A conversation with Infomocracy author, Malka Older.
All opinions expressed in these episodes are personal and do not reflect the opinions of the organizations for which our guests work.
Click to read the full transcript of this episode.
[00:00:00] Alistair Croll: [00:00:10] Hi everyone and welcome to a conversation with Malka Older. We’re putting this together in preparation for our second Executive Book Club for FWD50. Malka is the author [00:00:20] of Infomocracy and a this conversation and the second edition of our book club is being produced thanks to our partners at Google who loved to encourage these kinds of [00:00:30] conversations about the future of governments and resiliency and democracy and, and recalibrating risk and rethinking the public infrastructure needed as [00:00:40] society evolves. I can think of nobody better than to have this conversation with the Malka Older. I’ve just finished reading her extraordinary book Infomocracy. I really loved it. It was [00:00:50] everything I’d hoped, but also a whole lot. I wasn’t expecting, so please join me in welcoming Malka.
[00:00:56] Malka Older: Hey. Hi, I’m great. How are you?
[00:00:59] Alistair Croll: I’m [00:01:00] better now that I’ve read your book. I got to say I really enjoyed it. And we’re going to talk a little bit about it today for people who want to know a little more, or maybe haven’t had time to go [00:01:10] through the whole thing, but boy, should they read it? Particularly before it inevitably gets turned into some kind of Netflix action thing cause it’s great. So good to hear. Yeah, I’m [00:01:20] not just saying that it was a blast to read, so Maybe in your own words, you can, without too many spoilers recap, the world is like 20, 60, 20, 70, wherever it’s supposed [00:01:30] to be and like what’s changed about society to come up with a new form of.
[00:01:34] Malka Older: Yes. Great. So this is the book is set in a future that’s as you said, it’s about 50 to 60 years from [00:01:40] now. And in this world, the nation state is largely extinct to, there are a couple of holdouts in sort of smaller territorial versions, but most of [00:01:50] the world has shifted over to this new geopolitical system, which is called micro democracy. And in the system, the basic jurisdictional unit is a [00:02:00] hundred thousand people. Now that’s population-based, it’s not territory based. So it could be a couple of really dumb city blocks, or it could be these, you know, vast tracks of rural area. [00:02:10] And each of these, which is called a Sentinel for the a hundred thousand people can choose elect the government out of all the governments that exist in the world at that time. [00:02:20] So there are about 2000 governments in the world. I described. They go from major governments that have sentinels all over the world to very small local ones that really just deal with local [00:02:30] issues and only really contest in a couple of sentinels. But this means that except for these, these jurisdictions you know, you and your [00:02:40] 999,000 closest friends, the government is largely separated from location, from territoriality. And all of [00:02:50] this system which means that, you know, you can be walking down a city street and cross the street and be in a different country, essentially [00:03:00] be under a totally different government with different laws and different culture and different tax structure. Whereas, you know, on the other hand, if you’re a government, you might have constituents dotted all over the [00:03:10] world. All of this is facilitated by this giant global bureaucracy that is responsible for all information [00:03:20] management in the world, which is called very creatively as I came up with, when I wrote the book Information. So that’s the basic sort of setup of what’s happening. There’ve [00:03:30] been two global elections so far, and the book opens in the run-up to the third election.
[00:03:36] Alistair Croll: But information is kind of like the UN, but also the voting. [00:03:40] And it seems like telecom infrastructure in general.
[00:03:44] Malka Older: Yes. So it’s, it’s, it’s represents this shift in what we expect from our international [00:03:50] organizations into something that’s really focused on information management. And actually, I can tell you that a lot of the inspiration from that, some of it came out of frustration with our [00:04:00] current information environment, which is so fragmented and obviously, you know, we’re seeing more and more of the problems that we’re having with disinformation and misinformation [00:04:10] and, and the sorts of things going on with the corporations that run news networks and so on. The agglomerations. But there was this other really positive [00:04:20] inspiration for it, which was I was working on an earthquake response in West Sumatra. And this was in 2009 and the UN [00:04:30] came in and they had this individual who was on staff, who was entirely dedicated to information management and just stayed in the office while all of us in the NGOs were going out and [00:04:40] responding and, and going to different villages and looking at what was happening there. And this person was just in the office, you know, marking things off and making it available to everybody. And it was such a [00:04:50] different thing from the other disaster responses I’d worked where everybody was scrambling for their own information and nobody had the same stuff. And it really made me think about information as a public [00:05:00] good and information management as one of these functions that’s you know, that’s really important, really fundamental to how things run in the world today. And, and, [00:05:10] you know, maybe something that’s good to, to kind of extract a little bit from the fray.
[00:05:15] Alistair Croll: Yeah, I think everyone talks about, you know, information being the first casualty of war [00:05:20] but increasingly information is the first casualty of a crisis or pretty much anything newsworthy. And so there’s a moment in this where I don’t, [00:05:30] I’m not spoiling anything I hope where one of the protagonists sees a sign go up at a rally and the sign itself is intentionally designed to make it harder for [00:05:40] someone to edit it out because it uses flames so it’d be harder for an algorithm to block that and they have to not only put out the sign really quickly, that’s libelous and contains [00:05:50] false information, but then also issue a correction in the physical world. What do you like, where do you think we’re going to go as a [00:06:00] society with fake news in 20 years? How are we going to assess a cost to untruth and a value to province?
