Coming To The Rescue

Image: Wikipedia/Laika ac

Combat drones launched from 747s. Deep-cover intelligence operatives busting human traffickers. Lithuanian cyber partisans targeting Russian occupiers.

Mike Matson’s short stories create futures that reflect both his technical knowledge but also his willingness to experiment. There’s no better example than his insightful story, Fingers on the Scale. This exploration of the intersection of preemptive intelligence operations and early childhood education was the winner of The Art of the Future Project’s short-story contest exploring the world of 2035 in support of the Atlantic Council’s Global Risks 2035 report. Fingers on the Scale stood out for the novelty of the concept, but also for how prescient a story it seems.

His prolific writing has made him a finalist in the Art of the Future Project’s previous contests with stories such as The Indian Defense (AI and war in space), Going Deep (what happens to people after wars end) and Pacific Plunged Into the Abyss (the future of great power conflict) while his pursuit of fundamental questions such as “what will be the historical artifacts from future wars?” led him to a future post-bellum Estonia in Shadows of an Old Wolf. Based in Louisville, Kentucky, Mike has almost 20 years of government experience, and degrees from The American University and the Joint Military Intelligence College. In addition to 13 years in the Beltway before escaping to Kentucky, he has lived, studied, and worked in Brussels and Tallinn.

The following are excerpts from an interview in which he discusses Fingers on the Scale with The Art of the Future Project:

You’re a multiple finalist in the Art of the Future project’s contests, speaking to productivity but also consistency. Why write?

I absolutely love to write; it has always been my form of creative release. I wrote short stories in high school. I was a staff writer for my university newspaper. I’m in a career where writing is central to my job, although analytical writing is rather formalized in style and substance, so for a long time I was pulled away from creative writing. Now that I’m doing it again, I’m back to loving it, and it is causing me to pull out years of story ideas I had tucked away.

You brought together a story imagining intelligence operations and the future of education; talk about how those two lines of thinking intersected, and why?

I have a confession. I came up with the intelligence operation while brushing my teeth. I had been conceptualising the field of opportunistics for a long time before the contest was announced, based on personal experiences and then seeking out social science research on opportunity, social mobility, and poverty. However, the concept is not very sexy from a storytelling standpoint, and I struggled to create a story which didn’t come across as a policy paper. I did a lot of rewrites but the essential conflict of the story kept eluding me.

My subconscious came to the rescue after I took a few days off to regroup because I was stumped and trying too hard. I literally had an “Ah Ha!” moment. One night at bedtime I realized I had put Richter in a position where he held extremely valuable information governments would want. As soon as I verbalized out loud what my mind had been working on in the background, I knew I had it. The juxtaposition between social policy and national security was so jarring, it created the perfect reveal which helped pull to the forefront all of Richter’s internal angst over what he had created and become. I still had a lot of work to do, but I could finally see the plot all the way to the end as a compelling story revealing the different ways people were using and abusing Richter’s creation.

How likely do you think this scenario is to occur in 2035?

The opportunistics half very likely, and not just in the United States. I expect countries will develop their own culturally unique opportunity matrix. I can also see some countries trying to use it in a centralized manner to attempt to improve the competitive advantage of their populations. For example, the Chatham House published a very interesting research paper in 2015 of what is meant by state mobilization in Russia.[1] I think this story fits well into what they discuss in that paper. Governments using this as a weapon, that’s a lot less likely… I hope.

What aspects of it do you think are most likely to occur?

Local and state governments using a form of the Census Block Measure to tailor public policy / public health at the hyper-localized level is likely. It allows for limited resources to be applied with greater precision and greater potential impact. Same for schools tailoring services for both the brightest and most at risk students. The commercialization of the field for parents wanting to tailor and maximize the possibilities for their children, including the use of data coaches and tutors, is a logical extension of current industries which cater to testing, test preparation, and related services.

The technologies you depict, how close are we?

I think we are much closer than 2035 for many of these technologies. Most datasets already exist in some form, it’s just a matter of mashing them together to create something new. The Census Block Measure I’ve seen in a crude form employed by a school district to develop better racial and class diversity in their schools.[2] Sport stars are already hiring personal data analytic coaches, so as the price comes down, more people will use them.[3] And the incessant drive to test at school is already here, but crude in form compared to where it can go. Machine learning will automate much of it and The Economist has a good (and scary) piece on how far along that is already.[4] Last, the depiction of the university selection process I thought was a total fabrication on my part, but I had a friend who has been in the field almost 20 years reach out to me after reading the story and tell me it’s already on the way.

Two hurdles exist to opportunistics existing in full form. First, the development of actual analytical measures to drill down into data. That was the “new technology” I worked to develop, coming up with formulas such as GPA+, AR, OIM, POE, etc. I have no math background so I can’t say whether my opportunity matrix and formula concepts are actually viable, but conceptually they feel right.

