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a man slumped on his desk, from 'The Sleep of Reason Produces



Archive for the ‘Society’ Category


geek old semi-formal

I love this articleby Christine Peterson about her coinage of the term “open source”, not just for the story (which I’d known about, but never heard in detail), but for the tone of the piece. It’s written in what I generally think of as “Geek Old Semi-formal”: this precise, slightly low-affect, somewhat wry tone that seeks to depict the maximum number of factual points, in a simple but almost shockingly accurate way.

In pretty much everything I’ve done, I’ve fought with the hellish triangle of being readable, entertaining, and truthful. Sometimes you end up flexing the absolute clinical truth for one of the others: for instance, I don’t really “generally think” of Christine’s tone as “Geek Old Semi-Formal”. I just made that term up on the spot. I didn’t quite confess that earlier, because it sounded funnier to imply I’ve used this name, even just internally, for years.

Compared to just describing the tone flatly,  I did very mildly better on the entertaining axis (at least in my own mind), probably just as readably, but really not as true. (It was also easier to write — because a term like that is actually exactly what I need for a title. Great, I’ll paste that into the title box up there, and maybe that will become the hook for others who reblog this.)

Anyway, where was I? Right: so, actually honest documents are rare, mostly unentertaining and largely unreadable. We rarely optimise for the absolute truth, because either one of “readable” or “entertaining” is more immediately valued, and rewarded.

Geek Old Semi-Formal is readable and true, at the expense of some of the fripperies of language that we associate with entertaining speech. It’s this beautiful upgrade of technical writing to convey conversation, stories, anecdotes, and the communal trivialities of our lives.

As part of my Plan 9 binge (did I tell you about my Plan 9 binge?), I’ve been reading lots of old Unix papers, which all aspire to this style. As the New York Times said in its obituary of Dennis Ritchie:

Colleagues who worked with Mr. Ritchie were struck by his code — meticulous, clean and concise. His writing, according to Mr. Kernighan, was similar. “There was a remarkable precision to his writing,” Mr. Kernighan said, “no extra words, elegant and spare, much like his code.”

I don’t want to say that computer geeks got this from Kernighan; I think that there’s a wide set of folks involved in factual-seeking professions and hobbies that hold similar aspirations, and end up admiring and adopting the same style.

Cover of MICRO Magazine

This morning, I opened a mystery package delivered by the “browsing ebay auctions at 3AM”-fairy. It was a paper copy of this February 1980 issue  of MICRO: The 6502 Magazine purchased for reasons of unstoppable nocturnal nostalgia.

I think even the august editors of MICRO would concede that the writing skills of its contributors were pretty variable. The year 1980 seems to be a seller’s market for 6502 periodical literature: There’s a full-page advert pretty much begging for people to write articles. (They’re paying $50-$100 a page, too, if you want to go back in time.) But for me, that variability is just a great opportunity to watch the Geek Old Semi-Formal style fail and crumble in different ways. The feigned jocularity! The laundry lists! The science paper formalism! I won’t point fingers, but you can flick through this copy of MICRO to see for yourself the rich panoply of Geek Old stylings.

It’s also a style I really have come to enjoy in face-to-face interactions too. There’s just something deeply comforting about sitting and talking slowly and precisely with someone, each of you carefully constructing entirely accurate sentences with little overall variation in tone or pace. Especially by contrast to the usual chit-chat of slapdashing word-sounds together and slinging them out your mouth in order to fill time and show off, between gurning physical expressions  and uncontrollable emotional explosions.

Not that it doesn’t also work for emotions, too. I think of all the times someone I know has flatly, compactly and desperately clearly conveyed their experiences: remaining calm, grammatical and short-sentenced even as the tears stream down their face, and their life fell apart.

I wonder, too, why I associate it with older geeks (older than me, for sure). It smacks a little of the repressed-fifties model of male scientist, though I don’t think of it as entirely gendered; in real life, it seems as strange on men as women. And I see people younger than me adopting it, often comically until they get it right. It’s definitely a bit on-the-spectrum—but I’m not on-the-spectrum and I use it, and aspire to it.

Well, now I’ve felt it so strongly in Christine’s great piece, I’ll start looking for it more, in words and in conversation. And now I have a name to call it!







On the Thoughts of Chairman Bruce

So I’m reading the latest missive from Chairman Bruce Sterling about Snowden and Assange, and even though I have some history with the guy, I’m clapping along, because he always writes a fine barnstormer.

