Katherine Canobi (K.H. Canobi) is a cognitive scientist who has published widely in developmental psychology and worked as a university lecturer in Australia and in the UK. She can be found online at khcanobi.com. Her recently published young adult (YA) novel, Mindcull, imagines a near-future where social networking has merged with virtual reality to become even more immersive, intrusive and open to abuse than it is today. We asked her to tell us a bit about how she went about writing the book.
TGCA: What made you want to start exploring this particular possible-tomorrow? Was there something from your research that set you off?
My research addresses how people change after different types of experiences. And when I thought about technological advances like smartphones and social media, I wondered how they have changed us. The teenage years are especially important for forging your identity and developing authentic relationships, so these advances have had a big impact on teens.
All of this made me wonder what it will be like to be a teenager in the future. That led to the creation of Eila, a sixteen-year-old who gets shortlisted in an international competition run by a global tech company. Eila gets tangled up in a conspiracy and sets out to uncover the truth and protect innocent lives.
I developed the setting for Mindcull by asking myself what technology might look twenty or thirty years into the future. What would it be like if people relied on VR (virtual reality) headsets the same way we rely on smart phones? What would it be like to spend more time interacting in the virtual world than the physical world?
Mindcull is a thriller about the battle for control of Eila’s mind. My background as a cognitive scientist gave me a head start in thinking about how scientists of the future might use computer modelling and biological and behavioural measures to try to work out what’s going on inside a person’s head. It gave me a framework for imagining what might go wrong if virtual and augmented reality become so much a part of daily life that people’s virtual and real worlds get intertwined.
TGCA: For not-so-young adult readers like this one, the idea that we might allow crowds of strangers into our private thoughts seems abhorrent. What is it about it that attracts Eila (the book’s protagonist) and her friends?
I hope that the future depicted in Mindcull will open up discussion about the ways we currently use tech and how they shape what we think of ourselves and others.
Being famous, or at least being known and loved by many people is a common goal today. More and more, we try to connect with each other and achieve our dreams of celebrity through social media and online interactions. We often sacrifice our privacy in the process.
Being famous, or at least being known and loved by many people is a common goal today. And more and more, we try to connect with each other and achieve our dreams of celebrity through social media and online interactions. We often sacrifice our privacy in the process.
In Mindcull, instead of posting photos or videos, most people post a live feed of what is going on in their daily lives for their friends to see and hear. People also record and post public virtual reality clips to communicate and entertain. And Eila’s comedy clips make her into a celebrity. The desire to connect with others and to be known and loved is what motivates Eila and her friends.
TGCA: Do social networking systems (present or future) give people what they promise?
It is difficult to draw firm conclusions from current research on how these things affect thinking and development, but findings highlight areas of concern. For example, there is some evidence that certain kinds of screen use are linked to obesity, sleep disruption, poorer outcomes in language and thinking tests, some symptoms of anxiety and depression, and even changes in the physical structure of children’s brains. However, most studies report associations between things like social media use and various problems without providing evidence that one causes another.
In Mindcull, Eila has a complicated relationship with technology. On the one hand, she uses VR so successfully that she gets shortlisted to star in the global marketing campaign of a tech giant. On the other hand, she gets drawn into a battle against people who are using it in sinister and destructive ways. She starts to fear that her own mind is not safe.
There is also a disconnect between Eila’s virtual persona and her real-life personality. She plans her VR clips out carefully but they come across as light-hearted and spontaneous. In person, she is socially anxious—unlike the girl in the clips. So when people love her clips, it is affirming on one level but it doesn’t really meet her need for closeness because she feels that they don’t really know her.
Social media promises connection and community but there is often a disconnect between how things appear and the reality.
Social media promises connection and community but there is often a disconnect between how things appear and the reality.
TGCA: As a parent of four young adults yourself, how have you and your husband tried to manage some of the dangers posed by our current social networking systems?
For our child in primary school, we still find it workable to set and enforce screentime limits, but for older students with schoolwork on personal devices, setting limits and supervising screen use is really hard.
We try to engage our kids in discussion over ways in which technology affects our lives and relationships, and how we should deal with all of that. But when I mention relevant research findings to my teens, they tend to roll their eyes and groan. That’s why science fiction is so great. It’s an engaging way to discuss the issue.
TGCA: Knowing that you are a Christian, I read the book looking for allegories or analogies. I wondered whether there might be some analogy between the technology and sin in the way it subverts people’s freedom; or whether the virtual world was a foretaste of the hell where immanence has totally displaced our longing for something transcendent. Were any of those kinds of themes going through your mind as you were writing?
I got so caught up with trying to write Eila’s story that I only really thought about the themes of the book after it was written. As I wrote Mindcull, my conscious mind was fully occupied with trying to tell Eila’s story in a way that would pull readers in and kept them engaged.
