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William Hertling’s New Technothriller “Kill Switch” – Where Social Media, Freedom, Privacy, and BDSM Collide

William Hertling is the author of the award-winning novels Avogadro Corp, A.I. Apocalypse, The Last Firewall, and The Turing Exception. These near-term science-fiction novels explore the emergence of artificial intelligence, coexistence of humans and smart machines, and the impact of social reputation, technological unemployment, and other near-future issues. His last novel, Kill Process, is a technothriller about data ownership, privacy, and trust. Hertling’s novels have been called “frighteningly plausible,” “tremendous,” and “must read.” His newest thriller, Kill Switch, the sequel to Kill Process, has just been published.

I first encountered Will’s work back in 2009 when Avogadro Corp, then a novella, surfaced in my slushpile. I’d just founded Panverse Publishing and was accepting submissions for my first Science Fiction novella anthology, Panverse One. The premise — the spontaneous emergence of strong AI (aka “Technological Singularity”) from software intended to read and optimize replies to emails — was clever and convincing, and also very prescient if we look at what Google started doing some years later. But the author’s writing was rudimentary, entirely lacking in the sort of setting detail that brings fiction to life.

I was piqued enough by the idea that instead of a form rejection, I sent Will a brief email telling him that I loved the idea but the story lacked any sense of place, and felt it was taking place in a white room. I also suggested he consider expanding it into a novel.

Will not only took notice of my suggestions, but enrolled in an eight-week writing workshop to improve his craft. Three months and many revisions later, Avogadro Corp was a full-length novel.

In the years since, Will and I have become good friends, and I’m honored to work and consult with him as his developmental and copy editor. The ambitious novella I rejected has evolved into a quadrilogy, with books sold nudging the 100,000 mark, a breathtaking achievement for any author, let alone an indie, and William Hertling has become one of the best authors in the tech thriller genre. His just-released work, Kill Switch, is a tour-de-force which takes the reader on a thrilling, unexpected, and unique ride.

DC: Will, welcome, and thanks for letting me interview you.

Kill Process, the first book of this duology, was a thrilling exploration of corporate abuse of freedom and privacy. Your new novel, Kill Switch, is a compelling thriller which centers on the same broad themes of privacy and freedom but makes them deeply personal. Igloo, the main protagonist of Kill Switch, is a lesbian who practices consensual kink and BDSM with her partner, and together they decide to open their relationship to include others, a practice known as polyamory. This novel draws strong and clear parallels between Igloo’s chosen lifestyle and the far more visible issues of data privacy and an open internet. What prompted you to explore the connections between these seemingly separate worlds?

WH: I’ve always been interested in the exploration of power, especially manipulative power. This was true starting from my very first novel, Avogadro Corp, about a super-intelligent AI manipulating people by modifying their communications. And it’s been a theme of every book since, including Kill Process, which dealt with domestic abuse. One of the things that’s fascinating about the BDSM community is that they have made a practice of studying and practicing power exchange in a way that most of us encounter only rarely, and even then without conscious awareness of what is happening. I wanted to be able to tap into that collective wisdom.

At the same time, the BDSM community and polyamory community (and there is some overlap between those two) have been greatly stigmatized. As a result, all of the issues around privacy and identity and data ownership are far more keenly felt by these people than ordinary people. People can and do lose their jobs, family, and friends over exposure. It’s hard to imagine greater sensitivity to privacy. In my research, I frequently saw people taking extreme steps, akin to what Igloo and Angie do for operational security, to maintain the security and confidentiality of their own personal data.

DC: There’s a strong sense in this novel that the practice of consensual BDSM is still, for many people, a misunderstood and closeted lifestyle. Given the huge mainstream success of E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey a full seven years ago, why do you think this is still the case?

WH: There are a few reasons. First, the LGBTQ community has been pushing for acceptance in many forms for a long time, but the movement around coming out, to help reduce isolation and increase LGBTQ visibility and pride dates back to the 1980s. That’s thirty plus years of work on acceptance, and there’s still a gap compared to heteronormative standards. Seven years to make inroads into BDSM acceptance is a small blip by comparison.

Also consider the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (commonly known as DSM), Homosexuality was removed as a disorder in 1987. By comparison, BDSM wasn’t removed from the DSM until 2013. That means that up until this decade, the majority of mental health professionals were still treating BDSM as a mental health issue.

Secondly, Fifty Shades and similar material is focused primarily in titillating the reader. At best, it might help people bond over the fantasy of BDSM, but it does nothing to promote the acceptance or normalization of real-life BDSM practices.

Thirdly, even with the long struggle of the LGBTQ community for acceptance, homosexual romantic love still looks essentially like love: people often couple up, they marry, they eat breakfast together, they kiss, they make love, they walk the dog together. They do all the normal things that any couple does. I think this is part of the reason why children don’t think twice about homosexual couples. I don’t mean to take away from the uniqueness of an LGBTQ experience — I’m sure there are many nuances that are different — but the basic relationship framework is more or less the same as what you’d find in a heterosexual relationship.

By comparison, a BDSM relationship is very different and especially looks very different from the outside. Bondage, dominance and submission, sadomasochism, the rituals of BDSM — these are not found in most romantic relationships. From the outside, the naive observer might confuse what they’re seeing with some form of abuse. The road to destigmatization of kink requires much more education.