Then, like Cory, I get pulled up by this bit. He’s reeling off a list of names, from 7iber to Bytes For All. I recognise them. They’re a list of activist groups I work with. The names are from a project I’m working on.

This what he says about those groups, in passing:

Just look at them all, and that’s just the A’s and B’s… Obviously, a planetary host of actively concerned and politically connected people. Among this buzzing horde of eager online activists from a swarm of nations, what did any of them actually do for Snowden? Nothing.

Before Snowden showed up from a red-eye flight from Hawaii, did they have the least idea what was actually going on with the hardware of their beloved Internet? Not a clue. They’ve been living in a pitiful dream world where their imaginary rule of law applies to an electronic frontier — a frontier being, by definition, a place that never had any laws.

Well, let’s go through the Chairman’s list alphabetically, and see if they have any excuse for their lack of aid and woeful ignorance about the electronic frontier.

First on the list, 7iber works in Amman, Jordan. 7iber is so politically-connected that their own government banned them last month from Jordan’s domestic Internet. I’m not sure reaching out to them was ever going to nab Snowden a safe harbor in the Middle-East. Probably the opposite: after all, they were were one of the groups translating Wikileaks into Arabic back in 2010, which didn’t exactly endear them to the local states.

Next up, Access. Access has a base in the United States, where aiding Snowden would get you hauled in for questioning on an espionage charge. I note they’ve been in such “a pitiful dream world” about the rule of law they spent a sizeable chunk of the last few years campaigning (with EFF and CPJ and many others) to get https turned on for a huge chunk of the Internet, thereby protecting it — I’m sure entirely accidentally — from unlawful NSA taps. You know, the ones that EFF has been telling people about since 2006.

Similarly, must be incredibly ignorant about the surveillance state, given that it’s been investigating and whistleblowing on the Russian and American security service for 13 years. Enough to be detained and questioned several times by Russia’s secret police.

But hey, that’s just words on the Internet, right? What we really need is less of that online guff, and more direction action, right? Like our next witness, Aktion Freiheit statt Angst, who have been protesting surveillance in Germany since 2006, when they inspired 15,000 people onto the streets of Berlin.

Maybe you can explain to them how they can better make the security state a bigger issue in Germany this year on September 7th, at Potsdamerplatz. I can’t imagine any of those people will be agitating for better treatment for Bradley Manning or Snowden this year.

Moving on: here’s a pic from those NGO types at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.

That’s the back of Nabeel Rajab. He sort of knows a little about the surveillance state, because his electronic communications and phones were monitored after receiving this beating from the Bahraini government.He’s been imprisoned in part for his work on social networks.

Besides the imprisonment of Rajab, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights in general also has some idea about the risks of Internet surveillance, because elevenother  twitter users in that country have been jailed because of anonymous tweets that were tracked by sending them malicious web addresses. Here’s their detailed report. Note that that particular report ends with an explanation of how you can defeat that kind of surveillance. You know, apart from that delusional rule of law.

Wrapping up those As and Bs, Bolo Bhi and Bytes for All are both conducting the most sustained and brilliant work I’ve seen in advocacy, fighting against surveillance and censorship in one of the countries most determinedly targeted by both its own government and the United States for anti-terrorist action: Pakistan.

The idea that these groups, who are fighting to keep the Internet defended in their own country, are supposed to drop their grassroots activism and start, I don’t know, hob-nobbing the people they are actively opposing in their own states to get Snowden a break, or have any illusions about the rule of law on the Internet right now, betrays a profound misunderstand about what digital activists actually do these days.

Online activists these days do policy work, but they do a lot more than that. They have to do a lot more than that, because these days what we do in the “electronic civ lib” world is actually defend real people targetted by this surveillance. It’s been like that since around about 2008, when all of this deeply stopped being theoretical. Because it’s around that time that we all started getting friends and colleagues on government watchlists, or getting thrown in jail as a result of surveillance or Internet activity.

And it’s weird that Bruce doesn’t know that things got this weird five years ago, because ten years ago, he predicted at least part of it. Here’s how another of his barnstormers, this time in 2002, to the O’Reilly Open Source Convention.

In times of adversity, you learn who your friends are. You guys need a lot of friends. You need friends in all walks of life. Pretty soon, you are going to graduate from the status of techie geeks to official dissidents. This is your fate. People are wasting time on dissident relics like Noam Chomsky. Professor Chomsky is a pretty good dissident: he’s persistent, he means what he says, and he’s certainly very courageous, but this is the 21st century, and Stallman is a bigger deal. Lawrence Lessig is a bigger deal.

