Do you think the world is moving more or less towards capitalizm? I only ask because I was idly looking at the Jennifer Government world map and realised the UK left the European Union, which was quite premonitory.
You know what I think was premonitory, if that’s even a real word, Adam: this blog where I predicted the rise of social media influencers. I mean, my corporate stuff, that’s shooting fish in a barrel. You don’t have to stare at the world for long before you notice people vaccuming up wealth and power while hiding behind logos and heartfelt TV commercials. Then you go ahead and write a novel where everything is like that only moreso, and bam, you’re a modern-day Cassandra.
But the influencer blog! In 2007, I predicted that people would be able to have great careers just being kind of awesome, even in a small way. This was three years and two months before Instagram even existed. I’m proud of that because I feel like I didn’t extrapolate current trends so much as pick it before it happened.
Anyway, to answer your question: I do think we are moving toward more extreme capitalizm. Especially lately! I’ve long thought I got a crucial piece of Jennifer Government wrong, because government of all kinds have never seemed very interested in shrinking themselves. Even when the small-government people get in power, they don’t shrink anything. They only move money from one place to another while continuing to expand overall. So how would we wind up with a tiny government? It seemed more likely that governments and corporations would become increasingly similar until no-one could tell them apart. Lots of shady public-private partnerships, run by people who hop back and forth between the two; that kind of thing.
But look at this! We have a health emergency and the US federal government’s move is to shovel essential resources into the free market and let state governments bid for them. That’s really something. I mean, obviously the free market is a wonderful thing, the bedrock of our modern society, and so on. But it doesn’t work for everything. You get Jennifer Government when you believe the market is always best, no matter what, and even basic education, even healthcare, even fighting fires, is best left in the hands of an unregulated private sector. Which is a creepy ideology to me because it deliberately ignores the concept of market failure: that when it comes to essential goods and services, it can be pretty horrendous to let poor people go without.
So yes! Today, I see more capitalizm than ever. And the world’s most visible examplar of government is so bad at its job—deliberately? By accident? Maybe both!—that I can actually see a pathway where people get so jacked at we-starved-the-beast government incompetence that they give up and look for something better. Or not, you know, better, but shinier, with a better logo.
I apologize for asking Mr. Barry, but what would you consider yourself to be on the political spectrum? I’ve seen people call you a right-libertarian, a neo-liberal, and other times fiscal conservative. An answer would be much appreciated.
Well those are terrible guesses. I can rule out those three. Here, I took the Political Compass test for you:
I call myself a militant centrist because I’m a writer, and you can’t write unless you constantly put yourself in other people’s shoes, even shoes that are kind of gross. For example, if I’m writing a character who’s going to assault someone, I need to understand how he sees the world in order for that behavior to make sense. He wouldn’t do it for no reason, or if he thought it was fundamentally wrong or would make him a bad person. So he must have a view of the world in which it’s the right thing to do.
I might disagree with this character, but it’s my job to make his behavior rational. So I climb into that brainspace as far as I can, until it starts to seem totally reasonable to me, too, that he has to assault someone, and, in fact, maybe it’s the assaulters who are the real heroes, and the world needs more of them.
(I went back and re-read Machine Man a few years ago, and was really surprised by how strange that character is. When I was writing him, I had wriggled far enough into his head that it seemed quite logical. But with a little distance: No. He is messed up.)
Anyway, out of reflex, I do this in real life, too, so when I encounter an opinion that I find bizarre, I try to contort my mind until I can imagine the context in which it makes perfect sense. And once you can do this for people who want to amputate their own limbs, you can definitely do it for people who oppose gun control.
So although I have a lot of political opinions that are very left-leaning, I usually find something to sympathize with in right-wing arguments, too. I mean, I usually think they’re wrong. I really do think most right-wing talking points are, on the evidence, objectively incorrect nowadays. But I can imagine circumstances or contexts in which they would make sense.
This may make me the kind of person who would be appeasing Nazis in the 1930s, by the way, so it’s not an objectively good thing. It’s just good for a writer.
Do you think the world is doomed in the near future?