DC: That’s something I found fascinating about your novel. The BDSM relationships portrayed in Kill Switch are loving, nurturing, and playful. This is very different to the widespread image of BDSM as a brutal and perverse practice, a perception which I believe began with De Sade, was reinforced by the sensational 1960s book The Velvet Underground, and lingers today even after the success of Fifty Shades. Where’s the truth here?

WH: Relationships of all kinds, not just kinky ones, come in a broad spectrum, ranging healthy to unhealthy. At one end of the spectrum, people in a relationship enhance each other’s lives, encouraging them to flourish, and to be healthier and happier than they could be on their own. This is loving and nurturing. At the other end of the spectrum, people in a relationship can do real mental and physical harm to each other. This is brutal and perverse.

BDSM relationships are no different. BDSM itself does not make a relationship healthy or not. It’s the mental and emotional health and skills of the people who are in the relationship that dictate the health of the relationship.

Healthy BDSM relationships are characterized by a great deal of communication, including especially the identification of each person’s needs and the explicit goal of meeting each person’s needs directly or by setting up the underlying conditions to allow them to meet their needs themselves.

In particular, BDSM relationships are very playful. In fact, kinky people call the very essence of what they do playing. (To be clear, people who take a 24/7 or lifestyle approach to BDSM also do activities that fall outside the realm of play, but even these folks also have designated playtime.) How many non-kinky folks specifically make play a core part of their relationship?

DC: I know this book took you over two years to write. Reconciling such apparently disparate plot elements as privacy, a free internet, and sexual lifestyle choices — which you succeed in doing brilliantly, by the way — must have been difficult, even for an author with five previous novels under his belt. Were there times when you thought you couldn’t pull off it off? Any aha! moments you’d like to share?

WH: Oy. I’m still not sure I pulled it off. I see the connections between all the themes, but I worry about whether others will. With this book, more than any other, I still felt like there was so much more to say. For example, I wanted to convey the intersectionality of what it means to be poly and kinky and queer and a woman working in tech, but I didn’t manage to capture that on the page. And I have never felt like a greater imposter than when trying to write a scene with two women having sex. Keeping the balance between tech and relationships and kink was also a juggling act. In order to keep the book from growing without bound, I had to focus the tech a little more narrowly then I usually do. I kept the core elements of the primary tech plotline (creating a new distributed, secure Internet architecture), but I had to keep the secondary tech plot aspects (such as hacking and surveillance technology) lighter than usual to make room for additional topics.

DC: Today, privacy and a free Internet seem to be lost causes. With an entire generation with little expectation of privacy or the sense of personal freedoms which anyone over, perhaps, thirty-five grew up with now coming to maturity, do you think we have any hope of ever regaining either?

WH: Let me answer with a little anecdote.

Recently I had a really rough week. I’d broken up with my primary partner a month earlier, and was still grieving. I was home sick with a really bad cold, and because I was sick, I’d had to cancel a number of fun activities I had planned. I spent the better part of two days in bed fighting off this cold and feeling miserable.

I spent a good portion of that time chatting online and texting with a number of good friends all throughout the two days.

In the evening of the second day, a friend came by to borrow something. We spent less than an hour talking together in person. We didn’t discuss anything substantial — we just chatted about everything and nothing.

When he left, I felt much happier than when he arrived — in fact, much happier than I’d felt anytime during the previous two days. At that moment, I realized that forty-five minutes talking to someone in person had done far more for my emotional well-being than hours and hours of chatting with people online.

It was a very visceral reminder that social media and online communication is not improving our lives. We all know this. We all feel this. Real life, in-person interactions is what we’re evolved for. That’s what we need emotionally and physically.

The purpose of online tools should not become how we interact with each other, but they should instead be the minimal tools we need for planning and creating the real-life, in-person shared experiences that actually bring us true joy and happiness.

This anecdote makes me think about the Great Horse Manure Crisis, in which it was predicted that due to population growth, New York City would be buried under horse manure. They didn’t anticipate (and couldn’t have) that the invention of the automobile would challenge all of their assumptions.

Let’s come back to your question about privacy and a free Internet feeling like a lost cause. If our assumption is that our current trends in technology continue unabated, then yes, maybe privacy and a free Internet are gone. But what if the role of technology in our lives is dramatically different in ten or fifteen years? What if, like the horse manure crisis, we’re worrying about things that will be completely changed in the near future? Perhaps privacy and a free Internet will be meaningful again.

DC: As a professional programmer, Web strategist, and futurist, you’re uniquely qualified to consider the future of the Internet and the way it’s reshaped, and continues to transform, our society, thinking, and behaviour. Privacy and freedom issues aside, those of us old enough to remember the golden days of the Internet, back in the early to mid ’90s, hate that it’s become something largely indistinguishable from television. Today, the only thing resembling the freedom from advertising, tracking, and lack of corporate dominance of that early Internet is the darknet. But most users, even if they’ve heard of it, either don’t know how to access it or see it — with some justification — as a seedy underworld of illegal drug markets and hackers to be avoided. Is it time for a third net to be created? Is that even a possibility?

