The Technology of SCORPION

My fourth novel, Scorpion, is now available, and as much as it is a near-future thriller that uses technology as a tool for exploring moral ambiguity, it is also a subtle exploration of the impact of that technology on humanity.

First, an excerpt from the review by Publishers Weekly:

This stunning near-future thriller from Cantrell takes some truly breathtaking turns. CIA data analyst Quinn Mitchell is sent in pursuit of the Elite Assassin, an apparently unpredictable and unstoppable killer. Readers, meanwhile, are introduced to the inscrutable murderer Ranveer, whose killings efficiently carry out someone else’s master plan. Quinn’s clever investigation, using neatly extrapolated high-tech gadgets, is fascinating in itself, and, as the CIA receives missives from the future through the time-bending Epoch Index, Quinn’s search collides with some darkly fascinating thought experiments.

As you can see, Scorpion is, in no way, a direct indictment of either technology or industry policy. It is an unapologetic thriller — a near-future adventure that transports readers all over the world even as it keeps a handful of mysterious and endearing characters at its center. But just as it is becoming increasingly unrealistic to write about a future somehow miraculously untouched by the effects of climate change, it feels similarly disingenuous to write about the empowerment of technology without also acknowledging its costs.

The U.S. version of the cover on the left, and the U.K. version on the right. The graphic on the right of the U.K. version is an allusion to both gun smoke and a digital audio waveform — the perfect expression of a high-tech thriller.

Emotional Cutting

By now, we all know that the internet never forgets. But what happens when that maxim extends to our own personal tragedies? And when the fidelity of certain memories becomes so high that they border on re-traumatizing?

CIA analyst Quinn Mitchell finds herself standing right at that threshold. She is lent out to INTERPOL to assist in a worldwide murder investigation which she hopes might give her the opportunity to distance herself from certain aspects of her past. But even in airports, field offices, and budget hotels, Quinn has all the technology she needs to relive the tragedy she so desperately wants to leave behind.

Visitors to the Illinois Holocaust Museum can already interact with holograms of Holocaust survivors. Interactive holograms are an extremely powerful way to preserve history, but reliving certain aspects of our personal histories might be a more nuanced matter.

Carrying our trauma with us wherever we go is certainly nothing new. Neither is the compulsion to indulge in the artifacts of a painful past inevitably followed by the desire to numb. But the difference is that we’re not that far away from being able to re-experience events with such fidelity that our brains won’t know the difference. We value technology for its ability to instantly and flawlessly recall, yet biology is much more content to allow us to gradually forget.

Ultimately, I think virtual representations of memories will prove to be a powerful therapeutic tool, but like psychedelic therapy, the process will have to be delicately guided. Until we figure out how to coexist with unlimited, high-fidelity access to the past, reliving it will sometimes feel less curative and more like emotional cutting.

We value technology for its ability to instantly and flawlessly recall, yet biology is much more content to allow us to gradually forget.

First Principles

The term “reasoning from first principles” gets thrown around a lot in highly innovative circles like Silicon Valley. And for very good reason. If you’re trying to disrupt a well-established market, it’s critical that you break a problem down to its most basic components rather than starting from high-level (and often flawed) assumptions.

Electric vehicles offer one of the best modern examples. Rather than giving up on the idea of EVs because battery technology has historically been so expensive, Tesla built their own “Gigafactories” to bring the costs associated with battery technology down to the point where EVs are now economically viable. In fact, if the current EV market is any indication, first-principle reasoning is so critical to disruption that it appears easier to start a brand new EV company from scratch than it is for well-established incumbents to pivot. (Elon Musk is well known for his adherence to first-principle thinking.)

Tesla’s first Gigafactory in Storey County, Nevada. If expanded according to Tesla’s plans, it would become the largest building in the world. (Credit: Smnt.)

Reasoning from first principles is the best way to invent the future, but it’s not always the best way to predict it. In other words, the fact that certain innovations and technologies are possible ultimately has very little to do with whether they will become culturally acceptable or economically viable. The remarkable speed at which pharmaceutical companies developed some of the most highly effective vaccines in history in response to the COVID-19 pandemic is a testament to how many diseases the world could almost certainly cure — if it were motivated to do so. The biggest barriers to effectively addressing the climate crisis have less to do with the need for technological breakthroughs or limitations imposed by the laws of physics and more to do with politics, cultural biases, and economic interests.

