Tag Archives: Wheelers Centre

Cory Doctorow. Was here. Who knew?

The Wheeler Centre had an Interrobang. They invited some speakers to answer tricky questions. Cory Doctorow? Oh yeah. Book those tickets! Next day, the session is sold out!

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cory_Doctorow

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cory_Doctorow

But hey, when we got there – place half full – or half empty – depending on your point of view. Whaaaaa … ? We had friends who would have bought tickets. Wheelers Centre fail. Cory Doctorow is an important thinker of our age. More Melbournians needed to hear him. For those who missed out on this, and the other two sessions, let me attempt to sum up.

Doctorow’s a founding editor of Boing Boing and contributor to The Guardian, Wired and Publishers Weekly. He’s one of the founders of Electronic Frontier Foundation. And there’s his take on the Gordian knot that is copyright and DRM. His attitudes to Creative Commons is why my Ektek saga is currently available free of charge. Although, when chatting to him after the session (face-to-face banter!!) his comment, ‘Oh, yeah, you have to have something people want to steal,’ cut deep.

I’ve only read two of his novels – both provocative in their own ways.

craphound.com

craphound.com

Someone comes to town, Someone leaves town gives the reader the bizarre experience of characters coming in and out of focus due to constant name shift. You really do have to read it for yourself. Little Brother is one of those books written in six weeks that just drives the reader (ostensibly a young adult) through a world they need to know about. There’s now a sequel and plenty of other writing to explore.

craphound.com

craphound.com

Doctorow is from Ontario and his dad was a computer scientist. Cory grew up with one of the first connected terminals in his living room. He’s always had the internet in his life. He sees no difference between being in the world and being in the internet. The title of his conversation with Alan Brough was about destroying the internet before it destroys us. Of course, no one is advocating the destruction of the internet but Cory is suggesting we do have a good long hard look at it. Doctorow has long spoken about the dangers inherent in devices with cameras and microphones on your desk that may or may not be within your control. Do you want to be in charge of your computer or be controlled by state or corporate powers that can see your contacts, your searches and you? ‘Yes, Master’ or ‘I can’t let you do that, Dave.’

Doctorow is one of those fluent thinkers and activists who speak very quickly and think very widely so summing up the fifty odd minutes we spent in his presence is impossible. I’ll try.

https://www.google.com.au/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=images&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwjv9snP57nJAhXBIqYKHUU7AicQjB0IBg&url=http%3A%2F%2Faetherforce.com%2Ftheory-practice-alchemy%2F&psig=AFQjCNF8_BC3Mep9fRB8FpPNqn0wemQ6dA&ust=1449029960654035

https://www.google.com.au/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=images&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwjv9snP57nJAhXBIqYKHUU7AicQjB0IBg&url=http%3A%2F%2Faetherforce.com%2Ftheory-practice-alchemy%2F&psig=AFQjCNF8_BC3Mep9fRB8FpPNqn0wemQ6dA&ust=1449029960654035

One of his basic tenets involves disclosure. He likens the way people deal with information on the internet with that of alchemists in the Age of Darkness. That by non-disclosure, we lead into an elite of those who know and those who don’t know. (By chance I happened to hear a fascinating interview with John Le Carre, a spook of high intelligence, in which he comments that the UK went into Iraq as a result of those thinking they knew, knowing wrong. He also remarked that after the Cold War, it became obvious that the USA was always the greater power and that the entire stand-off was a construct by people looking for something to do with the arms they’d built.)

My son's signed kindle.

My son’s signed kindle.

Back with Cory, another of his tenets is around locked dependency. If you can’t open it, is it yours? If you can’t open it you can’t change it, can you. One of the clearest examples is John Deere tractors. The tractors can now carry technology that, as they move around paddocks, collect detailed data such as soil fecundity. This information is valuable to a techsavvy farmer. (You do know that behind every successful farmer is a partner working in town?) But, who else might like this info? What about uploading your priceless data to the cloud to share with corporations who might want to sell you things?  The John Deere agreement is with an organisation called Climate Corporation. From the New Yorker article about this corporation:

The mission statement, “To help all the world’s people and businesses manage and adapt to climate change,” is an explicit echo of Google’s sweeping promise to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

Climate Corporation is an insurance agency. They insure farm land against extremes of climate brought on by climate change. And they’ve just been bought by MonsantoWhat about a seed company like Monsanto knowing all the specifics of your farmland? What could possibly go wrong?

