Thursday, September 29, 2016

Marta-Led Demons

So I've been finishing up a Creative Writing PhD, which is a funny sort of thing. Actually, it's several funny sorts of things, because there's a fair bit of formal variation from university to university, and from PhD to PhD. Which is a good thing. But there is always a creative bit -- for me, it's some fiction, including "Froggy" and Marta -- and then a critical/reflective bit. I initially found that critical/reflective bit quite difficult, since it wasn't a mode of writing I was familiar with / fruitfully unfamiliar with when I got started. But I think I more or less have got it now, which is pretty cool because I'm supposed to hand it in next week.

One aspiration for afterwards, BTW, is to spin off my two cents on practice-led research -- also known as practice-as-research or practice-based research, although each phrase has its own connotations -- and especially on how it formally relates to speculative fiction. Speculative fiction may sometimes offer to shift our technoscientific imaginary, opening spaces which stricter R&D methodologies may then explore. In a nutshell, I feel that practice-led research and speculative fiction have stuff in common, which means things can actually get quite awkward (but interesting) when you try to do both things at once.

All of this serves as a kind of apology for various aspects of the following snippet (which probably bug only me anyway), which is a fragment of reflective commentary, about a very brief passage in the mini-novel Marta and the Demons.


[...] This scene was partly inspired by schemes such as Local Exchange Trading Systems and time‑based currencies.[1] Under such systems, a member might earn one credit by working for one hour, which can be spent to hire an hour’s labor from another member. It was easy to imagine Carly thinking along these lines; at this moment in Carly and Myeong’s relationship, it felt right that Carly might have recently recalibrated her speculative faculties, and be eager to support inchoate wishes, while still ready to feel like the grounded pragmatist of the pair.

Carly comes up with the name “WorkCoin,” and envisions WorkCoin’s value deriving from “the number of hours [worked]” (M: yy). But for Myeong, whose entrepreneurial obliviousness is reaching its peak, the word ‘hours’ is already enough to cut Carly short. 

One objection to time‑based currencies is that every hour of work is qualitatively different to every other hour. Of course, flattening such heterogeneity according to egalitarian principles, rather than market mechanisms, may be part of the appeal of time-based currencies. But I wanted Myeong to focus something different. Myeong wants to preserve the qualitative heterogeneity of work, conceived primarily as a phenomenological heterogeneity, but with gestures toward the importance of third-person perspectives.

My second inspiration for this scene was Viviana Zelizer’s account of money’s own heterogeneity. Zelizer contests money’s reputation as a uniform, impersonal, and fungible social relation. For Zelizer, “people are constantly creating new monies, and they do so by segregating different streams of legal tender into funds for distinct activities and relations” (Zelizer 2011: 89). Money “may well ‘corrupt’ values into numbers, but values and sentiment reciprocally corrupt money by investing it with moral, social, and religious meaning” (Zelizer 2011: 97). Myeong, Zelizer, and I conspired to flesh out Myeong's aspiration, barely acknowledging Carly's contributions. Instead, Myeong would aspire to use technology to accentuate, extend, and rationalize money’s existing heterogeneity, in order to reflect the heterogeneity of work.

This vision is probably ultimately incoherent. Formulating it coherently certainly offers a challenge. First, how should work be demarcated from non-work (cf. §2.5.2)? We certainly cannot get by, in this context, with the approximation that paid work is ‘real’ work (not without begging the question). Nor should we really want to. Nancy Hartsock tersely invokes the theme of what counts as ‘real’ work by describing “a third person, not specifically present in Marx’s account of transactions between capitalist and worker (both of whom are male),” who “follows timidly behind, carrying groceries, baby, and diapers” (Hartsock 1983: 234). Second, since any sum of WorkCoin will have passed through many hands, whose work should count as “what real people [have] really done, to make that money exist” (M: yy)? Third, even if work could somehow be legitimately demarcated and documented, how can WorkCoin legibly represent such data for human subjects? Who could experience something like WorkCoin, and what would they experience? How could WorkCoin’s quantifications be visualized, aestheticized, and perhaps – given Myeong’s desire for a WorkCoin in which “you could see the workers” (M: yy) – embodied and personified? Fourth, even if a legible WorkCoin were possible, why should that materially alter labor’s subjugation within some interlocking “matrix of domination” (Collins 2000: yy)? In other words, a fine-grained mapping of labor to value may sometimes lead to fairer compensation. But it can also – as the example of Amazon shortly shows – lead to something else entirely. On a larger historical timescale, the questions multiply. How would Myeong’s WorkCoin reflect the particularity of work, when that work is implicated with events – such as the production of the means of production – which have taken place long before WorkCoin came into being? Or when some properties of today’s work may take months or centuries to surface? How would something like WorkCoin function as a transferable IOU (cf. §3.4.2, §4.1), connected not only with past labor, but also with promises of future labor? Whenever I tried to extend the quantification of labor deep into the past and future, I felt it lost its particularity again. It became more nebulous and colorable, more manipulable by existing power hierarchies. Beyond these questions lay further concerns about access and exclusion, about privacy, and about energy and sustainability.

While I tried to position WorkCoin as a wild and impractical fancy, it is also “essential that estrangement leads to the realization that things do not have to be the way they are” (Spiegel 2008: 370). I expected WorkCoin could create a space for speculation about more practical implementations of a labor-based currency, both in terms of its enticements and its dangers.

