The Rumpus Interview with Malka Older


Infomocracy, by Malka Older, imagines a world in which information is as ubiquitous as air and governments are not bound by geography. Most of the world, in the late twenty-first century, participates in a global system called microdemocracy, in which districts of 100,000 citizens, known as centenals, vote from a selection of thousands of governments, some of which are small and local, others of which are massive entities competing for the global supermajority. A massive bureaucratic institution called Information—think Google as an NGO—is in charge of keeping citizens informed and fact-checking the governments’ messages.

Ursula Le Guin recently called on writers of science fiction to “see alternatives to how we live now,” and Older’s novel does just that. A doctoral candidate and self-proclaimed policy nerd, Older wrote a futuristic political thriller that with shadows of the issues that have surrounded our recent political campaigns and geopolitics. Because she is interested not only in telling an interesting story—which she does in Infomocracy—but also in helping readers to become more engaged in policy issues, she is donating a percentage of her royalties to Accountability Lab, an organization whose mission is to hold leaders accountable to the people they serve.

I spoke with Older via Skype about Infomocracy, the changing nature of statehood and politics, and the different forms that government and democracy can take.


The Rumpus: How long have you been writing?

Malka Older: I have always been a huge reader, and that kind of meant I was always a huge writer. Reading so much made writing make sense as a way to interact with the world.

Rumpus: What drew you to science fiction and speculative fiction?

Older: Well, as I said, I’ve been writing for a long time, and I have non-speculative fiction books that I have written and that my agent is trying to place now. I think, again, because I read so widely, I just want to respond to the things I’ve read. I also tend to write out of—not always, but often—out of a sort of thematic concern, out of something that is a big idea that either kind of bugs me, or that I’m really interested in, or that attracts me. Sometimes it’s kind of intellectual, sometimes it’s kind of emotional and I just want to write about the feeling. So it has to do with the genre that fits what I’m thinking about.

Infomocracy was really centered on some big ideas that are kind of political and world-order and really thinking about the alternatives to where our system is right now. It has to do with some of the issues that have brought us to where we are, so it could have been maybe an alternate universe sort of thing, but to me, science fiction—a sort of look towards the future—made a lot of sense to write about that, I think partly because of the way people relate to it. I wanted this to be something that is not necessarily a realistic vision of where we could get to in fifty years, because it’s really a pretty significant change from where we are. It’s not impossible, I guess, but it’s not meant to be “this is what we’re aiming for.” What it’s meant to be is, this is a different possibility, and the differences are things that we should think about and think about where we would like to tweak and try something that was a little more like this, maybe not all the way. Or maybe this shows how some ideas that are getting batted around maybe wouldn’t work out in practice. So in that sense, setting it in the future was very useful to me in the way I approached it. When I was thinking about the ideas in this book, it made sense to me as a science fiction novel. It made sense to me as something that was happening not hugely far in the future, but somewhat in the future, so that the tech also would be in the place where it needed to be to facilitate the world order that I was thinking of.

The other thing that happened that made it really into a science fiction novel—it already was in my mind, but I also have this sort of scene and image that became the first scene, the first image of the book, this pachinko parlor. And that’s a real place, this kind of run-down place that said “Twenty-first Century,” like it was this great new thing to look forward to. And, you know, being already a decade into the twenty-first century and seeing this place was kind of run-down and the meaning of that name of a business—which was kind of stuck there permanently in the way it was constructed onto the building—having changed and eroded so much in that amount of time, just really helped me to get into the mindset of being in the future from where we are now.

Rumpus: In Infomocracy you have this massive central organization called Information that’s responsible for the dissemination of information, and there’s this sort of universal suspicion of Information, as a bureaucratic entity, and a lot of Information’s employees are disillusioned by the way that people still don’t make informed decisions in the way they vote. Can you talk about what problems Information solves or fails to solve, and what problems it creates?

