Broken Telephones

As some of you have discovered, Online Security Demigod Bruce Schneier has taken note of my recent appearance before the IAPP.  He has some nice things to say about the things I said.  Or at least, about the things he thinks I said.  The problem is, he gleaned those things not from my reportage, but from Angelique Carson’s.  And as I mentioned  in a footnote a couple of posts back, I didn’t exactly say all the things that Ms. Carson thinks I did.

Some of the comments over on Schneier’s blog quite rightly splutter and roll their eyes at some of those things, even while others have pointed out that there was some garblage in the translation. Which means, I suppose, that I really should get around to posting a transcript of my talk sooner rather than later.

Not today, though.  Today, let me just address a couple of the more obvious misconceptions.  Because I really need to get a run in before it starts raining again.

First, while some have pointed to my own post as a better record of the event, that was really just my impressions of what it was like to deliver the talk; it didn’t really address the content.  For that, you’d need to cherry-pick from a number of entries posted over the years: on the Transparent Society, on God Is In the Wattles, on the essential Third-Worldiness of the US of A (more explicitly documented in my  ChiSeries talk on “Gods, Jackboots, and Rule 34“). Even a bit of evohandwavery from Echopraxia made it into the talk. I don’t expect anyone to actually go back through all that stuff and forensically recreate what I said, of course. Only bits and pieces of those postings found their way into the actual presentation, along with other stuff that I’ve never delivered anywhere before. Ms. Carson’s piece is actually the closest thing you’ll get to an actual summary until I get around to posting the transcript.

It doesn’t always get the details right, though.

Sometimes a word or two makes all the difference.  I remark that the link between surveillance and fear is “a lot deeper than the average post-privacy advocate is willing to admit”; the reporter doesn’t hear “post”, which completely changes the target group I’m talking about.  I talk about stalking behavior in the biological sense (as opposed to the sexual-harassment one), and “biological” turns into “illogical” in the story.  I think I have to cop to some responsibility for this myself; I obviously wasn’t speaking clearly enough, just in terms of enunciation. At least, it wasn’t just Carson who misheard me: when Ann Cavoukian came over to chat, she was under the impression that I’d said we were wired “for surveillance”, when I’d actually said that we were wired to be paranoid about surveillance. Whole different thing.

The finding that we’ll take revenge on those who trespass against us, even if meting out that punishment hurts us more than it hurts the transgressor? I introduced that as an example of the “justice instinct” that so many social mammals have as a guard against cheaters and free-loaders. I never drew any connection to the paranoid pattern-matching behavior of predator avoidance I’d brought up ten minutes earlier.  Yet the story speaks of surveillance alone as enough to make us “paranoid, and aggressive and vengeful”.

And the whole lions, lambs and veldt thing? That got totally mangled between my lips and your eyes.

So, to any skeptics who might have found their way here from Schneier’s blog: I feel your pain.  Just be aware that, while I’m as guilty of hand-waving and just-so stories as anyone else in pursuit of an interesting presentation, I didn’t hand-wave in quite the way it has been reported.

Stay tuned.

Posted in: public interface by Peter Watts 14 Comments

The Prerequisite for Cuteness

It’s been a while since I was in Japan. The last time I posted from Kawasaki, HAL-Con 2014 had not even begun— and in the weeks since elapsed, other, more imminent things have commanded my attention.But when I was there, man. Nothing commanded my attention in Japan more than Japan.

There were the public service announcements. There was Chiba City, which was not nearly so exotic as it seemed in Neuromancer.  There was dinner with a US expat who told me interesting things about telecom’s whoring of its customer data to the US government.  There was the store just outside the Tokyo subway station devoted to Snoopy memorabilia, and a Studio Ghibli store which, oddly, seemed to specialize in Moomin merch.

There were the toilets, which really require a post— no, a research paper— all to themselves.

There were these Vocaloid thingies, straight out of Idoru (or vice-versa: Idoru was explicitly lifted from the Vocaloid mindset, such as it was back in the nineties): synthetic performers who actually appear in concert to hordes of screaming fans and who can sing beyond the vocal range of mere meatsacks. (They also pimp Toyotas.) I did not meet Hatsune at the con— not even their awesome toilets had the requisite projection equipment—  but that’s where my hosts filled me in on the details.

There was the con itself, which was especially scary for me on account of a language gulf greater than any I’ve experienced in Europe. I nearly curled up into a whimpering ball when I got turned around during a solo excursion into Tokyo (using their subway network is like trying to navigate a mammalian circulatory system). (Although to give me credit, the guy I was meeting— who’s lived there on and off for over a decade— told me to meet him at “the exit”, apparently unaware that Tokyo Station has eight of those.)

Fortunately my hosts took excellent care of me, and a couple of life-saving transplanted Europeans kept me up to speed. There was an audience Q&A. There was a freeform discussion between myself and Dr. Hideaki Sena— pharmacologist, best-selling SF author, and video-game inspiration— on the subject of consciousness and free will. There was a nifty little collection of some of my shorter works, illustrated by manga maestro (and fellow GoH) Hotaro Unno.  As I may have mentioned in a previous post, seeing my angsty benthogothic rifters rendered as manga characters gave me a whole new perspective. More on that later.

There was a bit of a rabbit-hole moment during an exchange with my Japanese editor after my reading of “The Eyes of God”, when I think some of the nuance contained in our respective views on God, animism, and the Orch-OR model of consciousness got lost in translation. For a few minutes there I thought I’d managed to give religious offense in one of the most secular nations on the planet, but apparently everything was cool. (Or at least, that’s what everyone tells me. Maybe they were just being polite.)

But you know what the real highlight of the con was? The dead dog party afterward.

It was held in this cozy little hole in the wall just around the corner from my hotel, down a couple of bright narrow streets that looked like they’d been lifted right out of Deus Ex. The place was called Pepperland, although I only glimpsed one or two bits of Beatles memorabilia in evidence. If there was any more, it must have been hidden behind the various models of Thunderbirds, Seaviews, Discoveries, and every goddamn iteration of the starship Enterprise ever committed to celluloid. The TV on the wall played an unending series of classic SF movies. Every centimeter of every shelf, every inch of wall space, was cheek-to-jowl with mementos of the best, the worst, and the ugliest that televised and cinematic SF has ever thought to offer up. Polite and formal guardians unwound on all sides; we quaffed beer and stuffed an endless variety of meaty kabobs down our gullets.

And I learned something really interesting about Japanese heroines. They have to be cute. Apparently it’s kind of a prerequisite.

And a prerequisite to cuteness, in turn, is peril.

At least, this is how I understood it as the discussion unfolded. North American female protagonists are frequently strong, kick-ass, take-no prisoners. They can be tough and beautiful. Frequently all of the above. But cute? Show me a N’Am heroine who’s cute, Hotaro said.

