You Could Save This Man’s Life.

Or at least, you could if the names LaFrance, Harton, Champetier, or Deidier appear in your family tree.

Some of you may know, or know of, Joël Champetier. He’s an author and editor, very active in Quebec’s SF community. I’ve met the man a few times myself, perhaps most notably during a group-orgy of a book launch back in ’99 during which both us gave birth to novels sired by Tor.

He’s a nice guy. He’s a smart guy. He’s about my age. And a bunch of rogue cells in his bone marrow are trying to kill him.

This is what he needs, straight from his wife, Valérie Bédard:

“We are looking for stem cell donors, age 18 to 35, in good health. Four names are crucial: people with ancestors named LAFRANCE, HARTON (especially the colony east of Quebec, along the saint-Laurence, but the original ancestor is from Germany ) and CHAMPETIER from the south of France, also DEIDIER, south of France, Belgium but may be somewhere else in Europe.

If you have ancestors by those names, please contact Héma-québec or your local blood bank to have your ADN tested. STEM CELL DONATION is PAINLESS and does not require surgery nor hospitalisation.

In the province of Québec, you must be between 18 and 35 years old and in good health. But in some countries, the limit of age is upper. So, if you want to help, even if you are in other countries than Canada, please contact the closest organization for stem cells donation. The data base is international, so…”

Spread the word.  Make it happen.

Posted in: misc by Peter Watts 4 Comments

But Not the Part Where Everyone Gets Burned Alive.

“The Colonel”, my Echopraxia tie-in, is slotted to go live at over the next couple of days.  I thought I’d give you a bit of a preview, in between checking out Snowpiercer and going my sixth round with the Russian bureaucracy.

I don’t know whether Tor’s planning on luring anyone in with a teaser excerpt, but if they do I’m guessing it might highlight the opening action-packed tewwowist-hive-mind-immolating scenes. So, in contrast, I thought I’d serve up something a bit more boring (and more thematically representative).

No points if you can guess who this is:


This global survey, this threat-assessment of hived minds: it’s not his only assignment. It’s only his most recent. A dozen others idle in the background, only occasionally warranting examination or update. Realist incursions into the UKapelago; a newly-separatist Baptist Convention, building their armed gyland on the high seas. The occasional court-martial of some antique flesh-and-blood infantry whose cybernetic augments violate the Rules of Engagement. They all sit in his queue, pilot-lit, half-forgotten. They’ll flag him if they need his attention.

But there’s one candle the Colonel has never forgotten, though it hasn’t flickered for the better part of a decade. It, too, is programmed to call out in the event of any change in status. He checks it anyway, daily. Now— back for a couple of days in the large empty apartment he kept even after his wife went to Heaven— he checks it again.

No change.

He puts his inlays to sleep, takes grateful refuge in the silence that fills his head once the overlays and the status reports stop murmuring through his temporal lobe. He grows belatedly aware of a real sensation, the soft tick of claws on the tiles behind him. He turns and glimpses a small furry black-and-white face before it ducks out of sight around the corner.

The Colonel adjourns to the kitchen.

Zephyr’s willing to let the apartment feed him— he pretty much has to be, given the intermittent availability of his human servant— but he doesn’t like it much. He refused outright at first, rendered psychotic by some cross-species dabbler who must have thought it would be enlightening or transcendent or just plain cute to “share consciousness” with a small soul weighing in at one-tenth the synapse count. The Colonel tries to imagine what that kind of forced fusion must have been like: thrust into a maelstrom of incomprehensible thought and sensation, blinding as a naked sun; thrown back into stunned bleeding darkness once some narcissistic god got bored and cut the connection.

Zephyr hid in the closet for weeks after the Colonel brought him home, hissed and spat at the sight of sockets and fiberop and the low-slung housecleaner trundling quietly on its rounds. After two years his furry little brain has at least rejigged the cost/benefit stats for the kibble dispenser in the kitchen but he’s still more phantom than fur, still mostly visible only from the corner of the eye. He can be coaxed into the open if he’s hungry and if the Colonel is very still; he still recoils at physical contact. The Colonel indulges him, and pretends not to notice the ragged fraying of the armrest on the living room couch. He doesn’t even have the heart to get the socket removed from the patch of twisted scar tissue on Zephyr’s head. No telling what post-traumatic nightmares might be reawakened by a trip to the vet.

Now he fills the kibble bowl and stands back the requisite two meters. (This is progress; just six months ago he could never stray closer than three.) Zephyr creeps into the kitchen, nose twitching, eyes darting to every corner.

The Colonel hopes that whoever inflicted that torment went on to try more exotic interfaces once they got bored with mammals. A cephalopod, perhaps. By all accounts, things get a lot less cuddly when you go B2B with a Pacific octopus.

At least Human hives can lay claim to mutual consent. At least its members choose the violence they inflict on themselves, the emergence of some voluntary monster from the pool of all those annihilated identities. If only it stopped there. If only the damage ended where the hive did.

His son’s candle slumbers in its own little corner of his network, a pilot light in purgatory. Zephyr glances around with every second bite, still fearful of some Second Coming.

The Colonel knows how he feels.

Oh, yes.  It's relevant.

Oh, yes. It’s very relevant.

Posted in: fiblet by Peter Watts 43 Comments

I Go Through a Lot of Pants

A number of years ago— I’m hazy on the details— I made the online acquaintance of one Henry Gee, author of numerous science and fake science books and an editor at Nature. Maybe it was through his role as the wrangler for “Futures”, the series of SF supershorts that finish off each issue in that otherwise august journal— and to which I’ve made a couple of sales myself, hopefully to the chagrin of all those former colleagues who turned up their noses when I left academia to write about ray guns and talking squids in outer space (and who then spent endless years trying desperately to get a paper into Nature). Maybe it was over an early draft of Henry’s Siege of Stars, an SF novel combining some terrific ideas with some rookie mistakes (the latter of which seem to have since been fixed, given all the Big Names lining up to praise the published version). Maybe it started with that interview Nature did with biologists who write science fiction.

