Ada Palmer and Cory Doctorow are something of an intellectual dream team. Approaching issues of information control, technology, surveillance and free speech from seemingly opposite perspectives, their work often seems to be in dialogue with each other. Palmer, a historian who spends much of her time looking at historical documents to extract information about the time period, wrote her Terra Ignota series with a view to using science fiction to ask philosophical questions.
Doctorow, whose fictional and nonfictional work is concerned with questions of technological control, censorship, surveillance and climate change – the unforeseen consequences of human innovation, asks many of the same questions. His novel, Walkaway, takes place in a post-scarcity gift economy, where a super-rich elite are pitted against a group of anarchistic innovators using polluted waste to achieve fully automated luxury communism.
The pair, who often work together and have a long-standing rapport, were in fine fettle this evening. They leapt blithely from topic to topic, chaired with a light hand by sci-fi author Pippa Goldschmidt, in a talk that was ostensibly about science fiction but often veered toward the alarmingly factual.
Questions of economics and monopoly, of morality, of aesthetics and politics were raised, of the future of the EU, and the dangers of ignoring the object lessons of history. The discussion was fast-paced and had a sense of urgency bordering on the alarmist. But it was inspiring as well; at every turn solutions were posited (saveyourinternet.eu was mentioned several times) and the discussion had a distinctly hopeful energy.
It was obvious as well throughout that Palmer and Doctorow are experts in their respective fields, and that they are uniquely suited to working together. It’s no coincidence that they are currently collaborating on a research project at the University of Chicago, on the history of censorship. The project will seek to answer questions about the future of information control in the age of the internet, using the proliferation of censorship that followed in the wake of the printing press as a historical case study, a unique joining of history and tech.
Overall Sunday’s event was fascinating: If at times I struggled to keep up with the discussion, I was certainly never bored. Vital questions were raised (the tension between hate speech and free speech, how the presence of censorship in a society influences its authors, how to maintain net neutrality when a handful of companies control the market) and if we didn’t end the night with all the answers, it was clear that these are the minds who will find them.
For more on the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018 click here.