/ / Articles, News, Podcast

Burning of 'dirt and trash literature' at the 18th Elementary school in Berlin-Pankow (Buchholz), on the evening of International Children's Day, June 1st, 1955. It was the first of a wave of initiatives by the Parents-Teachers Association (Elternversammlungen), to legally ban 'trash and filth.'

Today for my podcast, I read The majority of censorship is self-censorship, originally published in my Pluralistic blog. It’s a breakdown of Ada Palmer’s excellent Reactor essay about the modern and historical context of censorship.

I recorded this on a day when I was home between book-tour stops (I’m out with my new techno crime-thriller, The Bezzle. Catch me tomorrow (Monday) in Seattle with Neal Stephenson at Third Place Books. Then it’s Powell’s in Portland, and then Tuscon. The canonical link for the schedule is here.

States – even very powerful states – that wish to censor lack the resources to accomplish totalizing censorship of the sort depicted in Nineteen Eighty-Four. They can’t go from house to house, searching every nook and cranny for copies of forbidden literature. The only way to kill an idea is to stop people from expressing it in the first place. Convincing people to censor themselves is, “dollar for dollar and man-hour for man-hour, much cheaper and more impactful than anything else a censorious regime can do.”

Ada invokes examples modern and ancient, including from her own area of specialty, the Inquisition and its treatment of Gailileo. The Inquistions didn’t set out to silence Galileo. If that had been its objective, it could have just assassinated him. This was cheap, easy and reliable! Instead, the Inquisition persecuted Galileo, in a very high-profile manner, making him and his ideas far more famous.

But this isn’t some early example of Inquisitorial Streisand Effect. The point of persecuting Galileo was to convince Descartes to self-censor, which he did. He took his manuscript back from the publisher and cut the sections the Inquisition was likely to find offensive. It wasn’t just Descartes: “thousands of other major thinkers of the time wrote differently, spoke differently, chose different projects, and passed different ideas on to the next century because they self-censored after the Galileo trial.”



/ / Articles, News, Podcast

A credit card. Its background is a 'code waterfall' effect from the credit-sequences of the Wachowskis' 'Matrix' movies. On the right side is a cliche'd 'hacker in a hoodie' image whose face is replaced by the hostile red eye of HAL9000 from Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey.' Across the top of the card is 'Li'l Federal Credit Union.' The cardholder's name is 'I.M. Sucker.'

Today for my podcast, I read How I Got Scammed, originally published in my Pluralistic blog. It’s a story of how the attacker has to get lucky once, while the defender has to never make a single mistake.

This is my last podcast before I take off for my next book-tour, for my new novel, The Bezzle. I’m ranging far and wide: LA, San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver, Calgary, Phoenix, Portland, Providence, Boston, New York City, Toronto, San Diego, Salt Lake City, Tucson, Chicago, Buffalo, as well as Torino and Tartu.

My first two stops are Weller Bookworks in Salt Lake City on Feb 21 and Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego on Feb 22, followed by LA (with Adam Conover!), Seattle (with Neal Stephenson!), and Portland. The canonical link for the schedule is here.

I wuz robbed.

More specifically, I was tricked by a phone-phisher pretending to be from my bank, and he convinced me to hand over my credit-card number, then did $8,000+ worth of fraud with it before I figured out what happened. And then he tried to do it again, a week later!

Here’s what happened. Over the Christmas holiday, I traveled to New Orleans. The day we landed, I hit a Chase ATM in the French Quarter for some cash, but the machine declined the transaction. Later in the day, we passed a little credit-union’s ATM and I used that one instead (I bank with a one-branch credit union and generally there’s no fee to use another CU’s ATM).

A couple days later, I got a call from my credit union. It was a weekend, during the holiday, and the guy who called was obviously working for my little CU’s after-hours fraud contractor. I’d dealt with these folks before – they service a ton of little credit unions, and generally the call quality isn’t great and the staff will often make mistakes like mispronouncing my credit union’s name.

That’s what happened here – the guy was on a terrible VOIP line and I had to ask him to readjust his mic before I could even understand him. He mispronounced my bank’s name and then asked if I’d attempted to spend $1,000 at an Apple Store in NYC that day. No, I said, and groaned inwardly. What a pain in the ass. Obviously, I’d had my ATM card skimmed – either at the Chase ATM (maybe that was why the transaction failed), or at the other credit union’s ATM (it had been a very cheap looking system).


(Image: Cryteria, CC BY 3.0, modified)


/ / News, Podcast

A photo of me, wearing a suit and a mask, standing with my arms open at a podium at the Canadian embassy in Berlin, giving my McLuhan Lecture.

Last week, I traveled to Berlin to give the annual Marshall McLuhan lecture to open the Transmediale festival. I gave the talk to a full house at the Canadian embassy, and the embassy was kind enough to upload their video of the speech. This podcast is a rip of the audio from that Youtube video. I’ve also posted a transcript of the talk.