Older: I think we do have capacity right now for information management, and we do have a lot of distribution and decentralization in our information, so we do have fact-checkers, we do have people coming out on Twitter to offer different opinions, and so the problem that we have right now, and one of the frustrations of the 2012 campaign that got me to this was being able to really have a good fact-based, evidence-based discussion about policy with someone who disagrees with me. And that’s something that I love. I’m obviously a policy geek, and I have some friends who disagree with me very much in their political leanings, and I’ve had really great, really useful discussions with them to talk through it, which both helped me kind of figure out and define where I stand and why, and make sure that I’m not just repeating things that I’ve heard—and hopefully do the same for them—and also teach me much more about how other people come to their positions. I’ve found that increasingly difficult over the past couple of years, and it feels like people are getting not just different opinions but really different quote-unquote “facts” from their news organizations of choice, and this makes it so difficult to talk about policy and to talk about beliefs and talk about the fundamentals that are really legitimate open questions on how we run our society. So this was just very frustrating for me, and I think a real issue in terms of having a democracy that functions in a useful way for all of its citizens.

Information is a response to that. Information is the UN plus Google, turned into something that says the most important thing for making our system work is that everybody has access to information. And not just access to it, but that they can’t completely avoid it in certain situations, mainly elections or advertisements or any place where someone is putting out a statement of public interest that is false. And obviously I knew as I was writing it, and as I was kind of wishing for this in some ways during the last presidential campaign, that this is also hugely problematic. It’s hugely problematic to give that much power over information to one entity, and again, I think it’s really important to note that in Information, in the theory of it, it’s not a matter of censorship or reducing information. It’s always a matter of kind of adding and annotating and putting more on.

But as quite a lot of the characters realize, and as you note, there is no way to be completely impartial. There is no way to show all the information that exists. There have to be some judgment calls made, and so obviously this organization has a huge impact on what people believe about their world and how they interpret it. That’s kind of the balance of Information: it was created to answer a need, and in some ways it has helped with that, certainly. On the other hand, by doing that, it creates other problems.

And there’s another element of the book which I think is not as clearly explained but points towards this problem, and that’s the question of narrative disorder, which is a mental disorder that Mishima has, which has to do with the fact that the narratives that we ingest in the world through all sorts of different media really affect the way that we parse the world and our experiences. So having Information as the ultimate mediator of at least “nonfiction” narratives will have an effect on the way people see the world. 


Rumpus: Mishima’s narrative disorder is both a liability and an asset to her at different points in the story. It makes her claims about the Liberty government seem less credible to her bosses, and it causes her to second-guess herself, but it also makes her good at her job. But what the disorder causes her to do—responding to information by spinning narratives in her head—is a lot like what we all do, to some degree, isn’t it?

Older: Exactly. It’s meant to sort of show the mediation that we all have between ourselves and our experiences and what we hear about the world based on the way that we construct narratives around them. It is something that, for her, she has it to an extreme degree. And as you said, it works both ways. The fact that, in this future, it has been sort of diagnosed and written about and actually labeled a disorder also affects the way people see it and see her, which makes her somewhat sensitive about it, and that of course has an impact on whether people believe her and whether they doubt her, and for her as well, the way that she trusts her instincts.

But it can be very useful because she is quick to pick up patterns because of it, and while it means that she might kind of create narratives in her head, because other people are also—and less consciously of it—creating narratives in their head and in their actions, sometimes these patterns that she picks up reflect what’s actually going on. Because other people are also trying to create narratives in their lives. And so being able to connect them and being able to think about what makes sense from that perspective enables her to have a little bit of a jump on figuring out what other people might be trying to do or how they’re approaching it. Partly because of that, one of the symptoms of it is also a greater propensity for addiction to narrative. So as well as seeing narratives in the world and noticing other people trying to enact narrative, she also is the kind of person who will get really stuck on that cliffhanger series, or when she is stressed or has something going on will really just want to immerse herself in some other narrative.

Rumpus: Why are the political debates in this futuristic world audio-only?