[00:06:08] Malka Older: So let me start by saying, you know, [00:06:10] adjusting that, I think that, you know, information is the first casualty. It’s also becoming the first weapon. It’s the first shot fired and it tends to be the last shot fired too, because if you think about [00:06:20] something like the civil war in the United States. I mean, the Confederacy is actually still fighting that war with information. And there are a lot of people who still believe [00:06:30] that the war was very different than it was in the causes of the war and the results of the war were very different than they were because of that information battle that is still going on. So it’s, [00:06:40] it’s really, it’s, it’s a weapon. And I think we’re, we’re realizing that more and more. It’s not a new thing at all. I mean, we see disinformation going [00:06:50] back decades and decades, centuries and centuries. I think as long as we’ve had policies, we’ve had disinformation and information being weaponized in various ways, but of course we’re [00:07:00] dealing with different technologies. And so it’s, it’s acting in different ways. It’s scaling in very different ways. And it’s, and [00:07:10] we, especially, when you think about large organizations like governments and organizations that maybe are not as, as tech savvy, they’re, they’re quite [00:07:20] behind in terms of how they deal with it. So, you know, it’s, it is a big problem. I think moving forward, you know, there’s a lot of [00:07:30] talk about it right now. And there are some people who are, there’s some people in organizations that are out there doing really good work on, on how to do how to deal with disinformation. But [00:07:40] there’s, we also need to do a lot of work on defining really what the problems are and figuring out, you know, figuring out for example, where the line goes in culpability, between [00:07:50] intent with intent, you know, which is very something that’s very tricky and hard to deal with, but becomes really important when you have hundreds of thousands of people spreading [00:08:00] disinformation without knowing that they’re doing it.
[00:08:02] Alistair Croll: Right. I think we can look at some of the misinformation on vaccination can be attributed to a dozen people. Like it’s really that, and then everybody else was [00:08:10] just amplifying it. So most of these changes and obviously there’s a big change in whether it’s illegal to communicate false information. [00:08:20] Something has to break in society for us to be willing, to make a massive change like that. And in your book you mentioned it almost in passing, like it’s an assumed history, the diet Cola, [00:08:30] libel lawsuits that triggered all this. Can you, can you talk about, you know, what you had to come up with in your head to justify the [00:08:40] change from a world where information is you know, a set of opinions that may or may not be true to a world there are very specific laws around. [00:08:50]
[00:08:51] Malka Older: Yeah, absolutely. And, and, you know, we do have some of that already today, right? We have laws against scaling fire in a movie theater, which is this classic example, but [00:09:00] I mean, that is someone spreading disinformation in a way that is harmful to people. And again, we just, we really need to update for the situations that we’re facing now. But when I wrote the [00:09:10] book to be totally honest, part of the reason I said it far enough in the future was because I didn’t necessarily want to be tied to having a plausible road from [00:09:20] the book to, to that future, because the point of the future is not to predict an actual feature that’s happening. The point of the book is instead to really show up the situation that we’re in, [00:09:30] in the present it’s to hold up this kind of fun house mirror that shows us both a weird reflection of where we are and also alternate possibilities of where we [00:09:40] could be. That said, you know, I started writing the book in around 2012, I think, and was mostly done by 2014, 2015. I actually think [00:09:50] it’s much more plausible today that we get to the point of the book than it was when I wrote it, because people are getting more and more fed up more and more aware of this problem. And I think that thereis [00:10:00] a more interest now in radical change. And in figuring out a way to, to really shift this balance that exists now.
[00:10:08] Alistair Croll: One of the things I loved about the book is [00:10:10] the idea that information is this two way street, that when one of the protagonists is trying to find out stuff, they have to use oblique searches because the fact of [00:10:20] them researching is itself a public fact. And there was this amazing line in the book. They can add data, but not delete or change. [00:10:30] But they can political party if it gets into power can add data, but it is forbidden to lead our change data at the global legal level. That [00:10:40] seems like a very good rule for digital society. But the more I thought about it and the more I thought that seems like the only rule for digital society, because every other rule has [00:10:50] to live on top of it. Otherwise, systems of government will devolve, you know, the successes or rewrite history. It seems like until we have a [00:11:00] foundational rule that says you can add data, but you can’t delete it or change it none of the other, like the house of cards kind of falls apart in less that.
[00:11:08] Malka Older: And honestly, even adding data is [00:11:10] very, very risky as we see, because one of the big problems today is not just the existence of misinformation, but the surfeit of data. There’s too much data for people to really [00:11:20] deal with and manage in a way that helps them do what they need to do with it. And one of the. You know, one of the conclusions that I really came to in the [00:11:30] process of writing this book and thinking about the issues and talking to people about it afterwards is that information is, is really a fundamental part of democracy that if [00:11:40] we really want to be living in democracies, this is something that we have to, I don’t want to say fix, because I don’t think that there’s a perfect system or a perfect fix to it, but we have to consider [00:11:50] it as integral part of democracy, not just like an add on like, oh, we vote and then, you know, we have some public education and we have some public information and it’s okay. It’s [00:12:00] not perfect, you know, blah, blah, blah, no education and information must be part of democracy or we can’t consider it a democracy. People need to be informed. They need to have access. [00:12:10] They need to have all the tools that are required for them to make informed decisions, because without that, what are we talking about? We’re talking about, you know, people checking a [00:12:20] box without really being able to, to make that decision in a way that matters. So, so, you know, it’s really an important thing for us to be thinking about again, I don’t think we’re going to [00:12:30] find a perfect solution, a perfect fix that solves everything involved in the information. It’s, it’s a problem that’s been with us forever. It’s very, very difficult, but it’s something that we must [00:12:40] continually be working on to improve, because that is the only way we’re going to have the governments that we need.