Corey also spoke about diabetes data. Diabetes patients increasingly rely on technology to help communicate with doctors and to link with providers of their drugs. They can upload their personal information to the magic cloud; every detail from meals, to measurements of weight, blood sugars, amounts of insulin, wheres and whens … everything. Who owns this information? What do the patients do to protect it from people who might benefit from knowing more? Information. Keep it close or share it?

So there’s content, there’s software and there’s hardware and all those things might have locks at various levels. If a hacker is determined, they will break those locks or, even better, find a flaw that provides access. Once discovered, the flaw has to stay vulnerable, for it to be exploitable. So for spies, ‘no one but us’ – NOBUS – should know about the flaw so that only we can use it to gain access to the secret (commercial or otherwise). Clearly this makes the assumption that we are the only clever spies. (I say we because Australia’s deep connections with the USA are, of course, totally trustworthy. Mr Doctorow didn’t go into that.)

In summary, will we have access to a new Age of Enlightenment? Will everyone share everything or are there reasons to (and can you) keep your activities private?

And does the internet offer international democracy? Allow merit to shine through the obscurity? Maybe. For example, how does a cool band in Rwanda go viral?

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Cli-Fi at the Wheelers Centre last night – that’s right Climate Change Fiction. Cli-Fi.

Covers of Wrong Turn, Clade & Anchor PointTony Birch, writer and academic, introduced three novelists in a discussion entitled:

New Dystopias: Climate Change & Fiction

A full house of well-behaved Melbournians tucked into the Wheeler’s Centre welcomed Jane Rawson, author of A wrong turn at the office of unmade lists, Alice Robinson, author of Anchor Point and James Bradley, author of Clade.

Mr Birch remarked that all three novels were about the interactions between people, whatever the circumstances in their lives and added all the books displayed great storytelling featuring strong and engaging characters. The audience was amused by Mr Birch’s comments regarding surprises in Clade such as Bruce Springsteen’s apparent prescience with titles such as Thunder Road and Darkness on the edge of town and; the Australian Rules football team ‘Carltonwood’ resulting from a blend of two currently strong clubs. Thus warmed up, Birch commented asked the writers if it matters, what writers write about? Does their work make an impact? Did they expect or want their work to affect readers?

Jane began A wrong turn by just wanting to write a story but by the edit stage she really did want to make readers think about climate. She’s learned that as a result of her book, people do experience concerns when the days are getting hotter.

Alice began from the issue and had to construct story and characters to fit the cause. Essentially her book became a family story as climate is a family issue.

James stated the bar was too high for writers to imagine they could change the world. Perhaps the opening chapters of Silent Spring or Neuromancer might have succeeded but there are not many books that actually altered the way people thought. Climate change happens on such a scale that people might be able to engage intellectually but not meaningfully. He feels that writers are more like weather vanes, picking up on what is around them rather than making real change.

Tony thought these writers might be underestimating their knock-on effect and they should be pleased as they don’t know what effect their books might have. He went on to ask about time. The books are about people, memory functions and time. He pointed out each writer is interested in how we remember.

Alice spoke about her driving concerns. To think about the future means we must think about how we got here. To look back into the past means the story of settlement and the history of the land before Europeans. What are we going to do now? How do we live now?

Anchor-pt-title-page

James felt remarkable connections with Anchor Point. There were similar motifs – particularly around time – in Clade. Jane has a time traveller called Ray in A wrong turn, who happens to be Aboriginal. Tony congratulated her on this creation and also commented on her theme of homelessness and compared an essay he had written about the subject.

James drew heavily on science for Clade. As he began to write scientists were warning about the dangers of methane burps in the frozen tundra. As he edited, the craters came to public attention. As he wrote, he invented an idea about the planet’s shifting axis which, of course, has now become observable. All the writers agreed that it was indeed unsettling to see their writing bed down in actual events. But that is the nature of climate change. Scientists predict and then we see their predictions come true.