Older: I think it’s quite important—and I’m not a luddite and we’re not going to go back to a world before television, I don’t think, in the near future—but I do listen to the radio a lot, and it is quite a different experience from what you see on television, and sometimes it is less, sometimes it’s actually more. A lot of people have used the example of FDR and the way he was able to hide his disability when running for president, and how that’s not possible to the same extent anymore.

We can look at other data, too, like the issue of height. There’s a very disproportionate height among presidents, and among CEOs, actually, and I think that—not to downplay issues of race or gender—but in some ways that’s a little bit easier because we don’t think about height in as clear terms right now as we do race and gender. So we do place a huge emphasis on visual cues, in making decisions that rationally should have nothing to do with physical appearance. I find that really interesting and I find it interesting as something that’s in some ways maybe a little bit atavistic in our makeup. It certainly would have worked out differently before we had visual transmission of images so easily, before we were inundated by them, and before we were able to manipulate them so well.

So much of the commentary on our politics has to do with what people wore, what their hair looked like, and then a lot of it goes uncommented, which is even more dangerous. And I really do think it’s a shame. When you look at our high-level elections, there is so much of the celebrity that goes into it, and there is so much of the visual performance that goes into it, and I think that kind of hurts our candidate pool.

Rumpus: The PolicyFirst government tries to avoid that. While many of the leading governments are running big personalities, PolicyFirst doesn’t offer a human face to vote for, but instead makes it all about policy. Do you think something like that is possible in the real world?

Older: It’s a really tricky one. I think it’s particularly interesting in our system because of the role of president. The role of president is actually a very strange one in our system, I think, because the president is both the head of government and the head of state, which are separated in a lot of countries as president and prime minister, or maybe prime minister and royalty, and the president also has a lot less power than we attribute to them. We focus disproportionately, first on the president over the legislative branch, and then on the federal government over local and state governments in elections. A lot of that again comes back to these questions of celebrity, these questions of heroism, wanting to have one figure that we can look up to and put blame on, and use as the hero in a narrative.

I think it’s very hard for most people to see policy the way our elections are run now. The policy decisions, the way they’re presented, are so complicated and the way results, or hypothetical results, or past results from similar policies, are presented are so complicated and so obscured that it’s really hard to vote on policy, and that’s part of the reason why we have these parties and people have party loyalty, because that can kind of stand in for a general collection of policies that you think you generally agree with.

So policy is very difficult, so the other thing that stands in for it is personality and different impressions of this person who is representing the party. Some of those impressions are, as I said before, very visual and very performative. Some of them are less so, and they are also performative but less visual, like speaking or debating, but not a lot of them have to do with the actual policies. We can look back at the history of what a person has done, and that helps somewhat, but again it gets very complex, particularly if they’ve been in legislature.

So, could that happen now? The system would really have to change for that to be able to happen. And I think one way you see that is we do have parties like the Green Party. The idea of having a Green Party is—and I don’t want to say that environmentalism is a single issue, because it’s definitely not—but it does have that kind of slant that’s a bit different. You know, they’re kind of more announcing in the name of the party with the policy in it, and it’s a little bit different approach, and if that sort of thing were to start to function, I think it would really have to be at the local level. I mean, I don’t see any point in trying to do that at the presidential election. But if that were something that would start to work up through local executive positions, or through the legislature, that could be a different kind of campaign. Right now that is also a party that has a single representative, and a personality and the visuals, so that’s not the way it works right now, but if you look at countries with parliamentary systems, you can see a little bit of a hint of what that looks like, where you have more parties and there is more of an emphasis on specific positions, but even those are really far away from what I was envisioning in this.

Rumpus: What you said about the complexities of policy and difficulties of communicating it plays a big role in the book. You have Information as this instantaneous fact-checker during the debates. I’m remembering a scene in which they’re fact-checking something that Johnny Fabré [the public face of the Liberty government] says, and Information displays all these dry facts and statistics that get drowned out by Fabré’s simpler and more compelling rhetoric. Is this a problem that’s intrinsic to democracy? Or is there a solution?

