I was grabbing a drink with an old friend when it happened. I told her I was excited about an upcoming reporting trip to Vancouver, to interview Naomi Klein. My friend wrinkled her nose, as if the bartender had just farted. Then she asked why I’d give my time to someone who thought the Covid-19 pandemic was a conspiracy.
I sighed. Turns out, she’d been thinking of Naomi Wolf.
You know Naomi Klein, right? Rabble-rousing leftist journalist and climate activist? Author of Gen X touchstone No Logo and the mega-influential The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism? Decidedly not the former liberal feminist writer turned far-out Covid truther Naomi Wolf? But just because they share a first name—and, I suppose, are both telegenic Jewish public intellectuals who found fame through polemical writing—people confuse the two Naomis constantly. Klein gets mixed up with Wolf so much, in fact, a Twitter mnemonic was born: “If the Naomi be Klein you’re doing just fine / If the Naomi be Wolf, oh, buddy. Ooooof.”
Thus the basis of Klein’s new book, Doppelganger. Writing hundreds of pages based on the Twitter discourse surrounding your evil twin is, of course, a deeply questionable choice. Klein openly admits that her family and friends questioned her sanity. As she is quick to point out, though, Doppelganger is not really about Wolf. Instead, the book uses the experience as an entry point to dissect the “intellectual and ideological mayhem” of the Covid era. How wellness entrepreneurs demonize medicine. How the far right appropriates and warps leftist talking points. How parents insist on seeing their children as reflections of themselves. In all this, Klein writes, there’s a new doubling going on—weird fun house distortions of what used to be more straightforward realities. It’s a lively, slightly unwieldy, wholly vital work. It could only be hers.
Klein moved to the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia during the pandemic, a riotously beautiful nook of that vast province, where towns are nestled into fjords. It’s a place far more likely to be visited by orcas than members of the US media, and in the interest of saving me a journey on a ferry—you can only get to her home by boat or floatplane—Klein met me at her office at the University of British Columbia, where she codirects the Centre for Climate Justice. We’d intended to stroll around the sprawling, sunny campus, but the conversation kept such an intense clip, we ended up simply sitting for hours.
Kate Knibbs: Doppelganger is much more personal than your previous work. Why?
Naomi Klein: I thought it was really important not to be on the outside of this story, but to be inside, to fess up to my own disorientation. Having a doppelganger who a lot of people confuse me with is a type of losing oneself, and it provided a toehold into this larger and more interesting set of feelings, of being lost in a world we might not recognize.
You listened to conspiratorial podcasts for research, including Steve Bannon’s. Were you ever worried you’d get lost in those worlds?
I felt that way the first time I went to a climate change denial conference. I was a tiny bit worried I would start to doubt my own understanding of the science by listening to them. But the exact opposite happened, because it was so completely incoherent. One guy says it’s getting cooler. Another says it’s getting hotter—but the sunspots! Another guy says everyone should just get air-conditioning. That’s what it’s like listening to Bannon or any of those “intellectual dark web” types. You can see it right now with RFK Jr. He’s saying Covid was a bioweapon. This is also the guy who told people not to wear masks, not to lock down, not to get vaccinated. So which is it? Occasionally Bannon would have someone on who would claim that people were just dropping dead from the vaccine.
Like the whole #DiedSuddenly thing?
Exactly. What you start to realize is that these people are acting as if we were immortal before Covid. As if no one died from anything. What worries me more isn’t that I’m going to start thinking that the vaccines are killing us or anything like that. It’s that I understand why the things he’s doing are so resonant.
Why are they so resonant?
This is Bannon’s gift, sorry to say, and it’s how Trump won in 2016: by identifying a bloc of Democratic voters who had been screwed over by the party because they lost jobs to corporate free trade deals. So the offer was a counterfeit version of the left, which is what right-wing populism does. They were not rewriting trade deals in any significant way that would help workers. They were offering huge gifts to the already wealthy through tax cuts. But when people are desperate enough, they’ll go for a counterfeit.
I have someone close to me who has definitely bought into that counterfeit populism. It’s been hard to watch the change take place.
I’ve had so many conversations with people describing that feeling. It’s like watching Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
But I suppose we all have many competing, constantly mutating versions of ourselves. How do you think about your public persona now?
When we think about performing ourselves, we think about social media. For me, that’s Twitter [since renamed X]. And right now I don’t think any of us feel in control of whatever the fuck is happening on Twitter. But we’re still there, hoping to recapture something. I hope my relationship to my public persona is like my relationship with Twitter. I’m not really trying anymore.
