Life in the big (doctorow) Fri 31 Jan 03 09:09
Charlie, I think the one theme you missed out there was: * The power of decentralized systems to triumph over command-and-control systems (Chaordism, open source, Internet, AL Quaeda). This is a major obsession of mine -- the aggregate, statistical power of groups of uncoordinated actors and the fragility/brittleness of closely knit heirarchical groups. It comes, I think, from growing up with the Internet, from attending alternative schools, from ebing involved in activist groups (both looslely coupled coalitions and ruled-up/ruled-over bureaucratic ones).
Life in the big (doctorow) Fri 31 Jan 03 09:21
Ari, it sounds like what you're saying is that celebrities aren't any better than the rest of us -- that simply aggregating a lot of acclaim is no actual indicator of worthiness. I'm inclined to agree. I've met a lot of famous assholes and a lot of obscure saints -- and vice-versa. This is actually a subject of a lot of research these days. Distributed reputation systems are *really good* at making sense of enormous data-sets very cheaply, so we're seeing them pop up everywhere. OTOH, they're also prone to power-law distribution (the bloggosphere is particlarily prone to this kind of distribution, or at least particularily susceptible to data- mining in such a way as to reveal it). This yeilds strong incumbency and makes the people on top very hard to ouster. Charlie and I implicitly tackled this in our novella, Jury Service: http://scifi.com/scifiction/originals/originals_archive/stross- doctorow/stross-doctorow1.html The world of Jury Service is one of teeming equality, where god-like technology-assists have really levelled the playing field. Accordingly, SPOILER ALERT it turns out that the conspiracy that is changing the world isn't actually a conspiracy-qua-conspiracy. The presence of these equalizing technologies means that collective action is emergent, not directed. The conspiracy in the book turns out to be an emergent phenomenon, a statistical blip that has a number of people working in concert without actually knowing one another. /SPOILER ALERT Karl Schroeder tackles this notion in "Permanence," too. He has a universe where spacefaring races have hacked their genomes in such a way as to adapt themselves to space without technological assists. Because intelligence has an evolutionary expense, and because individuals who are biologically adapted to their environment don't need to make tools to survive, they gradually evolve to nonsentience. So Karl's book has these space-travellers who build spaceships the way beavers build dams, and navigate the way geese fly south.
Ari Davidow (ari) Fri 31 Jan 03 09:35
I sense the spill of story hooks, but I don't sense a good way to deal with reputation management. The thing is, it isn't just celebs who are overrated. I work with a systems admin team right now that is incredibly self-referential. Their internal sense of each other as people (in the context of the group), and in terms of each other's abilities is quite reasonable. But they have no way of dealing with people who don't have whuffie based on their position in the systems admin team. It's another wonderful reputation disconnect--the outside world sees them as useless jerks, they see the outside world as ignorant, useless jerks. You can apply the same paradox to just about any group. I also have big trouble with the idea that peer-to-peer networks somehow solve this. You can follow any heated discussion here on the WELL and quickly determine that there is nothing about bringing people together as peers in an environment that gives everyone equal access to the same information that implies a respectful way to hear or be heard. Removing hierarchy doesn't make information free or true or single-faceted. Ironically, in the work under discussion, the scenes where people are most cardboard lies exactly when you are describing group discussion or group working things out. In aggregate, in the book, people are pretty stupid. That's not the worst (or most original) gneralization of something that seems pretty generally true (albeit, pretty specifically in need of context, because specific people, even in groups, manage to do neat things).
Life in the big (doctorow) Fri 31 Jan 03 09:55
It seems to me that you're saying that reputation economies have some of the same problems as traditional ones. The group discussion scenes in the novel are based on a prediction that the effect of a mature reputation economy is to create social pressure not to offend anyone (this is, of course, also the pressure of a non-reputation economy, hence vanilla-flavored radio and television). You can already see this in volunteer-based organizations, where there's tremendous normative pressure in the groups.
Brian Slesinsky (bslesins) Fri 31 Jan 03 11:20
I'd guess that filtering of the slushpile sort will evolve out of spam filters. There is lots of work in that area and it's a short step to automatically classifying all your email, usenet, and RSS feeds according to your own personal ratings. The next step would be if you could somehow use those weights to improve Google searches.
the invetned stiff is dumb (bbraasch) Fri 31 Jan 03 11:24
The idea of restoring from an old backup is a very intriguing part of your story. The implications extend way out there on that. People adopt this feature as a way to extend their youth or to erase a segment, or to restore life after being killed. When I was a kid, we just moved to San Francisco. These days it seems we move through a number of tribal communities that reflect our interests, but when the connection is more virtual than real, as in an email exchange or in a place like the WeLL, you can choose to disappear by just leaving, and others can choose to disappear you by bozoing you. Will there ever be a way to selectively restore from a backup?
