Two big name authors in one interview? Geek Native landed a big one… perhaps. We’ll just have to make sure we can loop in good RPG chat, the sci-fi agenda as well as reflect on the pair’s Rapture of the Nerds.
Charles Stross is an author based in Edinburgh the home of Geek Native. Stross has featured many times on this blog before due to his books and Cubicle 7’s Laundry Files RPG based on the Laundry Files series.
It’s easy to wonder “What’s going to happen to humankind” as you read through Rapture of the Nerds. Whether the threat comes from alien intelligences from beyond time and space or insidious evil from within (copyright legislation?) are we doomed?
CS: As John Maynard Keynes pointed out, “in the long term, we are all dead”. This is true both for us individually and as a species. It’s true for all living organisms — you can’t beat entropy in a closed universe in the cosmologically long term.
On the other hand, it’s possible to have fun along the way! So why worry?
CD: As I wrote in Locus:
From the May 2011 issue of Locus Magazine
“Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?” It’s a question I get asked so often that I have a little canned response I can rattle off without thinking: “In order to be an activist, you have to be both: pessimistic enough to believe that things will get worse if left unchecked, optimistic enough to believe that if you take action, the worst can be prevented.”
But there’s more to it than that. I’ve been called a techno-utopian. I don’t know about that, but I’ll at least cop to “techno-optimist.” Techno-optimism is an ideology that embodies the pessimism and the optimism above: the concern that technology could be used to make the world worse, the hope that it can be steered to make the world better.
To understand techno-optimism, it’s useful to look at the free software movement, whose ideology and activism gave rise to the GNU/Linux operating system, the Android mobile operating system, the Firefox and Chrome browsers, the BSD Unix that lives underneath Mac OS X, the Apache web-server and many other web- and e-mail-servers and innumerable other technologies. Free software is technology that is intended to be understood, modified, improved, and distributed by its users. There are many motivations for contributing to free/open software, but the movement’s roots are in this two-sided optimism/pessimism: pessimistic enough to believe that closed, proprietary technology will win the approval of users who don’t appreciate the dangers down the line (such as lock-in, loss of privacy, and losing work when proprietary technologies are orphaned); optimistic enough to believe that a core of programmers and users can both create polished alternatives and win over support for them by demonstrating their superiority and by helping people understand the risks of closed systems.
While some free software activists might dream of a world without proprietary technology, the pursuit of free software’s ideology is generally more practical in its goal; like good technologists, they view proprietary technology as a bug, and bugs can’t necessarily be eliminated. It’s just not possible to squash every bug, so programmers track, isolate, and minimize bugs instead. Take the Ubuntu operating system, a very popular flavor of GNU/Linux. The first bug in its bug-tracker is this:
“Bug Description: Microsoft has a majority market share in the new desktop PC marketplace. This is a bug, which Ubuntu is designed to fix.
“Non-free software is holding back innovation in the IT industry, restricting access to IT to a small part of the world’s population and limiting the ability of software developers to reach their full potential, globally. This bug is widely evident in the PC industry.”
This bug has been “open” (that is, still not satisfactorily resolved) since 2004 and I’d be surprised to see it closed in the near-term. Nevertheless, each revision of Ubuntu has worked explicitly to minimize the harm arising from the bug, by providing an operating system that can be easily switched to from Microsoft’s products, with similar keyboard shortcuts and built-in programs, but none of the lock-in or restrictions. Ubuntu’s Bug #1 will not be solved by a product, but by a process.
This programmerly mindset is the key to understanding the pessimism/optimism duality. As a techno-optimist, I was heartened to see the role that networked technologies played in aiding activists in Iran, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and other middle-eastern autocracies to coordinate with one another. But as a techno-pessimist, I was horrified to see activists making use of unsecured unfit systems like Facebook, which make it trivial for authorities to snoop on and unpick the structure of activist organizations.
This isn’t new. The convenience of privacy-unfriendly social-network technologies from Friendster to Facebook has made them tempting platforms for use in organizing activist causes. Those of us who care about the underlying tools used in causes have railed against their use for the whole time, with moderate success. But our Bug #1 is still open – activists, even technologically savvy ones who should know better – still reach for proprietary, unencrypted, non-private technology, citing the difficulty of using the alternatives.
They’ve got a point: right now, it’s harder to organize a cause without using surveillance-friendly technology than it is to create another Facebook group. It falls to techno-optimists to do two things: first, improve the alternatives and; second, to better articulate the risks of using unsuitable tools in hostile environments. There are high-risk contexts – repressive, bloodthirsty regimes – in which it is literally better to do nothing than to put activists at risk by using tools that make it easy for the secret police to do their awful work.