One precedent is the Quantified Self phenomenon – loosely what Myeong has in mind when she refers to “fuddy-duddy, gamified, making-flossing-fun, improve-the-way-you-sit bullcrap” (M: yy). Quantified Selves are people who aim improve their self-knowledge and autonomy through “novel ways of self-tracking with the help of digital technologies” (Lupton 2016: 9).[2] Gary Wolf, one popularizer of the term, describes his fine-grained self-tracking in a work context:

Taking advantage of the explosion of self-tracking services available on the Web, I started analyzing my workday at a finer level. Every time I moved to a new activity – picked up the phone, opened a Web browser, answered e-mail – I made a couple of clicks with my mouse, which recorded the change. After a few weeks I looked at the data and marveled.
(Wolf 2010: n.p.)
Similar tracking technology is also used in factories, warehouses, and other workplaces; a high-profile example is Amazon’s avant‑garde brutalizing of its workforce, “in the use of monitoring technologies to track the minute-by-minute movements and performance of employees” (Head 2014: n.p.):

With this twenty-first-century Taylorism, management experts, scientific managers, take the basic workplace tasks at Amazon, such as the movement, shelving, and packaging of goods, and break down these tasks into their subtasks, usually measured in seconds; then rely on time and motion studies to find the fastest way to perform each subtask; and then reassemble the subtasks and make this “one best way” the process that employees must follow.
(ibid. n.p.)
While such monitoring technologies come nowhere near to disentangling “real people” or “[o]ur own true selves” (M: yy) from the abstract figure of the worker, they do enrich that figure with fine‑grained data. They suggest how Myeong’s first bold vision of WorkCoin, as a marvellous money inscribed with all the heterogeneity of work, might yield to something more practicable. Instead of expressing “[o]ur true selves,” a WorkCoin analogue might simply express some salient data about the work which underlies it.[3]

Some time later, after attending a workshop on time-based currencies, and speculatively exploring the hybrid forms of monetary value, with price determined by interactions of supply, demand, and labor time, I did consider fleshing out WorkCoin further (perhaps in a later story). At the same time I was wary that, merely seeking to estrange money, I might inadvertently glamorize, celebrate, normalize or naturalize the use of such intimately oppressive tracking technologies. For the time being at least, I decided to let WorkCoin, like the incomes perceived by Li Shu (M: yy), and like Encarl’s Smartgularity (M: yy), remain a faintly implied shape, only partly jutting into story cycle’s representational field. 

The difficulty of theoretically demarcating work from non-work, and the brutal and exploitative history of such demarcation as it has practically occurred, could be no security against the possibility that technologically accomplished quantifications of work might in principle gain legal backing or widespread social acceptance. Stock prices already make a resounding claim to quantify the future flourishing of firms; the reputation metrics of digital matching platforms such as Uber and Airbnb make a fairly resounding claim to render precise and legible the trustworthiness of taxi drivers or holidaymakers. It seemed important to confront the possibility of some specific socio‑technological ecology of data collection, extraction, warehousing, analysis, and visualization and gamification, making a resounding claim to render ‘work’ – or perhaps ‘smart work,’ ‘hard work,’ or even ‘happy work’ – as precise and legible data.

The stories Moneykins, and perhaps especially ‘Alice,’ often feature imagery of bodies surfacing and stretching free from the media in which they have been obscured and imprisoned, and even in which they have been constituted. For instance, the Weaver breaks free from her cloud and its enigmatic Chesses, and the leprecoins from their magic metal (M: yy, yy). These images arrived in my writing of their own accord, but I started to think of them as small, scattered allegories about humans disentangling themselves from money, whether partly or fully, temporarily or for good.

At the same time, as explored in §2.1-§2.5, money can be tenacious, adaptable, and stealthy. It can linger in the places it has explicitly been banished from. Bewitchingly detailed representational regimes – such as Quantified Self technologies, the reputation metrics of the sharing economy, Doctorow’s Whuffie, or Myeong’s WorkCoin – may promise to extricate humans from money’s power, to create alternative ways of organizing collective action, and to in effect “render gold and silver of no esteem” (More 1997 [1516]: 44). Yet they may actually end up extending the power of money, in new forms, deeper into human lives. [...]




[1] See e.g. The Economy of Hours (www.economyofhours.com) and TimeRepublik (www.timerepublik.com); for historical background cf. Warren (1852).
[2] I prefer to say ‘Quantified Selves’ because I am a little reluctant to call Quantified Self a ‘movement’ with ‘members.’
[3] For instance, a few important dimensions of distinction might include tedium, discomfort, and other affective states; freedom and constraint; the ‘embedded labor’ of prior training and experience; the ‘quality’ of the work as measured by innumerable metrics; the danger and luck involved; and of course the work’s financial productivity. These evade tracking technologies to different degrees and in different ways. (Cf. also Maughan 2013).

Friday, July 22, 2016

Real quick

1) My novelette "Froggy Goes Piggy" is up at The Long+Short. Here's the story and here's a tiny bit about it.

2) Voting for the Sputnik Awards is still open. Shortlisted: Jim Butcher, The Cinder Spires (Roc); Becky Chambers, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (Hodder & Stoughton); Berit Ellingsen, Not Dark Yet (Two Dollar Radio); N.K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season (Orbit); Emma Newman, Planetfall (Roc); Peter Newman, The Vagrant (Harper Voyager); Naomi Novik, Uprooted (Del Rey); Nnedi Okorafor, The Book of Phoenix (Hodder & Stoughton); Adam Roberts, The Thing Itself (Gollancz); Kim Stanley Robinson, Aurora (Orbit); Neal Stephenson, Seveneves (William Morrow); Fran Wilde, Updraft (Tor Books). If the UK can vote to leave the EU without knowing what it is or whether we're actually in it, you're probably OK to cast a battle-ballot in the Sputniks. I wrote an editorial in the current Interzone to talk a bit about the Sputniks and other new awards.

