In her apocalyptic trilogy that culminated in the recent release of MaddAddam, Margaret Atwood paints a dark picture of how bioengineering and modern technology could potentially devastate humankind and our environment as we know it.
Many then-outlandish concepts, including lab-grown meat, gene "splicing," animal-human transplants and man-made epidemics are now much more fact than sci-fi.
Given some of the possible future chilling scenarios she writes about, it might be natural to think the Canadian literary legend is distrustful of where science combined with technology could lead us.
But Atwood, 73, has always been a passionate supporter of the world’s scientists, biogeeks and environmentalists. She says she “dabbles” in modern technology, but that's a modest understatement given she's a prolific user of social networks like Twitter, where she has more than 430,000 followers — and seems to embrace new media, including a video game adaptation of her latest novel.
Not that she spends all day on her phone or computer. The author of more than 40 books of award-winning fiction, poetry and critical essays is also working on her opera debut, a prose version of a Shakespeare play, a book of short stories and a new novel.
We asked her about how she stays so productive instead of whiling away her time on devices, the concept of "progress," and why she has no great fears.
This trilogy can be read as a scathing critique of both scientists who are working on pushing the boundaries of evolution as well as the renegade biologists who are extreme environmentalists and resistant to change.
They’re not particularly extreme, the God’s Gardeners, they’re not activists, they’re just (minding) their own life... The word progress has always been pretty suspect. It usually means change, and change can be good, or change can be catastrophic. So when Vesuvius blew up and buried Pompeii, that was a change. Everybody died but it was a change. So we tend to use change in some kind of inevitable positive way but change is just change. It’s not necessarily change for the better.
Do you identify with the God’s Gardeners?
No! Otherwise I’d be living on a rooftop raising bees on it. I’m the author.
Of everything you've written about this trilogy including the new life forms and the overbearing corporate regimes who will one way or another destroy the plant...what are your greatest fears?
People my age don’t have greatest fears. Younger people have greatest fears. Why is that? Because they don’t know the plot. They don’t know their own individual plot...they don’t know what’s going to happen to them.
What do you think the world looks like in another 10 or 20 years from now?
I don't write about predictions, I write about possible futures. It's really a different thing. It's possible, but it's not inevitable. Predictions are about inevitabilities. Sometimes they're about probabilities. It's very probable that you will not live to be 180, but you might, because something might come along between now and then that would allow you to do that.
I'm not going to do the crystal ball thing for you. I'm not God, I don't know. I've got no idea. They are unknown unknowns that we know nothing about. (Donald) Rumsfeld was right.
But you're very insightful about these things.
I follow the back stories in science journals. But remember, human beings never put much time or effort into things that don't either fulfill a desire, or address a fear, so every single one of our inventions is about those things. It's about human desires and fears.
You’ve said you dabble in ... modern technology. And that you’re not necessarily trying to be engaged, you’re just curious.
I would say explore. Like anything else we make it’s got its pluses and its minuses. I’m seeing how this stuff works. I’ve had fun with Twitter, so I continue with the Twitter, but some things are not as relevant to me so I’ll try them out but I won’t necessarily continue with them. I can see the virtues of something like Pinterest, but it is mostly about pictures. I can see the virtues of something like Wattpad (a social network for sharing stories) as a literacy enabler.
Do you think people who reject new technologies and social media are less curious or rejecting what it means to learn new things?
No, I think that they have things that are fully engaging to them and they don’t wish to add new things. This is not for everyone. There was a book recently called Quiet which pointed out that there were two different kinds of people at least, and some people are just not social in that way.
It seems that some people don’t have a choice any more if they want to stay relevant.
That is possibly from the point of view of getting certain kinds of jobs but if those are not the kinds of jobs that you are getting, then it is a choice.
You’re extremely connected online and productive in your work...how do you manage the time you spend on your devices?
But I’ve always been that way. I’ve always been a person who has tried out new things, and put them on different platforms and that has not changed. It has not been changed by recent innovations. And remember that I went to college just down the street from Marshall McLuhan, who was right about all of this. And if he were alive today he would be telling us the implications...
Keep your eye out for a book by Dave Eggers, which is about to be published. It’s called The Circle. He will tell you about the implications.
My way of managing my smartphone is I don’t know how to do very many things on it. E-mail I think I could do without it, but it’s here now. All this stuff has made the workday longer for a lot of people and it has made the clamour for replies pretty insistent. Like "I didn’t get an answer to your thing. Why not?" "Did you get it?" "Did you hear me?"
So before this, it was the fax machine and fax machines in a way were more manageable. But before that it was the telephone and people spent hours on it, as I’m now doing. And once upon a time there would be no telephone interviews because people did not interviews on the telephone. And that’s why book tours sprang up. It was getting authors from city to city so that they could have local media, and it’s long before there were any author festivals or even book signings in stores. It was to get them to the local media, because people didn’t do interviews on the phone. Imagine that.
You're quite prolific on Twitter. Do you really only spend 10-20 minutes a day on it?
Something like that. It’s whenever I feel like doing it. Sometimes it’s in an airport. Sometimes it’s on a train, sometimes it’s in a hotel room.
Do you try to focus it at one time during the day?
No, nothing in my life is at one time during the day. It’s not how I write, it’s not how I do the laundry, it’s not how I do anything.
So you're a multitasker?
No, I’m a person of whim, and easily distracted. I don’t like multitasking. When I’m doing one thing I like to do just that thing. When I’m doing 'x' I like to be doing 'x' but I’ve always been like that too... I’m not very efficient in anything really. You just do them. And if you do them more you get better at them. I think it’s called the 1950s work ethic. Sorry about that.
Do you find you have to set aside time consciously to disconnect?
No, I think "now I’m going to read a book." So then I read the book, and I’m not reading the book and doing my e-mail at the same time...
I think it would be great to start up something called Reading Camp at which, remember you used to check your guns while entering Dawson City, so you’d check your phones while entering reading camp...a week, in which you did nothing to read books.
Do you meditate?
Meditation. It’s on that list of things I think I should be doing. The problem with meditating is I generally go to sleep and that’s because I’m doing it wrong. "It’s very good for you, there are so many things that are very good for you!" I should be doing all of them, but I’m not! I will later, sometime, when I’ve got the time.
Do you have any advice for managing social media?
My biggest tip is don’t do it it you don’t like it, unless it’s a job requirement, and if you don’t like it and it’s a job requirement, maybe you should be having a different job. If it’s really not for you, that’s OK...
Do you see technology as both good and bad, or neutral?
People use technology only to mean digital technology. Technology is actually everything we make. It’s in the early stages, it’s in the silent film stage of movies. It’s in the black and white stage of television, and it’s shaking down, and whenever any new thing hits, people are mesmerized by it at the beginning and then it becomes background noise. So when radio first hit, people were actually riveted by it. They thought it was the voice of God speaking to them out of a box. When television first hit, they used to sit around it with their TV dinners, in front of the screen, the whole family with their mouths open, watching whatever was there. There was no change the channel button because there was usually just one channel, and they were mesmerized by them. When movies first hit, people would go to them three or four times a week. So it’s like that, so this is shaking down, and we will find out which things are essential to us, and we will shed the others.