Life in the big (doctorow) Fri 31 Jan 03 11:31
I think the most promising spam-fighting techniques are the collaborative filters (i.e., Vipul's Razor), which take the Google approach of only requiring one trusted party to see a spam once in order to knock that spam out of the mboxen of all the trusted parties in the community. The lexical analysis stuff is really weak, IMO, even the best of them, like Mail.app's Bayesian filters. They're Spam-Altavista to Vipul's Spam-Google. Bayesian filters and regexps can't even reliably stop dumbass printer-cartridge spam and porn spam that uses simple phonetic substitutions (seks for sex) out of my mbox. I, OTOH, am *really* accurate at identifying spam: I can identify it 100% of the time, after seeing it. I suspect that we're all much the same. Computers are good at counting, people are good at understanding. The power and elegance of collaborative filtering approaches is that they gather up the micro-judgements of users and use a computer to count them up and apply them elsewhere.
Life in the big (doctorow) Fri 31 Jan 03 11:35
Gamers have figured out selective restore: it's all about frequent backup. If you save your game at every point, you can backtrack to any of the points that preceded it. Bob Frankston has a really good rant about what end-to-end means for civil polity. In an end-to-end network, my right to swing my fist doesn't stop just short of your nose, because the only way it can ever make contact with you is if you execute the "punch in the nose" instruction I send to your machine. Good tools should sandbox or discard potentially harmful instructions. If I was writing *Neuromancer* today, I'd have Case install Mozilla on his Ono-Sendai and then right-click on all the machines he's invading and select "Block Lethal Shocks From This Server" from the popup menu. Bozofilters and killfiles point to a virtual world where you can be as socially deviant or transgressive as you want without discomfiting anyone else, since your presence in their slushpile would only be at their sufferance. Matt Haughey, who started and runs MetaFilter, jokes about setting up a killfile that makes the kill-ee's posts invisible to everyone *except him*, so that it appears to him that no one is taking the flamebait, while he simply vanishes for everyone else.
Brian Slesinsky (bslesins) Fri 31 Jan 03 11:46
I don't get good results from Mail.app either, but since there seems to be no technical explanation of how it works and no way to debug it, that's not saying much. I haven't tried the others. Paul Graham claims much better results.
Charlie Stross (charlie-stross) Fri 31 Jan 03 12:28
Colour me a little skeptical about the ability of networking to rearrange society as a whole, though. I mean, I had high hopes for the internet when I first met it -- in 1989 or 90 or thereabouts -- which were, in retrospect, completely unrealistic. Never underestimate the ability of ordinary people to screw something wonderful up simply because they're afraid of change and not good at learning new things and treat it as an extension of something old. (Case in point: chatter from politicians about "cyber-terrorism" doesn't mean that "cyber-terrorism" is real or is going to fly jetliners into skyscrapers any day soon -- it's a metaphor for their fears about network security, which they have a vague feeling is a big problem. But it results in network outages being _treated_ like terrorist incidents, with potentially ghastly consequences. Sooner or later we're going to witness some poor schmuck with an open mail relay or something waking up to find themselves surrounded by a SWAT team and hauled off to Guantanemo Bay as a "terrorist" because of some new exploit relying on a service they didn't even know they were running and a patch they should have installed six months ago ...) There are real people behind the electronic personnae. And while the peer to peer technologies can mediate our interactions and make them faster and more efficient (and let us create geographically dispersed peer groups that would be impossible to sustain in meatspace) they don't change the hairless ape at the end of the keyboard.
Life in the big (doctorow) Fri 31 Jan 03 12:32
Charlie, I think you've got an OR gate where an AND gate belongs. Decentralized networks are powerfully disruptive (governments topple, businesses rise and fall, infrastructure springs up at ligtspeed, industries are snuffed out of existence) AND they're not the only or most powerful force at work.
Charlie Stross (charlie-stross) Fri 31 Jan 03 12:39
Cory, you're dead right they're disruptive. But governments and businesses know this (that is: the people who run them know this), and push back. In the final analysis, a new peer to peer protocol is not proof against a hostile government that can pass legislation and pay guys with guns to enforce it. Which is why we need outfits like the EFF to [insert standard anti-CDBTPA rant here]. All the new networks do is add _additional_ layers of complexity to human communication, not necessarily eat the whole thing.
