Too often we let the rich and powerful dictate what technology’s future will be, from Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse to Elon Musk’s neural implants. But what if we all were empowered to use our voices and perspectives to imagine a better world in which we all can thrive while creating and using technology as we choose?
That idea guides Deji Bryce Olukotun’s work both as a critically acclaimed author and as a tech company’s social impact chief. Instead of just envisioning the oligarch-dominated dystopia we fear, he believes speculative fiction can paint a picture of healthy, open societies in which all share in technology’s economic bounty. It can also help to free people’s imaginations to envision more competitive, level playing fields. Then we can use those diverse visions to guide policy solutions, from antitrust enforcement to knocking down the laws that stymie innovation.
Olukotun speaks with EFF’s Cindy Cohn and Jason Kelley about rejecting the inevitability of the tech future that profit-driven corporate figureheads describe, and choosing instead to exercise the right to imagine our own future and leverage that vision into action.
This episode is also available on the Internet Archive.
In this episode you’ll learn about:
- The influence of George W. Bush’s presidency and Silicon Valley’s rapid expansion on Olukotun’s seminal “Nigerians in Space.”
- The value in envisioning a “post-scarcity” world.
- Using speculative fiction to more accurately portray the long, complicated arc of civil liberties battles.
- The importance of stakeholder-based activism in advancing solutions to critical issues from protecting democracy to combatting climate change.
Deji Bryce Olukotun is the author of two novels and his fiction has appeared in five book collections. His novel “After the Flare” won the 2018 Philip K. Dick special citation and was chosen as one of the best books of 2017 by The Guardian, The Washington Post, Syfy.com, Tor.com, Kirkus Reviews, among others. A former Future Tense Fellow at New America, Olukotun is Head of Social Impact at Sonos, leading the audio technology company’s grantmaking and social activations. He previously worked at the digital rights organization Access Now, where he drove campaigns on fighting internet shutdowns, cybersecurity, and online censorship. Olukotun graduated from Yale College and Stanford Law School, and earned a Master’s in creative writing at the University of Cape Town.
Music for How to Fix the Internet was created for us by Nat Keefe of Beatmower with Reed Mathis. This podcast is licensed Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International, and includes the following music licensed Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported by their creators:
Drops of H2O ( The Filtered Water Treatment ) by J.Lang (c) copyright 2012 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license. Ft: Airtone
Chrome Cactus by Martijn DeBoer (c) copyright 2020 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
Smokey Eyes by Stefan Kartenberg (c) copyright 2017 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license. Ft.: KidJazz
DEJI BRYCE OLUKOTUN
When you imagine your own future, it opens up possibilities. But a lot of futuristic thinking actually emanates from very powerful people. So Big Tech, you can think of the Elon Musks of the world presenting a vision as if it is going to happen and it's inevitable.
We sometimes mistake this futurist thinking as fact, when there's an agenda behind it. So, Elon Musk for example, saying that brain neural interfaces are inevitable. Or you see it in the crypto space: crypto's inevitable, the metaverse, you name it. There might be some validity to these futures that people are imagining. There might be some good experiences that benefit everyone, but there's often an agenda and we lose that.
So we all deserve the ability to imagine these futures for ourselves and for our communities because if we just cede ground and say, well, that's the vision, the metaverse is coming, well, it's going to look like the person who is pushing that metaverse forward and not necessarily represent a lot of people and what they want or what they need.
That’s Deji Bryce Olukotun. He’s a science-fiction novelist with a background in policy, law and activism. Deji’s done a lot of work around protecting digital freedom and internet access, but he also spends a lot of time thinking about how important it is for all of us to imagine the world we want to live in for OURSELVES – as opposed to just accepting the inevitability of the visions of the future given to us by the rich and powerful.
I’m Cindy Cohn, the Executive Director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
And I’m Jason Kelley, EFF’s Associate Director of Digital Strategy. This is our podcast: How to Fix the Internet.
The idea behind this show is that we're trying to fix the internet. We're trying to make our digital lives better. EFF spends a lot of time warning about all the ways that things could go wrong and jumping into the fight when things do go wrong online, but what we'd like to do with this podcast, is to give ourselves a vision of what the world looks like if we start to get it right.
Our guest today is Deji Bryce Olukotun. In addition to being a sci fi novelist, he currently works at Sonos, after spending a few years at AccessNow – a digital rights organization that works to protect digital freedom and internet access all over the world.
We started the conversation by getting him to tell us a bit about his background in activism and policy.
