Saturday, September 28, 2013

September: executive summary

Recent blog posts:

Interzone 248 is out, including my review of Fearsome Journeys: The New Solaris Book of Fantasy, ed. Jonathan Strahan, plus a friendly and interesting review of Invocation -- a fantasy book I wrote, 11.5% of the print run of which I now always wear in this specially 3D-printed diadem-cum-rack -- by Peter Loftus. The issue also includes fiction by Carole Johnstone, James Van Pelt, Greg Kurzawail, Ken Altabef, Sean McMullen; John Howard interviewing Christopher Priest; Jonathan McCalmont's Future Interrupted column; David Langford's news and tidbits; and loads of book, film and DVD/Blu Ray reviews.

Andy Hedgecock editorialises:
"In times of social uncertainty and psychological hazard readers need new ideas, new ways of making sense of their world. There’s an appetite for prophecy and truthful exploration of the mess we’re making, politically, ecologically and economically."
An early review of the issue by Lois Tilton.


Phonebloks: modular phones that snap together as easily as Lego. You could have really big "phones," right? Phones that weren't really phones? Looks like some sort of nebulous new computing revolution waiting to happen. It's mostly just a concept right now: they want a day of crowdsourced clamor at the end of October. Whose side are you on? The future's side? Is that it?


Precarity is in the news (BBC)! In a way, bizarrely, so is science fiction. Tim Maughan's low key and completely on-point new #Pretpunk tale "Zero Hours" (Medium) is definitely worth a read. See also Future Londoners (Nesta).

It would be misleading to call this story "dystopian"  or "chilling plausible," it's just straight plausible, really. But it does make me want to come up with a utopian B-side. (Spoilers, sort of). Is the bad stuff the story depicts -- the obvious one being untrained, dispirited, gratuitously sad and lonely and knackered retail staff travelling illegally to work to give bad customer service, nick stuff and snitch on each other -- is that inevitable within its basic, you know, techno-social set-up? Or is some of it down to bad gamification? In what ways has this retail sector been mis-gamified, under-gamified? See also: ten tales of gamification.

Bruce Sterling notes the arrest of a school pupil who uploaded his virtual massacre to YouTube. "Augmented Reality: American teenager arrested for using augmented gun app" (Wired). See how the ad implies that this augmented reality game is so addictive, even when you become a real soldier in a real firefight you're still just gonna wanna keep playing!

Is the solution here that law enforcement officers get some app of their own, so they only need to arrest the kid in augmented reality, which in underlying reality corresponds to this completely prudent but completely sensitive and discreet tête-à-tête? Hmm. Some action structures may have no corresponding game structures; they would be ungamifiable. More on that later, maybe.

Strange Horizons fund drive. Achievement unlocked! I really think one of the bonus levels should be Strange Horizons getting a Hex or two just to noodle around the sky, perhaps with a tiny "Strange Horizons" banner attached. It wouldn't be visible from the ground but it would be visible from other Hexes and pretty soon just about everything will be other Hexes.

Gamified, hypothecated tax. Imagine tax worked a bit like the Strange Horizons fund drive. Citizens and companies pay as much tax as they like (or in another scenario, must pay a certain level, but distribute it how they like) into various funds. Get to this level to build a new hospital ward, get to this level to equip it for dialysis, etc. One interesting aspect of this set-up is the potential for a kind of out-in-the-open corruption. If the top is tier is something everyone desperately wants, they give tacit consent to the intermediary tiers. "If we raise $100,000,000, mayor gets a sweet ass yacht and a maybe bunch of them Hexes. If we raise $200,000,000, we'll keep the ambulances on the roads and a bunch more Hexes."


Disney threatens to make your fingertips into little speakers (BBC).

Tom Kaneshige thinks the world is too weary for Google Glass (CIO). More like wear-y, amirite?! Yeah!

Guillotine simulator.

3-Sweep, extracting editable objects from a single photo (YouTube).

Tommy Edison, blind since birth, has a go at explaining his perceptions of "things that sighted people see all the time" (YouTube).

New study on the cost of using cash.

Britain's 50 new radicals (mostly companies and other organisations): a list by Nesta.

Earth's selfie. "Our pick of the best space-related imagery includes the birth of a star that will one day be 100 times the mass of the sun, lava flows from the largest volcano in the solar system, a picture of Earth from 1.44bn kilometres away and plans for the next Mars rover" (The Guardian).

"Scientists used to scan the skies for messages from alien civilisations. Now they go looking for their ruins." Distant Ruins (Aeon). See also Lavie Tidhar's comments.


Chris Lough ponders Red Dead Redemption and whether people who have grown up as gamers have a different sense of what counts as legitimate narrative. "To see others protesting this ending left me wondering—very much in a thinking-out-loud way—if the very concept of narrative, or cause and effect, is simply broken in maturing gamers who have spent their lives absorbing narrative as it is constructed through games." Does the End of Red Dead Redemption Underscore How Fractured Game Narratives Are? (

Monica Valentinelli expresses her number one wish for the SF&F community, which happens to be a mentorship program. "To varying degrees, I feel what’s happening today in the science fiction and fantasy genre is the same thing that has happened before. [...] It’s 'You haven’t been around long enough to understand how changes are implemented' versus 'You’ve been around so long you aren’t willing to change.'"

Joseph Tomaras looks at genre as a function of market segmentation of the ontologies of fiction. "The ontologies of fantasy cluster around the thesis that 'all things that can be imagined are possible.' This is quite distinct from the thesis of horror ontologies, for which things are not as potentialities but as actualities, independent of their being known or even imagined."

Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay on Anglocentrism. "These planetary imaginings are set at the dawn of European colonialism. Is it such a coincidence? Note that Clute’s insistence on the Western view systematically evades any narrative history which may highlight the role of colonial imagination in the origins of the fantastic, in spite of the fact that science fiction and fantasy critics have, before him, often noticed the close ways in which the representations of the colonized Other informs and influences the development of science fiction themes and tropes—that science fiction is a genre of systematic Othering in the Anglo-American world." Recentering Science Fiction and the Fantastic: What would a non-Anglocentric understanding of science fiction and fantasy look like? (Strange Horizons).

"[...] the world view that underpins hard sf conforms structurally to the world view that underpins right wing ideologies. It is a narrowly prescribed world where obedience to the laws is essential for survival, far outweighing in importance the individual needs and desires of any of the inhabitants of that world. It tends to be conservative: if the law of nature is a universal limitation on any action, revolution or even gradual change must be resisted. And it is a set-up in which great men are fated to emerge as leaders because they know best, and the masses should bend to their will for the good of all." A reprint of "Hard Right" by Paul Kincaid, his follow-up post, and another post on Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations."

Ian Sales has a hard think about hard science fiction, authoritarianism, and whether that classic example of the hardness of Golden Age science fiction, "The Cold Equations," really counts as hard science fiction. "Hard sf generally [...] presents dilemmas predicated on fixed natural limits, and then finds solutions using human ingenuity [...] Certainly a lot of hard sf is right-wing, especially the near-future variant. But that’s a characteristic brought to it by the writers, not something innate to the subgenre."

One quick suggestion: perhaps it's not that hard science fiction is inherently right wing, but that right wing politics are an example of hard science fiction? The slippage between conformity with nature and conformity with society is nowhere more pronounced than in right wing mythology. The obvious example is the conviction that markets arise spontaneously from human nature, like anchovies from sea foam in Athenaeus's account, or bookworms from codices blown with certain southerly or westerly winds according to Vitruvius's view. Insofar as the peculiar compound of economic laissez faire and social conservativism is hard science fiction, it is hard science fiction which fits pretty well with Kincaid's analysis -- but as an example of the subgenre, not as its model or its teleology. (I'm not sure I really mean this. Anchovies? Teleology?)