Herein lies the difference between a “technology activist” and “an activist who uses technology” – the former prioritizes tools that are safe for their users; the latter prioritizes tools that accomplish some activist goal. The trick for technology activists is to help activists who use technology to appreciate the hidden risks and help them find or make better tools. That is, to be pessimists and optimists: without expert collaboration, activists might put themselves at risk with poor technology choices; with collaboration, activists can use technology to outmaneuver autocrats, totalitarians, and thugs.
Autocrats’ use of technology against the Middle Eastern uprisings has been a wake-up call to a large group of technology activists and activists who use technology. As I write this, the net is alive with privacy-conscious activists building organizing tools that preserve anonymity, that fill the gap when governments pull the plug on the net, that prevent eavesdropping and fight disinformation. The best of these technologies will be open and free, such that flaws in their methodologies can be identified and repaired early through broad scrutiny. In the meantime, we techno-optimists will go on fighting against Bug #1, asking our colleagues to look past the immediate convenience of Facebook, and at the long-term risks of putting our freedom in the hands of private concerns who’ve never promised to preserve it, and whom we shouldn’t believe even if they do.
Is Transhumanism a promise or a threat? Are sci-fi books over the next few years more likely to position transhuman entities as heroes or villains?
CS: Transhumanism is potentially a threat, but only if coupled with a pernicious ideology that emphasizes struggle and competition and creates losers, rather than cooperation and mutual assistance. We’ve seen this before: it’s the unpleasant layer of sewage underlying the river of capitalism we’re perforce swimming in.
(I’d like to think that one appropriate goal for transhumanists would be to heal neurological defects that impair social functioning; for example, to find a cure for sociopathic personality disorders and schizophrenia and clinical depression. Empathic, caring transhumanists would be fine by me. Jackboot-wearing ubermensch types, not so much.)
CD: Transhumanism is a literary device. As I wrote in Locus:
Futurism has a psychological explanation, as recounted in Harvard clinical psych prof Daniel Gilbert’s 2006 book, Stumbling on Happiness. Our memories and our projections of the future are necessarily imperfect. Our memories consist of those observations our brains have bothered to keep records of, woven together with inference and whatever else is lying around handy when we try to remember something. Ask someone who’s eating a great lunch how breakfast was, and odds are she’ll tell you it was delicious. Ask the same question of someone eating rubbery airplane food, and he’ll tell you his breakfast was awful. We weave the past out of our imperfect memories and our observable present.
We make the future in much the same way: we use reasoning and evidence to predict what we can, and whenever we bump up against uncertainty, we fill the void with the present day. Hence the injunction on women soldiers in the future of Starship Troopers, or the bizarre, glassed-over “Progressland” city diorama at the end of the 1964 World’s Fair exhibit The Carousel of Progress, which Disney built for GE.
Lapsarianism — the idea of a paradise lost, a fall from grace that makes each year worse than the last — is the predominant future feeling for many people. It’s easy to see why: an imperfectly remembered golden childhood gives way to the worries of adulthood and physical senescence. Surely the world is getting worse: nothing tastes as good as it did when we were six, everything hurts all the time, and our matured gonads drive us into frenzies of bizarre, self-destructive behavior.
Lapsarianism dominates the Abrahamic faiths. I have an Orthodox Jewish friend whose tradition holds that each generation of rabbis is necessarily less perfect than the rabbis that came before, since each generation is more removed from the perfection of the Garden. Therefore, no rabbi is allowed to overturn any of his forebears’ wisdom, since they are all, by definition, smarter than him.
The natural endpoint of Lapsarianism is apocalypse. If things get worse, and worse, and worse, eventually they’ll just run out of worseness. Eventually, they’ll bottom out, a kind of rotten death of the universe when Lapsarian entropy hits the nadir and takes us all with it.
Running counter to Lapsarianism is progressivism: the Enlightenment ideal of a world of great people standing on the shoulders of giants. Each of us contributes to improving the world’s storehouse of knowledge (and thus its capacity for bringing joy to all of us), and our descendants and proteges take our work and improve on it. The very idea of “progress” runs counter to the idea of Lapsarianism and the fall: it is the idea that we, as a species, are falling in reverse, combing back the wild tangle of entropy into a neat, tidy braid.
Of course, progress must also have a boundary condition — if only because we eventually run out of imaginary ways that the human condition can improve. And science fiction has a name for the upper bound of progress, a name for the progressive apocalypse:
We call it the Singularity.
Vernor Vinge’s Singularity takes place when our technology reaches a stage that allows us to “upload” our minds into software, run them at faster, hotter speeds than our neurological wetware substrate allows for, and create multiple, parallel instances of ourselves. After the Singularity, nothing is predictable because everything is possible. We will cease to be human and become (as the title of Rudy Rucker’s next novel would have it) Postsingular.