[00:12:46] Alistair Croll: One of the obvious questions that came across [00:12:50] along those lines is whether the nationalization of information is essential for the continued existence of Democracy. Because today we have these [00:13:00] you know, we have these organizations, like, let’s say Facebook sprawling, multi-national not within a boundary and there’s all these [00:13:10] arguments about freedom of reach versus freedom of speech, for example. The only way to have freedom of reach that [00:13:20] complies. The freedom of speech is if that thing is sort of constitutionally guaranteed, because private organizations can choose who they want in their platforms, just like a baker can choose not to bake a cake for a gay wedding. [00:13:30] Right? It’s the same premise of a private organization doesn’t have to serve it systems. It’s constituent it doesn’t can choose its customers with the exception of protected classes and certain other [00:13:40] regulations. And it seems to me like if there is going to be a democracy, there needs to be nationalized information structure commensurate with that democracy. And in [00:13:50] your book, that’s a global system. But do you think that the nationalization of information is going to be something that is seen as a [00:14:00] requirement for true democracies?
[00:14:02] Malka Older: I think again, it’s, you know, without having a, a perfect solution and. I think we have to go into the nuances of it because [00:14:10] saying that you nationalize information could mean any one of a number of different things. I think that we do need more national control of the underlying infrastructure [00:14:20] because you know, we need to reduce the digital divide. We need to have governments be able to monitor and support and you know, when you see [00:14:30] internet shutdowns happening in a lot of places where political parties are able to shut down the internet and it’s hugely problematic, right? So we need to find ways to try to avoid that. You know, again, you come [00:14:40] up with this conundrum on the one hand, you don’t want control of information in the hands of a single corporation. Say on the other hand, you also don’t want it in the hands of a political party because that’s where you end [00:14:50] up with government based internet shutdowns, where you end up with propaganda vehicles. And so there’s no, you know, there’s no one solution where you can say put the information here and it’s going to be [00:15:00] okay. And that’s actually, you know, one of the things that I really explore throughout the book, because the book, the idea of information was a reaction to me [00:15:10] not being able to have discussions with people I disagreed with ideologically because the discussions always, you know, just narrow down to disagreements about [00:15:20] facts, because we were hearing different facts from our different news sources. And it was infuriating because I don’t want to be talking about, I don’t know, you know, this was, as I said, 2012. So it was stuff like, [00:15:30] you know, did Ben Gazi happen or not? That’s not the discussion I want to be having. I want to be having, you know, you think that we should be prioritizing of [00:15:40] corporations for the economy. And I think we should be prioritizing the health of you know, individual savings or they, you know, I want to be having the, the questions that we, we actually disagree on and not [00:15:50] these facts that we’re getting from different sources. And so I had this idea of, you know, kind of adults in the information room that everyone could go to, to look for those, those bottom [00:16:00] line facts. They would equally say either we don’t know the answer, but here’s what we do know. You know, here are all the studies, here’s all the background information [00:16:10] that you could want. And you know, this is, this is what we have and people would say, okay, so that’s it. And now we disagree on how we interpret it. But as soon as I came up with this idea, [00:16:20] I also realized it was a terrible idea because as soon as you have a single monolithic source of information that people agree on, it can be corrupted and that is just [00:16:30] absolutely just a disaster.
[00:16:32] Alistair Croll: It could has to be right. It does seem like. This is the fundamental paradox in the book is [00:16:40] that for, for us to cooperate, we need the same information. But that means someone’s getting in charge of what the truth is and the person [00:16:50] who’s in charge of the truth has limitless power.
[00:16:52] Malka Older: Yeah. And that’s, it’s, it’s a big problem. And, you know, the, the, the bureaucracy that I imagine in the book is one that, you know, at [00:17:00] least in the beginning of the book is really both well-intentioned and facing this problem. You know, it’s, that’s part of the reason there are bureaucracy that tries to avoid having like a single [00:17:10] person visibly in charge. Right.
[00:17:11] Alistair Croll: They, the idea that when, when they broadcast a message, it comes from all of the information offices at once. So that it’s like, this is consensus. [00:17:20]
[00:17:20] Malka Older: They really try to flatten it and they try to avoid having individuals be the kind of celebrity leaders. They also have changed, you know, now we talk about [00:17:30] neutrality a lot. We talk about balance a lot and fairness. Okay. And in this future, they’ve kind of tossed all of that. They say none of that is actually possible for us to achieve. And it [00:17:40] doesn’t even really exist. Like what does a neutral coverage, a single event mean let alone neutrally balancing all the events that are going on in the world right now. Right?
[00:17:48] Alistair Croll: It’s not touching [00:17:50] factual coverage, but even a factual coverage.