WH: One of the great inspirations for both Kill Process and Kill Switch is IndieWeb, the movement toward a more independent and self-owned internet. It’s a people-focused alternative to the corporate-owned web. IndieWeb is a collection of people, processes, and tools, all working together to give people control of their online presence, and the ownership of their own personal data. The darkweb is interesting from a privacy and security perspective, and it is a way to get free of the current mass government surveillance. But over the long run, I think it’s IndieWeb that is the more relevant option. Tapestry, the social network I describe in both books, is essentially what the IndieWeb would look like over the long run if it was created and funded by a truly benevolent corporate entity. But the actual IndieWeb is in many ways even more interesting because it’s being created by a loose coalition of individuals without any single leader or benevolent dictator. Anyone who wants to contribute can. Like most open source projects, they can benefit from developers, designers, writers, social media influencers. They’re building this third web right now.

That being said, IndieWeb talks about there being four generations of potential users. The first generation consists of developers, because it’s technically challenging to install and use the IndieWeb tools. The second generation consists of journalists and bloggers — people who have a considerable stakeholding in their online presence, and who are willing to invest the time and energy to benefit from IndieWeb. The third generation are people who currently run their own websites and blogs on their own personal domains. These are people who are invested enough to make those kinds of technical decisions and investments. And it’s not until we get to the fourth generation of IndieWeb users that we get to the vast bulk of people out there: users of social media like Facebook and Twitter and Instagram.

IndieWeb is currently focused on gen 1 and gen 2 users. It won’t be until the tools mature enough to be accessible to the average social media user that we’ll see IndieWeb make a serious dent in the web as we know it. My hope is that we’ll see a 10x growth in investment in IndieWeb over the next year or two. That would give it the attention, investment, and progress that it needs.

DC: Do you have any new novels planned or underway?

WH: Not yet. Most of the time when I finish a novel I have no idea what I’m going to write about next. At first that would send me into a panic. Now I’ve learned to worry less and trust more that something will come to me. I like to take a couple of months off to be creative in some other domain entirely, and then come back to writing with fresh enthusiasm.

One possible idea I might explore would be imagining what a post-social-media world might look like. One where we use technology to plan and create real-life experiences, not substitute for them.

DC: Will, thanks so very much for this fascinating discussion. I wish you every success with Kill Switch. Like Kill Process, I believe this is an important, perhaps critically important, novel that every thinking person should read. Everyone go out and buy it!

Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Kill-Switch-Chain-Book-ebook/dp/B07JLL5CP9

Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Kill-Switch-Chain-Book-ebook/dp/B07JLL5CP9

Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/William-Hertling/e/B006J8EIY6

Website: http://www.williamhertling.com/

 

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Manufactured Crisis or Thoughtful Analysis? Stay Informed Without Losing Your Mind

Some days it seems that everyone I know is stressed over what’s going on in the world. Extremely stressed. I mean, like, freaking out. Panic attacks.

This is most apparent on social media, where everyone’s fears are repeated, reinforced, and magnified in a white-knuckle crescendo of screaming feedback and hyperbole. Some of the stress is justifiable: it’s pretty clear we’re not living in the best of all possible worlds. Bad enough that we have North Korea, ISIL, almost weekly terror attacks in Europe, resurgent racism, and what looks like a new cold war starting up. Add to that an unpredictable US president with a Twitter account and a penchant for pouring gasoline on every fire he sees, and it’s hard not to be concerned.

In the last few weeks, I’ve seen many people expressing fears about everything from nuclear missile attacks vaporizing US cities to civil war in the US. Friends and acquaintances are having panic attacks, rage episodes, and experiencing chronic depression. This is hardly surprising, since the two biggest stressors in primates are lack of predictability and lack of control.

I share some of my friends’ concerns to a degree, but I’m far from depression or panic. Part of this is simply being older—I remember the Cuba missile crisis and lived in London throughout the brutal IRA bombing campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s. I’m still here, and so is almost everyone else.

Beyond that, there’s one thing I do control, and you can too: your media. That doesn’t mean not staying informed—in fact, you can be both better informed and less stressed if you want to.

First, let’s remind ourselves that it wasn’t always like this. The 24/7 news cycle began in 1980, when Ted Turner’s CNN first came on the air. Before that, the news cycle was a daily one, beginning with the newspaper, and the same applied to the evening news on network TV. CNN was a game-changer: suddenly news was breaking 24/7, and anything even remotely newsworthy stood a good chance of being magnified for impact.

It’s important to understand the power of the visual medium in humans, who are primarily visual creatures (unlike, say, dogs, who get the vast majority of their information through their sense of smell).

Accordingly, a dramatic news item presented as video—a CCTV clip of a car mowing down innocent pedestrians, say—has infinitely higher emotional impact on the viewer than if they read the same item in textual form. Repeat that image over and over, and the impact on the audience is multiplied. Anyone who watched network news daily at the time of the 9/11 attacks probably saw the twin towers coming down at least scores of times, and probably several hundred: the networks played them over and over and over. For weeks. Months.

When Marshall McLuhan, back in 1964, wrote, “The medium is the message”,1 he wasn’t joking. The medium in which content is delivered shapes the content and the way it affects society in ways that are often unforeseen.

I haven’t watched TV news in almost thirty years. I have for many years listened to the BBC and NPR news on radio, and for the last decade mostly online, but in the last year or so I’ve mostly ditched that too.