Another quick thought: where is the reader in all this? Star Trek seemed like pretty hard science fiction to me, till I got my PhD in Oscillating Variable Quantum Neutrino Inversions. Do different levels of readerly expertise matter? Do they matter in different ways in the 1950s and in the 2010s, when readers can connect online form a provisional public, sharing expertise, contending and assessing the rigour of a story?


Me: reading Twenty-First Century Science Fiction anthology ed. Hartwell & Hayden. Saw Sharpe, Seventh Seal, Argo. Syndicate featured Ian Davidson, Sandra Alland, s i n k and Steve Willey. Lotta Hix Eros admin, deadlines in flux (not Mike's cat Flux & not Jimmy & Rachel's dog Flux. Leave them alone). Submitted abstract to Stage the Future: "Rhinopotamuses in the Blooper-Verbatim Utopias of Chris Goode" (title subject to increase). Beckettcrit proofing. FTL: answered every distress call, unlocked "No Redshirts Here" & uninstalled. Lent a helping poet to nick-e melville's Dole Kind at Forest+ & Goodnight Press's Caesura at Artisan: nick-e, Sam, Will Rowe, Steven Fowler, Tom Jenks, Rob Mackenzie, Hal Duncan. Will read at the new Newport music & poetry festival this Friday. Rumbled undercover in Londres & en route to Arundel to mangle hymns & epithalamiumise postmodern Glenmorangie detective. Have YP railcard ha ha ha ha ha. No Spacebook yet eek.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Speculative fiction of gamification

Wait, what is this gamification?
"[...] online design that plays on people’s competitive instincts and often incorporates the use of rewards to drive action—these include virtual rewards such as points, payments, badges, discounts, and 'free' gifts; and status indicators such as friend counts, retweets, leader boards, achievement data, progress bars, and the ability to 'level up.'" 
Gamification: experts expect 'game layers' to expand in the future, with positive and negative results (PDF: Pew Research Center).
Or here's Dilbert's take:

I hereby present Tales of Gamification.

Future Londoner Nicki (c) Arup

(1) Tim Maughan, "Zero Hours" (2013), free to read on "Zero Hours" is a spin-off of a collaborative project to imagine ten Londoners in ten years' time. The story presents a grim and eminently plausible vision of a young woman's typical day working in the retail sector, picking up a couple hours here, a couple hours there, and unlocking achievements like Shelf Stacker Pro Level 2 and Shop-Cop Pro.

Best read together with Maughan's "With Augmented Reality, You'll Always Know When No Means Yes" (2014), also on To steady your nerves, you may need a stiff glass of the gushing hype of innumerable well-meaning gamification gurus. See also Maughan's "Limited Edition" (2012) and also possibly "Havana Augmented" (2009) in Paintwork. Earlier on this blog: a review of Paintwork. Elsewhere: Today, Tomorrow: my short talk on near future sf.

(2) Charles Stross, "Life's a Game" (2015) in Twelve Tomorrows 2016. Minor spoilers ahead. "See, gamification is good!" It's somewhat expositional, but I think Stross is on form here: there is polymath erudition and cleversticks wit, and the kind of brio and drive that lets you hurtle over the speed-bumps without necessarily getting every reference or fully unpacking every dense little thesis. "Life's a Game" is full of zingers. "Tribalism is the ground state of identity politics in the network age."  "What if Napoleon's, like, following from in front?" "Keep Britain British, for noncommunist values of British." "Hitler was the Boss Nazi in the Cross of Iron game. They don't teach history in British schools, we have real problems now, terrorists, class warfare. Nobody learns history and lands some expert job in history development. There's no business model for that." "You'll realize you'll lose all your guild followers if we do that?" (OK that one needs the context). The narrator is also a satirical portrait of the UK's answer to Red Piller gamer bro types, although I felt like Stross soft-pedals that aspect a bit.

As the story opens, we learn about Peelers, a monetized, massively multiplayer AR game (with integrated social currency) for snitching and vigilantism. Points for detaining shoplifters, points for helping drunk women home, points for persecuting the profane worshippers of Termagant ... you know, the kind of thing which would turn a racist kidnapper like the Farminator into the leader of the biggest guild in under a week.

But Peelers is just laying the groundwork for Stross's real thought experiment, the Movement, a universal gamification model. (The Movement supposedly implements Kant's categorical imperative, which something I would like to write about properly one day. Maybe once I've read Adam Roberts's new Kantfic too). The Movement mines your data footprint and assigns you clan membership and class features. (Or it lurks in wait next to the space where you should appear -- "If you didn't have a Facebook account, Facebook still knew about you from the hole in their network"). Then it starts to procedurally generate missions and scenarios, built out of the kinds of things you'd be doing anyway. Or perhaps, the kind of things you want to be doing or should be doing -- in fact the point of this gamification is to craftily blur together want to and should in all aspects of life, and ramp up the belligerence of that blurred motive. So your missions could involve anything from green activism to trade unionism to financial speculation to bringing back hanging one way or another.

I now almost feel like I could do with some more stories set in this same future history -- one of the most intriguing threads is all about how the Movement decides who you are in the first place. ("We went deep tribal on the players' media bubbles. We mined their search history to find out what pushed their outrage buttons. Then we went long on principal component analysis to model their micro-class identity.") If these identities really were built bottom-up from data, how closely would they coincide with the kind of taxonomies we already use? And could there be micro-classes with different kinds of reflexivity built into them, i.e. what motivates them is learning and changing per se? And/or an anti-tribalism tribe? And what would it be like if you were one of those people (almost everybody to some extent, right?) feeling like you haven't been perfectly modeled, that the essence which the Movement has inveigled from your digital footprint isn't the real you, and that the conditions you are being thrust into are uncannily awry, like a gargantuan circumambient targeted ad?

(3) Iain M. Banks, The Player of Games (1988), for its game Azad. "Whoever succeeds at the game succeeds in life; the same qualities are required in each to ensure dominance." See also Consider Phlebas (1987) for the game Damage, where play involves direct manipulation of players' moods. See also Feersum Endjinn (1994), especially the assaults on the princess in her tower. Earlier on this blog: a post about Banks and games.

You know, this is as good a place as any to ask a question I've yet to find any answers to: what is out there, or in the works, in terms of sophisticated computer modelling of human society, that doesn't take anything for granted, doesn't start with a fixed preconception of the human? Any suggestions, people?

(4) Cory Doctorow, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (2003). I suppose this is a rare example of -- more-or-less -- a positive presentation of gamification. In Doctorow's post-scarcity Bitchun Society, Whuffie, a kind of public esteem metric, has replaced money.
"[...] they called him Keep-A-Movin’ Dan [...] he somehow grew to take over every conversation I had for the next six months. I pinged his Whuffie a few times, and noticed that it was climbing steadily upward as he accumulated more esteem from the people he met. [...] I’d expended all the respect anyone had ever afforded me. All except Dan, who, for some reason, stood me to regular beers and meals and movies. [...] I think it came down to us having a good time needling each other. [...] I’d get him to concede that Whuffie recaptured the true essence of money: in the old days, if you were broke but respected, you wouldn’t starve; contrariwise, if you were rich and hated, no sum could buy you security and peace." 
Reviews (Craphound). I compare Whuffie & DRM in the last part of this review-essay.

(5) Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Lucifer's Dragon (2004). Nicely oblique, but it seems like the constitution and political order of New Venice is gamified: see review by Lara Buckerton (Quiche Straight from the Bucket), review by Nathan Brazil (SF Site).

(6) Bruce Sterling, "Maneki Neko" (1998), free reprint available at Lightspeed Magazine, or collected in A Good Old-Fashioned Future (2001). Included in the list mainly for the way it plays with crowdsourcing. "'I’ve been studying your outfit for a long time now. We computer cops have names for your kind of people. Digital panarchies. Segmented, polycephalous, integrated influence networks. What about all these free goods and services you’re getting all this time?'"