[00:17:52] Malka Older: Like how many facts do you do you report from one thing from a different thing? How do you balance that out? Which facts do you report? Because there’s not [00:18:00] time to report on. There is no perfect neutral reporting. It does not exist. Not possible for humans or machines to achieve it. So what they… [00:18:10]
[00:18:10] Alistair Croll: Uncertainty principle applied to like information at scale.
[00:18:13] Malka Older: Yes. Even. Yeah. I mean, even not at scale, you know, there’s so many ways to tell any different story, which way is the neutral [00:18:20] way. So instead of trying to chase these things which are largely, it was sorry, and, and not that useful, they’ve shifted to this principle of [00:18:30] transparency. So they aim to be as transparent as possible so that if you look, you can see all the sources behind it. And again, this came sort of from me having arguments with people and thinking, you [00:18:40] know, if you ask the question, is the economy doing well or not? Right. People’s answers will depend on which media they’re following and whether they are in favor of the party that’s in power, [00:18:50] generally speaking. Right. And if they, if you try to go into it and find out why you think it’s going well you know, first of all, you have to understand economics and statistics [00:19:00] and, but actually clicking through news stories, it’s very hard to get to the original studies that underlie any of these stories. So that’s part of it. Part of it is like, you know, the [00:19:10] numbers behind whatever we’re saying are the reporting, the firsthand reporting, whatever it is that underlies our story is right there and accessible. And having also lots of different levels of [00:19:20] comprehension and reading that are, that are all layered into people’s preferences. So there’s that. And then, and then the transparency about who is, who has put this together [00:19:30] which is something that I think is also missing a lot in our, in our world today. You know, we have the names of reporters who write articles, but most people read headlines and [00:19:40] see the photos and that one lead line, right. It’s it’s under the Twitter card and then the shooter or Facebook. Right. And we don’t actually know who writes those things. And often they’re extremely misleading. [00:19:50] So there’s a lot not to mention, you know, new stories. We don’t always know who’s been involved if it’s on the television who, you know, who was choosing the footage, who was, so there’s a lot of things that [00:20:00] affect our interpretation of events that we don’t know how to attribute. So transparency is, is the big, the other big thing that they are using as a principle to [00:20:10] try to do something that you know, as, as ethical as they can get. Yeah.
[00:20:16] Alistair Croll: That’s still implies a reasonably curious electorate [00:20:20] who is willing to click on stuff. So there’s a line and I, I took a bunch of notes because I was really enjoying this book. There’s a great quote that says, we find that the [00:20:30] people who hate each other that much rarely view the same information. It seems terribly unlikely that they will ever know that other sentinels are getting different information. [00:20:40] Like the, and I’m not trying to give away too much. So plot point add a little text in there, but when many people are faced with, for the first time in some of their lives, because of the [00:20:50] fact that the information infrastructure has provided them with this transparency, when at some point people are getting different information, spoiler alert people [00:21:00] like will aren’t they gonna find out, are they going to compare notes? And you pretty much say. They’re not going to compare notes. People who hate, who hate each other, don’t look at the same information anyway. [00:21:10] So how will they ever know, which is like this fascinating way to explain. And I know one of the things I want to talk about is recalibrating risk. It’s a, fascinating way to explain the Achilles heel [00:21:20] of Opal, open governments and open societies in an, any cast, such a social media platform. Even if we give people transparency, they’re not going to read the same things [00:21:30] anyway, so it won’t matter.
[00:21:31] Malka Older: Yeah. And that’s one of the things that information really wrestles with throughout the book. Even in much more sort of mundane situations than the one you described, you know, as they’re trying to [00:21:40] promote this giant election and trying to give people, I mean, they have tools that they’ve made to let people compare governments. And they, you know, they, they have all these surveys about [00:21:50] what people are interested in. And, you know, there are people who are political wonks in this world too, but the vast majority of people really do not care enough to use any of these tools. And [00:22:00] it’s really an, and not only that, but the, some of the governments in this world are very technocratic. Some are very idealistic or have various [00:22:10] platforms that they’re in, some are corporate conglomerates and the corporate conglomerates, it turns out are, have years of experience, decades of experience with advertising and are actually much better [00:22:20] in, in a lot of ways at convincing people of things than information, which is, you know, this giant bureaucracy, very focused on transparency and correctness and accuracy. And so they, they [00:22:30] face all these problems in terms of. And this again, it’s coming very much from, from the current experience we have access to that is amazing, [00:22:40] amazing resources of information high we’re in.
[00:22:43] Alistair Croll: I often say we’re in like a new species. I mean, we are not human anymore. We’re like this weird hormone connected machine.[00:22:50]
[00:22:50] Malka Older: Yeah. And yet, you know, and, and I don’t want to say anything about cat videos or especially like sea shanty, Tik TOK, which I think is a fabulous artistic collaboration, but, but like, [00:23:00] you know, When you look at how much we could be connecting with people who have very different lives than we do. And you think about how much of our information for most people, it [00:23:10] comes from people who have the same kinds of lives they do in, in, in, in most important respects. It’s it’s, it’s a really sad loss, right? There [00:23:20] was, there was a tweet that went out yesterday I think about the number of minutes that news networks had spent on Afghanistan per year, in the last five years. And it was like under an hour. [00:23:30] In a year for all the networks put together. And, and, you know, that’s television, we have the internet, we could be out there, you know, talking to people in [00:23:40] Afghanistan and looking at livestreams could have been for years, I’m talking about, you know, not just now when there’s a crisis, but it’s, you know, how many of us make that [00:23:50] extra effort to go to.
