November 29, 2023

Eliot Peper on writing science fiction, information feeds, inhabiting the edge, and habits for better cognition (AC Ep21)

“Doing less allows you to increase the cognitive space you have for what’s actually important.”

– Eliot Peper

Robert Scoble
About Eliot Peper

Eliot Peper is a novelist, author of 11 successful books including Bandwidth, Reap3r, and most recently Foundry, with praise from New York Times Book Review, Seth Godin, Kim Stanley Robinson and many others. He also works on special projects for startup founders, and has worked as Entrepreneur-in-Residence at a venture capital fund.


LinkedIn: Eliot Peper

Facebook: Eliot Peper

Instagram: @eliotpeper

What you will learn

  • Insights on the interplay between technology, literature, and society (03:26)
  • Future of digital services and the integration of programming ideas in writing (11:40)
  • Exploring the feed as a meta-system that encompasses the entire internet (13:50)
  • Emphasizing the importance of simplicity (17:20)
  • How ‘caring’ can be a differentiator in business and personal life (20:56)
  • Exploring fiction through detailed observation (24:22)
  • Drawing inspiration from personal anomalies (27:00)
  • The importance of good sleep (30:28)
  • Boosting mental capacity by spending less than you earn (31:37)
  • The role of having a community in enhancing mental health and cognitive function (33:05)
  • Enhancing life’s journey with consistent habits and patience (34:43)

Episode Resources


Ross Dawson: Eliot, it’s awesome to have you on the show.

Eliot Peper: It’s wonderful to be here. Thanks for having me.

Ross: I’ve very much enjoyed your science fiction novels. They’re both very engaging and also have compelling views of possible futures and are very much information-focused. It verily evokes a lot of ideas which I’ve explored around how we make sense of a world when there’s an unlimited amount of information. One of the ideas in several of your books is “the feed”, so tell us, what is “the feed”? 

Eliot: You can imagine the feed like Google Plus, ChatGPT+, Apple, Amazon, and all your favorite big internet names stitched together times a thousand. There is a ubiquitous digital membrane right there with you, alongside your experience of the physical world, acting as a piece of almost invisible infrastructure to modern life. One of the interesting things about writing science fiction is that when you imagine a new technology or a new thing that is very normal to the characters in the future the story takes place in, you have to figure out, how do I reveal this to a reader in my own time in a way that makes sense?

There’s a set piece in the Analog trilogy, and it’s a social club called “Analog”; it’s actually where the trilogy gets its name. At this social club, everything is immediately off-grid. It’s basically as if you walk through the door, and the feed entirely drops away. It’s fun to write scenes there but it also provides me, as a science fiction writer, with a useful tool, which is that sometimes technology is most visible when it breaks. In this case, when you have people living their lives, and their work, I feel like everything is permeated by this digital layer to your physical existence, and having that torn away from you is a very new and strange experience. A reader in today’s world can read that character’s experience of having that digital veil held back, and only then do you realize the extent to which the feed has influence in everyone’s lives, not just in the plot-specific moments in the story, but in their day-to-day lives; everyone living in that future’s lives.

That was one thing I thought about a lot while writing those books. In some ways, it’s funny; one of the most common questions I get asked from fans of those books is, what does the feed actually look like? What’s the physical instantiation of it? I, very intentionally, never gave a very granular description of, for example, the human-computer interface that people are using in the books. I did that on purpose, and the reason is twofold. One is that most of the technologies that are most important to us or that provide a basis for the lives we live, most people don’t think about at all.

I don’t think about plumbing very often, but I use it every day, and boy, would life be different in a modern city without modern plumbing. When I drive to get a burrito for lunch, I’d never have thought about the functioning of the internal combustion engine in my car that gets me to the Mexican restaurant and back. There’s a bit of a trope in some science fiction novels where the author is interested in imagining new forms of technology, but the characters, unless they’re dealing with a problem like that right now, why would they be thinking about it?

How I approach writing stories set in the future is by trying to think like the people living their lives in that future. This is one of those aspects. I went into it thinking from the character’s perspective about that. But there’s also a cool thing that comes out the back, which is that, because the feed is ubiquitous and plays a large role in the story in the world the story is set in, but it’s never described in specific detail, it actually invites the reader to be a creative participant in the story, that when you read these books, you’re seeing the human impact of technology, and you yourself are imagining the form factor of the technology.

