Ricardo Signes: Welcome back to the Digital Citizen podcast. I’m Ricardo Signes, the CTO of Fastmail, the email provider of choice for savvy digital citizens everywhere. With me here is my colleague, Fastmail COO Helen Horstmann-Allen.
Helen Horstmann-Allen: Hi, I’m Helen. Today, Rik will be talking to L.X. Beckett. Rik, can you tell our listeners a little bit more about who L.X. is?
Ricardo Signes: L.X. is a Toronto-based science fiction author and editor. We’ll be exploring the world of their 2019 novel Gamechanger on the podcast today. Gamechanger is a book set in the future where there has been sort of a series of massive collapses of society and people are working very hard to bring everything good back, to clawback is a phrase that’s used in the book, all the things that have been lost to climate change, war, disease and so on.
Helen Horstmann-Allen: So a post-post-apocalyptic book.
Ricardo Signes: Yeah, that’s exactly right. I had read a decent number of apocalypses and post-apocalypses in a row and had to read something that was at least slightly more positive. And I thought it was a good choice and I enjoyed reading about what do we do after all that bad stuff, or let’s pretend it’s not the end.
Helen Horstmann-Allen: Awesome. Well, I’m glad you liked it. I particularly thought that L.X. would be an interesting guest because they take a really interesting take on technology. I feel like, I read a lot of science fiction and in a lot of science fiction books, ubiquitous technology is either just assumed or portrayed as dystopian. And this is a slightly more interesting take and makes some interesting positive points along with, kind of, some real critiques. So I’m very interested to hear your conversation. What else will the two of you be talking about this week?
Ricardo Signes: Well, we talk about science fiction and how it is or often is a critique of the world we’re currently living in, and what it means to find hope in the communities that you’re currently part of. And we talk a fair bit about the specific world of Gamechangers, where technology has really changed the future of privacy, or maybe the lack of privacy in the digital world, and has, I think, an unusual take on how that could play out. If you stick around to the end of the episode, we’ll have some takeaways, things you could actually do to become a better digital citizen.
Ricardo Signes: And you could also find those on our website at fastmail.com/digitalcitizen. Also, if you want to get involved with this season of the show, check out the survey listed in our show notes and send us a question. We’ll be randomly choosing some to answer in our end of season bonus episode.
Ricardo Signes: I’m here with L.X. Beckett, a sci-fi author, editor and poet. They’re the author of Freezing Rain, A Chance of Falling, of Gamechanger and its sequel Dealbreaker. L.X., I’ll start with this. What is it about science fiction that appeals to you?
L.X. Beckett: I started reading very early and at that time my mother gave me a bunch of her old books. She was quite young when she had me. I grew up, as it were, reading Ray Bradbury and Madeleine L’Engle and C.L. Moore and Anne McCaffrey. One of the things that just really appealed to me was that escape value that you get from thinking into a world that doesn’t exist and that is completely outside your reality, whatever it might be. It appealed to my imagination and the older I got and the more complex science fiction got the more interesting and delightful and challenging the literature got. So it’s just been an endless parade of delight.
Ricardo Signes: I want to ask you about, well, a bunch of questions about Gamechanger. And I read it, I enjoyed it, but for listeners who haven’t read it yet, could you give us a little synopsis of the state of the world in 2100 and how we got there?
L.X. Beckett: So Gamechanger is sort of the dawn of a new era for humankind after the century we’re living through now. And I wrote this a few years ago and I imagined three generations of people. So just as we sort of think now in terms of the boomers, the Gen Xers, the millennials, this world had a Setback generation, which is people coming of age now as things are, in my fictional world, getting worse because of pandemics and global conflict and resource shortages and climate change. It’s not that I didn’t think it was all likely, but it seems much realer now. So that’s the Setback. The Clawback generation saw all the really catastrophic consequences of that downslide, but it is also the generation that sort of said, enough is enough. As a species we need to change our behaviors. And then there’s the Bounceback generation.
L.X. Beckett: So this book takes place in the early days of the period called the Bounceback, which is a point where humanity can see that they have mitigated the worst effects of climate change. It’s obvious that we’re not going to become extinct anytime in the near future. There’s still a viable global economy with a lot of the things you and I regard as probably life necessities. And at the same time, there are things that have been lost and one of them is privacy. One of them is an international system where there are different countries that people can live in.
L.X. Beckett: And many people have a choice as to what kind of country they’re going to live in, which we don’t think of as a privilege but for those of us who can choose, it’s a huge one. And there’s rationing, there’s resource rationing. You’re not allowed to become wildly rich when other people aren’t so the wealth gap has been forcibly closed. The story is largely about a woman who is the equivalent of a public defender in the court system. And she works with people who have severe social disadvantages.
