Charlie Stross: December 2010 Archives

Elsewhere on the interwebbytubes, an acquaintance asked, somewhat grumpily, if anything good had happened in the past decade (aside from the iPod).

So I went dumpster-diving in memory lane for things to feel good about ...

I have very little to say right now.

I've just spent the past five days (yes, including December 25th) chewing over the copy edits on "Rule 34", so that you don't sprain your eyeballs on any typos. That, and sundry other bits of work, have kept me from unwinding for a while now. Next on the agenda is to get started on "The Rapture of the Nerds", then go back and finish "The Apocalypse Codex" while Cory is chewing on it. If it's true about there being no rest for the wicked, then I must have been very naughty indeed.

The internet, which I rely on to funnel distractions past my eyeballs when I'm feeling burned out, has itself been pretty meh for the past few days. I can live without the Christmas cheer just as surely as I can live without the more dismal news that our planetary consensus narrative is generating right now. So, rather than doing an end of the year summing-up, I think I'm going to back away from the keyboard for a bit, take a day off, and give up blogging for the remainder of the year.

Happy new year, and may 2011 be better than 2010 ...

(This essay was originally written for publication in Hayakawa's SF Magazine in Japanese translation. As it's been out for a while now, I thought I'd share it with my anglophone readers ...)

I'm British, and I've visited Japan twice: first in 2007, and more recently, in 2010.

On my first trip, I thought I knew what I was seeing. The second time: no, not really. I've given up. I can't get my head around a nation with thousands of years of history and 120 million people in one month, or two. I probably couldn't do it in one year or two; not without a grasp of the language that I will never have. On the other hand, I can pick up some random fragments of broken glass and peer into them. Probably all I'm seeing is a mirror on my own misconceptions, but if I'm lucky, they may turn out to be fragments of a hologram.

(The following essay was originally written for the program book of HAL-Con 2010, held in Omiya, Japan. Consider it a speculative polemic intended to amuse and provoke, rather than a serious prediction of the future.)

The internet is made out of meat

I realize that this may be a rather strong proposal to swallow, but let us consider the historical evidence:

In 1968, after approximately five years of deliberation, committee meetings, and reports, self-propelled lumps of meat from the US government's Advanced Research Projects Agency awarded another group of meat-lumps a contract to produce a piece of machinery called an Interface Message Processor. The objective of building these machines was to permit the exchange of messages between computers, to allow better use of time-sharing facilities on these expensive, primitive calculating engines ... but even at the outset, it was seen as a useful goal to use computer messaging to allow lumps of meat to send each other email.

See? No lumps of meat, no internet. It's as simple as that!

Less flippantly, we lumps of meat are big on communication ...

I'm very pleased to announce that my agent, Caitlin Blasdell of Liza Dawson Associates, has negotiated a new deal with Ace, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA), for three books to be published in North America in 2012—2014. (This follows next year's forthcoming title, "Rule 34", which is due out in July.)

Here's an interview with me in From Bar to Bar:

Blue flames and sparks exploded loudly. I shrank back, frightened and not understanding what was happening. I should be at home, resting after the interview with Ekaterina Sedia, but I found myself surrounded by smoke, fire, sirens and cries of alarm ...
I knew I shouldn't have drunk that final absinthe last night ...

So how vulnerable to disruption is our modern globalized networked economy? Really?

According to IEEE Spectrum, a 70 millisecond power drop in a single factory is going to cause a 7.5% reduction in shipments of FLASH memory over the next two months. Worldwide.

(FLASH memory is rapidly encroaching hard disks as the mass storage medium of choice for our computers. This affects everything from iPods and cameras to laptops and servers.)

The 0.07 second drop in voltage from the grid coincided with a failure by the uninterruptable power supply feeding Toshiba's Yokkaichi memory-chip plant in Mie prefecture. This in turn wrecked everything in production. Toshiba expect to ship 20% less NAND flash memory over the next two months. And Toshiba are just about the world's largest supplier of what's rapidly becoming a vital component of our key information processing tools. (More here, via the WSJ.)

(I'm now trying to remember the details of the resin factory fire in, I think, Taiwan in the early 1990s, that took out the world's largest source of the high purity resins used to make chip carriers, resulting in a 100% spike in the price of DRAM that lasted for a year or so ...)

The Laundry RPG is now available from Cubicle 7 games.

Fluff the Plush Cthulhu says, "buy it now, minion, or you will be eaten last!"

In case you're new here, that's the role playing game based on my Laundry novels — which are available via the links here (US editions) and here (UK editions).

"Voting doesn't change anything — the politicians always win." 'Twas not always so, but I'm hearing variations on that theme a lot these days, and not just in the UK.

Why do we feel so politically powerless? Why is the world so obviously going to hell in a handbasket? Why can't anyone fix it?

Here's my (admittedly whimsical) working hypothesis ...

I get a lot of email from readers saying "Books 1-3, 5, and 6 of your six-book Merchant Princes series are available as ebooks, but book #4 is missing. What gives?"