3) SFRA & CRSF conferences were fun. My papers, "Marvellous Moneys & Financial Familiars" and "The Dystopglyn Glyns," are online at Academia.edu. The first one was basically a primer on controversies in the ontology of money, then a few selections from the Economics in SFF project. The second was an attempt at thinking about some of the huge everyday topics and tools of SF Studies (utopia, the future, diegetic prototyping, SF vs. fantasy, Suvin's cognitive estrangement).

4) It is not long since the last flake of the Smurfette fake tat I won for losing Laser Tag washed off my shoulder. Though I think she may have enlisted as a Pokemon. Meanwhile, wouldn't Ghostbusters make an intriguing location-based AR game? Especially if it was genuinely terrifying. A bit Five Nights at Freddy's maybe.

5) If anyone has material they would be willing to contribute to the Economics in SFF project, I'd love to take a look. Here's a formal-ish CfP, but if in doubt, just get in touch.

6) Are you organising a conference or something similar in 2017? Maybe you should get in touch too. There's something I want to talk to you about.

7) "Who?" Here's a good game you can play when you meet new people (& here's the original).

8) Those science fiction conferences. So, there was really far too much great stuff at SFRA & CRSF to attempt even an attempt at a report, but I want to pick out three moments almost at random. One was the long feared and in the event totally gratifying and stimulating collision of contemporary experimental poetry with SFF in the Stephen Mooney panel. A second was Sarah Lohmann's paper on feminist utopias, science, and chaos/complexity. Before I heard that paper and let it sink in a little, I would have said that the problem with utopia-as-CAS is that the transformations of CASs are by definition unpredictable: too open, too flexible, too fickle, and incapable of cherishing and protecting anything worthy of the name utopian. The just-maybe-brilliant insight that suddenly makes me, in a really good way, way less sure, was the focus on science work as a CAS. A society organised according to edge-of-chaos utopian science feels like a very different proposition to a society organised as edge-of-chaos utopia. A third was Joan Haran's keynote, an attentive exploration of points where SFF and activism touch (swirling around WisCon, The Fifth Sacred Thing, Octavia's Brood, and possibilities for genomics SF research activisms).

9) Liverpool is so hot right now. Prof Michael Dougan on Leave and criminal irresponsibility.


10)


11)

Terraforming: Ecopolitical Transformations and Environmentalism in Science Fiction

12) Fredric Jameson in 1982: "For the apparent realism, or representationality, of SF has concealed another, far more complex temporal structure: not to give us 'images' of the future—whatever such images might mean for a reader who will necessarily predecease their 'materialization'—but rather to defamiliarize and restructure our experience of our own present, and to do so in specific ways distinct from all other forms of defamiliarization." The sort of thing I'm trying to return to and perhaps gently productively disagree with in that triptych of talks at Northumbria Summer Speakers / Fantasies of Contemporary Culture / CRSF.

13) Science Fiction and the Medical Humanities at Glasgow University was also good craic. Particularly enjoyed the first panel I went to (Imogen Woodberry, Phoenix Alexander, Joshua Odam) which poked me into seeking out Octavia's Brood ed. Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown. Wish I'd done so sooner. Snippet from the intro:
"Visionary fiction" is a term we developed to distinguish science fiction that has relevance toward building new, freer worlds from the mainstream strain of science fiction, which most often reinforces dominant narratives of power. Visionary fiction encompasses all of the fantastic, with the arc always bending toward justice. We believe this space is vital for any process of decolonization, because the decolonization of the imagination is the most dangerous and subversive form there is: for it is where all other forms of decolonization are born.  
[...]  
Many of the contributors to Octavia's Brood had never written fiction before, let alone science fiction. When we approached folks, most were hesitant to commit, feeling like they weren't qualified. But overwhelmingly, they all came back a few weeks later, enthusiastically, with incredible ideas and some with dozens of pages already written. Because all organizing is science fiction, we are dreaming new worlds every time we think about the changes we want to make in the world. The writers in this collection just needed a little space, and perhaps permission to immerse themselves fully in their visionary selves.
14) Two very different speculative fiction anthologies out recently.

15) "Work as if you live in the early days of World War III."

16) I'm reading some kind of SF or fantasy prose with TBC in the BristolCon Fringe on 15 August. Come!

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Ghosts

St. Thomas Aquinas explains: “thus also will his body be raised to the characteristics of heavenly bodies — it will be lightsome (clarity), incapable of suffering (impassible), without difficulty and labour in movement (agility), and most perfectly perfected by its form (subtlety). For this reason, the Apostle speaks of the bodies of the risen as heavenly, referring not to their nature, but to their glory.”

Ghostbusters was not rebooted: it died and was resurrected, shining, impassible, agile, and subtle. From the trailers and one or two reviews I expected it'd be mugging for squees, one of those family films with a layer aimed at kids and another layer aimed at adults who like to say stuff like "adulting is hard :(" a lot ... but it ain't that in the least.

It's shining. It seems to do that thing (that I think Orange is the New Black and maybe Unbreakable Kimmy Schmitt does) where the mild psychological complexity and heft requisite for realist comedy sporadically dissolves into clomping, larger-than-life sketch comedy ... but then the realist comedy somehow reassembles straight afterward as if nothing happened, and you're back with characters you care about. It's not about breaking the fourth wall: it's about passing through innumerable walls, temporarily demonstrating your spectrality.

