“A single mysterious computer program that placed orders — and then subsequently canceled them — made up 4 percent of all quote traffic in the U.S. stock market last week, according to the top tracker of high-frequency trading activity. The motive of the algorithm is still unclear.”
This last phrase was taken by the artist James Bridle as the title of a talk. I hope to find it on a t-shirt one day.
The opacity of the algorithm indicates the underlying otherness of the technology that surrounds and penetrates us. On the surface, the algorithms powering Google and Facebook are compliant. Place a search term into Google and watch it scamper to please you. But there are layers of intent behind that compliance, some of which are commercial but a few offer stranger sites for speculation.
My first novel, The Red Men, was spun around a central idea of people paying to maintain digital simulations of their selves — the red men of the title — that would do their work for them. Faced with the prospect of following-up The Red Men, I saw that my division of the world into ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ was anachronistic twentieth-century thinking. The alliance of algorithmic processing, mobile digital devices, and networked communications was creating a layer that sat within the real. The boundaries will disappear, like the trenches of the First World War.
Social media like Facebook converts intimate human activity — friendships, fleeting interests, your reflection — into data. By quantifying ourselves, we become searchable and sortable by an algorithm. We’re already halfway into this future, and can feel its cold chill on our forehead.
Power for the tech and finance giants will be a matter of staying close to the magical formulae of algorithms and finding a way of persuading massive data sets — otherwise known as ‘you’ — to offer yourself up for their sorting prowess. In the west, this technological shift is taking place against a backdrop of declining public wealth.
In my new novel If Then, an algorithm called The Process is used to run a Sussex town, sorting the need of the people and allocating resources accordingly. The abstract quality of human happiness can be quantified as The Happiness Index, the sum of a hundred and twenty observable metrics. An algorithm can experiment with social provision to maximise these metrics across a given population.
The people submit to this promise of The Process because their labour no longer has any value. All they can offer the marketplace is the value accrued by their interaction with the algorithm, in the same way that Facebook is worthless until you put you and your friends into it.
In storytelling terms, artificial intelligence ceases to be an evil genius or a god out a machine, but a system like nature, in which complex phenomena emerge out of simple iterative behaviours.
The motive of the algorithm remains unclear. If Then combines this speculative future — the IF of the title — with a historical story — the THEN, and that is drawn from the First World War.
In one way, the First World War introduced humanity to its powerlessness in the face of rapacious technological logic. The mathematician and meteorologist Lewis Fry Richardson, while driving an ambulance behind the lines on the Western Front, sought to devise an equation that would predict the outcome of the war. In the British Library, I read his pamphlet The Mathematical Psychology of War and recognised it as a future echo of our quantified, algorithmic age.
Richardson served with The Friends Ambulance Unit, a Quaker-led volunteer unit that also included the science fiction writer Olaf Stapledon. So began my collection of Mystical Stretcher Bearers of the Great War. These were the men who, on point of principle, did not want to fight nor did they wish to criminalise themselves by becoming conscientious objectors; these freethinkers, Quakers, various writers, philosophers and professors ended up as stretcher bearers and ambulance drivers, observing the war from a position that sought to ameliorate the violence without perpetuating it.
In the midst of the monstrous industrial slaughter of the war, these men sought to reconcile their experiences with an abiding progressive faith in humanity: the result was trench mysticism. In the letters home of soldier-priest Pierre Teilhard De Chardin, the trench becomes a boundary between the past and the future, and the starshells which illuminate the battlefield are augurs of a new age.
I had a dusk vision while walking across South Downs. Once I gained the chalk ridge, I had an apprehension that I would look down over the land and see a long trench, newly dug into the greensward of the South Downs and strung with coarse-cut barbed wire. I felt, in my fingertips, the possibility that the war could return. That after things fall apart, a lost battle would come home.
If Then folds these two corners of time together: a speculative near-future powered by algorithm, and a single battle in the First World War in which the code of that future is first written.
If Then is published by Angry Robot Books, and is out now. Here’s the synopsis:
In the near future, after the collapse of society as we know it, one English town survives under the protection of the computer algorithms of the Process, which governs every aspect of their lives. The Process gives and it takes. It allocates jobs and resources, giving each person exactly what it has calculated they will need. But it also decides who stays under its protection, and who must be banished to the wilderness beyond. Human life has become totally algorithm-driven, and James, the town bailiff, is charged with making sure the Process’s suggestions are implemented.
But now the Process is making soldiers. It is readying for war — the First World War. Mysteriously, the Process is slowly recreating events that took place over a hundred years ago, and is recruiting the town’s men to fight in an artificial reconstruction of the Dardanelles campaign. James, too, must go fight. And he will discover that the Process has become vastly more sophisticated and terrifying than anyone had believed possible.
Matthew De Abaitua lived and worked as Will Self’s amanuensis in a remote cottage in Suffolk, after he graduated with an MA in Creative Writing. His short story ‘Inbetween’ was included in the bestselling anthology Disco Biscuits and adapted as a short film by Channel 4. His first novel The Red Men (Snowbooks 2007, Gollancz eBook 2013) was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. In 2013, the first chapter was adapted as a short film ‘Dr. Easy’ by directors Shynola (produced by Film4 and Warp) as a precursor to a feature film, currently in development. ‘Dr. Easy’ currently has had 237k views on Vimeo. Matthew currently lectures on Creative Writing at Brunel University and Writing Science Fiction at the University of Essex.