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Interview with Nick Harkaway - author, gentleman and adventurer on the digital frontier

20 July 2012 Tom Hunter

In The Blind Giant, novelist and tech blogger Nick Harkaway draws together fascinating and disparate ideas to challenge the notion that digital culture is the source of all our modern ills. London Calling's Tom Hunter spoke with the busy author via email (of course) to find out more about the man behind the book.

London Calling: Your other books, The Gone-Away World and Angelmaker are both fiction. Was it difficult to make the leap to a non-fiction project like The Blind Giant or was it a welcome project change?

Nick Harkaway: It was a change of pace, and the process is different. And, you know, the nice man came and offered me cash money. Writers do not decline the cash money unless they are insane. It was a surprise to me, though - I'd never really thought about doing a non-fic book, and it was intimidating. Not least because you can be wrong. I hate that. In fiction, if you put a country in the wrong hemisphere (which I have done) you can generally wriggle out by saying it's in speech or that it's part of the strangeness of the story. Not so non-fic... ow.

LC: So, where do you start researching as vast a concept as being human in a digital world?

NH: I did a lot of reading, both online and off. That was fascinating - not just for itself, but because I ended up developing different ways of reading and working with different media. I used Evernote a lot, clipping web pages, making audio notes, even photographing book pages for my own use so that I could use the search feature later down the line to find a quote. But I found that pen and paper were an integral part of my way of thinking and brainstorming, and that scribbling in the margins is a little bit indispensable. I wasn't able to get a definite answer from anyone - it was off-topic, although not by much - but I assume those different methods represent different bits of the brain in play. Which is kinda cool.

LC: Social media channels are full of people sounding off on their opinions - how did it feel to put forward a personal perspective in several hundred pages rather than 140 characters?

NH: Well, I'm a novelist, I don't have a fear of the long form. Although I think Twitter is an excellent education in making a cogent statement in a very small space, by the way, and that's a skill writers need. What was new to me was putting my view on paper unequivocally, without a character as intermediary. That was weird. I've done small pieces for newspapers and so on, but that's always a limited exposure. This was a book, a slice through my thinking, and I was sharing it with everyone, which frankly is something I'm reticent about because I'm not a top flight analytical mind. I've met those people, and they can do this amazing multi-level, completely clear-cut taxonomical/genealogical breakdown on the fly. It's wild. But on the other hand, that style of truth-seeking is very Cambridge, very A J Ayer, and I'm not persuaded that it always yields the best results. Crudely: if you describe the ingredients and cooking process to make a cake, what you have is a recipe - even if it goes down to the atomic level. It's not a cake. I like a more synthetic, experiential style, and what I wanted to do with The Blind Giant was go very broad, look at the picture across society as far as I could, rather than try to drill to the bottom but miss the stuff slightly to one side which is just as important in a different way.

LC: The subtitle of the book is 'Being Human in a Digital World:' As someone whose partner is a human rights lawyer, do you ever get the sense we spend more time worrying about the latest leaked tech news from Cupertino when we should be more focused on human welfare generally?

NH: We do love our distractions. That's part of the thrust of the book, though I never really spelled it out in as many words: we choose to blame technology for things which frankly are the consequence of late liberal democratic capitalism and our lifestyles, because it's easier to say "hey, we should make rules for Facebook" than it is to acknowledge, say, that we need to sort out agricultural policy because beef is the worst land use imaginable and creates greenhouse gases and gets expensively subsidised and creates poverty around the globe and blah blah blah. We don't want to think about the hard stuff, so when the digital media make that hard, we shoot the messenger. Should we think more about people? Yeah. Should we think more in general? Yes, please, please, please. We have to learn to make good choices, to interrogate the questions. That's where I found myself after writing the book: worried that we're giving up the habit of hard choices, and being sold easy ones by government and business alike.

LC: One of the concepts in the book was your notion of the home as hearth, and how it's evolved or become more porous as digital technologies allow more entry into our private lives - any chance you could encapsulate this concept for our readers?

NH: Sure: the hearth is the centre of our lives, a physical space which is made almost sacred by custom and habit. It's where we do the things which really matter - live as a family, play without supervision, feel ourselves at our most relaxed. And we have extended it, reached out from it to other hearths, to our friends and extended family. And we reach out from it to buy groceries, to get news, to meet people and play games. All of which creates, inevitably, a two-way street. It makes the boundary of the hearth porous, and brings to the hearth things we don't necessarily want - information we find uncomfortable, people trying to sell us things, and so on. But the thing to understand is that this is not an invasion; it's a thing that we made because we wanted it. It's also a matter of choice. All these devices have an off-switch, but better yet, train yourself to ignore them. It's surprisingly hard, but wildly rewarding to be able to ignore an incoming call or an email. And it puts you back on control.

LC: Ok, a long question now! Another idea you explore is the idea that the creative and technology industries are missing out by designing singular products like the iPhone that are more a distillation of Steve Jobs's personality and passions than our own. And conversely, is there any merit in the idea that the flattening of design in products like iPhone can be a good thing - for instance I'm thinking of Warhol's line about Coca-Cola and how the coke the US President drinks is the same as everyone else. Are there similar ideas at play with some of these technologies we engage with today? For instance celebs can't get a better search result or version of Angry Birds than I can?

NH: Warhol is echoing Loos and co; the idea is that ubiquitous products are a leveller. It's the same, in a way, as the idea that financial markets are completely democratic because my single dollar buys the same as your single dollar... which is an illusion, actually: the richer you are, the more free stuff you get thrown in with purchases, the more soft power you have, the less tax you pay...

I'm sympathetic to the idea that that sameness gives everyone a commonality of experience, but more concerned about the downside: the implication that value derives from function rather than form is a little alarming when you apply it to people. It seems to suggest that there's no inherent value in human life, that it's all contingent on what you do with your life. I see where that might be appealing, but it's also pretty stark. We should be nervous of that kind of justice...

As to how we move towards it, I think that's pretty simple: we have to make it clear that that's what we want. The issue is avoiding Android-style fragmentation while retaining customisability - and if someone can do that, they can steal a piece of the market. I'm hoping Eben Moglen will build a phone, or the Occupy movement.

LC: And finally, having put your ideas out into the world are you enjoying the conversation and response around the book or have you switched off your phone and stopped checking your email and Twitter feeds?

I've been pillar to post doing things and talking. It's been incredibly exhausting and fun, but I'm desperate to get back to my hearth, and these last few days I have done. It's so magnificent. But note how it's my professional life which has flooded and overwhelmed my personal one, not my technology. Indeed, here I am doing this interview by email rather than having to go out and find you and do it live, and in the background I can hear my daughter arguing whether the cow-monster in Where the Wild Things Are is a Gruffalo or a Minotaur. It's amazing. It's all about how you use it, and what you choose. And for me, that's the battleground of digital: choice, and whether we're manipulated or whether we learn to make free and intelligent choices and contribute to a huge smart crowd. If the former, we'll end up with an increasingly nasty variant of the society we have now. If the latter, the sky's the limit. So I'm voting for option 2.

 

Find out more about the book by visitingThe Blind Giant website or follow Nick Harkaway on Twitter.

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