Older: I would say both. I think it is a problem that’s intrinsic and it’s a problem that we’re never going to solve one hundred percent, but I think that there are ways that we can get closer and do better on it than we’re doing now. I also think that like so many wicked problems, there’s not one solution that’s going to take us to the best place we can get, but there are a lot of different initiatives, and there are a lot of organizations that are working towards this now. I’ve seen a bunch of different ones during this election cycle where they have places you can go and answer a survey—because everyone loves internet surveys, right?—and then it tells you which candidate your feelings most align with, for example. Or they have sites that you can link to that do explainers. So that’s one side of it, is trying to get out the information, which I think is still a real challenge.

There’s another side to it, which is efforts at direct democracy, at trying to make every policy position something that people can vote on, either in a kind of binding vote, or more in a sort of opinion poll, but trying to get people to get engaged with the issues at that level. That’s something that’s been tried in a couple different places. And actually, we can see that there’s some risks to that, too, and we can see that in Brexit. That was something that didn’t actually have to go to people at that point, to have a decision on it. And it did, and the decision was different from what most people expected. So we have to be aware that even with policy questions that reputedly don’t have personalities attached—although personalities definitely got attached to the different sides in that case—you can still have a lot of emotional campaigning and a lot of confusion over facts and so on.

And everybody of course processes information in different ways. But again like so many things, I think a lot of this has to start with the local level, it has to start with people understanding how policies impact them, and from there hopefully move on to solidarity and understanding and caring how policies impact other people too. Just starting to understand those connections between what you vote for and what happens in the real world. I think it feels very detached for a lot of people now, and so it’s a very difficult thing to make the connection. I think that logistically, financially, even in terms of political will, there’s a lot of room for improvement there that we can achieve now.

And as in the book, there’s still going to be problems, and it’s not going to get us to one hundred percent. I think one of the big things in the book, at least for the characters, is you’ve got this amazing information system, and it puts the information right up in front of people’s faces, and a lot of times they still aren’t really paying attention, or they’re not taking it the way that the people putting the information there think it will be taken. And one of the risks with that system is to be patronizing. I think that’s one of the risks, always, with democracy, or people who promote democracy, is thinking that there’s a right answer. I was trying to be a little cautious, too, about how I spoke about Brexit, because I don’t think I can say, particularly not being a British citizen, what the right or wrong answer was. I can say that from what I understand, there was a lot of misrepresentation in the campaigning, and that to me is a huge problem. But if people are well-informed, and if the choice is being made, then if you say they picked the wrong person, then maybe you don’t really believe in democracy. Whenever you say people are voting against their own interests, there’s a really fine line between, you know, is there actually some problem with the information that they’re getting, which very legitimate as an issue, or do you just disagree with them, in which case, well, democracy means it’s actually their choice.

The Rumpus: Microdemocracy is interesting in that it’s a global system, but the elections are very localized, limited to 100,000 citizens each. Can you talk about where the idea for microdemocracy came from and how it evolved?

Older: It’s really related to what I was just talking about in terms of democracy, and the ideas about choosing the wrong person or the wrong decision, and the problems when democracy doesn’t align with some of the principles of human rights and equal rights and tolerance and other things that we tend to associate with it. So this comes from me living and working in a bunch of different places that had active secession movements of various kinds. So in Sri Lanka, I worked there at a time when the Tamil Eelam movement was still quite active and I worked at times in some of the areas that they actually were de facto, although not by law, a separate country, pretty much; Indonesia, where I worked in places that kind of had low-key separatist movements going on; East Timor, which had had a successful separatist movement; and Sudan, which, when I worked there, South Sudan had not yet separated, and now they have. Also places like Spain, which has quite active separatist movements of a couple different kinds. The UK has several different sort of separatist issues. It was really fascinating how the European Union has this concept of bringing together Europe, and yet almost every state in it has some kind of separatist movement. Some of them are quite minor and not likely to get anywhere, but almost every state has some group within it, and if you look up secessionist movements or separatist movements on Wikipedia, it’s almost every country that has one of some kind or another.

