“Technology has become our latest aspirational model”: An interview with Arcadia writer Alex Paknadel

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Increasingly it can sometimes feel that as a species, we’ve already given ourselves to the machine. Networked, Glued to screen and ‘black mirrors’ everywhere it seems that more and more of our fiction examines the dark side of such progress and our tumultuous absorption with technology. Exploring these themes as it speeds towards the conclusion of it’s gripping first story arc, Arcadia from writer Alex Paknadel and Eric Scott Pfeiffer presents a vision of a world whose people have literally given themselves over to the machine.

After an as yet, unspecified disease decimates the human  population, the only way to ‘save’ the world’s population is by copying them into the vast digital space of Arcadia. A new cyber playground for the world’s digitally resurrected people. The processing power hungry behemoth is guarded and maintained out of duty and sorrow by the few remaining flesh and bone residents of the real world, already dismissively dubbed “the meat” by the pixilated population of Arcadia. Four issues in and the creative team has already given us a fascinating glimpse into the world of Arcadia, that mirrors our own world in it’s struggle to redefine itself and the nature of humanity in the wake of such technological changes. In the desperate scrabble for survival we have a small group of ragged real world humans maintaining the Arcadia servers in the face of disease and dwindling resources and an uploaded, shell shocked  digital populace still clinging onto the old ways and outdated concepts. In the first issue a character sits in traffic. An endless, boundless digital landscape and a traffic jam. It’s the smallest and most ridiculous example presented as we see a new world still shackled by pettiness and human greed. It’s a decidedly modern spin on the cyberpunk, virtual reality concepts written for a readership ever more enthralled and at ease with technology. Even so it manages to ask some deep questions and be deeply unflinching and unnerving in it’s presentation of human nature and its relationship with the devices it produces.

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Marfedblog: So, with Arcadia what was happening in your own life or in the world around you that inspired you to write the series?

Alex Paknadel: The inspiration for the series was pretty environmental I suppose. The HBO show ‘Silicon Valley‘ critiques this far more astutely than I ever could, but a while ago it occurred to me that tech – and by extension the narrow late capitalist definition of progress – has taken the place of religion in our lives. We give more and more of ourselves to the machine, all in the pursuit of limit performance. I wanted to see what would happen if we gave ourselves to the machine entirely, you know? What would that look like?

MB: What are you feelings on our current level of interaction with technology? Why do you think as a species it’s a subject we keep exploring, coming back to and fretting over?

AP: I forget where I read this, but this anthropologist asserted somewhere that the history of technology has mainly been the history of mimicry. Humans see traits we covet in the animal and vegetable kingdoms, so we use technology to mimic those traits. Bears were warmer than we were back in the ice age, so we killed them for their skins so we could be like them, right? Murder and imitation were the same thing, Then we wanted to be like birds so we invented flying machines to join them in the sky. The problem now is that technology has become our latest aspirational model. We want to work and play like machines because they’re so much slicker than we are. Did you know that we sleep approximately two hours less than our grandparents every single night now? We skip lunch breaks, we do crazy overtime, we turn up to work sick. Why? So we can be more like machines that will replace us anyway. Anything becomes dangerous once it leaves its intended function behind. I think we realize that on some level, so tech becomes an object of terror.

MB: Wealth inequality, or Arcadia’s version of it, plays a big part in the series so far, and has been in the spotlight in the news more prominently in the last few years. Is this something you feel strongly about?

AP: I do, yeah. I grew up in a poor neighborhood in London in the eighties, so I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about it I’m afraid. It’s certainly true that you have to meet the world halfway if you want to achieve anything, but it’s also true that the game is rigged to a disgusting extent. With Arcadia, I wanted to make it very clear that even in a utopia we’d find a way to perpetuate our inhumanity to each other. I couldn’t do it through resources in the traditional sense, so I went with faces. The poor literally have more generic faces than the rich. The dirt poor have no face at all. Individuality is a luxury, kids!

MB: With the rise of the internet, even with the positives do you feel that like Arcadia we are already living in our little simulated worlds?

AP: That’s exactly the point I’m trying to make, yes. The algorithms on social media and search platforms are so sophisticated and hyper-personalized now, they’re essentially mirrors. Reality is curated by these algorithms to the extent that you’re only presented with individuals and material that fall pretty conclusively within your comfort zone. Where’s the radical encounter? Where’s the productive disagreement? Why is it so vital that we not be exposed to anything that might challenge our existing worldview? How ironic that the greatest information resource ever devised has done a terrific job of turning some of us into petulant super toddlers.

MB: It seems to be hinted at that Arcadia wasn’t intended to be used for saving the human race, is there a deliberate reflection of the internet as it is now, with it being intended for something else and now being somewhat controlled by larger parties such as governments and corporations, instead of being free and open source?

AP: I was certainly thinking in terms of tools changing their nature in line with the intentions of the wielder, sure. A camera is a perfectly neutral thing in the dark of a closet, but in the hands of a government or a corporation it becomes a weapon. I’ve said this elsewhere, but what I’m really bellyaching about here is blind faith in cyber-utopianism if that makes sense. I remember a banker friend told me in about 2005 that there would never be another financial crash because trading desks were automated! Technology was the tool, but it was never going to be a bulwark against human greed and cowardice. To put it into a single sentence, technology will never be able to protect us from our own nature. That’s the one assertion that underpins Arcadia in its entirety.