Last year, I coined the term ‘enshittification,’ to describe the way that platforms decay. That obscene little word did big numbers, it really hit the zeitgeist. I mean, the American Dialect Society made it their Word of the Year for 2023 (which, I suppose, means that now I’m definitely getting a poop emoji on my tombstone).

So what’s enshittification and why did it catch fire? It’s my theory explaining how the internet was colonized by platforms, and why all those platforms are degrading so quickly and thoroughly, and why it matters – and what we can do about it.

We’re all living through the enshittocene, a great enshittening, in which the services that matter to us, that we rely on, are turning into giant piles of shit.

It’s frustrating. It’s demoralizing. It’s even terrifying.

I think that the enshittification framework goes a long way to explaining it, moving us out of the mysterious realm of the ‘great forces of history,’ and into the material world of specific decisions made by named people – decisions we can reverse and people whose addresses and pitchfork sizes we can learn.

Enshittification names the problem and proposes a solution. It’s not just a way to say ‘things are getting worse’ (though of course, it’s fine with me if you want to use it that way. It’s an English word. We don’t have der Rat für englische Rechtschreibung. English is a free for all. Go nuts, meine Kerle).

But in case you want to use enshittification in a more precise, technical way, let’s examine how enshittification works.

It’s a three stage process: First, platforms are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die.


/ / Articles, News, Podcast

A popping water-balloon, caught mid-burst. Superimposed over it is the hostile glaring eye of HAL9000 from Stanley Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey.'

This week on my podcast, I read my latest Locus Magazine column. “What kind of bubble is AI?” In it, I ask what will be left behind after the AI bubble bursts:

You’ve got one week left to back the Kickstarter for my next novel, The Bezzle, the followup to Red Team Blues. I’m preselling hardcovers, ebooks, and an audiobook read by Wil Wheaton. Please consider backing it and helping support my work (including this podcast!).

But the most important residue after the bubble popped was the mil­lions of young people who’d been lured into dropping out of university in order to take dotcom jobs where they got all-expenses paid crash courses in HTML, Perl, and Python. This army of technologists was unique in that they were drawn from all sorts of backgrounds – art-school dropouts, hu­manities dropouts, dropouts from earth science and bioscience programs and other disciplines that had historically been consumers of technology, not producers of it.

This created a weird and often wonderful dynamic in the Bay Area, a brief respite between the go-go days of Bubble 1.0 and Bubble 2.0, a time when the cost of living plummeted in the Bay Area, as did the cost of office space, as did the cost of servers. People started making technology because it served a need, or because it delighted them, or both. Technologists briefly operated without the goad of VCs’ growth-at-all-costs spurs.

The bubble was terrible. VCs and scammers scooped up billions from pension funds and other institutional investors and wasted it on obviously doomed startups. But after all that “irrational exuberance” burned away, the ashes proved a fertile ground for new growth.

Contrast that bubble with, say, cryptocurrency/NFTs, or the complex financial derivatives that led up to the 2008 financial crisis. These crises left behind very little reusable residue. The expensively retrained physicists whom the finance sector taught to generate wildly defective risk-hedging algorithms were not able to apply that knowledge to create successor algo­rithms that were useful. The fraud of the cryptocurrency bubble was far more pervasive than the fraud in the dotcom bubble, so much so that without the fraud, there’s almost nothing left. A few programmers were trained in Rust, a very secure programming language that is broadly applicable elsewhere. But otherwise, the residue from crypto is a lot of bad digital art and worse Austrian economics.


/ / Articles, News, Podcast

A galactic-scale Pac-Man is eating a row of 'big blue marble' Earths. The Pac-Man has a copyright circle-c in his center. The starry sky behind the scene is intermingled with a 'code rain' effect from the credits of the Wachowskis' 'Matrix' movies.

This week on my podcast, I read my final Medium column
The internet’s original sin
, about the failure of trying to stretch copyright to cover every problem on the internet.

Copyright is a regulation. It regulates the supply-chain of the entertainment industry. Copyright matters a lot to me, because I’m in the industry.

But unless you’re in the industry, it shouldn’t matter to you.

It’s fine to require a grasp of copyright among people who write, publish and distribute novels — but it’s bananas to require people who read novels to understand copyright.

And yet, here we are.

The test for whether copyright applies to you — for whether you are part of the entertainment industry’s supply chain — is whether you are making or dealing in copies of creative works. This test was once a very good one.

Back when every book had a printing press in its history, every record a record-pressing plant, every film a film-lab, “making or handling copies of creative works” was a pretty good test to determine whether someone was part of the entertainment industry. Even if it turned out they weren’t, the kind of person who has a record-pressing plant can afford to consult an expert to make sure they’re on the right side of the law.