The Singularity is what happens when we have so much progress that we run out of progress. It’s the apocalypse that ends the human race in rapture and joy. Indeed, Ken MacLeod calls the Singularity “the rapture of the nerds,” an apt description for the mirror-world progressive version of the Lapsarian apocalypse.
At the end of the day, both progress and the fall from grace are illusions. The central thesis of Stumbling on Happiness is that human beings are remarkably bad at predicting what will make us happy. Our predictions are skewed by our imperfect memories and our capacity for filling the future with the present day.
The future is gnarlier than futurism. NCC-1701 probably wouldn’t send out transporter-equipped drones — instead, it would likely find itself on missions whose ethos, mores, and rationale are largely incomprehensible to us, and so obvious to its crew that they couldn’t hope to explain them.
Science fiction is the literature of the present, and the present is the only era that we can hope to understand, because it’s the only era that lets us check our observations and predictions against reality.
An early encounter in Rapture of the Nerds is will a GM and role-playing critic. Was the experience of transforming the Laundry Files into a role-playing game one that helped secure roleplayers as characters suitable for a fractured future sci-fi romp alongside talking teapots and genetically modified animals?
CD: One for Charlie.
CS: I didn’t write the Laundry Files RPG.
In the past we’ve had books and movies about human-like aliens swapping bodies back when people were worried about Communists secretly taking over, we had monster movies as an expression of nuclear threat, virus outbreak movies and animal horrors as people worried about bio-engineering. Are we starting to see books, comics and movie plots reflecting people’s concerns with the rapid pace of technology?
CD: Yes, see above!
CS: Yes! In fact, we’ve been seeing them since the 1860s. (A good case can be made for Jules Verne having set that ball rolling.)
How has technology changed how we build and maintain relationships? If so; are these changes for the good?
CS: In many respects, yes, these changes are good. I don’t know if you remember what the telephone system was like in the 1970s, but you could pay a day’s wages for an hour of trans-Atlantic voice service. What we’ve got now is bandwidth so cheap that it’s criminally stupid to meter it, and the ability to build communities that transcend geographical boundaries. Think of fandom(s), for example, where the individuals involved are geographically isolated — maybe one in a hundred thousand people. If you’re in such a group, you may be the only person in your town; but there are thousands of people with the same interest all over the world, and you can find common ground with them. Network effects prevail. And the most interesting thing? Most such network groups are social positives, rather than crazed suicide cults. People are generally good for one another, and human contact (even if mediated by machines) is better than no contact at all.
CD: As I said in this speech:
I’ve been given a few moments to explain my work to you. I wear several hats: entrepreneur, activist, science fiction writer, and campaigning journalist. Like education, vocation isn’t a discrete silo, but rather a spectrum of activities in service of a larger cause and vision. The cause and vision that I’ve made my own is to fight for a free, open infrastructure for the information society.
“Information Society” is a term that gets tossed around a lot as though everyone agrees on what it means, and that’s a sure sign that *no one* agrees on what it means. I’ll tell what I think it means. It means a society where everything we own is made out of networked computers. Not just in the trivial sense that all the devices we own are just PCs in funny boxes — your TV, phone, cable box, games console, camera, CCTV and alarm clock are made out of PC parts, running PC operating systems, using Internet protocols to talk with one another. But increasingly, cars and houses are networked PCs we put our bodies into. Prostheses, from hearing aids to cochlear implants, pacemakers to robotic limbs — they’re PCs we insert into our bodies, sometimes so permanently that they can’t be removed without general anaesthesia.
Networks — by which I mean the Internet, which is like some ancient god with a thousand faces and guises, but which is actually a single, sprawling network that appears to different people and societies in different garb — are the most significant means of changing our social circumstances. The UK Champion for Digital Inclusion, Martha Lane Fox, commissioned a PriceWaterhouseCooper study on the impact of Internet access on the poorest and most vulnerable families in the UK. The study concluded that families with network access have better outcomes on every social axis, from nutrition to employment, from education and social mobility to civil engagement and political awareness. Simply put, the Internet is a single wire that delivers freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, and access to nutrition, education, employment, politics, and community.
As governments and regulators consider the policy of the Internet and the PC, they operate like the blind men and the elephant: “I’m not regulating the Internet, I’m fighting piracy!” or “I’m not regulating the Internet, I’m hunting paedophiles” or “I’m not regulating the PC, I’m protecting the BBC’s ability to get American TV networks to license sit-coms to them” or “I’m not regulating the PC, I’m trying to help companies like Apple protect their App store.”
Some of these causes are just, and some are not. But there is no way to render a PC safe for American sit-coms in Britain without affecting the designs of PCs overall. There is no way to surveil the Internet for terrorism and obscenity without surveilling everything on the Internet. Upon discovering that the PC or the Internet has a feature that causes some problem, regulators reflexively reach for a simple answer: “Very well — remove that feature from the network, then. Remove that feature from the PC.”
