Some things are irreversible. The actual cost of technology and immersive internet is incomprehensible. You’d hope to not wake up to the world of 418: I Am a Teapot, a near-future dystopian novel by author Edgar Scott. It’s a world where people surrender their bodies in exchange for a virtual fantasy world of bottomless enjoyment. But here’s the catch, while their brains are entertained, their bodies are exploited by scions for unimaginably heinous jobs known to humanity.
Quite insidious, right? So, we decided to ask Edgar Scott why he chose to tell a dark sci-fi story for his debut. Here’s what he had to say:
Tell us how the idea of 418: I Am a Teapot originated?
I was inspired by the idea of Google Glasses. The concept of walking around with a device on your head that is interactive to the internet and gives you suggestions or could be queried for information about what you see around you really unsettles me. It occurred to me that if you can do that, the next logical step is to put a piece of hardware in your head so that we can directly wire your cerebrum to the internet. The logic then follows that if you can do that, and if we are interacting directly with your brain, we can program job tasks, save them to a central cloud location, and now you, never need to be bothered with work again. You simply stay online and enjoy playing games, surfing the net. The world I create seems like a logical endpoint if the technology for that internal chip, in lieu of glasses, could be perfected.
How did your professional background as economist and computer scientist and your personal journey help you shape the plot and the main characters?
As a professional tech head, I have seen the internet change from the early days of no security to the current days of no privacy. One thing that I have noticed when dealing with technology is that every day it becomes cheaper and cheaper. As an economist I am a little disturbed when I see industries that are engaged in a race to the bottom, but with new technology always better and faster, the tech world certainly has this feel to it.
Often, when technology changes, people are left behind. Unless the people themselves are diligent, a technological change can easily make a very profitable and comfortable income dry up and disappear as technology does it faster, better and cheaper.
It wasn’t such a hard leap to imagine, what if I was stuck in this online world where I could be programmed? I could imagine that at first one might get paid real money, but why if you never need to come offline. Why not pay them in virtual money? George / 418 effectively doesn’t get paid for the work that he does because he has no means of demanding payment and his labor is 100% replaceable with any other labor by any other member of the staff class.
It’s important to show that it is the degradation, or elimination, of wages to the class of unskilled workers, that has created a vortex in the bottom of the of the economy. I’ve tried to show that with an almost zero cost to labor, technology would stagnate as businesses would use labor and not machinery to produce goods. This would create profits for businesses, but those profits would be limited by the size of the staff class. As such, there would be pressure on the economy in general to keep itself running by converting unskilled, semi-skilled and eventually skilled labor into staff.
How did it feel to create and write about the totalitarian society in your book? How far are we from it?
I totally loved and enjoyed writing about this society. The actual process of creating this story was very much like programming. I tried to view each chapter as something distinct and modular. The chapter should do one thing, which is a tenant of good programming, together, they present the world that you see.
About how I felt about it, I’m very pleased to have written it; however, I worry that we are closer to this world than we think. I’ve presented some rather oppressive ideas on how to push people into the staff class. What worries me, is that someone would support doing some of these things, rehabilitating recidivous convicts by converting them to staff. Leveling debts through conversion to staff, those are chilling ideas, I hope to never see them, since there is no mechanism to escape the staff class.
What would you do if our world became overnight like the one you described in 418 and you had to live in it?
If I woke up in 418’s world I would do what he has done. You can’t participate in it. I enjoyed dealing with Brian Agarwal’s character because he’s complicit in creating that world. He is paralyzed by the concept of “how?” He can’t move out of his situation because he doesn’t know how; but he sees things closing in on him. In reality he needs to shift himself and say, not that he will find some way to more equitably work within this system, he has to leave it.
This comes close to the why of why I wrote the book, if you see a world like that, run! I present the idea that some people become staff because the immersive internet looks like fun. Be careful of what you are giving away for what you are getting, some things are not reversable. It’s important to understand the full costs, even your personal costs, of adopting new technology.
Your gender identity is a main topic in your novel 418, and the readers are provoked to take a deep look at it. Why is it so, and how does our approach to gender identity affects us, as society?
I felt that gender identity was important as a touch point to the concept of using this technology to dehumanize –effectively stripping staff of their human rights– because it easier to subjugate people when we don’t view them as people.
Staff are usually referred to as “it and them” in this world. This helps people who interact with them not see them as humans, we can all sleep at night, and since the staff themselves aren’t objecting, we can trick ourselves into thinking it’s all good. As 418 starts the novel, his manager, Brian, doesn’t even know his name, and refers to 418 as “it”. Brian’s wife even corrects him once when Brian used a gendered pronoun. As 418 discovers his world he gets his gender back, this is acknowledged by Brain and eventually he even gets the name that he calls himself, George.
We can see that George’s name and gender are two attributes that we assign to human beings, and so his gender identity is used to show the progress of his rehumanization.