They were good times, all of them; I just can’t remember which one came first.

Anyhow, a couple weeks back Henry tagged me in something called “The Writing Process Blog Tour“. It’s kind of an authorial chain letter. An author receives a series of questions (presumably of interest to the reading public); answers them on their blog; passes them on in turn to three other authors downstream.  It’s a geometric progression which, if accommodated by all tagged targets, would rapidly swamp every cat picture on the internet.

Reluctant to be part of such a fission reaction, I asked Henry if I could maybe just pass the questions on to one other writer when I was done with them, to keep the proliferation cone a bit narrower. Henry had no problem with that; the rules are neither hard nor fast, and besides, I never signed anything.

So here they are.

What Am I Working On?

I can’t tell you.  Really. It might not even go anywhere.  But I just started, and it’s unconventional.

How Does My Work Differ From Others In Its Genre?

It is significantly more insecure, emotionally. Scarred by a past life in academia, I feel compelled to try and cover my ass against any manner of nitpickers. You may have noticed my habit of sticking lengthy technical appendices on the end of my novels. You may have even admired me for the effort, thinking I do this to Educate the Masses or to Share My Excitement about Real Science.


Why Do I Write What I Do?

Because nobody wanted to buy my children’s novel, Pancake, Snookums, and the Balance of Nature— in which the eponymous leopard frog and garter snake, trapped in the same terrarium, work together to effect their escape.  (Then Snookums eats Pancake.)

Denied my dream of writing Children’s Literature, I’ve settled for a sandbox big enough to explore the ideas that interest me. That’s science fiction, almost by definition. I suppose that technically it would be possible to explore the relationship between Theology and Digital Physics in a western or a historical romance, but that would take someone with considerably greater skill than I have.

How Does My Writing Process Work?

By cutting corners. For example, should I be presented with a question in a Blog Tour that’s identical to a question I’ve already answered in a previous interviews, I’m likely to just cut-and-paste in order to save time. Here comes an example right now:

Something gives me an idea: Hey, if that’s true, then what would happen if…?  (Or sometimes:  what utter bullshit. If that were true, then…)

I sketch out a plan to embed that question in a story. There follows a variable period spent writing and cursing, from which emerges a product that looks like a half-assed Rubik’s Cube badly wrapped in pages taped together from a paperback novel.  Then I go running, to give my subconscious time to crunch the numbers and serve up a fix. If that doesn’t work I go drinking with friends or take a shower with my wife, and use them as sounding boards to whinge about all the parts that won’t fit. I listen for ideas to steal, rewrite until the wrapping looks prettier and put it away, vaguely unsatisfied but resigned.

Three days before deadline I wake up in the middle of the night with a whole new angle fully-formed in my head. I throw out most of what I’ve done prior and start from scratch; I am frequently unaware of the passage of time at this point, even though time is now most pressing.

I hand it in.

The whole process generally consumes 30-60 hours for a short story. With novels you can stretch that out over a year or more, and bolt a detailed outline onto the front end (20-40 single-spaced pages— Cory Doctorow once described them as “not so much outlines as novels without dialog”).  Then, at the two-thirds mark, insert the sudden realization that some element I hadn’t considered in the outline totally destroys the plot logic of everything I’ve written, which forces me to go back, throw away the outline, and write by the seat of my pants after all.

I go through a lot of pants.


So now I get to stick someone else with these questions— and the person I tag is Caitlin Sweet, even though I know her answers to some of them. I tag her because she has taught me so much about our shared craft (sparing the lot of you from more clunky writing than you’ll ever know, by the way), that I can’t imagine not learning something new when she sits down to hammer out her own answers. Also because she’s more likely to forgive me for sticking her with a chain letter.

Take it away, BUG.

Posted in: interviews by Peter Watts 16 Comments

A Bauble for Blindsight, a Drum Roll for Dumbspeech

It’s been posted, so now it can be told: Blindsight won this year’s Seiun for best translated novel in Japan. Which means that as of now, that book has won two or three more awards in other languages than it was even nominated for in English.  Maybe I should take a hint from that. Maybe I should just give up on you Anglophones and start writing in Polish.

This disparity over domestic vs. imported awards makes it pretty obvious that I owe a big debt to translators in half a dozen countries. (In this particular case I think I also owe a big debt to China Miéville, who had the audacity to get two of his novels nominated in the same category. I suspect he would have taken home the prize easily if the China vote hadn’t thus been split, allowing Blindsight to cruise up the middle.) If you’ve bothered to click the link, you’ll note that acknowledgment of this debt takes up a good chunk of my acceptance speech. The remainder consists of me setting up my translators to take half the blame if Echopraxia crashes and burns.

But I’m starting to suspect, my usual depressive realism notwithstanding, that Echopraxia might not tank after all. I’ve already bragged about the Publisher’s Weekly review; since then, Library Journal and Kirkus have also weighed in. The LJ verdict is rosy enough—

…Watts welds philosophy and science in original ways. His novels are interested in not only the possibilities of technology but the nature of sentience and humanity. This is not an easy read, but just as you think it will be another discussion of religion and postsingularity intelligences in the ship’s galley, action breaks out. VERDICT The danger of hard sf is that the writing can sometimes seem clinical and dry, but Watts manages to keep his prose lush even when serving high-concept science. This book is quite an achievement and should appeal to those who enjoy the works of Ian MacDonald and Hannu Rajaniemi.

—but the Kirkus review— man, Kirkus just raves:

A paranoid tale that would make Philip K. Dick proud, told in a literary style that should seduce readers who don’t typically enjoy science fiction.

