2012 07 17

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Contents

Feature Cast for 2012-07-17

(00:00:17.376) Intro

(00:03:56.427) Predictions from the 80s

  • I had the opportunity to read two early books by seminal thinkers
    • Books that aren't recognized as broadly as being ahead of their time
      • As their contemporaries like "Neuromancer" by William Gibson
      • And "True Names" by Vernor Vinge
    • Those better remembered books struck chords with singular images
      • That many still point back to as being far ahead of their time
    • Even those books didn't get things entirely right
    • Their power resides in how compelling the broad strokes were painted
      • How aspects of technology would reshape the world, society and people
        • In suggested ways that made sense, that fit with how readers
        • Understood technology at that time
    • These lesser recognized books share those same strengths and flaws
      • And perhaps only want for that powerful note to resonate with readers generation after generation
    • I definitely missed each the first time around
    • I found reading them twenty to thirty years onward to be surprising and rewarding
      • For what they got right, how they got things wrong and how well they stood up
        • Simply as stories in their own right regardless of the predictions
    • They ground the titles more people tend to remember
      • Filling in much more of the milieu upon which they all drew
    • If you want a reminder that science fiction only predicts the future through luck
      • Then catching up on these other examples is worth the time
    • They also suggest that if you simple thinking deeply and long enough
      • About how to tease threads of the past and present forward
      • You'll likely get the heart of things right, even if the details end up differing
  • Islands in the Net
    • http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000HL4MTM/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B000HL4MTM&linkCode=as2&tag=thecommandl0a-20
    • The story itself
      • Like many of Sterling's books in my experience
        • The characters and narrative seems somewhat haphazard
      • I think they are two reasons for this impression
      • First is that I believe Sterling writes just enough story
        • To house the profusion of intriguing ideas he wishes to explore
      • This is not to say that the plot lags or the characters are unconvincing
        • But rather that these literary trappings do not receive as much attention
          • As the details of the big notions and how those play out
          • Both at the personal scale as well as globablly
      • In this book, other than the heroine, most of the characters are sketches
      • Their motives are more extensions of other forces, mostly national and corporate
      • Second is that there is a certainly real life sort of rhythm to Sterling's books
      • What we actually experience doesn't trot along conveniently to some planned path
      • Things happen to us seemingly at random, things in retrospective that exhibit
        • The same sort of lopsidedness, at times reinforcing tension, at others draining it
          • So that the narrative lulls and even drags for a bit
    • What did Sterling get wrong?
      • Fashions, as you see with the next book as well, are heard to get right
        • And probably the most forgiveable mistake
      • Some of those fashions, though, are about more than appearance so a bit more of a miss
      • For instance, Sterling anticipated that video conference would be more normative
      • His characters are more versed as a matter of fact
        • In the technique and etiquette borrowed from broadcast
      • This was the only model on which Sterling had to draw
      • Even though we have Skype, Facetime, Hangouts, any number of ways of video dialing
        • It hasn't unfolded the way that Sterling predicted
      • For one, it remains as casual as other means of communication
        • With the routine joke being that business video calls only need enough set dressing
          • To avoid revealing the truth of a telecommuter working on super casual clothes
      • For another, despite the technology becoming far more widespread
        • Folks seems to favor existing means of communication rather than over video
      • Some of that may be the proliferation of other means
        • And the confusion that arises from generational and socio-cultural differences
      • In a nutshell, I like to cite a notion from a journalist friend of mine, Quinn Norton
      • We now live in time unique for having to ask the question of what is the best means
        • To contact and communicate with anyone we know or meet
      • Even setting aside SMS and voice calls, the profusion of social networks
        • Erodes any clear choice as from person to person each is likely to favor something different
          • Between a direct message on Twitter, a private message on Facebook, or something else
      • I think he got some of the geopolitics wrong but like fashion this is forgivable
      • Situations evolve rapidly on the ground let along over the course of decades
      • The other failure I want to point out is actually half right
      • The innovations in technology evinced by the island pirates
        • Is still a bit ahead of its time
        • In the sense that through modern bio-hacking and 3D printing
          • We are just starting to realize the potentials Sterling hinted at
      • I think he was just missing a few pieces, swapping in superglue and cardboard
        • For fused filament or powder bed printers
      • Within the kernel of the incorrect outward forms
        • He was definitely onto something when innovation and the tools needed for it
          • Become so cheap that all kinds of wild ideas can be tried