It was when Tony Birch commented about our relationship to nature I began to really feel part of this community! He asked the writers how they conceived of nature? James remarks the power of nature can’t be denied. In his book, in the north of England around Norfolk, the Fens were created to keep the ocean at bay. Now ‘the sea is returning’. The sea will not be denied. Laura, in Alice’s book, wants the land to return to what it was. Alice believes we must succumb to nature.

James says he didn’t want the land to mirror people’s traumas. He wanted to create a book saying on some level that the planet doesn’t care. He wanted to get away from the common anthropocentric view of the world. He commented that the line between the virtual and the real is becoming less clear. The same technology that can pry into nests and follow birds on migration, showing the world’s amazing natural life, can do nothing to stem the force causing the extinction of those very creatures.

Clade-title-page

Alice remarks the books all have positive points; James’s landscape is beautiful and Jane’s book is funny. Jane said that we are born into the world we’re born into. People in the future will have to deal with what lies in front of them. Alice said that people’s lives are so busy with their everyday children and dishes that trying to deal with the big issues while real life is so involving. Tony highlighted a quote from Clade that ‘normality keeps fighting its way in’. James felt that was more about grief than the everyday life lived facing climate change but he believes that people are smart, that we will not turn this planet into Venus. Of course he recognises there are massively entrenched interests protecting their power and money. He believes we are having the wrong conversations. It’s not about whether politicians believe in climate change but whether we can recognise who is being used as a shill for powerful corporations.

Jane commented that learning about the terrors of climate change can incapacitate a person but not acting … is just STUPID.

Wrong-turn-title-page

Alice really cares about climate change – it took her seven years to write the book plus have two babies. On the one hand things she felt things going terribly wrong with the planet and on the other she made an enormous investment in the future by having children. That’s galvanizing for her – she had to do something.

James also wrote his book because he’s got small children and he noted that most people are now alienated from the decision-making process. Australia is no longer run for the benefit of the many, particularly obvious after the debacle of the mining tax.

Tony wrapped up the discussion by bringing it back to the writers’ power to energise activists. He thinks they can nudge the reader and produce ideas that Tony, for one, can recycle out into the world.

The first question from the audience was about books around a dystopian future implying a moral judgement on those that came before. Jane said after the discovery that the majority of emissions causing climate change came in her own lifetime she can only blame herself. Alice agreed the blame can only be placed in the present. She thinks of what the children will have to carry into the future. James thinks the world is always ending for writers. Apocalyptic fiction is a way to wrestle with big ideas such as nuclear war in the eighties and terrorism ten years ago. Dystopian fiction tries to make great concerns and worries manageable. He added that worrying about morality makes him itchy.

The next question was about artists’ obligation to take climate change seriously. Jane agreed that for her climate change was the most compelling issue for nature and other species. She can understand that others have different priorities but says that writers shouldn’t cut themselves out of the world of politics. Alice is deeply ambivalent. She wishes she didn’t have to care about climate change but once engaged she feels a responsiblity to try to show that each individual and their children will be affected. James thinks that writing is a political act but is wary of saying to any writer, you should write about this or that. He doesn’t think artists have a political obligation.

The final question was about books like 1984 and Brave New World, what effect can they have? James says that fiction is a way of thinking about things in an incredibly powerful way. Alice says she knows books can change lives; for her Little Women and Anne of Green Gables showed her that it was possible to make a living out of writing. Jane thinks that those books that make us alert to those kinds of futures, showing us the signposts, act as a warning; ‘Oh, no, don’t do that, that leads to dystopia and rats on your face.’ But then, possibly, we don’t recognise other, newer threats …

Tony wrapped up proceedings by admiring the humility of these three writers. As far as Mr Birch is concerned they will all influence his thinking about climate change.

Clade-lined

 

You’ll be interested to see James Bradley signed his book twice. The first time, emulated by Jane Rawson, he calls the American way. Lined and signed. When asked why he crossed out his name, he did not know. So that’s why he signed again in the clear space of the title page.

It was the first time I’ve really been inspired by a group of writers. They were on my wavelength! I wish them great success and hope they do manage to nudge a few readers as Mr Birch suggested.

They could even take the time to read my book, Man of Clay, and see the themes of time, change and heat repeated therein!