I thought of Buffy, at least during her first and second seasons. Sixteen-year-old cheerleader, kinda pouty; I guess you could call that cute. Certainly Willow was cute, prior to her black-eyed veiny-faced phase at least.  But then, Willow was more sidekick than protag. Which leaves…

So, Buffy? I suggested. Maybe there were others, but I don’t watch Bitten or Vampire Diaries or any of those other paranormal-romance cheese-fests. So I wouldn’t know.

Didn’t matter. Nobody at the table had heard of Buffy Summers.

Female protagonists in Japanese genre productions have to be cute, apparently. And cuteness is, I’m told, context-dependent. Big anime eyes and tiny pointed noses may be necessary but they are not sufficient. There must also be jeopardy.

I have to admit this makes limited sense to me. I can understand the eroticism of the whole damsel-in-distress thing. Diana Rigg dragged all that into the mainstream half a century back; the producers of The Avengers couldn’t keep up with the demand for Emma Peel In Peril pics. But hot and cute are two different things, and the idea that the latter is a function not of an individual but of an interaction seems odd. What about Hatsune Miku, for example? She would seem to embody the very essence of Animé Cute, but unless that vegetable she keeps swinging around is going to give her food poisoning I don’t see any peril in her environment.

But that’s just me, and I’m not Japanese.

I pointed to Hotaro’s interpretation of Lenie Clarke regarding herself, icy-eyed, in the mirrored bulkheads of Beebe Station. “Not cute.” I pointed to his rendering of Lenie exposed and vulnerable, threatened by some hypertrophic monster from the deep sea. “Cute. Right?”

“Right,” he said. But our long-suffering translator, worn to exhaustion, had thrown in the towel and gone off to enjoy herself. So that’s where we left it.

I don’t think they were pulling my leg. Anyone have any insights on this?

Dr. Hideaki Sena diagrams his Theory of Mind.

Dr. Hideaki Sena diagrams his Theory of Mind.

My theory of Mind.

My theory of Mind.

*** gave me this cool hanging. At first I thought it was a bunch of moths. Actually they are Ninja Chicks.

Tomoki gave me this cool hanging. At first I thought it was a bunch of moths. Actually they are Ninja Chicks.

This is Andrew A. Adams. He got me to Japan. He's not from around there.

This is Andrew A. Adams. He got me to Japan. He’s not from around there.

This is one of my many inflatable fans. Either that or a Moonbase action figure from "UFO". Which, like "Land of the Giants" I am alone in even remembering.

One of my many poseable fans. Either that or a Moonbase action figure from “UFO”. Which, like “Land of the Giants” I am alone in even remembering.

If you don't know what this is, you don't belong on the 'crawl.

If you don’t know what this is, you don’t belong on the ‘crawl.

A little desperate erotica from "Nimbus", courtesy of Hotaro Unno.

A little desperate erotica from “Nimbus”, courtesy of Hotaro Unno.

While the sprog is occupied with killer storms just outside the blast doors...

…While the child is occupied with killer storms just outside the blast doors.

Of course, some see little reason to keep the little ones away from the whole erotica thing...

Of course, some see little reason to keep the little ones away from the whole erotica thing…

A really evocative bit of surveillance fetishism from "The Eyes of God".

A nicely evocative bit of surveillance fetishism from “The Eyes of God”.

 

Chiba City. Turns out the sky really *is* the color of television tuned to a dead channel.

Chiba City. Turns out the sky really *is* the color of television tuned to a dead channel.

doors

Helpful bilingual signs abounded.

makeup

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hatsune

These things exist. Apparently they’ve existed for some time. Archer has never seemed more timely.

 

I think something may have been lost in translation. Even though it's in English.

I think something may have been lost in translation. Even though it’s in English.

 

I don't know what I'm doing here.  Probably talking or something.

I don’t know what I’m doing here. Probably talking or something.

Tomoki Kodama, mytranslator/minder. Extra points for IDing the movie in the background.

Tomoki Kodama, my translator/minder. Extra points for IDing the movie in the background.

Regina (from Germany), me, and Unno

Regina Glei (from Germany), Hotaro, and me. No idea what Regina’s fingers are doing.

One of the more obscure entries in the Naked Gun franchise.

One of the more obscure entries in the Naked Gun franchise.

Cute on the left, not-cute on the right.  You figure it out.

Cute on the left, not-cute on the right. You figure it out.

The HAL-Con poster. I think it's cute, anyway...

The HAL-Con poster. I think it’s cute, anyway…

Is this not the most awesome place?

Is this not the most awesome place?

I mean, LOOK at this stuff.  That's a Seaview, and a Flying Sub.

I mean, LOOK at this stuff. That’s a Seaview, and a Flying Sub on the bottom. And that orange thing up top: does anyone but me even *remember* “Land of the Giants”?.

I didn't even know they *made* a model of the Discovery.

I didn’t even know they *made* a model of the Discovery.

Although of course, the Star Trek stuff was hardly unexpected.

Although of course, the Star Trek stuff was hardly unexpected.

20140413_180726plaque

But "Thunderbirds"? I didn't see *that* coming.

But “Thunderbirds”? I didn’t see *that* coming.

mole

20140413_202441

I'm pretty sure that's not Hitler in the aviator garb, but I could be wrong.

I’m pretty sure that’s not Hitler between the aviators, but I could be wrong.

I have no idea what this is.

I have no idea what this is.

 

 

Posted in: On the Road, public interface by Peter Watts 16 Comments

A Suicide Bomber’s Guide to Online Privacy

You know this place.  It’s cozy, it’s out of the way. It’s one of the Internet’s innumerable back alleys, known to but a few except for those brief spikes when I get arrested or nearly die of some exotic disease. So when I go off on one of my rants— say, about Obama’s surveillance state and David Brin’s surprising take on primate ethology— I don’t expect any ripples to extend beyond the local neighborhood.  What happens on the ‘crawl stays on the ‘crawl.

iappI’m still not quite clear how the organizers of the International Association of Privacy Professionals stumbled across our secret meeting place; but back in March one of them contacted me with an invitation to act as a keynote speaker for their annual Canadian conference.  Apparently David Brin had just served in that role during their DC summit; they’d read my recent rejoinder to his model of the Transparent Society, and wondered if I might like equal time.

My immediate reaction was that this had to be some kind of cruel hoax. But they hooked me anyway, with what basically came down to a double-dare:  “You’ve got a chance to talk to the regulators who enforce privacy law and the executives as big companies who make decisions about what to do with your data – what do you want to say to them?”

Well. Since you ask.

The only honest slogan.

The only honest slogan.

Which is how I found myself talking to a room full of lawyers and politicians last Friday, lecturing them about the origin of the religious impulse and the evolutionary roots of revenge. The title of the talk was “The Scorched-Earth Society: A Suicide Bomber’s Guide to Online Privacy”, and it’s safe to say the audience found it— well, “jarring” was the word chosen by the court reporter that day[1].