Reckon it needed to be five minutes longer, to give significant plot points their due weight. Ideally take like twelve minutes, and give Patty some backstory and/or development, and ectoplasm out the ghosts as characters too. Maybe the combat ontology could have been a little more firmly established before the big showdown too. Because I wasn't quite sure what their gear could do, the Ghostbusters felt even more immortal than normal characters-that-will-definitely-be-fine. Also, Zach Woods inexplicably survives a very glowy, goopy, should-really-be-game-over first brush with the undead, which kind of makes them look a bit dud and inept. So how to tweak that? Well, maybe lingering on Bill Murray's broken and bloodied body would have been one more handy reminder of the stakes for mortals, and during the back-alley gizmos showcase scene, just a boring line along the lines of, "With these new side-arms, we no longer need the box on the floor to snare these wraiths, ladies; we may dissipate their morphic resonance directly" -- and then a joke -- might have made the later haunty heiny-kicking hijinks more immediately legible and compelling. And/or your man Rowan could have had a spooky security guard helping him out at the lab as a mini-tutorial in ghosts vs. Ghostbusters (that mini-showdown felt pretty rushed anyway). So maybe it needed to be fifteen minutes longer. But could get away with five.

Cecily Strong is brilliant and I hope she's in the sequel too. Also are they actually almost corpsing in a proper big film in the Technobabble ex Machina bit? Kevin's character is less believable than any of the swirly baddies, but that's OK. I could have done with a little more muppety body horror and grotesque visual gags, but now I'm just nitpicking. Totes ace, Thomist af.

Or ...

What is a movie, anyway? A movie begins to be interpreted before it's even been fully shot, and those interpretations must still be interpretations of the movie. Is the Ghostbusters eventually seen by the misogynists who are determined to hate watch it, and whose experience of it is textured and weighted and colored by their fruitful, ingenious expectations, part of the real Ghostbusters movie or not? I believe it got loads and loads of ratings, both positive and negative -- mostly negative, from folk who objected to the genderflipped reboot (and the positive ones possibly in the spirit of redressing the balance) -- from people who probably hadn't seen it. If there are real criticisms to be made of the film, they should be of the swirling green CGI hell version of it, the version that deserves to be whipped into boxes with protons for its essential ugliness, the film as it is construed in the hearts and minds twisted resolutely against it. To honor not only the genderflip but also the flip that was there already: the flip that makes what is dead live and what is in hell heavenly.

Also I'm glad there was a Swiss army knife in it, because (a) we've been discussing them a lot recently and (b) it reminds me of the line in the play Woundman and Shirley that describes Woundman as looking like "sort of a cross between Bill Murray and a Swiss army knife."

Also Ghostbusters could make an interesting location-based AR game. Gotta bust 'em all.



Also more like Slimo Yiannopoulos but whatever.

Also ScotCoin: I ain't afraid of no groats.

Also I think one of the things that stops Holzmann being just a tube for squirting kook is those moments where she gives brief, assured, no-nonsense tutorials on the stuff she's made. I feel like I've met people like that? They act out so much you think they're going to be actors or poets or something, and then you realise that they're scientists or engineers, and that blend of arrogance and joy and insecurity and yearning trollishness is actually grounded in a sense of, "fuck it, if all else fails at least I know how to make stuff." Maybe?

Also have you seen Ghostbusters? It's not as good as the BOO!

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Froggy Goes Piggy


I have a new story up at The Long+Short, which is about the future of collective intelligence, precarity, Intelligent Personal Assistants, augmented reality, Pokemon GO, cryptocurrency, payments technology, kawaii brands, fintech that attempts to visualize/gamify/humanize financial complexity, frogs, the gig economy, people powered healthcare, butts, the fragmentation and financialization of healthcare, pets, David Attenborough, and things like that.

Elsewhere:

Artwork by Mike Stout.

Other fiction in the series by JY Yang, Tim Maughan, and Ayodele Arigbabu.

Brett Scott researches, explores, and hacks economic and financial systems. He led the excellent Alternative Finance Workshop at Monkton Wyld Court, which inspired and informed the story.

That workshop was put together by Stir to Action, a community organisation who work around social and community enterprises, co-operatives, and campaigns, and innovative, alternative, progressive economics. They publish the magazine STIR, run workshop programmes and short courses, produces how-to resources, design financing to make things happen, and are generally great.

Also see the Nesta / Tim Maughan collaboration in 2013 that led to 'Zero Hours,' a biting indictment of what we might now call 'Uber but for having a job.'

Also see Science Fiction and the Medical Humanities, based in Glasgow: the current project is now mostly finished, but hopefully will lead to other things.

The Long+Short collective intelligence stories are all (I think -- mine definitely is) released under the Creative Commons CC-BY 4.0 license, which means you can do pretty much whatever you like with them (including commercially) so long as you attribute.

Chernoff Faces: a bold albeit dubious idea in dataviz, which informs the Pokemoney GOLD conceit.

Also see Twelve Tomorrows 2016 ed. Bruce Sterling, where I have a story touching on some of the same fintech visualization territory. I will be putting out an expanded version of that story as soon as I get some time. (Probably just on Medium, unless you are an editor of some excellent paywall-free site that would like to host it, in which case get in touch).

I am sick with fear ;D

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Big and Embrous

The last thing I need is a thing, let alone a book, let alone a book of science fiction, let alone a collection of short sf stories.

But I just might be tempted by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's Big Book of Science Fiction (contents at i09, plus inevitable thread of outrage at omissions). A big introduction, some interesting story picks to represent well-known authors, a lot of authors I've vaguely heard of and never read, a few authors I've never heard of, and evidence of real efforts to recover erased histories and to adopt an international outlook (including some original translations).

And Rose Lemberg's An Alphabet of Embers, also just out, looks hot. An anthology of very short unclassifiables, "between poetry and prose," mostly by speculative fiction type writers, including plenty of newer voices. (And I think mine is already probably winging its way to Bristol as my Kickstarter reward).