… Watts’ nihilistic meditation on evolution and adaptation is by turns disturbing and gorgeous, with a biologist’s understanding of nature’s indifference. If at times it’s hard to separate what is part of the vampire’s or monks’ plans and what is simply horrifying catastrophe, that also feels thematically appropriate.

This scientifically literate thriller’s tight prose and plot create an existential uneasiness that lingers long after the book’s end.

This is the nicest thing Kirkus has ever said about any of my books. Even when Kirkus likes my stuff (and they don’t always, in case I have to remind you about their “horrific porn” assessment of behemoth: Seppuku), they generally find something to complain about: Starfish‘s “poor organization [and] drifting points of view”, or Blindsight‘s “several complications too many”. But for Echopraxia, they have nothing but praise.

I feel a fall coming on.

Posted in: Dumbspeech, writing news by Peter Watts 16 Comments

Sleepwalk to Enlightenment

Illo credit "Anatomist90", over at Wikipedia

Illo credit “Anatomist90″, over at Wikipedia

Judging by the number of links I’ve received, a lot of you are already familiar with this paper on consciousness and the claustrum. Or at least you’re familiar with the tsunami of popsci coverage it’s received.

For the rest of you, the tale goes something like this:  54-year old female epileptic, seizure-free for four years at the cost of her left hippocampus. Now that reprieve has expired; the seizures have returned, and a team of neurologists led by Mohamad Z. Koubeissi have sown electrodes throughout her head to get the lay of the land and figure out what to do next. One of those electrodes edges up against the claustrum, a filamentous tangle of neurons thought to play a role in coordinating crosstalk between different parts of the brain.

When Koubeissi et al juice that particular electrode with 14mA of current, consciousness stops.

At least, that’s the way a thousand newsfeeds put it. More precisely, the body stops moving. The voice, which has been repeating the word “house” as a kind of baseline metric of awareness, trails off after a few seconds. The fingers, which have been snapping rhythmically, grow motionless. The patient sits glassy-eyed, to all appearances unaware and insensate. Inside her skull, the frontal and parietal lobes fall into mindless synchrony; not the synchronized call-and response of the consciousness state, but a mirrored lockstep incompatible with the operation of the global workspace.

Kill the current and everything return to normal. The patient reanimates, with no recollection of what happened during the down time.

The press is calling it a breakthrough.  An off-switch for consciousness, never before discovered. The Daily Mail, CBS, a myriad others have weighed in on the findings (although most of them seem to have mainly siphoned the bullet points off the New Scientist article that got there first). “…only a matter of time when we can create computers and machines that also contain a form of consciousness,” opines the Washington Post. “Their accidental discovery could lead to a deeper understanding of … how conscious awareness arises,” chimes in.

They keep using that word. I don’t think it means what they think it means.

No, the caption doesn't say what those asterisks are. I'm guessing, statistical significance?

No, the caption doesn’t say what those asterisks are. I’m guessing, statistical significance?

If I wanted to be glib I’d point out that a rock to the head serves as a perfectly effective off-switch for consciousness, and I’m pretty sure we stumbled across that result long before the latest issue of Epilepsy & Behavior hit the stands. It would admittedly be a cheap shot; after all, the claustrum effect is somewhat subtler. The victim didn’t keel over like a puppet with severed strings; she remained upright, eyes open, “awake but not conscious”.  That’s kind of cool.  And the claustrum’s involvement is nicely consistent with the whole Global Workspace model, the idea that consciousness somehow emerges from the integration of different brain processes talking to one another. It’s a good paper. The stats are solid, even conservative (although it would have been nice if they’d told us what those asterisks were supposed to represent in Fig. 1).

But closer to understanding “how conscious awareness arises”? I don’t think so.

What we have here is another neural correlate. Those are useful things to have, but all they tell us is that consciousness doesn’t manifest unless the machinery is ticking a certain way. They don’t get us any closer at all to the Hard Problem, which is: why does that particular flavor of ticking machinery wake up? When all those subcortical structures— the brain stem, the thalamus and hypothalamus, the ACG— start talking to the frontal lobes just so, why does it feel like this? It’s just computation, after all. Circuits in meat. Why does it feel like anything?

I don’t know if we’ll ever figure that one out.

I have other reservations. Prior to flipping the switch, Koubeissi et al got their patient to start repeating the word “house”, and to snap her fingers. They did this, we are told, to ensure that it really was consciousness that was being interrupted— that those milliamps hadn’t just induced some kind of motor paralysis that stilled the body even though the mind was active. K et al‘s reasoning was that paralysis would kick in instantly when the current hit; the fact that the speech and the finger-snaps trailed off gradually is supposed to take the paralysis confound off the table.

Yet there’s nothing in the paper to explain why this “off switch” couldn’t also activate instantaneously (once again, I cite my rock to the head). It seems a significant omission in the rationale, especially given that this “switch” has never been documented before. Besides, if the results had hailed from a conscious-but-paralyzed individual, wouldn’t she have been able to report as much after the fact?

Speaking of confounds, here’s another one. It wasn’t just “conscious awareness” that went down for the count; it was cognition.  The patient showed no response to stimuli during the vacant intervals; Koubessi’s team may not have induced unconsciousness so much as catatonia. (Interestingly, they also reported a “slowing of spontaneous respiratory movements” during the tereatment. This would seem to suggest that autonomic— i.e., nonconscious— processes were also affected. Unless the procedure itself was so stressful that the patient was breathing hard to begin with.)

Koubeissi et al unleashed a shotgun blast, insufficiently precise for high-resolution insights. This is no criticism; they weren’t performing a controlled experiment, just a routine diagnostic procedure that happened to yield valuable and unexpected results. But by that same token we should be careful about the conclusions we draw. (The fact that the patient’s brain was atypical— having lost half its hippocampus to a previous operation— has been dutifully noted in most of the coverage I’ve seen.)