This was not my usual audience.

A large, cold house.

A large, cold house.

I felt not quite so confident as appearances would suggest.

I felt not quite so confident as appearances would suggest.

For one thing, they weren’t used to thinking of humans as mammals, or that certain types of stalking behavior make us feel treated not just like criminals (as the common refrain would have it), but like prey.  The connection between pareidolia and the religious impulse seemed new to most of them, too.  Most of all, I don’t think anyone was expecting a biologist with absolutely no legal knowledge[2] to brazenly advocate a middle-finger strategy against government demands for metadata— to suggest that destroying one’s data outright might be preferable to handing it over when the spooks came calling. Possibly because the audience contained so many people from the government.

And yet, all things considered, it went over way better than any sane person might have predicted.

Opening act.

Opening act.

That wasn’t apparent in the moment, mind you. For one thing, I was on immediately after the IAPP presented an award to Ann Cavoukian (Canada’s departing privacy commissioner, and a constant thorn in the side of the Harper administration); this was a tough and high-profile act to follow. For another, certain examples I cited during my talk turned out to revolve around folks who were present in the room (including Chantal Bernier, our interim privacy commissioner and another of the keynote speakers). There’s something unnerving about presenting a newspaper headline about some late-breaking controversy, only to realize midsentence that the person who broke it is watching stone-faced from the second row.

C'mon.  This is at least a little funny, right?

C’mon. This is at least a little funny, right?

Lots of stony faces, at first. I thought my close-up gorilla face slide would get a chuckle (well, in conjunction with the commentary); you could’ve heard a Euglena flagellating. I got an unexpected titter when I used the word “chickenshit” during a reading from Echopraxia (no, I wasn’t pimping; I was bringing the audience up to speed on a bit of evolutionary biology).  And I managed to provoke actual laughter when I admitted preemptively that “Just to be clear, I don’t expect any of you to embrace this”, after introducing the punchline.  Which I read as Of course we’re not going to embrace it: it’s fucking idiotic.

And yet, at the very least, I seemed to have their attention.

 

Brin's "Transparent Society". This was the image I left them with.

Brin’s “Transparent Society”. This was the image I left them with.

I slunk from the stage with my last slide still glowing on the screens. There was applause. I sat down at my table and picked disconsolately at a chicken bone. Someone told me I’d had the room “riveted”. I expressed skepticism, citing a certain perceived humorlessness on the part of the audience. “They’re a bunch of lawyers,” I was told. “It’s amazing when they laugh at anything.”

And then something weird happened. People started dropping by the table. Lawyers and corpses came by to say they’d never thought about surveillance in quite that way before. Someone up from Silicon Valley asked if I’d ever given a TED Talk. (I know, I know. But I’m pretty sure she meant it as a compliment.) Ann Cavoukian herself brought her regards; we ended up talking about behavioral hardwiring for about ten minutes. She seemed so favorably-disposed to my thesis that I asked if I could quote her as being in favor of burning your own data when Big Brother came calling, the law be damned; she counter-offered that I could quote her as favoring “secure data destruction”.  Even after the Squid had Left the Building, I ended up chatting about privacy legislation with a civil servant for three blocks along University Avenue. (Turns out that here in Ontario, there are all sorts of laws against government surveillance of employees, but none against corporate surveillance. Who knew.)

Either a cruel prank, or the shattering of my preconceptions.

If NOT a cruel hoax, then the shattering of my preconceptions.

Perhaps most amazingly, at least one person in the audience actually knew who I was before I started speaking. An actual fan, as it were— someone who needed photographic proof of our encounter that he could present to disbelieving friends back home who were, he said “even bigger fans”. That was not the amazing part, though. The amazing part was that this guy— Don Scott by name— is a member of the Alberta Legislature. A Conservative. And his riding encompasses the Alberta tar sands.

I find it astonishing— and not a little disquieting— that anyone from that end of the spectrum, representing those kinds of interests, could possibly be a fan. I mean, that would imply that he was familiar with my work, right? And anyone who’s read my work must be aware of my bitter environmentalist leanings, right?

Then again, who would’ve expected a roomful of lawyers, executives, and politicians to respond favorably to a midlist science-fiction writer wittering on about pareidolia and sticking it to The Man?

Why yes, since you ask.  There was some actual science.

Why yes, since you ask. There was some actual science.

Something’s not adding up here.

Maybe it was all just a cruel hoax after all. Or maybe it was an inroad. My personal Venn Diagram has never overlapped with this particular community before; and they seemed to regard my evolutionary handwaving as a refreshing change from the usual business speak. Apparently I made an impression.  Maybe someone, somewhere, someday will invite me back.

I wouldn’t turn them down.

Postscript 23/05/2014: In the days since I first wrote this, Bruce Schneier boosted the signal based on Angelique Carson’s report— and while I’m massively chuffed that he likes my ideas as reported, some of that reportage was a bit off-base in significant ways. Given that those inaccuracies tend to get boosted along with everything else, I’ve made a brief follow-up post to address the more glaring glitches as kind of a holding action until I get around to posting the actual transcript. It’s over here.



[1] Incidentally, those who follow that last link should take some of the quotes attributed to me with a grain of salt. Either the author of the article was way at the back of the room, or I wasn’t enunciating very clearly.

[2] Well, except for a couple of Michigan statutes with which I grew intimately familiar a while back.

Posted in: public interface by Peter Watts 32 Comments

The Man I Am Today.

So much I was saving up. The conclusion of the Kawasaki Chronicles. Experimental protocols for dealing with AI-equipped toilets. Fiblets from upcoming stories in Tor.com and Neil Clarke’s latest anthology. Even some award that J. Pekka Mäkelä’s translation of Blindsight just won over in Finland. I was saving it all up for my return to the ‘crawl, which was going to happen once I got out from under today’s keynote address to the International  Association of Privacy Professionals (“A Suicide Bomber’s Guide to Online Privacy”— which actually has me kinda scared, insofar as I’m on right after they give an award to Canada’s Privacy Commissioner and I’m about to advocate law-breaking to an audience of lawyers).

All that went out the window on Tuesday. Time for another eulogy.

*

I wanted to be a marine biologist ever since I was around five or six years old. I still remember the moment.

w4tkIt wasn’t until the age of fourteen, though, that I decided to specialize in marine mammals. I remember that moment too: it was the day I finished reading A Whale for the Killing, by Farley Mowat.