MB: You’ve mentioned Arcadia as “an ongoing apocalypse” what do you think draws people back as readers to stories of the species demise? What attracted you to writing a series with an apocalypse, but at the same time with computer simulation, thriving life?

AP: To put it bluntly, I’m obsessed with aftermaths. I always want to know what happens after the credits roll, so that’s generally where my stories start. Turning to why apocalyptic stories and scenarios are so popular, I think it’s because most of them guarantee a hell of a spectacle. We’re the only animal that walks toward fireworks, right? Fire itself hypnotizes us. We want to burn, albeit on our own terms.

Regarding the simulation itself, it’s really just a world without consequences. If you want me to get really specific, it’s the world I kinda grew up in. Before 9/11 there was a very popular theory that history had ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union. We were basically going to get really comfortable and bored… Forever. Well, that didn’t happen. The crash of 2008 put paid to the last of that bullshit, and now here we are in a colder, more competitive, less forgiving world. I know some people are happy about that because they think we were getting too complacent here in the west, but I miss the 90s. I miss the sense that you were exploring from a position of relative safety. It kills me to see such anxious young people when I had no doubt in my mind that the world was a relatively benign place only fifteen years ago. In short, I was an idiot. Arcadia is my take on tech Utopianism, sure, but it’s also my naïveté made manifest.

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MB: In your mind do you consider the people of Arcadia to even be human any more, or something, less, more or different? Do you think interactions with tech and media like the net has already changed us and for the better or worse?

AP: I think they’re absolutely still human, but some of them think they’ve transcended that category. The fact is, they’re totally dependent on the poor hard working souls here in the real world, but they’d never admit that. Our interactions with tech and media have transformed the world, but I think people often forget that they haven’t actually changed the material conditions of life on this planet. You still can’t eat an iPad, although God knows I’ve tried. To put it another way, maybe we shouldn’t be patting ourselves on the back for creating slick 3D touchscreen interfaces when there are more malnourished kids in the UK than there were 10 years ago. I’m all for the future, but I won’t accept a future without pity or mercy.

MB: In a virtual world we still see people clinging to the old ways and power structures, do you think there is a tendency to bring new innovations and drag them down? what made you want to explore this angle in the comic?

AP: I suppose it’s because for all the emancipatory rhetoric coming from the tech sector, it’s a very old game they’re playing. I have to say though, I don’t quite agree that innovations get dragged down. I know this is an unpopular view, but I think tech should be rigorously policed. To be honest, it already is. A LOT of jobs are unnecessary now thanks to automation, but whoever factors the true extent of this into their country’s economic plans will be burned at the stake. uber is the tip of the iceberg, man. What happens when self driving vehicles obliterate the aviation, transport and haulage industries overnight? It’s all very well making everything more efficient, but if all of your consumers are out of work because they’ve been automated into oblivion then no amount of precisely targeted advertising is going to work on them. Robots don’t want Nikes, right?

As for Arcadia, I really wanted to write about it at a point of major transition. The kids are just realizing that the aesthetics of the real world that their parents find comforting no longer apply. They can go really nuts and cut the cord with the real world. Of course that has consequences…

MB: Under 25’s are often referred to as net natives, people who have always had access to the internet, was this something you are referencing maybe with the boy ‘born’ in Arcadia?

AP: Absolutely. People who were toddlers during the first dot com boom are going to apprehend reality very differently than people of my generation. You know, it always amuses me when Baby Boomers accuse Millennials of being lazy. I’ve worked with Millennials. Trust me, they’re just moving too quickly for us to see.

MB: For yourself, would you accept being uploaded to Arcadia? What aspects do you lie, and which parts frighten you?

AP: I’d go in a heartbeat, sure. I’m an enormous hypochondriac so not sharing my world with microbes would suit me down to the ground. I’d love having the world as my creative canvas, and I’d love it if every mistake I made was instantly reversible. I’ve always been profoundly uncomfortable in my own skin – indeed with the whole concept of corporeality… All those slippery valves and Pistons! It would be too tempting for me, certainly. What frightens me is the end of morality and the social contract as we know it. If you can’t kill people and they instantly heal, what use is a conscience?

MB:  Did you have to learn a lot of new jargon for the technical aspects of the series or was it something you were familiar with?

AP: I’ve worked in tech for the past four years so I had a rough idea what I needed, but for the really technical stuff I leant very heavily on my Dad and a very talented developer at my old company. I couldn’t code my way out of a paper bag, so they’ve been indispensable.

MB: You mentioned Arcadia being a huge sandbox, are there any elements without spoiling too much that you are looking forward to exploring in the future?

AP: If I’m lucky enough to revisit this world, I’d really like to explore this idea of localised reality, you know? What if a culture could tailor the laws of physics and biology to its own value system? Some cultures would only allow you to grow genitals after marriage, whereas others would automatically mark illegal immigrants as soon as they entered their borders. Getting reality in your own flavour as though it were any other consumer choice would very quickly lead to some form of generalized psychosis, I’m sure.Getting what we want is very bad for our mental health.

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