Second, while much of the data exists, it is stove piped, or not in a digital form with agreed technical coding or processing standards allowing it to be mashed together. There are also privacy concerns. I suspect privacy obstacles will fall quicker than many would like. For example, each year you have to sign a new HIPPA form. Eventually I see the form turning into an “Accept” button on an EULA which has a section buried deep in the text authorizing the data to be released. Privacy will quietly be clicked away.

And are families, as much as governments, ready for this kind of shift to happen during the next 20 years?

I think families are more ready than governments because even without opportunistics, most parents do want what’s best for their children. This field allows for individualization and empowerment at the same time. Parents will use any tool available to them that is within their means and this puts a lot more arrows in the quiver. At the same time, families are already bombarded with testing and rankings starting in kindergarten or before. A common complaint I’ve heard is, what does it all mean? Opportunistics attempts to answer that question in a way which allows families to act.

And a key point I want to make: opportunistics is not about education, although it uses education both as a primary tool and one of the main measures of output. It is about using data to position oneself to succeed in life. Today the bottom 50% of the population own 1% of the wealth in the United States, and research consistently documents the built-in advantages or disadvantages children have if they fall into a particular demographic. Opportunistics provides a tool for people to trying to improve their lot in life, or that of their children. The “scientific” name is Applied Generational Mobility. In many ways it helps level an unfair playing field. And that was Richter’s idealized goal when creating it, which is why he is so conflicted as he becomes rich off of the wealthy using his creation to maintain their status.

Where do you see fiction, and science fiction, fitting in to the work of today’s government officials?

I think it absolutely has a place in exploring scenarios and technologies government officials and policy makers would not normally consider – and their implications. There are a lot of good venues for professional writing but not enough open it up to fiction and SF, which I would like to see changed. In the foreign / national security field, pre-publication rules, although needed, also create a chilling effect for many. When you get into public health or social policy, I’m not aware of much use of fiction writing at all, and it seems there are as many possibilities for fiction writing when discussing domestic policies as national security. I’d like to see more in those fields which are currently dominated by academic research.

How do you make room for writing fit in your life?

Admittedly it is very hard. My wife and I are at a stage in our lives where our children are involved with all sort of opportunity point producing activities – and yes we often refer to it in those terms. Most writing takes place late in the evening and even a short story like this one will take a couple weeks squeezed into free moments to pull together. Without my wife’s support and pushing me to make the time to keep doing this, it wouldn’t get done.

Before words on the page, what about the imagining or thinking aspects — where and how do you do that?

First, I am constantly reading. I scan multiple newspapers and news sites every day and Twitter gets me to primary sources on topics mainstream news sites don’t cover well. I’m usually reading three to four different books at a time, mostly history, fiction, or SF. Second, I maintain an idea notebook. I’ll sketch story ideas, concepts, or even individual scenes in it as they come to me. For SF, I love pulling names of people or cities from long lost cultures I read about in history books. My notes are cluttered with all sorts of crazy stuff. I also have several folders with clippings going at any one time related to my idea book.

Last is using downtime to process everything. Commuting and running errands is often where I disengage and let things rattle around in my subconscious. I’ll work on stories for days or weeks while behind the wheel before putting anything to paper. But the ultimate down time for me is the outdoors. Some of my best stories were developed while in the woods.

Where do you see your writing going from here?

I want to keep pushing myself with short stories – the contests at Art of the Future have exposed several aspects of my creative writing where I need to stretch myself. Military SF and using non-Western perspectives are niches I have enjoyed and want to keep exploring. For a next step I would like to try and submit some short stories to SF publications.

Longer term, I have by last count nine different full length book ideas, some with multiple chapters sketched out. They include an alternative history set at the end of WWII, a modern day murder mystery set in eastern Kentucky, two historical non-fiction books related to naval topics in WWII, and five SF novels. Those include two set in real time, and are probably the ones along with the alternative WWII history I’m most keen to write now, and a SF trilogy set a few hundred years from now.

What are you reading, watching or playing right now that you can’t stop?

Right now I’m reading a lot of WWII non-fiction on the OSS and covert operations like Operation Paperclip, although when I have 20 minutes and want to read something which makes me laugh out loud, I grab any Harry Dresden novel off my shelf. I wish I could write dialogue like Jim Butcher does in those books. If I can find the time I power up Destiny and do a few crucibles in the Iron Banner once I wrestle the controller from my kids. TV time has been limited lately to watching the Cubs marching towards a World Series or sneaking in episodes of Marco Polo on Netflix.

[1] Russian State Mobilization: Moving the Country onto a War Footing, https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/publications/research/2016-05-20-russian-state-mobilization-monaghan-2.pdf

[2] Diversity and Educational Gains: A plan for a changing county and its schools, http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED523959.pdf

[3] Eyes on Stats, Players Hire Help to Crunch Them, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/28/sports/basketball/eyes-on-stats-nba-players-hire-help-to-crunch-them.html

[4] Machine learning: Of prediction and policy, http://www.economist.com/news/finance-and-economics/21705329-governments-have-much-gain-applying-algorithms-public-policy