If you’re not Canadian, chances are you have no idea who the hell I’m talking about. Even if you are Canadian you might not have known until you woke up and found the man’s face plastered across the home page of your local news site. Farley Mowat was an author and (as all authors are) a liar, a gadfly and a conservationist. He was a passionate advocate on behalf of the biosphere, even though he got a lot of his facts wrong. (He was frequently referred to among my biologist buddies as “Hardly Know-it”.)  He wrote Never Cry Wolf,  a piece of semi-fictional propaganda massively influential in rehabilitating the wolf’s image in popular culture (and which was turned into a really good movie of the same name). He wrote the aforementioned A Whale for the Killing, which the Newfoundlanders it excoriated also describe as propaganda. (Not having been there I cannot judge, but the wanton cruelty described by that book certainly seems consistent with what I know of human nature.) It, too, was made into a movie: a significantly crappier made-for-TV production starring Peter Strauss as a noble American who takes a brave stand against Canadian hicks and savages bent on slaughtering one of nature’s most magnificent creatures. Or something.

g33thdz2.JPGMowat wrote dozens of books, and numerous shorter works for newspapers and magazines.  One of these, back around 1981, accused scientists at the University of Guelph of putting out the eyes of captive seals with red-hot pokers. As it happened, I was a scientist (okay, grad student) at Guelph when that story ran; the first I learned of these atrocities was when a friend phoned me in the wee hours, rousing me from sleep to express her outrage at my barbaric behavior. (I was actually studying porpoises at the time, but apparently the body count of skewered-eyed seals was so high that everyone in the department pretty much had to be involved).

It did not endear me to the man.

slaughterMowat followed me to British Columbia in 1984. I went to pursue a doctorate; he dropped by a couple months later to pimp his new book Sea of Slaughter (another enormously popular and influential tome, this time documenting Canada’s ongoing eradication of marine life along the Atlantic seaboard). My supervisor was one of three biologists who chatted with the man onstage during his appearance, so I managed to scam a good seat; and when they opened the floor to questions I put up my hand.

I pointed out the irony of finding one’s chosen profession— finding one’s chosen department— slandered by the very man whose writing had led me there in the first place. I asked where the hell he’d got the idea that we were puncturing seal eyeballs with red-hot pokers.

I’m not quite sure I bought his explanation. He said he’d heard that anecdote during a phone call with a certain marine mammal guy over in the veterinary college— someone who was known for his rough treatment of mammals, and not just marine ones (he sat on my committee; my thesis acknowledgements credit him for teaching me “the meaning of fear”). Still, this seemed way beyond the pale even for him. In hindsight I’m guessing there must have been a bad connection, a misheard phrase.

My point, though, is: Mowat came clean. He apologized immediately and with no defensiveness. “I was wrong,” he admitted. I remember wishing that real scientists admitted to their mistakes with such grace.

402px-Farley_MowatThat was the sum total of my interaction with the man.  He popped up on the radar now and then over the following years: when the Ontario Science Center tried to get him involved in a whale display that fell through when he demanded to be put in charge of the project; when he was refused entry to the US as an “undesirable element” (which re-endeared me even more).  Over time I came to regard Mowat pretty much the way I regard David Suzuki: fallible, egotistical, maybe even corrupt— but on balance, someone who does more good than harm.

It’s not the sort of epitaph you can apply to many, these days.

Now he’s dead at 92, and for some reason I feel compelled to remark on the fact. I certainly didn’t know the man; one heckle from the cheap seats doesn’t make a relationship. I can’t even describe him as a major influence on my life. But he was a seminal one; he showed up at just the right moment, and nudged. His book was the butterfly that edged my life onto a whole new trajectory, set the course for my career during the last quarter of the Twentieth Century.

In a very real way, Farley Mowat made me the man I am today.

Posted in: eulogy by Peter Watts 11 Comments

The Toilenator

Before I forget; they’ve posted my bio over on the IAPP website, so I guess it’s official: I’m one of three (and by far the least qualified) keynote speakers at the International Association of Privacy Professionals’s Canadian symposium next month. Apparently one of the organizers was taken by my panopticon rant of a few weeks back, and invited me to put my mouth where the money is. “You’ve got a chance to talk to the regulators who enforce privacy law and the executives as big companies who make decisions about what to do with your data,” he told me.  “What do you want to say to them?”

No it's just on the street where you live.

No it’s just on the street where you live.

I’m not entirely sure. I suspect that death threats wouldn’t be anything new to such folks, and I’m pretty sure they’d be actionable as well. So I thought I might tell them something about the biological underpinnings of the mammalian surveillance response. Still, if any of you have anything you’d like to say to such professionals, I’m willing to consider requests.

That assumes, of course, that I make it back from Kawasaki in one piece. So far I have experienced two toilets since being hauled into Secondary, photographed, and fingerprinted upon my arrival. One was situated in a private residence and is a model of efficiency and conservation: it refills post-flush via a spigot emptying into a sink situated on top of the tank itself, and which drains thereinto; you wash your hands (assuming you’re given to that kind of thing) in the very stream that replenishes the device.

The other model lurks in my hotel room, and is somewhat less nonthreatening. It is the first toilet I have ever encountered with a sapience-class AI. It boots itself up with the sound of pistons and hydraulics when you sit. It autofills its own bowl as some kind of function of the curvature of your butt, which I think it assesses by means of low-intensity lasers arrayed around the rim. The seat itself is electrically heated; using it is like taking a dump while sitting on a waffle iron.

None of these controls flushes the toilet. I don't think there is a control to flush the toilet. I think the toilet decides for itself when to flush.

None of these controls flushes the toilet. I don’t think there is a control to flush the toilet. I don’t even think it has an “off” switch.  I think the toilet decides for itself when to flush.

I remain wasted, even now, from thirteen hours of jetlag.  And yet I spent most of last night propped up unsleeping in bed, cradling the magnum hair-dryer that came with the room, keeping it aimed at that dark ominous rectangle leading into the bathroom. I swear I could hear the thing breathing in there.

Also the seats in their airport commuter train pirouette en masse at each terminus, twirling majestically in place to face whichever direction is forward on any given leg of the trip. The elevators invite you to enjoy your trip through their doors.

And the SF part of this trip hasn’t even started yet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in: On the Road, public interface by Peter Watts 25 Comments

BOGzilla

 

You’ll be hearing from me fleetingly if at all over the next few days— I’m off to Kawasaki for HAL-Con 2014, with a mixture of fear and excitement and the profound hope that I’ll be able to find my way home again afterward. One nifty thing the HAL Con folks do is put out an exclusive private minicollection of stories from their author GoH— the iteration to your right having been illustrated by this year’s artist GoH, Hotaru Unno.

I’ll be accompanied on this trip by the new Light of My Life, which I’ve spent the past few days stroking and loading and introducing to the rest of UnicornSquidNet: meet BOG, the latest and shiniest addition to our Laptop Family:

BOGfield

Count on the anime style to make Lenie Clarke look happy.

Count on the anime style to make Lenie Clarke look happy.

