Teaching computers teaches us how little we understand about ourselves

My latest Locus column is Teaching Computers Shows Us How Little We Understand About Ourselves, an essay about how ideas we think of as simple and well-understood -- names, families, fairness in games -- turn out to be transcendentally complicated when we try to define them in rule-based terms for computers. I'm especially happy with how this came out.

Systems like Netflix and Amazon Kindle try to encode formal definitions of "family" based on assumptions about where you live -- someone is in your immediate family if you share a roof -- how you're genetically related -- someone is immediate family if you have a close blood-tie -- how you're legally related -- someone is in your family if the government recognizes your relationship -- or how many of you there are -- families have no more than X people in them. All of these limitations are materially incorrect in innumerable situations.

What's worse, by encoding errors about the true shape of family in software, companies and their programmers often further victimize the already-victimized -- for example, by not recognizing the familial relationship between people who have been separated by war, or people whose marriage is discriminated against by the state on the basis of religion or sexual orientation, or people whose families have been torn apart by violence.

The ambiguity that is inherent in our human lives continues to rub up against our computerized need for rigid categories in ways small and large. Facebook wants to collapse our relationships between one another according to categories that conform more closely to its corporate strategy than reality -- there's no way to define your relationship with your boss as "Not a friend, but I have to pretend he is."

Teaching Computers Shows Us How Little We Understand About Ourselves

Humble Ebook Bundle II: name your price for Last Unicorn, Wil Wheaton, Lois McMaster Bujold, Little Brother, Boneshaker, and Spin!

It's time for another Humble Ebook Bundle! Once again, I was honored to serve as volunteer curator of the Humble Ebook Bundle, a project from the Humble Indie Bundle people who've made Internet history by bundling together awesome, DRM-free media and letting you name your price for it. We did the first Humble Ebook Bundle last fall (with my novel Pirate Cinema) and made over $1.25 million in two weeks (!). The new Ebook Bundle is even cooler. Here's the lineup:

* The Last Unicorn (deluxe edition), by Peter Beagle

* Just a Geek, by Wil Wheaton

* Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow

* Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest

* Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson

* Shards of Honor, by Lois McMaster Bujold

As with all the bundles, there is a secret stash of releases in the wings for week two; if your payment is higher than the average at the time you make it, you get them for free (and they are sweet!). Otherwise, you can always get them by topping up your payment. And as always, there's charities involved -- you can earmark some or all of your payment for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Child's Play, and the Science Fiction Writers of America Emergency Medical Fund.
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Games, at some length

Edge Magazine's Jason Killingsworth interviewed me at some length about my history with videogames, from Apple ][+ to Atari to arcades, with notes on Zynga, DRM, piracy and the Humble Bundles.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom illo

(Click to embiggen)

Illustrator Brian J. Smith did me the tremendous honor of creating this fabulous, detailed illustration inspired by my novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, which turned ten this year. He hid all kinds of great little gracenotes in it, too -- tons of characters from the book and from the Disney parks.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Brian J. Smith

Technology and Activism: where does the Internet fit?

Last weekend, I took part in a panel at Yoko Ono's Meltdown festival at Southbank in London, on "Technology and Activism," along with Jamie Bartlett (Director for the Analysis of Social Media at DEMOS) and David Babbs (Executive Director of 38 Degrees), chaired by Olivia Solon from Wired UK. It went well and covered lots of ground, and the Meltdown people were kind enough to put it all online.

BTW, if you're interested in my upcoming talks, I've got a page listing them.

Technology and Activism - part of Yoko Ono's Meltdown

Why you should care about surveillance

I got tired of people savvying me about the revelations of NSA surveillance and asking why anyone would care about secret, intrusive spying, so I wrote a new Guardian column about it, "The NSA's Prism: why we should care."

We're bad at privacy because the consequences of privacy disclosures are separated by a lot of time and space from the disclosures themselves. It's like trying to get good at cricket by swinging the bat, closing your eyes before you see where the ball is headed, and then being told, months later, somewhere else, where the ball went. So of course we're bad at privacy: almost all our privacy disclosures do no harm, and some of them cause grotesque harm, but when this happens, it happens so far away from the disclosure that we can't learn from it.

You should care about privacy because privacy isn't secrecy. I know what you do in the toilet, but that doesn't mean you don't want to close the door when you go in the stall.

You should care about privacy because if the data says you've done something wrong, then the person reading the data will interpret everything else you do through that light. Naked Citizens, a short, free documentary, documents several horrifying cases of police being told by computers that someone might be up to something suspicious, and thereafter interpreting everything they learn about that suspect as evidence of wrongdoing. For example, when a computer programmer named David Mery entered a tube station wearing a jacket in warm weather, an algorithm monitoring the CCTV brought him to the attention of a human operator as someone suspicious. When Mery let a train go by without boarding, the operator decided it was alarming behaviour. The police arrested him, searched him, asked him to explain every scrap of paper in his flat. A doodle consisting of random scribbles was characterised as a map of the tube station. Though he was never convicted of a crime, Mery is still on file as a potential terrorist eight years later, and can't get a visa to travel abroad. Once a computer ascribes suspiciousness to someone, everything else in that person's life becomes sinister and inexplicable.

The NSA's Prism: why we should care

Guardian podcast on publishing with Jonny Geller and Henry Volans

Neil Gaiman's taken over the Guardian's Books Podcast, and had me and agent Jonny Geller and Henry Volans, head of Faber Digital, in the studio for a wide-ranging and awfully fun podcast. The first 20 minutes are a fascinating look at weird London by Damien Walter, and then we kick off with the discussion.

MP3 link

UK Pirate Cinema is out!

The UK edition of my novel Pirate Cinema hits stores officially today! Tell your friends!

When Trent McCauley's obsession for making movies by reassembling footage from popular films causes his home s internet to be cut off, it nearly destroys his family. Shamed, Trent runs away to London. A new bill threatens to criminalize even harmless internet creativity. Things look bad, but the powers-that-be haven't entirely reckoned with the power of a gripping movie to change people's minds...

Pirate Cinema

By His Things Shall You Know Him (podcast)

The Institute for the Future commissioned me to write a story about the "Internet of Things," and I wrote them a piece called By His Things Will You Know Him, about death, networks, and computers. It's part of an anthology called "An Aura of Familiarity: Visions from the Coming Age of Networked Matter," which we'll be publishing on Boing Boing in the following weeks. The stories to come are from great authors including Rudy Rucker, Ramez Naam, Bruce Sterling, Madeline Ashby, and Warren Ellis.

I read the story aloud for my podcast last week, and have been awaiting the chance to publish it -- now that it's live, here you are!

MP3 link

Interview withe PRI’s The World about Orwell, Huxley and the NSA

I recorded an interview with the PRI show The World yesterday about Orwell, Huxley and the NSA. It came out well, I think.

MP3 Link

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