(7) Diana Wynne Jones, The Homeward Bounders (1981). Immortal hoodies nudging us around in some sort of cosmic Jenga or Carcassonne or Operation R2-D2 or Jellychess or cross-stitched Final Fantasy-themed limited edition Monopoly or whatever is a venerable and pervasive trope. Terry Pratchett's The Colour of Magic (1983), Neil Gaiman's Sandman (1989-1996), The Iliad etc. But perhaps we can only talk about gamification proper to the extent that there is a confusion between heavenly and worldly events -- when mortals are invited to pull up a chair and perhaps set a hand on their own shiny little head. See also Jones's Hexwood (1993).

(8) Adam Roberts, New Model Army (2010).  When you think about the gamification of war, you probably think "drones" before you think "e-democracy." Perhaps what's going on in New Model Army is probably more like social soldiering (by analogy with social browsing etc.) than gamification per se. See Nader Elhefnawy's review (Strange Horizons), Jonathan McCalmont's review (Ruthless Culture), Lara Buckerton's review (PDF: originally in Vector).

For dronepunk BTW, see Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game (1985), Francis Crot, Hax (2011), & Miriam A. Cherry's essay on some legal implications of the gamification of work, which talks a bit about Ender's Game.

(9) Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age, or, A Young Lady's Primer (1995). This seminal work of postcyberpunk and of steampunk is also a seminal work of gamification SF. All the ingredients of a utopian vision of a comprehensively gamified society are present in the story, but connected and motivated in messy, subtle and unexpected ways.

For instance, we've got these "ractors" (actors in interactive media entertainment), who receive work via a kind of ThespRabbit. An individual employment may go on for years, or be as brief as a few seconds. Crucially, the human inputs are mapped onto avatars: if you were to take over from Jennifer Lawrence for a bit in the portrayal of Katniss Everdeen, the media system would autocorrect your voice and perhaps your walrus mustache. (Apologies to the community who are Jennifer Lawrence, who must feel confused and left out by this example). Why is this so important? The general point is that what workers feel that they are doing, and what they are objectively doing in terms of the production chain, can be interfered with at an intimate grain. The necessary unity of any task can be interrogated: is there another way to tease this task apart, to give a bit more of it (or perhaps, a bit less of it) to the machines?

There's plenty more in the book related to gamification: Nell's Night Friends -- Dinosaur, Duck, Peter and Purple -- have an aura of a small primitive social media site; the ecstatic Drummers are a kind of grotesque example of "flow," of loss of ego through immersion in action; there's that stuff about the street vs. the telephone switchboard.

But. The altar piece is clearly the Primer itself -- a majestic technological tome, with shades of Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and a splendid illustration of Arthur C. Clarke's celebrated maxim that "Any sufficiently magical magic is indistinguishable from magic" -- which somehow floats into the hands of a poor and vulnerable four-year-old girl called Nell. The Primer mediates Nell's world for her, spinning her an epic interactive fairytale (starring "Princess Nell") which allegorises her various violent, abusive and increasingly philosophical predicaments, whilst teaching her all she needs to survive and existentially flourish (martial arts, decorum, hacking, obviously). As The Diamond Age progresses, Nell's book begins to feel more and more like a computer game (clearly influenced by 90s point-and-click adventure games). The convention of using a different font to represent the Primer's text becomes more scarce.

Like most good allegories, the Primer's allegory is a slippery one. The Primer's Queen of the Dark Castle is clearly a correlate of Nell's mother, but the Queen does plenty of significant stuff which doesn't seem inspired by Nell's mother, and vice-versa. Nell's brother Harv appears in the Primer as just Harv, but also seems to have a connection with Peter Rabbit (they disappear around the same time, for instance). There's not a one-to-one cipher: correlations come and go. You get the impression that the allegory might work a bit like the racting: 'let's see what's available at the moment.'

Likewise, Nell doesn't simply unlock achievements in her Primer or advance to the next story by demonstrating she has mastered some real world skill. Nor does the Primer elide its fairytale with her surroundings so that winning the game is indistinguishable from winning life. The Primer informs and incentivises, it provokes action, but it also comforts, cares, offers the solaces of shrouds and distortions, and immersive escapism. The relations between game and extra-game world can be just as slippery and mercurial as the relations of allegory.

(10) Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games (2008). Why Collins and not JK Rowling's Triwizard Tournament, for instance? What exactly is gamified here? Well, perhaps governmentality is. Extremely-high-stakes reality TV, and the gladiatorial model welfare state: that's another slippery slope into a huge list . . . compare perhaps Koushun Takami's Battle Royale (1999), Stephen King's The Running Man (1982) and The Long Walk (1979), Matthew Stover's Acts of Caine series, Edgar Rice Burrough's The Chessmen of Mars (1922).

& a few honourable mentions:

(11) Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). I mean the bit where Tom gets the fence painted. (Compare this essay (Quid PDF) on the poet John Wilkinson. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), Tom sort of gamifies springing Jim from imprisonment).

(12) Hannu Rajaniemi, The Quantum Thief (2010). Game theory gets its own reality-mangling super-army. (Game theory seems to be SF's favourite piece of economics (Charles Stross's Singularity Sky and Peter Watts's Blindsight also spring to mind). Economists, typically, don't see fun as in any way essential to the concept of a game. For game theorist economists, a game is simply a class of multi-agent mathematical model within which all motivations must be axiomatic -- you can posit an agent who rationally pursues happiness, sure, or one who wants misery or funereal squalor all the time. GG economist dudes).

(13) Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken (2011). This is futurism and polemic, not fiction. "What if we used everything we know about game design to fix what's wrong with reality? [...] I want all of us to be responsible for providing the world at large with a better and more immersive reality." The book fizzes with neologisms, some of which are probably useful. One of the great things about McGonigal's book is that it attempts a distinct account of what a game actually is for the purposes of gamification -- an account grounded in psychology and a bit of armchair (/ beanbag) anthropology of gamers. (Sorry, Prisoner's Dilemma, I don't think you qualify. Your fiero sucks).

(14) The Blog Monetiser's Daughter (2013). Not a real book though.

(15) Roberto Benigni's 1997 film Life is Beautiful.

(16) Newb Maps of Hell (2014). Again, issue is this book doesn't exist. (UPDATE: OK, now it does, I made it).

(17) Douglas Adams's Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (1987), for Richard Macduff's all-singing, all-dancing spreadsheet software, capable of representing data as music.

(18) Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations (1953). Language-gamified philosophy.

(19) Neil Strauss's The Game (2007). Sexually predatory misogyny is often fairly game-like to start with; the Pick Up Artist phenomenon pushes it a little further.

(20) Joe Simpson's memoir about climbing down a gigantic mountain with a broken leg, Touching the Void (1988). Have a look at these excerpts.

(21) Herman Hesse's The Glass Bead Game (1943). The Game is "a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture; it plays with them as, say, in the great age of the arts a painter might have played with the colors on his palette. All the insights, noble thoughts, and works of art that the human race has produced in its creative eras, all that subsequent periods of scholarly study have reduced to concepts and converted into intellectual property -- on all this immense body of intellectual values the Glass Bead Game player plays like the organist on an organ. And this organ has attained an almost unimaginable perfection; its manuals and pedals range over the entire intellectual cosmos; its stops are almost beyond number. Theoretically this instrument is capable of reproducing in the Game the entire intellectual content of the universe."