Y’know, Lawrence, he likes to talk as if all is lost. He thinks we ought to rise up against Disney like the Serbians attacking Milosevic. He expects the population to take to the streets. Fuck the streets. Take to the routers. Take to the warchalk.

Lawrence needs to talk to real dissidents more. He needs to talk to some East European people. When a crackdown comes, that isn’t the end of the story. That’s the start of a dissident’s story. And this isn’t about fat-cat crooks in our Congress who are on the take from the Mouse. This is about global civil society. It’s Globalution.

Okay, that’s a bit over the top, even for a 2002 O’Reilly audience. But hey, a classic Sterling coinage! It’s “globalution”!

In the end, it wasn’t Lessig who got cracked down on by the US government. Ridiculous idea! No, it was his colleague, Aaron. Here they are at the time. They were both at that conference. Aaron left early, and so I think he missed that speech.  He blogged about it though.

Bruce continues:

I like to think I’m one of your friends. That’s easy enough to say. But one of the true delights of the world of free software is that it’s about deeds, not words. It’s about words that become deeds when they’re in the box.

So, I remember when the Bradley Manning story broke. Here’s Bruce’s words (and deeds) at the time, when the techie geek finally and horribly graduated to official dissident:

Bradley Manning, was a bored, resentful, lower-echelon guy in a dead end, who discovered some awesome capacities in his system that his bosses never knew it had… [People just like Manning] are banal. Bradley Manning is a young, mildly brainy, unworldly American guy who probably would have been pretty much okay if he’d been left alone to skateboard, read comic books and listen to techno music.


In 1998, I was one of a handful of fresh-faced newly-minted cypherpunk activists in the UK, trying ineptly to stop the roller-coaster of the UK’s Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (and in particular the bit that would outlaw strong encryption in the UK) from being passed.

Doing this kind of tech activism outside the United States was, and frankly still is, a little frustrating. Whenever there was any story about our corner of the political universe — digital wiretaps, online censorship, public key cryptography — it always seemed to be about what was happening in the US, and not the rest of the world. Back then, I felt we needed the US media and policy space to pay attention to our fight: because we felt, very strongly, it was a global fight.

One day, we saw that Bruce Sterling was coming into town for a book reading, and we thought: here’s our chance. Like good Nineties digital activists, we’d all read our Hacker Crackdown, and knew he might be a friend in getting some rip-roaring coverage in the heart of the beast. After horribly hijacking him from what looked a nice literary meal, we took him to heroin-chic dive bar in Soho, told him our problems, and begged him to help.

Forget defending crypto, he said. It’s doomed. You’re screwed.

No, the really interesting stuff, he said, is in postmodern literary theory.

Honest to God and ask my friends, it broke my poor dork heart. I listened to him talk for a few hours about what was research for “Zeitgeist”, and then we went home and fought off the outlawing of crypto without him, but with a tiny bunch of committed Brits, some of whom are still working on that fight today.

Fifteen years on, the world sucks, but some parts are a bit better. As Bruce points out with his As and Bs, I live as part of a far greater and interlinked world of what he called “global civic society”, who, behind the scenes or in front of the microphones, actually do work together to defend people like Snowden, build tools for decentralisation and privacy, and frantically try and work out how to make them work for everyone.

Some of us work on policy, some of us work in a myriad other ways to change the world, including whistleblowing. We try to minimize the number who get beaten up or killed. I don’t think any of us live in much of a dream world any more. Pretty much all of us are more cynical than you’d believe after seeing what’s gone down. And I know, given the odds, some of it looks pathetic sometimes, but believe me, we can the hardest critics on each other about that. They’d laugh me out of town if I ever said “globulution”, for instance.

And, as the good Chairman says, you do learn who your friends are.


NTK, Fifteen Years On

Give or take a few days, it was fifteen years ago that I hit send on the first official issue of NTK. I was hiding out at a start-up called Virgin Internet, trying to work out how to bring Usenet to the masses, or something. I added people to the mailing list by hand, but stuck “-l” at the end of the subscribe email address to make it sound like it was a proper listserv. I still hear people say “listserv”, occasionally, and it sounds like they’re saying “thee” or “gadzooks” or something.