How do I stay informed? I read. I read good news sources that report accurate, factual news—and, no, there’s no debate over what that is. (If you’re someone who believes the alt-right and president Trump’s definitions of “fake news”—or for that matter think Occupy Democrats and Addicting Info are credible news sources—you really shouldn’t waste your time reading this post. You’re not going to be convinced, and there’s a good chance I’ll can your comment: it’s my blog and my op-ed.)

I happened to be born with news media in my veins. My father was a celebrated, first-rank journalist, and I had a clear grasp of media accountability and the importance of credible sources before I was ten. Nine or ten newspapers were delivered daily to our house, and a number of news and current affairs weeklies, from Time Magazine to The Economist, as well as several Italian and French publications, were always to hand.

Now here’s the point. Television and radio news are push media: what that means is that the newsroom determines the hierarchy of importance of each item or topic and pumps them at you in a steady stream: you can’t just dip in and grab what interests you or what you consider important. Moreover, TV news has to be both sensational and simplified enough to keep the largest possible audience riveted: it’s fueled by advertising dollars, and airtime is very costly.

Text, on the other hand, is a pull medium: you can scan, determine what matters to you, and read just that; moreover, you can usually go and read more on that same subject in depth elsewhere. Lacking dramatic video imagery and manipulative voice tone, text media is much closer to sterile than visual or audio. Articles may of course carry spin or falsehoods, but selecting good sources addresses that.

Here’s a handy graph which compares news sources. The vertical axis defines journalistic quality; the horizontal, partisan bias. On the whole, I think it’s very accurate.

News Source Graphic

image too small? click here to enlarge

Another upside of text is that it’ll leave you better-informed. A four-minute radio piece—about the length of most items on NPR, undoubtedly one of the best news sources in the world—is perhaps 600 words. That’s not much, about the length of a typical blog post;2 you can barely scratch the surface. By contrast, the average length of a NYT article is around 1,200 words. Publications that take analysis really seriously, such as The Economist and The Atlantic Monthly, run some articles up into the several thousand-word range.

It’s true that readers’ attention spans are diminishing, and many people won’t take the ten minutes or so required to read a 1,200-word article. And the fact that everything is powered by the advertising makes it even more likely that newsroom editors, even in gold-standard publications, will be tempted to trim analysis and background material from articles.3

So: get your information fix from image-rich, emotionally manipulative push media, or pick your topics at leisure from in-depth, thoughtful, and less strident text media? Anxiety attacks or informed consideration?

The choice is yours. And there’s always antidepressants, right?

 

Notes

1  Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan (Signet, 1966)

2 Most of my posts on this blog, and when I guest post elsewhere, are usually in the 1,200-1,500-word range—that’s how long it takes to dig a little into a subject.

3 https://www.theguardian.com/media-network/2015/jul/15/tldr-quartz-associated-press-article-length

Thanks due to Vanessa Otero for her wonderful graphic comparing news sources. Check out her excellent blog here

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Poorly Served: The Upside-Down World of Dining Out and Shopping in America

It’s not easy being a cultural transplant.

After almost three decades in the US, one thing in particular still makes me gibber and foam at the mouth: the absolutely awful service in stores, and especially restaurants.

Say, what? Let me explain.

I’ll be in a store — a supermarket, say — and deeply focused on my mission. I have a list, either on paper or in memory.  I’m juggling menus and selections in my head. I may be examining tomatoes, considering their ripeness because the recipe I intend to use them in is three days away, and I want them perfect then.

And from behind me, a complete stranger asks me how I’m doing today, not only startling me but also totally disrupting my chain of thought.

Or the restaurant where I’m deep in conversation with my wife or a friend, and every five minutes either the waitperson will interrupt us to ask how everything is, or some poor wretch tries to refill my water glass every time I take a sip. Worst of all is the breathtakingly inconsiderate habit of starting to bus our plates before everyone is finished, on the pretext of “let me get these out of your way, sir.”

You moron! Go away! They’re not in my way, and my wife hasn’t even finished her meal!

Okay, I’ve never called anyone a moron yet, but I have told water-bringers to “go away and never come back.” For real. And, yes, I like to linger with my empty plate, to adjust and tinker with the carefully-positioned utensils laying across it as we chat and refill our wineglasses. It makes me feel I’m not being rushed. What’s the damned hurry?

Why do I get so bothered over this? Because I’m European. I come from a place where a diner’s chief priority isn’t wolfing down their food and getting out of a restaurant in twenty minutes. Where sharing a meal is something to be enjoyed, a chance to be unwind and bond and connect with one another. Where once you sit at a table, it’s yours until you’re ready to go. Where people aren’t coerced into hiding their real feelings behind a corporate mask of bland niceness and fake solicitousness.

I’m sure the waitstaff at restaurants and the people who stock the shelves in the supermarkets are often wonderful people, but I don’t go there to have a social experience with them: I have friends for that. And greeting a shopper when you’re not even in their field of vision isn’t merely annoying, it’s downright creepy! (Trader Joe’s, where all the staff are under substantial pressure to be full of puppy-dog good cheer, has an especially bad problem, as revealed in this NYT piece).