Pokemon GO

A good game

Here's a good game: "stonily deny any knowledge of a person or cultural touchstone that you should, by virtue of your other cultural reference points, be aware of." Some of my go-tos include:

John Updike, William Gibson, bongs, Russel Hoban, magical realism, trance parties, Crystal Maze, Charles Bukowski, Joy Division, Jack Kerouac, Italo Calvino, Guy Debord, The Mighty Boosh, Doctor Who apart from NuWho, Cory Doctorow, self-explanatory portmanteau neologizing, Hunter S. Thompson, Steve Jobs, William Burroughs, Brighton, Hegel, Rihanna, zombies (be aware of the word, but conflate with vampire), The Matrix, Bernie Sanders, The Big Lebowski, Stewart Lee, the word “hipster” (conflate with “hippie”), John le Carré, Alan Partridge, Glasto, Owen Jones, Margaret Atwood, Banksy, Martin Amis, Cormac McCarthy, the expression “grammar Nazi,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Woody Allen, Kurt Vonnegut, millennials, Ursula le Guin, Vladimir Nabokov, Fight Club, Terry Pratchett, the expression “garbage person,” anything with "utopia" in the title, Girls, Gilmore Girls, Christmas jumpers, Blur, dubstep, Thomas Pynchon, The Green Party, Father Jack, Samuel L. Jackson, Cards Against Humanity, The “Žižek Game,” Common, Samuel Beckett, taxidermy, Just Jinjer, Theodor Adorno, insulin, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmitt, search engines other than Google, burlesque, Wallace & Gromit, Jorge Luis Borges, social media other than Facebook and LinkedIn, stepcore, Lee-Ann Perrins, the transformative use exception in IP law, Prince, Verity Spott, Jay-Z, Muhammad Ali, the medical/health humanities, Terry Wogan, J.G. Ballard, Cilla Black, Monty Python, any Pokémon before Pokémon GO, Flann O’Brien, CrossFit, Slajov Žižek, Charles Kennedy, Francis Crot, Withnail and I, The God Delusion, Alasdair Gray, David Bowie (except that he died), Alan Hay, Inception, Radiohead, Maya Angelou, memes (always be more specific: “image macros”; “photoshopped images shared on Facebook”), the expression “grammar nerd,” Rosa Lyster, veganism, David Lynch, Jackie Chan,  Morrisey, Lisa Jeschke and Lucy Beynon, CPR, The Toast, Salvador Dali, The Wire, Ernest Hemingway, The NHS, David Cronenberg, Afrika Burn, anarchism, steampunk, Nicolas Cage, Don DeLillo, bunting (this one’s good), China Mieville, Dungeons & Dragons, A Clockwork Orange. And the EU.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Stross, Neptune's Brood (outtake)

A bit of a paper I'm working on that grew far too long and far too whimsical and babbly for the paper.

1.

Perhaps Charles Stross’s Neptune’s Brood also deserves a fresh look. Stross emphasizes the debt theme within and around the book, and he’s drawn on David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years. But as he readily admits, with everything else he’s juggling in that novel, what he has written is definitely not Debt: The Novel. The sense of the injustice of being born into debt certainly comes through, but besides that, things play out more or less within the conventional moral framework where by and large it's wrong not to pay your debts. Economic obligations map onto moral obligations. That's a framework which Graeber explodes in ways too interesting to try to summarize (read the book).

On the other hand, Stross’s currency system is also extremely interesting for a totally different reason: the way it questions the relationship between money, liquidity and sovereignty in an inter-state system.

Stross has effectively three currencies, but for simplicity, I’ll forget about medium money. Fast money is the kind of money we’re used to: it’s a unit of account and a medium of exchange, it circulates readily. Stross supposes that this kind of money just doesn’t work on the vast timescale which interstellar settlement implies, so he imagines slow money, which can “survive the gulfs of time and space involved.” For colonising stars, terraforming planets, and so on, slow money is used. Slow money is extremely stable, has a very, very low interest rate, and is used for contracts on a timescale of millennia. Every transaction must be verified by a party in another star system. (Imagine that to update the blockchain, you have to wait for a progress bar that takes decades. This is perhaps the first time I've encountered science fiction that uses the hard limit imposed by the speed of light as a kind of advantage, a resource around which a technology can be built).

Now, back in the real world, there is something quite mysterious about the way money operates transnationally. Let me try and estrange it a bit (if that’s the right word). This side of the room be Country A, England. And this side be Country B, Narnia. There are a set of institutions in Narnia that determine, by their own weird and somewhat arbitrary rituals, that some of you have a certain number of points, and you have a certain number of points, and so on. (Demand-driven money creation, we could call it). There are also institutions that say you have to have a certain number of points at certain moments in your life – for paying rent, for paying taxes, perhaps – or you’ll get in trouble. There are also institutions that enforce (potentially violently) almost all agreements you Narnians make among yourselves when those agreements mention points. So: the sovereign exercises its monopoly on the legitimate use of force within a territory to nudge you into acting as if those make-believe points were real.

And indeed, in a way, they therefore are real. So it makes some sense that you Narnians may be prepared to give up tangible things (Turkish Delight chocolates, for instance) in order to earn Narnia points, even if they are just arbitrarily made up.

But why on earth are the Englanders here prepared to give you their tangible stuff and labour in return for your points? 

Why would they do that, when they can see plainly that you just made them up? You won't allow the Englanders to make up Narnia points. (They have their own made up points, thank you very much). Englanders: don't you think accepting Narnia points in exchange for real things could be a bit of a slippery slope? You have no say over how many Narnia points exist. So what if Narnia decided to make up enough points to own everything in England?