Ricardo Signes: There’s a point in the book where describing the Clawback, or the generation where people realize that they have to do drastic changes to recover from the problems in the world, the Clawback is described as everybody throws all their stuff, all their possessions on a table, and they just put it all together into figuring out how to rebuild. This, as you say, comes after the Setback. And the Setback is mostly described only in passing references as “lots of bad stuff.” And it just talks about this hopeful time that humanity is in now. But the problem for me as the reader is those horrible things haven’t really all happened to us, or you and me yet. And I can’t jump, I don’t have the narrative structure in my universe to jump past them. And I definitely don’t want to live through some of the things that are described in there.
L.X. Beckett: Yes.
Ricardo Signes: Yeah. So what are we meant to do now, if we want to be able to feel hopeful that we, humanity**,** can avoid having to go through the Setback and still make inroads on fixing the world that we live in?
L.X. Beckett: Wow. That is such a huge question. I mean, part of my answer was writing a book that would maybe show a good end result and motivate people to engage with the process of making it a viable outcome. Like, my art is my biggest fight back against the things in reality that I don’t love. There’s no one size fits all solution to any of humanity’s problems. And those are such huge things to grapple with as, like, a lone, tiny human, who just needs to pay their mortgage. It is very daunting. But for all that the pandemic has shown us where we are weak, I think it has also shown us the places where we are strong**,** too. And in my case, one of the things I’m really interested in are international fandoms. And since you’re in the US, the one I would mention is Nerdfighteria. They have an incredible community and they do a lot of work to make the world a better place.
Ricardo Signes: Well, that made me wonder, is hope a recurring theme for you generally in your work or did the stars just align to get me to this book just when I needed it?
L.X. Beckett: I think for artists, hope is a kind of moral practice that you can choose to pursue. And in science fiction, as I’m sure you know, there’s a lot of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories. And they’re really powerful and they’re really appealing often to young readers. The one that immediately springs to mind is the Hunger Games Trilogy. But the thing about a steady diet of dystopia is it conditions you to think that the future is unremittingly bad and there’s nothing you can do about it. So when I set out to write Gamechanger particularly, I thought, okay, what is ambitious but feasible for our world 100 years from now?
L.X. Beckett: So sort of a measured form of optimism, the storytelling of this book. I think we do harm if we imagine that just because we’re telling fictional stories, we aren’t having an effect on people. I cannot even imagine what kind of a person I would be without the media I consumed as a young person. It shaped my worldview. It affected who I am. You know, there are pieces of things that I believe passionately in my head that have been there for decades that were put there by other storytellers. So as we create, we have to think about it.
Ricardo Signes: All right. In the world of the Bounceback when we get to it, there’s a lot of technological advancement, but the changes that struck me the most were the changes in society, right, how humanity has changed the way they act. Life looks different and I want to ask you some things about that. And I realize as I get into this question, the first question I have is somewhat about the technology, but could you tell the listeners what Haystack is?
L.X. Beckett: Sure. So in this future of ours, we all still have really great internet and it’s actually virtual reality. And it’s mediated through implants we get at adolescence. Suddenly your eyes are cameras, there’s a microphone near your larynx, there are audio pickups and speakers built into your ears. And from that moment, everything you do is online. And the interview question I used to get asked most was, “Do you think people would really do that?” So your society and your circle of friends is global, a lot of your life is spent online, and your day-to-day physical existence is kind of spare.
L.X. Beckett: That’s where every utterance that you make, everything your eyes pick up on camera, everything you happen to hear, whether you consciously register it or not, goes into a huge cache of data. And the concept of privacy in this future is everything’s on record, most people simply avoid notice because nobody’s interested enough in them to make a Haystack request and sift through all the data to find the thing they want. And anytime someone makes that request, you are informed.
Ricardo Signes: I was kind of galled reading about Haystack. I think a lot about privacy, it’s a recurring topic on the podcast. And for me, I always file it under this is a human need. Privacy is a human need and it’s a human right. And in the Bounceback, the elimination of privacy is presented at least somewhat as a good. It’s not an unambiguous good. I very much enjoyed the phrase “mutually assured disclosure,” which is used at some point in the book and which I thought was a great way of getting at the knife’s edge of this. And people have their own secret ways of communicating off the transcript. But seeing this idea presented as it was made me wonder, what do you think about our society’s current relationship with privacy?
L.X. Beckett: As you say, I didn’t say I necessarily thought it was all good. And one of the downsides of it is that especially teenagers as they’re getting their implants and realizing their last sort of scrap of privacy has gone, a lot of them have mental health challenges at that point. I don’t actually think this is that different from our relationship with privacy now. The vast majority of us who have access to phones and good internet consciously decide to let companies have our data. So going back to international fandom, one of the other fandoms that really interest me is BTS, who are a Korean boy band.
Ricardo Signes: Yeah, yeah.