DEJI BRYCE OLUKOTUN
My journey to AccessNow really began actually at PEN America, which is a free expression organization, where I helped develop some of their technology policy work with a great thinker named Larry Seams. And I got to work with, with writers all over the world who were wrestling with some of the issues of digital technologies and privacy. So that was kind of my step into AccessNow they actually provided us with a digital security training while I was there to help writers and, and activists better understand how we could protect ourselves, you know, from a free expression standpoint. AccessNow is really an inspiring place to work.
And what we focused on was advocacy in the global context. And we, we tried to develop, um, policy strategies, but be very informed by, um, what was happening in affected communities. So rather than try to tell people what to do, find out what they're working on and then develop campaigns to support their work. So we wanted to be a value add, essentially.
And the internet shutdown campaign was really free expression at scale. So these are critical moments in democracies, elections, protests and governments would shut down the internet to try to clamp down on free expression. And unfortunately it still continues today, but the activism around it is even better. So it's kind of a hopeful story in some senses.
We love Access now. EFF partners with access now on lots of things. And it's been so great to see the Keep It On Coalition and the other work that Access Now does, you know, both broadly and narrowly really take the global human rights view in a way that is just completely complementary to the work we do at EFF we just, we are so happy to be part of a movement now. So what are you focussed on right now?
DEJI BRYCE OLUKOTUN
Right now my focus is a little bit more broad and it's informed by a fellowship at the Center for Science and Imagination at, um, Arizona State. It's just a really wonderful futurist kind of think tank that tries to think about social issues and social impact as well. So moving beyond just science fiction for science fiction's sake, and trying to think how can we apply futurist thinking towards the social issues of today, and empower more people to share their voices and their perspectives.
That's great. I mean, it's very complementary to what we're trying to do here with this podcast, I think, and I know that one of the things you're thinking about now is competition and antitrust, and how we can think about those narratives in ways that are, are better suited towards actually making the kind of change we wanna make in the world. Can you talk a little bit about that?
DEJI BRYCE OLUKOTUN
Because of my work in my day job, uh, I work for a company called Sonos. We're an audio technology company. I learned a lot about competition and what does it mean for innovation in the US and around the world. We've been working with actually a great coalition of nonprofits and companies and different stakeholders. The type of model that EFF and AccessNow are known for - this kind of multi-stakeholder model to develop some bipartisan, moderate legislation. And there's some bills that are in Congress, which we are supportive of, but I think on the science fiction side of it, throughout this process and being able to engage with officials on this issue, first of all, it was sort of, you know, do we have a problem? That's part of it. So maybe I should lay that case out first, which is that we do have a lot of consolidation. We have four or five companies that have valuations that we've never seen before. But it's not so much the size of big tech companies, but actually the conduct, and I think that's important for people to understand is, while big companies do draw more scrutiny and they should, I think, have some accountability and have eyes on them because of their power, that's actually really not what's at stake here.
It's the behavior and, and the conduct. And that's the way competition law looks at it. There's some legislation that we think would go a long way to dealing with some of the harms that we've seen, which EFF has, has documented and a number of other non-profits have as well.
But I think on the science fiction side, asI've been doing that work and having the opportunity to engage with people involved in this conversation, including lawmakers, it struck me that, you know, we have a lot of futurist visions. And by that I mean different science fiction stories that imagine a different kind of future for us.
But on the antitrust side, we're a little bit lacking. We tend to tell one kind of story, and that story is the evil corporate villain, you know, who will do anything. It's one dominant corporation maybe wrestling for technology. And the only way you can do anything is to take the whole system down.
And to me, as someone who's, you know, been close to these conversations, that feels like a little bit of a failure on our part. It's good storytelling to have the evil corporation, but antitrust and the tools we've developed over the past, you know, 125, 150 years are actually very thoughtful. And they're designed for the system we live in. So, you know, the question that I've been asking is what can we do to paint, you know, a more positive portrait of that so you don't have to take the whole system down. But flipping the vision from the evil corporation, what would it look like to have a healthy market, um, or an open market. Still celebrate the things that groups like EFF support, human rights and so on. And I think that, um, right now we're missing that and it's a little bit of a challenge.
So can we flip it? What would it look like? What would the story look like if we got it right? Because I do think you're onto something here.
DEJI BRYCE OLUKOTUN
I'll say that I'm on the beginning of this journey here. So I was at an event a couple weeks ago called Anticipation in Arizona. And there were a lot of economists there. So I presented this idea to them to hear their feedback. I would say we're still figuring it out.
