My new novel, Pendulum, was inspired by the digital shift, the transition to a binary world which has fundamentally altered almost every aspect of our lives. I’d argue that we’re living through the biggest technological change humans have ever faced. The industrial revolution facilitated mass production and rapid transportation, changing the scale of manufacture and speed of travel; we could do more, faster, but the digital shift has transformed everything from commerce to crime, and even though the process is only in its infancy, we’re already struggling to keep up.
As technology transforms each industry, we’re seeing the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of one or two corporations: eBay and Amazon in retail, Uber in transportation, Google in search, Facebook in social media. Rather than democratising industry, the digital shift enables a single corporation to dominate a sector, and as technology opens markets to new competition, we can expect to see further concentration and consolidation across the board as banks, insurers, media companies and manufacturers seek to make themselves attractive to investors by exploiting scale. In today’s world, if a business isn’t thinking globally, it isn’t thinking.
Governments have struggled with the internationalism facilitated by the shift to digital. A company can staff its customer service operations in India, run manufacturing out of China, but domicile itself in Ireland or Luxembourg to take advantage of competitive tax regimes. Rather than coordinating a global response to ensure that corporations pay their fair share, governments seem to be in a race to the bottom, offering these huge institutions incentives and tax breaks their citizens can only dream of.
But the biggest macro change is yet to come. The digital shift is going to bring about the most radical transformation in the labour market any of us have ever seen, as AI (artificial intelligence) and robotics give corporations a reliable and effective alternative to human beings.
This big picture change is fascinating, but I was inspired to write Pendulum because of the personal stories I keep hearing. The woman whose daughter became the unwitting victim of revenge porn, the couple who had to be taken into protective police custody when the police found their names on an online death list, the author whose life was almost ruined by a coordinated campaign of online abuse.
The Internet connects us to the world, to all its good and all its bad, and there’s a randomness to our interactions that never previously existed. Today you might connect with an Idaho potato farmer, or a comic book artist based in Seoul. Or it might be the day a stalker targets you because one of your social media photographs catches their eye.
Our struggle with technology isn’t just external, and according to some experts we are now facing a youth mental health crisis. In the UK, the number of children and young people being admitted to A&E with psychiatric problems has more than doubled since 2009 and clinical depression among teenagers is soaring. According to the Office of National Statistics, 4% of all children aged between 5 and 16 suffer from clinical depression or anxiety disorder, and the figure is rising fast.
There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to support a link between increased technology use and poor mental health, and an increasing number of scientific studies are bearing this out. A recent study by the University of Illinois showed a link between increased digital device use and depression, and the University of Pittsburgh found that the more time young people spend on social media, the more likely they are to be depressed.
The digital shift is far more profound than the industrial revolution. It’s changing how we work, how we interact, how we find love, what we expect of life, what we reveal to others and so much more. It’s touching and transforming everything from the professional to the intimate, and exposing us to previously unimaginable risks.
Pendulum is my attempt to explore elements of this massive shift through the lens of a high-octane crime thriller. If you like it, please feel free to stalk me on Twitter. If you don’t, blame my AI robot ghost-writer.