Cory Doctorow feels pretty good about the future

In this odd little story by Cory Doctorow global warming has dramatically increased temperatures, but it’s not such a big deal. In Burbank, California, in the not-too-distant future, “It was only March, but Burbank was baking: Three days in a row it had hit 120 degrees by noon”; and “the year before, on April 18, a Thursday after a succession of days that vied to top each other for inhumane conditions, the weather app on the hallway wall showing 112 degrees before breakfast.”

But the heat doesn’t seem to be much of a problem because the power companies have gone solar and so much energy is available that Burbank Water and Power effectively pay the people of Lima Street to turn on their air conditioners full blast and send the cool air into the street — which has been covered by awnings that the city delivered to the residents early that morning — and have themselves a block party. (Which they can do because all the people have “work-scheduling apps [that] had been able to rearrange their schedules to give them all an impromptu day off.”)

I don’t know, but it seems to me that Doctorow hasn’t thought through this scenario. The story makes several references to the noise the local parrots make, but if temps can get to 112 before breakfast, then they surely get to 140 or more by four in the afternoon, and I don’t think there are any parrots that can survive in those temperatures. How many animals of any kind can? The story also mentions sweetgum trees along the streets, and I’m not sure they’d do well in 140-degree temperatures either. Anything that did survive in those conditions would need a lot of water, and hasn’t southern California historically had trouble getting enough water? Is that supposed to get easier in a period of global warming? Maybe desalinization works in this imagined future, and surely Burbank would benefit from that, given that the rising temperatures would have raised the ocean levels considerably, and a place like Burbank (20 miles or so from the coast in 2018) is going to be almost oceanside property in such a world.

I just don’t get it. Is the story actually a parody of techno-optimism? Yes, global warming is going to be horrific, but no worries, we’ve got it whipped with solar power and work-scheduling apps! But I suspect that Doctorow is seriously upbeat about the baking-hot future. On the same day I read this story I read a brief essay by him lamenting the current backlash against Silicon Valley (the “techlash”) — or at least lamenting the forms it’s taking:

The long-delayed techlash has an unfortunate tendency to scapegoat early tech pioneers who promoted the idea that technology could make our lives better. These people – people I was fortunate enough to grow up among – are said to have been blind to the potential of technology to harm our privacy, our discourse, and our human rights.

The reality is that these early “techno-utopians” were keenly aware of these risks. They founded organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Free Software Foundation, not because they were convinced that everything was going to be great – but because they were worried that everything could be terrible, and also because they saw the potential for things to be better.

The motto of these pioneers wasn’t, “This is going to be so great.” It was, “This could be great – if we don’t screw it up.”

The people of tech – the people without whom Google and Facebook and Apple and Amazon couldn’t keep the lights on — [are] human beings with agency and willpower, and they are subject to moral suasion. They are capable of building a technological future that gives us the things we love about our technology, without inflicting the harms of these systems upon us.

So all we need is to apply a little moral suasion and the technologists of today and tomorrow will rescue us from the consequences of the actions of the technologists of yesterday. For somehow, someway, the bigger tech capitalism has gotten the more foresight it has developed and the greater has grown its compassion for people and the planet. “‘Yes,’ I said, ‘Isn’t it pretty to think so?’”

the masterful diptych of Coroger Zelaznorow

It’s been very interesting for me to re-read — for the first time in 40 years, so who am I kidding, let’s just say read — Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light. It’s a wonderful book, and I am especially pleased that I got to it just after reading Cory Doctorow’s new novel Walkaway. Doctorow’s book has some good points, but I wasn’t a big fan — I felt it left too many important questions unasked — until I realized something: Lord of Light, though written fifty years ago, is actually the sequel to Walkaway. And if you think of the two books as a diptych, the first installment gets a lot more interesting. Let me explain, with many spoilers.

