Code is law: metaverse worlds as the ultimate sovereign states

Paul Raven @ 09-11-2010

A disappointingly brief interview piece at New Scientist has Greg Lastowka talking about the subject matter of his new book, Virtual Justice. I say disappointingly because there’s whole raft-loads of fascinating implications behind the bits that made the cut; I guess I’ll just have to buy the damned book (which was probably the entire point of the interview, to be fair).

Carping aside, Lastowka is talking about law and governance in virtual worlds… or rather the need for such. Thing is, it looks to me like he’s also implicitly conceding that trying to enforce such legal frameworks from without (i.e. from meatspace reality) will be, at best, an uphill battle:

NS: Surely technology has always influenced law. Are things fundamentally different today?

GL: Yes, I think so. To an extent, technology is displacing law. A virtual world owner has a choice between law and technology as tools to further their interests – and they are generally turning to technology first. In 1999, Lawrence Lessig used the phrase “code is law”, and it applies to virtual worlds today. If you control the very nature of the simulation – how gravity works, how a person walks, where they go, what they can say – then you have the power to govern the environment in a way that no sovereign in real space can.

NS: So virtual law could end up being quite powerful?

GL: The government can do a lot of things but it can’t reverse the direction of gravity. Owners of virtual worlds can do an amazing number of things with regard to surveillance and interpersonal interactions.

If they so choose… and bear in mind the market value of being one of the worlds that chooses not to.

But it’s this final line that carries a whole book’s-worth of interesting implications… and probably a trilogy’s-worth of post-cyberpunk plot hooks:

In a sense, technology has outpaced the law. Any owner of a technological platform essentially has the ability to regulate society.

Seriously, think about it: that last sentence there is just huge, saying so much in such a short space. Just as the geographically-defined nation-state begins the final process of withering, the non-Euclidian geography of the metaverse steps in to offer a space over which your control can be more gloriously totalitarian than the greatest despots of the world ever aspired to!

Problem is, if your citizens can emigrate by simply hitting Ctrl-Q and signing up with someone else, how do you encourage them to stick around? Godlike control over the local laws of physics and commerce sounds pretty sweet at first, but unless you want to be godking of a sandbox empire populated by the twenty-five deluded cranks who read your Randian blog back in the noughties (ahem), you’d better start figuring out a legal (and metaphysical) framework that has some sort of appeal to potential digital ex-pats. Money-laundering and tax-haven status might be a good place to start.


Bruce Sterling on the shallow erudition of Google

Paul Raven @ 19-10-2010

I’d be remiss in my relentless Bruce Sterling fanboyism if I didn’t link to this interview with the man himself at 40kbooks (which looks to be a digital-only publisher focussing on essays  about digital culture and short-form fiction from notable authors; the Chairman’s recent Interzone-published story “Black Swan” is available from them, for instance).

And I’d also be remiss in my blognautic self-aggrandisement if I didn’t point out that interviewer Rhys Hughes riffs off of an answer Sterling gave in my interview with him back in 2009

Rhys: I believe that you were once asked to state the major difference between the methods of research you employ as a writer now and the methods you employed when you began your writing career. You responded with the single word, “Google.” This might seem a perverse question, but do you think there are any perils for a new writer in the fact that research has now become so much easier?

Bruce: That’s not a perverse question.  It’s obvious.  It’s a simple matter to examine almost any contemporary text and see that Google was used to compose it. Contemporary writing is loaded with strange little details of erudition that used to be expensive and difficult to research. For instance, let’s consider an obscure, dusty figure like, say, Massimo d’Azeglio.  Or rather, Massimo Taparelli, Marquis d’Azeglio (October 24, 1798 – January 15, 1866), the author of the Italian historical novels, “Niccolò dei Lapi” and “Ettore Fieramosca.”  No American should properly know anything about this man. It took me 57 seconds to research that on Google, and that included cutting and pasting the text here.

The peril comes in thinking, as a modern writer, that you can truly understand something about Massimo Taparelli in just 57 seconds. No, you can’t. To access facts is not to understand them. The Marquis d’Azeglio was an intelligent, creative and cultivated 19th century aristocrat. He was deep and broad and subtle and human, and very alien to us moderns. Modern writers may fail to understand him in this sudden electronic blizzard of  bland facts about him.  We may  know less of him because we seem to know  more of him.

Lots more good stuff in Hughes’ interview, so go read.


China Miéville on challenging the reader

Paul Raven @ 24-08-2010

We break briefly from the predominantly near-future science fiction remit of this website in order to bring to your attention an author who I think all lovers of great fiction should discover, if they haven’t already. Wired has a podcast chat with the incomparable (and coolly charming) China Miéville; not only does he write brilliant books that subvert and mash together two or three (or maybe more) subgenres at a time, but his mind is sharper and shinier than a samurai sword*. Go listen to him talk. You may not agree with everything he says, but I defy you to not have your brain stretched.

I rather suspect there are a few Miéville devotees already among the audience here – I like to think our devotion is primarily to great writing rather than partisan notions of genre adherence (though I may be wrong). So, which Miéville would you most heartily recommend? (Or, conversely, which one didn’t you like, and why?)

My personal favourite would be The Scar, but the recently released Kraken is probably the best entry text to the Mieville oeuvre.


Must-read writer interview: Ted Chiang

Paul Raven @ 23-07-2010

Ted Chiang may not be the most prolific sf short story writer ever, but you’d be hard pressed to find many folk who wouldn’t concede that he’s one of the best. So go check out this interview with him at BoingBoing if you haven’t already… here’s a snippet where Chiang describes his writing process, which is rather about-face by comparison to those I’ve heard from other writers, though it makes a compelling sort of sense:

In general, if there’s an idea I’m interested in, I usually think about that for a long time and write down my speculations or just ideas about how it could become a story, but I don’t actually start writing the story itself until I know how the story ends. Typically the first part of the story that I write is the very ending, either the last paragraph of the story or a paragraph near the end. Once I have the destination in mind then I can build the rest of the story around that or build the rest of the story in such a way as to lead up to that. Usually the second thing I write is the opening of the story and then I write the rest of the story in almost random order. I just keep writing scenes until I’ve connected the beginning and the end. I write the key scenes or what I think of as the landmark scenes first, and then I just fill in backwards and forwards.

Good interview: go read. And when you’ve finished it, go read some Ted Chiang stories if you haven’t already. And if you have, why not read ’em again?


Catherine Asaro interview at BigThink

Paul Raven @ 18-06-2010

Here’s one from the Futurismic digital post-bag: science fiction author Catherine Asaro does a short video interview with BigThink (which appears to be a sort of smaller and less self-congratulatory TED-type global-ideas-forum affair) about the hard science that informs her stories. Off we go:


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