One of my favorite things as a writer is hearing from readers who all have their own ideas about what the feed literally looks like, and they’re all very different from each other, and all totally fascinating and useful. I just think that’s a special thing that science fiction can do because it gives us, now, in our present, new metaphors for making sense of the accelerating technological change we’re living through. I often think, how could you ever have had a useful conversation about state surveillance before 1984 came out? Even to just get the idea of ubiquitous state surveillance, you’d need to spend hours just getting on the same page. What are we even talking about here? But that novel created a cultural anchor that allowed people to have conversations about real-world state surveillance much more quickly and much more deeply because you just have this simulacrum of what things might look like that you can use as a reference. That excites me a lot as a writer and as a reader. That’s why I love reading books like this, to get access to those. That’s part of what the feed is there for.

Ross: Absolutely, more broadly, reading is a highly creative act. That’s one of the great things about reading as opposed to more immersive entertainment that, as you say, for science fiction writing, if done well, can be like a palimpsest for the reader to create their own worlds and imagine those. I love how you get that feedback loop of what people make with the blank spaces you’ve allowed in your writing to imagine that. If we think forward to the feed, one characteristic of that is that it is deeply used for everyone. It is also ubiquitous and it is monolithic as one organization.

I’m interested in a couple of things. One is, where we’ve got now is many organizations attempting to provide feeds to us in various guises. All of them with, let’s say, vested interests, financial and otherwise. Supposing one of the ideas or one of the pathways, how is it that we might, from here, be able to get to a place where we have feeds that are truly, completely focused on creating value for the user? They don’t need to be essentially monopolies, what is the path to where we can get these feeds that are completely focused on creating value for the user from where we stand today?

Eliot: I can think of two pathways. I live in California, and on the internet I inhabit, there isn’t an everything app. But if you look at WeChat in China or something like that, that’s almost a lot closer, in some ways to what the feed is just because you can do everything from chat to transactions to just a million different things, all in one app. An easy answer to that question would be, as some of the internet political economics plays out over the next 20 years, there’s going to be a lot of aggregation of currently independent services into larger companies. Look at the energy industry or something like that, on a longer time horizon, it had tons of consolidation and only has a few major players in the world today.

But that’s the easy answer. The more interesting answer is to take one step back. I’m sure that some of your listeners are computer scientists, programmers, or developers. One concept, one metaphor that I love from my friends who write code is the idea that you’re always reaching for new levels of abstraction. There’s a problem, you try to solve it, but you try to solve it in a way that could be used to solve any problem of that category rather than only that problem. That’s what makes the code useful. Now you’re dealing with a new layer of abstraction above what you’re originally thinking about. I tried to do that with my fiction.

If you read business news today, or tech news today, it’s all about Apple did this or this new AI tool is doing something cool or isn’t this scary, it’s all focused on the players, it’s not focused on the game. The feed is the game, not the players. Rather than thinking about Google versus Apple versus all those consumer brands that you associate the Internet with, think about the Internet itself as a system, where there are just different people building stuff on it with different incentives and different reasons and they’re trying to create value in their own ways, often failing, often not being successful. But overall, it’s the system of all of that code working in conjunction, all of those processors working away in the service we never see, and not just that but all the people who work for the institutions that develop that stuff.

If you’re an employee of Google, you’re part of the feed. You could make an argument that you’re working for the Internet, or you can view your employment in different ways. All the laws that are written about how the internet is used, all of that is part of this meta-system and I look at that meta-system and call it the feed. It is in the novels, yes, you’re right, that feed is controlled by a single very large institution. But I think that’s less important than it appears upfront because the reality is that even if you did have a huge institution that somehow shepherded all of that infrastructure, in reality, the people doing the work have their own incentives, and they’re trying to provide value in different ways that often conflict with each other. You could make an argument that that just wouldn’t even work very differently. You could almost just look at today’s internet computer ecosystem, call that the feed and we’re almost there.