Only in the sense that it will be a nightmarish hellhole by our standards. I’m sure it’ll be fine to the people who live in it. I base this on how young people seem happy all the time while old people complain that the world has gone to hell.
In fifty years, the world could be a desert scorched by permanent war between rival corporate city-states and people would still be like, “I would hate to live in 2017, when people got colds and just had to live with male pattern baldness.” You value the stuff you have and don’t miss what you don’t have, is what I’m getting at.
Also ethics are super malleable. I feel they misled us about this in school. Back then, I definitely had the idea that the future would be filled with difficult ethical decisions about which technologies we would pursue and which we would reject in favor of human decency and dignity. But in practice, what’s happened is anything gets to exist if it works and people like it. Like Uber. Before Uber, cities had all these rules about who could drive a cab and how, and for the most part they were eminently reasonable attempts to keep people safe and not ripped off. Then Uber came along like, “What if we DON’T have those rules,” and people liked it, so now we have that.
So the world is doomed in that way. But also full of promise, in that it will have things that I will personally dislike and not understand but which would have defined my life if they’d been invented when I was eight years old.
I’m optimistic that we will avoid destroying ourselves with nuclear weapons or runaway artificial intelligence. Not for any good reason. Logically, I can totally see that happening. But I have a good feeling.
What’s your opinion on net neutrality?
I’m against it. I just think it’s hypocritical to say we should live in a world where corporations are free to shape laws and pay no tax but not screw the internet. That seems unfair to me.
Don’t get me wrong: You definitely want to keep ISPs’ hands off the net as much as you can. ISPs are like water utilities that realized they should come right into your home and decide what kind of showers you can have, since it’s their water. You don’t want a bunch of water engineers trying to sell you eight-minute shower bundles. No-one wants that.
But I’m not comfortable with the portrayal of Net Neutrality as a fight between good companies and bad companies. That dynamic always gives me the heebie-jeebies. There’s just something about people praising the kindness and decency of an amoral profit-making machine that doesn’t sit well with me. I mean, I’m glad some companies are better than others. I appreciate that they’re not all dumping oil in the oceans and poisoning children and telling employees they’re family right before they fire them. It’s definitely a good thing that companies who get financially punished if they have a bad public image are compelled to act nicer than ones who don’t.
I just don’t like pretending they’re champions of freedom. Last time I checked, Apple and Google and Facebook and Netflix and all the rest were super-interested in sealing everybody into their own sections of the internet for money. Well, not so much Google. Google is still pretty great. But as a rule, they are big fans of the principle of removing user choice in exchange for cash. In this particular case, abolishing Net Neutrality means they might have to pay cash to ISPs, so they’re against that. But they’re all still busy working on their own forms of user lock-in.
The other thing is that this keeps happening. How many times has the battle for Net Neutrality been won? Four times? And each time the ISPs go away and sulk with their paid-for politicians and wait for everyone to stop cheering about how they saved the internet, and then they return with a new version that tries to do the same thing. So I would like to dispel the illusion that we’re actually accomplishing anything substantial here, and instead take a look at the system that allows a thousand things like this to pass a year, only more quietly because they’re not opposed by major corporations, steadily entrenching inequality, selling out the future for the short-term gain of a powerful few.
But since we’re not doing that, Net Neutrality is okay, I guess.
Do you like chocolate?
I’m glad you asked. I feel I get misrepresented on chocolate. My position is that chocolate is fine. It tastes good. I don’t mind chocolate at all. But many other people are all CHOCOLATE NOM NOM NOM WHY YOU NO EAT MORE and then they start making out like I’m some kind of chocolate hater. Like I’m a chocolate bigot, just because I only like it a bit. I’m not. I promise you, I’m no chocolate bigot. I’m pro-chocolate, like I said. I’m just not, you know, insanely, off-the-charts, everyone-should-eat-as-much-chocolate-as-possible, let’s-round-up-people-who-don’t-want-to-marry-chocolate-and-put-them-in-camps kind of pro-chocolate. This is the trouble with moderate positions.