Stross and Doctorow on privacy in the modern age

Paul Raven @ 03-06-2009

A few weeks back the Open Rights Group held a benefit talk just up the tracks from me in London that I was meant to go to, though sadly the realities of self-employment intruded and kept me at home. The speakers were Charlie Stross and Cory Doctorow – two very smart guys who, even if you’re not a fan of their fiction, have a lot of very interesting stuff to say on the matter of privacy and surveillance in the modern world.

Luckily for me (and everyone else) there’s video footage of the whole thing – and I heartily suggest you watch it. While somewhat focussed on the UK situation, the stuff about data security and information harvesting and ubiquitous surveillance is applicable to anyone who uses the web, has a government that uses computers or lives in a city or town with a CCTV presence… which (I imagine) covers pretty much everyone reading Futurismic right now.

There’s ninety minutes of video; the discussion between Stross and Doctorow fills a little less than the first half, but make the time to listen to the Q&A section afterwards as well. I’ve found myself with about four pages of notes and story ideas just from my first pass through, and I imagine there’ll be more when I go back to it. So get watching:

You know what would have made this even more interesting, though? If David Brin had been on the panel… now that would have been hands-down the debate of the year, at least for me.

What have cigarettes and climate change got in common?

Paul Raven @ 02-04-2009

burning cigarette tipWell, neither causes the other, for a start. But both the anti-smoking lobby and the climate change lobby have their moderates and their hard-liners. [image by Stewart]

For example, New Scientist reports on a schism in the anti-smoking field:

… Siegel has come under fire from colleagues in the field of smoking research. His offence was to post messages on the widely read mailing list Tobacco Policy Talk, in which he questioned one of the medical claims about passive smoking, as well as the wisdom of extreme measures such as outdoor smoking bans.

In front of his peers, funders and potential future employers, other contributors posted messages accusing Siegel of taking money from the tobacco industry. When Siegel stood his ground, the administrators kicked him off the list, cutting off a key source of news in his field. “It felt like I was excommunicated, says Siegel. “I was shocked: I’ve been a leader in the movement for 21 years.”

The similarities with climate change should be obvious, what with that scene also being full of people coming to a variety of conclusions based upon the same evidence. As with the smoking issues above, the end-result is a form of in-fighting, with the more moderate thinkers decrying the hard-liners for making the moderate view unpalatable by association – take climate ‘tipping points’, for example:

In reports released this month, both the World Bank and the United Nations Environment Program focused on tipping points as a prime concern. And last year, a team of European scientists published an influential paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences compiling what is known and not known about various climatic tipping points — including the loss of summer sea ice around the North Pole and worrisome changes in the West African monsoon.

The authors said they wanted to reduce the chance that “society may be lulled into a false sense of security by smooth projections of global change.”

On the other hand, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its influential 2007 report, expressly avoided specifying tipping points and instead concluded simply that the gradient of risk for a host of “large-scale discontinuities” increased with each degree of warming.


As policymakers try to address the risks facing the planet from a warming climate, some experts worry that focusing on tipping points and thresholds will perpetuate paralyzing debates over specifics — and obscure the reality that decisions need to be made, even in the face of uncertainty.

What this makes abundantly clear is that – as climate skeptics are always keen to point out – scientific consensus isn’t like a choir singing in unison from the same song-sheet. And nor should it be… but it makes things very confusing for the layman, as increasingly frantic (and often inaccurate) media coverage makes it progressively more difficult to see the wood from the trees. All the scientists quoted in the article above agree that climate change is real and that we must act in light of that prognosis; however, the different ways in which they choose to interpret and communicate that data make that commonality less obvious.

Perhaps I stand to be accused of credulity myself, but I’m of the opinion that the vast majority of scientists – even those who claim that climate change is not a threat – are acting sincerely on their own beliefs rather than shilling for commercial or political interests. Do scientists with extreme and/or entrenched viewpoints overstate the cases made by the available data? Almost certainly; listen to any conversation about sports or music to hear ordinary people doing exactly the same thing. But do those extreme interpretations invalidate the more moderate thinking of those whose conclusions they have built upon? Not for me, at least. YMMV.