Ross: Exactly. This goes to my next question. You’re a science fiction writer, you keep up across the edge of change and be ahead of that. As you say, essentially, we all have access to our own feeds, and the way I put it in Thriving on Overload is that we are shifting our mindset from overload to abundance as in we have all of the information we could possibly want. But the onus is on us individually to be able to piece that together and use it well to be able to make it, not one of overload but one where just the right information comes to us. How do you piece together what you have to create your own feed in your life?

Eliot: Okay, so not how did I come up with the idea of the feed?

Ross: No. What is your day-by-day?

Eliot: There are a few things that I think about a lot that helped me with that. Readers probably can notice if they read that trilogy, the arc of that trilogy is like me coming to terms with the question you just asked, me trying to figure out some of that stuff for myself in my life, and obviously, that’s externalized and dramatized in the story, but everyone struggles with this. There are a few things that I try to do, that I find helpful, and they seem really simple. I feel the most important things in life are really simple but them being simple doesn’t mean they’re easy. That’s the problem. They’re simple, but they’re difficult.

One of them is just, do less. If you don’t want to feel overloaded, don’t be busy, just choose not to be busy. I’ll give you a personal example from my life right now. I just had a new novel come out last month and when you publish a book, it seems like you should be doing a lot to promote it, you should be going on podcasts like this, you should be writing essays for magazines, you should be on social media, and thinking about how can I help spread the word about my book. But the weird thing that I’ve only learned through trial and error is the thing that a book’s success depends on, are readers who love it telling their friends, that’s how I discovered my next favorite book. Everyone I know, someone they trust recommending it, is how they read a new book.

That’s how I read new books, and how other people read new books. Then what are all these articles and blogs, what is all this extra ephemera that I’m investing a significant amount of time in doing when I very much know because they tell me and because I feel this way as a reader about my favorite authors that I want one thing from my favorite authors, and my readers want one thing from me, which is the next book. That’s what they liked, that’s what they want more. Sure. It’s cool that you published an essay in the Atlantic, but where’s the next novel? That’s the overall vibe. All of that activity that feels really crucial can destroy your calendar. Time is the one really crucial zero-sum game and if I am investing a bunch of time in all of that stuff, it means I’m not writing the next book. Doing less lets you increase this cognitive space you have to do what’s actually important. That’s something that I think about a lot. I also think about it in conjunction with caring more.

A few years ago, I visited Bordeaux for the first time with my wife, it’s a medium-sized city in the south of France, and something that struck me walking around the streets of Bordeaux was all the little neighborhood shops that have window displays on a sidewalk, all of the window displays were amazing, whimsical, and evocative. If you ever had to make a diorama in school, where you made little figurines, the shopkeepers were winning gold medals for their shop window, equivalent to a diorama, and I’m like, this is not what San Francisco looks like. You walk around San Francisco, it either feels thrown together like an afterthought or like it’s some lame template that some marketing consultant came up with and it’s very generic. But walking around, there’s so much personality in each of these shop windows, which then makes you want to go in. You’re like, “Wow, this is just magical, what is in here?”.

They care so much that it becomes a competitive advantage, actually caring is a competitive advantage. There are so many opportunities in our lives, both our personal lives, our work, and all that stuff, to take the easy path, to say, “Oh, well, I could do X, but that’s going be a lot of work so I’ll just settle for industry standard, or “This seems like it’ll get the response we want so let’s just do it” rather than thinking, “wait a minute, who are we serving here? What matters to them? How is this a gift? How is this a generous act rather than a selfish act?” That takes a lot of emotional labor, and you can only afford to care more if you’re doing less. That’s why those are all looped for me if that makes sense. 

Ross: In terms of just information inputs, do you have any habits or structures to not just your sources, but also how it is you pull that together into your cognition, into your thinking, into your sense-making? If you’re looking out to the edge, how do you see the signals? Where do you take in and how do you discern what it is that is meaningful and useful and gives your insight into where things are going?

Eliot: I have a friend who’s a photographer and he is very annoying to go on hikes with because we’ll go on a hike, and you’re away from any cars, you’re in nature, you’re getting into a rhythm, you’re talking about something, it’s beautiful, and then suddenly, he stops and he spends five minutes taking a detailed photograph of a fern front, of a single macro thing, and you’re sort of standing around. Then you walk for another 10 minutes, and “Oh, look at this ladybug”. I love him to death. I love going hiking with him. But it’s like a funny experience because you just don’t make much progress. But what he does with photography is what I seek to do with fiction, where when I’m writing a novel, the way to see the edge is to inhabit it.

