Do elections become more democratic when everyone has access to to the same infinite, universal information? Does ease of access to information and universal availability and ability to vote diminish voting disenfranchisement and lead to smarter, more thoughtful voting outcomes?
Maybe. Ideally. It’d be nice if that happened.
Malka Older’s cyberpunk election thriller Infomocracy posits a late twenty-first century future in which microdemocracy is the norm. Instead of traditional, old-fashioned nation-states, Earth (or rather its participating constituents, but that’s still most of Earth) is divided up into 100,000-people voting blocs called “centenals.” Rural areas may have only a couple of centenals spread out over hundreds of miles, while densely packed cities can have a couple hundred centenals within the space of several street blocks.
Centenals have a wealth of political parties to choose from when it comes to voting who gets to govern them, from huge corporate conglomerates to dinky, local parties, with the biggest parties additionally jockeying to win the Supermajority position. The organization in charge of making sure worldwide voting goes off cleanly and without a hitch is the ostensibly neutral, Super-Google entity known as Information. Not only are they the infrastructure of the entire election process, they disseminate bias-free facts and truths about all of the political parties’ stated agendas and recorded actions so that people can vote with the most up-to-date, accurate knowledge possible instead of relying on the news spins and media facades that dominate the current political scene.
Infomocracy takes place during an election year, only a couple of months before the big day. The corporate-owned political party Heritage has been the Supermajority since the inception of microdemocracy, and several parties are eager to knock them off their pedestal. Ken, a new campaigner for the policy-oriented political party Policy1st is an eager participant in the election circuit and committed to seeing his party ascend to the Supermajority. Mishima is a top analyst for Information, whose job it is to practice risk awareness for election fraud and ensure all participating parties play by the rules. Domaine is a shadowy figure hiding in plain sight, a radical who opposes microdemocracy as another iteration of citizens disconnected from the real source of power and from truly having a say in global affairs. All three of these characters’ paths intersect as they cross the globe and back again, all of them knee-deep in the blood and guts of this election and its ensuing outcome.
I’ll echo what other reviewers have said about it being strangely backward to recommend a science fiction novel about elections for the purposes of entertainment, when the current American election is a fucking hellhole of Nazi-esque rhetoric and imminent fascism. Yet it is weirdly comforting to read a novel that, in being about elections, accurately mirrors the precise rise of pressure and tension and emotion as the election date draws nearer and the participating candidates/parties up their media campaigns and the news conduits spit out article after article after article filled with half-truths and cover-ups and lies and look-hard-and-maybe-if-you-squint-you-can-see-it kernels of a truth. If anything, Infomocracy most starkly reminded me of the 2000 U.S. election and the ensuing breakdown and lack of trust in the American democratic system and the idea that the person elected President really was the will of the people.
Infomocracy shines in its world-building, which takes the idea of thousands upon thousands of micro-governments to the nth degree. (Take five steps, and you’re in a different centenal with different laws and regulations, and god forbid if you don’t know what they are.) Character development does take second-stage to world-building, with Ken, Mishima, and Domaine coming across as more two-dimensional than I’d prefer. Still given the overwhelming, weighty subject matter and infrastructure of the global microdemocracy and Information, it’s a testament to Older’s writing that Ken and Mishima especially drive the story of Infomocracy with the weight of their momentum as they constantly look forward and ahead while dealing with the immediacy of the now. Time and reaction-time are funny things when advanced technology in communication, travel, and information-processing means that both smaller and large-scale events occur much more quickly, and sometimes within mere minutes or seconds of each other. When people have access to media and up-to-date Information 24/7 and underhanded propaganda can spread like wildfire, everyone involved in the election from campaigning staff to Information staff is running against a clock that’s always five seconds too fast to hear the news, process it, form a response to gain the upper hand, and enact it.
Mishima is an expert at playing these sorts of games, and because of that she is my favorite. She’s a clear-headed realist who’s whip-smart and super-effective at processing and compiling multiple sources of information to form a single, crystallized view of a situation. Her narrative disorder can get in the way at times, causing her to create links and “cause and effects” that may not exist but seem compelling enough to run with as a possible version of the truth. I love the idea that in a world with an all-powerful information-dispensing organization whose integrity is found solely in its adherence to providing only the facts and just the facts, ma’am—no spin, no angle, no bias—the act of creating narratives, which are inherently formed out of individual bias and perception, in order to find answers and make sense of current events, transforms into a crippling flaw for an Information operative.
Ken is an eager idealist who more than anything wants to be in “the room where it happens,” and he’s staked his future on Policy1st grabbing the Supermajority. The events of Infomocracy put his idealism to the test, but also provide him with an even greater desire to make a difference, to actually have an impact on something, whether that’s policy or Information.
Ken’s desire to have an impact on the world, to see explicit outcomes arising as a result of his actions, raises echoes of Domaine’s issues with microdemocracy as having failed to give the people a true voice. As Ken and Mishima prepare for the election, Domaine is busy taking steps to undermine the entire system by putting together a mysterious campaign of his own. Domaine’s viewpoint may be decently fleshed out, but he remains too secretive a character to truly get a sense of what he’s attempting to accomplish, to the point that I didn’t know by the book’s end what, if anything, Domaine had achieved or set in motion, or how he was connected to the book’s actual plot beside a couple of necessary plot points for Mishima.
Domain’s lack of embeddedness within the narrative brings me to my other issues with Infomocracy, namely the events concerning the Liberty party following the election. The book opened with Ken and Mishima cottoning on to Liberty engaging in illegal warmongering, a plot thread that continued to develop and bear fruit in the book’s second half, but is then left hanging in midair with no acknowledgement by the story’s end. At that point it seemed that both Domaine’s agenda and Liberty’s schemes are only going to pay off in the upcoming second book Null States, which would be fine if it weren’t for the fact that Infomocracy didn’t provide enough concrete engagement with either entity ( specifically Liberty the party as opposed to speculation about Liberty’s actions) to make their inclusion as fruitful as it should have been.
In sum, I had a lot of fun reading Infomocracy. As regular readers may know by now, plot-oriented novels with secondary focus on character are typically not books I enjoy, but Infomocracy has proved itself to be one of my exceptions. Possibly its huge appeal for me lies in just how necessary and relatable a book it is at this given moment in human history (which begs the question how this book will stand the test of time, or if it will be seen in decades to come as having its origins so firmly rooted in the state of the early 2000s political and technological sphere that perhaps it’s rendered somewhat obsolete.) Infomocracy is exciting, fast-paced, good brain-candy, and does some truly fantastic world-building mixing serious, present-day realities and concerns with democracy and the media and updating them for a whole new world that’s functionally wildly different but at its core is all too familiar.
Also I swear—Infomocracy is an effective antidote to current election garbage. If you’re looking for something both relevant and futuristic and slightly fantastical to read, I definitely recommend it.