Do you think there’s a way for you to have a conversation like this that’s truly authentic, or are you in some sense creating a doppelganger version of yourself to promote the book?
There’s always going to be some contradictions involved in hawking a book when you’re an anti-capitalist author. I’ve been living with that contradiction for a long time. I find talking to people exciting. I have ideas that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I had the idea to write No Logo while I was doing an interview with a student journalist.
Are your students influential in other ways?
One of the really nice things about being on campuses right now is that, if I was just getting my sense of youth culture through media, I’d think that all young people are constantly posing and performing themselves on Instagram. But it’s definitely a minority. A lot of young people feel alienated from it.
I get a lot of youth culture tidbits from my babysitter, which is how I know that super polished and posed Instagram photos are seen as a geriatric millennial thing.
They want it to look really authentic, to be messy.
I reread No Logo recently. It holds up.
Maybe not the Blockbuster references!
Honestly, we need to bring back your concept of selling out. I got in a lot of trouble on Twitter a few months ago for saying the Barbie movie looked bad. I love Greta Gerwig, but I don’t want to like Barbie! I hate the idea of a Mattel Cinematic Universe.
The thing that’s so clever is that it’s shiny and pretty enough to get the normie Barbie fans, but it also has so-called subversive content for the people who don’t want to like Barbie. It’s genius marketing. But the world is fraying. It’s an odd time for us to get excited about pink plastic.
Probably an odd time for me to be really annoyed about it, too.
No, I think it’s time to have some standards again.
Do you ever think about returning to that mode of criticism?
Just to keep you company?
To keep me company, and because efforts to turn cinema and television into capital-B Brands—the Marvel Cinematic Universe, most infamously—are so much more flagrant than before.
And also to keep us in our childhoods in a strange way. This is not kid content, it’s adult content, but it’s feeding on nostalgia for being 8 years old.
What’s a recent movie you liked?
Despite the critics hating it, I thought Don’t Look Up was brilliant. It was taking aim at the culture of narcissism and distraction at this most critical moment. It was broad, like all of Adam McKay’s comedies. But that was not the problem. The problem was that it was right.
Doesn’t everyone die at the end?
That’s the best part. He fucked with the Judeo-Christian trope that the righteous will be saved.
I do think it was broad.
Well, Anchorman is broad!
True. But I don’t necessarily want my comedy to be didactic. I just really don’t want it to be branded content from Mattel. There’s this amazing Canadian filmmaker, Sarah Polley, and she’s doing a live-action Bambi.
My grandpa worked on the original Bambi. He was an animator.
I read about this. Didn’t he get fired for trying to unionize?
He did. And they had the first strike at Disney during the production of Dumbo.
Have you been paying attention to the strike wave happening?
It’s exciting. I’m really glad that there’s the focus on AI.
What else interests you politically, right now?
I think it’s important to think about where the Covid denialism energy is going now that there aren’t vaccine mandates. It’s morphing, going in new directions, and it’s important to try and follow that.
Which new directions?
There are two main wellsprings the Covid denialism movement drew from. One was the anti-vax people. The other group was climate deniers. Now, when you post anything about climate change, you’ll get hit with “Davos elites, Great Reset.”
When we were talking earlier about how people take leftist ideas and make counterfeit versions of them, I was thinking about how that happened to the shock doctrine—your idea that global elites use disasters to push brutal policies to benefit themselves at the expense of the masses. People co-opted the concept to talk about the Great Reset, saying there was a global conspiracy to use Covid to strip away personal freedoms. Has this changed your relationship to your own ideas? Do you feel less ownership over them?
I’ve never felt I had that much control over my ideas in the culture. I remember Arundhati Roy saying to me many years ago, we can’t control what our words do once we release them. I have tried to correct the record and do my own writing about what I think the shock doctrine is and isn’t, but I think I’ve always felt a bit of detachment around it.
Jane Fonda started her Fire Drill Fridays because of you.
That was just getting somebody at the right moment of receptivity. That’s what Jane did. I take no credit.
Do you believe in the horseshoe theory? Are the people on the far left swinging far right because they’re attracted to conspiratorial thinking about Covid?
There are some people who have decided that Tucker Carlson is a great guy and Trump’s better than Biden. But most of those people I wouldn’t consider very left-wing. Someone like Glenn Greenwald. For a while, he seemed to be a left-wing person because he was against the Patriot Act and the Iraq War. But he was a libertarian upset about Bush-era government overreach. So it makes sense, when a government has to robustly respond to a pandemic, that a lot of those people got upset. I know some of these people—Matt Taibbi and Glenn Greenwald—I know that they are not deep left thinkers. We have to make the distinction.