What I’d really like to see would be a stimulus which shut down consciousness but left the cognitive and reactive circuits intact: a scenario in which the patient continued to repeat “house” while the current flowed,  until— still unconscious— she processed and accommodated a new request to start saying “yoga” instead. I’d like to see her wake up when the current stopped, look around, and ask in a puzzled voice, “Why am I saying yoga? I thought I was saying house.” Now that would tell us something.

What, you don’t think that’s realistic? You think consciousness and volition go hand in hand, that the body can’t parse the house-to-yoga transition without some little guy behind the eyes to make sense of it all?

I’ve got one word for you: sleepwalkers.

It’s possible to sleepwalk your way though a repeated series of sexual encounters with complete strangers (note to philanderers: don’t try this at home). It’s possible to drive across town and stab your  mother-in-law to death, unconscious the whole time.  “Homicidal somnabulism” is enough of a thing to warrant its own Wikipedia page.

So forget epileptics with pieces cut out of their brains. You want to find an off-switch for consciousness? Reserve the departmental MRI for the graveyard shift and put out ads for sleeping automatons. Some of them, short of spare cash, might just see the flyer some 3 a.m. and call you up.

Even if they don’t know they’re doing it.


Posted in: neuro, sentience/cognition by Peter Watts 21 Comments

In a World … Where No One Buys Books … Unless they look like Movies

So, this kind of came out of the blue yesterday:

Ardi Alspach, my publicist at Tor, commissioned a book trailer for Echopraxia (you can even play it at 720p).  I get the sense I stumbled across it about two minutes after it went live, which gives you a pretty sad indication of my ego-surfing frequency.

But, Wow.

I was surprised to learn that I’m a Nebula nominee; I wonder what I was nominated for.  And Tor Editorial apparently doesn’t know that I actually won a Hugo once upon a time.  But putting that aside (along with, maybe, Spiraling into an Evolution of Horror), I gotta say this is very shiny indeed.  Back when Ardi first raised the subject of a trailer, I imagined a static book cover zooming in and out in the faux-3D style of Count Floyd’s Monster Chiller Horror Theater. Maybe some stock music from “The Love Boat” playing in the background.  But this— this has actual Production Values.  This gleams.

My own personal jury is still out on how effective book trailers are in terms of boosting sales; I didn’t even realize they were still a thing.  But as things go, this strikes me as a really fine example. In fact, I think I’ll cut this post short and go watch it again in hi-def.

I especially like the part about being one of the very best alive… icarus-small

Posted in: public interface, writing news by Peter Watts 40 Comments


colonel_cov1upgraded-mockup5-600Daniel might like this. A couple of posts back (in a thread of comments I still haven’t had time to answer), he asked if I’d be willing to write military SF unconstrained by the limits of  video games.  As it turns out, I already have: “The Colonel“, upcoming from, is sorta-military— although the only actual combat takes place at the top of the tale—  insofar as the protagonist is Siri Keeton’s dad, the career soldier. A more pure-blooded example, however, might be “Collateral”, from Neil Clarke’s upcoming cyborg-themed anthology Upgraded.  As you can tell from the table of contents, Neil has lined up some pretty impressive names.


Anyhow, it’s been a while since I posted a fiblet.  So here:

They got Becker out in eight minutes flat, left the bodies on the sand for whatever scavengers the Sixth Extinction hadn’t yet managed to take out. Munsin hauled her into the Sikorsky and tried to yank the augments manually, right on the spot; Wingman swung and locked and went hot in the pants-pissing half-second before its threat-recognition macros, booted late to the party, calmed it down. Someone jammed the plug-in home between Becker’s shoulders; wireless gates unlocked in her head and Blanch, way up in the cockpit, put her prosthetics to sleep from a safe distance. The miniguns sagged on her shoulders like anesthetized limbs, threads of smoke still wafting from the barrels.

“Corporal.” Fingers snapped in her face. “Corporal, you with me?”

Becker blinked. “They— they were human…” She thought they were, anyway. All she’d been able to see were the heat signatures: bright primary colors against the darkness. They’d started out with arms and legs but then they’d spread like dimming rainbows, like iridescent oil slicks.

Munson said nothing.

Abemama receded to stern, a strip of baked coral suffused in a glow of infrared: yesterday’s blackbodied sunshine bleeding back into the sky. Blanch hit a control and the halo vanished: night-eyes blinded, ears deafened to any wavelength past the range of human hearing, all senses crippled back down to flesh and blood.

The bearing, though. Before the darkness had closed in. It had seemed wrong.

“We’re not going to Bonriki?”

We are,” the Sergeant said. “You’re going home. We’re getting you out before this thing explodes.”

She could feel Blanch playing around in the back of her brain, draining the op logs from her head. She tried to access the stream but he’d locked her out. No telling what those machines were sucking out of her brain. No telling if any of it would still be there when he let her back in.

Not that it mattered. She wouldn’t have been able to scrub those images from her head if she tried.

“They had to be hostiles,” she muttered. “How could they have just been there, I mean—what else could they be?” And then, a moment later: “Did any of them…?”

“You wouldn’t be much of a superhuman killing machine if they had,” Okoro said from across the cabin. “They weren’t even armed.”

“Private Okoro,” the Sergeant said mildly. “Shut your fucking mouth.”

They were all sitting across the cabin from her, in defiance of optimal in-flight weight distribution: Okoro, Perry, Flannery, Cole. None of them augged yet. There weren’t enough Beckers to go around, one every three or four companies if the budget was up for it and the politics were hot enough. Becker was used to the bitching whenever the subject came up, everyone playing the hard-ass, rolling their eyes at the cosmic injustice that out of all of them it was the farmer’s daughter from fucking Red Deer who’d won the lottery. It had never really bothered her. For all their trash-talking bullshit, she’d never seen anything but good-natured envy in their eyes.

