Jim Rutt — former chairman of the Santa Fe Institute and ex-Network Solutions CEO — just launched his new podcast, and included me in the first season! (MP3) It was a characteristically wide-ranging, interdisciplinary kind of interview, covering competition and adversarial interoperability, technological self-determination and human rights, conspiracy theories and corruption. There’s a full transcript here.
In my latest podcast (MP3), I read my essay Occupy Gotham, published in Detective Comics: 80 Years of Batman, commemorating the 1000th issue of Batman comics. It’s an essay about the serious hard problem of trusting billionaires to solve your problems, given the likelihood that billionaires are the cause of your problems.
A thousand issues have gone by, nearly 80 years have passed, and Batman still hasn’t cleaned up Gotham. If the formal definition of insanity it trying the same thing and expecting a different outcome, then Bruce Wayne belongs in a group therapy session in Arkham Asylum. Seriously, get that guy some Cognitive Behavioral Therapy before he gets into some *serious* trouble.
As Upton Sinclair wrote in his limited run of *Batman: Class War*, “It’s impossible to get a man to understand something when his paycheck depends on his not understanding it.”
Gotham is a city riven by inequality. In 1939, that prospect had a very different valence than it has in 2018. Back in 1939, the wealth of the world’s elites had been seriously eroded, first by the Great War, then by the Great Crash and the interwar Great Depression, and what was left of those vast fortunes was being incinerated on the bonfire of WWII. Billionaire plutocrats were a curious relic of a nostalgic time before the intrinsic instability of extreme wealth inequality plunged the world into conflict.
Today’s dystopian fiction seems to be closer to reality than the dystopian fiction of the past. Brooke and Grant explore this new reality with Cory Doctorow, whose socially conscientious science fiction novels delve into topics of political consequence. From the ways in which anxieties fuel science fiction writers to how fiction has the power to change the way we think and operate in the world, today’s episode emphasizes the importance of dystopian fiction for its capacity to shed light on what is true, and what might happen, ideally, as Cory suggests, so that we might fix things before it’s too late.
I’m headed back to San Diego for Comic-Con next weekend, and you can catch me on Friday, Saturday and Sunday:
Friday, 5PM: Signing in AA04
Saturday, 5PM: Panel: Writing: Craft, Community, and Crossover (with James Killen, Seanan McGuire, Charlie Jane Anders,, Annalee Newitz, and Sarah Gailey), Room 23ABC
Sunday, 10AM: Signing and giveaway for Radicalized, Tor Booth, #2701.
I hope to see you there!
In my latest podcast (MP3), I read my May Locus column: Steering with the Windshield Wipers. It makes the argument that much of the dysfunction of tech regulation — from botched anti-sex-trafficking laws to the EU’s plan to impose mass surveillance and censorship to root out copyright infringement — are the result of trying to jury-rig tools to fix the problems of monopolies, without using anti-monopoly laws, because they have been systematically gutted for 40 years.
A lack of competition rewards bullies, and bullies have insatiable appetites. If your kid is starving because they keep getting beaten up for their lunch money, you can’t solve the problem by giving them more lunch money – the bullies will take that money too. Likewise: in the wildly unequal Borkean inferno we all inhabit, giving artists more copyright will just enrich the companies that control the markets we sell our works into – the media companies, who will demand that we sign over those rights as a condition of their patronage. Of course, these companies will be subsequently menaced and expropriated by the internet distribution companies. And while the media companies are reluctant to share their bounties with us artists, they reliably expect us to share their pain – a bad quarter often means canceled projects, late payments, and lower advances.
And yet, when a lack of competition creates inequities, we do not, by and large, reach for pro-competitive answers. We are the fallen descendants of a lost civilization, destroyed by Robert Bork in the 1970s, and we have forgotten that once we had a mighty tool for correcting our problems in the form of pro-competitive, antitrust enforcement: the power to block mergers, to break up conglomerates, to regulate anticompetitive conduct in the marketplace.
But just because we know where to find the copyright lever, it doesn’t follow that yanking on it hard enough will make it do the work of antitrust law.
In my latest podcast, I read my new Locus column: Fake News is an Oracle. For many years, I’ve been arguing that while science fiction can’t predict the future, it can reveal important truths about the present: the stories writers tell reveal their hopes and fears about technology, while the stories that gain currency in our discourse and our media markets tell us about our latent societal aspirations and anxieties.
Fake news is another important barometer of our societal pressure: when we talk about conspiratorial thinking, we tend to do so ideologically, asking ourselves how it is that the same old conspiracy theories have become so much more convincing in recent years (anti-vax is as old as vaccination, after all), and treating the proponents of conspiracies as though they had acquired the ability to convince people by sharpening their arguments (possibly with the assistance of machine-learning systems).
But when you actually pay attention to the things that conspiracy-pushers say, there’s no evidence that they’re particularly convincing. Instead of ideological answers to the spread of conspiracies, we can look for material answers for the change in our public discourse.
Fake news, in this light, reveals important truth about what our material conditions have led us to fear (that the ship is sinking and their aren’t enough life-boats for all of us) and hope (that we can get a seat in the lifeboat if we help the powerful and ruthless push other people out).
Ten years ago, if you came home from the doctor’s with a prescription for oxy, and advice that they were not to be feared for their addictive potential, and an admonition that pain was “the fourth vital sign,” and its under-treatment was a great societal cruelty, you might have met someone who said that this was all bullshit, that you were being set up to be murdered by a family of ruthless billionaires whose watchdog had switched sides.
You might have called that person an “opioid denier.”
Today, we worry that anti-vaxers represent the resurgence of long-dormant epidemic. Tomorrow, we may find that they presaged an epidemic of collapsed trust in our shared ability to determine the truth.
(Image: Todd Dailey, CC-BY-SA)
For many years, I’ve been arguing that while science fiction can’t predict the future, it can reveal important truths about the present: the stories writers tell reveal their hopes and fears about technology, while the stories that gain currency in our discourse and our media markets tell us about our latent societal aspirations and anxieties. In Fake News is an Oracle, my latest Locus Magazine column, I use this tool to think about the rise of conspiratorial thinking and ask what it says about our world.
I’m coming to Houston on July 31 to appear with Hank Green at an event for the paperback launch of his outstanding debut novel An Absolutely Remarkable Thing: we’re on a 7PM at Spring Forest Middle School (14240 Memorial Drive, Houston, TX 77079); it’s a ticketed event and the ticket price includes a copy of Hank’s book. Hope to see you there! (Images: Vlogbrothers, Jonathan Worth, CC-BY)
I just published the 300th installment of my podcast, which has been going since 2006 (!); I present a reading of my EFF Deeplinks essay Adversarial Interoperability: Reviving an Elegant Weapon From a More Civilized Age to Slay Today’s Monopolies, where I introduce the idea of “Adversarial Interoperability,” which allows users and toolsmiths to push back against monopolists.
Yesterday, the New York Times published my “op-ed from the future,” an essay entitled “I Shouldn’t Have to Publish This in The New York Times,” which tried to imagine what would happen to public discourse if the Big Tech platforms were forced to use algorithms to police their users’ speech in order to fight extremism, trolling, copyright infringement, harassment, and so on.