Charles Yu: Technology Can Make People More Lonely or Less Lonely

A book interview article by: Jason Sacks

It might seem a bit off-topic to run an interview with a mainstream writer like Charles Yu on Comics Bulletin, but I think the insights that he brings to our relationship with modern technology make him a perfect interview subject for this site. I had a great time talking with Charles at San Diego Comic-con about the ever-complex relationship between people and technology, and how technology is both bringing us closer together and further apart at the same time.

Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: Comic-Con in some ways is the ultimate cure for loneliness, which is a real theme in your book Sorry Please Thank You. In relationship with geek culture, video gaming, science and technology, there's a lot of loneliness in your book. I found that really interesting because you also have a very strong passion for technology. Do you feel like we're moving towards humans being separated from each other more than we were before? A deep question to start the interview!

Charles Yu: No, it's a very good question. Because it's such a hard question, I will just totally have it both ways.

I think you totally put your finger on it: technology can, I think, make people more lonely or less lonely. It can make you lonely in ways that you weren't or couldn't be lonely before; now you don't even have to leave your house. You know, some ways that just didn't exist 20 years ago. On the other hand now you stay connected to people there's no way you could have stay connected to 10 years ago. But I think that lonely people are probably going to be lonely, regardless of what the state of technology is; it probably enables people to overall be a little less lonely, I think.

CB: There is just this element of, maybe it's not loneliness as much as people kind of being caught inside something maybe a little too big for them. I think of "First Person Shooter", where the characters seem to be quite in control of their lives but end up being in control of – well, that would be telling. Why is that such an interesting area to explore?

Yu: I think it's because I grew up with the heavily pixelated Atari 2600, and now we're getting close to video games that are close to photo-real. So when you have simulated worlds that are cool enough and close enough to fooling your brain and maybe your emotion, into thinking that they're real, I'm interested in what that does to what you think of as yourself.

Does that cheapen it? Does it make realism feel thinner because you know that you can, at any time, enter an existence, enter an artificial environment where you get to do whatever you want? How does it feel when you turn off the console, turn off the computer and have to go back to your real life? And really it's not even that well divided; now you pretty much live in a connected world all the time.

There is no division, so it really hard to ben the world. So you kind of live in a mixed environment of things that are artificial and things that are… well they are artificial right?

CB: They are artificial but they're just an organic part of our lives these days too; I'd never go anywhere without my phone and my phone has Netflix and Twitter and Facebook and every other tool that makes modern life more convenient and more complicated all at the same time.

Yu: Yeah, exactly.

CB: Yeah, the author who I immediately thought about as I was reading your books was Philip K. Dick. Are you a fan of his work?

Yu: Yeah, I'm a fan; I'm not a typical fan but yeah. He's enormously influential on people like writers and people that create everything.

CB: Who are some other writers who you admire, who you kind of seek to work some of the same ground as you?

Yu: I just finished Solaris by Stanislaw Lem and I think he was someone who probably influenced people that influenced other people down the line. He's indirectly influenced me without me knowing it. I've read some of his other stuff before but it's the first time I've read Solaris.

Jonathan Lethem, somebody who started out, I guess, really as a science fiction writer; his first book was Gun, with Occasional Music and now I think people think of him as a literary writer but he still very much has speculated elements in all the things he writes, but he's been somebody I've never even told I'm a fan.

CB: You just brought up an interesting point which is this convergence between speculative fiction and so called mainstream fiction; the lines have gotten so much more blurred just by the nature of the world we live in today. Do you enjoy working in that space because there's an element of speculation in this fiction that is also very real in terms of personalities?

Yu: Yeah. I think that's exactly where I work and will probably continue to work. I try to write things that have no speculative element and there's a couple in there that I guess, you could say don't really have a speculative element. But I'm not sure I've ever written any substantial writing that didn't at least have some sort of speculative element to it.

CB: I think the most interesting story in the book for me was "The Standard Loneliness Package," where people can dial up contracts to have people experience their emotions; that's a fascinating idea. How did you come to explore that idea as a story?

Yu: It came from a metaphor first which was: I have a great job; I work as a lawyer. I do like my job, but I've worked in other places where I didn't like it so much. I work in-house at a company now. Before I was at law firms where you bill your time by the hour, obviously, and the idea that your life was literally divided into billable units that have a price attached to them, I thought about that idea as a completely commonplace idea to people that live now and for the last few decades.