Roughly in the middle of Doctorow’s novel “walkaway” scientists – that is, scientists who have gone off the standard panoptic grid of our world, the “default” world, have headed out into the wilderness to live in anarchic community — figure out how to upload human consciousness to digital form and then reconstitute that consciousness. Which means, at least according to one way of thinking, the way of thinking that Doctorow allows to dominate the book, the end of the reign of death.

The chief conflict of the book, then, pits the scientists who want to share this power with everyone against the capitalist one-percenters of “default,” who want to keep it for themselves – partly because they think that scarcity creates value and they are the Lords of Value, but also because they control the 99% by making them afraid of bodily harm and death. (As David Graeber wrote a decade or so ago, our whole social order is upheld by the threat of violence against bodies, and Walkaway is essentially Graeberian political philosophy in novelized form.)

Eventually the good guys win out, and immortality-via-upload becomes widely available – but it turns out that those minds miss being embodied, and scientists somehow find a way to grow bodies and reanimate them by injecting them with consciousness. Or something. (There aren’t a lot of details.)

The story begins less than a century from now, and ends not too much later. So let’s fast-forward a few thousand years, and imagine that Earth has died or been destroyed but humanity has spread elsewhere in the galaxy. And on at least one of the planets our descendants colonize, control of immortality has been seized by a tiny few. It turns out that, for them, simply being immortal – or, if that’s the wrong word, simply having access to recurrent embodiment – isn’t enough. Welcome to the world of Lord of Light, or, as I prefer to think of it, Walkaway: The Sequel.

The attentive reader of both books will notice that one difference between the two is that in Lord of Light human minds are no longer uploaded to the cloud, stored on a networked server, but are simply transferred from one body to another. Our author, Coroger Zelaznorow, doesn’t explain this, but it’s easy to understood what must have happened in the intervening centuries. Already in Walkaway we see the disturbances that arise when more than one living instance of the same, or “same,” person is around; those disturbances surely would have been magnified as downloading became more widespread, not least among megalomaniacs who wanted to see themselves as widely distributed in the world as possible. Moreover, minds uploaded to networked servers would have found themselves subject to to the experiments, relatively benign or deeply malicious, of hackers. In the end, it seems clear, the protocols of transfer were deemed safer, more reliable, and less subject to abuse than the protocols of uploading/downloading. Perhaps someday Zelaznorow will write a novel about this period of transition between the two ways of making us immortal: the Networked Way and the Way of Transference.

Now, it will immediately be seen that the Way of Transference introduces a complication: if your consciousness is not uploaded to a supposedly safe location, then if you are murdered or have a fatal accident you, as they say in Lord of Light, “die the real death.” But is this a bug or a feature? Might it not be that many who have lived a very long time, in multiple bodies, learn that death is indeed the mother of beauty? We might here compare Iain M. Banks’s Culture books, in which, as Banks himself explained, most people live a few hundred years and then accept death. Not all — some choose the Networked Way and get themselves downloaded immediately or after a period of sleep — but most. It seems likely that to the potential immortals of Lord of Light the possibility of the “real death” is another reason for preferring the Way of Transference.

Over time, the controllers of any given culture learn how technologies work, decide which potentialities are to be embraced and which resisted, tune their employment of those technologies to their larger purposes. In Walkaway the controllers, the capitalist one-percenters, want to keep immortality for themselves, but by the time of Lord of Light the strategy has become more complex.

If Walkaway offers its readers a straightforward and apparently simplistic victory for sharing — for acting on the assumption of abundance rather than scarcity — Lord of Light shrewdly and usefully complicates the situation by showing that even if sharing wins in one place and time it may not do so always and everywhere. The Lords of Karma, as they call themselves, have discovered the virtues of control that is not based on exclusive possession. They do not want to keep immortality only for themselves; they want to share it; but they want to exercise precise control over that sharing.