In terms of Eila’s story, what was going through my mind was this idea of a young woman who finds herself forced to make a difficult choice. On the one hand she can identify with people who are being oppressed, try to save them and perhaps lose her own life in the process. On the other hand, she can hold on tight to her chance at fame and fortune and let them suffer.
I think a wide range of people resonate with a story like that. Stories of love and rescue and sacrifice move us because we are human. They tap into a hunger and hope we all have.
But I did find the character of Esther in the Bible inspirational. I am moved by that young woman’s decision to risk her life to save her people. Part of the reason Esther’s story affects me is that I believe her heroism foreshadows the greatest hero—Jesus Christ.
TGCA: How do you think about the relationship between your faith and your art as you are writing?
My faith in God motivates me to write and I am very thankful for the joy of creativity. My faith shapes the kinds of stories that resonate with me and the ones I most want to share.
I believe that when I write, I should work at it with all my heart, as working for the Lord rather than for people. That means that I aim for excellence in my writing to honour God. I also write for the people who will read my book. My faith in a creator God reminds me how valuable every person is. He cares about all my potential readers. That spurs me on to do my best to connect with them.
I believe that when I write, I should work at it with all my heart, as working for the Lord … My faith in a creator God reminds me how valuable every person is. He cares about all my potential readers. That spurs me on to do my best to connect with them.
My faith gives me permission to try and fail. It gives me the courage to take risks. By faith, I know that if I fail at my writing, I will still be OK. My core identity is dependent on God not what I do. By faith I know that I am part of a bigger and better story than anything that I (or any other human being) could make up.
TGCA: Your book has been getting an amazing reception for a first novel, but there’s usually a long backstory for “overnight” success. Can you tell us a bit about what you have had to go through to get to where you are now?
Like many beginning writers, I met with a long string of rejections when I sent out the early versions of my manuscript to agents and publishers. That made me doubt myself. But I kept persevering and made use of the scant feedback that I got to edit and edit. Eventually, I pitched my novel to a representative of Ford Street Publishing at a writing conference and was offered a book deal a few weeks later.
TGCA: What have you learned about life and/or writing on the way?
I learned how to write a novel! I gave myself permission to learn new things in the process through reading articles on writing and going to writer events. Then I went back and incorporated what I had discovered into the manuscript. I edited it time and again to make it stronger. For example, I revised it to make the dialogue more realistic, bring out the character arcs, build tension and raise the stakes. I was also ruthless in cutting out any words, sentences, paragraphs and scenes that did not progress the story or develop the characters.
I loved that journey of discovery, the feeling that each month, the best I could do was better than it had been the month before. And I learned a lot about perseverance as I kept rewriting and editing and polishing and pitching and submitting until I got a book deal. Then I started working with my editors to revise the manuscript for publication which involved more learning.
I learned life-lessons too. It was very testing to be seen by everyone around me to be trying really hard at something and not succeeding. It was difficult to pour myself into Mindcull then send it out for industry professionals to assess. I kept having to ask myself what really mattered to me and why. I believe that God used all those difficulties to help me to grow and change.
TGCA: Being a successful writer these days seems to require a lot of willingness to be “out there”—signing books, blogging, actively tweeting. How have you found that part of your new career?
Hard! Like most writers, I am an introvert, so I have to push myself to get “out there.” But I see it as part of my job as an author to promote my book and that means being active on social media and turning up to events. Both of those take me out of my comfort zone sometimes. I usually really enjoy the new connections that I make but often feel tense before trying something new like setting up my website or talking about my book in a bookshop, library or school. The book launch is an example. Over 150 people came and I loved it. I was thrilled that they were so interested in Mindcull and grateful for their support but beforehand I was extremely stressed.
TGCA: The speculative fiction scene (sci-fi/fantasy etc) sometimes seems punishing in its treatment of authors—both politically and critically. Have you had to endure any of that?
No. I have tended to connect with writers and readers of children’s and YA spec fic. And also with communities of children’s and YA writers and readers more broadly. They have been very supportive of me as a debut YA writer.
I did find that a few Australian agents and publishers who are open to other types of fiction submissions will not consider speculative fiction, which was disappointing.
TGCA: Can you tell us what your next book is about?
I would love to. The next one is aimed at a slightly younger readership than Mindcull and centres around twelve-year-old Alena who is yanked from her ordinary life on a harsh, beautiful Australian island into an epic battle between otherworldly foes. Alena sees Oran, the new boy at school, start a bushfire as he climbs from the top of a 100-metre gum. But no one believes her. And when she searches for proof, she realises that the truth is far stranger and more dangerous than she ever imagined.
TGCA: Thank you for talking to us!