Perhaps what we’re seeing is a polite euphemism for a differential in military power: England is likely to offer things for sale in Narnia points in proportion to the number of military bases Narnia has in England. "Hey England, gimme that! Here's your point, ha ha ha!" Narnia won't push it too much, of course, or England might start acting out. The delicate balance is to make them servile without making them sulk.

And perhaps there’s another delicate balance, as England accumulates more and more of these Narnia points, and therefore the possibility of gradually coming to own big chunks of Narnia. If you Englanders tactlessly spend your points on enough prime real estate -- buying up Cair Paravel and Deathwater Isle and Harfang and so on -- then Narnia may flex its muscles and say, "Now hang on. I think you’ve been taking these points a bit too literally. All points are not equal. In fact, you could say there are two kinds of points: the fast points, which is the day-to-day business of international trade, in other words (once the balance of trade has been calculated), you Englanders handing over some of your oil and GPS units and your clothing and getting nothing but points in return. But when you try to respond by gradually purchasing a big chunk of us, well! That’s more of a slow points matter. That starts to infringe on reasons of state, on sovereignty. And for slow points matters, we have Aslan on speedial." And Aslan swivels round in his swivel-chair and growls, "Sorry guys, there's no way we're going to let you redeem your long term trade surplus for a major say in Narnian civic affairs. We decide how much slow you're allowed in return for your fast, and it won't be much. We're the ones with the military bases, after all."

(By the way: does this ever happen? Basic mainstream economics of international trade tells us that trade imbalances are self-correcting, because exchange rates adjust so that over time if you're exporting more than you're importing, your currency appreciates, makes your exports less competitive, and gives your importers more purchasing power. But there are a lot of factors involved, and this self-correction might not happen. It might not happen, for instance, if an institution in England decides it's going to mop up all those Narnia points that are washing around, for instance by using them to purchase Treasury bills from Aslan.

More fundamentally, though, I find it difficult to know how to assess whether there really is any self-correcting mechanism that ensures that the tangible stuff that Narnia and England do for each other tend to equalize over time. I think it's pretty easy to imagine scenarios in which the balance of trade self-corrects, but you can tell at a glance that there's still horrific inequality in what each country does for the other. You know: England exports millions of units of clothing, textiles, footwear, furniture, plastic products, ceramics, electrical gizmos, and to balance it out, Narnia exports one unit of "inspection of military bases by Aslan" of equal value).

Well, I think that is an important mystery about money in the international system, and Stross is bringing it out in a quasi-allegorical way by emphasizing the vast gulf between star systems. It's important that the military power differential idea doesn't quite fit here. Stross insists that, “There is no sensible way to profit by invasion and conquest.” Nor is any tangible back-and-forth trade really possible: they’re mostly restricted to beaming information. (Beaming information, with Stross’s assumption of mind uploading, does also include what you might call human capital, or humans). It's a way of reminding us how weird it is that money even works at all across the boundaries of Westphalian sovereign states. Perhaps it's sort of a way of asking: is there a way of explaining the feasibility of money across Westphalian sovereign states, except by reference to military bullying?

2.

I'm not sure I'm competent to reconstruct the finance and economics around Stross's slow money. Maybe one day I will be! Here's a stab at it anyway. Comments appreciated, of course.

Stross does seem pretty clear that these are different kinds of money, i.e. different currencies, associated with different spheres of exchange or transactional orders (starships are never for sale in fast money, and ice-cream is never for sale in slow money. What we're grouping together as "fast money" might actually be various currencies, shortlived from the perspective of ponderous old slow money). So let's imagine a conjectural conjectural history about the origin of slow money as a currency.

I think it might have to be a conjectural conjectural history about establishing new a sphere of exchange. A powerful state charters a special new bank, which raises capital by selling perpetual bonds in the bank itself. These are bonds that never mature, so actually in a lot of ways they're like stock. Subscribers may take some heavy-handed persuasion to buy them, because although the perpetual bond itself is denominated in ordinary fast money (so you get fast money if you sell it on the market), it pays its coupons in slow money, which is an entirely new unit of account. Nobody knows what it is, and nobody trusts it. Even worse, the conversion between slow money and fast money is just appalling: I'm not sure how you ensure that except via price floors, and then you run into the problem that slow money is supposed to be more enduring than any particular legal or regulatory regime. Never mind, perhaps that aspect of it doesn't need to last. The main difference between a perpetual bond and a stock is that, unlike dividend payments, the bond's coupon payments won't be discretionary. Every bondholder knows exactly what their future stream of slow money payments will be. Perhaps this is even hard-coded into the technology, a bit like Bitcoin growth. The bank doesn't need discretionary powers over the slow money it pays out, though because it's never going to run out of slow money. It's the source of the stuff, the wellspring, uniquely permitted to print slow money.

So that's where slow money comes from. Where does it go? Slow money is only redeemable for anything at all by the chivvying of the government. The government creates tax and other incentives for certain kinds of producers -- starship builders and their suppliers and their suppliers -- to do some of their business in slow money. If you're doing anything remotely connected to interstellar colonisation, you suddenly find you can do a hell of a lot better if you start invoicing in a mixture of slow and fast money, using the slow money to pay suppliers and fast money to pay employees. These are of course probably the same firms the government strong-armed when they raised the capital for the bank (or at least institutional investors who are associated with them).

But the slow money takes horrifically long to move around. You can barely call it circulation. It oozes. Firms have to get used to a new way of doing business, where a significant proportion of their balance sheets is unconfirmed, beyond standard audit techniques. The whole thing is probably a logistics and an accounting nightmare.