People usually say at this point that it doesn’t seem like maxint years ago, but, to be honest, it does. It feels exactly fifteen years ago. What’s weird for me is that the three years before NTK came out feels even longer. 1994-1997 involved me going from being on the dole, to appearing in a one man show in the west end, doing TV, working at Wired,  joining a startup. That, and the Internet went from being this funny little squeaky gopher thing to having internet addresses on adverts. On adverts! Which, incidentally, we all smugly knew would go away soon, because advertising was lying and the Internet was going to make lying impossible. Or something.

. What I wanted to tell you was that last year after I explaining someone how we were all too collectively lazy to do something to celebrate NTK’s 15th anniversary, that someone came up with a brilliant Minimal Viable Celebration. So, for the next ten years or so, if you subscribe to this newsletter, you’ll get a weekly copy of the NTK that came out fifteen years ago, totally unchanged. It’s like that thing where you get a copy of the Times’ front page for your birthday, except every week is your birthday! Or our birthday. Or something. The name, Anno NTK, comes from Simon Wistow. If it was your idea to do this, tell me!

As I say, it’s literally the least we could do. I actually suspect (and hope) that this will become a bit of a trend in itself. Just as early retrospective sites like the Pepys Diary are drawing to a close, I think there’s this rich unmined pile of early blog-o-mobilia, waiting to have a nice interface stuck on it. It would be  great, for instance, to watch in real time all the bloggers who supported the Iraq war go through their transformations and justifications day by day, or watch stuff like DrKoop and the Industry Standard rise and fall once again. There are lots of weird echoes in the air right now. I really hope other people won’t be as lazy as us, and put a nice frontend on the past.

And meanwhile, thirty years ago, Usenet itself was beginning to outgrow the ability for a human mind to comprehend. Thank goodness the future was so close…


song for noisebridge

It is entirely appropriate that I came from hanging out at Noisebridge today with business cards from an Applied Anthropologist and an associate from the Institute of the Future. I also got to hang out with Dan Kaminsky and Eric Butler (of Firesheep fame). I wrote some Python, sat next to others writing Python in separate rooms (and by the side of a crowd learning machine learning, if that is a sentence). I yelled at someone, which I never do, and made up. Noisebridge drama! I worked at persuading someone that throwing out someone’s entire server rack (with server) onto the streets in the middle of the weekend, was an extremely poor – but not unpermitted – choice of things to do. I marveled at the genius of visually portraying the state of the internal network by nailing it to a wall, which had been some impromptu group’s impromptu project over the same weekend.
A Wall O' Tubes

Around me ten people learned to solder, someone rebuilt the lighting system with a clutch of borrowed TED-5000s from the great Google PowerMeter shutdown , and I talked Syrian insider politics with someone wanted to teach Scratch to local kids. I gave tours to three groups, including the Applied Anthropologist, and gave the standard pitch: a hackerspace open to all, 24/7, where there was deliberately no rules and no leadership, just decision consensus and the ever-present sudo do-ocracy.

The Applied Anthropologist seemed fascinated, although really it’s hard to tell how rivetted people are when I can’t hear them over the rattle of my own obsessive proclaiming. I sincerely hope he is interested. I’ve often craved a Noisebridge in-house anthropologist, because Noisebridge is deeply, deeply culturally weird, and needs someone to unpick how it even stays in the air.

It’s a hybrid of cold war Berlin radical politics, maker culture, defcon-with-issues emotionality, FSF/EFF idealism, and just San Franciscan High Weirdness. It’s created press passes and space projects and mushrooms and robots. It’s run like an anarchist collective, if all the anarchists were asocial individualists who try to fix problems by throwing technology at them. We put off actual anarchists, because people come to the consensus meetings with T-shirts saying “I BLOCK” and frequently improvise ad-hoc solutions with powertools. In some sort of karmic test, I once had to eject a Buddhist monk from the space.

It provokes a huge range of emotions, and not just within me. Right now, it seems like an engine for generating social ideas, both stupid and painful and inspiring and positive and strange. Lots of people burn out from it, which I totally understand; I think I have only survived this long because I am so crispy for dozens of previous burn-outs. But I watch lots of people continually burn outward from it, or who re-ignite their passions from it, or save themselves from far worse fates. Its most driven members go through huge cycles of love and hate, which I think power the place with their alternating currents. If you’re in San Francisco, I’ll give you a tour.