L.X. Beckett: They live so much of their lives online and they have such an interesting relationship, both with their fans and with the public. Like, they are not quite on camera all the time, but it is as close to this future that I wrote about as I can imagine anyone being. And it is interesting to sort of watch how these guys who are all in their twenties navigate the fact that they only have the tiniest scraps of their lives to themselves.
Ricardo Signes: Yeah. So talking about our privacy as an economic asset, another big change in the book is the nature of the economy. Money is almost never referenced in the book. I think the word money appears twice. Could you give us the nickel summary of the reputation economy in Bounceback?
L.X. Beckett: Yeah, absolutely. I thought a lot about this. The idea is that money would change if we didn’t have countries. So in Gamechanger, when the entire world comes under oversight for environmental reasons and for surviving the climate crisis, there essentially becomes one economy. But in order to retain some of the things that make capitalism a really powerful motivator for development and cooperation, this secondary economy based on likes and dislikes in the sort of Facebooky, Twittery style is built, and what you pay for most goods and services depends on how well thought of you are socially. So again, you have no privacy.
L.X. Beckett: If someone sees you pick up a piece of litter on the street, your social value will then go up incrementally. And if you do something that’s kind of famously nice then your social capital really shoots up, and all the costs for all the little services will go down because you’ll be in a better tier, essentially. The idea was to create what we call a village effect. The idea of a village effect is people behave better when everyone knows what they’re up to.
Ricardo Signes: When I read in one of your bios that you had spent at least some time as a moderator in a Star Trek chat room, I immediately thought of cloud site. And I wondered if your time trying to regulate the randos on the internet informed your ideas about how a globally connected society could work to suppress the worst instincts in people.
L.X. Beckett: The Star Trek chat room was invented for the Syfy channel and it was in the early days of IRC. It was so early on that you needed an actual human there to kick out people if they showed up to spam everyone or to troll them. It was a really interesting gig. And yeah, I mean, that was probably my first in your face encounter with trolling. It makes me sad sometimes that the internet is such an amplifier for both the best, but also the worst impulses that we have. And I certainly, I think probably the lesson I took away more than anything was that being anonymous, yeah, for many people equates to having permission. And I think really that’s the thing that I took away was like, if you strip away the right to be anonymous, you have people who suddenly care again what people see them doing.
Ricardo Signes: Throughout the book we see how these ideas of mandatory transparency and the reputation economy are motivating factors in how the characters are behaving. And it seems like the message is these people weren’t actually changed, they were put in check. Is it just the anonymity?
L.X. Beckett: One of the things that I really strongly believe is no system is forever and no answer is forever. So one of the reasons the world of Bounceback is becoming somewhat less stable in the period that I’m writing about is because they’ve had 100 years of peace and 100 years of everyone rowing really hard in the same direction to try and keep the lifeboat afloat. And now they’re tired, and they’ve kind of been promised a better future but it hasn’t quite come yet. So I’m not saying I think people are inherently bad, but I do think if you sit on a big aspect of human nature for a century that whatever that behavioral check is that goes away, you’re going to see a counter reaction.
Ricardo Signes: One last thing I wanted to ask about this society, you mentioned earlier, everybody’s online all the time. All reality is augmented reality. What do you think people actually want from augmented reality in the world we live in?
L.X. Beckett: I think it depends on what you have. If you already enjoy, for example, as I do, high-speed internet and a great mobile device or two, and not surprisingly, I spend a certain amount of time in VR because I write about it. With VR as an example, my headset is heavy. I can only wear it for about an hour and a half before I have horrific eye strain and a neck ache. It’s not surprising that I fantasize about having surgical augments. We like the idea of being able to control them but again, I feel like our history with things like the iPhone shows that we would rather have the outcome than necessarily understand how it works or worry too much about the privacy aspects. So we want less friction, that judgment of whether or not it’s good for us. Simplicity of use, I would say, would be lovely.
Ricardo Signes: I did think it was interesting in the book that we had a number of times where effectively someone would get called out for having disdain for those folks who could not be part of the augmented society, that clearly these prejudices and problems remained and that people looked at it like, that’s their problem to deal with, when in fact it was a societal problem. Gamechanger was published in late 2019. Just a few months later, we all got stuck at home. Has living through all of that changed how you think about the kind of connectedness that people want or need?
L.X. Beckett: It was a mix of, the things I felt I got right, I was like, oh, it was much more fun to write about than to live through. It was the little things that happened among communities in the pandemic that interested me most and surprised me most, like the things like the bread baking trend. The things that were hard about socializing online in the age of Zoom that I make so easy in the book, I was like, oh, I just want my world for this.
Ricardo Signes: So this podcast is Digital Citizen and I want to ask you some questions about our citizenship in this digital world. What advice would you give an individual who wants to have a safe and healthy relationship with, let’s say, the internet, with online?