But there is no theoretical model for building a general-purpose computer that can run all the programmes we can conceive of, save for the one that is giving a regulator fits. The closest approximation we have is a computer with spyware on it out of the box, a computer that runs some secretive programme whose job is to watch all the things its owner does, and periodically intercede to say, “I can’t let you do that, Dave.” For this programme to work, it has to operate in such a way that the computer’s owner can’t find it and delete it. It has to operate such that the owner can’t switch it off.
And there is no theoretical model for building a general-purpose network that can let anyone talk to anyone else using any protocol to convey any message, save for the message that frightens a politician or alarms a voter. The closest approximation is a network with in-built surveillance and censorship, where unaccountable and secretive processes are used to watch every bit that flows from here to there, so that the terrorist bits and the piracy bits can be interdicted, or at least logged.
In the information society, where we put networked computers in our bodies and put our bodies into networked computers, we need to ensure that the design brief for these devices is to respect their owners, to serve their owners. We must attend to how our IT regulations will fail, and not merely how they will work. The way we respond to the problems created by computers and networks will prefigure and constrain the answers to every other problem of the information society. These are the wheels and levers of the modern age, and I have found in the OU a faculty that is alive to that truth, animated by it, and active in it. I am proud beyond measure to join their number.
How do two authors produce one book? What was the disagreement to agreement ratio like?
CS: We settled our disputes with rapiers, atop a burning dirigible, wearing red capes while blogging.
Getting my precise subordinate clause sentence structure into the final draft rather than Cory’s morally degenerate adjectival running-dog said-bookism was a matter of honour. HONOUR, I SAY!
(Actually, it was pretty mundane. When we found we weren’t seeing eye to eye on something, we discussed it in email. No drama.)
CD: I was living in SF, and Charlie was living in Edins, and though we’d not met, he and I had corresponded and read one anothers’ work and such. Charlie proposed collaborating, I agreed, and he sent me the first ~500 words of a story he’d got stuck on, called JURY SERVICE. I rewrote that, added ~500 words more, and sent it back. He did the same; and we volleyed until the story was done.
APPEALS COURT, the second novella that went into the novel, went less smoothly. Now that there was some backstory, we each seemed to possess distinctive ideas about where the story should go, and there’s a lot of literal back and fro in the first printing of that story as the protagonist runs back and forth while we tried to wrest control.
Thankfully all that was edited out in the rewrite we did for the book.
This was almost certainly exacerbated by my own reluctance to talk about writing — I prefer to write out my story problems. Charlie’s much better about it.
PAROLE BOARD — the final novella, twice as long as the other two combined — went much more smoothly, likely because we had both come along quite some way in our own writing habits. We had a couple meetings — one f2f, one Skype — and sorted it all out and banged it out.
Would it be possible (wise?) to attempt to turn Rapture of the Nerds into an RPG?
CD: Anything’s possible! I’m not an RPG designer, so I’m not really qualified to comment.
CS: I have no idea. (I haven’t been a gamer for thirty years.)
Rapture of the Nerds contains nods to Doctor Who, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and even The Matrix. Did you set out to include these or did these just happen naturally? After the first one was there any sport to be had in smuggling in more?
CD: They just emerged — it’s a comic novel, and that sort of reference has some inherent comedy.
CS: It happened naturally.
This is the year of Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary. Why do you think the show has remained popular and been able to regenerate itself with new audiences?
CD: I don’t watch it, sorry.
CS: I have no idea; I don’t watch TV drama, especially SF (the plot holes make me itch incontrolably).
Lastly, which cyberpunk vision of the future would you encourage Geek Native readers to go experience either by book, comic book, game, movie or TV program?
CS: If I’m allowed to blow my own trumpet, I’d like to suggest my novels “Halting State” and “Rule 34”. Near future books about MMOs, AI, and crimes that don’t exist yet.
Looking further afield, Ramez Naam is writing some really interesting stuff right now; his book “Nexus” is well worth a look.
CD: I loved Ramez Naam’s debut novel, Nexus
Rapture of the Nerds Mind-bending Blog Tour
Rapture of the Nerds by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross is out now, Titan Books, £7.99. This interview was posted as part of the Rapture of the Nerds Mind-bending Blog Tour. For more details visit: http://titanbooks.com/blog/rapture-nerds-mind-bending-blog-tour/.
The Rapture of the Nerds is peppered with references to pop-culture staples (The Matrix, Doctor Who, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy amongst others). To be in with a chance of winning a SIGNED copy of Rapture of the Nerds tweet the fictions piece of technology that you would most want let loose in the real world @doctorow @csross @titanbooks #RaptureoftheNerds. The co-authors will vote for their favourite fifteen pieces of tech and each top tweeter will be sentenced to a free copy. The Jury is still out. Good luck.