(22) Yoon Ha Lee's "The Knight of Chains, the Deuce of Stars" (2013). I think it's a pretty splendid adventure fable, with a jewelly-type pistol you could whip out in any bar in Beerlight and everything. It has a really weird ontology to do with a continuum of wars, the sum war of which is fought for the universe's laws, and a tower which leads underground to every possible game -- games have to be mined before they can be played. I can't spot gamification per se, but there are themes (that you also get in a lot of Banks) which get pretty close: themes of linked games, of moves which exist in multiple games at once, of games which are themselves pieces nested inside larger games, etc.

(23) Catherynne M. Valente's "The Shoot-Out at Burnt Corn Ranch over the Bride of the World" (2013).

(24) Rose Biggin's "A Game Proposition" (2014) collected in Irregularity. I like the voice here, and the way it keeps slightly telling you off for slightly wrongly imagining things. And I'm a little nervous to ever read it again, in case the text is different. "Now then, you haven't understood Reader Response Theory at all, dear reader," I think it begins. There is a board game which serves as a kind of control panel, kind of like Wynne Jones / Pratchett q.v., and there is a rather beautiful inter-nesting of games, or of interpretations of what "the game" is, which results in losing one of them perhaps being a element of winning another of them. It also makes me think that more instruments of command and control probably should be explicitly ludic objects.

(25) If something influences a game, and the game becomes very popular, does the original thing become more game-like, more gameful? See Advanced Readings in D&D.

(26) I've just bought Press Start to Play (2015) ed. John Joseph Adams and Daniel H. Wilson, so perhaps I'll get to add a few more tales of gamification soon. Cory Doctorow's "Anda's Game" isn't about gamification in a strict sense (this isn't a very strict listicle!), but it is about gaming, gold-farming, and those circuits of reality that integrate in-game and IRL components. Also, it's a subtle response to -- an updating of, maybe? -- Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game. Ender, you may recall, thinks he's playing a game, but he's really a prodigal supergeneral conducting genocide on behalf of Mankind. It's a twist so obvious, you can't help but think Ender partly knows all along, but doesn't want to break the spell. In "Anda's Game," Anda and Lucy are even more actively complicit than Ender. They ignore the glaring signs that their in-game massacres have real-world consequences. (Eventually Anda wises up, and there's a kind of happy-ish ending. Kind of). The story made me wonder if you could apply game design principles (feedback loops etc.) to the analysis of ideology. Like a lot of Doctorow's near future stuff, it feels like science fiction, but sends you Googling to work out what, if anything, has actually been made up.

(27) Gamified tax return cartoon.

(28) Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror Episode "15 Million Merits."

(29) Gary Shteyngart, Super Sad True Love Story (2011).

(30) "The Internet of Things Your Momma Never Told You" and "Marta and the Demons" by me. Cf. Jamie MacDonald's Movement in Stross's "Life's a Game" q.v. and Encarl's Smart Singularity from "The Internet of ..." in the same volume.

(31) The Uncanny Valley, a short film about VR addiction.

Hexwood (1993), Feersum Endjinn (1994), The Diamond Age (1995), Life is Beautiful (1997): is it just me, or does the mid-90s have a bumper crop of beautifully achieved, high-concept works about the endless possibilities of data visualisation, and about immersive fantasy which remains closely moored to an underlying reality, enabling acts whose significance unfolds in two realms simultaneously?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Songs of Innocence & Experience

Partly in a response to an OUP blog post by Bob Eaglestone, Adam Roberts gives the Man Booker shortlist a dressing down for failing to valorise YA fiction, and also tending to overlook SF and crime. Actually it's way more interesting than that summary suggests.
"Really what I want to think-aloud-about is childhood. This, you’ve guessed it, is my third big thing. Not childhood as a biological category, which of course has always been with us; but childhood as a new cultural idiom. By this I mean more than that the concept of the ‘teenager’ was invented in the 50s (although I think that’s broadly true). I mean the way that concept has mushroomed into this defining feature of a vast amount of cultural production. It's not just that there is now this new thing, a transition period from being 10-or-so to being ‘grown up’; and it's not just the way that this transition has expanded so much that for many people nowadays it lasts literally decades (I’m 48 and I don’t really feel ‘grown up’). It's that this category now determines almost all contemporary cultural production."  
Sibilant Frictives: On YA.
response from Nina Allan focuses on Roberts' conspicuously dodgy The Clash--Twilight analogy. I have consulted the big authoritative list of which bands are which books and all I can say is that yes, that is not accurate.
"[...] most of the most popular YA series are – like the manufactured pop that dates even as you download it – anodyne and half baked even in cultural terms, let alone in literary terms. [...] Let me make myself clear: it is not YA as such that I’m objecting to (much though I personally dislike the rather pointless label that has been slapped on it) but Adam’s (devil’s advocate? can he really be serious?) insistence on the lowest common denominator, on his confusion here of the popular with the excellent or culturally significant." 
The Spider's House: On YA.
I do think that, in order to make an incisive and complex case for why YA is really pretty interesting right now, it's necessary to wrestle with market populism. But I also agree that Roberts' blog post doesn't quite pin it down or shake it off for long enough to be able to make that case forcefully.
"Of these I’d like to make the case for Pullman as the most significant, because he’s the best writer of the lot—but though I’d like to make the case, I can’t, really. Because Potter and Twilight were just orders of magnitude bigger. It’s not just that vast numbers of children read them. Vast numbers did; but so did vast numbers of adults. These books have had a much larger cultural impact than all the Man Booker shortlisted novels over the same period combined; and they have done so for reasons that speak to crucial concerns of the moment."
Sibilant Frictives: On YA. 
Another response, by Martin McGrath, makes comparisons with Jonathan Frazen's pervasively ridiculed article, cosplaying Karl Kraus to critique our "insatiable technoconsumerism".
"It is the likes of Austen and Dickens and Carroll who prosper over the longer term, not their more artistically praised contemporaries. This is not, as some have suggested in the comments on Adam Roberts’ post, about advocating a race to the bottom. The simply populist doesn’t necessarily survive any better than the deliberately obscurantist. Edward Bulwer-Lyttle, though selling by the bucket load in his day, is now remembered (if he is remembered) for the competition bearing his name [...] I sense that a writer like Jeffrey Archer (who, Wikipedia reckons, may have sold up to 250 million books in his career) is being forgotten even as he continues to write." 
Welcome to my World: Which Culture? Roberts vs. Franzen ... sort of
See also e.g. You Wouldn't Like Jonathan Franzen When He's Angry. So can we discover what part of YA speaks to the crucial concerns of the moment, without becoming too distracted by how whatever it is is implicated in YA's popularity or its survival?

In a not-quite-finished review of Cory Doctorow's YA novel Pirate Cinema I'm trying to make a suggestion about that: perhaps YA is peculiarly invested in communicative simplicity as such? And perhaps what it mostly speaks to is anomie, or some distinct phase or transformation of anomie? I think this might be a fruitful line, especially insofar as it (a) reserves a big role for addictive and overwhelming passion, as a tremendously clarifying force, and (b) reserves a big role for popularity, since what counts as familiar or unfamiliar can be contested by a widely read and/or influential work.

See also Jonathan McCalmont's 2008 article on SF & YA, "A Virus with Space Shoes: SF, YA, all that"; his more recent "How to Fix (Discussion of) The Hugo Awards"; also Adam Roberts' Booker commentary in 2009, fighting SF's coroner; his 2001 "Man Booker Prize: Crunching the Numbers"; also Are You Down With the Kids?carefuck your age: academia is the greatest fandom on earth; also Patrick Nielson Hayden's "Regarding a YA category for the Hugo awards";  Farah Mendlesohn's recent "Why I am currently agnostic re the YA [Hugo] Award."