      • I submit that this resonates pretty clearly with the current maker movement
        • And the strong urge towards DIY
    • What did Sterling get right?
      • I've already touched on some of the partially correct predictions in the book
      • For the elements that were more correct, they still weren't entirely on target
      • The most chilling realization I had when reading this
        • Was that we do in fact have data pirates today
      • Rather than small, rogue states, though
        • They blend the typically cyberpunk demonization of corporations in the real version
      • I kept thinking how the concerns about privacy and the risks of big data
        • Are for more applicable to the Googles, Facebooks and others
          • Than any nation state
      • Credit is still due to Sterling as in the final scenes of the book
        • It is clear to see how what resided with marginalized political actors
          • Could easily be coopted and carried forward to what we actually have
      • Through a quirk of history, we skipped past the intermediate step
        • Though even that in Sterling's imagination is more like the market driven erosion of privacy
          • Than the nanny state surveillance we have seen governments undertake
      • The surveillance and attack drones that figure into the first act of the book
        • And serve to prod much of the action forward
          • Are definitely coming to pass right now
      • In some ways, the moral and ethical questions being raised by drones
        • Are getting far more attention than they did in the book
      • Perhaps the fact that we do have far more automation today
        • Has bred a greater awareness and at least among those likely to pose questions
          • Means that this technology might not be as sanguinely used and accepted as in the novel
      • The focus in the book was on who used them and why
        • Which are still the most key questions to answer
      • From those that examine the emerging technology
        • There are ones that Sterling didn't anticipate
          • About how these tools are shifting the balance of power
      • One piece missed in the story is perhaps that modern drones rarely are deployed one at a time
      • The difference in degree then may be leading to a difference in kind from what Sterling imagined
      • I could also mention augmented reality and the new Project Glass from Google
        • As something very similar factors into a key section of the book
      • Really, though, in considering what the author got wrong and right
        • It reinforces that Sterling loves to play with ideas
        • And does so quickly and in large quantity
      • In that play of ideas, tropes and trends he demonstrates a keen grasp
        • Of how they tend to play out, informing at least credible if not also accurate futures
    • What was this really about?
      • Although there is a really long wind up
        • The main arc has to do with trust and distrust of corporations
      • The heroine and her associates start in one position, being champions of their employers
        • Then are led all the way around to the other side, to a place of informed skepticism
      • There may be renewed reason to pay attention to this particular lesson
        • But I think in the eighties it emerged more from the anti-corporate reaction
          • Of the cyberpunks and other contemporaries of Sterling's
      • I mentioned the geopolitics being slightly off
      • Regardless that seems to be a recurring part of much of Sterling's work
      • I kept thinking of one of his latest, The Caryatids, and how similar it was in this regard
      • The similarity was strongly driven too by the same sort of plot and characters
        • And the amazing breadth of ideas explored all through that book
      • The power of Sterling seems to reside in the constant examination, synthesis and speculation
  • Cyberbooks, Ben Bova
    • http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0067MVBXA/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B0067MVBXA&linkCode=as2&tag=thecommandl0a-20
    • The story itself
      • Unlike Sterling, this is a more tightly knit work
      • There really is just one idea at play here, the creation of electronic books
      • There isn't the same intense barrage of related and tangential concepts
        • Rather it is a sustained study in the ramifications of this one invention
      • Also unlike Sterling, this is much more of a parody then a plausible telling
      • At times it reads like a Shakespearean comedy of errors
        • Where we can see success snatched from evil plotting
          • And triumph foiled despite the bungling of the antagonists and their henchmen
      • I'll dig into this a bit more later but this book really reads as much as
        • A satirical jab at the publishing industry as it does a bit of futurism
      • I don't know the trade well enough to say what elements are exaggerated
        • Which are accurate, and how much of the rest is wholly made up
      • I suspect their is a fair amount of extrapolation, here
        • But it really is grounded is some real issues with publishing in the late eighties
      • I also tend to think with the real advent of the electronic book
        • That many of these problems still exist
      • I have certainly read enough about the inefficiencies in the book trade
        • And the seeming random choices about which authors and titles to back
          • To think that Bova is more right than wrong in his lampooning
    • What did Bova get wrong?
      • Like Islands in the Net, fashion was almost inevitable going to be wrong
      • Bova anticipated this, positing that the styles of clothing and appearance
        • Would morph and change on a weekly basis