Seven kilograms of quadcore goodness. Four separate fans to keep it from scorching the flesh of your legs right through the denim. An entire backside dedicated to every kind of video interface from mini to semaphore. A function bar reverse-engineered from Cylon technology, over a keyboard whose programmable LEDs pulse in enough colors and frequencies to induce epilepsy in all but the legally blind. Built-in subwoofer. The power brick alone is the size of a cinder block.

They say you shouldn’t even boot this baby up if you’re more than fifty kilometers from the nearest nuclear reactor; further than that and the sheer suck of power through attenuating cable melts the hydro lines. Homely and massive and magnificent— just like its namesake.

brickBOGbog BOGzilla2

cylon01cylon02BOGzilla1

So anyway, I’m outta here. Wish me luck.

Transoceanic flights haven’t been getting the greatest press lately.

The Heinlein Hormone

You all remember Starship Troopers, right?

That slim little YA contained a number of beer-worthy ideas, but the one that really stuck with me was the idea of earned citizenship— that the only people allowed to vote, or hold public office, were those who’d proven they could put society’s interests ahead of their own. Heinlein’s implementation was pretty contrived— while the requisite vote-worthy altruism was given the generic label of “Federal Service”, the only such service on display in the novel was the military sort. I’ll admit that thrusting yourself to the front lines of a war with genocidal alien bugs does show a certain willingness to back-burner your own interests— but what about firefighting, or disaster relief, or working to clean up nuclear accidents at the cost of your genetic integrity? Do these other risky, society-serving professions qualify? Or are they entirely automated now (and if that tech exists, why isn’t the Mobile Infantry automated as well)?

But I digress. While Heinlein’s implementation may have been simplistic and his interrogation wanting, the basic idea— that the only way to get a voice in the group is if you’re willing to sacrifice yourself for the group— is a fascinating and provocative idea. If every member of your group is a relative, you’d be talking inclusive fitness. Otherwise, you’re talking about institutionalized group selection.

Way back when I was in grad school, “group selection” wasn’t even real, not in the biological sense. It was worse than a dirty phrase; it was a naïve one. “The good of the species” was a fairy tale, we were told. Selection worked on individuals, not groups; if a duck could grab resources for herself at the expense of two or three conspecifics, she’d damn well do that even if fellow ducks paid the price.  Human societies could certainly learn to honour the needs of the many over the needs of the few, but that was a learned response, not an evolved one. (And even when learned, it wasn’t internalized very well— just ask any die-hard capitalist  why communism failed.)

I’ve lost count of the papers I read (and later, taught) which turned a skeptical eye to cases of so-called altruism in the wild— only to find that every time, those behaviors turned out to be selfish when you ran the numbers. They either benefited the “altruist”, or someone who shared enough of the “altruist’s” genes to fit under the rubric of inclusive fitness. Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene— which pushed the model incrementally further by pointing out that it was actually the genes running the show, even though they pulled phenotypic strings one-step-removed— got an especially warm reception in that environment.

But the field moved on after I left it; as it subsequently turned out, the models discrediting group selection hinged on some pretty iffy parameter values. I’m not familiar with the details— I haven’t kept up— but as I understand it the pendulum has swung a bit closer to the midpoint. Genes are still selfish, individuals still subject to selection— but so too are groups. (Not especially radical, in hindsight. It stands to reason that if something benefits the group, it benefits many of that group’s members as well. Even Darwin suggested as much way back in Origin. Call it trickle-down selection.)

So.  If group selection is a thing in the biological sense, then we need not look to the Enlightened Society to explain the existence of the  martyrs, the altruists, and the Johnny Ricos of the world.  Maybe there’s a biological mechanism to explain them.

Enter oxytocin, back for a repeat performance.

You’re all familiar with oxytocin. The Cuddle Hormone, Fidelity in an Aerosol, the neuropeptide that keeps meadow voles monogamous in a sea of mammalian promiscuity. You may even know about its lesser-known dark side— the kill-the-outsider imperative that complements love the tribe.

Now, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Shalvi and Dreu pry open another function of this biochemical Swiss Army Knife. Turns out oxytocin makes you lie— but only if the lie benefits others. Not if it only benefits you yourself.

One of several illustrations which are  clearer than the text.

One of several illustrations which are clearer than the text.

The experiment was almost childishly simple: your treatment groups snort oxytocin, your controls snort a placebo. You tell each participant that they’ve been assigned to a group, that the  money they get at the end of the day will be an even third of what the whole group makes.  Their job is to predict whether the toss of a virtual coin (on a computer screen) will be heads or tails; they make their guess, but keep it to themselves; they press the button that flips the coin; then they report whether their guess was right or wrong. Of course, since they never recorded that guess prior to the toss, they’re free to lie if they want to.

Call those guys the groupers.

Now repeat the whole thing with a different group of participants— but this time, although their own personal payoffs are the same as before, they’re working solely for themselves. No groups are involved.  Let’s call these guys soloists.

I’m leaving out some of the methodological details because they’re not all that interesting: read the paper if you don’t believe me (warning; it is not especially well-written).  The baseline results are pretty much what you’d expect: people lie to boost their own interests. If high predictive accuracy gets you money, bingo: you’ll report a hit rate well above the 50:50 ratio that random chance would lead one to expect. If a high prediction rate costs you money, lo and behold: self-reported accuracy drops well below 50%.  If there’s no incentive to lie, you’ll pretty much tell the truth.  This happens right across the board, groupers and soloists, controls and treatments. Yawn.

But here’s an interesting finding: although both controls and groupers high-ball their hit rates when they stand to gain by doing that, the groupers lie significantly more than their controls. Their overestimates are more extreme, and their response times are lower. If you’re a grouper, oxytocin makes you lie more, and lie faster.

If you’re a soloist, though, oxytocin has no effect. You lie in the name of self-interest, but no more than the controls do.  The only difference is, this time you’re working for yourself; the groupers were working on behalf of themselves and other people.

So under the influence of oxytocin, you’ll only lie a little to benefit yourself. You’ll lie a lot to benefit a member of “your group”— even  if you’ve never met any of “your group”, even if you have to take on faith that “your group” even exists. You’ll commit a greater sin for the benefit of a social abstraction.

I find that interesting.

There are caveats, of course.  The study only looked at whether we’d lie to help others at no benefit to ourselves; I’d like to see them take the next step, test whether the same effect manifests when helping the other guy actually costs you.  And of course, when I say “You”  I mean “adult Dutch males”. This study draws its sample, even more than most, from the WEIRD demographic— not just Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic, but exclusively male to boot. I don’t have a problem with this in a pilot study; you take what you can get, and when you’re looking for subtle effects it only makes sense to minimize extraneous variability. But it’s not implausible that cultural factors might leave an imprint even on these ancient pathways. The effect is statistically real, but the results will have to replicate across a far more diverse sample of humanity before scientists can make any claims about its universality.

Fortunately, I’m not a scientist any more. I can take this speculative ball and run with it, anywhere I want.