There is also a sad part of the novel when George starts to refer to the staff that he had identified as his wife, no longer as she but as it. This is a major turning point for George as he, at that point, becomes more non-staff than staff.
I did want to impress clearly that gender identity is a human right. And once you start stripping away human rights from anyone, you are heading down a slippery slope where your rights can be removed as well.
Is life fair? Should it be?
That is quite a question for three little words. I don’t think life is fair. Should it be? I think we should all have similar opportunities, it would be nice, but I don’t think it’s possible. Unfortunately, I don’t see any viable path that gets us, as a society, to a point where life is fair.
Everyone has a different definition of what fair would be. There have been experiments in trying to impose fairness through the political system, but no perfect solution has been found. We can think of George Orwell’s social commentary where he points out, “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” I think the most important thing we can do in our search for equity, harmony and prosperity is to treat each other humanely.
Freedom is another major topic in your debut novel. What is ultimate freedom, in your opinion?
The ultimate freedom is living in a way where you are able to choose what you do and to love what you do.
I can almost hear people saying, “sure, that would be nice, but I need to bring home the bacon and put bread on the table,” and I can’t dispute that. But what I would say is that if you are doing that, then you have sold a part of yourself and you are not truly free; you must keep doing things that keep you from being free.
In this way, freedom is very elusive, like the blue bird of happiness, it’s hard to describe and hard to capture. I remember feeling very free myself after completing a hard Saturday’s work in a metal fabrication plant I once worked in, but on that day I’d completed interesting and skilled work, and I think I’d been paid, I felt like a rich man that night and by my definition, I was free.
What would you like to stay with your readers after finishing your book?
Hope. You can overcome anything, but first you have to identify what it is that you want, what it is that you don’t want, and come up with some plan –even if it is a bad plan– for attaining that freedom.
Freedom and happiness are not things that are provided for you by employers, agencies or government. They are things that you attain from within, you are happy and free because of the way that you act, not because of what someone else says.
No matter who you are, what your situation, you can re-invent yourself into being whatever you should so choose. But it is important, you must do the choosing, I force Brian to make George tell him what he wants, you can’t be happy and free until you choose it.
What type of reader will enjoy your book?
I’ve written a book that I feel can be read by many different ages, maturities of reader. In spite of my best attempts to keep it simple, there are a number of story lines woven into it. This is a novel that will stay with you and make you think about a lot of things. You will enjoy this book if like novels that have depth to them. I was careful to make sure that if you don’t want to read into the book, it’s still an interesting read that should carry you along in a snappy manner.
What did you enjoy most about writing this book?
What I enjoy the most is when someone says, “wow!” Writing is not always fun, and sometimes it’s the greatest thing I can ever imagine. I love it when I push back from the keyboard, perhaps I print out what I have typed, read it and see that I’ve created something unique and interesting. I love writing gotcha’s for my characters and presenting ideas that seem to conflict, but upon examination, they don’t. I love it when someone reads my work and then tells me about some commentary that I have made which wasn’t obvious.
How do you see your mission, as an author, in the uncertain times we are living?
I am looking to entertain and provide hope, inspiration or just a good story that you would want to read and you don’t feel your IQ dropping with every page you turn. I want to contribute something for the betterment of humankind.
In the novel, staff are allowed to choose their own names and your character’s wife and children all have different surnames. What is the reason for this?
This is done to underscore the extent of dehumanization, and to show that within the staff class the concept of family has no meaning in the traditional sense of a group of related individuals who work together and help each other, but family is simply a mechanism to create more staff.
In an online world, why should one not choose their own name? One should be comfortable with their own name and enjoy their own name, in this novel all of the online names rhyme, except 418’s, his are awkward as if they were generated by some random accident.
The dehumanization is illustrated by the idea that outside the confines of the staff class, other members of the human race don’t even know, or care about, the surnames of the staff they might interact with or manage. Brian does not ever learn George’s surname and it’s not a question that he even thinks to ask. George never asks for Brian’s name and simply uses the nickname he was given. Even when confronted, with the real name of his manager, he doesn’t want to use it, because he has associated the nickname to the man he knows.
The concept of having a name is tightly related to the handling of gender identity and is a key part of the story of re-humanization that this novel illustrates.
Does this novel have a happy ending?
I believe it does. Both George and Brian are broken out of their maliases and they are beginning to live their lives.
What is your favorite quote from the book?
“Yes, all facts can be verified. Because I can look it up, it must therefore be a fact.”
This presupposes that whatever is written is factual, it mimics that kind of misinformation that we find rampant in our world today. If I can get someone else to write something which is flawed, I can now refer to it as truth because someone else wrote it.
This statement, in itself is paradoxical. All facts can be verified, but it’s a logical error to assume that the act of looking it up qualifies as verification.