Author Interview: Katherine Morayati
2018-05-22 · by Stewart C Baker
Katherine Morayati is an interactive fiction author whose works include “Take” and “Laid Off from the Synesthesia Factory,” which won XYZZY Awards for Best Writing in 2016 and 2015 respectively. Forthcoming projects include a choose-your-own-adventure piece for Choices of Games about opera sorcerers, and a collection of linked interactive short stories about former teen detectives. She also writes about music for publications including Pitchfork, Spin and Rolling Stone.
This interview was conducted via e-mail in May of 2018 by Stewart C Baker.
What does interactive fiction mean to you, and how did that inform your process of creating “Human Errors”?
Katherine Morayati: The basic idea: stories that would lose something—or everything—if they were just straight-up prose. With “Human Errors,” the concept of a story told via bug reports came first; but while the boilerplate format of bug reports lends itself naturally to flash-fiction length, it’d lose something, I think, if it were just a dozen or so short pieces. “Human Errors” was my first piece in Twine—all my released work is parser, so I guess I’ve joined the dark side here. The decision was pretty easy: I wanted to replicate the look and feel of, say, GitHub, and Twine creates webpages. It’d be possible to use another system, but I’d be working against it.
At first “Human Errors” was only the reports, with the option to close or flag, but that felt shallow, so I added the email system later. I could have gone a lot farther, but I had two stopping points: Sub-Q’s limit of 5,000 words, and the soft stopping point: the place where new interactions stop contributing depth and start contributing clutter.
Obviously Github, Jira, etc. have way more features than “Human Errors”, but to implement those—or to implement anything in any IF work, for that matter—I’d have to create and justify their place in the story. If I included pull requests, I would have had to write pull requests. If I included comments, I would have had to write comments. I also had to think about who would be making those requests and comments, what they would write, why they’d write it, what interaction the PC might have with them, how and whether they might escalate that interaction….
Not only would this put me well above 5,000 words—and “Human Errors” is already a liberal interpretation of “5,000 words”— but it would distract from the center of the piece: the twelve narrators of the twelve issues.
sub-Q: “Human Errors” has a lot going on—outsourcing, shady business practices, and the all too familiar thirst for increased efficiency. What led you to these topics?
Katherine: “Human Errors” started as a catch-all for some standalone short stories I’d been writing that hadn’t quite cohered, but it ended up with a common theme: exploitation (both work and personal), surveillance, isolation, and the depersonalization of work that has intensely personal repercussions.
For instance, a couple of months ago, Donald Trump’s Twitter account was de-activated by a contract worker on his last day, doing routine moderation—much like the PC in Human Errors. Because we’ve all created a world where the state of Donald Trump’s Twitter account has huge political repercussions, this changed the world; it also changed the contract worker’s life. He wasn’t told his life was going to be changed, but it was.
Elsewhere, someone on Fiverr paid a 17-year-old girl $25 to make a now-infamous video claiming the sheriff of Broward County in Parkland, Florida—the site of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting—impregnated her; but it was a lie, and just one of thousands of mundane videos she recorded. Or you’ve probably heard of the Cambridge Analytica scandal; that data was harvested from Facebook access requested by a survey years ago on Mechanical Turk that paid $1.
These stories have something in common: ordinary people, precariously employed, being paid not much for work they know relatively little about. The work is deliberately anonymous, meant not to be seen. It replicates existing class structures—the people commissioning it generally have a lot of money and influence and are shielded from the repercussions: loss of privacy, loss of security, loss of control over the outcome of one’s work, and often intense trauma.
This all morbidly fascinates me. (I’m not the only one who’s so fascinated—Mónica de la Torre has a book of poems, The Happy End/All Welcome, on these themes.) So I tried to get a somewhat broad cross-section of people affected. One person works retail, which is often ground zero for terrifyingly heightened surveillance. There’s some #MeToo stuff in there, which I didn’t consciously plan—for one thing, I started writing before Weinstein broke—but for many of these characters, it was a natural concern. One story’s a riff on recommendation algorithms; I’m a music critic, and a startling number of people refer jokingly to Spotify’s Discovery Weekly as a surrogate boyfriend or girlfriend.
sub-Q: Given the pessimistic tone of “Human Errors,” what do you think about trends in technology? Are you a post-humanist, or do you think we’re making a big mistake in trying to alter and extend our capabilities with neural networks, wearables, and other cutting-edge tech?
Katherine: I actually don’t consider myself a pessimist but a realist. I realize this is a very Ancient Pessimist Proverb, but barring bad conspiracy theories, it is very hard to be more cynical than the world already is.
Anything developed by humans is subject to human nature, which is not always kind. If anything, Human Errors is tamer than real life. The quote from a consultant with the UK’s National Crime Squad in this Wired piece on content moderation has stayed with me for years: “There’s the thought that [trauma from moderation] is just the same as bereavement, or bullying at work. … But is having sex with a 2-year-old normal? Is cutting somebody’s head off—quite slowly, mind you; I don’t mean to traumatize you but beheadings don’t happen quickly—is that normal behavior? Is that something you expect?”
But human nature also isn’t new. “Human Errors” is about extending our capabilities via wearables of the kind we don’t quite have today—but we do have drugs. Not just drug-drugs necessarily—we now have pills that track, inside or outside the body, whether they were taken. But the idea of hooking something up to your body to change your impulses and thoughts is… pretty much the use case for drugs since time immemorial.
And human nature is not always unkind. Behind every one of the impersonal processes are people with friends, enemies, families, lovers, and emotional lives. That life goes on regardless; the day-to-day of human life has often proven quite resilient to the cyberpunk dystopia that’s encroached upon it. A week or so ago, Saladin Ahmed tweeted how the grand horrifying conspiracy of 2001’s Charlie’s Angels was… cell phones being able to geolocate people, which they have now done for years. People use Find My iPhone all the time, too. I’m sure it’s gotten people out of bad situations. It’s also gotten people into them.
sub-Q: If you were stuck on a desert island and could only take one robot, which would it be?
Katherine: Robo from Chrono Trigger. He knows how to deal with deserts.
sub-Q: What’s coming up next?
Katherine: I’m working on a story for Choice of Games about opera sorcerers. It’s very different than anything I’ve done, but it taps into a lot of themes that have fascinated me since childhood.
I’ve also got a couple of pieces in various stages of “the works”: some short stories themed around Nancy Drew books, a tarot thing, various procgen-like experiments. Hopefully at least one of them will see daylight before the end of this year.
And I also write a lot of stuff about music. That is guaranteed to see daylight, over and over again.