So that’s, that’s kind of the conundrum that this organization faces. You know, it’s an organization that is entirely dedicated to the idea that if we’re going to have [00:24:00] a real democracy, we need to have information for everybody and they try and not everybody actually wants the information. So that’s, that’s one of the tensions throughout the book throughout the [00:24:10] trilogy.
[00:24:10] Alistair Croll: I want to give it to the topic of rethinking infrastructure, but first In this book, [00:24:20] the public servants are kind of, bad-ass like, like one of them’s got sure can and you know, implants and has a personal hovercraft. I mean, [00:24:30] one of the things I noticed is like at the beginning, people are being very careful. How do we make sure that we don’t overreact? How do we have a moderate [00:24:40] response? And then there’s a point in the book because it’s an exciting book when they’re like, okay, I guess we’re going to have to fight now. And when they do you get the sense of like, [00:24:50] wow, they have much more power than I realized. So they’re turning up the heat. Are public servants too timid or [00:25:00] mild and defending the erosion of trust in government today.
[00:25:03] Malka Older: Hmm. So, okay. So part of this is. I wanted the book to be fun and exciting. [00:25:10] And, you know, I try when I do that little Spiel be highlighted that at the beginning about like how the geopolitics are set up in this world. I sometimes follow it up with, and there are [00:25:20] Katana’s and flame throwers and chasing things. And, you know, there’s a lot, there’s a lot of physical stuff that goes on in these books because I like reading books that have exciting [00:25:30] things happening. And I like reading books about badass is. So that’s, that’s, that’s part of it, but yeah, I mean, I think that, I think that we, you know, [00:25:40] we, we see a situation where there are these ideas about neutrality say and balance and and [00:25:50] that does a little bit hamper people in how they respond and, and, and we have these sort of narrow ideas about what people should be working on or, [00:26:00] or where they should be focusing when they are public servants. And, and these, these ideas also about professionalism and not getting emotional. And I do think that that [00:26:10] hampers us a little, when we try to excise emotion and passion and commitment from the things we’re talking about, because we think that means we won’t be taking seriously. [00:26:20] You know, a lot of this, if, if a lot of the things that I’m talking about in terms of neutral, You know, they come from this idea of rationalism and you know, [00:26:30] some of these ideas that come from the enlightenment about this kind of pure science that exists somewhere, if we can find it. And I think that we’re in a stage now where a lot of that has been [00:26:40] disrupted, right. A lot of the sort of gatekeeping and the, the, the narrowing of voices in terms of who is allowed to speak with authority. It’s starting [00:26:50] to change a lot. It’s starting to fragment. And that is very scary for some people, which is, I think why we see some of the reaction against it. But there’s a lot of opportunity there for us in [00:27:00] terms of democratizing the voices that we hear, democratizing science, democratizing the way we think about professionalism and, you know, I’m, [00:27:10] I’m someone who, who worked as a professional in, in the area of, of aid work, which is something that, that makes this emotion, but also is [00:27:20] it’s, it’s something that’s been professionalized and has there’s, there’s a lot of importance and I’m very much in favor of things like numbers and benchmarks and, you know, tracking projects and monitoring [00:27:30] like, I don’t want to just, just discount any of those things. But I think that when we only focus on the quantitative and we only focus on [00:27:40] these, the, the sort of superficial aspects of professionalism that sometimes take over in terms of the way people speak, the languages, they use the clothes they wear the way they do their [00:27:50] hair. And you know, the schools that they’ve gone to. And when we only focus on some of those things, we really are excluding just huge amounts of knowledge and talent and capacity [00:28:00] and, and views on the world. And so it’s, it’s really important that we look at how to, to support that expansion and how to look at other values [00:28:10] rather than these ones, that from the time we were children have been held up as these are, this is what authority looks like. So I think we really need to start letting go of [00:28:20] some of this, this, this idea of, oh, things must be rational and unemotional and if things are harsh, they’re probably correct. And, and start letting in some of these other aspects of [00:28:30] our understanding of the world, because emotion is, it’s a, it’s another important way of understanding the world, you know? Perspectives. If this is about including [00:28:40] people’s perspectives and people being clear about where they’re coming from, as opposed to saying, no, you must write as if you come from nowhere and are in the middle of.
[00:28:48] Alistair Croll: And this is really if, if the [00:28:50] Achilles heel of open government is that it’s a very broad attack surface for misinformation than the Achilles heel of a technocratic government is that it doesn’t factor in [00:29:00] emotions and personalities and people and humanity. And I think that both of those things came across pretty clearly. So obviously [00:29:10] information is running stuff. You have parties like Liberty inherited, which pretty much sounded like American political parties to me, although this is definitely a global set of [00:29:20] governments and then you have Philip Morris. So tell me whether corporations have a role in governor. And what the rise of these [00:29:30] sort of multinational corporations means for how we have to change governments and rethink what is in the role of the private versus the public sector.