Charlie Stross (charlie-stross) Fri 31 Jan 03 12:42
(Comment for the peanut gallery: Cory and I have collaborated on stories, and some reviewers have even gone as far as suggesting we're some kind of new movement in SF, and we've got a lot in common. Which is of course why we disagree so much of the time :)
Charlie Stross (charlie-stross) Fri 31 Jan 03 12:49
Thinking about the push-back reminds me of the early history of the automobile in England. Specifically, Richard Trevithick's steamer and subsequent developments. Y'see, we tend to forget these days that steam _is_ a practical propulsion technology for road vehicles. Trevithick built a steam car around 1800, and by 1820 or thereabouts there were several on the roads -- still a bit of a novelty, but out there for real. Only they were showing signs of competing with stagecoaches for inter-city transport. The result? When the threat became real -- I seem to recall in the 1850's, when lightweight and reliable engines became available -- Parliament, in response to lobbying about the "dangerous, unsafe, excessively fast" steam carriages passed a law requiring every steam car to be preceeded along the highway by a man carrying a red flag. Which sort of killed the steam car stone dead in the 1850's, otherwise we'de probably all be driving Brunel Corporation steamers to this day. If you can nail a new transport protocol hard and fast, before it gathers momentum and while most people are sufficiently ignorant about it to believe the FUD, you can stave it off for a long time. In the case of the automobile, the law fell into disuse after 1900, but wasn't really struck off until it became obvious where the future lay. But it basically put back the automobile by several decades -- because of lobbying in the one country that had already industrialised.
Bill's Burrow (gjk) Fri 31 Jan 03 12:56
I expect some really cool special effects in the movie but I sure don't think it will be backed by the Disney Empire. If the studio makes the director make up a whole different theme park, will it translate to the silver screen?
Bill's Burrow (gjk) Fri 31 Jan 03 12:59
Charlie slipped. But I would note that while steam carriages never really caught on, the original offroad vehicle, the enormous steam tractor, survived for decades, and the steam locomotive lives yet. In fact steam locomotives were still running people and freight in the USA into the 1950s. Steam runs aircraft carriers and missile subs. I myself have been designing a steam-powered aeroplane for years, which I'm going to name the SS John Hartford if it ever gets built.
Life in the big (doctorow) Fri 31 Jan 03 14:16
Charlie, I think you're right about the push-back, but one of the interesting things about technology movements that are decentralized and enabled by general-purpose technology is that there's nothing to push back against. P2P file-sharing is a good example. The media companies are loathe to sue millions of American customers of theirs, and going after software makers or network providers is a terrible and expensive strategy, since its only effective endpoint is completely over-the-top proposals like the Hollings Bill (no new technology unless the media companies sign off on it) and the Berman-Coble Bill (media companies can take the law into their own hands and hack anyone they believe to be infringing their copyrights, even if they harm innocent bystanders, and not face legal liability). The Open Spectrum stuff is a good example of this. The mobile carriers who have blown their wads on 3G spectrum licenses would desperately like WiFi to go away, but who do they go after? The FCC can't take back the ISM spectrum without alienating millions of American voters, and even if the on-shore technology companies were intimidated into terminating their WiFi lines (itself a major implausibility), the sheer quantity of product in the market and the inevitable grey-market in new product from across the border would mean that WiFi would never go away. Hunting down and killing every WiFi AP is a task that would cost many, many times the total economic worth of the mobile carriers. Throw in software-defined radio, where flexible hardware and fast CPUs are mated with codecs that circulate freely on the public Internet, and you've got an ungovernable mess that really can't be shut down without shutting down every computer. Comparing tech like this to steam-cars or other technology whose operation is visible and whose manufactuers are few and domestic generates flawed conclusions, because they're fundamentally different kinds of disruption. Regulating general-purpose technology in an Internetted world is more like regulating sexual behaviour -- something that's very hard to accomplish without massive and unaffordable surveillance.
Life in the big (doctorow) Fri 31 Jan 03 14:18
Jack, I have a feeling that this is never gonna get made into a movie (very few sf novels are, FWIW -- novels are the wrong length for film adaptation, which is much better suited to short stories). There really isn't a good way of doing this without shooting it onsite at Walt Disney World, which menas that the only studio that could do it is Disney...
