It’s safe to say that just about everyone is tired of the 2016 presidential election this summer. Despite that, Malka Older’s debut novel Infomocracy couldn’t have come at a better time. It’s an intense and intriguing thriller about how technology and the flow of information can help sway public opinion and policy across the planet.
Set a short distance into the future, Infomocracy portrays a world governed by microdemocracies. Countries have been replaced by districts (called centenals) of 100,000 people, and the entire world turns out to vote once a decade for their local government. The political party elected to the most centenals becomes the Supermajority, setting policy and direction for the world at large. Needless to say, the stakes are high as a new election approaches.
To oversee the logistics of this worldwide event is an outfit called Information, a sort of non-partisan social media service which provides information about the political parties and current events. Think of it a sort of merger between Google, BBC, and Facebook. In the two decades that Information has presided over this new world order, it's gotten good at overseeing elections. In that time, the Heritage party has claimed the Supermajority status, but their grip on power appears to be weakening. While Information is good, everyone else is racing to try and get ahead.
Older follows a couple of characters: Ken, who works for a party called Policy1st, which is seeking to expand its influence around the world. When he hooks up one night with Mishima, an operative who works for Information, he discovers that they have similar concerns: the Liberty Party is trying to undermine the election by spreading rumors of impending war and a desire to take the world back to the nations of earlier years. While this is happening, an anarchist named Domaine is trying to undermine confidence in the election in his own ways. As they jump from country to country as the election looms, bombings, and sabotage threaten the integrity of Information and the entire political process.
Infomocracy is an impressive — if dense — debut novel. Older has constructed a wonderfully rich and complicated world to accompany her thought-provoking narrative. She plays out her futuristic election bit by bit, layering in details as the plot picks up and runs to the finish line. This isn't a book to breeze through, but to sink into and take in the details of her fantastic future.
What’s most interesting about the novel is how it portrays the impact of technology. The characters use familiar tools: handhelds, tablets, internet, and so forth, but Older surmises that our current ongoing technological revolution will have as great an impact on the order of the world as that of the industrial revolution. Where efficiencies in labor and technology changed the relationship of people to their governments, access to information has changed the relationships of governments to their people. There’s plenty of science fiction novels that do this, but Infomocracy is one of the few that really seems to conceptualize how it will change the world and understand the larger impact.
The book is an interesting look at how organizations and political parties work to alter the political process as they seek to sway public opinion, and how tenuous this relationship can be. In this world, Information has the high-minded mission to bring data to the people so that they can make an informed choice. However, no matter how idealistic or optimistic a political party appears, when if you look under the hood, you’ll see a very different set of ideals at work. With an election that encompasses the entire planet, as the stakes rise, so do the risks that parties and operatives will go to to secure their party’s political future.
Older’s Infomocracy is a tough read, but engrossing once you get into it. It’s worth sticking to it, because you’re pulled into an plausible futuristic world during a high-stakes event that could change the direction of civilization. It’s a familiar scenario, but one that’s far more exciting to read than watching CNN.