There are many kinds of ways to write stories and some of them are entirely fantastical, which are amazing, I love reading stories that are set in fully imagined worlds, and some are completely grounded in today’s reality. My books are somewhere in between. They’re very grounded in the world we inhabit, but they play with it, they twist things, it’s like a jazz musician who’s riffing on a standard, where you’re like, “Okay, this is our world but there are these different ingredients, this evolution has happened”, and that invites the reader to have this gap between the world they inhabit, and the world of the story and that gap is delicious. That gap invites you to imagine what might be possible and how fragile the status quo is.

For me, when I’m trying to invent the status quo of the story, when I’m trying to think about the story and its ingredients, and how that world looks, I’m just trying to pay really close attention to weird anomalies in my own life. That might be like, I read something, and I’m like, “Oh, that’s odd!” or it might be a personal experience. Here is a good example. This was in 2016, and in the US, this is when it was the Trump-Clinton election. The election coverage was totally overwhelming, you just couldn’t escape it. The media landscape was overflowing with election coverage. I was so sick of it, not because I don’t care about democracy or something, but because reading who sneezed on the bus doesn’t matter to democracy. That’s what most of the coverage was, hot air.

At that time, I made a very conscious decision where I was going to cut 90% of the time that I was spending reading the news and being on social media, and I was going to read more books instead because they aren’t covered in this one silly, over-reported event. I found that to be enormously useful; I was happier, I had better ideas, I had different ideas, and it led to much more interesting and productive conversations with the people I love and my friends. Suddenly, you’re immersing yourself in different worlds, and you can come back and share what you learn. That was a very striking experience for me and made me think about the power of algorithms, feeds, the information landscape that we are all living in all the time, and the feedback loop with culture. That’s where the feed began, was me experiencing that. I was just paying a lot of attention to my own experience, then thinking, “Oh, wow, what if you turn this up a notch?”

Ross: There’s probably some follow-on from there. Your simple but difficult advice was to do less and care more.

Eliot: Yes, I could keep going.

Ross: To round out, what are the other things… were just simple, difficult, but people, we’ve got to sort that out for themselves. But what are the simple things that people can do to make better sense of the world?

Eliot: Okay, I’ll just go through this quickly as a hit list. This is just based on my experience as a writer, and seeing friends who make other things, whether they’re writing code, whether they’re inventing new products, whether they’re scientists, whether they are activists, whatever. What helps make the most of the only life that we get to live? I was thinking of this in conjunction with your prompts of what it means to amplify cognition, what can actually help you think differently or think better? One of them is to get good sleep. It’s amazing how much not getting good sleep sabotages everything else in your life. If you don’t sleep well, you’re much more likely to get a cold. If you get a cold and your toddler gets a cold, now they can’t go to daycare, your whole week just got nuked.

That’s a funny example. There are so many people who sacrifice sleep because they think that they’re doing something that feels more urgent than sleeping, and in doing so, they really undermine what’s important, and frankly, their own enjoyment of the things they do as well. Get more sleep. Another one is to spend less than you earn. These are all so silly but it’s amazing. If you are experiencing financial stress, it is really hard to have additional cognitive capacity because all of your background thoughts are, I need to be able to pay rent, there’s always this question, this pressure on your thinking.

One way to overcome that, which a lot of people think about is, “I need to make more money” but another way that is not mutually exclusive is to spend less. One of the amazing under-talked-about things that technology has done in the past 50 years is make most things much cheaper. Yes, there is dramatic income inequality, especially in the US, and even if you account for that and inflation, most of the daily things that we need to buy are much cheaper than they used to be, and if you live a moderate lifestyle, that allows you to have some savings, Boy, did those savings help your cognition because it just means that you don’t have that background routine running where you’re like, “Oh my god, what if?” That’s another important one.

