We just published the brand new novel by Bruce Sterling, Love Is Strange.
Cory Doctorow: Do you feel that the world is, on balance, improved by technology?
Well, if you ask that question from the point of view of almost anything in this world that's not a human being like you and me, the answer's almost certainly No. You might get a few Yea votes from the likes of albino rabbits and gene-spliced tobacco plants. Ask any living thing that's been around in the world since before the Greeks made up the word "technology," like say a bristlecone pine or a coral reef. You would hear an awful tale of woe.
Matthew Battles: Concern for the future is a perennial human predicament; what (if anything) is peculiar about the modern fascination with futurity?
Well, for us moderns, this perennial predicament isn't entirely in the charge of priests, as it generally has been for all history. Actually, there's quite a lot of stuff that's peculiar about our recent version of futurity. Number one is that we no longer know what "progress" is, so our "conservatives" have become our radicals while our "progressives" are our conservatives.
We're also a lot keener on big data and social mapping than anybody ever was before, because we've got really large big data and we more or less just invented social maps. We're alway excited by breakthroughs that haven't bored us and become banal and useful yet.
I can pick the trends, but you'll only really watch them if they somehow capture your imagination. The number one trend in the world, the biggest, the most important trend, is climate change. People hate watching it; they either flinch in guilty fear or shudder away in denial, but it makes a deeper, more drastic difference to your future than anything else that is happening now.
Personally, I enjoy watching trendy developments in augmented reality, extinct forms of media, new forms of language within digital media, the Internet of Things and popular music trends in countries other than the USA. They're not the world's most important trends, but they are trends I cared enough about to study and more or less understand. That's why they're all categories on my weblog.
The world is full of "trends," thousands of them, but you have to engage with one to derive any benefit from knowing that it's happening. For instance, that trend of smoking cigarettes is going to damage your health. Everybody yells that at you, and it's even written into law and right on the packages. So that "trend" is no big secret to you, but until the day when you can wake up to it and let it matter to yourself, you won't be able to let your thoughtless addiction go. It's a trend all right -- you can watch it happening for years, as you light another, then another, and then another -- but until you engage with it, that trend owns you, and you don't own it.
Cory Doctorow: Will "electronic art" someday cease to be a meaningful distinction? Has it already become so?
Those terms are pretty elastic. When there's a bidding war over classic paintings nowadays, people are commonly bidding worldwide while looking at jpegs of the canvas.
There's one kind of electronic art that's very publicly and self-consciously "electronic" -- commonly it's got snarled wires coming out of it, to demonstrate how electronic it is -- and I'd guess that stuff's gonna have a fairly short shelf-life. But it will be very hard to say when it's over, as it is also hard to say when it started. When did "video art" start, and when will "video art" end? How about "device art" or "network art" or "software art"?
Asking if all art will someday be "electronic" is similar to asking if there will be a day when live theater is indistinguishable from cinema. I can imagine such a situation, I don't think it's impossible, but it would mean that the concepts of "cinema" and "theater" were both long obsolete, and a society like that would be very alien.
Paul Di Filippo: If you were attempting to start your career as a science fiction writer in today's milieu, rather than in the 1980s milieu when you did begin, what would your strategy be for getting a toehold and getting your name known? In other words, where are the CHEAP TRUTHS of 2013?
That's quite a tough question. It's pretty hard to have a "career" doing any single creative thing nowadays. If you really make a stir as a "science fiction writer" nowadays, you're likely to get swept up in all kinds of network-society fringe activities, such as blogging, going to conventions, comics, gaming, TV, movies, collectibles.... The days when you could be a "science fiction writer" and work exclusively on books and magazines seem to have vanished already.
I'm pretty sure that the best way to get a toehold in writing is to start writing work that you yourself want to read. Then, see who really cares about it, and try to understand why. Wasting energy trying to ace your way through collapsing industries is a drag. You should never be surprised if your most effective, most influential writing is writing no publisher will pay for.
Ted Striphas: Have you adjusted your writing style, or the substance of your writing, in light of new digital systems for producing, distributing, and communicating about books? If so, how, and with what consequences?
I'd say that my writing career has been a constant struggle with that issue since about 1980. I do a lot of writing for digital systems, "writing" that's got nothing to do with "books." It's hard to say what the consequences of this struggle are, but I can guess. I frankly think it damaged my prose style -- because I never had the chance to fully master the methods by which I express myself. But it also kept me flexible and alert in other ways. It's likely similar to the effect of digital music on contemporary musicians -- they can make a lot of weirder noises, lots faster, but they don't become virtuosos.
It changed my work profoundly when I realized I could talk to a global audience on the Internet, although I was legally limited from doing that by national publishing systems. The lack of any global book market has much reduced my interest in publishing books. National systems don't "publish" me, but rather conceal me. This especially happens to writers outside the Anglophone market, but I know a lot of them, and I've become sensitized to their issues. It's one of the general issues of globalization.
Ted Striphas, John Sundman: Some have suggested that the age of the long form novel is nearing an end, and that shorter, strung-together narrative chunks represent the future. How would you respond to this claim?
