I enjoy all types of science fiction; it’s hard to pin down my favorite, but I find stories that take place in or near modern day especially fun. Authors have to be careful to create a believable tomorrow that doesn’t take technology and advance it too far in order for readers to recognize that what they’re reading could be just around the corner. And that’s exactly what Eliot Peper has done with Cumulus, a novel that takes place in Oakland, California, and centers on a tech giant corporation, its social media and surveillance advances that are not too hard to believe, and the haves and have-nots who must live day-to-day with the ramifications of a society that must either accept certain things as normal or resist.
Lilly Miyamoto is a freelance photographer… old school, too. She uses a non-cloud-connected SLR camera and prefers to develop her film in the house she shares with her roommate and social-activist-attorney, Sara in the Slums. On the opposite side of the city in the safe Green Zones, Cumulus CEO Huian Li and her partner, Vera, live where private security forces keep out the riff-raff. Cumulus has been developing technologies and buying up smaller companies to develop a comprehensive collection of cloud-based apps that Huian believes will help improve society and lead to more peace once everyone is on board.
One of Huian’s executives, however, sees opportunities for control of both Green Zones and Slums, and he’s willing to go to whatever lengths necessary, including using Cumulus technology for both blackmail and to cover his own tracks. After a chance encounter between Lilly and Huian, events begin to spiral out of control as the Slum leadership and denizens reach a boiling point and decide to make a stand against the surveillance and control that they see as Cumulus’ ultimate reason for existence.
Cumulus is a real thinker. As I read the story, I couldn’t help but wonder just how far I’ve let companies like Google, Twitter, Facebook, and iCloud into my life. There are real moments in this story that can and will make you ponder just how much society has given up for convenience… and make you question how much we might be willing to give up for a promise of safety and security. Cumulus is a solid cautionary tale, and because so much of the technology in the story is here… now… or very close, at times I had to stop and think about the reality of what I was reading.
I thoroughly enjoyed the story, and I reached out to Eliot Peper with some questions about Cumulus and the book’s technology. I’d like to thank Eliot for taking the time to respond to my questions and for providing a review copy.
James Floyd Kelly: Cumulus is one of those stories that’s set the day after tomorrow, so to speak… did you have any difficulties keeping the technologies mentioned in the story under control (so as to remain more believable)?
Eliot Peper: Between writing science fiction stories and working with tech startups, I spend a lot of time thinking about the future. Because predictions of tomorrow are almost always wrong, often the most interesting approach is to simply ask questions about odd details present today. What if we continue to instrument and monitor more and more of the world around us? What if someone combined and rationalized the biggest internet players to create one monster data and services platform? What if the very concept of a nation state is undermined by a borderless internet?
It may sound counterintuitive, but I found that depicting the future technologies in Cumulus was one of the less imaginative parts of the creative process. Most of what’s in the book feels like natural and obvious extensions of present technology. Writing about them was far more straightforward than figuring out how the characters might change and grow over the course of the story.
Kelly: Small tech firms are constantly being gobbled up by the big corporations, and Cumulus is a good fictional stand-in for any number of the big names we all know. Your story does a good job of showing pros AND cons of having our apps/tech working together, but what are your own feelings on buying innovation versus inventing it yourself?
Peper: Established companies face a paradox: in a world of constant change, will what they did to achieve success today also allow them to succeed tomorrow? We often assume things are far more static than they actually are. Businesses are nothing more than collections of people doing their best to work toward a common goal. But if all your revenue comes from manufacturing horseshoes, it would take extraordinary courage to essentially shut down your existing business and dive headlong into tires. That’s why the history of commerce is filled with individual firms rising and falling, rather than one firm remaining dominant for decades or centuries.
Businesses almost never buy technologies, they buy other businesses. Most often, they buy companies whose activities powerfully compliment or threaten their own. In fast-changing industries like tech, usually the most critical thing is to have the right people in place to tackle new problems every day, because every day is different. So tech firms often acquire startups not for their inventions, but for their people.
And that gets to the core of your question: if companies want to remain relevant, whether they invent or acquire, they must give smart people the resources and freedom they need to experiment. They must make themselves and their boards uncomfortable by constantly reevaluating themselves through fresh eyes. Existential crisis is the only route to ongoing success.
Kelly: Your concept of the near-future living conditions divides the haves and have-nots into communities with private police forces protecting those who can afford it. In your research for the book, did you find any real-world examples where private security forces are being used to police in place of valid law enforcement? Are we close to this kind of paid protection in the real world, and do you see any valid arguments in favor of it?