[00:29:38] Malka Older: I think that is, is, is [00:29:40] just such a key topic for right now because corporations already have a role in government. Right. And we’re seeing it shift in front of us. Particularly [00:29:50] multi-national corporations, they’ve taken on some aspects of the nation state while avoiding others. Largely the ones that they want versus the ones that they don’t want. So we see multinational corporations, [00:30:00] for example launching lawsuits against sovereign nations, which is a way of putting them on the same footing as, as governments, as nation states. Right. And we see them [00:30:10] you know, figuring out the tax structures and how they can locate themselves. And, and also we see things like you know, large corporations paying for [00:30:20] their employees college fees or, you know, when you look at healthcare, that is something that in a lot of cases, private corporations [00:30:30] have taken over the state in the United States.
[00:30:32] Alistair Croll: Well, the U S I mean, the us healthcare system was originally like Canada we chose to assign it by province. [00:30:40] Other places, assign it by individual, whatever it, in, in the US it was largely assigned by employer. And that was a fine model when people work for the same [00:30:50] company for 50 years. Yeah. The, the, the link to the individual change. Right.
[00:30:55] Malka Older: But, and it was also never everybody who worked for [00:31:00] the same company for 50 years, right? Yes. And so, but you know, if you think about the spectrum between, between that, and let’s say [00:31:10] in communist China, where you belong to a company and they provided your housing and your food and everything else, w you know, we’re really looking at [00:31:20] this global effort to kind of figure out what is the role of government, what should government be doing? And, you know, and you see this basically playing [00:31:30] back and forth as various governments or, you know, people within governments, interests within governments and various corporations kind of say, oh, you know, actually for us, we think it would be beneficial if we had this [00:31:40] sector area or if we didn’t have the sector area.
And so we go back and forth in different places as different things get included in government or pushed out of government into the corporate. And [00:31:50] so it’s, it’s something that, that, that we’re going back and forth on. It’s not something that we’re really having that much of an open conversation about, right? Like we talk a little bit about [00:32:00] healthcare, right? We talk a lot about healthcare, but do we say, you know, and we talk about big government versus small government, but we’re really not kind of [00:32:10] hammering down onto what is the purpose of government and then saying, you know, based on that who, who should be doing these, these fundamental things that need to happen in the world. And so we get all [00:32:20] this shuffling back and forth and, you know, I think one of the things I see possible from this is a real shift. I mean, I, you can probably tell from the book, I am not a fan of the [00:32:30] nation state system of global governance.
[00:32:33] Alistair Croll: I couldn’t tell, I didn’t jump out on the first page or anything.
[00:32:38] Malka Older: So one of, you know, one of [00:32:40] the kind of roots out of it, I, that I see is in fact corporations, you know, shifting this balance of people’s identities and where people get [00:32:50] their, their you know, their, their structure, these, these kinds of benefits that they structure their lives around.
[00:32:56] Alistair Croll: They’re really part of that reminded me of, I don’t know if you’ve read max Mary’s book, Jennifer [00:33:00] governments.
[00:33:01] Malka Older: I haven’t read it, although I’ve heard a lot about it.
[00:33:03] Alistair Croll: But there’s that idea where like, I would be Allister Nike, or you might be mocking McDonald’s and she’s Jennifer government. Cause she works for government, [00:33:10] but everybody picks an allegiance. But even then the funny part is, and I’m spoiling a little bit as a plot that it all began with two loyalty programs. So, you [00:33:20] know, if you fly United, you get mileage plus and American, you have advantage. Well, it turns out the burger king went with United and McDonald’s other than American and so on. And now you have two [00:33:30] like corporate cybots, who’s constantly at war with Jennifer government in the middle of trying to manage the, the tension between them.
[00:33:38] Malka Older: Exactly. And that’s a lot, you know, [00:33:40] about our nationalities. And we think about our governments and our political parties and allegiance and identity are such big parts of that. But as you say, you know, we see a lot [00:33:50] of those things going to to corporations or products as well. Certainly, you know, I’ve had people say to me that they are citizens of Facebook because, you know, they interact with [00:34:00] people over Facebook in ways perhaps more that are more meaningful to them than interacting with people within their own country.
[00:34:07] Alistair Croll: But does that mean that information needs people to [00:34:10] be loyal to information first?
[00:34:13] Malka Older: Well, informations ideas that it doesn’t need loyalty. Cause it doesn’t have competition really right. Informations ideas that it is running in the [00:34:20] background, facilitating all of this. Now of course, as you know, that means that they are incredibly powerful, right? Because they set the rules and they control the information that people see.But [00:34:30] they, you know, their role is slightly different. It is. You know, it does have a lot of those aspects to it.