Reasoning from first principles is the best way to invent the future, but it’s not always the best way to predict it.

Fortunately, I’m not in the business of predicting the future. In fact, I would never presume to call myself anything so ambitious as a futurist, and I’m usually reluctant to even prognosticate. My job is worldbuilding — creating believable and relatable universes in which compelling plots unfold and characters we care about struggle and grow.

When imagining the near future in which Scorpion takes place, I wanted to make sure that every piece of technology in the novel was realistically and believably contextualized — that it reflected not just what humanity was theoretically capable of accomplishing, but what was economically, politically, and culturally viable at that moment in time.

Scorpion takes neither a utopian nor a dystopian perspective on the future. Having spent well over twenty years in the software industry, my best guess is that progress will continue to exist in a type of tumultuous purgatory: forever on its way toward something better, but never quite getting all the way there.

Entertaining the Absurd

I can’t imagine that hacking isn’t grossly underreported. My assumption is that, for every hack I read about, there are a dozen more that either cycle in and out of the news without me noticing, get covered up by unscrupulous executives, or that go completely undiscovered (which is almost certainly the vast majority).

Data breaches are so widespread that most of us have become desensitized. Even the most egregious dissipate after a day or two of social media snark and toothless Congressional indignation. CIOs dump stock before public disclosures, PR departments send out boilerplate about claiming a free year of identity protection, and we all move on as though it were a victimless crime.

The homepage of the incredibly valuable (though equally depressing) online utility, Have I Been Pwned (HIBP). If you have not been pwned yourself (had your data stolen in a data breach), you are one of the lucky few.

But the real story of the technology industry’s glaring inability to keep private information safe hasn’t yet been told. Scorpion imagines a world in which stolen data doesn’t harmlessly evaporate, but instead accumulates behind a new type of darknet called the shadowphiles — an encrypted and decentralized network where the combination of big-data mining techniques and neural networks make it trivial to compile detailed dossiers on just about anyone on the planet.

The real story of the technology industry’s glaring inability to keep private information safe hasn’t yet been told.

The shadowphiles are constantly fed by sources like stolen online session notes from therapists who specialize in infidelity and addiction, data forensically recovered from laptops and cellphones bought for cash off sites like Craigslist and shipped overseas, and medical details from compromised digitized records. Having access to the shadowphiles means that, before breaking into a home, you can look up the occupants’ financial records to see if they make recurring payments to alarm companies or dog groomers, predict the statistical likelihood of encountering a firearm, and even compile a highly accurate inventory of exactly what you will find inside.

We don’t have to look to science fiction or near-future thrillers to show us ways in which data can be creatively exploited. China is believed to have cross-referenced data stolen from the Office of Personnel Management (which contains details about U.S. intelligence officers, including their security clearances), guest records stolen from the Starwood hotel chain, and domestic surveillance information to root out potential U.S. spies (I would hate to be a member of the Chinese Politburo whose European Marriott stay just happened to coincide with that of a CIA officer’s). In one of the most brazen and creative cybercrime cases yet, sophisticated criminals created a vocal deepfake of a chief executive, then successfully used it to order another executive to wire hundreds of thousands of dollars to an untraceable account. And, not to be outdone by the criminal element, as early as 2018, investigators discovered they could use the results of home DNA test kits to crack dozens of cold cases—including that of the Golden State Killer.

Instead of predicting new kinds of data breaches and hacks, Scorpion instead explores the commodification of the tools needed to mine increasingly accessible personal information. And, more importantly, the extent to which the malicious application of those tools is limited only by the imagination. Scorpion warns us that, as I like to put it, we need to learn to entertain the absurd because schemes that might seem far-fetched today need only happen once before they go from seemingly impossible to painfully obvious.

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Director of Design Prototyping at Adobe and author of SCORPION.

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Christian Cantrell

Christian Cantrell

Director of Design Prototyping at Adobe and author of SCORPION.

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