In a world of short attention spans and instant updates it’s remarkable when you come across something on the internet that stays with you, sitting in your brain, waiting to be digested. But that’s the specialty of FSG Originals author Robin Sloan.
“The Counselor” is a piece of fiction he wrote for the “Intelligence & Autonomy” project, hosted by “the think/do tank” Data & Society. Initially intended exclusively for the participants of the “I&A” forum, who gathered to (hang on, it’s a mouthful) “identify the core set of challenges that consistently arise in deploying intelligent systems regardless of arena,” it has now been published by Vice’s Motherboard.
At least as we read it, the story does just what Data & Society was after: It grabs onto a fantasy, mixes it with a strong taste of reality, and lets your imagination do the rest. Hungry for more, we tracked Sloan down on the World Wide Web to ask him a few questions about the project…
“Intelligence and Autonomy” sounds like a remarkable event—how did you get involved with Data & Society?
I’ve known Tim Hwang, who organized the event at Data & Society, for many years, and throughout I’ve also been a fan; I marvel at his ability to initiate new projects, all different, all fascinating. So when he asked me if I’d consider writing a short piece for this forum on intelligence and autonomy, I said yes immediately, if only for the chance to step into the Hwang-verse.
What about the I&A project appealed to you?
The topic is obviously one that’s very much in the zeitgeist, and for that reason I wanted to zig where other writers and thinkers might zag. Tim and his co-organizer Madeleine Elish had four broad themes they wanted the forum to explore, and they offered them up to the four writers who had signed on to write shorts. I chose “persuasion” because it seemed, frankly, the weirdest, and because I wasn’t immediately sure what I would write about—often a good sign.
What do you believe is the role of fiction in exploring our technological future?
I think fiction brings a lot of different things to the table in situations like this, but during the forum itself, one characteristic stood out. Data & Society had gathered a group of extremely smart scholars and analysts; the kind of people who tend to bend over backwards to speak precisely, to frame ideas closely and defensibly, to acknowledge their intellectual antecedents. By contrast, one of the great strengths of fiction is: it doesn’t have to do any of those things! It has a special sanction to deploy arguments in a looser, more impressionistic way. Rigorous argumentation is a powerful mode, but fiction does things—leads us places—that other, more journalistic/legalistic writing can’t.
This story wasn’t the product of “the pure creative impulse,” if there is such a thing; it was an assignment with a purpose. I found that I really enjoyed the task; I mean, what a gift, to know you’re writing something with a built-in audience of brilliant readers who are going to gather for two days to discuss your ideas. It was like the world’s smartest book club. Sign me up!
You can read “The Counselor” here. And there’s also a companion piece written by Tim Hwang and Madeleine Elish, the organizers of the forum, that serves as a non-fiction expansion and investigation into the ideas presented in Sloan’s short story.
Art by Gustavo Torres.