The speculative fiction novel I want to read this year

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Some of 2021's reads

If you work in tech policy and you don’t have a shelf full of speculative fiction, you’re doing the job wrong. It’s writers and authors, not lawyers and academics, who truly understand how technology and policy interact. The scenarios they imagine show us where technology might lead, and how the decisions we make about the uses of that technology might hasten the journey.

For better and for worse.

Last night I saw a story on Twitter (h/t Morten, of course) which throws out so many what-if scenarios – politically, socially, and technically – that it presents a speculative fiction novel waiting to be written.

The scenario touches on so many aspects of my lived experience – my time in open source projects, my time working with the structures of power in Washington DC, and my current work in the Machiavellian world of British politics – that I could see the story unfolding in front of my eyes.

But I’ve got a thing or two to write already, so I’m not going to write that story.

You are.

I’ll even give you a prompt to kick things off.

What I’m about to set out is a distinctly American plotline, for reasons which will shortly become clear. Unfortunately, this has the effect of making it seem like a hackneyed Netflix drama. So after you read this the first time, go back and read it again, but shift the setting. Move the plot and the people and the aftermath out of the US and into Brexit Britain, or China, or perhaps a nation which isn’t even pretending anymore.

After all, the story you’re going to tell isn’t an open source software drama.

It’s a human one.

The first ten pages

One day during a pandemic winter, an email drops into the inbox of an employee at a global corporation. That employee is in charge of a speculative open source project, controlled by the company. To its credit, the open source project has a global, vibrant, and wonderful contributor community spanning nations, races, skills, abilities, and perspectives. To its demerit, the project has no transparent governance, decisions about the project are not made public, and project officials are not elected by, accountable to, or removable by the open source community.

The email requests that the project send a qualified representative to an urgent meeting, at the White House, to discuss how their project has become a national security threat.

The email is not a request. It is an order.

The political issues (this is real life, not fiction)

(CNN) – White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan has invited the CEOs of major software firms to discuss ways to improve software security following the emergence of a critical vulnerability that US officials have said could affect hundreds of millions of devices around the world, a senior Biden administration official told reporters Thursday.

The January discussion between tech executives and White House officials is needed because open-source software is widely used but is maintained by volunteers, making it “a key national security concern,” Sullivan said in a letter to tech firms, excerpts of which the White House shared with reporters.

A National Security Council spokesperson declined to say which companies had been invited.


The drama

There’s a letter from the NSA calling your open source project a national security threat, and written between the lines are all the questions you’ve avoided facing for years:

  • What power have you got?
  • Where did you get it from?
  • In whose interests do you exercise it?
  • To whom are you accountable?
  • How do we get rid of you?

All of which now seem like child’s play in the face of that letter:

  • Who goes to the White House to speak for your project, chosen by whom, and accountable to whom?
  • What positions do they represent, on behalf of the project, chosen by whom? What process was used to arrive at those decisions?
  • How are their time, labour, travel, and accommodation costs to DC paid, and by whom? What corporate conflicts does that create?
  • How do you deal with all of these questions, on behalf of the project, when you are under a national security order not to discuss the meeting – or the letter summoning you to it – at all?
  • What goes down in the meeting at the White House?
  • How do you answer the question of why your global unpaid volunteer community, of anyone who shows up to do the work, is not a national security concern, when that question is coming from a Pentagon brass in full military uniform?
  • What do you say when the White House orders you to make certain changes to your project, because your project conveniently has centralised corporate control and lack of community governance and therefore you’re easy pickings?
  • How do you take that order back to your corporate employer?
  • How do you take that order back to your open source community when you’re not allowed to discuss it, starting with the morning you pop into the project messaging app and inform everyone that the project’s focus will be pivoting immediately, but you can’t tell them why?

The aftermath

We don’t read dystopian novels for happy endings, so now you’ve got to weave in the consequences. Tell me – tell your readers – what happens to this speculative open source project in the aftermath.

  • Because the White House, the NSA, and the Pentagon now require mandatory daily security reports, from your project, from a community representative personally selected and approved by all three
  • And all three of them decide that your reports aren’t good enough – that was part of their intention all along  – and send in their devs to manage your project,
  • Which leads to all three of them effectively nationalising your project, bugger the GPL, on national security/military preparedness grounds.
  • Now, how do you cope when all three of them sack you – that was part of their intention all along – and you’re now on the outside of a community you’ve failed at the highest possible level?
  • How do you react when you learn that the three of them have decided to mitigate the volunteer security threat by implementing mandatory screening and identification of all the volunteers contributing to the project, and are requesting the ID documents of American contributors from minority and excluded communities, as well as foreign citizens?
  • And how do you react to their statement that the project’s failure to arrive at a solution to pay its volunteer contributors for their labour made it vulnerable to hostile foreign influence, as a national security threat, and therefore, they are eliminating all foreign contributors to your project?
  • And how do you cope when it hits you that collecting data on suspected enemies both domestic and foreign – including people you have come to call your friends – was their intention all along?

Because that’s what this story is really about. The national security threat your project created, the one that terrified the powers that be, wasn’t your code. It was your people. It was your vibrant, global, open community of friends working together without borders or gates. It had to be stopped. And you handed them everything they needed to stop it.

So you’ve got your prompts, you’ve got your questions, and you’ve got your imagination. Now go write the story.

Or, perhaps, stop it from ever happening.

Postscript: this post got me a job. Who said blogging is dead?

The Author

I’m a UK tech policy wonk based in Glasgow. I work for an open web built around international standards of human rights, privacy, accessibility, and freedom of expression. The content and opinions on this site are mine alone and do not reflect the opinions of any current or previous team.