And it turns out that the ideal structure to enable what they want is that of traditional Hinduism. Within a social order aligned to the Hindu cosmos, they can be gods, each of whom “rules through [his or her] ruling passions,” as one of them says, achieving and enacting the apotheosis of that passion. And by controlling Transference, they can punish those they deem wicked by re-incarnating them in an inferior body, perhaps that of an animal — you can never be sure in this world that a dog is merely a dog —, and reward those whom they deem virtuous by elevating their status, incarnation by incarnation, raising them up to become demigods and then, ultimately, gods. (Of course, employing the time-honored logic of colonial powers they say that they are merely withholding blessedness from those who are not yet ready for it.) And only those who have fully internalized the ethos of the Lords of Karma will be allowed to join that pantheon. The world is governed, then, by a self-perpetuating oligarchy which must occasionally refresh itself, if only because over the centuries some will inevitably “die the real death.”

And a world so ordered is one in which the Lords of Karma are gods not just because they are (probably) immortal and (certainly) immensely powerful, but also because they can compel worship. The capitalists of Walkaway manifest a craving for mere power that would be annoyingly simplistic if the book stood alone; but when we understand that it is the first book of a diptych then we see that it describes a fairly early stage in the history of oligarchy, and that later stages make progress by a kind of ressourcement. The unspoken motto of the Lords of Karma is: Ad fontes! And the fontes to which they return are those of religion. They receive worship, and they gratify the desire of many human beings to find something or someone to worship. And by reliably granting ascent to those who satisfy their demands, they create an orderly, coherent, and logical system — a system which constitutes a powerful myth, and, as Freddie deBoer recently commented in an essay which only superficially seems to have little in common with this one, “the human animal runs on myth.”

Only a great scoundrel would seek to disrupt so peacefully disciplined a world. Or a great saint. Or someone who is a bit of both.

When I read Walkaway I was disappointed by its limited exploration of the ethics of immortality, and the complete lack of interest in metaphysics. (There is no myth in Walkaway: the place of myth is taken by 3D printers.)  The book elides vital questions simply by treating the reconstituted minds as the very same characters whom we have come to know, as the other characters themselves do. There are bits of desultory conversation about the continuity of identity via digital representation, but the narrative simply doesn’t allow us to take seriously the possibility that such representations could be deceptive and that the characters for whom we have come to have affection have in fact “died the real death.” It is only when reading Lord of Light that we see how Zelaznorow calls into question the narrative assumptions of Walkaway.

Similarly, in Walkaway our characters mainly want to stay alive, to enjoy one another’s company, to feel useful — they don’t inquire any further into life’s possible meanings, its ultimate values, what Robert Pirsig (God bless his soul) called Quality. But all these lacunae turn out not to be oversights but rather a clever suspending of certain questions so that they can be explored more fully in the sequel. That Zelaznorow is a genius. But you can only see that if you read the sequel. Reading Walkaway alone might be an underwhelming experience.

enough about me

So here’s what I do, in the digital realm, to limits the powers of intermittent reinforcement and increase my powers of adherence: when I have work to do on my computer, I either disable all notifications or shut down social media (Twitter, email, IM) clients altogether.

Does this work? Variably well, and the key variable is how much I enjoy the task I need to work on. If I’m working on a book or article, I usually get sufficiently absorbed in the task that I forget social media. But if I’m, say, grading papers — which I do on my computer: I have students submit their essays as PDFs — then I get twitchy: I’m often tempted to check email or Twitter. In fact, I sometimes think I would do better if I just had the push notifications enabled, so then I would only be interrupted when something actually happened, instead of interrupting myself by wondering whether something has happened. But I’ve noticed that when I leave notifications on I get pinged just when I am actually concentrating on what a student is arguing — so no, turning them off is the best option.

I also have my computer set to auto-hide all applications that are not currently active, so when I’m writing my text editor is the only thing I can see, when I’m grading my PDF viewer is the only thing I can see, and so on.