As a general rule, lying is frowned upon across pretty much any range of societies you’d care to name. Most people who lie do so in violation of their own moral codes— and those codes cover a whole range of behaviors. Most would agree that theft is wrong, for example.  Most of us get squicky at the thought of assault, or murder. So assuming that Shalvi and Drue’s findings  generalize to anything that might induce feelings of guilt— which, I’d argue,  is more parsimonious than a trigger so specific that it trips only in the presence of language-based deceit—  what we have here is a biochemical means of convincing people to sacrifice their own morals for the good of the group.

Why, a conscientious objector might even sign up to fight the Bugs.

Once again, the sheer abstractness of this study is what makes it fascinating; the fact  that the effect manifests in a little white room facing a computer screen, on behalf of a hypothetical tribe never even encountered  in real life.  When you get down to the molecules, who needs social bonding? Who needs familiarity, and friendship, and shared experience?  When you get right down to it, all that stuff just sets up the conditions necessary to produce the chemical; what need of it, when you can just shoot the pure neuropeptide up your nose?

It’s only the first step, of course. I’m sure we can improve it if we set our minds to the task. An extra amine group here, an excised  hydroxyl there, and we could engineer a group-selection molecule that makes plain old oxytocin look like distilled water.

A snort of that stuff and everyone in the Terran Federation gets to vote.

Posted in: biology, neuro, sociobiology by Peter Watts 33 Comments

Tyson in the Ring

Didn’t Kill him.  Didn’t hug him.

I laughed a lot, though.

Neil deGrasse Tyson gave the inaugural Dunlap Award lecture over at the University of Toronto on Friday. A couple of tickets dropped into my hands at the last moment, a bit of karma for a minor role I’d played at the recent Toronto Science Festival. They were even VIP tickets, so we got really good seats and didn’t have to line up or anything.

But the talk itself. Hmmm.

I was expecting the man to be interesting and informative. I wasn’t expecting him to be hilarious. And yet, I gotta say; the laughs-per-minute came faster than they usually do on The Daily Show, maybe even as fast as they come on Colbert. They were accessible laughs, too; my date for the evening was only eleven years old, and if anything she howled more than I did. Neil deGrasse Tyson presents as kind of a cross between Jon Stewart and Bill Cosby; I suspect he may have been the class clown back in high school (as it turns out that would be the Bronx High School of Science, the same institution that schooled a guy by the name of Samuel Delany).

Tyson started off by telling everyone to get over the Pluto thing. He moved on to money: showed us a selection of paper currencies from around the world as he cleverly sidled into the relative esteem in which science is held throughout the world’s nations. (Germany came out on top. Their money comes with an honest-to-god Gaussian distribution printed on the back— or at least it did, before the Euro swept that continent. Canada does okay; we’ve got the Canadarm on our fives. The US, well…) He showed us a periodic table in which each element was coded by the country-of-discovery. He ranted about the brain-dead superstition that keeps so many North American elevators from admitting the existence of a thirteenth floor, he praised the willingness of the Germans to use negative numbers in the labeling of underground sublevels. He told us about the Golden Age of Islam, and mourned Dubya’s boneheaded claim in the wake of 9/11 that the ‘Murrican God had “named the stars”, whereas in fact pretty much every star in the visible celestial sphere has an Arabic name.

He did all of this in service of a single point: the power and the influence that any nation can expect to wield has historically correlated to how much they invest in science.

Then he showed us a map of the world in which each nation’s size was weighted by the per-capita production of peer-reviewed scientific papers. Europe swole up like Betelguese. Japan covered half the Pacific. Africa withered down to an umbilical cord dangling off the Med, and Canada— Canada was basically reduced to a wide purple belt cinched across the top of a shrunken-but-still-respectable US.

Then he showed us the same map weighted not by current publication rate, but by trend-line: by the rate at which peer-reviewed research was increasing or declining over time. Once again, Japan and Europe loomed large over the whole damn planet. Brazil was up-and-coming; the US continued to wither.  Africa disappeared entirely.

So did Canada.

Tyson wondered why that might be. The audience grumbled with a single furious simmering voice: Harper. At least we’ve got the Canadarm on our $5 bills.

There was a lot of other stuff. He talked about Cosmos a bit. He learned a new word (“euphonious”). He shared hate-mail from third graders, and brushed up against the nonbaryonic. He worked the crowd like the pro he was, found an identical twin and asked her if she’d ever wanted to harvest her sisters organs (yeah, we got into cloning a bit too). He engaged a woman wearing Pluto t-shirt emblazoned with the words: NEVER FORGET. He debated GMO with someone way up in the balcony. He shook hands and high-fived and had us all in the palm of his hand for the whole three hours.

I would have asked him questions— Micropone would have, too— but the moment we turned around to locate the microphones there were already a dozen people piled up behind each. Besides, I had so much to ask. I wanted to ask what he thought of Christof Wetteric’s new model that does away with dark energy and dark matter entirely, claims that the universe is not expanding after all but just getting fat. I wanted to ask what he thought of Tegmark’s take on Digital Physics, whether the universe really is a vast quantum computer, or whether Lee Smolin is on to something with his natural-selection cosmology that not only allows the laws of physics to change, but demands that they do. I wanted to challenge his oft-repeated claim (and repeated again, that night) that scientists are at least partly to blame for the abysmal state of scientific ignorance in North America, that they should be reaching out more and engaging; I wondered what he thought of all those studies showing reason simply doesn’t work when someone’s mind is made up. Even if I’d got to the front of the line, I would never have been able to limit myself to just one question, and it would have been unseemly to hog the mic. So me and the ‘pone, we stayed in our seats.

Beers, though. Man, I’d love to sit Tyson down at a bar and ply him with beers and just ask questions  until last call.

I brought my camera, but I can’t show you any pictures of the man in motion; can’t show you any of the slides and maps that had such an impact. Photography and recording devices of all kinds were forbidden. Ostensibly this was to ensure “the enjoyment of the audience”— but given that the talk was neither streamed nor will be made available online, I suspect it might just have been ol’ Neal’s way of making sure that he could give the same talk in a bunch of different venues, without half his audience grumbling that they’d already seen all this stuff on Youtube.

Not that Tyson has anything against Youtube, mind you. In fact, he kept us five minutes late just to show us this clip of his enthused and articulate ode to Isaac Newton— followed by this remix of the same footage, slowed down just enough to turn Neil deGrasse Tyson into the Ultimate Stoner.

It’s the only thing I’m allowed to show you from that night. I think you’ll find it’s time well spent.

 

Postscript: Oh, wait. Turns out not everyone shares my respect for authority. Here’s a clandestine video of the lot of us watching Tyson watching Tyson. If you look closely a few rows from the front, you can even see me.