L.X. Beckett: Self-knowledge. Not all of us are built the same way. I, for example, have been very much off social media whenever the news cycle has been especially alarming, which has been a lot lately. And I do that for my mental health. And it does mean I miss out on certain kinds of community and then I have to kind of go poking around looking for other kinds of community that are safer spaces. And all of that is only possible if you sort of know what’s up in your soul, figure out what’s good for you, and then don’t apologize for it. Because you know we’re herd animals in a way, we highly like to do the things everyone else is doing. If you have a weird approach to the internet or the news and you just have to tell people about it, they’re like, “enhh,” you just be like, “Yeah, that’s me.” Move on.
Ricardo Signes: So what about other communities we take part in, whether those are Star Trek chat rooms or social media communities? What can we do to be a better digital citizen in those spaces?
L.X. Beckett: I listen to a lot of podcasts and the parasocial friends I’ve made during the pandemic have been extraordinarily important to me. And at the end of every podcast, of course, people generally say, “Please like, please subscribe, please post a review if you can.” And I thought about how valuable and supportive and powerful good feedback can be and how rarely I take the time to actually do the reviews. And I thought, you know, if we’re talking about what is a simple way to be a better digital citizen, one way is to really take the time to offer that kind of thoughtful appreciation for the things that are important to you on the internet that you don’t want to see disappear or change.
L.X. Beckett: So I’ve written more reviews of podcasts lately as a result of this. That sounds like a small thing, but I see it as part of the… Here’s a person who will never see you, who is doing a thing that is meaningful, and letting them know that it is important to you, and more importantly, letting them know why and how, and even sometimes kindly what doesn’t work, is the road to offering that person a chance to be better or even just be happier or take satisfaction in what they have done.
Ricardo Signes: That’s great. I mean, it’s also very actionable, which is always a nice characteristic.
Ricardo Signes: I hope you enjoyed the interview.
Helen Horstmann-Allen: I definitely did. And I thought your discussions about online communities were really interesting. I think we don’t all necessarily think of the online places where we engage as communities, but really that’s what makes them stick around. So I’m a knitter and my Ravelry social media group might be the most positive online community that I’m part of. But it’s interesting how people consider that it’s very, very different from most other places, even though basically all online communities are the same human beings, right? Like, why do some communities end up being these positive enriching places and others turn into a toxic cesspool where you just want to run away and hide?
Ricardo Signes: I mean, yeah, that’s the question, right? The question of how it is that we create communities that foster positivity or at least honesty and caring about one another is a really big problem for all of humanity. And I think that the book does a good job of posing that question, right : How do we deal with these problems on both the small and the large scale? And I will remain interested in that question probably for the rest of my life.
Helen Horstmann-Allen: Yeah. You know, Rik, I was thinking what we should do in the show notes is recommend a couple of other books, because I always love it when I finish a book that I really like and they recommend some other things that they think I’ll also like. Well, alongside the book takeaways, what do you think the other key takeaways of your conversation today were?
Ricardo Signes: Well, reading is good. Reading is both an escape and a way of getting a different view on the world that we’re living in. Often when you read science fiction, right, you’re reading about some strange and unusual scenario or world. And I think we all know, science fiction is actually about the world we’re in right now. It just gives us the chance to take a step back and have a new perspective. And that’s almost always a great choice for how to think about the world. Also, it’s never too late to get involved in online communities, especially ones that are committed to having a positive impact like Nerdfighteria. As L.X. said, self-knowledge is important. If you feel like the way that you’re dealing with social media is having a negative impact on you. It’s okay to change that.
Ricardo Signes: And I would say it’s important to change that. You can’t just look at something and say, “Well, this is bad for me, but I’m definitely going to keep doing it.” And finally, a positive review can go a long way. So if you have a podcast or content creator or an app that you like, you should leave a positive review and tell the creator that you’re enjoying what they made. Because for people who are casting their content out into the void, you don’t know that you are having a positive impact on someone that you don’t know. Everybody likes to know that they’re having some kind of positive impact on the world or that people appreciate what they’re doing.
Helen Horstmann-Allen: If you like this show, you can tweet at us @fastmail. We’ll get to see your comments. We hope that you can take these actionable steps towards better digital citizenship. We’ll be back in two weeks with a new cast so subscribe to hear what topic we’re exploring next.
Ricardo Signes: Thanks for listening to the Digital Citizen. Digital Citizen is produced by Fastmail, the email provider of choice for savvy digital citizens everywhere. Our show’s produced by Haley Hnatuk. Special thanks to the incredible team of people people behind Fastmail. Digital Citizen is hosted by me, Fastmail CTO Ricardo Signes. You can subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast player for a free one-month trial of Fastmail. You can go to fast fastmail.com/podcast, and for more episodes, transcripts and my takeaways, you can go to digitalcitizenshow.com.