My latest Guardian column, Can anything curb the dominance of the internet’s big guns? points out that everything governments do to tame the online giants has no effect on them — but makes it nearly impossible for new companies to compete with them.
If we’re going to solve the serious, existential risks to the human race – things like environmental apocalypse – we’re going to need social and technical infrastructure that can support evidence-driven, public-spirited institutions that can help steer us to a better place. Alas, we’re in trouble there, too. We’re living in a nearly airtight bubble of corruption and coercion. The only policies that states can reliably be expected to enact are those with business models – laws and actions that make someone incredibly rich, producing the private wealth necessary to lobby state to continue the policy and keep the money flowing. There’s always been practical limits to how wide the gap between the rich and poor can get – at a certain point, elites end up spending more money guarding their wealth from the ever-enlarging, ever-more-desperate cohort of poor than they’re getting from corrupt policies and self-dealing relationships with the state. But technology changes all that. The automation of surveillance and coercion makes the business of maintaining social order vastly cheaper, and therefore increases the amount of wealth the very richest can keep to themselves rather than doling out dribs and drabs to the rest of us. Thus the miseries of a technologically supported system of feudalism dwarf those of the darkest days of kings and lords. And the ever-dwindling accountability of ruling elites means that evidence-driven policy is harder and harder to enact, and when it is, that policy needn’t be in the common interest. We need to crack the airtight bubble. We need to find a way to begin unravelling the knotwork of decades of neoliberal corruption. The first step to this is to seize the means of information. We need computers that we do what we tell them to do, and networks that we can trust, in order to carry out a program of popular reform for good governance, fairness, and equity. We can do this, and we will do this. Because this is a policy with a business-model, and policies with business-models are the only policies the modern state can be relied upon to enact.
My latest Guardian column, Allow Clean Reader to swap ‘bad’ words in books – it’s a matter of free speech expands on last week’s editorial about the controversial ebook reader, which lets readers mangle the books they read by programatically swapping swear-words for milder alternatives.
For Open Education Week, Jonathan Worth convened a conversation about privacy and trust in open education called Speaking Openly in which educators and scholars recorded a series of videos responding to one another’s thoughts on the subject.
I’ve got a new Guardian column, Internet-era politics means safe seats are a thing of the past, which analyzes the trajectory of Internet-fuelled election campaigning since Howard Dean, and takes hope in the launch of I’ll Vote Green If You Do.
The Obama campaigns went further. Building on the Dean campaign, two successive Obama campaigns raised millions in small-money donations, creating purpose-built Facebook-like social networks and using them to recruit highly connected supporters to work their way through their social graphs, contacting friends and friends-of-friends to pitch them on donating and voting.
But both times, Obama took office and immediately shut down these grassroots networks. The Obama governance style is big on closed-door, back-room horse-trading – Obama came out of Chicago Democratic Machine politics, after all – and this is fundamentally incompatible with having a bunch of true believers running around waving the flag, making categorical statements about which compromises are (and are not) acceptable.
Governing in tandem with a grassroots is a hard problem. The best example we have of this is the Tea Party, which, despite the big-money backers who bankrolled it, is composed of people who are genuinely passionate about politics and are serious about insisting that the politicians they backed act in accord with their principles.
Leaving aside my political differences with the Tea Party, it’s fair to say that this has been a mixed bag for Republican lawmakers, whose caucus has been responsible for a congressional deadlock that’s run on for years, so that it’s become normal for vital US governmental agencies to shut down and send everyone home until a budget can be passed.
My new Guardian column, Go digital by all means, but don’t bring the venture capitalists in to do it, is an open letter to the poor bastards who run public institutions, asking them to hold firm on delivering public value and not falling into the trap of running public services “like a business.”
When you let regulators and politicians bully you into excluding the public from their own institutions, alienating the public that you need on your side to stave off the next round of cuts — and the next.
In the story of market-driven public institutions, it’s we, the public, who are the angel investors. We paid to keep the archives growing, to put a roof over the museum, to amass and catalogue all of our nation’s cultural treasures (and the treasures of many other nations). The internet now makes it possible for those institutions to reach wider audiences than ever before, at lower costs than ever before – once their collections are digitised. When Siemens or another big company comes along to digitise our investments, they are the VCs putting in late-stage capital after we’ve borne all the risks, sometimes for centuries. If our management team – led by David Cameron, the self-styled MD of UK plc – offers these investor-come-latelies the lion’s share of the equity (that is, access to those treasures) for their paltry, late-stage capital, then he is in gross dereliction of his duty to us, the shareholders.
