The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Joel Mentmore

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Joel Mentmore

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Summary: After she read Smart Ani realised that she would never be completely comfotable with her mobile phone again. She had quite a few questions for author Joel Mentmore when he popped into Bookbag Towers.
Date: 20 April 2016
Interviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson

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After she read Smart Ani realised that she would never be completely comfotable with her mobile phone again. She had quite a few questions for author Joel Mentmore when he popped into Bookbag Towers.

  • Bookbag: Your debut novel, Smart is a thriller that crosses genres but when you close your eyes and imagine your readers, what do you see?

Joel Mentmore: The usual advice, to write the books you yourself would like to read, is good advice, I think. In which case I suppose I must imagine my readers to be much like myself: intelligent, educated, articulate, beautiful people with enquiring minds and interesting lives . . . More seriously, though, I don't imagine my readers as any one, homogenous type, but I would like to think that anyone who reads Smart will find it both entertaining and informative. I would hope, also, that they are able to engage with the characters, the story, and the ideas on many different levels so that as they turn the last page it with the sense of having had a terrifically satisfying read.

  • BB: The book plays on our misgivings about technology beautifully. Would you like to tell us more about it?

JM: We have made a Faustian pact with our technology, and with the Mephistophelian technologists and engineers (like Skull and Viktor in the book) who deliver this relentless innovation. There are already (real life) prominent scientist and engineers, like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, who are warning about the dangers of rampant Artificial Intelligence, but their warnings are about the big, apocalyptic dangers for humanity rather than the small, invidious threats which exist now, to us all, on a personal level from this technology. That’s what Smart is about. There's no question that these smart tools and technologies are liberating and enabling, but at the same time, they also bind and constrain us into ways of behaving, ways of thinking. So the question I hope Smart is asking is: What are we sacrificing in exchange for the power and convenience that our tools give us? And if we limit ourselves to systems-thinking, what do we lose along the way?

The act of writing, though, is always a process of discovery, and as I was developing Smart it became increasingly interesting to me to examine the nature of our own addictions to the magic of our tools. The character Jon, starts out as a technophobe, but is gradually drawn into a kind of app-addiction, a techno-dependency, because these things, these gadgets, and the ways of thinking that goes with them, offer us the promise of greater control and betterment. So (and without giving anything away), we are left with this question of whether the danger is from the technology, the technologists, or ultimately ourselves.

  • BB: Where did your inspiration come from?

JM: I went for a walk to resolve a problem with an entirely different story I was writing, and successfully avoided dealing with that problem by coming up with the idea for Smart. It seemed an idea with an immediate relevance and appeal, so I set about writing it. That was about two years ago.

  • BB: It’s populated by people who aren’t exactly Mr or Ms Average; where do you get your ideas for characters? (If it’s someone you know, how do they react?)

JM: It's a writer's cliché, but the characters create themselves. Not that they spring ready-formed from the pen, but they seem to develop themselves as much as you try to develop them. As a writer, almost everyone you meet is potential for a character in a story, and sometimes certain people will be at the forefront of my mind as I write, but I never met a Mr or Ms Average, so wouldn’t be able to weave them into a novel. Everyone engages with the world in their own unique way, so there is always an exciting dynamic between the demands imposed on the character by the plot, and the demands the characters themselves makes on the plot.

  • BB: Your research blends well with your eerie speculation and extrapolation; how did you research it? Did you come across any problems with the research?

JM: One of the dangers of writing about current technologies is the speed with which new developments take place so that, for the novelist, by the time you get to publish, the whole field has moved on and your story may no longer seem as modern as when you started writing it. As you might expect, technical subjects are well represented on the internet, and I've done a huge amount of reading, but I was always having to think, Where’s this going to be in eighteen months, two years? For instance, the developments around self-driving cars were in the technology press when I started writing, but seldom in the mainstream media. Nowadays you can't open a newspaper without stumbling on a story about autonomous cars. But actually Smart is only marginally speculative, and not at all sci-fi. The technologies described are mostly already in existence, and in fact many are already old hat.

  • BB: How do you feel about the way that we use IT now and its future?

JM: I remember some careers advice, delivered by a large, humourless Geography teacher, to my class, as we approached the end of secondary school. This was before the advent of the microcomputer and his predictions represented the prevailing view. He told us there would be a growing market for programmers until about the year 2000 when computers would programme themselves, at which point this market would collapse. That, I think, illustrates the impossibility of predicting the future of information technology. However . . . assuming no apocalyptic disasters involving rampant robots or drug resistant viruses, or both, I think it's safe to predict we'll be having more of IT, and it will be increasingly easy to use while it does increasingly complicated things for us.

  • BB: What can we, the everyday people, do to prevent the Smart scenario happening in real life?

JM: There's a keen race between the major technology companies to embed AI-driven personal assistants into all our lives - Cortana, Siri, M, Google Now. These applications are sold to us as ways to make our lives more efficient, more effective, based on a model of living that many of us may find alien (we all want to be Californians, don't we?). It's well known, of course, that this is a land-grab for personal data. But this is not just harvesting our data so they can sell us more goods and services, it’s also for these corporates to understand what new goods and services could be developed and sold. That's not necessarily a bad thing, only we're not in control of it. Mining health data, for instance, may have many positive benefits, and in Smart, Jon makes the argument for the moral imperative of sharing this kind of personal data. So, to answer your question, I don’t think there is much we can do to stop the rise of connected, AI-driven applications, or the harvesting of our personal data. In fact, I wonder if eventually the requirement to contribute personal data will take on the same mantle of social propriety as, say, paying your taxes or recycling your garbage.

  • BB: You’ve written plays as well as this novel but what do you pick up to read when you want to unwind?

JM: On the first day of school holidays, as a boy, I would head to the local library. You were allowed to borrow three books at a time - two fiction and one non-fiction. Invariably my fiction would be thrillers or adventures - Alistair McLean, Gavin Lyall, Adam Hall (Elleston Trevor), CS Forrester. World War 2 biographies would fill the non-fiction allocation. Those first few days of holiday were devoted to lying on my bed reading books and chewing Tiger toffees, punctuated by further trips to the library. Happily my reading has broadened since to encompass the 19th century classics and 20th century greats, and as many contemporary writers as time allows. For light holiday reading however, I still pick up a thriller or historical yarn.

  • BB: What's next for Joel Mentmore?

JM: Once you start writing, new ideas pop up like popcorn on a hot plate. I have a project I've been working on for some time, a cross-genre science-fantasy which is scheduled to start publishing by the end of the year. But I don't think I've finished with the world of technology startups, partly because it's familiar territory, but mostly because innovation, science and technology are the drivers of the modern world, and we can understand ourselves best when we understand how we make our world.

  • BB: Thanks for taking the time to chat to us, Joel. There's plenty for us to think about there.

You can read more about Joel Mentmore here.

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