algorithmic control or complexity issues. But I don’t see enough of it in entertainment or in literature. Cory Doctorow’s done some interesting work on this. Shows like Black Mirror do some interesting poking at this stuff. But if you talk about surveillance in mainstream entertainment, it comes down to Big Brother scenarios, and I feel like there’s a whole area of this that people don’t understand, people who maybe wouldn’t read the journalistic stuff. It’s hard to explain how, say, surveillance capitalism works to somebody, even in a nonfiction way, without having specific examples. Making up an example is a really good way of exploring these things.
One of the paradoxes of Infinite Detail is that this anarchic and contrarian neighborhood in Bristol becomes of one of the few islands of stability in the post-crash world, and therefore attractive to all sorts of folks.
A big thing that’s happening in cities in the U.K. at the moment, especially in London, is nightclubs are being shut down. They’re in neighborhoods that were opened up in the ‘90s, because those neighborhoods were very run down, for want of a better phrase. Property was cheap. Nightclubs like Fabric became very popular, became brands in themselves, attracted people from all over the city, from outside the city, and from all over the world, eventually.
They revitalized the neighborhood around them. They become attractive places for people to live or set up businesses. Next thing happens is property developers move in, start building condos, and complain about the noise. So these clubs are being forced to shut down because property developers are building apartment blocks right next to them or on top of them.
Who loses in that dynamic?
It’s quite often the most marginalized communities or those people that have the most to lose.
Frank, the can-collecting guy [in the book], was an incredibly familiar figure to me when I was living in Brooklyn. These guys were constantly orbiting our neighborhood collecting recycling before the city came to recycle it so they could get a small amount of money for each can. That was their living. It’s an organic symbiotic relationship they have with the city. It struck me as the sort of thing that smart cities want to “solve,” in quotation marks. How do we solve the problem of recycling? How do we incentivize people to recycle themselves? How do we gamify recycling? It just kind of clicked into place as this really obvious way of exploring this idea.
We’ve talked about digital divides for a long time. What the internet of things does, and what smart cities do, is they take those digital divides—those divisions between who understands and has access and control of technology and who doesn’t—and they turn them into even more physical divides.
This technology is very much aimed at the model citizen, in some ways. It’s aimed at a bourgeois middle-class tech-savvy kind of person rather than those in marginalized communities. And I’m not just talking about early adopters versus late adopters. As we steamroll this technology in, we don’t talk to the community that it’s been dropped on top of.
Right. It’s pretty unusual these days that someone spends a lot of money building something for poor people.
I don’t think there’s a conspiracy theory here. I don’t think it’s a planned thing. I think that’s also, in some ways, the problem—that it isn’t being planned enough. It’s got the illusion of being planned.
Like I said earlier, there are all these conflicts that make up cities. And this kind of dropped-down top-down approach to solving them doesn’t really think about them in any way. It just gives attractive shiny solutions to people who have power and the money to invest in them. That’s what’s really dangerous.
One of the interesting things about the post-crash part of your story is that, gradually, a new system arises to run things in the place of the old system—even if the person who runs things, the character Grids, is somewhat grudging about doing so.
As I was about two-thirds of the way through the book and trying to work out exactly how to end stuff, I came across a great essay by Astra Taylor about the term “activism” versus the term “organizer.” The argument she’s making is there’s a lot of talk about activism these days, but … activism is seen as something that’s kind of sexy and short-term, something you can say you did by liking a post on Facebook. Actual political change is done through organizing, and that’s a much longer process, and often a much smaller process. It starts at a community level and involves a lot of planning and dedicating, if not all your life maybe a certain chunk of your life, towards a political cause.
Grids has inherited running a part of the city. And he might not be very good at it, but at least he’s doing it. His argument he has towards the end of the book with Anika is that you started this revolution but you didn’t know where it went. You didn’t have any plans for what happened afterwards. That’s an incredibly legit and incredibly important thing to consider when we’re talking about radical politics or activism or revolutions. It’s not just about protest. It’s about longer-term solutions and working with communities to try and work out what happens next. After you’ve broken something, how do you fix it? Or what you replace it with?
A big influence on the book was the Occupy movement. It was sad to me how it kind of petered out towards the end. It created this huge groundswell of support and this really exciting moment, but it didn’t necessarily deliver on what it wanted and didn’t even really necessarily make demands of anybody. It just occupied this mind space where people felt that things were wrong, it filled that vacuum.
And that’s how politics works now. I mean that’s what Trump does. That’s what Brexit did. They occupy a political vacuum where people don’t understand stuff; they’re unhappy with how the economy works, how society works, or how they perceive politics as working. If you’re going to combat that, we need to also occupy that space as political movements, but with a plan as what happens next.
One of the most compelling things about the book is its vision of the world post-internet. It has become so taken for granted that the notion of how transformed the world would be if it suddenly ceased to exist just doesn’t compute.
The core of the book for me is me trying to work through what how I feel about complexity as a kind of governing and controlling and dominating issue for the 21st century.
I spent some time in 2014 traveling in China. I was with a group of architects and researchers on a trip to observe the supply chain backwards—the route that consumer goods take from China to Europe and America, but we were doing in reverse.
We were on this huge Maersk container ship. It's got like 10,000 containers on it, crew of about 20, and we were out in the middle of the South China Sea. I was talking to the captain, and as he talked, he was interrupted by this beeping sound, and he walks over to a computer and types something and then calls the engine room and tells them to slow the ship down. He comes back and starts to talk to me again. And I said, what happened there? He said, “I got an email from Maersk in Copenhagen telling me to slow the ship down.” And I asked, “Why?” He said, “I don't know.”
He said it probably means that there are delays at Ningbo port, so there’s no point using up fuel to get there on time. The supply chain algorithms decided it would be a waste of money.
That really shaped the book. We’re stuck in this huge network that we don’t understand. Even the people who seem to have responsibility over it don’t understand how it works. The senior captain of a container ship doesn’t understand why he’s slowing the ship down. He doesn’t know what’s in any of those containers. And this whole system that is telling him where to go, telling him how fast to go, is the same system telling the crane drivers which containers to load onto the ship and telling the truck drivers in the container ports we have to move the containers within the port.
There’s this huge planet-spanning networked system that’s controlling all this—controlling how our cities run, making sure that food and consumer goods and medicines and all these things that we want and more importantly need get to us. It’s a vast, largely now automated system that no individual understands, and more to the point, no individual can understand. We’ve handed so much control over this over to algorithmic systems—and over to the internet, in effect. I started thinking, so if this system disappeared, what happens? We don’t know how to replace it.
I think that us not understanding how the world works and not being able to fix something if it breaks down is related to this unprecedented complexity that we’re dealing with now. That’s the same for whether it’s your car or your iPhone not working, to a city not working, to the supply chain not working, to democratic electoral processes.
Have you visited New York’s new city-of-the-future, Hudson Yards?
The thing that struck me about it is how depressingly generic it is, how not unusual it is. The architecture is very generic; the brands are the same brands you see everywhere. It might be on a bigger scale, but it’s the same approach I’ve seen everywhere. The place reminded me instantly of Dubai.