So that’s my practice. I kind of enjoy talking about these things: productivity strategies and all that. But maybe that’s because those conversations keep me from having to think about more important and less pleasant things. Consider, for instance, a notable fact selected from the account I’ve just given: how much easier it is for me to concentrate on my own writing, my own thoughts, than on my responsibility to help my students develop their thoughts. It’s not especially discomfiting to investigate and critique what Cory Doctorow has called “your computer’s ecosystem of interruption technologies”; it’s really discomfiting to realize how bored and distracted I can become when it’s not all about ME. And if I find myself less plagued by distraction than many others I know, perhaps that’s not because I am more disciplined, but because I am blessed in having a good deal of work to do that I really, deeply enjoy.

The Whale and the Reactor (8)

It was a remarkable experience to read Winner’s sixth chapter, “Mythinformation,” in the light of some recent online debates. Continuing his attempt to think in a seriously political way about technology, Winner is here concerned with the technological uses of the language of revolution:

It seems all but impossible for computer enthusiasts to examine critically the ends that might guide the world-shaking developments they anticipate. They employ the metaphor of revolution for one purpose only — to suggest a dramatic upheaval, one that people ought to welcome as good news. . . .

If technophiles were to consider the “computer revolution” in light of “social upheavals of the past,” especially those caused by the Industrial Revolution, then they might be able to think more seriously about their own language and its political implications. But, Winner says, “a consistently ahistorical viewpoint prevails. What one often finds emphasized, however, is a vision of drastically altered social and political conditions, a future upheld as both desirable and, in all likelihood, inevitable.”

Well, some of this hasn’t changed at all in the past twenty-five years. Celebrants of technology still aren’t very historically aware, they still emphasize the inevitability of technological development, they still see it almost wholly as progressive.

But the political implications of technology are getting more serious and thoughtful consideration these days, and that may well lead to deeper conversations on other fronts. Just consider the vigorous and fascinating debate going on right now between Evgeny Morozov and Cory Doctorow. Morozov’s new book The Net Delusion offers an exceptionally strong critique of the common belief that social media promote freedom and democracy; that argument has been getting some equally strong pushback from, among others, Doctorow, whose longest and most thoughtful response may be found here.

This is a debate I may have more to say about later, but for now let me just note that if Langdon Winner wanted serious debates about the political implications of technology, we’re getting just such a debate now, though focused perhaps too narrowly on the role of social media. But couple that with the recent Wikileaks debate . . . we’re getting somewhere.

decision time

Here’s a fascinating little essay by Cory Doctorow on . . . well, it’s complicated. He’s explaining why he’s happy with his decision to self-publish his new collection of stories, but he’s using that situation to explore the problem — or the “problem” — of having too much information and too many options:

I’m not sorry I decided to become a publisher. For one thing, it’s been incredibly lucrative thus far: I’ve made more in two days’ worth of the experiment than I made off both of my previous short story collections’ entire commercial lives (full profit/loss statements will appear as monthly appendices in the book). And I’m learning things about readers’ relationship to writers in the 21st century.

But more than ever, I’m realising that the old problem of overcoming constraints to action has been replaced by the new problem of deciding what to do when the constraints fall away. The former world demanded relentless fixity of purpose and quick-handed snatching at opportunity; the new world demands the kind of self-knowledge that comes from quiet, mindful introspection.

That last sentence is great, and worthy of much reflection. When opportunities for acquiring and disseminating knowledge were fewer, we had to act quickly to seize them: who know when another would come by? But now, with so much we can know and so many ways to get our ideas out into the world, we need to seek time and space to filter through the options. We need, as never before, the virtues of discernment.

There’s something to think about in the holiday season. I’ll be back in a few days. In the meantime, a Merry Christmas to all, and God bless us every one!

today lolcats, tomorrow the world

Cory Doctorow on Clay Shirky’s new book:

Shirky is very good on the connection between trivial entertainments and serious business, from writing web-servers to changing government. Lolcats aren’t particularly virtuous examples of generosity and sharing, but they are a kind of gateway drug between zero participation and some participation. The difference between “zero” and “some” being the greatest one there is, it is possible and even likely that lolcatters will go on, some day, to do something of more note together.