But of course, this is a stupid story. We don’t invest in public service institutions because we want them to be profitable. We invest in them because we want them to be good. Galleries, museums, archives and libraries tell us who we are. Schools and hospitals tend our minds and bodies. They are not businesses. We are not shareholders.
We have private archives, private schools, private healthcare, and private libraries. They cream off the easiest, most profitable, least onerous part of the public service remit. As austerity tightens and market logic crushes our institutions, many have become private/public hybrids, charging for some of their services, or selling off some of their treasures, or forcing the public to fit within the metrics demanded by the zealots of UK plc.
This is suicide. There is no amount of capitulation that will save your institution. If your archive charges the public to access its own memories, who will argue to keep it funded when the next round of cuts comes along? People who can’t afford to pay for your archive won’t stand up for it. People who can afford to pay for archival services already have private firms to serve them – why would they vote for their tax money to support another for-pay service?
(Image: Villa A – the archive, TheGuyCalledDennis, CC-BY)
Blackstone audio has produced a professional, DRM-free audiobook of my 2003 novel EST, a novel about jet-lag, conspiracies, management consultants, crypto-contracts and P2P that William Gibson called “Utterly contemporary and deeply peculiar — a hard combination to beat (or, these days, to find)”
Warren Ellis called it “just far enough ahead of the game to give you that authentic chill of the future, and close enough to home for us to know that he’s talking about where we live as well as where we’re going to live; a connected world full of disconnected people. One of whom is about to lobotomise himself through the nostril with a pencil. Funny as hell and sharp as steel.”
As with my other books, Audible refuses to carry this title because I won’t allow them to use DRM on it. You can get it at Downpour, where all audiobooks are DRM-free. I’d really appreciate it if you’d share this with your audiobook-loving friends and encourage them to vote with their wallets for businesses that let artists choose whether their works should be locked down with DRM.
Locus magazine has published its annual recommended
I was delighted and honored to find that my stories “Petard” (from Twelve Tomorrows) and “The Man Who Sold the Moon” (from Hieroglyph) (excerpt) made the cut (both have also been selected for several of this year’s Year’s Best anthos, for which I am extremely grateful!).
For me, the publication of the Locus List always marks the day when I fill in my Hugo nominations ballot, using it to jostle my memory and figure out which works I want to put forward. If you’re interested in my own eligible works, they’re the two stories above (best novelette and novella, respectively), “Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free” (best related work) and “In Real Life” (with Jen Wang) (best graphic novel).
Here’s the sf novels on this year’s list:
- Ultima, Stephen Baxter (Gollancz; Roc 2015)
- War Dogs, Greg Bear (Orbit US; Gollancz)
- Shipstar, Gregory Benford & Larry Niven (Tor; Titan 2015)
- Chimpanzee, Darin Bradley (Underland)
- Cibola Burn, James S.A. Corey (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
- The Book of Strange New Things, Michel Faber (Hogarth; Canongate)
- The Peripheral, William Gibson (Putnam; Viking UK)
- Afterparty, Daryl Gregory (Tor; Titan)
- Work Done for Hire, Joe Haldeman (Ace)
- Tigerman, Nick Harkaway (Knopf; Heinemann 2015)
- Europe in Autumn, Dave Hutchinson (Solaris US; Solaris UK)
- Wolves, Simon Ings (Gollancz)
- Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
- Artemis Awakening, Jane Lindskold (Tor)
- The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu (Tor)
- The Causal Angel, Hannu Rajaniemi (Tor; Gollancz)
- The Memory of Sky, Robert Reed (Prime)
- Bête, Adam Roberts (Gollancz)
- Lock In, John Scalzi (Tor; Gollancz)
- The Blood of Angels, Johanna Sinisalo (Peter Owens)
- The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell (Random House; Sceptre)
- Lagoon, Nnedi Okorafor (Hodder; Saga 2015)
- All Those Vanished Engines, Paul Park (Tor)
- Annihilation/Authority/Acceptance, Jeff VanderMeer (FSG Originals; Fourth Estate; HarperCollins Canada)
- Dark Lightning, John Varley (Ace)
- My Real Children, Jo Walton (Tor; Corsair)
- Echopraxia, Peter Watts (Tor; Head of Zeus 2015)
- World of Trouble, Ben H. Winters (Quirk)