I can tell you what it looks like today, which would be that you want people who come up with the good ideas and, you know, that could have some, uh, support, whether it's a product or a service or something like that, has a chance to succeed and doesn't just get stamped out by firms that are gigantic and can just squash 'em because they want to.
I'm not an economist. But I do like the, you know, the challenge here is, okay, we have a system we live in today. We actually have some tools we've developed, which are pretty good and they just haven't been updated for the digital age. So what can we do to help imagine and get to a better place?
And I experienced this first hand when talking with the decision makers who were looking at this legislation. And it struck me. So much of policy is speculative. You can design a really wonderful bill, and get, you know, good stakeholder input. But at a certain point, no one knows exactly what the consequences are gonna be. We have good hunches and, you know, the more input and voices you get attached to that legislation or whatever it is, the more likely it'll succeed. But there's a speculative moment. You know, you have to pass the bill and make it become a law. And then you have to kind of hope for the best. And that's the moment of imagination where, at least on this issue, I think we could use more work.
Yeah, I think that that's really right. And I agree with you at this insight that part of the policy work we need to do is to give a vision of a different world. We, like you, have felt a lot that people – and that includes the policy makers – are really stuck. And I think until we can free people's imaginations to envision a more competitive level playing field world, the more we can then start pointing them towards the kinds of policy solutions, whether that's reanimating antitrust, you know, knocking down the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and Terms of Service Abuse and Section 12 and one of the DMCA, all of which are wielded regularly to try to block competitors or just mar you know, pure market power to try to squash people.
All of the levers that we talk about here about change, they don't get pulled unless people have a vision of the better world that they could get at the end of it.
DEJI BRYCE OLUKOTUN
I agree completely, and I think, you know, one interesting thing about science fiction is it, it opens up pretty broadly. So people give the example of Star Trek being a post scarcity world. There's a great book called Economic Science Fictions, which I relied on in developing my thinking, um, that pointed out in video games, which is a little bit of an understudied kind of speculative space where people aren't just imagining a world, they get to experience it in some way.
That post scarcity, you know, the sense that, you know, money's kind of obsolete and you're just dealing with other ways of creating things. Science fiction does look at that and their are interesting other economic models. And I think those are all valid and they're important for us to imagine a better future in that sense.
But the tools we have already are actually pretty good. And I think that's the, you know, the, the place where I'd like to see a little bit of emphasis. And, you know, one other kind of point that I wanted to make is that we all have the right to imagine our own future, and that's a very important empowering point.
I think that's so important and I think one of the things that we are trying to help People think about is, is not just one future, but multiple futures, right?
And again, technology isn't magic. It isn't gonna magically make us make the right choices, but it can set a ground floor that lets us make some of these good choices if we decide to.
Let’s take a quick moment to say thank you to our sponsor. “How to Fix the Internet” is supported by The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Program in Public Understanding of Science and Technology. Enriching people’s lives through a keener appreciation of our increasingly technological world and portraying the complex humanity of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. So a tip of the hat to them for their assistance.
I’ve been reading Deji’s first novel, Nigerians in Space, and I was struck by how he speaks about that common futurist narrative, where we battle against a massive conglomerate run by an evil billionaire … and how that’s not necessarily a helpful way to imagine the future. In his work, Deji tries to step outside of that by imagining something totally different.
DEJI BRYCE OLUKOTUN
I wrote Nigerians in Space, I started it, um, now 14 years ago, which makes me feel a little bit old. But I wrote it while I was living in South Africa, there were a couple things happening.
One was, uh, being American abroad during the George W. Bush presidency, you weren't automatically popular. In fact, I was usually on the defensive side of conversations. Celebrate the values that I hold, you know, dear, and, um, but because of all the politics happening. So that was one thing. But then the other thing was observing from afar the rapid rise of, you know, Silicon Valley and, um, everything that was happening and. I grew up and my father studied chemistry, went on to do biotech. I grew up surrounded by a lot of, um, African and black scientists and thinkers. So it hit me that, um, I didn't see them represented in the stories that, um, I read and enjoyed or, you know, whether it's on screen or, um, And, uh, that I wanted to tell that story in some way.
So at the time there was a healthy conversation in, uh, throughout Africa around brain drain that some of the best talent had left Africa because there weren't opportunities trained abroad and then never came back for whatever reason. And, um, that was kind of the origin of the story.
