Wednesday 22 February 2023

Reality Is Not What It Seems: My Creative Writing PhD

By Kirsten Arcadio

The philosopher Yuval Noah Harari claims that "our future is in the hands of the social and digital media giants" and decisions are being taken by "a small international caste of business people, entrepreneurs and engineers." Governments have become "managers," he says. They have no vision, "whereas meet the people in Google, in Facebook, they have tremendous visions about the future, about overcoming death, living for ever, merging humans with computers. I do find it worrying that the basis of the future, not only of humankind, the future of life, is now in the hands of a very small group of entrepreneurs" (see Harari’s recent interview with the Guardian here).

Suffice to say, I agree. The idea that new technology will open the door to control of the masses is what propelled me towards pitching a PhD proposal to my supervisor, Jonathan Taylor, in late 2018. After several years writing speculative fiction in what I tend to think of as an amateur capacity, I was ready to take my writing to the next level and this theme had the potential to take me there. I was thrilled to be accepted onto a six-year part-time PhD programme in early 2019 as a result. 

The creative section of my PhD is a novel, Thrown, a socio-political tech-thriller which tells the story of what happens when a computer scientist with an ambiguous past is recruited to build a virtual reality for government services. My creative project uses fiction to examine a possible near-future dystopian scenario where the competing forces of government and online media giants use technology to manipulate society.

The idea of virtual reality is not new. However, the idea that elements of our society may be taken over by virtual and/or augmented reality is much closer than many realise (I believe). In some ways, my thesis is a cautionary tale, in others, a creative exploration. It's based on the idea that government services and virtual reality might one day combine to take complete control of society. My intention was to present this idea in a creative work rather than a factual one. It is my desire - as is the case of many science fiction writers before me - to use storytelling to bring a dry, technological plausibility to life. 

How have I approached this throughout my PhD journey? Fast forward to 2023 and I feel like a marathon runner tackling the last six miles. I’ve drafted a novel Thrown and its accompanying critical reflective commentary. I’ve written all the words … all 100,000 of them in draft form. As a digital communications professional, I’m used to writing and editing. Writing at pace doesn’t phase me. But a PhD is a completely different beast. It’s a journey into my own subconscious, an exercise in perfecting the craft, on contextualising my ideas and developing them in an interesting and engaging way.  It’s a lot - yes, I’ve come a long way, but I’ve still probably got a year’s work left to get to the end of this road. My biggest challenge now is to get the hard-hitting human challenges of my concept across, and indeed, as my novel has progressed, my mind has turned from concept to character. After all, stories are about the journeys we take as human beings and the challenges we have to overcome. Over time, my protagonist and her small crew of friends and (mostly) enemies, have grown with the work. My focus in recent months has turned to the characters’ own journeys, on their hopes and fears, on the stories they tell about themselves, and the ones they want to hide. Thrown is a high concept novel, but it’s also a character study, a journey into the subconscious mind, laid bare by the blurred lines between reality and virtual reality. 

I don’t know what questions readers will ask themselves after reading my PhD. Maybe they might include: to what extent are we already living in a VR? With one foot in an artificial reality, are we already partially "meta" - more about the stories we tell about ourselves than our real selves? Could a VR, therefore, end up being more real than the real world? But whatever the questions the thesis raises, I’m having fun writing it. 

About the author

Kirsten Arcadio has written three novels, each with a different speculative theme, Borderliners, Split Symmetry and WorldCult. Her fourth novel, Zeitgeist, is a coming-of-age adventure set in Germany against the backdrop of the fall of the Berlin Wall. She’s also a part-time poet, digital communications nerd and frazzled head of an Anglo-Italian family. After working for over fifteen years in digital communications, she returned to her twin first loves, literature and philosophy, in 2011. She’s passionate about the big questions in life and how these can be explored using speculative fiction and, to this end, has been working on a PhD in Creative Writing since 2019. When she’s not writing she’s obsessing about science fiction, she loves all things Italian, including her husband, and she once taught English in the Italian senate.

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