Ashley Madison, Robert Heinlein, and Me

I never thought I would write about Ashley Madison. After all, what could I say about a web site whose slogan is “Life is short. Have an affair.”?

Then I heard an On the Media interview with Gizmodo editor-in-chief Annalee Newitz and realized there is more to the Ashley Madison story than data breaches destroying marriages. There is a connection to my work as a writer.

Let me explain.

Sigmund Freudenberger (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

“They assured me my personal data was totally safe!” [Sigmund Freudenberger (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)]

Le futur, c’est maitenant! (The future is now!)

My novel-in-progress is set in a near future where the line between human and machine is increasingly blurred. The question of what it means to be human is up for debate. Qualities once uniquely ascribed to homo sapiens are now apparent in silicon-based creations that run on electricity.

I’m interested in the idea that these changes are happening largely without our explicit knowledge and consent. And the nefarious actors, far from being sentient machines bent on overtaking the human race, are more often than not our fellow humans.

The real Ashley Madison story, it seems, is not that married people use a web site to seek affair partners. (That’s not even an innovation; it’s an incremental improvement over the old-fashioned cocktail-party dalliance.) Instead, it’s the revelation that an enormous amount of what appeared to be interaction between men and women on the Ashley Madison site was actually interaction between men and bots.

At least I knew I was talking to a bot.

At least I knew I was talking to a bot.

“At last,” Newitz writes in her article on Gizmodo, “I was able to see how a group of engineers tried to create bots that would make men feel like they were in a world packed with eager, available women.” It turns out that, according to Newitz, the main business of Ashley Madison was not connecting people who wanted to cheat on their spouses. Instead, it was extracting money from men who wanted to buy into a fantasy, in much the same way FarmVille engages users in a fantasy that they play at with real dollars. Sadly, it was the human beings writing the code (or their bosses) who decided it would be a good idea to create this business model. Maybe we’re not so advanced as we think.

If Ashley Madison only shows us how everything old is new again, there are plenty of other examples of the future rushing toward us so quickly that speculative fiction has a hard time keeping up. How about treating depression with deep brain stimulation? Or an implant to cure paralysis? Or democracy under siege by an overreaching government enabled by technology? Or robots running a hotel?

Crossing the line

The Ashley Madison story made me wonder: how can I write a futuristic novel when the future is already here? And where exactly is the line between the present and future? If I want to comment on the present by spinning a tale that speculates about the future, how far ahead do I have to write before my story actually is speculation? Twenty years? Thirty? Fifty?

I’ll admit this threw me for a loop. For a few minutes, I contemplated abandoning my venture into futuristic fiction. Then I decided I don’t really care where the line is or whether the future will already have arrived by the time I finish writing my book (book! what a hopelessly antiquated form!). I’m going to focus on creating engaging characters and a consuming story, using the ideas and themes at my disposal, from the vantage point in time I now occupy.

That’s really all any writer can do, whatever the century in which we set our stories.

9 thoughts on “Ashley Madison, Robert Heinlein, and Me

  1. I read a blog post recently about the same thing. We are at warp speed in moving toward all kinds of futuristic inventions. It is tough to stay ahead of it. I say go for it, since a good story doesn’t rely on bells and whistles…
    Thanks for brining this to the party!

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  2. You’re getting at the essence of fiction and how it’s changing. The form that we structure stories around, more or less invented in the 11th century by a woman in Japan (The Tale of Genji) — now is hailed as a record of her time and social class. What else can be done but capture what it’s like to live now, even as you speculate. We’re all speculating. Look how Heinlein and Asimov persist, even though their portrayals of technology are quaint and outdated. Look how “He, She & It” by Marge Piercy seems prescient.

    There’s a deeper question you’re niggling at with your aside “Book! what a hopelessly antiquated form.” Joking aside, is it? What are we on the brink of with writing?

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  3. I remember an author at ThrillerFest saying something along the lines of, “By the time you finish writing your science fiction, it might be nonfiction.” In other words, technology is advancing so quickly that just as you say, it might outpace our fiction. So I agree, focusing on “engaging characters and a consuming story” seems a good way to proceed. And when it comes down to it, I think that’s what readers ultimately want.

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