I'd suggest trying to imagine somebody in the year 2062 sitting down to read "the best tweets of 2012." Does that prospect sound at all plausible to you? I'm a blogger and I'm very keen on randomly-assembled narrative chunks, but I've always known that blog content has a short shelf-life. It's like doing stand-up comedy.
Ted Striphas: Like many science fiction writers (or, like many of the best science fiction writers), you've introduced several neologisms into the English language—words and phrases like "buckyjunk," "major consensus narrative," "spime," and a host of others. Beyond the fact that neologisms can make for lively writing, why push the limits of language this way?
I know that can sound like "pushing" language, but from my point of view, social change reveals gaps in language. For instance, the idea of an "Internet of Things" leaves, to my eye, an obvious verbal hole for a "thing" that's created specifically to exist within an "internet of things." What kind of "thing" is that "thing?" "Spime" is not a great word, but it's there if anybody needs it.
If there's an issue that needs discussion, but there's no way to discuss it without some clumsy workaround, then why not just make up a word for it? Thousands of slang terms are invented in many dialects of English every day. The English language isn't going to buckle and collapse because I made up the term "buckyjunk," which prophesies the pollution problems involved in making items from semi-indestructible "buckminsterfullerene."
Some people think I made up other colorful terms such as "blobject" and "junkspace," but I didn't, I was quite happy just to find these neologisms and do my part to spread them around. Where is my downside? I'm a science fiction writer, I'm not going to get arrested for using new words.
Matthew Battles: What are some of the more unexpected ways our things might outlive us?
Actually it's mostly the past's things that will outlive us. Things that have already successfully lived a long time, such as the Pyramids, are likely to stay around longer than 99.9% of our things. It might be a bit startling to realize that it's mostly our paper that will survive us as data, while a lot of our electronics will succumb to erasure, loss, and bit rot.
If we're like most civilizations, we're going to leave some of our most effective clues to ourselves in our garbage. We've got plenty of it, too. We've got Pyramids of garbage.
Richard Nash: I once heard you note that they only thing you knew for certain about the future is that we were growing older. What would you say are the key changes in culture from the increase in life expectancy?
That future's here already in today's retirement communities. Genoa is one of the "oldest" cities in Europe, in terms of Genoa's aged population. You can see that reality in little things in Genoa, like how long the buses dawdle at the stops as the aged passengers climb painfully on and off. There are elderly in the cafes, the cafes are quiet and solemn, the customers don't yell, gesture or move around much. Kids in Genoa seem to instinctively gather in self-protective packs. There are a lot of little old ladies in Genoa -- as lifespans extend, the gender balance changes.
An older world is not a shocking difference, but compare Genoa to Moscow, where the people have a lousy life expectancy. Moscow is pretty tough, loud, sexy and raucous by comparison to Genoa.
Richard Nash: What would you say are the key changes in culture from the increase in life expectancy to date, and from now on? And to follow on, how does this intersect with the much debated topics of abundance on the one hand, and declining fertility on the other?
You can only have declining fertility for so long, until whichever groups are declining are replaced by other groups that aren't declining. In other words, if rich guys don't breed, you're gonna get a new breed of rich guy.
One could argue that if longevity was increasing fast enough, then old people would make up for the birth deficit in young people, but the math has never worked that way to date. It's pretty easy to increase the number of people surviving to old age, but we've done very little in increasing the absolute human lifespan. I don't doubt that it's possible, and I've written a lot of science fiction about it, but it's not in fact happening yet as a fact on the ground.
If we start seeing "Methuselah mice" with five or ten times the normal mouse lifespan, then my attitude would change immediately, and I would be gravely concerned. We would be in for massive, irrevocable changes in politics, law, ethics, economics, society, most everything we know.
Marianne de Pierres: Speaking about longevity, what do you believe is the human species’ saving grace? What gives you the most hope for our future?
I frankly take a lot of comfort in the idea that we human beings just don't know what's going on. We have a long history of stumbling over facts that are completely unpredictable and utterly outside our limited ken. The universe must have a lot more surprises for us, if we can somehow keep making fresh mistakes. So I'd say our saving grace is not our foresight but our naivete.
Nils Gilman: What is the most accomplished literary work(s) of prophesy?
Well, the monument there is almost certainly "As We May Think" by Vannevar Bush, but since that's a pop-science article, it might not be accepted as "literary." It's certainly very "accomplished," though. Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" has a lot of prescient stuff in in that quite horrified Huxley and doesn't bother us a bit. Jules Verne's first novel, "Paris in the 20th Century," is amazingly prophetic, but since Verne never could publish it, it wasn't very "accomplished." The cartoons of Albert Robida are cartoon satires, but their prescience is truly amazing.
Giuliana Guazzaroni: How much is augmented reality important for the future of technology and web, and for fiction as well?
I'm a big fan of "augmented reality," but I think the field is going to break up into a wide variety of applications, devices and approaches, some more significant, others less. Augmented Reality is generally important because it's one of those grand, metaphysical quests in computer science -- what is reality, what can we do to reality? The answer is that "reality" is not in any particular danger from computer science, but you might find out some interesting things that would never show up if you asked simpler questions, such as, say, "how do we write some code to paste video snippets onto this handheld screen."