I don’t care what my restaurant waitperson’s name is. I just want them to bring my food while it’s still hot (a particularly challenging item in the US, especially with soup), and leave me to enjoy my meal in peace. Why must they waste our time and confuse us by reciting an endless list of specials in mind-numbing detail which we’ll all forget two seconds after they finish? Surely the restaurant has a computer and printer, and could just slip a sheet of paper listing the specials into the menu like they once used to. Is the management  under the illusion that we’ll find it a bonding experience and like the place better? It’s nuts.

Look, good service isn’t intrusive — it’s discreet and invisible. Waitstaff and store employees should be around and available when you need them and stay out of the way when you don’t. Pestering people, interrupting them, interrogating them…none of this is good service. It’s pretend, flummery, stagecraft. Sadly, these are core American values. (Discuss.)

The same goes for clothing, household, and other stores. I understand acknowledging the customer as they walk in to let them know staff is aware of their presence in case they’re thinking of shoplifting. But if — as happened to me in the lovely Huntington Museum gift shop just a few weeks ago —  four different people come up to me in the course of ten minutes to ask if I need help, I just walk. Usually after telling them why, and sometimes handing them the item I had intended to buy until they shattered the last of my dwindling patience.

Once or twice I’ve sought out the manager in a supermarket and told them that the smiling attempts to catch my eye, the repeated greetings, and the dreaded, “did you find everything okay?” at the checkout are excessive. When pushed, they’ll mumble that they and their staff hate it too, but head office makes them do it. And head office is probably getting that advice from some consultancy firm or guru, for which advice we, of course, are ultimately paying.

Service industry protocols in this country are upside down. It’s like living in a sick mirror universe, and there’s not much one can do about it. When my wife and I go into a restaurant these days, I’ve taken to telling the waitperson, nicely and right up front, that we’re not in a hurry, want the food to come slow, and don’t want to be bussed before we’re ready. They nod and smile and seem to get it. And yet four out of five times the result is no different.

So does anyone actually enjoy all these forced interactions and interruptions? Or am I simply legend?

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Notes From an Alien Shore

A few weeks ago I happened to ask two friends a question that had been on my mind a good deal lately. Both conversations went very much like this (I’ll call the friends “X” for simplicity):

ME: “Do you ever wonder what we are? What we really are?”

X: <Silence/blank stare>

ME: “I mean, think about it. We’re not our bodies, that’s obvious. But we’re not our minds, either, that’s just the organ that does the thinking. A Christian would use the word “soul”, but that just raises more questions, as does the notion that we’re a splinter of some kind of supreme being. So what are we?”

X: Honestly, I try not to think about that sort of thing.

Admittedly, two people is a narrow sample. But that fact that two intelligent, thoughtful friends should give me exact, identical answers really made me think.

I ask myself questions like the one above all the time. Questions of existence, of reality, time and space, life and death, meaning and ethics, good and evil; questions of everything that concerns our existence and what it means to be human…these occupy my thinking for large parts of every day. Metaphysics matters.

I also have a quirk in that I tend to consider everything from basic principles, taking little on trust or as given. So much of what we’re taught or presented with is false, biased, or founded on incomplete and/or sloppy assumptions that anyone interested in investigating the real must go back to the beginning or risk building on sand, or shaky foundations at best.

Moreover, to see reality at its clearest, I believe it’s critical to be free of any and all ideologies, especially political or religious belief. The moment you assume an ideology or a belief system is the moment you stop seeing reality as it is, but begin instead to filter it through the lens of your ideology, to try to make the actual territory of the real match your map. As someone once put it, “we see the world not as it is, but as we are.” So the answer is to just not be as anything—be you, a naked flame of being with no philosophy or ideology. Simply observe and think.

I do this with everything. When I was a decorative painter—a career I pursued with considerable success for twenty-five years—I took no classes but taught myself everything about colour, materials, and technique from scratch. Once I’d mastered the basics, I looked for new ways to achieve certain effects, as well as creating an array of paint effects nobody had ever seen. I mixed most of my own materials rather than buying off-the-shelf. The result was that within a decade or so I’d not only mastered the craft and was in high demand, but the look of my finishes was entirely different to the generic, cookie-cutter “faux painting” that my many competitors were practicing. This gave me a huge edge.

More recently, I’ve taken a similar approach with writing, approaching the craft from the standpoint of what works and gets results, and eschewing the mountains of stupid, fashionable rules and diktats endlessly touted at writers’ workshops and on countless blogs and Twitter feeds. Of course it’s important to know these “rules”, and a small minority of them are useful, even vital; the rest just need to be buried and forgotten.

It always struck me as odd that people talk about reinventing the wheel as though it were a waste of time—nothing could be further from the truth. Sometimes you invent a better wheel; sometimes you come up with something that makes the wheel like as useless as a bag of rocks.

On a related note, we were recently given a bag full of DVDs of new and recent TV shows by an actor friend; apparently these things are passed around to people in the Screen Actors Guild so that they may consider them when dvds2-crop-smvoting for Emmy nominations. The shows include a wide variety of stuff, from The History Channel to offerings from Amazon, from American Crime to Portlandia; the last three episodes of Mad Men are in there, as well as the whole mini-series of Wolf Hall (a historical about Henry VIII, and the only one of any interest to me).

Since I don’t watch any TV at all, the huge majority of these were new to me. After enjoying Wolf Hall, we attempted some of the others, like an episode of Mad Men, and now, American Crime.