But this government is strong and durable and pretty bent on driving these reforms through, and eventually you do get a new sphere of exchange and a new a banking infrastructure established. At that point, perhaps things can change. Perhaps the charter can be relaxed, and instead of a single creator of slow money (a slow money central bank) you can have many banks that issue those special perpetual bonds -- a self-regulating trans-epoch industry? -- perhaps? Anyway, assume that things are liberalised a little, perhaps by default as the particular government or civilisation that set the system in motion collapses, while the system itself survives. The way the sphere of exchange evolves -- whether it stays closely mapped to starship building and so on, or whether it becomes commensurable with other stuff -- is probably definitively shaped by its slowness. 

The notion that slow money is actually "slow" is problematic, because after all, what is to stop me from issuing IOUs denominated in slow money and circumvent the whole get-a-third-party-in-a-nearby-star-system-to-verify-it business?

The notion that slow money is "backed" by anything is also problematic, insofar as any legal regime or institution that could implement its redeemability must be more fragile and shortlived than slow money itself. (You could say the slow money banks are the exception, but we have to assume that their own fortunes rise and fall: at any given moment we can't rely on them to have any real power or assets other than slow money itself).

But slow money does have historical ties with star settling, ties which are so strong that by now we should be thinking of it as part of the deep technological know-how of that activity. To settle stars, you have to understand aerospace engineering, terraforming ecology, and slow money economics.

The notion that it is "stable" is also difficult to wrap my head around: it must surely be quintessentially volatile when priced in terms of any other asset, since on the timescales we're talking, those asset classes blink in and out of existence. On the other hand, perhaps from day-to-day the price of slow money in terms of fast money doesn't change much. It is pretty much immune to speculation. People don't buy slow money because they think the price is going to go up tomorrow. (They might conceivably buy slow money because the price is going to go up next century).

But before I go too far down this route: one of the problems is that Stross mentions slow money's very low interest rate. He doesn't seem to mean inflation.

Is this an interest rate on a loan? Let's say that a special investment company that holds a lot of slow money agrees to loan you, a star settling enterprise, the slow money you need to get your colony up and running. It will take twenty years from the time the loan is approved for you to actually get the money for definite (it has to be signed by a nearby star). It will also take twenty years or so from the moment you repay the loan for the investor to know for certain that you really have repaid it. Then there's the bit in the middle, where you actually have the money and do something with it, which will also take years and years and years. One argument is that because this an intrinsically long term loan, so it's intrinsically higher risk, so the interest rate should be higher.

Or perhaps we are, after all, talking not about a kind of currency, but about a kind of bond. So instead you could imagine that the three types of money are actually all the same currency, divided into three types of bonds. Or, fast money means "cash," medium money means ordinary bonds with 30-ish year maturities, and slow money means bonds with maturities of 1000 years. These bonds would be issued by star settling companies, and purchased by, say, pension funds that are trying to match their asset portfolios with their liabilities on that kind of time scale.

But then, wouldn't a bond only be as stable as the currency it is issued in?

Perhaps their yield contains some provision to deal with the vicissitudes of currency, including its collapses. E.g. (I'm just making stuff up now, there's no hint of this in the novel) they could be multicurrency bonds, and there could be a fixed formula by which certain currencies fulfilling certain criteria are added to or taken out of the bond along the way to maturity. When your 1000 year bond matures, none of the currencies you bought it in exist, but so long as they didn't all fail at once, your bond has gradually been translated into something of vaguely comparable value today.

3.

The whole thing could be an elaborate pun on "sunshine trading." In sunshine trading, high volume transactions are pre-announced to the market, allowing the market to prepare itself. This has the potential to reduce confusion, uncertainty, volatility, and get-rich-quick speculation. Perhaps slow money involves a similar attempt at transparency, using not just sunlight, but light bouncing between many stars.

Then again, even if we know a big transaction is about to be verified or not verified by a third party at a particular time, doesn't that just create more uncertainty?

4.

Well, I don't know.

But Stross’s conceit about slow money is intuitively plausible because (a) even if, like me, you don’t know that much about finance, you’ve soaked up the wisdom of financial economics enough to assume a three-way trade-off between risk, return, and liquidity (the ease with which an asset is convertible). So setting aside return, slow money feels solid, reliable, durable. And (b) this money asks us to do the same thing that interstellar colonization asks us to do, which is be patient. It takes time to transfer any slow money, and it takes time to convert slow money into medium or fast.

So can you design a currency to outlast the fall of a civilization? Not sure. The idea suggests to me the work of the Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt, and later left wing thinkers like Agamben and Mouffe who have been influenced by Schmitt, on “the exception”: the moments or frontiers where rule of law breaks down, and the question of whether a system of law can somehow include the exception within itself.

There could also be an interesting comparison to be made with gold -- a kind of value which though socially constructed like all monetary value, also seems to have a peculiar tendency to outlast the societies in which it is constructed as valuable. It’s hard to get gold and it’s hard to fake gold, in the same way that it’s hard to settle new star systems and hard to fake settling new star systems. You could say that gold is more like money than any currency considered in isolation: at any given time and place, gold might be a store of value, a unit of account, and/or a medium of exchange; often it fails in one function or another, but if you zoom out to the big scale, it fulfills these functions better than the Zimbabwean Dollar, the German Reischmark, the Roman Denarii, the US Dollar, or the British Pound Sterling.