We read a Slate piece that you, that you, wrote about how you put together this kind of fictional universe where Nigeria had a space program, and then you were in Nigeria and you met a person who actually worked for their existing real life space program. Do you want to talk a little bit about what the kind of experience is? It's just a fascinating and surreal thing that seemed to have happened to you.
DEJI BRYCE OLUKOTUN
I was friends with someone who was trying to create a kind of tech hub in Nigeria, and he's the one who introduced me to this scientist. So that's how I was able to just kind of pop over there, while I was visiting, um, in Abuja. But it was a surreal experience. I met a really kind and fascinating scientist, Dr. Agbola, um, who had trained at NASA, just like the main character in. Um, and was given an opportunity to lead, uh, the space program or part of it in Nigeria. And he was really kind, showed me around, spoke frankly with me.
Cut to, you know, a few years later. Just a couple weeks ago I was having lunch with a Nigerian attorney who worked for the Nigerian Space program and also worked in Canada and is now based in the US. Um, there are many Nigerian science fiction writers now, um, who have, uh, are telling great original stories, drawing from their context and their culture.
And that's actually one reason why I've pulled back a little bit from writing about Nigeria personally because I thought, well, I wanted to sort of create and open some doors and the doors have been opened. there was a hashtag called “When Aliens Land in Nigeria” or something like that.
And they told me it was inspired by my book. Not necessarily cuz they read the book, but they saw the title and it, it led to, you know, on Twitter this hashtag I'll take, I'll take what I can. But I feel like it's really broken open. There are other authors like Nnedi Okorofor for, um, who is a pioneer of Africa based science fiction, so I don't wanna overclaim, but it's a very healthy space right now and it's not just happening in Nigeria. You know, it's unlocked conversations around futurism all over the world, there's a lot happening right now. It's a very exciting time for science fiction storytelling, and speculative fiction storytelling.
I don't know if you've thought about this a little bit, but one of the things that I think about in terms of speculative fiction and fiction and kind of, civil liberties causes, uh, freedom of expression is that we're often challenged to try to actually capture a little bit more how hard and long some of these fights are. Right? The kind of normal narrative arc isn't really how it works for those of us who do this kind of work. And, um, have you thought a little bit about how to capture that? Because I think I, I worry that unless. Envisioning a future where, you know, uh, we'll put it this way, I worry that if we're only envisioning futures where that neat narrative arc by the, you know, third commercial, everything is worked up and then all you have is the day Numa. Um, that that isn't, Serving us in terms of inspiring people to get involved in the, in the, you know, kind of the more messy reality of these long battles for freedom of expression and other rights.
DEJI BRYCE OLUKOTUN
You raise a really interesting point, Cindy, that, you know, my personal experience of working on some of these issues is there'll be starts and stops. There's the initial excitement and momentum where folks are gathering maybe a small victory and then almost a reaction from the, the forces that, you know trying to change and it becomes a long, a much longer experience.
So I think you're right. It's a great challenge. I can say that, you know, the new storytelling kind of unlocked by shows like The Wire and Breaking Bad, you know, the multi-season, visually, at least in, in television, you know, they're now allowing for more nuance and to be able to tell a more complex story like that. I think novels have always had that possibility.
I have a four month baby at home.The one thing I could do was, was watch tv. It was impossible to, you know, read a book at the same time as, you know, this kind of squirming baby trying to bottle feed and stuff like that. And I've been watching this series Andor and there are a couple of kind of monologues in there, within the Star Wars Disney Universe. And I think they're really poignant, talking about the long battle, what it does to you when you're just fighting all the time, that you have to kind of adapt some of the mentality of the person you may be fighting against.
You know, Star Wars universe is much more binary and it's good and evil and that's how it's set up. But I was actually quite moved by that and I thought it did capture that feeling as an activist that, um, when the, when the victories aren't so clear and simple, we talked about the Keep It On Campaign at Access now that I helped start. And it's a really wonderful campaign and I look at the people who are still involved today. Their tactics are more sophisticated. The advocacy is better. They've had clear victories, legislative and policy victories, and yet the internet continues to be shut down. So I think you raise a really important point, that the sort of grit and desire to stay with these, um, efforts could use more treatment in fiction and storytelling.
Yeah, I mean, I don't think, I imagine a future in which, you know, we, we don't need access now and we don't need eff. Because everything is magically perfect. I don't know. I mean, sure, that's fine. I could go run my blues bar somewhere. But I think that for me anyway, in thinking about this, like the better future still has the need for people to do these, uh, this kind of work, these kinds of campaigns.