I am happy to announce that The Merchants War has been available on Kindle and, I am told, via B&N and iBooks, since November 19th.

(I'd be even happier if someone from my publishers had, like, told me, but the next time that happens will be the first time, so, well, better late than never.)

This means that if you're in the USA you can read the whole Merchant Princes series in ebook form. (Note that book #6, "The Trade of Queens", costs more than the earlier volumes because it's still in hardcover; it should get cheaper sometime next March, when the mass market paperback edition is released. Folks in other territories may be out of luck unless they can bamboozle one of the US vendors into supplying an ebook out of area. Yes, this sucks. Yes, when there's a fix I'll announce it here.)

It seems to me that one of our besetting problems these days is that there's a shortage of utopias on offer.

Utopia — a fictional country with a perfect socio-political and legal system — is, of course, fiction. It's a polemical tool that is best used as a lens for examining our ideas about how we would like to live. A road map showing how to get there from here is optional; nor does utopian speculation generally provide a guide to the vexatious question of relations between utopia and the outside realm of the imperfect (should such a thing still have the bad grace to exist).

As a vehicle for fiction, utopias are piss-poor: they don't lend themselves to dramatic tension because they're perfect, and they're also annoyingly persistent — it's not utopia if it comes and goes in a couple of decades. (Indeed, what makes the SF of Iain Banks so interesting is that he does have a utopia, in the shape of the Culture — which, unfortunately, only works due to it being, well, science fiction.)

Anyway: it seems to me that the post-cold war neoliberal dominated political consensus (which is a consensus of the Right, insofar as the flagship of the Left hit an iceberg and started to sink in 1917, finally hitting the sea floor in 1989) is intrinsically inimical to the consideration of utopian ideals. Burkean conservativism tends to be skeptical of change, always asking first, "will it make things worse?" This isn't a bad question to ask in and of itself, but we're immured a period of change unprecedented in human history (it kicked off around the 1650s; its end is not yet in sight) and basing your policies on what you can see in your rear-view mirror leaves you open to driving over unforseen pot-holes. To a conservative, the first priority is not to lose track of what's good about the past, lest the future be worse. But this viewpoint brings with it a cognitive bias towards the simplistic outlook that innovation is always bad.

Which is why I think we badly need more utopian speculation. The consensus future we read about in the media and that we're driving towards is a roiling, turbulent fogbank beset by half-glimpsed demons: climate change, resource depletion, peak oil, mass extinction, collapse of the oceanic food chain, overpopulation, terrorism, foreigners who want to come here and steal our women jobs. It's not a nice place to be; if the past is another country, the consensus view of the future currently looks like a favela with raw sewage running in the streets. Conservativism — standing on the brake pedal — is a natural reaction to this vision; but it's a maladaptive one, because it makes it harder to respond effectively to new and unprecedented problems. We can't stop, we can only go forward; so it is up to us to choose a direction.

Having said that, we should be able to create a new golden age of utopian visions. A global civilization appears to be emerging for the first time. It's unstable, unevenly distributed, and blindly fumbling its way forward. But we have unprecedented tools for sharing information; slowly developing theories of behavioural economics, cognitive bias, and communications that move beyond the crudely simplistic (and wrong) 19th century models of perfectly rational market actors: even models of development that seem to be generating sporadic progress in those countries that were hammered down and ruthlessly exploited as colonial assets by the ancien regime and its inheritors.

We need — quite urgently, I think — plausible visions of where we might be fifty or a hundred or a thousand years hence: a hot, densely populated, predominantly urban planetary culture that nevertheless manages to feed everybody, house everybody, and give everybody room to pursue their own happiness without destroying our resource base.

Because historically, when a civilization collapsed, it collapsed in isolation: but if our newly global civilization collapses, what then ...?

Incidentally, I was meant to be in London right now. Indeed, I was meant to be there by Tuesday evening, but the airport has been closed for three days, the East Coast Main Line is intermittently closed, the A1 is periodically blocked by jackknifed trucks, the A68 is missing (presumed buried under snow), the Forth Road Bridge and the A90 north are intermittently blocked, the M8 motorway west to Glasgow is down to one lane in each direction with huge delays, and ScotRail are complaining about the wrong kind of snow on the tracks.

That's what Princes Street looked like (at the corner with North Bridge — the tall building on the left is the Balmoral Hotel) at 2am on Saturday night this week. It's not much better right now ... these are the Scottish lowlands, we don't do snow!

(Canadians, Siberians, and US mid-westerners may feel entitled to sneer, but we've had around 50cm of snow this week, in parts of the country that expect maybe 5cm all winter. And it's worse elsewhere: this blast of cold weather has been closing airports in Switzerland.)

Update: Apparently it's the heaviest autumn snowfall since 1965. So that's all right, then.

The Nobel Peace Prize for 2011 should go to Julian Assange (if he lives long enough to receive it).