"The blue carpet underfoot was embroiled with the CyberTech Defence Systems insignia every five meters or so."
Adam Roberts' recent post finding the most amusingly badly-written bits of R S Johnson's The Genesis Project: the Children of CS-13 (2011) makes a good comparison: "the lesson is that many readers couldn't recognise good writing if it walked up and embroiled them on the arse." There is quite possibly some sock puppetry afoot, or foot puppetry asock, in the reviews section of Genesis. But if this book is anything like the work of, say, Dan Brown, or a lot of John Grisham, then perhaps its badness is as much an effect of the reader's incompetence as it is of the author's. A literary critic, after all, should be able to shapeshift to become all the kinds of reader demanded by the text (and more besides). But how many critics have the reader-who-enjoys-The Genesis Project in their morph repertoire? What does it feel like to enjoy this book? What does it feel like not to notice the inadvertent wordplay, the crazycam shifts of perspective, the disintegration of description into faulty syllogisms, the dead metaphors coming lurchingly to life, the unnecessary poetry, the howlingly indecorous diction? If these things swim out of focus, what swims into focus?

Also on literary "badness," and whether or not it is bad, check out Travis Tea's Atlantis Nights (PDF); also Keston Sutherland's 2001 article on bathos in poetry. "Every feature of language identified by Pope as bathetic, is now a defining and admired feature of our poetry. What more can we ask for?"

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Deloper of the Author

Renay (@renay) on the relationship between book blogging and the publishing industry, and especially the etiquette of authors dropping in on fan spaces.
"Because I'm aware of how badly things can go when fans seek to engage with creators, I'm intensely dubious that some creators think it's acceptable to walk into book blogger fan spaces featuring their work and argue about intentions and readings without an explicit invitation. 
"[...] After watching many of my favorite book bloggers shift from primarily fanwork toward the industry, I contextualized what I see happening in book blogging amid all the debates about where book bloggers fit. Book bloggers are fans, but as book blogger culture has grown and the ability of blogs to create 'buzz' for books has increased, they've continued to grow closer to the publishing industry, which can be a detriment to the fan community around those blogs."  
Communities: You've Got Your Industry in my Fanwork (Strange Horizons). 
In the comments thread (and in the surface crackle on the Twitterorb) the focus is mostly on the authors-in-fan-spaces aspect. (Update: also check out Renay's follow-up on the fall-out, and Larry Nolen making some decent points about not conflating fans and book bloggers).

I don't exactly have a stance on this, but I do have a sort of extended twitchy pose, as though you're pretending to take a photo of me, but actually filming. That disintegrating rictus is as follows.

(a) Obviously it's possible for an author to join a conversation about their writing without kindling a flamewar (like this short bracing but friendly discussion of Tim Maughan's 2012 "Limited Edition"). Renay's article is a great reminder that any author who wishes to do so should probably arrive with an abasing forward-roll, rather than with a seismic strut, just to try and level the power dynamic a bit.
Of course kindness and respect won't always be met with kindness and respect (see note 1). Perhaps the legitimacy of authors mingling with readers is such a tricky area because it is really primarily a form for conflict, rather than an object of conflict? Online animosity is an abundant, naturally occurring resource, and when it happens to include readers and an author, a probable shape for it to take is an argument about the legitimacy of the author's presence in the first place!

So perhaps the legitimacy of authorial interaction can't be determined very well outside of these particular contestations? (See note 2). If it can't, that's small one argument against pinning your blog with a "No Authors Allowed!" (or an "Authors Welcome!") sign -- at least insofar as your policy could be prevent, by baseless decree, the very process through which an authorial interaction reveals its legitimacy.
(b) OK. But even so, we can still think in general terms about these authors who paradrop in deep behind enemy (well, behind their own lines, I guess). For instance: perhaps authors don't necessarily have as much power in such situations as first appears?

For starters they are of course dead. It's by now very widely accepted that authors don't have final say over the meaning of their words. Before Barthes' death of the author thesis, there was Wimsatt and Beardsley's Intentional Fallacy. A patient and careful reader should be able to provide an interpretation which is more authoritative than the author's interpretation. Emotionally, the stakes are higher for the author.

It may actually be easier to do this with the author included in the conversation: they can often play the part of the textual expert, who will point out possible pitfalls as the interpretation develops and strengthens. If it turns into a struggle for the soul of the story, authors will often have a home field advantage. But just as a skrik vir niks gamer can beat a programmer at their own game, so you can beat an author at their own book. (See note 3).

Secondly, one stance which is common to a great many authors -- that of wanting desperately to be loved -- is not a very strong position to begin from. Of course a great deal depends on the magnitude of the particular author. Certainly a small-to-middling author probably has fewer fans to choose from than those fans have small-to-middling authors to choose from. (Compare Jonathan McCalmont on everyone being a writer and other things). Whereas celebrities who nudge hordes (knowingly or negligently) to advocate on their behalf are another matter.
(c) Then again, perhaps the power of readers in such situations isn't quite so secure either! Because although authors don't have final say over the meaning of their words, they may well have a continuous say over the words themselves.

There could be a murmur of excitement just here. I mean, it's OK if you feel like excitedly murmuring.

I'm talking of course about ebooks (and to some extent print-on-demand). And at the moment I am thinking in particular of indie publishing -- electronic and print-on-demand, but the possibility could certainly spread to legacy publishing. In most cases the advantage of authors over readers is that authors possess the legal right plus the technical capabilities to revise their work. Revisions can be done on the basis of readers' criticisms, and criticisms can thereby be made obsolete or otherwise transformed. Book bloggers could become one of the ways in which an author hones whatever it is they really want to say. Book bloggers could be co-opted as junior collaborators in pursuit of that will-o'-the-wisp, authorial intent. (See notes 6 and 7). So that's another form of interaction: wait, watch, gather intelligence, and if necessary, revise.

"It's always a sobering moment," writes Alastair Reynolds, "the first time you hold the end product. Months or years of work, distilled into a rectangle of card and paper. This is it -- no more changes now." Perhaps in the future, many writers won't be aspiring to get published, but to get closure.

(d) All that being said, it seems pretty likely that the direct involvement of authors and publishers in the textual record of reception and dissemination is a pretty malign thing on the whole. (See note 8). While there is something very intriguing about a fan becoming, as it were, the dominant scriptor in a dense nexus of text -- determining how an authorship function emerges as an effect of that nexus -- and likewise while there is something cool about the notion of author-turned-conduit -- so that whatever rewriting is tacitly embodied in every surveilled squee and critique can actually be continually realised -- there is also a lot to be said for the more familiar ideal: a relatively independent network of people who think about and talk about fiction, without too much interference from the people who produce it.


Note 1: A quick glance at the Ben Aaronovitch thread suggests that despite mumbling a caveat ("commenting on reviews is usually a mistake,") with a mouthful of humble tart ("I also miscalculated [...] in hindsight [...] probably where I went wrong [...] those who are broken and disappointed all I can say is sorry") Aaronovitch very quickly annoys his reviewer; his next two posts (and last, I think) mostly try to clarify, do some damage limitation, apologise and escape.

Note 2: Imagine no author had ever supplied their two pennies' worth. What superstitions might we develop around the possibility of authors and readers meeting? What hocus pocus might be unleashed? (Beware note 9). Or indeed what might be dispelled -- perhaps the spell of fiction itself. The reason the authors are kept on that mountain is that if they were ever to speak directly to their audiences, in their own person, society would at a stroke lose all ability to suspend disbelief and immerse ourselves in narrative fiction.

Note 3: I bet it's not that common to find a big argy-bargy between someone who believes that authors controls the meanings of their works, and someone who believes that those meanings are public property. (See note 4). What are probably more common are argy-bargies over different ways of construing that "publicness." Perhaps one pernicious species of argy-bargiest is a sort of extravagant subjectivist, who believes all interpretations are equally good, simply because they're rooted in the sanctity of individual experiences. We've probably all come across this. "My interpretation is my right, I don't have to defend it!" A book blogger who believes that might have more cause to quake at the appearance of an author (see note 5), because they're not used to supporting their own interpretations with evidence, arguments, comparisons and so on. Perhaps the sense that authors should stay away is actually sustained by these extravagant subjectivists? People who, ironically, commit a kind of intentional fallacy about their own reviews, believing them to necessarily correspond to their experience of reading?