Charlie Stross (charlie-stross) Fri 31 Jan 03 14:27
Cory, "massive and unaffordable surveillance" is exactly the thing I'm most afraid of, because the major price-determining factor is the attention cost -- eyeballs on screens -- necessary to enforce it. The East German Stasi never managed to tap every phone because they required humans to listen in; but with speech recognition hunting for keywords we're told that the NSA does just that to the entire planet via ECHELON. I grant the validity of your "Altavista vs. Google" argument, but the thing that scares me is the risk that artificial intelligence -- or augmented human intelligence -- will bridge the surveillance gap _before_ the communications tools to evade monitoring become ubiquitous. It seems to me that we're in a networking arms race and the end result is anything but a foregone conclusion. (Although I don't like writing fiction set in worlds where it's gone the wrong way -- it's too depressing!) Put it another way: maybe I'm just old and gray at the temples, or bummed out by the current economic outlook and political climate, but I find it hard to be over-optimistic these days.
Bill's Burrow (gjk) Fri 31 Jan 03 14:44
It's GOT to be a movie, Doc. We need some ad-hoc independent production company to surreptiously shoot a few exteriors in Orlando, do the rest in a secret sound stage under a mountain in Colorado, and embellish with some ripped-off industrial light-and-magic and unveil it at Sundance. I can assemble an army of clone lawyers in the hills ready to attack Hollywood and Burbank at your signal.
Bill's Burrow (gjk) Fri 31 Jan 03 14:45
Put another way, I want to BE Abraham Lincoln!
Life in the big (doctorow) Fri 31 Jan 03 14:47
I think that the automated surveillance tools we've seen proposed (like Total Information Awareness) aren't frightening because they work; they're frightening because they *don't* work, and they're not accountable to anyone, and there's no appeals process if you get fingered by a bad algorithm. Some examples: aged grandmothers with gender-nonspecific names who are put on no-fly lists because their names are similar to a suspected terrorist's alias; file-sharers who are booted off their ISPs for violating George Harrison's copyright by posting a photo called "martha_harrison.jpg." IOW, these systems aren't actually effective at their primary goals (shutting down file-sharers, catching terrorists, stopping WiFi, preventing ISP customers from running servers, etc) -- *and* they're tremendously bad for our society because they are fishing expeditions with very wide nets that catch the wrong people. I'm very skeptical of claims of the efficacy of ESCHELON or speaker- independent continuous-speech-recognition systems in the employ of spooks. They all rely on obscurity about their claims -- as Bruce Schneier says, "Anyone can design a system so secure that he can't come up with a way of outsmarting it." I think that these things are mostly vapor, boasting, exaggerated vendor claims, and chest-thumping intended to scare malefactors. I know paranoids who think that the NSA has seekrit math that lets them solve NP-Complete problems and factor the products of large primes in seconds, and that's why they've stopped fighting to keep good crypto out of the public's reach. These claims strike me as fancifulness on the order of Area 51 or gubmint time-travel.
Life in the big (doctorow) Fri 31 Jan 03 14:48
Slipped. Jack, you'd be a great Lincoln!
Life in the big (doctorow) Fri 31 Jan 03 14:52
Re: that new movement that Charlie and I are supposedly members of. I've actually given it some thought, and concluded that the movement, such as it is, has a few things binding it together: * The writers are all technologists, generally programmers, who are largely self-taught (i.e., Karl Schroeder, Stross, me, Ben Rosenbaum, Chris Nakashima-Brown, Allan Varney, John McDaid, etc) -- basically, hackers of one description or another * The fiction tends to treat computers and the Internet as actual, mimetic artifacts, not metaphors. Instead, it treats bio/nanotech as metaphors -- IOW, cyberspace is generally rigorously extrapolated from present-day comptuer tech, but bio/nano are fair game for completely speculative flights of fancy * The fiction often involves mcguffins that turn out to be emergent properties of complex systems, not explicit human activity (i.e., Jury Service, Permanence, Junk DNA...)
Bill's Burrow (gjk) Fri 31 Jan 03 14:59
Agree about the Office of Total Information Awareness. It's a project that glimmers on the hubris of the Krell in "Forbidden Planet" -- the government's going to find out the real meaning of "Be careful what you pray for." An overload of data and ultimately thousands of wronged citizens. I don't think it'll be like Paris in 1787, but I'd sure like those idiots hatching shit like this a few blocks from here to SEE it like that, after they're drowning in data and have no excuse for their burning innocents like witches except that "It's not our *fault*, we were drowning in *data*!" and "Mister President, I don't think it's fair to condemn an entire program because of a few hundred thousand slip-ups!" On another note, I want ABRAHAM LINCOLN IN MY HEAD! You promised, not we've got to make it happen.
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