Posted in: ink on art, reviews, scilitics by Peter Watts 10 Comments

Rhetorical

7b0fbf1119_Screen-Shot-2014-02-28-at-8-31-01-PM-640x250

I saw Particle Fever the other night. My movie buddy didn’t like it as much as I did: she thought the music was intrusive, and she didn’t learn anything new about the science. I did— I learned that Supersymmetry and the Multiverse were mutually exclusive theories, which had somehow failed to sink in even after all the popsci articles and books I’ve read on the subject— but it didn’t matter. The movie wasn’t just about the science anyway.

It was about the scientists.

If anything, I should have had more to complain about than Leona. Having once been a scientist myself, having hung around with scientists most of my adult life, there wasn’t much the film could tell me on that front that I didn’t already know first-hand. But it was just so goddamn refreshing to see a movie convey some sense of what it’s like to be in science, the giddy, kid-in-a-candy-store enthusiasm of discovering stuff. Even if none of my colleagues ever discovered anything so fundamental as the so-called God Particle. Even if the most I ever did was learn how to read the sun and the wind, and predict when a hauled-out harbor seal would overheat enough to wriggle back into the water.

ParticleFever4

You can see the resemblance, right?

Particle Fever conveys the intensity of the pursuit, the joy of the discovery, better than any other film I’ve seen. You can’t watch post-doc Monica Dunford— think Katee Sackhoff’s Starbuck with a PhD, a hardbody cyclist and rower and runner given to intermittent high-energy explosions of her own— you can’t see her spread her hands and exclaim “Okay, first off— data is fucking awesome!!!!” without breaking into a big goofy grin. At least, I couldn’t.

Perhaps my favorite scene in the whole movie was the Data Orgasm Sequence. That’s what I’m calling it, anyway: the supercollider’s first successful supercollisions, particle trails blooming like fireworks across the monitors, data leapfrogging out of CERN into a thousand daisy-chained servers across the globe, experimentalists and theoreticians alike rapturous almost unto ululation— all to the strains of “Ode to Joy” blasting from the speakers at a hundred fifteen decibels. But that wasn’t the only high point. There was also the official announcement that the Higgs had been nailed, 4.9 and 5 sigma, no chance in three million that it was just a random fluke. All those people arrayed in tiered rows— in Geneva, in Princeton, at MIT and Johns Hopkins— rising to their feet in spontaneous applause, hugging, slapping each other on the back, tears in their eyes. A rapture borne of the fact that we know more now than we did then, that a central piece of the puzzle has been made to fit. That a shitload of models have just been thrown out with yesterday’s mayonnaise, and that others have been born again.

That we are beginning to understand.

Tell me this wasn't built by the Krell.

Tell me this wasn’t built by the Krell.

I loved this movie. I loved the massive science-fictional machinery, straight out of Forbidden Planet. I loved these hard-science strangers whose souls I relate to, although I will never meet them in the flesh.

And I hated the rest of humanity, so much duller and pettier and nastier when thrown into high contrast with those happy few.

Because these people show us what we can do. Ten thousand scientists from a hundred countries, scientists from countries that are mortal enemies (Israel and Iran, come on down!), seemingly oblivious to the petty hatreds and rivalries that define so much of human existence.  It boggles the mind. Thousands of people, decades of investment, billions of Euros: all devoted to a goal of simple, abstract enlightenment. Early in the film an economist (I can’t help but suspect that he might have been a deliberate audience plant, for dramatic purposes) asks one of the project leads about what possible financial return could be expected from the consumption of all these resources. After the usual recapitulation of the economic potential of basic science (“radio waves weren’t called radio waves because there were no radios; they had no economic potential when they were discovered”), the scientist resorts to concise honesty: “Possibly nothing, except understanding everything.”

We can do this. We are doing this. A few of us, anyway.

The rest— who have pretty much the same synapse count, the same computational complexity, the same potential for curiosity— the rest don’t give a shit. They’re too busy shooting schoolgirls, or throwing hissy-fits over Neil deGrasse Tyson’s set piece on evolution, or getting out the pitchforks and torches for anyone who suggests that our fossil-fuel habit might be throwing the world on its side. They’re too busy worshipping sky fairies, or insisting that the all-too-real laws of physics are somehow subordinate to the all-too-imaginary laws of Economics. They’re too busy letting their kids die of preventable diseases (although there’s at least the hint of a silver lining in that last example; if there’s any genetic component at all to intelligence, increased mortality among the children of antivaccinators might at least result in some small increase in the mean IQ of the species).

How is this possible? How can the same species encompass both such passionate intelligence and such vicious stupidity?

Of course, I’m being rhetorical here. There’s nothing unexpected about variation between individuals, nothing cryptic about distributional curves. Even the nonnormal skew of that curve, the prevalence of morons in the mix, is no great mystery. I’m not even really asking a question here. I’m just lamenting the answer.

Maybe Particle Fever is pure propaganda. After all, it’s not as though science is free of pettiness and rivalry; I haven’t forgotten that to a large extent, science depends on those things. Maybe physicists are just a little purer than the rest of us. Or maybe the old saw that Academics fight so much because so little is at stake has a corollary: When a lot is at stake, Academics don’t fight so much. And the discovery of the Higgs— yeah, that’s a lot. Possibly nothing, except understanding everything.

A reflection, for the first goddamn week of spring.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Posted in: ink on art, rant by Peter Watts 44 Comments

NSA. BSG. AAAS. FOAD.

silverback-shadesBack in 2003 I attended a talk by David Brin, at Worldcon here in Toronto. Brin had blurbed  Starfish; to say I was favorably disposed towards the man would be an understatement. And yet I found myself increasingly skeptical as he spoke out in favor of ubiquitous surveillance: the “Transparent Society”, he called it, and It Was Good. The camera would point both ways, cops and politicians just as subject to our scrutiny as we were to theirs. People are primates, Brin reminded us; our leaders are Alphas. Trying to ban government surveillance would be like poking a silverback gorilla with a stick. “But just maybe,” he allowed, “they’ll let us look back.”

Dude, thought I, do you have the first fucking clue how silverbacks react to eye contact?

It wasn’t just a bad analogy. It wasn’t analogy at all; it was literal, and it was wrong. Alpha primates regard looking back as a challenge. Anyone who’s been beaten up for recording video of police beating people up knows this; anyone whose cellphone has been smashed, or returned with the SIM card mysteriously erased. Document animal abuse in any of the US states with so-called “Ag-gag” laws on their books and you’re not only breaking the law, you’re a “domestic terrorist”.

Chelsea Manning looked back; she’ll be in jail for decades. Edward Snowden looked back and has been running ever since. All he did to put that target on his back was confirm something most of us have suspected for years: those silverbacks are recording every move we make online. But try to look back and they’ll scream terrorism and national security, and leave an innocent person on the no-fly list for no better reason than to cover up a typo.

Look back? Don’t make me laugh.