Do you think there’s an incentive to shift rightward now to bolster one’s personal brand online?
Could there be a positive incentive the other way? Is it possible to build up an ecosystem of independent leftist outlets?
Remember that idea? We need to invest in media, and not be reliant on quixotic billionaires to find one another. I think we need to get serious about independent alternative media and local media.
Meaning, like, a new Twitter?
The problem with something like Mastodon or the smaller Twitter competitors is that they’re not able to offer what Twitter did at its best, which was this feeling of we’re all having one conversation together.
I don’t know if there will ever be one main conversation again.
I wish Twitter could’ve been turned into a co-op. This is labor we’ve put into this thing. We all wrote for free!
There was always something self-exploiting about that. Sure, we were able to share our articles and do self-promotion, but I always knew they were going to try to charge us. It’s too valuable.
There’s a co-op movement for media startups, where the writers own their outlets, but I haven’t seen the same thing happen for social media.
And the thing happening now with AI—it was one thing for all of us to be writing for free for Zuckerberg and Musk, but now it turns out that all of that content is being used to create doppelgangers of us by AI companies. Now that’s going to be used to put people out of work, or cheapen their labor.
It’s accelerating so rapidly. Big outlets are already putting out AI-generated articles.
This relates back to conspiracies and why they’re spreading as quickly as they are. It’s a dangerous time to give people more reasons not to believe what’s in front of them. Anything you’re shown now can be dismissed as fake news. “It’s not even Biden, it’s AI.” We’re barely glimpsing the ramifications.
In Doppelganger, you wrote about a South Korean politician who used AI to look younger.
The thing about the Korean example is, it was not hidden. Everyone knew. And it worked for him. So who knows? As our candidates get older, they may rely on AI doppelgangers. It’s being packaged as a way to reach younger voters, because they prefer synthetic reality.
Have you had discussions with your students about AI? Do they actually prefer synthetic reality?
Last semester, ChatGPT was really everywhere, and we were discussing how they were not using it to write their essays. I think we’ve overfocused on the plagiarism piece of things. It’s just one element within a completely unstable and frightening future. Maybe it’s helpful writing essays, but they also know it’s replacing entire sectors they may have been preparing for—between not being able to afford living in the city to the acceleration of the climate crisis to AI changing the job market.
I’m aware of at least one podcasting company hoping to use AI to translate podcasts into a bunch of different languages. It sounds cool, but then you think: What about translators?
The thing I find disingenuous is when you hear, oh, we’re going to have so much leisure time, the AI will do the grunt work. What world are you living in? That’s not what happens. Fewer people will get hired. And I don’t think this is a fight between humans and machines; that’s bad framing. It’s a fight between conglomerates that have been poisoning our information ecology and mining our data. We thought it was just about tracking us to sell us things, to better train their algorithms to recommend music. It turns out we’re creating a whole doppelganger world.
We’ve provided just enough raw material.
When Shoshana Zuboff wrote The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, it was more about convincing people who’d never had a sense that they had a right to privacy—because they’d grown up with the all-seeing eye of social media—that they did have a right to privacy. Now it’s not just that, even though privacy is important. It’s about whether anything we create is going to be weaponized against us and used to replace us—a phrase that unfortunately has different connotations right now.
Take it back! The right stole “shock doctrine,” you can nab “replace us” for the AI age.
These companies knew that our data was valuable, but I don’t even think they knew exactly what they were going to do with it beyond sell it to advertisers or other third parties. We’re through the first phase now, though. Our data is being used to train the machines.
Fodder for a Doppelganger sequel.
And about what it means for our ability to think new thoughts. The idea that everything is a remix, a mimicry—it relates to what you were talking about, the various Marvel and Mattel universes. The extent to which our culture is already formulaic and mechanistic is the extent to which it’s replaceable by AI. The more predictable we are, the easier it is to mimic. I find something unbearably sad about the idea that culture is becoming a hall of mirrors, where all we see is our own reflections back.
You reached out to Naomi Wolf and she didn’t respond. If she had responded, would you want to debate her?
I think it’s important to engage with what’s being said and marshal counterfacts. But the idea of just sneering at people is dangerous. I think we do need to debate, but whether that means creating some kind of theatrical Naomi vs. Naomi spectacle—I don’t know about that.
You could be second billing to Musk vs. Zuckerberg.
Anyway, as you know from reading the book, it’s not really about her. She’s just a case study. I follow her down the rabbit hole. But I’m more interested in the rabbit hole.