      • It is a clever way to try to avoid dating the work and getting that part obviously wrong
      • I still couldn't help feel that the ideas he came up with here were still rooted in the eighties
      • Bova used this backdrop to good effect, not just as a sort of tongue in cheek gag
      • Several of the key characters show strong constants despite this protean clothes sense
      • The two who engage do so with a recognizable personal style, strongly rooted in color themes
        • And the third simply opts out, in a quiet but noticeable way
      • The technology of the e-book, or cyberbook, clearly missed e-ink and touch screens
        • And also got the storage requirements off by an order of magnitude or two
      • The objections to the disruption of electronic book was also off target
      • Bova framed the threat as more one of labor, that electronic sales and distribution
        • Would immediately and permanently put works in those areas out of a job
      • I think this is forgivable, a bit of a conceit for making the plot more tense
        • Rather than the actual reality, even hinted at in the book
          • That both traditional and electronic publishing would, and have, existed side by side
      • There is a brief concession to the concerns of piracy that is mentioned once and never again
      • In the story, the engineer who invents the technology dismisses the possibility
        • Claiming that he has come up with an unbreakable protection scheme
      • We've definitely see that with all kinds of electronic media
        • This has been far more of a front and center concern than shifts in the labor side
      • Maybe the current pricing wars, and even law suits, are a proxy for this
        • Or they share a common root in terms of who controls the industry
      • The author definitely suggests that the power to select what gets published
        • Is more important to the industry than how the works actually get out there
    • What did Bova get right?
      • It is a bit more difficult to pin down what Bova got right
      • He predicted that if electronic books were to come to pass
        • It would have to be despite the current publishing industry
      • Publishers were slow to adopt and it did take a striking innovation, like the Kindle
        • To change that, opening up for competitors and great access and availability
      • I don't have enough information to say if his insights about the book industry are right
        • Or at least were correct at the time he wrote the book
      • I expect that he exaggerated for effect but otherwise there are strong kernels of truth
      • He certainly got the role of lawsuits and lawyers right though not the exact details
      • This book is more obviously not about exact prediction
        • And worked with a much narrower set of ideas
      • As a consequence there were simply fewer things to get right or wrong
      • Getting the consequences of electronic publishing right wasn't really the point, either
      • Some risks were laid out, but as I've said, this book was more about parody
    • What was this really about?
      • The answer is a bit more obvious here, intentionally so
      • It wasn't clear to me whether the parody of the book industry
        • Was meant to raise awareness and provoke a reaction
        • Or it was a simple condemnation out of frustration
      • Despite the particulars, I think Bova had a keen sense of what within the publishing world
        • Was most likely to interfere with what he suggested was pretty much inevitable
      • I think a solid exercise for the reader is drawing the parallels
        • Between this fictional anticipation and what really has and is still happening
      • I'd like to say this book was inspired by industries that went through this before books
      • I don't think that even the earliest digital forms of music go back far enough
      • Not even the DAT technology that was crippled out of the gate by labels
        • Was introduced early enough to inform Bova's thinking
      • It was hard for me not to think about the law suit against Creative
        • When they were trying to bring one of the first MP3 players to market
      • That was definitely well after the book
        • And differs in key ways, that a 3rd party was pushing the technology, not the music industry
      • The final scene of the book before the fifty years after epilogue
        • Hints that Bova suspected this might be the case
      • In his vision, it would be by introducing the cyberbook as a kids toy, coming in via that industry
        • With the implication that as the generation of kids aged, they cyberbook could evolve
          • To take over the publishing industry proper
      • This still relies too heavily on incumbents to fuel innovation
        • But may have been the closest anyone in the eighties could have gotten
          • Before the first actual examples of how digital innovation would really play out
  • Cory Doctorow has repeatedly pointed out that futurism is about today more than it is tomorrow
    • I agree but that still leaves a lot of room for different approaches
    • Sterling seems to uncannily leap frog the present more than most
      • But in doing so, maintains the human element he draws out of the past and present
    • Bova, at least in this one work, demonstrates how the past, present and future
      • Are often cyclic, subject to the same forces, most of them human
        • Such as greed, ambition and even compassion
    • Regardless of the exact admixture of past, present and future
      • Both of these books demonstrate to me the value in following and even re-visiting
        • Those authors who more explicitly tackle the predictive elements of the science fiction genre

(00:25:24.688) Outro

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