She wasn’t sure what she saw there now.



Posted in: fiblet by Peter Watts 29 Comments


None of you probably remember that time a couple of years when I mentioned in passing that I was available to do a Q&A on reddit. That was a thing you had to do following the initial overtures: announce on your blog that you really were the guy they thought you were, I’m guessing as a safeguard against imposters who might spew antisemitic propaganda across the boards while pretending to be Neil Gaiman.

Anyhow, nothing ever came of that. But it’s happening again, and I even have an actual date this time: at 7pm EDT, August 26th, I’ll be doing an AMA on reddit. Which means you can Ask Me Anything. (Note that I don’t necessarily have to answer anything, in case some of you were thinking about quizzing me on the whole necrophilia thing.) And this post, once again, should serve as validation of ID to the reddit admins.  Here I am.  It’s me.

You will know me on reddit by the pink corsage in my lapel, and by my user name: “The-Squidnapper”.  Which I had to resort to because “Squidnapper” was already taken (although there does not appear to be an email associated with that name).

So thanks a lot, whoever that was.

Posted in: public interface by Peter Watts 9 Comments

Liquid Surveillance

Cool term, huh?  Liquid surveillance. I learned it from Neil Richards’ 2013 paper “The Dangers of Surveillance” in the Harvard Law Review (thanks to Jesus Olmo for the link); it’s a useful label for that contemporary panopticon in which “Government and nongovernment surveillance support each other in a complex manner that is often impossible to disentangle.” My recent IAPP talk looked at privacy from a biological point-of-view; I’d recommend Richards’ overview for its legal and historical perspective on the same subject.

But while we come at the issue from different directions, both Richards and I disagree profoundly with David Brin. We both think that privacy is something worth protecting.

As a number of you have noticed, the good doctor took exception to my Scorched Earth talk of a while back. We’ve since gone  back and forth over email a few times. David was miffed by my failure to give him a heads-up when I posted my transcript, and fair enough; that was thoughtless of me. He also objects to my simplistic “rainbows and unicorns” caricature of his transparent society. Also fair enough(1), these days anyway; the dude does seem to have changed his tune since back in 2003 when he expressed the hope that the authorities would “let us look back”. Nowadays he takes the more defiant stance that we’ll fucking well look back whether they “let” us or not.

My argument wasn’t so much that we shouldn’t look back as it was that the silverbacks would come down hard on us when we did. I wholeheartedly endorse David’s current perspective, even though he sometimes gets so caught up in his own heroic defiance that he has an unfortunate tendency to describe the rest of us as mere “whiners” in comparison.


Quibble Appetizer

He uses the word repeatedly— here, when he engages me, and here, where he takes on the URME line of surveillance-foiling full-face masks.  Privacy advocates— hell, people who walk down the street wearing masks— are just a bunch of moaners who keep “whining don’t look at me!‘”

I think Dr. Brin might be protesting a bit too much. Has he ever worn a mask in public, or (like Ladar Levison of Lavabit) given the finger to authorities who show up with their hands out? These are not craven acts. Wearing a mask in public is the very opposite of hiding: it doesn’t avoid attention, it draws it. It’s not just a middle finger raised to a gauntlet of cameras; it’s an invitation to any badge-wearing thug within eyeshot, even in those places where wearing a mask isn’t outright illegal.  It’s about as whiney, moany, and hidey an act as— well, for example, as getting out of your car during a protocol-violating border search to ask what’s going on. (Or as David puts it on his blog, “scream and leap”.)

I’m quibbling, though. So the dude slants his semantics for dramatic effect; I’m Mr. Unicorns-&-Rainbows, so I can’t really complain. Besides, I think Dr. Brin and myself are pulling in the same direction. We’re both outraged by abuse of power; we both regard our governments as— if not an outright enemy— an adversary at least, a group organism whose interests cannot be counted on to align with those of its citizens. We both think it needs to be resisted (and if we don’t, I’m sure David will set me straight, because this time at least I’ve given him a heads-up.)

I still think he’s dead wrong about privacy, though.


The Trouble With Transparency

I’ll give him some points right out of the gate. The use of cell phone cameras has depressed the number of incidents of police misconduct, has even resulted in charges now and then.  That’s a positive development.

I don’t know how long it will last.  Laws written by cats have a way of adapting when the mice figure out a workaround.  Sneak cameras into factory farms and you may get public outrage, grass-roots momentum, the passage of more humane animal-treatment laws.  Then again, you might get laws that outlaw undercover journalism entirely, redefine anyone who documents the abuse of agricultural animals as a “domestic terrorist”. Record video of police assaulting civilians and you’ll certainly get a lot of front-page coverage for a few days. You may even get public enquiries and actual charges, at least until the next Hollywood celebrity overdoses on horse tranquillizers and moves the spotlight.

But how much of that theater results in conviction?  The Mounties who killed Robert Dziekański in the Vancouver International Airport got off the hook, despite video footage of their actions.  James Forcillo is back on the job after repeatedly shooting a crazy man to death in an empty streetcar, despite hand-held recordings from multiple angles establishing that the victim was not a threat. (He’s since been charged; conviction, in my opinion, is unlikely.) And the cops who vandalized, robbed, and assaulted bodega owners in Philadelphia were never even charged, despite video showing them cutting the local securicam wires before partying down.