Note 4: Dunno, but ... maybe an exception is kids? Maybe kids are more likely to believe that authors control the meaning of their works? If so, how does this understanding eventually change? (It doesn't necessarily involve reading a bunch of Barthes, right?) I wonder if the psychological foundations of the extreme subjectivism I just mentioned might already be laid down in children's author-idolatry? Perhaps there is sometimes simply a shift: meaning is a feeling which happens to me; when I was a child, I thought it was a feeling that an author could make me have, but now I know it is a feeling I make myself have, using an author (and/or consuming a commodity)?

Note 5: Maybe it's worth prodding the "OMG GROSS GET OUT OF MY ROOM" analogy? I feel like the vehemence of a stereotypical angsty privacy has something to do with shame, or more precisely, with irritation that a realm has been unnecessarily opened up in which shame is now a possibility. The intense desire for privacy is not really about protecting any superior activity. Not necessarily, anyway. It can easily be about the sanctity of the bathetic.

Also: a good first post for any author could just be, "Knock knock." (Thread continues. "WHAT?!" "I just -- can we talk?" "GO AWAY!" "We never see each other any more! I miss you. Can I come in?" *pause*)

Note 6: It is not a common practice, and it could be totally scandalous at first. I think this is particularly interesting with respect to calling out a piece of writing for retrograde identity politics. How will fans react to authors who try to fix whatever problems they spot? If a sentence in a love scene, flagged up by some bloggers as rapey, were to discreetly disappear -- is that more or less creepy?

Perhaps we'll soon be forced into a problematique of "the problematic": why exactly do we try to decipher the masked ideological content of all the cultural stuff we consume for fun? To what extent are we safety-labeling presumed subliminal propaganda, for instance? To what extent are we reading the ideology of cultural products as symptoms of their producers, as a kind of system of incentives and disincentives to become better people? To what extent are we training ourselves for other analytic and rhetorical battles (perhaps battles that are endlessly rescheduled)?

Note 7: Compare Wimsatt and Beardsley in "The Intentional Fallacy" (1946/1954):
There is a sense in which an author, by revision, may better achieve his original intention. But it is a very abstract sense. He intended to write a better work, or a better work of a certain kind, and now has done it. But it follows that his former concrete intention was not his intention. “He’s the man we were in search of, that’s true,” says Hardy’s rustic constable, “and yet he’s not the man we were in search of. For the man we were in search of was not the man we wanted.”
Note 8: It doesn't follow necessarily that individual authors heroically restraining themselves from meddling will necessarily improve matters.

Note 9: Can authors write fanfic of their own canons, I wonder? Would responsive authors who change their books on the basis of fan discussion lead to cabals of secretive book bloggers? Would authors have to go undercover to find out how many stars they've received? Also -- beware! -- see note 9. Now you are mine.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Cost of Money

A recent report from the Institute for Business in the Global Context looks at how cash stacks up (lol) against other forms of money. A snippet from the introduction.

"Money is an abstraction built on trust. As such, alternatives to the most tangible form of money—currency or cash—and its replacement with cashless payments have become possible. Such an ecosystem is one where no transaction requires money in the form of notes and coins, and where value can be exchanged through the transfer of information between transacting parties. There have been multiple waves of such alternatives. Established alternatives to cash include checks, credit cards, debit cards, and prepaid debit cards. More recently, innovative options have sprung up that not only threaten to imperil the ubiquity of cash but also upend the traditional payment ecosystem. These include smartphone-enabled credit card acquirers, such as Square, and Automated Clearing House or ACH acquirers, such as PayPal and Dwolla. And then there are even more ambitious alternatives to cash that have been proposed, such as Bitcoin, a web-based cryptocurrency. Unlike traditional money, such alternatives do not derive their value from government fiat. Each of these alternatives have evolved networks within which they are uniformly accepted as a means of payment; the more established alternatives, of course, have the widest networks.

This study starts from a simple observation: cash derives its value from the information it contains and is a classic information good, which can be replaced by a digital substitute [...] Today most information goods with a sufficiently developed digital substitute have been disrupted and displaced. Cash, however, is different from the usual examples that spring to mind: communication, music, movies, and, increasingly, books. Money in the form of cash is a tangible embodiment of value. Cash is itself nothing more than a promise to pay: a completely interchangeable, transferable promise to pay the bearer. The purpose of money is to have stored wealth on hand for purchases today and tomorrow. Individuals derive a certain utility from holding cash that stems from many factors combining rational, behavioral, institutional and emotional drivers. That said, cash must be held in physical form, counted, guarded, and accounted for. It can be difficult to transport and send. Being possibly the last thing you can expect to recover from a stolen wallet, acceptable everywhere, and anonymous, it is inherently insecure. In any serious quantity, most legitimate businesses prefer some other party, such as a bank, to handle cash on their behalf. In other words, cash satisfies two of the most significant criteria of digital disruption: there are viable digital alternatives with wide networks of adopters and cash presents the carrier with multiple forms of disutility or costs.

This begs the questions: why has cash not been completely displaced, what are the costs and benefits of its continued use, and what are the implications for innovation in the use of cash and its alternatives?"

Useless Time Travel

"I want to consider a selection of short stories on the theme of useless time travel." From 2010, Jo Walton's "Five Short Stories With Useless Time Travel" ( (More recently, Walton discusses "Three Short Stories With Stranded Time Travellers"). Here are seven suggestions of my own.

(1) Steve Aylett's Fain the Sorcerer (2006). I don't remember exactly how useful or useless time travel is in Fain, but I do remember a jester being strangled over and over again, which at least gives the impression not everyone's needs are always met all of the time. Pointlessness is moreover a significant theme in Aylett's writing; or perhaps more precisely, the theme is people, events, words and things that point towards co-ordinates outside legitimate, intelligible spacetime. See also Aylett's And Your Point Is? (2006); Patrick Hudson's review of Fain at Pointless Philosophical Asides; Benny Glass's pointless review of Fain.

Make some dal

(2) Arthur C. Clarke's "All the Time in the World" (1952). For one art thief, the power to freeze time turns out less useful than it at first appears. What's so special about this story is its form-content reciprocity: though it may exist as a short story somewhere, it mainly manifests as a permanent radio broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra's 7th Dimension between 18:00 and 19:00 (and "then again at midnight"). It is permanently on because the 7th Dimension seems to be one of those "curled up" dimensions we learn of from M-theory: there is simply no room for budget or for a wide range of programmes. A special smidge of genius has listener (who has a repertoire of "small Latin and less Greek") frozen in time making a quorn bolognese sauce or some thing with chickpeas and a bit of lemon.

The BBC's Auntie gardism is firmly in the tradition of Wells & Welles' notorious 1938 CBS War of the Worlds broadcast, which caused widespread panic by telling everyone aliens were coming. Though I could quite happily float, pendant with Vincent Price, Mau and Daphne, a few stray triffids and a couple of Doctors, till the twilight of forever, I can't help but feel there's some mismatch between the BBC's pointless time travel into its archives and the enormous wealth and variety of free genre content available digitally.

Original tantweetrum:

I bet there are legal, regulatory and self-esteem obstacles to syndicating/cadging content from, say, Pseudopod, Podcastle and Escape Pod, but the BBC is in a phase of flux, when a reasonable proposal may stand a reasonable chance of realisation.

Here's a quick side-universe (to prevent this entire point from tacitly being about how there's not really enough room on my kitchen surfaces for a laptop).

