Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Q&A with John Be Lane



John Be Lane is the author of the new young adult novel The Future Lies. He also has written the book The Beatin' Path. He lives in Colorado.


Q: What inspired you to write The Future Lies?


A: It was an idea that evolved. I was still working full time in online learning when I had the original inspiration.


In instructional design, you’re always curious about how people learn, and how to make it easier for them to learn. My focus was on adult education, but I started thinking about how public school curriculums were being taught, as observed through my children’s education.


I was thinking about ways it might be done better. Because it's seemed to me, even back to my school days, that the architects of education often found ways to make really interesting, compelling knowledge seem boring and irrelevant. It’s such a waste of an ideal opportunity to turn children into passionate, lifelong learners. And it doesn’t have to be that way.


All of my thinking started to crystalize around this idea of a flagship school, called The Academy of Ingenuity. I could even picture it, in what’s currently Lake Middle School here in Denver.


This is a 100-year-old building designed by Burnham Hoyt, who also designed the Red Rocks Amphitheater. It’s situated on the edge of a lake, beyond which you can see the front range of the Rocky Mountains – an inspiring setting.


But what do you do with as idea like that? On a practical level, it felt very daunting. So I put it on the back burner. About a year later, I started thinking that storytelling might be a way to get those ideas across.


The more I thought about it, it felt like a vehicle that could also carry other ideas I had. About technology and our relationship with it, for example. And about how easy it can be for authoritarians to take advantage of weak education systems, and our deference to technology. This eventually formed a critical mass that seemed like it could be captured in a novel.


Q: How did you create the world in which the novel takes place?


A: A lot of the details were based on extrapolations of our current culture. Projections and exaggerations, which are tools of satire.


An example would be the people you see walking down the street, absorbed in their smart phones and semi-oblivious to everything else around them. It may be the most common way you see people in public these days.


And yet it’s a relatively recent phenomenon. The iPhone was not introduced until 2007. Since then, billions have been sold. They have fundamentally changed human behavior.

As a satirist, you run with something like that. You imagine a reality in which people are willingly enslaved by these devices. Their lives and experiences are reduced to that which is enabled by, and filtered through, a single application. Nothing else is even conceivable to them.


There was a similar process based on the observation that, for example, emojis are in some ways becoming a substitute for more articulate self-expression.


This phenomenon is related to the smart phone effect, but it also, in my mind, is a manifestation of George Orwell’s concept of Newspeak. By shrinking vocabularies, you minimize the acts of thinking and expression.


Projecting that toward its logical conclusion, I envisioned this society in which literacy itself was forbidden. At that point, it’s a question of imagining how that might play out in everyday life.


Without cognitive abilities, it seemed like humans would have a lot in common with barnyard animals. And yet, if someone in that world managed to acquire the ability to read, literacy would be something of a superpower. And potentially, an existential threat to the powers that be.


Maybe because of all the speculation that went into the premise of the story, I ended up setting it in my immediate environment. I spent a lot of time walking the locations in the book. That made it easier to imagine the characters moving through their environment. It was helpful to have that physical space as an anchor to this speculative world.


Q: Did you know how the story would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I did have a pretty clear idea how the story would end. And I had some ideas going in about how I would get there. But I didn’t know everything from beginning to end. It was important to allow some of the details to unfold on their own, and to honor the characters’ agency. For me, it was a nice combination of spontaneity and intention.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: The two biggest things I hope come through clearly, are that the exaggerated world in the book is not all that different, or necessarily even that far away, from the reality we live with today.


And that, thanks to the hard-earned cognitive abilities we’ve acquired over thousands of years of evolution, we need not and should not be passive victims of our technologies. Our tools should work for us, not the other way around.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: My focus at the moment is on trying to connect the book with its audience. And I’m using this time to recharge creatively as a writer. As you yourself may also find, it requires a lot of concentration to bring a book into the world. I was pretty single-minded during the writing process.


So I’m just beginning to be open to what might capture my attention next. Maybe a prequel or a sequel to The Future Lies. Or maybe something altogether different.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I urge everyone who reads this to be mindful of the miracle and the power of literacy. And I really appreciate this opportunity to chat with you!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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