The puzzle about money in the interstate system is an important one, but it is also an artificial one, born by exaggerating the extent to which a state is a circumscribed territory and a unitary actor (perhaps after the fashion of neo-realism in International Relations). In fact, states are not isolated atoms, sovereignty is not absolute, and the way monetary sovereignty works is an expression of that state of affairs. In the real world, rather than Stross's Freyaverse, the "stars" are overlapping and entangled. The institutions that make up points are likely to be multinational banks, sprawling between Narnia and England. Narnia and England are also implicated not only in a web of differential hard power and actual military conflicts, but in a web of other states like Belgium and Earthsea, as well as various MNCs, treaties, trade blocs, regional economic communities, International Non-Governmental Institutions, intergovernmental organizations. Secrecy comes into it as well.

And perhaps above all, the class and class fragment antagonisms within Narnia and England are also really important motors here. Monetizing debt, for instance, can be inflationary, and while inflation can be brutal and even murderous to the poorest and most vulnerable, it also has a tendency to erode large fortunes and large debts. So for those who survive, there can be a kind of leveling aspect to inflation: one of the reasons why mainstream economics -- which I have noticed, when all is said and done, is the science of toadying to the opulent -- is so fixated on keeping inflation low. (Not that we shouldn't care about price changes, or the kind of background unpredictability that makes it impossible to dream up projects and then realize them. Is there even a concept to describe violent changes within the price structure rather than overall price rises or decreases? I’ve never come across it). To return to our earlier example, the Narnian elite may well prefer to have England gradually come to own significant Narnian assets, rather than risk devaluing their Narnia point holdings in relation to both Narnians and Englanders.

So I think Neptune's Brood, whatever else it does, quietly points out the absurdity of thinking of polities as isolated, sovereign atoms. It's not just that globalisation has made it less true. Globalisation has only been possible because it was never really true in the first place.

That'll do for now.

Elsewhere: "In Neptune's Brood, how does slow money work?"
"Hard Social Science Fiction: Neptune's Brood"

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Help me track down these stories

1.

A short story. A hoard of silver is uncovered. Some terrible events unfold (I think involving domestic abuse, perhaps murder). Toward the end somebody has an awful thought, and counts the silver. There are thirty pieces! Thirty pieces of silver!

Spooky.

2.

This one's a short story, I think, modern, I think. Maybe YA / MG-ish.

Somebody a bit magical-seeming comes and sells something. The price is something like "the blue from your eyes and the ring from your left finger." They show the buyer their face in a little mirror. (I think it's described as cobwebby or ashy or something). Later it happens again, only the price is something like "the red from your lips and the ring from your right finger." Eventually though there's a sort of happy ending. "He didn't have any magic, unless there was perhaps some magic in that mirror of his." The buyer realizes that they haven't actually paid these terrible strange magical prices! "What did he gain from it all?" they marvel. "What did he gain?" says the interlocutor. "Two rings, worth a fortune."

Any ideas?

Friday, June 10, 2016

Economics and SFF, Awards

A little listicle I made one day featuring, I think, no more than Star Trek, Scrooge McDuck, Tim Maughan, David Graeber, grew and grew till I realized it was, like, a database. So there's now a dedicated tab for economics in science fiction and fantasy.

I will happily take suggestions for entries or links, or any ideas really. (Economics-in-SFF-wise it is kind of ridiculous I haven't read a bit more Atwood, Stephenson, Sterling, Stross, and Robinson, so if anyone wants to donate any reviews or posts they think are relevant, please get in touch! I can be found most days at the Cafe de Gmail, ask for josephclwalton).

A long-term goal is to start including topic articles as well. Currency, Credit, Scarcity, Supply and Demand, Malthusianism, Eugenics, Diegetic Prototyping, Families, Financial Performativity, Quantity Theory, Political Economy as Science Fiction, and Topsy-Turvy Worlds all come to mind.

Secondly, over at the SFWA, Setsu Uzumé talks about Lemonade Award, the Mixy Award, and some other badassed yet goodassed awards (including the Sputnik!).  

PS: UPDATE: In fact, here's my provisional desiderata list.

Recommended to me & currently or recently on my TBR kang:

Kim Stanley Robinson, rest of The Mars Trilogy
G. Willow Wilson, Alif the Unseen.
Ursula le Guin, The Telling.
Clifford D. Simak, "The Fence" (see this snippet)
Jack Vance, Demon Princes series (SVU)
Sarah Zettel, Fool's War.
Charles Stross, Accelerando & others.
Philip K. Dick, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
John Varley's Eight Worlds
Robert Heinlein, For Us The Living
Neal Asher, The Skinner (spline)
Anne McCaffrey
Max Gladstone
Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn: The Original Trilogy (coinshots, Atium)
Gene Wolfe's Book of the Short Sun (circuit board currency)
Gordon R. Dickson's Childe Cycle (exchange of expertise)
Henry Kuttner, "The Iron Standard"
Scott Westerfield's Uglies Trilogy (Smoke's food pack currencies)
Frank O'Rourke's "Instant Gold"
Geoff Ryman, Air.
Will Garth, "Men of Honor"
Neal Stephenson's Baroque cycle and Reamde
Cory Doctorow's For the Win
The rest of Margaret Atwood's Maddadam trilogy
Richard Morgan, Market Forces.
John Chu, "A Cost-Benefit Analysis of the Proposed Trade-Offs for the Overhaul of the Barrier."
Sergey Lukyanenko's Seekers of the Sky
Greg Costikyan, First Contract.
Hayford Peirce, Chap Foey Rider: Capitalist to the Stars.
Lester del Rey & Frederik Pohl, Preferred Risk
Weis & Hickman's Deathgate cycle (barls currency)
Henry Richardson Chamberlain, 6000 Tonnes of Gold

Guess what? I'd be particularly interested in recommendations of economic science fiction and fantasy by women!