In trying to understand what people get out of TV shows like these, I’m thrown back to the gulf I sense when trying to discuss existential truths that concern me deeply only to discover that people I care for and respect would rather just not go there. I feel—and I suspect many writers will share this feeling—as though I’m living among aliens, where I barely grasp the parameters of the society and what makes it tick.

Is it even possible to understand why people behave the way they do without buying in to pop culture? Sometimes when I see people talk (and certainly when they argue), it seems to me that rather than processing and responding with thought and intelligently, they’ve learned to interact with others from TV soaps, and are just throwing out stock phases, learned reactions, mannerisms, expressions, postures. No wonder the world is the mess it is.

Why, for instance, would any sane person want to watch something like “American Crime”, which is so drenched in realism that no shred of escapism or joy is left to the viewer, so that the only possible reaction one is left with is to just end it all now? The question baffles me.

And don’t get me started on reality shows or celebrity chef contests. What possible pleasure anyone can take in watching real people put in often humiliating conflict situations, subjected to extreme stress, and then publicly defeated or even ridiculed, I can’t imagine. The Roman games were at least honest.

Fnally, take a simple predictive Google search. The trending popular searches which flash up as you click in the box are almost invariably to do with celebrities, sports, TV shows, or something so mind-numbingly banal as to leave me shaking my head. It’s glaringly obvious that the overwhelming majority of us aren’t much preoccupied with the mysteries of existence.

I am, it seems, legend. Perhaps I’m not even real.

Are you?

 

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The road Most Traveled: Good Intentions, Catastrophic Results

A Federal judge has just ordered Apple to unlock the phone used by one of the two San Bernardino shooters so it could access the phone’s records. Apple’s CEO Tim Cook has said the company will fight the order, stating that it has neither the ability to bypass its own strong encryption and that this would set a dangerous precedent. Although I’m not an Apple user, I’m 100% with the company on this and applaud their decision.

The question here is a simple one of the road to hell. It all begins, as usual, with good intentions: we want to stop terrorism. But as Apple CEO Tim Cook said, “building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a back door. And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control.”

Yet we continue to jog blissfully into an Orwellian future in which the state (the UK is no different) not only insists but has also persuaded a good many of its citizens that their lives are in dire and imminent danger from foreign threats, and that any violation of privacy or individual freedoms is secondary to fighting that threat. Politicians of course make huge capital on this, and the media does nothing to bring some perspective and reality to the actual real threats to our daily lives, which for most people are to do with poor education, debt, poverty, ill health, unaffordable housing, the criminal cost of healthcare, and long-term insecurity—not terrorism.

The US has been in a state of perpetual war for over thirteen years, and continues to be. Its misguided foreign policy actions have destabilized a huge region of the world by trying to impose Western notions of government on nations utterly ill-equipped to embrace democracy (you have to have an Enlightenment before you can consider democracy, and when you still think tribally, corruption and self-interest are going to quickly corrode and ruin any attempt at forging a new state).

Saddam was undoubtedly a brute, and Bashir-al Assad (still in power today) not much better; Gaddafi was mercurial and unreliable. But although some individuals and/or sections of those societies were persecuted during these leaders’ rule, the vast majority of people in Iraq, Syria, and Libya had jobs, food, and a reasonable, often happy and secure standard of living. Today they’re straggling across Europe by the millions like beggars, taking handouts and desperately looking for places to settle—and that’s if they haven’t drowned in the Aegean or Meduterranean after having been fleeced by a whole new class of local criminals our good intentions have benefited: people smugglers. In the process, the rest of Europe is being destabilized.

I fully understand that government has a primary mandate and responsibility to keep its people safe. But in reality, the risk from terrorism is infinitesimally small: if you live in the USA, your chance of dying in a terrorist attack is about 5,000 times less than that of being shot by a US citizen (and even that’s not something that keeps most of us awake at night). The simple act of getting on a plane has already become a tedious, time-wasting hell despite the fact that study after study has shown TSA checks to be up to ninety-five percent ineffective at detecting threats. If you live in a city, your actions while out in public are already recorded on countless cameras; your cellphone and the plastic in your wallet provide extra layers of tracking and monitoring. But government insists it needs a further backdoor into everyone’s lives, and argues tooth and nail that any level of  inconvenience and curtailment of individual privacy and liberty is justifiable.

Every day we see evidence of how the well-intentioned use of electronic records ruins lives. The undiscriminating and poorly-thought-out register of sex offenders is one: is it—to take just one example—really okay that because an eighteen-year-old had consensual sex with a seventeen-year-old, he should be viewed as a sexual predator in the same data bucket as a child molester? How many of my readers didn’t have underage sex of one kind or another in their high school or college days? And let’s not even talk of the teens whose lives have been upset by the (silly, but, hey! these are kids) practice of sexting one another.

The argument of course is that an honest citizen has nothing to fear from all this. Really? Try telling that to someone who’s been accidentally put on a no-fly list because of some data entry error or some other innocent reason (it happens). And although China’s new Social Credit System—a data-driven rating system similar to our own credit rating systems but with the emphasis on your status and trustworthiness as a citizen—isn’t likely to be replicated in the US  anytime soon, the reality is that all kinds of aggregated data, including your online browsing and shopping habits, are already finding their way into databases that can affect your ability to rent a home, get a job, obtain credit, and a great deal more.