[00:34:38] Alistair Croll: But they don’t, there’s a line [00:34:40] I wrote down use the program, not just for peacekeeping for better, but for better data dissemination in the most under informed sentinels, which sounds a whole lot, like use the [00:34:50] military, not just for peacekeeping, for propaganda education in the less educated places. Like, yeah. So there’s definitely like [00:35:00] a, there’s this weird paradox of. We can never rule ourselves in a truly fair way, because rulership requires the application of some amount of control [00:35:10] to someone that’s not us, but the collective and the collective can always be compromised. You know, there’s a great line. We should just keep holding elections until we get the [00:35:20] results we want said cynically, but still somewhat true. And one of the things that you propose in here is. We got Sentinel. So a hundred thousand people [00:35:30] and then decimals would be 10,000 and then someone goes, well, you know, maybe we, I think it’s I don’t remember which character it is says, look, maybe we just get down to a single person, government, but then if you [00:35:40] have a single person governments, aren’t we back where we started, we just handed over, like, it’s basically the world today. We’ve handed over information, the information platform and the [00:35:50] elections to a different system. And then we’re just part of a, superorganism like if you buy into this idea that humans are becoming a collective. The act of getting down to the narrow democracy [00:36:00] of one person we’d just be advocating collective decision making to a super organism.
[00:36:05] Malka Older: Yeah, I think that that’s, you know, that’s another really fundamental thing that [00:36:10] we’re, we’re working through issue that we’re working through at, at this moment globally, which is this question of, you know, of kind of granularity because we have the capacity to be much more [00:36:20] tailored to people. And that’s, I mean, that’s another thing also that corporations are starting to get very good at, or at least attempting to. But we’re also seeing these supernational [00:36:30] collaboration. So we’re seeing, you know, the EU, which is having problems, but still really powerful as, as both the concept I think.And in the way it acts on the world, we’re seeing the African [00:36:40] Union starting to come together more. We see ASEAN. We see all of these different kind of federations. And, and they’re all struggling with this balance of, you know, degrees of [00:36:50] autonomy at different levels versus collective action at larger levels. And you know, which combination is most beneficial for us, either as [00:37:00] individuals or in dealing with huge problems. And, you know, we need to have collective government at this point, we need a collective governments deal with problems like climate change. And, and [00:37:10] pandemics, as we see, we need to be much more, you know, we have, we need some sort of facility for how we deal with this on a supernational global level. But at the same time we are [00:37:20] seeing that, you know, people tend to want certain cultural elements of their locality to be reinforced and to allow them to do things in different ways. And so this [00:37:30] balance of what can we, you know, what decisions do we make at the neighborhood level, at the county level, at the city level, at the state or province level, and then [00:37:40] nationally, and then globally and, and, you know, figuring out. And I would like to see it done honestly, a little bit more in, in a ways that are sort of better [00:37:50] documented and as, as a, as a social scientist, you know, I’m like, I want to see more studies about what things should go, where instead of just people being. Hey, we [00:38:00] want, you know.
[00:38:00] Alistair Croll: Yeah. So we only have a couple of minutes and I want to make sure I get to a couple more points. You have background in a number of organizations [00:38:10] like mercy Corps and so on that have obviously influenced your thinking on this, you know, dealing with disasters, as you said working with nuclear security, emergency [00:38:20] preparedness. How much of your work on those kinds of causes informed the book? Were there are things that you were like, I, I can’t believe this happens in nuclear [00:38:30] safety or crisis management, but people don’t know it because I learned stuff about like, oh yeah, that is a problem in a crisis that I wouldn’t have thought of just reading your book. [00:38:40] How much of it was informed by those experiences?
[00:38:45] Malka Older: I mean quite a bit. A lot of it was informed though. I mean, the whole idea was informed really [00:38:50] by my experience of living and working in a lot of different places that had have in a lot of them separatist movements of various kinds and importance and, [00:39:00] you know, kind of realizing that there are these separatist movements, basically in every country, in the world, some of them more serious than others and starting to think about what that [00:39:10] means particularly for countries that call themselves democracies. If there are groups that don’t want to belong to the country and want things to be, to be run differently. [00:39:20] What, and, and that’s not allowed in the current system. We have we, we have this emphasis on borders staying the same. That to me, to my mind is really [00:39:30] counterproductive. It’s kind of the flip side of immigration, right? I mean, studies show that immigration is generally beneficial to the host country. And yet we have all these hard rules and hard walls [00:39:40] against people coming in. And then we try to have the same walls against people coming out. And we’re coming along to my big rant about nation states now. But you know, this idea that there’s a popular that fits in the [00:39:50] territory and that neither of those things is going to change forever whatever is just, it’s a terrible idea. So I was, you know, I was thinking about a lot of these experiences, as I, as I thought about what kind of [00:40:00] system could exist, that would work differently. And then of course the crisis management, of course, too, you know, I, I worked in a lot of crises at the time I was writing the book. It was largely when I was doing my [00:40:10] doctorate, which was studying disaster response from a sociological and organizational perspective. So, yeah, a lot of that got in there. And it’s, I think it’s really [00:40:20] important too, because the way we govern disasters is, is very relevant and shows tells us a lot about the way we govern every day.
[00:40:28] Alistair Croll: So if [00:40:30] you were a government thinking about public policy right now, where would you say we are worrying too much about things and where are we? Where too little, where do we need to [00:40:40] recalibrate the risks in our role as a government, Canada, wherever you think. What are we worrying too much about what are we not worried enough about?