Heavy reliance on archival revival may create friction with the BBC's role as an ambassador and a publicist for the UK, with its public purposes related to citizenship and diversity (see especially parts 6, 9 and 10 of the Agreement, and perhaps even 83), and with its general remit to inform, educate and entertain.

Many listeners tune in in media res, and/or only absorb fragments and snippets of background noise. We can all agree Jane Garvey's voice is completely unrecognisable unless it is mingled with whistling kettle and buzzing toothbrush. With depressing frequency (no pun intended! Total fluke!) I find myself tuning in in the middle of outdated attitudes or language -- writing which would be considered offensive if it were new. The BBC need to think responsibly and carefully about the fact that many listeners do not listen responsibly and carefully.

I don't think it's a matter of excluding problematic material entirely, nor of trying to attach warning labels. It's a matter of proportion, and of not inadvertently brainwashing the British public with masses of subliminal vintage racism, sexism and homophobia.

(3) Ray Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder" (1952), which is caught in its own time loop (it is a top contender for most republished SF story). The premise is that a time traveler who changes one small detail in the distant past may produce many large and strange changes in the present. The changes Bradbury depicts seem ridiculous (a sign hangs in just in the same place and says just the same thing, but with different spelling), and there is some special pleading to explaining why they think they can have a T-Rex safari in the first place, but it is a beloved and influential story.

There is also a fortuitous link between Bradbury's crushed butterfly and Edward Lorenz's seagull butterfly effect, which gives robust mathematical foundations to its be-careful-what-you-squish-for SF staple. Because the weather is a nonlinear system, outputs may be successively exponentially related to inputs, and today's hurricane/zephyr sitch could be contingent on whether a foreign butterfly got into a bit of a flap earlier that week. (Lorenz's first illustration featured a seagull, which he apparently changed to a butterfly at the suggestion of a colleague -- who knows? -- perhaps a Bradbury fan).

Such sensitive dependence to initial conditions is also a way of understanding the long-term unpredictability of nonlinear systems: since little things can count for so much, the only model which definitely captures a fine enough grain to predict the system's behaviour is the system itself. (It's for this reason I don't think Greg Egan's ingenious butterfly harnesses in Permutation City (1994) are feasible).

What's a bit unsettling here is that the time travel aspect could, in a way, be superfluous. If time travel is constitutively useless, because you can't predict the long term outcomes of your acts, and if it's the long term outcomes which are the really important ones . . . well, by that logic it's just human agency which is useless, time travel or no time travel. Bummer! See my recent snippet about Iain M. Banks and games. "One sensible-seeming route is to try to carve a small, resistant enclave within the universe’s grand complexity, for which and within which it is possible to take moral responsibility [...]"

Of course, in some fictional universes, the trick would be to nip back and forth in your time capsule crushing different butterflies till you get your ideal future (Hilary you can still count on me!!). Story Idea Guyz!!?!

(4) Tim Travel. My friend Dr Timothy Button suggested he might be up for the Edinburgh festival but didn't make it in the end. Why not check out his book, The Limits of Realism (2013)?

(5) Have derailed against BBC reruns, here's a rerun of my own, from June's Executive Summary. Social Media Time Travel would not necessarily be useless, but at least it would probably be a massive waste of time [travel]:
"Twitter has hinted at a feature under development to let users 'jump back in time,' synching their Twitter timelines with on-demand TV. 'Mr Costolo suggested that watching a major event without Twitter was like watching TV "with the volume off"' (BBC Newsbeat).  
There are a couple interesting things implied by this, roughly summed up as Social Media Time Travel. First, why not figure out how to allow new tweets in this retro mode? They'd have to be timestamped with the 'actual' moment when they were tweeted, but they could appear in the virtual past. You'd want to be able to hide tweets by people from the future, of course (spoilers etc.), and some more advanced app might let you filter what you see on the basis of both when other twerps tweeted and what filters they had active at the time. Perhaps another app would allow you to re-do your own tweets. All this would create a sort of branching structure: 'quit blowing up my alternate timeline,' etc. (Perhaps something clever could be done to associate competing versions of the past with different branches of BitCoin blocks, to extend this indeterminate, flickery ontology into the economic realm). Furthermore, in principle, we could start to extend Twitter backwards in time. Everyone from my generation remembers where we were during the moon landings: on Twitter. The extent of possibilities isn't completely clear to me; what's clear is that Costolo, Zuckerberg et al. should be studying stuff like Gerrold's The Man Who Folded Himself and Carruth's Primer, and assessing the risk of the downside scenario in which they were never born at all."
(6) Francis Crot and Nrou Mrobaak's Xena: Warrior Princess & The Seven Curses (2008). The poet of Ketchivan gets his fondest wish, for his mind to travel back in time to occupy his youthful body and circumstances, but he doesn't like it. You may also be able to discern a catastrophic time travel subplot in FC's Hax (2011). It stars Blood Diaper (who also did some of the illustrations for Xena).

(7) Paper Dino Software's Save the Date is a splendid little indie CYOA type game, where foreknowledge is never quite as useful as it should be. "This is actually kind of hard. I know what I think the game is about, but the game is kind of weird and experimental, even by my standards, and I don’t really want to say too much in advance. Probably best for people to play it without knowing what they’re getting into."

(8) See below for honourable mention: Retro Report's attempt at some useful time travel.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Retro Report

A new and slightly strange current & non-current affairs initiative. From a quick scan, it looks like a great idea. It seems like its approach mixes cold case investigation, coverage of neglected aftermaths, and some exploration of the wider sociological and historical context of news production.

"How often does a great story dominate the headlines, only to be dropped from the news cycle? How often do journalists tell us of a looming danger or important discovery – only to move quickly to the next new thing? What really happened? How did these events change us? And what are the lingering consequences that may affect our society to this day?

These are the questions we are answering at Retro Report, an innovative documentary news organization launched in 2013 as a timely online counterweight to today’s 24/7 news cycle. Combining documentary techniques with shoe-leather reporting, we peel back the layers of some of the most perplexing news stories of our past with the goal of encouraging the public to think more critically about current events and the media."

Epistemologically robust production and consumption of news seems a bit under-imagined to me. Maybe Retro Report might offer some inspiration.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Double Coincidence of Pillages

Aeon has published a great article by Brett Scott (@suitpossum), one-time finance mole and author of The Heretic's Guide to Global Finance, which gives an introductory overview to alternative currencies, with special attention to Bitcoin and the Brixton Pound, and with an anthropologist's terrible, unstoppable cunning.

Three things really stick out for me. (a) The first is Scott's metaphor of financial instruments as high level code, and money itself as machine code. A bit more on that in a minute. (b) The second is his suggestion that the problem with general purpose money is that it is too efficient!
"[...] Part of the essence of the Brixton Pound is its deliberate inconvenience. We’re used to thinking that absence of friction must be a virtue in any transaction, but a local economy thrives on inconvenience. Chance encounters in the street market help to bind a community together and give it richness of character. We lose all that when we opt for the robotic mediocrity of the automatic till and debit-card reader. It’s a fine balance, of course, and the Brixton Pound recently added a pay-by-text system that combines the ease of electronic payment with the richness of local exchange. I still have to hand-deliver the books I sell that way — knocking on the door of a guy called Rico who writes a food blog, having a chat, getting to know someone I didn’t know before. The inconvenience is where the connection comes in [...]" (See note 4).
Of course we may be dealing with more than a "fine balance." We may be dealing with a sort of contradiction: forms of friction which are socially desirable overall could be unsustainably irritating at the level of the individual. Over on Brixton Pound's site, even Scott himself wistfully appspirates (appspirate, v.: The feeling of wishing there were an app for something), "I’d love a swish new mobile phone app to further streamline the pay-by-text system and that could alert me to shops that accept B£."