Peper: I live in a real-world example! Much of Cumulus is set in Oakland, the city where I was born and raised. We moved back a few years ago and I absolutely love the cultural vibrancy and tight knit community of my hometown. But we’ve struggled with crime problems for decades. To give you a few personal examples, two weeks ago there was a drive by shooting around the corner from our house, earlier this summer there was another shooting 40 feet behind me and my wife as we walked the dog in the middle of the afternoon, and a few years ago there was a triple homicide on our block. Police budgets are so tight that officers are almost always responding to emergencies rather than monitoring beats.
Frustrated and understandably fearful, some wealthy neighborhoods have hired private security firms to patrol their streets. Wouldn’t you be willing to chip in if it helped keep your family safe? But it raises a difficult philosophical question: by putting security for sale, aren’t we undermining it as a public good? Put another way, what kind of community can’t offer its citizens safety as a basic right? And if municipal budget constraints prevent us from addressing so many of Oakland’s persistent social ills, isn’t it odd that neighborhoods are paying security companies instead of contributing more to public coffers?
Plutarch wrote, “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.” That maxim is as true today as it was in ancient Greece.
Kelly: Cumulus presents some real concerns when it comes to privacy, especially in terms of monitoring day-to-day-activities. Do you see a tipping point where society may say enough is enough or do you think society will accept surveillance in exchange for safety?
Peper: I don’t think society will be able to constrain surveillance technology. Sensors and computing power are cheap, and if you’re trying to make software useful, more data is almost always better. Put those together, and it’s hard for me to imagine a future where we don’t track almost everything.
That said, I think society can and will constrain how people use surveillance technology. For example, if Facebook continues to collect every tidbit of people’s lives, we might regulate whether and how Facebook is able to share that data with advertisers or anyone else. If critical infrastructure is vulnerable to cyberattack, we might require analog functionality. We could institute harsh penalties for online bullying, distributing malware, or abusing government power. Regardless, we will need to better articulate what privacy means in a digital world and improve our technology literacy.
Kelly: SPOILER WARNING QUESTION – in your research, did you encounter any technology that allows (or is moving closer to) the type of censoring used by Graham to protect him from identification with photos and video surveillance?
Peper: I haven’t, but I’d love to hear about any examples readers might be familiar with! The only thing I can think of is private cybersecurity firms that actively monitor and try to control the internet activity surrounding billionaires, celebrities, and their families. Although hackers often try to hide their tracks in creative ways, that’s qualitatively different from what Graham is able to do.
Kelly: SPOILER WARNING QUESTION – Huian takes ownership of her company’s actions as well as her own complicity — it made me wonder how today’s billionaire tech CEOs would react to discovering their technology was being used inappropriately. Any thoughts?
Peper: Tech CEOs are the emperors of the internet. As more and more of our lives move online, their power grows and the side effects of their decisions escalate. But unlike the Machiavellian machinations that might help you scramble to the top of empires past, most tech CEOs I’ve interacted with got where they are by trying to build something useful. They’re certainly ambitious, but usually quite earnest in trying to do their part to make the world a better place. Huian was guilty of hubris, but ultimately humble enough to recognize it.
Kelly: I’m a big believer that tech sneaks up on us in small batches, making it hard to see where it may have overstepped its bounds. Are there any technologies that we are currently using that you believe have crossed a line? If not, are there any that haven’t yet reached viral status but should be watched carefully?
Peper: I agree completely. Many of the technologies that we need to watch carefully are actually those that are already mainstream. Google knows every search you’ve ever queried and if you use Gmail, every email you’ve ever written. Facebook knows more about your personal life than any company in history. Both of those companies rely on advertising business models that turn users into the product. Those perverse incentives are extremely troubling. Companies like 23andMe digitize your genetic code. Can you imagine what might happen when they inevitably suffer a data breach? I think both data breach and cyberwar are both areas where we should be way more scared than current sentiment suggests.
Kelly: Last question — Cumulus ends on a positive note. Do you think society is going to be able to make the right choices about tech with regards to privacy and safety?
Peper: I’m extremely optimistic about the future. There’s no time in history I’d rather live. We’ve made incredible strides in almost every field to improve human quality of life. Most of us take things for granted that our ancestors couldn’t even dream of. But our recent success in solving technical problems like bacterial infection and transportation belies our stubbornly constant struggle with social problems like racism, poverty, and violence. These challenges come from within. They are frustrating because they will never be “solved.” Instead, we need to practice empathy, humility, compassion, and public service every single day. We need to build, iterate, and rebalance systems and initiatives that mitigate the worst of these problems. It might feel Sisyphean but in this case, the journey really is the destination.