So almost all of these countries, a lot of them democratic, or at least democratic in name, they have some group that doesn’t feel like they belong, and this creates all kinds of problems. On the one side we see that democracy can in fact be the oppression of the minority by the majority. And there are efforts, again, to try and make democracy work with this problem, there are different ways that you can require a certain amount of representation in parliament from certain groups, and those may work to a certain extent, but it’s difficult to make the system work in those conditions. The other side of the problem is, the past century and a half or so, this concept of nation-states came into being and then came into huge popularity, and became something that countries could aspire to. We’re not only a unit of government, but we’re also a people that are united in some way, which makes this issue of groups that want to separate even more fraught and problematic. And then in a lot of the places that I mentioned, the government would take quite violent action to prevent these groups from separating.

I’ve always had kind of an underdog streak, and also just from a practical perspective—understand the requirements of saving face and not wanting to show that your country can just fall apart into different fragments—but a lot of it is really anachronistic, because a lot of this clinging to territory that really doesn’t want to be governed by your government, it’s based on the idea that having a large country is useful in some way, and in the modern world it really isn’t that much. If you look at economics, if you look at which countries are powerful economically, or whatever metric you want to look at, that’s much less useful than it used to be, in our current global economy. So that simple impracticality of it also rankled with me. From a human rights perspective, obviously it’s really problematic.

But I think we are, if not at, then close to, a stage where we could really decouple government from geography, from proximity. And that actually exists already in the world. There are a lot of governments that have outposts somewhere that are not geographically connected to where they are. And a lot of them have a history of colonialism, which has its own issues. But in terms of the logistics of administrating a government that’s spread all over the world, we have Alaska and Hawaii and Guam; the UK has Gibraltar, for example, and arguably the Falklands; France has its overseas dominions. There’s a little piece of East Timor that’s sort of cut off from the rest of it, a little further away in Indonesia. There’s a lot of examples of this around the world. It’s very possible to do. And for me it was a very interesting thought experiment of can you look at a county-level map of all the results of our presidential elections, and you see that scattering, then why shouldn’t those groups be able to choose not just between Republican or Democrat, but between a whole range of how they would like their areas to be run?

Rumpus: How soon do you expect to see termite enchiladas on the menu?

Older: Well, termites are actually eaten in a lot of places, and enchiladas are the sort of thing that can be adapted pretty well in a lot of cultures, so I wouldn’t be totally shocked if that exists somewhere. I haven’t seen it. I made it up, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. And if not, I would say it’s pretty doable now. To have it on the menu in Paris will probably take a little longer, but it could certainly happen.

Rumpus: You have another book on the way. What can you tell us about it?

Older: Yeah, so the sequel, Null States, is in the editing process now, so it’s almost done. It’ll be out next year. I shouldn’t say too much about it yet. I will say that I was really interested in continuing to explore the world of Infomocracy further. One thing that made me want to go on to write the sequel was if I want to talk about democracy and governance and all these issues, elections are fine and very exciting and very important, but the other side of that is governing. One thing that’s come up in a couple of the responses to the book was the question of how people live on a day-to-day basis. The new book does actually have electioning and debates in it—it has a little bit—but I was trying to look a little bit at how things look when there’s not this huge battle for votes going on and what are some of the other issues.

Also, for me, Infomocracy is a very global book. It relates to a lot of places that I had lived and worked, and that was very important to me, so Null States also goes on and looks at some additional places. Finally, I think the other really important thing, in the origins of the title for Null States, is Infomocracy is really about Information, the organization, and the kind of power that they have, the way that they use it, both the benefits and the problems of this, and the other things that we discussed here. Null States starts to really look at the limits of Information. There are still some places in the world that have not joined the system. A couple of them are mentioned in Infomocracy, and we add some more of the details in Null States, and so even though we talked about a global election, and it’s global in the sense that there are places involved in it all over the world, there are still exceptions. And so the way that those relate to the system is also a big concern in the sequel.

Justin Eells is an MFA candidate and writing teacher at Minnesota State University. His work has appeared in Molotov Cocktail, Mad Swirl, and other places. He tweets @justin_eells. More from this author →