Of course, anyone can google for newspaper headlines showing this corrupt cop or that crooked politician getting away with murder. That’s called arguing by anecdote and— while the anecdotes are valid in and of themselves— you can’t hang rigorous statistics off that kind of cherry-picking. My sense is that we’re in an arms race here; the authorities are still coming to terms with the presence of ubiquitous civilian surveillance at street level, the cops haven’t quite internalized the fact that they might be suddenly accountable in a way they never were before, but I expect countermeasures to these countermeasures. (Which, now that I think of it, serves as a rejoinder to David’s suggestion that I’ve never heard of Moore’s Law. I confess the term does sound familiar— but I think it applies to both sides in the struggle, so rather than a monotonic climb to a transparent utopia, I see something more cyclical. Maybe that’s just the ecologist in me.)  Brin himself points to a patent that would let the authorities shut down every inconvenient cell-phone and tablet within reach (interestingly, he proposes a response similar to my Cylon Solution from back in March).  I expect that generally, those in charge will figure out how to put back whatever rocks we manage to turn over.

But that’s just my sense of things, and I could be wrong. So let’s be optimistic and grant the point.  Let’s assume that our cell phones and skeeterbots permanently level the playing field down here at street level, that cops no longer get away with assaulting civilians whenever they feel like it, that our masters and their attack dogs finally have to treat us with a modicum of respect.

It will be an improvement. Not a game-changing one. Because even in this optimistic scenario, society is only transparent down here on the street, where the cell phones are. Elsewhere, the glass in the windows is all one-way.

Take a Man’s Castle, for starters. Even Brin draws the line at domestic privacy: his Transparent Society ends on our doorsteps, explicitly allowing that our homes, at least, will remain unsurveilled. It may have seemed a plausible extrapolation back in the nineties, before Moore’s Law and Surveillance Creep produced such a litter of unholy love-children: the television in your bedroom that reports your viewing habits and the contents of your thumb drives back to corporate headquarters. The back doors built into every Windows operating system from Xp on up. The webcam that counts the people in your living room, so that it can shut down your TV if it sees four faces when your subscription to Game of Thrones is only licensed for three. And of course the government, lurking overhead like a rain-swollen overcast sky, turning all of corporate America into its bitch with a wink and a National Security Letter (and even an actual warrant on rare occasions). The Internet of Things has barely even got off the ground, and these are only a few of the intrusions we’re already facing.

And don’t even get me started on LOVEINT

David, dude— it was a beautiful dream back in 1998, and how I wish it had turned out that way. But do we have back-door access into Dick Cheney’s web-surfing habits? Did I miss some memo about the White House camera feeds going public-domain last week? That giant supercomputer complex going up in the Utah desert: when it goes online, will they be using it to help mothers keep track of their wandering children? Do we know what books David Cameron keeps on his Nook, do we know what passages of Mein Kampf he tends to linger over?

Will any of these insights be within our grasp in the foreseeable future?

And that’s just in people’s homes, in the private little bubble that we all agree should remain sacrosanct. Is it better when you step outside, and lose not just the reasonable expectation of privacy but of anonymity to boot? If you were attending a rally to protest— oh, I dunno, illegal drone strikes on foreign nationals— would you feel not the slightest chill when informed by one of our Boys in Blue that yes, you’re perfectly free to exercise your right to public dissent— but before you do we’re going to take down your name and address and bank details and employment history and phone records and any past interactions you may have had with Law Enforcement stretching back into childhood? Would it make you feel any better to know that no Boys in Blue were exploited in the making of this film, that all those data— and orders of magnitude more— were collected by an unmarked autonomous quadrocopter talking to a computer in the desert?

Is it okay that someone without any relevant qualification can access psychiatric records of people in other countries, the better to arbitrarily restrict their freedom of movement? Is it acceptable that people who’ve never been convicted of any crime— who’ve never even been charged with anything— have lost jobs, been turned down for educational programs, been denied travel, all because the police keep records of everyone they come in contact with for whatever reason, then hand those data out at the drop of a hat? Would all that somehow be redressed, if only we had guerrilla cellphone footage of some asshole behind a desk stamping REJECTED on a job application?

Don’t count on enlightened legislation to turn the tables. The original surveillance program that grew into PRISM and Stingray was regarded as illegal even by many in the Bush Administration; the White House went ahead and did it anyway. None of those folks will ever be held accountable for that, any more than they’ll be charged with war crimes over the waterboarding of prisoners or the dispatch of flying terminators to assassinate civilians without due process.

I have a friend who practices law in California. The last time we hung out she told me that what disillusions her the most about her job, the thing she finds most ominous, is the naïve and widespread fairytale belief that the law even matters to those in power— that all we have to do to in order to end government surveillance is pass a law against it, and everyone will fall into line. It’s bullshit. Only mice have to obey the law. The cats? They can take it or leave it. (I passed that message on to Canada’s Privacy Commissioner when we chatted after my IAPP talk. In response, she could only shrug and spread her hands.)

The damnable thing about David Brin is, he’s right: If the watchers watch us, we should damn well be able to watch them in turn.  Where the argument fails is in his apparent belief that both sides will ever have comparable eyesight, that an army of cellphone-wielding  Brave Citizens (as opposed to the rest of us moaning whiners) is enough to level the playing field. Yes, Moore’s Law proceeds apace: our eyesight improves over time. But so does theirs, and because their resources are so vastly greater, they will have the advantage for the foreseeable future. (Of course, if someone’s planning on crowd-sourcing their own supercomputer complex in the desert— complete with legislation-generating machinery to legally protect its existence and operations on behalf of the 99%— let me know.  I’d love to get in on the ground floor.)

Don’t get me wrong: I agree that we should look back whenever we can. Even when the gorillas beat the shit out of you. Looking back is necessary.

But it is not sufficient.