/ / News, Podcast

My daughter Poesy and me, standing with our Christmas Tree in our living room.

12 years ago, my four-year-old daughter’s nursery school let us know they’d be shutting down for Christmas a day before my wife’s office closed down, so I took the kid into my office in London to do some coloring, play with toys, and, eventually, record a podcast. It was hilarious.

In the years since, we’ve done this nine more times (we missed one year, after my podcasting mic got broken during our move to Los Angeles). Now the kid is fifteen (!), learning to drive (!!), and I still managed to get her on the mic for a session to discuss her hobbies, TV shows, online habits, and musical favorites, and once again, we sang a seasonal song!

Here are the previous year’s installments: 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022.


/ / Articles, Podcast

A giant robot attacking two cowering people captured in bell jars, by shooting lasers out of his eyes. He has a Google logo on his forehead. A 'Move Fast and Break Things' poster hangs on the wall behind him, and overhead is Apple's 'Think Different' wordmark.

This week on my podcast, I read my Locus Magazine column “Don’t Be Evil,” about the microeconomics and moral injury of enshittification.

It’s tempting to think of the Great Enshittening – in which all the inter­net services we enjoyed and came to rely upon became suddenly and irreversibly terrible – as the result of moral decay. That is, it’s tempting to think that the people who gave us the old, good internet did so because they were good people, and the people who enshittified it did so because they are shitty people.

But the services that defined the old, good internet weren’t designed or maintained by individuals; they were created by institutions – mostly for-profit companies, but also non-profits, government and military agencies and academic and research facilities. Institutions are made up of individuals, of course, but the thing that makes an institution institutional is that no one person can direct it. The actions of an institution are the result of its many individual constituent parts, both acting in concert, and acting against one another.

In other words: institutional action is the result of its individuals resolving their conflicts. Institutional action is the net results of wheedling, horse-trading, solidarity, skullduggery, power-moves, trickery, coercion, rational argument, love, spite, ferocity, and indifference among the institution’s members.


/ / Podcast, Stories

The cover for the MIT Press edition of 'Communications Breakdown.'

This week on my podcast, I read my short story “Moral Hazard,” published last month in MIT Press’s Communications Breakdown, a science fiction anthology edited by Jonathan Strahan. “Moral Hazard” is a story about inequality, fintech, and the problems of “solutionism.”

I know exactly where I was the day I decided to give every homeless person in America their own LLC. I was in the southeast corner of the sprawling homeless camp that had once been Seattle’s Discovery Park on a rare, dry February afternoon. The sun was weak but so welcome. After weeks of sheltering in our tents and squelching through the mud and getting drenched waiting for the portas, we were finally able to break out the folding chairs and enjoy each other’s company.

Mike the Bike had coffee. He always did. Mike knew more ways to make coffee than any fancy barista. He had a master’s in chemical engineering and a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering and when he was high he spent every second of the buzz thinking of new ways to combine heat and water and solids to produce a perfect brew.

I brought trail mix, which I mixed up myself with food-bank supplies and spices I bought from the bulk place for pennies. My secret is cardamom and a little chili powder. I learned that from my Mom.

“Trish,” Mike the Bike said, “I wish I was a corporation.”


/ / Articles, News, Podcast, The Lost Cause

Will Staehle's cover for 'The Canadian Miracle.'

This week on my podcast, I read the second and final part of my short story, “The Canadian Miracle,” a story set in the world of my forthcoming pre-apocalyptic Green New Deal novel, The Lost Cause, which comes out on November 14.

Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping. -Fred Rogers, 1986

It’s a treat to beat your feet on the Mississippi Mud. -Bing Crosby, 1927.

I arrived in Oxford with the first wave of Blue Helmets, choppered in along with our gear, touching down on a hospital roof, both so that our doctors and nurses could get straight to work, and also because it was one of the few buildings left with a helipad and backup generators and its own water filtration.

Humping my bag down the stairs to the waterlogged ground levels was a nightmare, even by Calgary standards. People lay on the stairs, sick and injured, and navigating them without stepping on them was like an endless nightmare of near-falls and weak moans from people too weak to curse me. I met a nurse halfway down and she took my bag from me and set it down on the landing and gave me a warm hug. “Welcome,” she said, and looked deep into my eyes. We were both young and both women but she was Black and American and I was white and Canadian. I came from a country where, for the first time in a hundred years, there was a generation that wasn’t terrified of the future. She came from a country where everybody knew they had no future.

I hugged her back and she told me my lips were cracked and ordered me to drink water and watched me do it. “This lady’s with the Canadians. They came to help,” she said to her patients on the stairs. Some of them smiled and murmured at me. Others just stared at the back of their eyelids, reliving their traumas or tracing the contours of their pain.