Nor is it just government. PayPal has just clamped down on allowing account holders to use its system to pay for VPN (virtual private network) subscriptions, presumably on the grounds that VPNs, which are used to mask a user’s real computer identity (IP address), may be used for terrorist communication or other illicit activity. What about the many hundreds of thousands of people who use VPN for entirely legitimate activities such as researching sensitive subjects (journalists do this all the time), getting around censorship in countries under authoritarian rule, or simply  avoiding being tracked by advertisers. (PayPal are of course doing this not out of any noble motives but simply to forestall any possible future heat from government over enabling the masking of criminal communications).

Consider the slew of new voice- and audio enabled devices that are appearing in your home, like the Amazon Echo, which “hears you from across the room with far-field voice recognition, even with music playing”: do you really want that in your house? Even if it doesn’t come with a backdoor or a camera, what do we think happens to all the data it collects about our and our family’s daily habits? You don’t think that’s mined? Increasingly sophisticated AI can do that with ease and extract every ounce of commercially  valuable information about us.

You’ve already been carrying around a tracking device (your phone) for years. Within the very, very near future, your home is going to be bursting with microphone- and camera- equipped devices which are all connected to the net as part of the IoT, or Internet of Things. If you’re not concerned about this, you should be. Quite apart from any government surveillance, just about anyone can hack in to these devices. For a single, chilling example, the camera on the monitor in your childrens’ room is ridiculously easy to hack, its IP address quite possibly already on a website. Think about it.

Everything—everything—that takes place in your home and car will—unless tech companies hold a hard line, and good luck with that one—be available on production of a court order. Right now the bar is terrorism; but other, more everyday, criminal activities will soon qualify. How long before all that data becomes available to your ex’s divorce lawyer? What if your current prospective employers can one day gain access to the data mined from these devices? Because you can bet that it’s all going to be for sale, legally or otherwise. And don’t forget that security on the current IoT is just about non-existent (this is in fact a big concern with self-driving cars, which can currently be hacked with such ease that a person with a laptop can take control over the car with very little difficulty from anywhere in the world).

In conclusion, I believe that tech companies have an absolute responsibility to protect the rights and privacy of their customers at every level. Not only should devices not come with a backdoor, ever, but every possible measure should be taken to ensure that networked devices, from our phones to our cars, refrigerators, baby monitors, and home thermostats are protected against intrusion and hacking by strong encryption and security measures. The emphasis and primary focus should be on the inviolability of the consumers’ privacy and individual rights. And we should demand that of them.

After all, it is we, and our hard-earned dollars, that have made Apple, Google, and Amazon what they are today.

 

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The Lockdown of Boston

“The return of terrorism to the U.S.”, was a phrase used on NPR today, as the city of Boston was literally locked down by the authorities.

The return of terror? Two young nutcases with low-tech bombs?

I don’t for a moment want to minimize the horror of what happened in Boston. Moreover—as an Englishman who lived in London all through the murderous IRA terror campaign of the 1970s and 1980s—I’m relieved to see just how robust and solidly the people of Boston reacted to the event. My personal fear when the bombing occurred was that, just like after 9/11, this media-saturated nation so unused to terrorist attacks on its own soil would go into a tailspin of fear, bringing the fragile economic recovery to a screeching halt. Instead, Bostonians were out on the streets the next day, laying wreaths at the bomb site and vowing not to be cowed.

Today, the streets of Boston are deserted except for thousands—no exaggeration—of heavily-armed police, FBI, and other authorities looking for the surviving mad bomber. A major metropolitan area locked down to find one nineteen-year-old.

I usually don’t believe in second-guessing police and intelligence forces—they have a phenomenally difficult  job to do, and typically do it pretty well. The decision to lock down the city, shut down transport (not to mention cutting off cellphone service immediately after the bombings)… I can’t imagine these decisions were made lightly.

On the other hand, I think we might consider whether this isn’t (i) overreaction, and (ii) a sinister, Orwellian glimpse of a post 9/11 security state in full action.  My point being that this is one individual at loose here, not a platoon of terrorists. One kid—admittedly armed and desperate, possible even carrying explosives—but still, one kid.

What kind of message does the willingness on the part of the authorities to shut down a city to hunt down one single person send? We can glimpse some of the reasoning: doing this might save lives, prevent a hostage event, make it much harder for the killer to flee…but still, is this a proportionate reaction? Or does it project an image of hysteria, amplifying an already tragic event and—with the all-too-eager help of the news media—turning it into a full-blown national crisis which will rock the nation’s already-fragile psyche? Now this precedent has been set, we can expect it to happen again.

I read not long ago that one of the morbid calculations that regulatory bodies have to make is the dollar value of a human life—a necessity when trying to decide whether to, say, build a pedestrian overpass, ban a chemical, etc.; in short, a cost-benefit analysis. Just a few years ago, that figure—the dollar value of a life—had been determined at around $8M; with the recession, it’s dropped to something closer to $6M, I believe.

Now let’s consider what it costs to shut down a city like Boston for a day. The business and production lost, the damage to personal incomes, etc. I can’t imagine it’s anything less than many billions of dollars. So in terms of pure cost-benefit, locking down the city seems a non-starter.

I can only think, then, that this has been done for two reasons: first to reduce the chances of the killer getting away to as near zero possible; and second, to send a message that the authorities will stop at nothing to catch anyone who commits an act of this sort.