The Opacity Alternative

If we can’t level the field by spying on the authorities, the obvious alternative is to try and limit their ability to spy on us. Neil Richards argues not only that privacy can be protected but that it must be, because personal privacy is essential to a functioning democracy. His argument seems compelling to me, but I’m not a legal scholar (and I’m not entirely sold on the whole democracy thing either), so I’ll leave it to Richards to defend Richards. Brazil, at least, seems to be on board with his outlook, given the recent passage of their “Internet Bill of Rights“.

For my part, it just burns my ass that these fuckers arrogate unto themselves the right to watch me from the grasses.  I don’t like being targeted.  I don’t like being prey. So it resonates when Edward Snowden tells us that we don’t have to ask the government to give us back our privacy: we can take it.

Brin’s response is: Tough noogs, Bub. The Internet Never Forgets.  You can’t burn data to the ground when they’ve already been copied and recopied and stored in a million backup repositories throughout a network designed to remain operational after a nuclear war.

He’s got a point.

My porn-surfing habits from 2011 are probably immortal by now. I’ll never be able to disown this blog post no matter how many religious conversions I experience down the road. CSIS probably knows all about that little sniper reticle I superimposed on the forehead of a cat-cuddling Stephen Harper last decade. Those ships have sailed.

But that doesn’t mean we have to keep launching new ones.

There’s no shortage of online posts listing the various ways one might protect one’s privacy, from asymmetrical haircuts to sticking your cell phone in a Faraday Cage. Some are really obvious: if you don’t want your TV spying on you, don’t get a smart one(2). (Dumb TVs are cheap these days— we just bought one a couple of weeks back— because everyone’s clearing their warehouses to make room  for new devices that come with HAL-9000 as standard equipment.  When you can’t get a dumb TV any more, go dumber: my last 47-incher was basically just a monitor with a bunch of input jacks.) Keep your deepest secrets on a computer that’s completely isolated from the internet. Encrypt everything. Stay the fuck away from Facebook.

Start a Cylon Solutions boutique that specializes in backlash technology, machinery too dumb to be used against you(3). Start a franchise. Make it a thing. Hell, if vinyl staged a comeback decades after the entertainment industry banished it to the wilderness— if analog tech has become cool again for no more than the audio aesthetic— how much more potential might there be in a retro movement founded on the idea of keeping Harper and Obama out of our bedrooms?

Of course, not everyone cares enough to put in the extra effort. I was ranting to a friend the other day as she booted up her smart TV, ran down the usual list of grievances and suspicions and countermeasures. She listened patiently (as you know, I do tend to go on sometimes), and finally drawled “You know, your arguments all make sense, but I just don’t really care.”  A lot of people, seduced by the convenience of the tech and unwilling to make their own soap from scratch, are indifferent to the panopticon. I wish them well.

But to many of us the Snowden revelations have provoked a backlash, a renewed interest in drawing a curtain back across our lives. That backlash seems to be provoking an uptick in privacy measures that are actually easy to use, convenient enough for even the surveillantly-indifferent to embrace. Cyberdust is a free app that encrypts and anonymizes your communiqués, then burns them to the ground after they’ve been read no matter how often David Brin weighs in on the impossibility of such a feat (although you may want to stay away from Snapchat for the time being). Chrome’s new “End-to-End” encryption add-on has got so much recent press it’s barely even worth embedding a link. (Let us take a moment to reflect on the irony of Google in the role of privacy advocate.) And Snowden’s gift has also weakened the nonelectronic channels through which government spying often passes— the security letters, the secret back-room demands for data which corporations were only too happy to turn over before their clients knew what they were doing. Now it’s out, and customers are deserting in droves; see how Apple and Facebook and Microsoft have seen the light at last, now that their bottom lines are threatened. See how they’ve all pledged to give up their evil ways and join the Occupy movement. It’s not just Teksavvy and Lavabit any more; now even the lapdogs are showing a couple of teeth. (Whether they actually bite anything remains to be seen, of course.)

There may even be some utility yet to be squeezed out of direct legislation, notwithstanding my skepticism about cat-authored laws. Sure, if you tell  the spooks they can’t spy on you, they’ll just do it anyway and lie to Congress about it afterward.  But what if you pass a law that cuts their budget— reduces their allowance so they can’t afford to spy on you, whether they’re allowed to or not? We’re about to find out, if the House of Representatives’ recent amendment to a Defense appropriations bill makes it past the Senate.

If worst comes to worst, just break the law.  It serves them, not us, and they can’t put all of us in jail.

Yes, they are vast and mighty and all-seeing, and we are small and puny, but we are scattered and so very many in number. We can’t keep the spooks out if they really want us— but they don’t really want most of us. The only reason They See All is because the technology makes it so damn easy to target everyone, to err on the side of overkill. Tangle up that driftnet enough and cost:benefit changes; at some point they’ll go back to using longlines.

There are things we can do, is what I’m saying. It’s what Edward Snowden is saying, too.  It’s what Neil Richards and  Bruce Schneier and Ann Cavoukian and Micheal Geist are saying. It what activist organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and national governments like Brazil and a myriad others are saying. We’re saying we can burn things, and here’s how. We’re saying we can take it back.

We’re saying that David Brin is wrong.

About this, anyway.  Because— and I’ll say it again— I am totally on board with the way the man rallies his troops to join battle on one front. What I diss is his unconditional surrender of the other.

To me, that’s the very opposite of being a Brave Citizen.


Deleted Scenes and Extras

In a way I believe Ed Snowden’s inspirational example has misled us, misled me. In hindsight I think I was wrong to write that he “looked back”— as though he was one of us, just some guy on the street staring at the gorilla.  He wasn’t. He was the gorilla; he was a trusted part of that network, he was Agent Smith, he was one of the watchers. That’s the only way he had access to all that information in the first place: not through “souseveillance”, not by looking back, but simply by being a gorilla who happened to grow a conscience. We can’t aspire to follow his example because no matter how hard we stare, we will never enjoy the access he once had.

