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'The Future' asks if technology will save humanity or accelerate its end

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Are the giants of technology more likely to save humankind or accelerate its end? Naomi Alderman tackles that question in her new novel, "The Future." Her last novel, "The Power," was a bestseller that became a series on Amazon about girls developing electrical powers. This one tackles the apocalypse.

Naomi Alderman, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

NAOMI ALDERMAN: It's great to be here.

SHAPIRO: Some of your main characters seem like thinly veiled versions of Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and the like.

ALDERMAN: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: What made you decide to look at the tech giants of today through this apocalyptic lens?

ALDERMAN: I just want to say, for legal reasons, they are definitely not identifiable...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Definitely not - for sure.

ALDERMAN: ...As anybody who could sue me with one of their many billions of dollars, so...

SHAPIRO: Duly noted - yeah.

ALDERMAN: So I have worked in technology for many years. I have a big game that I made called Zombies, Run!, which is, like, a fitness app which has been going for more than a decade now and has 10 million players. So I've been around the world of tech for a long time, and I think, over the past 20 years or so, those of us who have been working in technology all that time have seen it go from the little kind of upstart industry that could that can really bring people together and make a difference into, oh, now it's enormous megacorporations that don't seem to be interested in really helping the world. So certainly, that's been in my mind for a while.

In 2017, I, along with lots of other people, read - there was a brilliant piece in The New Yorker about the tech billionaires building bunkers...

SHAPIRO: Oh, yeah...

ALDERMAN: ...To help them survive...

SHAPIRO: ...In New Zealand...

ALDERMAN: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...And elsewhere.

ALDERMAN: Right. And I think everybody read that and went, oh.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. What about us? What about everyone else?

ALDERMAN: Right. Right. What about us? Now, No. 1, fundamentally evil. No. 2, evil in this very particular way, where you say, oh, you believe that the rest of us could suffer, and you would still be OK? And I would like to point out to you that that is incorrect - that there is no arc that you can get on and you can escape, and everybody else will die and you'll be fine because, fundamentally, the living through that and deciding to do that - instead of using your billions and billions of dollars to help people - is what will ultimately destroy you.

SHAPIRO: OK, so this book immerses us in just-ahead-of-the-curve tech and also immerses us in a lot of ancient stories. There is Indigenous knowledge. There are ancient Greek references. One story that comes up more than any other is from the Bible. It's the story of Lot and his family. And this is a tale that involves destruction of the city of Sodom. There is incredible sexual violence. His wife turns into a pillar of salt. Why was this story, in particular, on your mind?

ALDERMAN: When I heard about these billionaires building their bunkers, I immediately thought of Lot. So this is a story that is about how you cannot escape from a terrible situation. If you think that, oh no, I'm powerful. I can escape. I can go to my bunker. I'm going to be all right. You just have to know that you take it with you. On a more broad level, I think Bible stories - particularly the stories of Genesis - I grew up reading them in the original Hebrew because I grew up very religious Jewish. And it seems to me that those stories are the foundations of what we might call Western civilization now, and we have sort of ceded them to religious education. So you learn those stories if you have a strong biblical schooling where you're maybe taught that all of this is literally true. But actually, they're incredibly important stories.

SHAPIRO: So, like, everybody can talk about the lesson of Icarus - don't fly too close to the sun.

ALDERMAN: Right.

SHAPIRO: But unless you're religious, you don't know the lesson of Lot.

ALDERMAN: Correct, yes. So this is our culture. It doesn't just belong to people who are biblical literalists. These are treasure troves of insight into human psychology written by people who really did know people who lived in caves and understand what happens when a whole city gets destroyed. And I think it would be a good idea for us to take advantage of the culture that's been passed down to us.

SHAPIRO: You have a gift, much like your mentor, Margaret Atwood, of imagining a world that is just close enough to our own to feel plausible and just different enough to be interesting. You've said that this book was actually informed by a trip that Atwood encouraged you to take to the Arctic. But I wonder - is finding that version of the near future intuitive, or do you have to, like, adjust the dial - sort of like hot and cold taps - to get it just right?

ALDERMAN: There is a process that I do pretty much all the time of trying to figure out how things could be different to what they currently are and how far I can stretch it before it starts to feel implausible to me. I find that delightful - just - there are so many worlds that are so close to where we are right now.

SHAPIRO: There's a paragraph at the very end of the book that, to me, almost sounds like a manifesto. It doesn't give anything away. Will you read from page 414?

ALDERMAN: I will. And I will also say that - just to clangingly (ph) name-drop - this was certainly inspired by a conversation that I was lucky enough to have with Ursula Le Guin...

SHAPIRO: Oh.

ALDERMAN: ...A couple of years before she died.

(Reading) Nothing can be permanently settled or solved. No state is perfect. No utopia exists but that it leaves someone out. All we can be is alert, like Fox to the changing winds - to ask ourselves in each new situation, what would we hate anyone to do to us, and who have we forgotten? - to exist in motion, falling forward, trying to bend our own histories toward what is fair and kind, what is sensible and good. We will keep failing, but final success was never the point.

SHAPIRO: Naomi Alderman, is that your personal view?

ALDERMAN: Yes, I think the idea that we could reach a point where all human problems are solved is the kind of illusion that stops us from trying to do anything. And fine - some problems are just going to have to be moved around like a bubble of air underneath the wallpaper.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

ALDERMAN: Sometimes it will be here. Sometimes it will be there. But even that work of noticing who we've left out, trying to bring them in and again and again - that is utopia. The process is the destination. Living by those values is what we have.

SHAPIRO: Do you find that reassuring or frustrating?

ALDERMAN: I find it very reassuring. All right. I'm going to tell you a bit of Jewish stuff.

SHAPIRO: Please.

ALDERMAN: So I grew up very religious. And there's a saying, (non-English language spoken), which means it's not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you free to refrain from it - which is that we don't have to worry ourselves about some destination far in the future, all problems are solved. No, just start today. Go outside your house and pick up a piece of litter. Start where you are, and do something. And if we all do that, things will be immeasurably better. And some final state of perfection is not the point. If anything - evolution or God or whatever - thought that perfection was important, we wouldn't have ended up so imperfect. So it's all fine. Don't let the best be the enemy of the good, all right?

SHAPIRO: Naomi Alderman - her new book is "The Future." It's been so wonderful talking with you. Thank you.

ALDERMAN: And you - delightful. I'll have to publish another book so I can come on as quickly as possible.

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Kai McNamee
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.