Guy Kewney

I don’t know why but from the age of eight to I think fifteen, I just assumed every drawing of a bearded man in or on Personal Computer World was meant to be Guy Kewney. He was the model journalist to me– why wouldn’t he also be the model for all those techies PCW’s graphic editors had to draw?

Not Guy.

As a pre-teen, I was a Personal Computer World kid. I loved the binding, the glossy cover, the thick tall pages, the sprawling reviews, the narrow columns of crazy computer classifieds that would stand like columns over pages and pages and pages of dot-matrix printed listings at the back, the love-hate relationship with the dull business business that would dog it into the grey IBM years, the arty covers, the bearded pundits. But most of all I loved reading Guy Kewney, the beardyist pundit of all.

Cromemco and Nascom, Siriuses and Osbornes. They seemed like far-off planets, and Kewney seemed like some pipe-smoking Dan Dare, giving a jocular downbeat debriefing in the mess, of his latest voyages with the Osborne or the COSMAC ELF, even when the most exciting software they did was inventory management. Kewney made even dull corporate machinations the stuff of high drama.

Aged 10 or 11, I would run around the house playing these elaborate fantasy games, muttering under my breath stage directions, and leaping from chair to chair in our living room. My adventures were set — and I am not joking here — in a 21st century where Apple-IBM and Sinclair-Acorn would heroically battle as giant zaibatsu corporations flying amazing robot battalions around in space. The dramatic climax would always involve me, as the captain of the flagship of the corporate fleet, controller of the inventory, master of the Science of Cambridge, shouting some secret password that would override all the command centers of the opposing army. My favourite Words Of Power in these fantasies was Angelo Zgorelec!, the mystical founder of PCW, whose name appeared on every issue’s masthead, and who I imagined to be a Tharg-like being of supreme wisdom (and great aural resonance).

But the person from whose writing I drew the strategies and the battles and the drama of those corporate tussles was Kewney.

Also not Guy.

I still remember one of his columns. In it, Kewney, boggling at the effort to which software publisher Acornsoft had gone to copy-protect software , published the one-line command for rendering its primitive DRM completely useless. I don’t remember the details, but I do recall just stopping and staring and then laughing and rocking in glee at the audacity of it, and wondering why no-one ever said all those other hidden incantations that I was sure existed out loud in other newspapers and magazines. Then I watched him defend his decision after a barrage of outraged readers (swamped by those who cheered him on) chastised him the next month. It really stuck in my mind as this example of the power of words to unwind elaborate but unsustainable practices.

John Lettice says in his obituary that PCW had to pay Acorn for that Kewney column. They shouldn’t have. And if they had to because of the law, well then, the law was wrong: spelling out these magical words of power, causing corporate battalions to flash out of existence at a single, carefully-researched command, really was Kewney’s job, and he did it masterfully.

I met him once. I’d just started writing for PCW myself, in about 1990, only to discover that my rapid promotion to the flagship of the British tech mag fleet was because they’d sacked all the old guard in a labour dispute and were desperate to fill those gaping pages with cheap young new writers. I tagged along to some press conference and actually overhearing David Tebbutt or Christopher Bidmead or some other Elder God complaining loudly about the wide-eyed children who had stolen everyone’s jobs, yet wouldn’t stop babbling about how honoured they were to meet them.

After that, I always averted my eyes and ceased to bother the titans. When I finally met Kewney, I think I just stood awkwardly by his side, surely making him even more uncomfortable than he must have been.

Or looked. To me, some idiot kid, he did not look well. When I said this to equally squeaky kid co-worker, they told me he had always looked ill, a boney, pale man who was constantly being stabbed with allergies and posture problems, aches and pains and deadlines and all-nighters, triumphing over the all to file his copy mere hours before printers might knock down his door and wring his neck.

I found this hard to believe, because he always looked so erect and noble in his byline pictures. Also in all those cover paintings of him. And in those games where he flew across the corporate landscape, making the world change with a word or two. It just made him seem all the braver.

Now Guy Kewney is gone, and I have this beard, but the words of power are all gone too. And frankly, I do not feel too well myself. Timor mortis conturbat me.


ada etc

My real Ada Lovelace day piece goes out this Friday, in my Irish Times column. Honestly, it’s more an introduction to the idea (and why identifying diverse role models in tech is important) than a real story about a technologist I know, though it does mention a few.