Is “sci-fi” still a dirty word?

Paul Raven @ 08-12-2008

The gals and guys over at io9 have reheated the perennial debate of whether or not ‘science fiction’ is an accurate or useful descriptive name for the genre, with a side excursion into ‘is it OK to say sci-fi?’

As pointed out by plenty of commenters there, it’s not really a very important question. However, I am unable to get on my high horse about it, because I do tend to get sniffy when people who don’t know anything about the genre beyond Trek and Wars dismiss my book collection as ‘sci-fi’… and don’t get me started on people who say “oh, proper science fiction… like Heroes, yeah?” [image by Jim Linwood]

But from a marketing perspective, there’s a worthwhile question at the root of the debate: is the label of science fiction (however you contract or recast it) a kiss of commercial death? The massive success of Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policemen’s Union – very carefully not marketed as science fiction, but embraced by the genre scene nonetheless – seems to suggest that the public can stomach the material of the genre.

So maybe it’s the internecine bitching over ephemera that puts them off?

It’s easier to knock the optimists if you ignore what they’re actually saying

Paul Raven @ 30-09-2008

If nothing else, Damien Walter’s post about positivity in sf has poked up the embers and got some debate crackling. But when I say “debate”, I may actually mean “knee-jerk reactions to someone suggesting that change wouldn’t be a bad thing”…

Jason Stoddard decided to codify his ideas in a Positive Science Fiction Manifesto, and Jetse de Vries chipped in again as well. Jason’s manifesto made the error of mentioning capitalism in a positive light, however, causing David Moles to mis-paraphrase him as saying the problem with contemporary science fiction is that it doesn’t love capitalism enough, and for io9 to do an unusually sloppy job of yeah-what-he-said bandwagoneering. Both posts address half a point out of the five that Jason lists… is it overly capitalistic of me to be keeping score?

Just for the record, I’m very fond of dystopic fiction but I’d quite like to see some more optimistic pieces as well; I don’t see why both can’t coexist, given the number of specialist niche venues in the market. What I find grimly amusing is to see the same knee-jerk reactions that the Mundane SF manifesto caused happening all over again… so much for sf readers being open to change, huh?

Is short fiction devalued by being available for free?

Paul Raven @ 23-08-2008

Gordon Van Gelder – editor-in-chief of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction – has opened up a debate about genre fiction short stories and their online availability. Understandably, as a publisher of a physical ink-on-paper magazine, he’s wondering if the sheer quantity of free fiction online has devalued the form in general:

Here at F&SF, we’re open to experimentation and for the past year or so, we’ve been publishing one reprint a month on our Website. Last month, the free story was “The Political Officer” by Charles Coleman Finlay. A few days ago, someone posted on our message board that he wanted to read that story. I explained that it was no longer on our Website but he could buy a copy of that back issue from us or from Fictionwise.

As I did so, I realized that I was putting a reader in a position where he had to decide if he would pay for something he could have had for free just a few days earlier… which doesn’t strike me as a good position. I know that I don’t like being asked to make such a choice.

So I started to wonder: has short fiction been devalued by the fact that so many places offer it for free online nowadays?

This is a question that interests me too, for obvious reasons. I run Futurismic because I care about getting good writing in front of the eyeballs that enjoy it, and I compile the Friday Free Fiction posts for the same reason.

The answers to Van Gelder’s questions suggest that some people do indeed think short fiction is devalued by there being more of it available for free, but that strikes me as being counter to basic economic theory – surely the good stuff becomes more valuable when there’s lots of rubbish? [Caveat – I am, by no means, an expert in economics.]

Of course, one’s definition of a good story or book is a very personal thing, and doubtless has a lot of connection to the demographic the reader belongs to, so I dare say there’s no definitive answer.

But nonetheless, I’d like to ask Futurismic‘s readers the same question, though with a different angle to it: do you perceive the short fiction we publish as being inferior because you don’t have to pay to read it? And what effect has the availability of free short stories had on your buying habits?

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