In a way, that doesn’t even matter—because whether Snowden was a true metawatcher or just a gummint voyeur plagued by a sense of ethics, the real metric of progress is whether the Society has grown more Transparent in the wake of his revelations. Will the next Ed Snowden have an easier time, or a harder one, casting a spotlight on the powerful? Does anyone really believe that the keyholes he peeked through haven’t since been plugged?

Obama, finally exposed, utters mealy-mouthed platitudes about transparency and accountability while continuing to lie about PRISM and Stingray and all those other programs with Le Carré names. Debate is suddenly “welcomed”, our leaders are suddenly willing to contemplate new restraints on their unbridled power. And yet their minions continue to lean on local law enforcement to keep their yaps shut about ongoing surveillance efforts, rewarding them with AVs and machine guns for their cooperation. And over in that dark corner, Thomas Drake— a conscience-afflicted NSA employee who leaked unclassified documents to the press concerning the unconstitutional and illegal surveillance by the US government on its citizens— found himself charged with espionage by the simple expedient of taking unclassified documents found on his computer, reclassifying them after the fact, and then laying charges for possession of retroactively-forbidden fruit.

Think about that. If the state doesn’t like what you’ve done, it will reverse-engineer reality to make you a criminal. The law itself becomes quicksand, rewritten on the fly to favor the house: more than once US courts have thrown out suits alleging violation of amendment rights simply because the programs committing those offenses are “state secrets”. If the court doesn’t know a program exists, it can’t pass judgment on what that program may have done to you; and if the program is secret, the court is not allowed to acknowledge that it exists.

In the light of such Kafkaesque rationales, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that criminality may ultimately be inevitable to anyone who truly values their privacy. Even if your countermeasures are legal today, they may not be tomorrow. If you’re not a criminal now, you might be then.

Might as well say Fuck the Law, and take your countermeasures. Avoid the rush.



(1) Although seriously: artistic license, right? A cheap laugh before a cold audience. I say it was worth it.

(2) You could always get a smart TV, put tape over its eyes, and keep it isolated from the web— but how long before the onboard AI simply refuses to run your favorite shows until you “confirm your identity” through an internet link?

(3) Brin urges his own Brave Citizens to adopt similar tactics, albeit to prevent the cops from protecting their own “privacy” rather than to further the protection of your own.

Posted in: rant, scilitics by Peter Watts 88 Comments

But Not Without Shame

So, David Brin and I have been chatting behind the scenes; as you might expect, he disagrees with pretty much everything I had to say on the ol’ Scorched-Earth front.  It’s an important issue, one to which I’ll be returning in the near future— but because it’s an important issue, it deserves more time than I can afford to devote to it this week, especially after I lost most of Tuesday to getting my ass repeatedly blown up in a Body-Works Museum near the end of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. (I really regret falling for that biochip recall back in Hengsha.) So today’s listing is pure self-promotional fluff; a potpourri of newsy bits from the past few weeks that I just never got around to mentioning before.

tahttivaeltajaFirst off, I’m going to be GoH at something called “Peterburg’s Fiction Assembly” in St. Peterburg, Russia, the weekend of August 15— or at least I will be, if I ever get through the Gilliamesque application process involved in getting a tourist visa for the fucking place. The bad news is, Worldcon is the same weekend, so I won’t be seeing any of you there.  The good news is, Worldcon is the same weekend, so I can probably credit my invitation to the fact that everyone else is in London that weekend.

Another overseas accolade for Blindsight, this time under its Finnish alias Sokeanäkö: the Tähtivaeltaja award (which apparently translates as “Star Rover”), kind of a year’s-best thing.  Juried.  No monetary value. And as is usual for any translation of this book, the lion’s share of the credit has to go to the dude who translated it, J. Pekka Mäkelä. You all know how dense Blindsight is even in this language; just  imagine having to morph it into a different one.

Finally: first official review of Echopraxia, from Publisher’s Weekly. I copy it in full, because it is short, and because it glows:

Hugo-winner Watts attempts “faith-based hard SF” in this dense, fast-moving companion to 2006’s Blindsight set in a late-21st-century world of genetically resurrected vampires, weaponized zombies, and Nobel-winning monastic hive minds. Daniel Brüks, obsolete in every way—human in a posthuman world, a field biologist despite biology’s merger with technology, an atheist despite religion’s recent triumphs over science—is dragged onto a Rapture-guided ship, the Crown of Thorns, and taken on a mission to investigate possible transmissions from the lost spaceship Theseus. Brüks is soon trapped between a vampire and a physics-breaking “postbiological” organism. Watts displays his knack for meticulously researched, conventionally unsympathetic characters, and their complex manipulations give color to an environment in which it is difficult to distinguish bloody catastrophe from “plans within plans.” The novel delivers an intricately inventive and coolly deterministic lesson in the futility of trying to outthink evolution, less a critique of human transcendence than an indictment of its basic assumptions.

I especially liked “difficult to distinguish bloody catastrophe from plans-within-plans”.  Not a starred review, though, which I guess means they didn’t like it as much as behemoth. (Here’s the link: I include it not because it leads to any further information, but just to prove I’m not making this up.)

Some of you may be especially surprised at the glowiness of this review; I’m speaking, of course, of those who served as beta-readers, and who slogged through a much crappier version of the novel. I’m kind of retroactively embarrassed that I inflicted that on you (I’ve actually decided to dispense with beta-readers in future, save for one or two close confidantes), so I intend to pdfify a copy of the final copyedited version and send it to you all as a gesture of thanks and atonement.  Don’t know exactly when that’ll be, but it will be well in advance of the official release date.

It’ll be better than the ARC. I saw the ARC for the first time last weekend.  It didn’t even include the Crown of Thorns illustration. That better not be a harbinger.