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My July 2015 Locus column, Skynet Ascendant, suggests that the enduring popularity of images of homicidal, humanity-hating AIs has more to do with our present-day politics than computer science.

As a class, science fiction writers imagine some huge slice of all possible futures, and then readers and publishers select from among these futures based on which ones chime with their anxieties and hopes. As a system, it works something like a Ouija board: we’ve all got our fingers on the planchette, and the futures that get retold and refeatured are the result of our collective ideomotor response.

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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.
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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.

Internet-era politics means safe seats are a thing of the past [The Guardian]

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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?

Go digital by all means, but don’t bring the venture capitalists in to do it

(Image: Villa A – the archive, TheGuyCalledDennis, CC-BY)

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My latest Locus Magazine column is Stories Are a Fuggly Hack, in which I point out the limits of storytelling as an artform, and bemoan all the artists from other fields — visual art, music — who aspire to storytelling in order to make their art.

There are other media, much more abstract media, that seemingly manage to jump straight to the feels: painting, photography, poetry, sculpture, music. Not always – all of these things can tell stories, but they don’t need to in order to make you feel things. Instead, they seem to reach right inside your skull and tickle the feeling parts of you, trig­gering cascades of intense emotion that are all the more powerful for their inexplicable nature.

Now, this stuff is all very primal and non-rational and is hard to taxonomize and rationalize and turn into something repeatable. If I can’t tell you why ‘‘Guernica’’ makes me feel Guernica-ey, then how are you supposed to improve on it in a future iteration to fine-tune the emotive effect? At least with stories, you know that if you tell a scary story, and it works, the audience will experience fear. But the emotional oomph of non-narrative art is much more mysterious, more of an art, really, and though it may be harder to systematize, when it gets in the groove, look out.

Which is why, as a ‘‘storyteller,’’ I sometimes get a little impatient with people who are really good at those other media – none of which I have any talent for, incidentally – when they rhapsodize about sto­rytelling as a way of practicing their art. That’s not because I want to jealously guard my preserve here in storyland, but because making someone feel something without all that tedious making-stuff-up is a hell of an accomplishment and it’s heartbreaking to see brilliant artists turn their back on it.

Stories Are a Fuggly Hack [Cory Doctorow/Locus]

(Image: Großmutters Geschichten 19Jh, Public Domain)

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Amanda Palmer’s new book Art of Asking is a moving and insightful memoir of her life performing music while making personal connections with her fans; I wrote a long, in-depth review of it for The New Statesman.

There’s a litmus test for how you will likely feel about Palmer’s Kickstarter: Palmer invited local musicians in each city on her tour to come onstage and jam with the band. She asked that they come by for an afternoon’s quick rehearsal, and offered them beer, t-shirts, and gratitude and recognition. This move – something that Palmer’s bands had often done on previous tours – enraged her detractors like nothing else.

The inaccurate headline: “Musician raises $1 million from fans, asks her band to play for free.” (Palmer’s band was paid, it was the jamming local performers who were volunteers.) Even after it was corrected, even after Palmer relented and offered the volunteer musicians $100 to come on stage with her, she was still pilloried for “not valuing the hard work of fellow musicians”.

But in truth, the practice of letting fans jam with the band is an honourable and widespread one. I once spent a night on New Orleans’ Bourbon Street, hopping from bar to club, listening to the always-excellent house-bands performing blues and rock and rockabilly and jazz. And without fail, during each set, someone would walk in off the street, a musician on holiday from some much-less-exotic city, perhaps in a state that began and ended with a vowel, with a guitar or sax or even an accordion, and that person would take the stage with the band and jam in. It was a gift – from the band to the vacationing musician, from the musician to the band, from the crowd (who would cheer on the newcomer with real zest), and to the crowd. It wasn’t a market transaction, though sometimes a beer or a t-shirt or a CD would change hands (and in any conceivable direction).

As Palmer points out, other bands have run successful Kickstarters in which they charge their backers for the privilege of performing on stage during the tour. No one bats an eye at the idea that musicians should pay to perform, nor do they balk at the idea that they should be paid to perform. But let no money change hands at all and all of our reactions are disordered. Art without the market is a terrifying thing, a frank admission that the alleged “music industry”‘s most indispensable components – the musicians – never really had a realistic chance of earning anything, and the ones that do get paid are statistical outliers.

Standing naked in front of an audience: Amanda Palmer and a new way to make art [Cory Doctorow/New Statesman]

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My latest Guardian column, Crypto wars redux: why the FBI’s desire to unlock your private life must be resisted, explains why the US government’s push to mandate insecure back-doors in all our devices is such a terrible idea — the antithesis of “cyber-security.”

As outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder invokes child kidnappers and terrorists, it’s like a time-warp to the crypto-wars of the early 1990s, when the NSA tried to keep privacy technology out of civilian hands by classing it as a munition (no, seriously). Today, the need for the public to be able to thoroughly secure its data has never been more urgent, and the practicality of a back-door mandate has never been less plausible.

Because your phone isn’t just a tool for having the odd conversation with your friends – nor is it merely a tool for plotting crime – though it does duty in both cases. Your phone, and all the other computers in your life, they are your digital nervous system. They know everything about you. They have cameras, microphones, location sensors. You articulate your social graph to them, telling them about all the people you know and how you know them. They are privy to every conversation you have. They hold your logins and passwords for your bank and your solicitor’s website; they’re used to chat to your therapist and the STI clinic and your rabbi, priest or imam.

That device – tracker, confessor, memoir and ledger – should be designed so that it is as hard as possible to gain unauthorised access to. Because plumbing leaks at the seams, and houses leak at the doorframes, and lie-lows lose air through their valves. Making something airtight is much easier if it doesn’t have to also allow the air to all leak out under the right circumstances.

There is no such thing as a vulnerability in technology that can only be used by nice people doing the right thing in accord with the rule of law.

Crypto wars redux: why the FBI’s desire to unlock your private life must be resisted

(Image: graffiti04, David Bleasdale, CC-BY)