Instead, I think the power differential will be better in our different world. Civil society will have a baked in place at the table and the resources necessary to bring the voice of the community or individuals impacted into the conversation in a way that we do today and we do pretty well considering how under-resourced we are but will actually be structurally built in to more systems.
DEJI BRYCE OLUKOTUN
No, I'm in complete agreement and you know, one reason why I was excited. Cindy to go to, um, to work for Sonos, where I work now, is that I had collaborated with Lush Cosmetics. They make, uh, they're kind of famous for their bath bombs, um, you know, bars of soap you drop in and fizz up and we collaborated at Access now with Lush and I, I got to see their commitment to advocacy and so I felt, well, I'd seen that the campaign we were running got better because of our collaboration. They lended their resources to help us tell the story better. They taught us new ways of marketing and thinking about reaching audiences. You know, that's one reason why I wanted to go to Sonos is to continue working in that way.
But I think one thing that I've also learned being on, on the corporate side is the value of, of many stakeholders crafting something together and that that will never go away. And the best, laws and policies I really do believe benefit from that input. so I'm very committed to that. And I think there are great groups like EFF and Access now and events where people can come together. I do, you know, have concern about capture of some of those spaces that what once felt like multi-stakeholder conversations are actually all funded and supported by certain voices. I'm also concerned about, you know, the fundamentals of our democracy, what's happening, uh, for voting in elections. And climate change is a real thing that I'm grateful I've been able to push forward at Sonos. You know, we launched a climate plan like other companies, um, which is a lot harder than it sounds to actually, uh, put some real commitments behind it and not just, um, say you're doing something and then not follow up.
But I'm really hopeful at the same time that some of these very large challenges, um, we know what they are now, where people have drawn lines in the sand, they've told us, you know, we know that climate is an existential thing. We know that having an election that we all agree to, uh, you know, the results is an existential thing for our democracy and all the work that needs to happen.
And in some ways I'm very hopeful about that cuz it shows us where we should be engaging. And the people who are engaging are very well organized and smart about it.
That's great. Deji, thank you so much for coming on and talking with us. I really appreciate your thoughtfulness and, um, all the multiplicity of perspectives you bring to some of these, these fights that we're, we're, we've all been in for a long time.
DEJI BRYCE OLUKOTUN
Thank you, Cindy and Jason. I'm so inspired by the work of EFF and I appreciate being able to have this conversation with you today.
That was a really fun conversation. And now I have a huge list of books that I need to read. But for that moment, what stood out to you as kind of one of the things you'll be thinking about now that we've had this conversation and telling people that kind of clicked for you in talking to Deji?
I think the one thing I will take away is that we need to interrogate who's giving us our visions of the future and recognize what's going on underneath those statements of inevitability.
Yeah.I was really struck by that just realization that you take any of the kind of tech that is seemingly inevitable at this moment, whether it's the metaverse, uh, brain implants, you know, who, who knows what he mentioned, um, and other things. And you realize that there are people who. Who are saying it's inevitable, who stand to make a lot of profit from it, regardless of kind of how effective and interesting and useful and interoperable and all these other things. It is. Um, and what Daisy said, uh, specifically was we have the right to imagine our own futures. And I think that's, that's the, that's the point that I'm going to remember is just that, that if anyone is trying to stop you from doing that, you have to really think about why.
Well that’s it for this episode of How to Fix the Internet.
Thank you so much for listening. If you want to get in touch about the show, you can write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out the EFF website to become a member or donate or pick up some merch. It’s been said that EFF is a clothing company with a law firm on the side because people love the hoodies.
This podcast is licensed Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International, and includes music licensed Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported by their creators. You can find their names and links to their music in our episode notes, or on our website at eff.org/podcast.
Our theme music is by Nat Keefe of BeatMower with Reed Mathis
How to Fix the Internet is supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's program in public understanding of science and technology.
Thank you so much for listening and for supporting digital rights.
We’ll see you next week with another episode.
I’m Jason Kelley…
And I’m Cindy Cohn.
CREATIVE COMMONS MUSIC CREDITS
This podcast is licensed Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International, and includes the following music licensed Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported by its creators:
Drops of H2O (The Filtered Water Treatment ) by J.Lang featuring Airtone
Chrome Cactus by Martijn DeBoer
Smokey Eyes by Stefan Kartenberg featuring KidJazz
Additional beds and alternate theme remixes by Gaëtan Harris