(c) The third thing which sticks out is the optimism. I'm optimistic too! But many people's main contact with alternative currencies -- loyalty card reward points, company scrip -- is anything but liberating. The right friction may be okay, but too much friction sloughs your skin right off.

Besides, at its origins standardised currency is already entangled with special purpose money. (See note 1).

At the Brixton Pound site again, Scott explains that there are "two sides to starting an alternative currency. Firstly, you need vendors who will accept it. Secondly, you need people who will use it to buy things. Ideally, over time, you want those two to form a close-ended loop".

One important kind of close-ended loop is between farmers and soldiers. Imagine that you live on a farm, exchanging with your neighbours via gift, favour and IOU. One day the news comes that you, or your male relative, must pay tax in official currency. But only the king's soldiers are salaried in official currency. So suddenly there is a pressing need for you to find something the soldiers want. (See note 2).

Or, of course, you could find something wanted by someone who has something the soldiers want . . . that is how an army and a mint (a rudimentary state, we might call it) can summon a market economy into the world. In a way, it's a bit like the Panoptican effect: instead of raping and pillaging every day, they only need to violently persecute a few tax dodgers about once a year. Perhaps this marvelous invention also solves the "double coincidence of pillages" problem, in which your family and farmstead get massacred and razed by latecomers who suspect you're holding out on them.

So just to be clear: I think Brixton Pound is a goodie. Soon as Kickbackstarter approve my "McDuck money bin skyscraper" project, I'm going to stack some Brix of my own. I just don't think alternative currencies are necessarily or categorically good, and I'm not sure I yet know what their risks and setbacks actually look like. Obviously if Tesco or News Corp found an alternative currency, we ought to be suspicious, but even then how do we formalise our suspicions into analysis and critique?


Now I'm once more on shaky ice. The three things I've mentioned -- money as code; money as friction; and the entanglement of alternative and standardised currency, the porousness of both to power and violence -- are certainly related. Perhaps together they can start to respond to that question.

I sometimes wonder if the world's net debt/credit situation could in principle be expressed without using numbers. After all, we frequently translate our finances into various qualitative formats: into narratives, desires, fears, complaints, counterfactuals ("if only we could afford..."), conditionals ("when I can afford..."), hypothecations ("baby, my salary covers the mortgage, yours covers the bills and groceries") and so on. I also know people who talk in a gripey, "First World Problem"-kind-of-way about incoming money as "already spent." The apotheosis of "already spent" money, and of a "close-ended loop," is in the "wages" "paid" to bonded laborers, where the arithmetic has become all but irrelevant: it is more a matter of order of magnitude of debt and repayments.

How precise and wide-ranging could such qualitative redescription of money become? Just as a thought experiment (or a sort of focus imaginarius): could money's whole influence within human life at a particular moment in history be expressed as magnificent library of interlaced legalistic contracts?

I suspect any attempt, as it progressed from quarter-serious to half-serious, would find that its qualitative redescriptions resembled legal contracts less and less, as they more and more resembled computer programs. Perhaps there'd be a lot of complicated if-then-else nesting. "If I do not grow enough surplus crops to sell to the soldiers" . . . well, human behaviour is complex, and the numbers, perhaps, would creep back in eventually -- but might be better-behaved, having spent some time in the doghouse.

I'm not a computer scientist (unless you count Klik & Play) or an anthropologist (unless I'm not telling), so maybe I'm fetishizing the intellectual resources of these disciplines a bit. What I'm groping for are ways of demystifying the "generality" of general purpose money. That is, models and heuristics which would let us trace, with unprecedented specificity, standardised currency's own special purposes, affinities, dispositions, limitations, etc. (See note 3). Such techniques would have to stand against (i) the dogmatic assertion that any unit of currency must count as a medium of exchange for all the goods and services denominated in the same currency -- even for those on which in practice (that is, when social, cultural, psychological and other factors are taken into account) it is unlikely to be spent -- and also (ii) against the dogmatic counter-assertion that all money is always already spent: that social relations among people are more intelligible when the illusion of money is stripped out of them, along with whatever mechanisms sustain that illusion.

Likewise, friction isn't just an inconvenience over which communities can bond emotionally. Scott also quickly starts talking about serendipity and networking opportunities, for instance. "Friction" is really just a starting point for thinking about all the social, cultural, psychological, geographic and other dimensions of the circulation of value.

Note 1: I am using "standardised currency" and "general purpose money" interchangeably; and "alternative currency" and "special purpose money" interchangeably. But I'm also trying to blur some boundaries between what's standard and what's alternative, between what's general purpose and special purpose, in the hope of eventually coming up with more robust and exacting categories.

Note 2: The IOUs of course could be denominated in whatever -- crops, animals, textiles, a hard currency no longer in circulation. Almost anything will do as a unit of account. And if the scenario is all a bit simplified and abstract, well: anthropologists complain that economists still trot out the thoroughly discredited myth that "money emerged to solve the double coincidence of wants problem inherent to barter economies"; economists retort that it's not a myth, it's more a sort of pedagogical parable, and so the anthropologists better provide a counter-parable or STFU; so maybe there's your counter-parable.

Note 3: Compare Scott again:
"[...] I don’t suggest that we start suspiciously eyeing the change handed back to us in shops. Coins are designed to be symbolic and abstract, and perhaps that’s required. What we need though, is the right kind of doublethink, a carefully managed form of cognitive dissonance that allows us to see the centuries of real technological change that lie behind them, the oil and dirt and oceanic dragnets, the limestone blast furnaces and neon lighting systems and chemicals synthesised from fossilised trees. Perhaps we can tinker with the word ‘money’ itself. It’s a mass noun, like you’d use for some kind of tangible substance, and it makes money sound like a ‘thing-in-itself’. As a kind of mental discipline, I prefer to use a different word: COGAS. It stands for ‘claims on goods and services’, which is all money really is. And now I have a word that describes itself, as opposed to one that actively hides its own reality. It sounds trivial, but the linguistic process works a subtle psychological loop, referring money to the world outside itself. It’s a simple way to start peeling back the façade. 
"To go deeper, we need to start actually experimenting with alternatives. Money, we know, is a technology, and it can be designed for different purposes — always for exchange, of course, but with auxiliary characteristics. To uncover and experience these characteristics, I actively play around with as many esoteric currencies as possible [...]"
Note 4: Smofs of the Jürgen Habermas fandom will rapidly spot a certain coin lying glinting on its flip side. Rather than thinking about how money (a steering medium which allows people to co-ordinate their actions without necessarily understanding each other's motives) may actually be rooted in a shared lifeworld (a sphere in which communicative rationality has priority, in which action is oriented towards mutual understanding, and in which conflicting norms lead to deliberative resolutions), Scott is interested here in how aspects of a lifeworld may emerge from a particular form of money. Steering media embedded in lifeworld and lifeworld embedded in steering media . . .

Note 5: Compare the poet Sean Bonney in "Letter Against Ritual":
"[...] How he couldn't tell the difference between his prison cell and the entire cluster of universes. How the stars were nothing but apocalypse routines, the constellations negative barricades. I was thinking about the work-ethic, how it's evoked obsessively, like an enemy ritual, some kind of barbaric, aristocratic superstition. About zero-hours contracts, anti-magnetic nebulae sucking the working day inside out. Negative-hours. Gruel shovelled into all the spinning pits of past and future centuries, spellbound in absolute gravity, an invisibility blocking every pavement I was walking down. I wanted to cry. In fact I think I did. Actually, no. I was laughing my head off. A grotesque, medieval cackle. No despair, just defiance and contempt. Ancient disturbances. Ghost towns and marching bands. Invisible factories. Nostalgia crackling into pain and pure noise. No sleep. No dreams. An endless, undifferentiated regime of ersatz work [...]"