[00:40:49] Malka Older: There’s I mean, [00:40:50] there’s, there’s so much because I think that we are really stuck always five years, 10 years, 20 years back, which is quite normal you know, we, we, we grew up seeing the worlda certain [00:41:00] way and it’s hard to adjust at the speed of change. But we do need to start worrying more about, as I said, well, first of all, information, [00:41:10] like I know that governments are very worried about information. I’m not sure they’re worried enough in proactive ways, but we really need to think about different models for the way that [00:41:20] people get information different models for the ways that we support information, getting to people. And it’s not just about democracy, although that’s, that’s critical obviously, but it’s [00:41:30] also things like, you know, e-banking, which is a huge thing now, or e-commerce, which they’re both just enormous for how things get done in the world and how people live their lives. But they [00:41:40] are limited to certain classes of people because we are not good at getting all that information equally accessible to everybody. So information in a huge way [00:41:50] you know, call activities. I think that we need to be thinking about collective action about as you know, as I said, this balance between the collective and the individual, this is [00:42:00] the, the, the, the root of so many of our battles. And we need too.
[00:42:04] Alistair Croll: I would argue that is the root of the big battle in the universe. I mean, [00:42:10] whether you’re talking about. Corks want to be part of atoms or they want to be on their own atoms. When are you part of molecules? You want to be part of tissues, which want to be part of [00:42:20] Oregon’s well, cells in the middle there, which one are you part of humans. And every one of those things is like, I kind of want to be my own thing. And like, I can’t talk to my lungs, but my, my lungs [00:42:30] don’t other in me, but they’re necessary. And so there’s this weird hierarchy. I think it’s Ken Wilber who has this sort of whole arche of things going on from the [00:42:40] individual. Right. And that, that idea that we can both be a whole entity, like an organ and also part of a greater thing. [00:42:50] And our, my heart doesn’t get to have an opinion. I mean, it has one opinion, which is when it decides not to work anymore, but it doesn’t get to wake up in the morning and I want to ask it how it’s doing and whether it’s having a nice [00:43:00] day. It’s completely alien to me in the same way we may be alien to the superorganism, but because we’re sending species, we can hypothesize about what the collective is thinking in a way [00:43:10] that my organs can’t and it feels like this is the big, you know, if I want to get really philosophical, maybe this is the answer to Fermi’s paradox maybe [00:43:20] this is why the Drake equation is where it is, is that when you get sentience and you start to rebel against the superorganism, you’re part of strange things happen.
[00:43:27] Malka Older: I mean, this is. As, you know, as you [00:43:30] kind of suggest there is a kind of both answer it, that’s hard for us to encompass in our brains, but we, you know, we are both yang kind of [00:43:40] Buddhism, you know, your part of it seems like all these, these ideas are sort of thing. Yeah. But we, you know, we are both individuals and we are part of collectives. And if we want to [00:43:50] have, you know, I mean, what are we looking for here where we’re looking for good governance and we’re looking for healthy productive lives for people that have meaning. And we need [00:44:00] to be thinking about the collective part as well as the individual part. And so finding that balance and figuring that out, I think is, is really key.
[00:44:09] Alistair Croll: Awesome. [00:44:10] I have a whole bunch more questions, but we’re going to save some of those for when we actually do go club event. I think it’s awesome that Google Cloud is helping us put this on. We love doing these things. [00:44:20] I really enjoyed the book and I’m sure that the rest of the people and, and I’m happy that there’s two more plus a short story you just shared. So I get to find out more about what [00:44:30] narrative disorder is, and I obviously. I hope I didn’t spoil too much of the plot, but it’s a very good book. This is fantastic. Thank you for spending some time with us, looking forward to chatting with you [00:44:40] and a whole bunch of other people in a couple of weeks. And yeah. Keep writing great books and doing great work because this, it was very interesting to [00:44:50] think about what’s possible through the lens of this speculative world that’s different enough from our own that it lets us think about problems that right in front our face.
[00:44:59] Malka Older: Well, that is exactly what [00:45:00] I was going for so I’m so glad that it got that end that you enjoyed it because I was also going for a really fun and readable book and I’m so looking forward to the conversation.
[00:45:09] Alistair Croll: Awesome. Thank you so [00:45:10] much. [00:45:10]
Malka Older: Thank you.[00:45:20]
If you could build a perfect governmental model, from scratch, what would you do? On that very long task list, the top one would be figuring out how to elect leaders in ways that couldn’t be undermined—after all, the system you’re creating is perfect if it’s resilient to those who would subvert it.
The problem is that society is a consensual delusion. Groups of humans start to believe in a set of collective truths—let’s call those laws—and act in the interest of the group. If everyone woke up tomorrow and decided that they didn’t want to participate collectively—not showing up for work, not enforcing or obeying laws, not educating children, not turning on the power or the water—society would collapse pretty quickly.
That consensual delusion exists because of shared truths: News reports, historical proof of collective success, norms of conduct, and so on. So your perfect government would have to control information—or at least, stop the spread of falsehood—and radically increase what we all know and share about one another.
It’s this speculation that Malka Older has spun into three books, the first of which, Infomocracy, was the subject of our second Executive Book Club, presented by our partners at Google Cloud. For those who couldn’t read the book in time, I interviewed Malka about her writing beforehand. It’s a wide-ranging, speculative conversation. Malka had taken the stage in 2019 (you can watch her talk in the archives) to talk about speculative resistance, but I hadn’t actually read the book—so I didn’t realize it was also a rolicking adventure tale reminiscent of Gibson, Stephenson, and other cyberpunk pioneers.
Here’s what Malka had to say.