I sort of sabotaged myself last year by listing forty women in tech who have inspired me, not realising I could have padded that out for an entire lifetime of ALDs. This year, I was going to salute the women of the EFF (without looking like I was just sucking up to my bosses), but Cory beat me to it with his profile of Cindy Cohn, EFF’s legal director.

(Then again, he didn’t mention EFF’s executive director, Shari Steele, who led the EFF to its current amazing successes; Jennifer Granick, its senior criminal lawyer (you want to watch this video to get an idea of Granick’s work); Marcia Hofmann who has leads many of EFF’s FOIA-related scoops, Gwen Hinze who steers EFF’s work at WIPO, against ACTA and beyond; Corynne McSherry who mends free speech when it runs into the DMCA; Eva Galperin who is your first responder when your digital rights catch on fire, Rebecca Jeschke who keeps obscure tech issues in the headlines where they belong; Alyssa Ralston who brings the money in, Katina Bishop who masterminds EFF’s awesome events and more awesome major donors; Leticia Perez and Andrea Chiang who make sure the briefs get filed and the bills get paid — and I sabotaged myself again, didn’t I?)


you know who i blame? the lurkers

All of these conversations I’ve been having online (as opposed to the dramatic monologues here) have had me thinking about the nature of online discussion, and confronting my own behaviour in them.

What are you like when you’re deep into an argument online? I have two sides: the one which you can see with my postings, which are long, mostly fiercely polite, quasi-grammatical, and, if I may say so, devastatingly reasoned.

You have to imagine me writing these, though, pacing around madly in my bedroom, muttering little speeches to myself and visualizing the horrible death of my correspondent in a hail of unavoidable saucepans. Also I drool, but only a little bit, and only from the mouth.

Is everyone like this? I don’t know, because people don’t like to talk about it. Recently, I’ve been looking at how people manage their own emotions when discussing online. It’s complicated, because the unwritten rules of much online discussion is that “if you emote, you lose”, and others that “if you emote, you win”. Either way, bringing emotions into it changes the game. But what the hell does winning and losing mean?

People talk about the disrespect and ferocity of online flame wars. I think it’s about audience. I think the novel nature of online discussions is that you have a passive, silent audience out there. I think that’s far significant than all that talk of anonymity, or the death of civilized discourse.

The closest equivalent to Internet discussion forums for me when I was young was Paddy, who I lived with. Paddy was a man who could argue for hours without coming up for breath. You’d say your triumphant logicbuster, and magically by the time you’d finished, he’d already have (verbally) posted a five page reply up in your face. I remember one night when I got so mad with him for his relentless logical verbal one-upping that the only snappy come-back I could devise with was to quietly leave the room, go upstairs to the bathroom, spray my entire face with shaving foam so I looked like a giant Michelin head, and then creep up behind him and go “ARRGH!”. I hold that I won that argument squarely and fairly. (You occasionally see this rhetorical device at Prime Minister’s Question Time.)

Anyway, what was annoying with Paddy, as I finally got him to admit one day, was that he wasn’t trying to convince you he was right: he was trying to convince a mysterious third-party.

There was no third-party in our arguments. When we got started both of us could empty a room faster than karoake-ing opera singer.

But on the public Internets, you’ve always got an eye to the third-party. Every talk you see online has an imaginary crowd around it, imaginarily clapping or stomping. Either way, you can’t just communicate these side-line emotions with the person you’re talking to, except by stumbling off into private email. Which is usually about as calming as going outside the bar for the fight. Actually, private email isn’t even private, because there is always this sense it will be magically reforwarded into the public view, exposing your vulnerability to the same audience.

Every discussion is a group monkey dance.



When do you stop being a reader online, and start being a participant? This would seem to be an important question, especially among those who insist that the exact ratios between consumers and creators should determine how significant the result is. That is, if most “user-generated” content on the Net is made up of a tiny percentage of the overall audience, should we care about it less? Me, I don’t think so, but for arguments that get bogged down in exactly how “democratic” the Internet is, it does seem to be critical.

What I do think is that the very fact that the line is blurred is in itself significant. Let me contrast it with my experience growing up in the Seventies and Eighties. I didn’t go to arty clubs in London; I didn’t make my own teen fanzine. I didn’t even send off for any fanzines. What I did was buy Time Out, and FactSheet Five, and read the reviews. Obsessively. I loved it. I don’t know why I rarely watched the films I read about, or buy the thousands of zines that Mike Gunderloy (pboh) obsessively reviewed each issue. It just seemed a step too far, somehow. I was perhaps a little scared that the reality wouldn’t live up to the dream. But I’m sure there were thousands, hundreds of thousands like me. People read books, never knowing there are whole communities of book-readers who create conventions and have conversations about those books, writing fan fiction and holding long correspondences with the author. It’s not that they can’t imagine it, but it’s that there’s a natural stopping point. You’d have to be crazy to finish the latest Neil Gaiman book, and then think you could write him a letter.