A collection of our best interviews about publishing, writing and fiction in these challenging times.
A path through changes in culture and in the book universe.
Bruce Sterling, Ted Striphas, Richard Nash, Kassia Krozser, Brian O'Leary, Joe Wikert, Piotr Kowalczyk, Joanna Penn, Joel Friedlander, Ken Liu, Jacob Appel, Rhys Hughes, Kaaron Warren, Jamie Todd Rubin.
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Ted Striphas research and teaching interests include media history, theory, and criticism; the history of technology; and cultural studies. He is an award winning teacher and scholar. He's the author of "The Late Age of Print" and "An Infernal Culture Machine".
Blog | @striphas
As you said, "An Infernal Culture Machine", your last essay, is prompted by the question «What is culture today?». Which do you think are the main drivers of change in culture, today?
There are surely many drivers in the realm of culture today, as there have been, always. In terms of how we access and make sense of culture, however, digital – or rather computational – technologies increasingly hold sway.
Consider Google, for example. Most everyone who uses its search service seems to appreciate how it has something important to do with adjudicating "the best which has been thought and said," as Matthew Arnold defined "culture" back in 1869. Yet, where in the definitions of the word is there any strong connection to computing technology? Most English-language dictionaries define "culture" almost exclusively in 19th century terms, linking its meaning to ideas like civilization, aesthetics, world-views, ways of life, and material artifacts; some dictionaries also include the pre-modern sense of the term as "tending toward natural growth." What I am trying to reconcile right now in my research is the gap between the standard dictionary definitions of "culture" and our actual experiences with it, the latter of which are increasingly shot through with technology. This is exactly where algorithms come it.
The Algorithmic Culture is one of the main topics you face in your works. How do you think algorithms are crucial to understand our new relationship with culture?
Culture has long been about argument and reconciliation: argument in the sense that groups of people have ongoing debates, whether explicit or implicit, about their norms of thought, conduct, and expression; and reconciliation in the sense that virtually all societies have some type of mechanism in place – always political – by which to decide whose arguments ultimately will hold sway. You might think of culture as an ongoing conversation that a society has about how its members ought to comport themselves.
Increasingly today, computational technologies are tasked with the work of reconciliation, and algorithms are a principal means to that end. Algorithms are essentially decision systems – sets of procedures that specify how someone or something ought to proceed given a particular set of circumstances. Their job is to consider, or weigh, the significance of all of the arguments or information floating around online (and even offline) and then to determine which among those arguments is the most important or worthy. Another way of putting this would be to say that algorithms aggregate a conversation about culture that, thanks to technologies like the internet, has become ever more diffuse and disaggregated.
On sites like Google, Facebook, Amazon.com, and others, all of this decision-making is handled mathematically, of course. On Facebook, for example, your friends are assigned particular weights, or values, based on the degree to which you interact with them on the site, how much they interact with you, the nature of your connection to them (e.g, whether you're a relative or a causal acquaintance), and more. What they're talking about – a particular product, say, or a major life event – also factors in here as well. Your news feed gets prioritized on these and other bases, which are quantified and computed.
I mention this not because I am scared of numbers – far from it. But it is important to recognize how these behind-the-scenes determinations about how an algorithm will work are, as in earlier moments in culture, political decisions. Reconciling culture – establishing norms – is not a neutral process. Status updates from a cousin of mine, with whom I am not particularly close, constantly appear in my Facebook news feed, presumably because we have identified ourselves as cousins. Note the value that's both implicit and reinforced here: that kinship is more important than other types of relationships. Why should this be the presumption?
My concern with algorithms like the one driving Facebook has less to do with fact that they may be wrong than with our lack of knowledge about how exactly they work. Most such algorithms are protected by patent laws, trade secret laws, and other legal and technical instruments, which make it difficult if not impossible to determine which values – which weights – are programmed in to them, and why. Algorithmic culture renders opaque the reconciliation part of conversation about culture.
In "The Late Age of Print" you talk about how the book industry has adapted to changes in twentieth-century print culture. Could you list three aspects publishers should look at to evolve rapidly in the digital age?
If a publisher wants to evolve rapidly, then my advice would be:
- shift your current paper publications and backlist to print-on-demand, and contract with Amazon to sell electronic editions of your books;
- chunk books up into small pieces and sell the parts, perhaps in connection with full or even extended paper or digital editions;
- make digital books cheap, as customers twenty years ago caught on to the fact that bits don't cost as much as atoms.
Of course, that's a completely crass, bottom-line approach that sees the value in books almost exclusively in economic terms. In that sense, then, if one really wants to evolve as a publisher, one ought to consider the broader context of books and reading in society. I won't say much more here beyond suggesting to your readers that they check out the preface to the paperback edition of The Late Age of Print, where I develop these concerns at length. What does it mean, for example, that Amazon and other sellers of e-books can essentially eavesdrop while people are reading them, or delete certain titles from people's electronic libraries without their consent? There are significant ethical concerns that are too easily glossed over in the book industry's headlong rush into the digital age.