But if you were to try to explain that idea to somebody who lived 500 years ago, first of all there would be all kinds of things to explain to a person, but I guess what I'm saying is that to think of your life that way, even if you're not a lawyer who bills by the hour, even if you're just someone who goes to a place and sits inside of a room for 8-10 hours a day or more, and then gets a fixed quantity of economic purchasing power for that, you don't even have to abstract that idea very much to get to a place where you can literally sell parts of your life you don't want to live to other people who are willing to live it.

Because I do a job for a salary, I'm essentially selling my life, or parts of my life, so that my family can eat, but lots of people are not even as fortunate. They do a much harder job for much less economic purchasing power. That's where the idea came. It's speculative in the real sense of the word; it's like a speculation, where are we going? What's the end point of time being commodified and what's the end point of specialization and technology enabled answers? That's probably the end point right? Somebody literally living out some person's emotional life.

CB: And that story was not just about the technology; it's also a kind of very strange love story where he's actually trying to have human emotions and failing at it. The strange paradox of a man whose job is to be emotional but he can't actually be emotional himself. Very interesting juxtaposition.

And all the stories are very interesting and moving in that way too; I'm trying to avoid the “where do you get your ideas” question because I think that's the worst possible question. Actually that is the best angle of this that is, how do you work through these concepts, you know we all have these abstract ideas, how do you work these into these larger frameworks, into a story that's both technologically interesting and humanly interesting? How do you work that process out?

Yu: That's a constant tension for me because I think I tend towards the abstract, I'm not going to say for better or worse; it's for worse. Because I think you ultimately can't… no one's going to want to read a story that's basically just an idea. I mean maybe some people want to read a story like that; I personally don't. I wish I came up with a story from the human side and then the story side, but, honestly, they mostly come from the idea side first. So my process, I guess, would be, when an idea comes I try to remember that this has to have some people in it and then I put the people in it.

CB: You've written a couple of novels before this collection of short stories. Is the process different in writing the novels? Does it come more organically from character or do you start with a theme there too?

Yu: I think it comes more organically from character, oddly, because you know it's much longer and the ideas are bigger. I think with a story you can get away with, I hope that you can get away with, a little bit more; somebody will read a 10-12 page story that is all about boys at home or some kind of formal experimentation. It's harder to convince someone to read a 300 page novel about that. People are going to and some people enjoy it, but it will be hard for me to want to write that. There has to be some emotional story, some core narrative driver to something that long, whereas with the story, I think I'm trying to mess around.

CB: It's interesting, though that sometimes technology can bring people together too. So there's that side of it too; do you feel that's something you get at in the book a bit?

Yu: I think I don' t explore it explicitly, but I do agree that it is kind of a background. If you grow up with it so much, and your kids are the age where, well, as teenagers Facebook already existed and things like that: emails certainly and chat rooms. They don't know a world without being able to talk to all their friends.

I don't know how people let them use those sites, people with kids that age. I'm 36; I guess I remember a world where you didn't have any of that. So I think the negative side of it is that there can be a cheap crutch or a looser form of communication, of being in touch; if that substituted for real interaction with people, that's where it can make people more lonely.

But you're absolutely right, that in lots of ways it makes so many other things possible; the net is clearly bringing people together in many ways. What I wonder, though, is that - I don't mean this in any kind of scripted way, it just is what it is - but when people think of this is how I keep in contact with my friends through text and Facebook posts and GChats and things and that's just how it works for you, you don't know any other way, what will be interesting to see is how that shapes the kids when they're 10-20 years from now.

CB: I'm completely fascinated by that question. One of the great things about Comic-Con is I get to see all my online friends face to face and talk to them. And I keep finding, over and over, just a 5 minute chat with someone eye to eye is so completely different from even a half hour GChat with them. So hopefully kids aren't going to lose that. I mean our parents probably worried about the same things with us, for whatever reason.

Yu: Yeah, that's the thing right? There's probably always some technology that someone can worry about their kids.

CB: The radio. The radio is going to corrupt the world. Yeah, so it makes it a fun time to be a writer. You're able to access a lot more venues and get and get a lot more publicity, that's another way it must be a real positive thing for you too.

Yu: That and curiosity.

CB: Yeah. Cool. I think that's it.

Yu: Ok. Thank you.

CB: You're welcome. I feel like I kind of rambled a bit.

Yu: No, it was a great conversation. 


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