You don't need me to point you at the huge mass of US diplomatic cables disclosed by wikileaks this week. Nor do you need me to point to the outrage it has generated, including calls for his assassination and, ludicrously, trial and execution for treason by the US government (Planet Earth to Mick Huckabee: by definition it's not treason if he's not an American citizen and isn't acting within the USA).

But you might be wondering why he's doing it? If so, read this now.

Around the world, governments seem to be more interested in obeying the goals of industry lobbyists and the rich than in actually governing well; this isn't an accident, but the outcome of the capture of the machinery of governance by groups of individuals who are self-selecting for adherence to a narrow ideological outlook. In effect we are beset by accidental authoritarian conspiracies — not top-down conspiracies led by a white-cat-stroking Bond villain, but unintentional ad-hoc conspiracies by groups of individuals who work together to promote common interests. By coordinating, they can gain control of our institutions and impose an agenda that is agreeable to their interests (but not to the majority of the public). Familiar examples might include: the music and film industries and their catspaws among the lobbyists attending the WIPO intellectual property negotiations, the oil and coal industries, the religious right, and so on.

Assange has a model of how the abduction of governance by common interest groups — such as corporations and right wing political factions — works in the current age. His goal is to impair the ability of these groups to exert control over democratic institutions without the consent of the governed. By forcing these authoritarian institutions to apply ever-heavier burdens of secrecy to their internal communications, wikileaks aims to reduce their ability to coordinate and, thus, to exert control:

Authoritarian regimes give rise to forces which oppose them by pushing against the individual and collective will to freedom, truth and self realization. Plans which assist authoritarian rule, once discovered, induce resistance. Hence these plans are concealed by successful authoritarian powers. This is enough to define their behavior as conspiratorial.

Assange's analysis parallels Chomsky's — modulo having a somewhat different ideological outlook — but he's gone a significant step further, and is fighting back. His own explanation is here (warning: PDF).

Wikileaks is not attacking the US government; rather, it's acting to degrade the ability of pressure groups to manipulate the US government to their own ends. Those who benefit the most from their ability to manipulate the State Department are the most angry about this: autocratic middle eastern leaders, authoritarian right-wing politicians, royalty, corporate cartels. Those of us who are scratching our heads and going "huh?" about the significance of Muammar Ghadaffi's botox habit are missing the point: it's not about the content, but about the implication that the powerful can no longer count on their ability to lie to the public without being called on it.

In an ideal world, wikileaks wouldn't be necessary. But the US mass media has been neutered and coopted by the enemies of the public interest.

So we move to the backlash: disinformation, or black propaganda and smear campaigns.

It's no coincidence that within 48 hours of the latest batch of leaks, Interpol issued an arrest warrant for Assange on charges of alleged rape. (I'm only surprised that they didn't go the whole hog and accuse him of incest, blasphemy, child abuse, simony, and disrespectin' the money.)

Obviously I can't comment on whether there's any substance to the charges, but Counterpunch suggests otherwise, alleging:

Swedish bloggers uncovered the full story in a few hours. The complaint was lodged by a radical feminist Anna Ardin, 30, a one-time intern in the Swedish Foreign Service. She's spokeswoman for Broderskapsrörelsen, the liberation theology-like Christian organization affiliated with Sweden's Social Democratic Party. She had invited Julian Assange to a crayfish party, and they had enjoyed some quality time together. When Ardin discovered that Julian shared a similar experience with a 20-year-old woman a day or two later, she obtained the younger woman's cooperation in declaring before the police that changing partners in so rapid a manner constituted a sort of deceit. And deceit is a sort of rape. The prosecutor immediately issued an arrest warrant, and the press was duly notified. Once the facts were examined in the cold light of day, the charge of rape seemed ludicrous and was immediately dropped. In the meantime the younger woman, perhaps realizing how she had been used, withdrew her report, leaving the vengeful Anna Ardin standing alone.

Ardin has written and published on her blog a "revenge instruction", describing how to commit a complete character assassination to legally destroy a person who "should be punished for what he did". If the offence was of a sexual nature, the revenge also must also be sex-related, she wrote.

I think that the timing of the allegations (which first surfaced after the previous wikileaks disclosures) and the INTERPOL warrant is suggestive of a politically-motivated disinformation campaign rather than an actual serious criminal investigation. I also note with interest the way the charges were originally brought, then withdrawn, then brought again. Rape is an extremely serious charge, and generally treated as such in Sweden. So what's up with this?

Your guess is as good as mine, but my guess is this: Assange is stomping on the bunions of the rich and powerful. And while serious people aren't suggesting murder or prosecution for treason — either of which would make a martyr of him and underscore the seriousness of his project; I'll note that only un-serious politicians, whoring for newspaper column-inches, are coming out with this crap — I think his enemies are fighting back with that time-honoured tactic of the scoundrel, the carefully-aimed character assassination.

Which, if you think about it, suggests he's onto something important.



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This page is an archive of recent entries written by Charlie Stross in December 2010.

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