I don’t know if Brin has since changed his stance (Larry Niven just coauthored a novel which accepts the reality of climate change, so I guess there’s hope for anybody). Either way, other SF writers seem willing to take up the chorus. About a decade back Robert Sawyer wrote an editorial for a right-wing Canadian magazine in which he lamented the bad rap that “Big Brothers” had got ever since Orwell. He waxed nostalgic— and, apparently, without irony— about how safe he’d felt as a child knowing that his big brother was watching over him from the next room (thus becoming an unwitting case-in-point for Orwell’s arguments about the use of language as a tool of cognitive manipulation). Just a few years ago, up-and-comer Madeline Ashby built her Master’s thesis around a misty-eyed love letter to surveillance at border crossings.

But it’s not a transparent society unless light passes through the glass both ways. The light doesn’t do that.

Can we stop them from watching us, at least? Stay away from LinkedIn or facebook, keep your private information local and offline?

Sure. For a while, at least. Of course, you may have to kiss ebooks goodbye. Amazon reserves the right to reach down into your Kindle and wipe it clean any time it feels the urge (they did it a few years back— to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, ironically). You’ll have to do without graphics and multimedia and spreadsheets and word processing, too: both Adobe and Microsoft are phasing out local software in favor of Cloud-based “subscription” models. Even the American Association for the Advancement of Science, for chrissakes— an organization that really should know better— has recently switched to a “browser-based” journal feed that can’t be accessed offline. (And what happens if, for example, you’re out in the field doing, you know, science, and don’t have internet access? “Unfortunately, you won’t be able to download the issue on your computer,” Member Services told me, before passing on her Best Regards. “You’ll have to have internet access to view it.” Which is why I quit the AAAS, after over twenty years of membership.)

We used to own our books, our magazines, the games we played. Now we can only rent them. Business models and government paranoia both rely on stripping us naked online; but if we stay offline, we’re deaf dumb and blind. It doesn’t matter that nobody’s pretending the Cloud is anywhere close to secure. The spooks and the used-car salesmen are hell-bent on forcing us onto it anyway. I’ve lost track of the number of articles I’ve read— by such presumably progressive outlets as Wired, even— lamenting the lack of effective online security, only to throw up their hands and admit But of course we’re not going to retreat from the Cloud— we live there now. It’s as though those most cognizant of the dangers we face have also been charged with assuring us that there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it, so we might as well just give up and invite the NSA into our bathrooms. (Or even worse, embrace the cameras. Have you seen that Coke ad cobbled together from bits of faux-security-camera footage? A dozen “private” moments between people with no idea they’re on camera, served up to sell fizzy suger-water as though our hearts should be warmed by displays of universal surveillance. Orwell— brought to you by Hallmark.)

You all know this as well as I do, of course. I’m only about the millionth blogger to whinge about these things. So why do I feel like a voice in the wilderness when I wonder: why aren’t we retreating from the cloud, exactly? What’s so absurd about storing your life on a USB key or a hard drive, rather than handing it over to some amorphous webcorp that whispers sweet nothings about safe secrets and unbreakable encryption into your ear, only to roll over and surrender your most private details the first time some dead-eyed spook in a trench coat comes calling?

Remember the premise of Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica: that the only way to win against high-tech opponents is to go retro, revert to a time when no computer was networked, when you ran starships by pulling levers and cranking valves. It was an exquisite narrative rationale for the anachronistic vibe endemic to everything from Alien to Firefly to Star Wars, that peeling-paint aesthetic that resonates in the gut even though it made no real sense until Moore gave it context.

Maybe now it’s more than rationale. Maybe now it’s a strategy. Because now we know that the NSA has back doors installed into every edition of Windows from Xp on up— but not into dusty old Win-95. And while giving up online access entirely is a bridge too far for most of us, there’s no reason we can’t keep our most private stuff on a standalone machine without network access. Even if we don’t ditch facebook entirely (and we should, you know— really, we should), there’s no reason we can’t tell it to fuck off when it keeps nagging us to tell it where we went to school, or if we want to be friends with this K. Homolka character. (And you certainly don’t want to use a real picture of yourself for your facebook header; they’re gearing up to use those as biometric baselines to ID as many other pictures of you as they can find. If they haven’t started already.)

Bruce Schneier points out that if the spooks want you badly enough, they’ll get you. Even if you stay off the net entirely, they can always sit in a van down the street and bounce a laser off your bedrooom window to hear your pillow talk— but of course, that would be too much bother for all but the most high-value targets. Along the same lines, Edward Snowden recently advocated making surveillance “too expensive” to perform with a driftnet; force them to use a longline, to focus their resources on specific targets rather than treating everyone on the planet as a potential suspect on general principles. The only reason they target all of us is because we’re all so damn easy to target, you see. They don’t seriously suspect you or I of anything but impotent rage, but they’ll scoop up everything on everybody as long as it’s cheap and easy to do so. That’s why the Internet is every spook’s best friend. It takes time and effort to install a keystroke logger on someone’s home machine; even more to infect the thumb drive that might get plugged into a non-networked device somewhere down the line. Most of us are welcome to keep whatever privacy can’t be stripped away with a whisper and a search algorithm.

That’s hardly an ethical stance, though. It’s pure cost/benefit. Wouldn’t it be nice for them if it wasn’t so hard to scoop up everything, if there were no TOR or PGP encryption or— hey, while we’re at it, wouldn’t it be nice if all data storage was Cloud-based? Wouldn’t it be nice if nobody could write a manifesto without using Google Docs or Microsoft’s subscription service, wouldn’t it be nice if somehow, local storage devices could get smaller and smaller over time— who needs a big clunky desktop with a big clunky hard drive when you can have a tablet instead, an appliance that outsources its memory to the ether? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could weed out the luddites and malcontents who refuse to face reality and get with the program?

When I explain to someone why I’m not on twitter, they generally look at me like I’m some old fart yelling at the neighborhood kids to get off his lawn. At the moment, refusal to join social networks is merely regarded as quaint and old-fashioned— but social norms change over time. My attitude is already a deal-breaker in some contexts; some literary agents refuse to represent you unless you’re an active Twit. Before too long, my attitude might graduate from merely curmudgeonly to gauche; later still, from gauche to downright suspicious. What’s that guy afraid of, anyway? Why would he be so worried if he didn’t have something to hide?

It’s no secret that it’s mainly us old folks who are raising the ruckus about privacy. All the twentysomething thumbwirers out there grew up with the notion of trading personal data for entertainment. These kids don’t just lack an expectation of privacy, they may even lack a functional definition of the stuff

We all know the only people who go on about privacy issues are the ones who are up to no good…

Science fiction writers are suppose to go beyond predicting the automobile; we’re supposed to take the next step and predict smog alerts. So here’s a smog alert for you:

How long before local offline storage becomes either widely unavailable, or simply illegal?

Posted in: rant, scilitics by Peter Watts 51 Comments