These last are very powerful arguments, and I both understand and applaud them; I know for sure I wouldn’t ever want to make a decision like that. Still and all, I can’t help but feel that it sets a terrible precedent and—worse—underscores the idea that we’re all in danger, all the time, now that “terrorism has returned to the U.S.”. I think the authorities over-reacted.

If terrorism is ever to be defeated, it won’t be because of the application of overwhelming force by the state: it’ll be by people, by individuals, by every single one of us refusing to be cowed, refusing to live in fear. If they blow up a plane, get on a flight the next day; if they bomb a subway car, get on the subway; if they destroy a building, rebuild it taller, and don’t be ten years over it. And let’s stop dignifiying them with the name “terrorist”—these people are, and have always been, mad bombers, no more.

Terror is a state of mind.

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Why We CAN’T All Get Along

A couple of days ago, as the US Supreme Court prepared to visit the interminably vexed question of gay marriage, I had an interesting exchange of views with a Facebook friend I deeply respect, Michael Potts, Professor of Philosophy at Methodist University in Fayetteville, N.C.  A Christian of a powerful intellectual bent, Michael expressed the view that “we can’t go on the way we’re going without the culture war turning into something more than a metaphor”, and that the eventual solution might be a move towards setting up semi-autonomous communities of like-minded individuals.

The same idea—taken a bit further—has been floated by a number of individuals, including some libertarian billionaires. Their proposals essentially envision de facto city-states with their own governments and laws, sometimes with the goal of creating tech hubs just outside US territorial waters so as to circumvent the US visa requirements which are increasingly threatening to put a brake on a strongly resurgent tech industry. Other groups driven more by ideals than business considerations just think it would be really cool to experiment with new types of social order, and I confess the idea holds great allure. Most of these ideas involve seasteading, the locating of these new communities on manmade islands or even simply recycled oil rig platforms.

There are strong arguments both ways. At the same time as I think our only hope as a society, even as a species, is to learn to compromise, reach accommodations, and work together with a shared vision, it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that this is a lost cause. It seems to me that conflict and struggle are so deeply hardwired into our primate psyche that there isn’t a hope in hell—absent forced external tampering or thought control, and none of us want that—of ever resolving our deepest differences. Not, at least, within a pluralist, democratic system, and least of all within a dog-eat-dog capitalist society with free speech and free media. And we know how well the alternatives worked.

I remember back in the early oughts talking to some fellow who was worried about the “black helicopters” and the UN’s “New World Order,” a popular right-wing meme about the Antichrist forcing free nations into a single world government. I pointed out that the maps of Eastern Europe were being redrawn every few months, it seemed, in the wake of the collapse of communism, and that the exact opposite was happening, with people everywhere who’d been welded together under strongmen like Tito wanting instead to secede and govern themselves.

The internet has of course added fuel to this particular fire, both directly and indirectly, with traditional media forced to ratchet up controversy and partisanship to compete for a shrinking audience. And while I—an extreme social liberal on many issues—would like to think that we can reach accords on the issues that divide us, and daily hear Rodney King’s impassioned words, I know the chances of this ever happening are close to zero.

The irony perhaps is that while we of social liberal or true libertarian bent (as opposed to the neo-libertarian conservatives) are willing to let others live the way they want and not impose our ideals on them or dictate their lifestyles, it’s just about impossible for a devoted Christian to take that stance. Much as it drives me nuts, I refuse to take the easy way out of the rabid atheist and absolutely dismiss their worldview. While deep religious faith  may to me be at best a comforting crutch and at worst delusional,  to others it’s part of who they are. And you can’t demand respect without giving it, however grudgingly. We can disagree with someone without making them the enemy.

In conclusion, I’m going to quote Christian White, one of the protagonists of my recent thriller, “Sutherland’s Rules,” who finds himself pondering these same issues in the hills of Afghanistan after a narrow brush with death, and has just been reassured by an Afghan friend that “God is good”:

There were times when he’d have given body parts for real faith, for the comfort and unburdening it would bring. As a consequence, he thought about faith a lot, to the point where sometimes he felt downright stalked by God, as if God really needed him to believe, wanted his pathetic soul.

But try as he might, whatever powerful feelings he might have in the throes of fear and need (and didn’t everyone have those? Didn’t finding yourself in a foxhole turn everyone into a believer?), he couldn’t overcome his rational doubts. And you couldn’t fake these things, couldn’t fake belief. Oh, he knew plenty of half-assed believers, people who used church as a social club and mouthed religion as a good gambler might hedge a bet, and they seemed content enough. Not him. You didn’t try faith on like a pair of shoes, walk around in them a while to see if they fit before committing. If it wasn’t genuine and from the heart, it was hollow. And any God worth believing in would see through that.

Yeah, we’re never going to get along. It might well be time to experiment with some new social structures, because the current ones, and maybe even the whole edifice of western democracy, is threatening to burst at the seams. Expect a strong backlash from governments when the first city-states become viable.

Your comments are welcome.


Related

Floating semi-autonomous communities

My own earlier post about tolerance and America’s culture wars

Michael Potts’s excellent, thoughtful blog  (As a sample, check out this terrific post in which he addresses Christian misconceptions about Goth culture )

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