Another one is to build your community of friends and do that in really literal ways. I feel one of the tricks that the recent internet companies have pulled on us is it’s not that you can’t make friends online, the internet is a great place to get connected to people, but you need to go deeper than that. So much of your thinking is influenced by the people you surround yourself with and the depth of the connections you’re able to form with them. My wife and I spend a significant part of our annual free time arranging and then participating in group events. We literally just got back from a five-day camping trip with 30 people that I organized. We do that multiple times a year, and other friends do that too. Then you build this really rich, dynamic set of relationships.

The internet has allowed us to live much more lonely lives because we always have a phone. The feed is always there for you. If the feed is always there for you, you have to make the effort to say, “That’s cool. I like the feed being there for me, and we can do more than this.” That’s a crucial one. Then the last thing, I would say, which is a meta thing that you can apply to all the things I just said is people get motivation in different ways. For some people, it is, “I want to run an ultra-marathon so I am going to do this training routine, I’m going to do all of the things,” and they’re motivated by achieving the goal of the ultra-marathon. They go from goal to goal. It’s like you do that, and then you climb the higher mountain. If that works for you, that is awesome, keep doing it.

For me, I approach it almost in the opposite direction where what I do is I try to think about my daily habits, the things I do every day, and I try to optimize that. As an example, there are breaks between books but when I am writing a new novel, I try to write more or less every day, and I’m not super strict about it, totally fine if I miss a day, but because it’s a daily habit, if I miss more than one day, I don’t feel great about it. Then, if you miss two days, now I really need to get back into it. I make it easy. I don’t need to be productive. I can write one sentence and I’m happy. That counts. But what is important is that it’s just part of my daily ritual, part of my daily routine.

For me, another big example is exercise. I surf. I try to get in the water every day. Do I surf literally every day? No, but it feels like that’s part of my routine where I basically surf every day, I write every day, and I eat with my family every day. I try to think about my days more than I think about my weeks, my months, my years, or my decades. I’m not saying it’ll work for everyone but the reason why it works for me is because all of those things compound. It’s compound interest. Think about the things I work on. I’m writing novels, these are multi-year, creative projects. You can’t write a novel as a heroic act of just extending yourself to the max, you have to write a novel in one sentence at a time, one page at a time over a really extended period of time. Sometimes you feel excited about doing it that day, sometimes you don’t, but you do it anyway.

But because it’s a habit, over time, those add up. Even though I’ve maybe only written one sentence, last month, my 11th novel came out. That’s how I’ve written them. That applies to so many aspects of life that if you do small things that feel insignificant, but you do them consistently, then what you’re doing is you’re inviting time on your side. If there’s one skill that few people have developed in our modern world, living in the feed, it’s patience. If you choose to be patient, if you choose to just take advantage of that simple concept of compounding interest with whatever you’re working on and care about, that’s so differentiating, no one else is doing that.

It’s something ridiculous, 99% of Warren Buffet’s net wealth accrued after his 65th birthday. If you were talking to him 20 years ago, he would have been totally unremarkable. He wasn’t famous, he was just another private equity investor. The reason why he is famous is that he started investing when he was 11 years old. He’s had compounding interest. He just has an extra 15 years on his competitors because he started as a child. You don’t need to aim for that. I don’t know how many 11-year-olds are listening to us right now, I’m not saying that you’ve lost but I do think that is extraordinarily powerful, and because it’s not dramatic, people just under-invest in that in their lives all the time. Think about these daily habits.

Ross: Some of what you’re saying there, I wrote a post on one of my big themes around Zen and the Art of creating the future, which is about living in the present but creating the future, and they’re entirely reconcilable. But if you ever think you want to write a nonfiction book, what you’ve just laid out could very readily make a bestselling book.

Eliot: That’s very sweet.  I’ll know who to send a copy to if I were you. You heard it here first, folks.

Ross: It’s been delightful, Eliot. Part of the insights there is also around this creative act, the act of creating novels and working and being able to pull the ideas into something concrete as well as how you’re taking the information. Thank you so much for your insights. I’ll be reading more of your novels and recommend them highly to everyone listening. Thank you so much, Eliot, and have a wonderful rest of your day.

Eliot: Thank you so much for having me. Your questions are a pleasure and I really appreciate it. 

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