Can someone explain to me how the third sentence there follows from the previous two?

Cory Doctorow is making sense

Maximal, abusive, mindless copyright expansion isn’t just a disaster for the public, though. It’s also a disaster for creators. There’s this myth that those of us who write do something different from those of us who read, that there’s a fine line between writers and readers, but I’ve never known anyone to use more information than those who create information. The most aggressive copyists, the most aggressive owners of books and acquirers of books and all other media that I can think of are writers. The most aggressive users of the network to research and market, to reach out to their colleagues, to communicate with their publishers, are writers. So even though some writers might think that they might need this, even thought they might apply some Stockholm Syndrome that’s caused them to align themselves with the copyright maximalists that run giant industrial entities that figure that this would be a good idea—it doesn’t actually follow that this is actually good for writers, or for other creative people.Copying creates new opportunities for writers and other creative people that have not existed before.

The talk is in some respects the usual Cory Doctorow message, but very well done. You should read and heed.

the DRM debate

Over at The Digitalist, there are two posts by Michael Bhaskar — here and here — on DRM: Digital Rights Management. Bhaskar is in publishing, so his primary concern is with Amazon’s DRM model on its Kindle books, but he refers also to Apple’s restrictions on the music it sells through iTunes. The real interest here is in the comments, some of which come from people who have been banging this drum for a long time — Cory Doctorow, Clay Shirky — but they are really interesting nonetheless. The whole conversation gives a great image of the state of the current debate. Anyone interested in these matters should read it with care.

a few links on my way out the door

Readers, I am about to decamp for a couple of weeks in the wilds of northern Alabama — “wilds” because my mother lives in the country with no internet access and spotty cell-phone signals. I’ll be reduced to sipping refreshing beverages under the pecan trees and watching Canoe Creek drift by. In other words, things could be worse. In the meantime, you might want to compare Ross Douthat’s take on copyright with Cory Doctorow’s. I very much like Ross’s suggestion:

Why not, then, simultaneously extend copyright and narrow its scope? Let the Helprins continue to earn royalties into the distant future, but let adaptations, derivations, parodies and borrowing flower more quickly and completely than the current system allows. Leave the Tolkiens the rights to “The Hobbit”in perpetuity, but not the right to prevent two enterprising film companies from going forward with competing adaptations. Leave the Mitchells the rights to “Gone With the Wind,” but not the right to tie up a would-be parodist in court for years on end because they don’t like what she’s doing to their Scarlett. Leave the Lucas family the right to “Stars Wars,” but not the right to prevent me from writing my own competing version of Anakin Skywalker’s life story.

So how would this affect the book about Holden Caulfield that J. D. Salinger is trying to suppress? And then there’s this: if you ever wanted to disassemble all your books, scan them, use OCR software to identify the text and make it searchable, and then reassemble them all, well, here’s how you do it. Ciao for now.

more on book piracy

Peter Wayner:

The kind of book I write, thick with equations that play to computer lovers, is also the first to be pirated. It’s a canary. O’Reilly Publishers, one of the top technical presses, reported that in 2008, the computer book market was the only segment to lose sales. According to the company, the category sold 8% fewer titles in 2008 than 2007. I’m not going to write more books if the revenues will be wiped out by pirates. While authors like Cory Doctorow like to argue that the author’s real enemy is obscurity, there was no real uptick in the sales of my book when these pirated versions appeared. I recently discussed the piracy problem on my blog and got few responses. Many of my friends from universities tend to take a vaguely Marxist approach to the piracy, perhaps because the bursar’s office shields them from the trauma of commerce. One person told me all of this theft was a compliment: I should enjoy the fact that my book was selected to be a part of the pirated file, “Great Science Textbooks,” and indeed, some of my fellow victims are very famous. But as Langston Hughes said, “I love Ralph Bunche — but I can’t eat him for lunch.”

More evidence for Ethan’s comment on this post. Also, here’s one of the places where Cory Doctorow dismisses the idea that piracy is a threat to authors.