When I went online for the first time, that distinction blurred for the first time. I’d read my heroes posting items, and then I’d reply (just really because the keyboard was there, and the bulletin board prompt gave you that option), and my heroes would write back. I’d be involved. It was barely a transition. It’s the same frisson people get when celebrities call them out on Twitter. Actually, they don’t even have to be acknowledged; just the figment of a conversation is more than you’d expect reading a book or watching a film.

This may be obvious, or even hard to imagine a world without that lack of transition if you’ve grown up with the Net. Talking to Debbie today, she described how Sears Catalogues were called “wishbooks” in the early West, and we talked about how FactSheet Five was a wishbook, too. It broadened your mind: but it only occurred to the most ambitious (or deluded) that you could actually pursue those wishes, or that they represented anywhere that was truly accessible: just viewable. I think old media taught us to observe the spectacle, but assume it took place somewhere else, somewhere remote.

It takes a while, even online, to notice this is possible: that such-and-such may have a blog, and might read the comments, and might reply. But it’s not quite the same leap, especially as you quickly find yourself in a community of others making those leaps just like you. It’s not how many create; it’s how easy the jump from watcher to do-er is. The two are connected: the easier the transition, the more creators there are. But the transitions the thing. Not everybody wants to be a creator; but everybody who wants to create should at least know that that is an option.


where i’ve been, what is up

Brief summary: Having a great deal of fun.

I am currently trying to break my brain by simultaneously book-kegging Austrian economics and feminist science fiction (as well as the conventions thereof). I am truly enjoying the mental thrashing I endure as I flick from glorious syndicalist manifestos to fierce denunciations of unionism, optimistically chatting with Seasteaders while sceptically surveying current libertarian paradises. I’ve been reading up on Dale Spender and William F. Buckley, Murray Rothbard and Murray Bookchin. I’ve gone politically non-linear. It’s akin to snorting magical policy pixie dust off Ken Macleod‘s bare back. I hope to have some screwed-up ideas of my own, very soon.

I also have a s3krit pr0ject, which I am currently bad at, but getting better. You shall not hear of it until I fail to suck. I also have a not-so-secret work project, which I hope to introduce to you soon, if only as I angst through to its final production. But most importantly, I have agreed to conduct an internal psychological experiment (n=1) that will involve far more blogging. Hooray! Onward! Outward! Excelsior!


things which are still here: fishcam, me

So my schedule these days — I have a schedule! Do you know what a change that is in my life? — anyway, my schedule these days generally involves collapsing asleep at 9PM and waking up, actually refreshed, at around 8PM. I have traded away several hours of my life in return for not feeling attached by a very taut piece of elastic to whatever is the closest bed, tugging tugging tugging me back.

I greatly enjoy feeling well-slept, but it does mean that my usual hours of blogging (and doing any other writing or wild-eyed crazy plotting) are now contemptibly small.

Like everyone, I am still working out how to make do with less.

Also like almost everyone, I stayed up very late on New Years Eve 1999/2000. I wasn’t wandering the streets, drunk like a skunk. I was inside Netscape Communication’s server management offices, munching on sushi, and watching techies desperately guarding against the chance that the Y2K bug would take down and other important pieces of Internet infrastructure.

A few minutes before the clockover, I realised that all the clocks in the ops center were set to slightly different times (all the better to see which ones failed, I guess), and I would have no real idea of when midnight actually happened. I eventually got hold of an accurate time signal (I think I caled POPCORN, which is the US’s speaking clock). I was the only person in the cubicles who actually knew what the time really was.

In the seconds around midnight, different engineers would shout out to their colleagues that key services were still operational: “Web3 is okay!” “DNS3 is Okay”.

At the exact moment of 00:00AM, 2000 AD, I can reveal that, at Netscape, the primary concern was the fishcam. “Fishcam is … okay!” (Big cheer).

You’ll be pleased to know it’s okay again.


petit disclaimer:
My employer has enough opinions of its own, without having to have mine too.