The Heaven Makers

Coincidentally enough, because what is the Internet if not a maze of incidences that we are now about to deem "co-", Cory Doctorow published this interesting column for Locus online about Makers and the horizontal growth of technology, relevant to my last post.

Here's a lever pull for ya:

In the age of cheap facts, we now inhabit a world where knowing something is possible is practically the same as knowing how to do it.

This means that invention is now a lot more like collage than like discovery. Bruce Sterling's new Imaginary Inventions project is seeking to catalog the imaginary inventions of fiction, hucksters, failed entrepreneurs, and other imaginers. I sent him some excerpts from my forthcoming novel Makers (Tor, HarperCollins UK, Fall 2009), which concerns hardware hackers whose principle activity is thinking up stuff that would be cool, then googling to figure out how to build it, and Bruce replied,

There's hardly any engineering. Almost all of this is mash-up tinkering. It's like the Burroughs cut-up method applied to objects. These guys are assembling hardware in the same crowd-pleasing spaghetti at the wall approach that Web 2.0 web designers use in assembling features and applications.

That's exactly right. That's the plausible premise right there — spaghetti-at-the-wall hacking that assembles, rather than invents. It's not that every invention has been invented, but we sure have a lot of basic parts just hanging around, waiting to be configured. Pick up a $200 FPGA chip-toaster and you can burn your own microchips. Drag and drop some code-objects around and you can generate some software to run on it. None of this will be as efficient or effective as a bespoke solution, but it's all close enough for rock-n-roll.
From one of the lords of Democratized Technology himself y'all, and BoingBoing editor to boot.

The interesting part to me is that Cory is bringing up this article in the context of SF--he says, while back in the day the SF author had a lock on the sort of new/cool tech ideas that could be thrown out into the sphere and then later actually invented, these days the makers are the one's doing the speculation, and then the inventing/building right afterward if not at the same time.

In my last post I somewhat hinted at the negotiation between the ascetic ideal of technologists and those of writers. Scientists study the human facts of "anger, fear, voluptuousness, revenge, hope, triumph, despair, cruelty." But these emotions, the Nietzschean "pack of savage hounds," are detrimentally taken advantage of by the ascetic priest to further his own goals. Technologists, often just like these ascetic priests, utilize these emotions to further their own pursuits, via their clever devices that latch into our emotional fetishes rather than our actual needs (though, granted, with a certain amount of tangible benefit, much as religion has provided both the good and the bad.)

But writing, as an art form and a technology, is in a rare sort of middle ground as most of the arts are. It uses the emotional retinue as its material, but purportedly with a purpose. This purpose can be small or large, but mostly it is more complex than the generic "market cool" self-promotion which many techologists are after.

And of course, writing can also be worse. The power of writing is a demonic technology itself, causing humans to call it a crime, persecute its users, and control its material throughout its history. The democratization of writing is in this way little different from the democratization of technology; open-source and free speech go hand in hand, giving the masses the power of these powerful tools, for self-determination, self-discovery, and self-empowerment. Despite how prevelent writing and technology are, few are interested in analyzing the forces behind them, or how they might best be used.

I love the psychoanalytical model of treatment, and I try to replicate it as much as possible in my writing. Without delving into the dearth of clinical history, let's just outline it by saying:

-The clinical relationship between the patient and the analyst is one of power, and is therefore strictly controlled.

-Language (both spoken and with the body) is the clinical material, but it is not the entirety of the problem. It is only the tool for accessing the unconscious, where the real work must take place.

-The working-through of trauma is an ongoing process of repetition, and well, work; both members of the clinical partnership must be equally invested in the process; there may be multiple levels of trauma that are only uncovered as the analysis progresses.

And so on. There are many, many more important aspects of the clinic, but I think you can see where I'm going. There is an almost eccesiastical level of seriousness to the process--bordering the magical. My metaphor is chosen purposefully, because we see the origin of many people's distrust of psychoanalysis. It's like letting some priest of a religion only 100 years old go transubstantiating around in your memories and unconscious desires. Heresy! Almost as dangerous as writing, or, say, inventing gadgets.

But what is different between psychoanalysis and Maker/technologist culture, however, is what separates a White Mage from a televangelist/medium/new-age hippie. (Not that I actually believe any of these things exist in real life, of course.) Psychoanalysts, while perhaps having certain personality traits leading them to be the butt of Woody Allen jokes, do have an understanding of their power and a professional ethic. Makers, on the other hand, may sell kits and write Instructables, or merely make cool YouTube videos, or sell out their open-source buddies to VC capital. Other than the general free-vibe of the culture, there is no ethic whatsoever. And I'm not talking about a control structure--I'm talking about a professional ethic, taking the culture, the task, and its material effects seriously. You ever visit a "free-culture" house? Freegan/anarchist/etc? Sometimes they work great. But sometimes the void of "constraints" leads to chaos, or worse, to let autocratic and self-righteous personalities take over a supposedly "free" space.

And all this coming from the anarchist, anti-state, up-bloggers guy.

But anyway, back to SF.

I'm not aware of any professional SF ethics that have ever existed, but in some ways, it might have never needed them, because the authors had their own. I think of the golden age authors I know and love--Asimov, Heinlein, Dick, Herbert, Blish, La Guin. When you read these guys (and gals), you know they have a plan. There is no void of "the point" here. There is plenty of the emotional orgy of human feelings (I'm mean, these guys are still selling novels, here) but there is always, and ultimately, a point of the book, even if it ambiguous or troublesome. They are speculating, and in the course of this we get cool tech. We also get some male heroes, constantly in the horrible state of searching for existential meaning while beautiful women through themselves at them. We get utopias, and we get paranoid delusions. And we get god-men, and secret agents, and cities flying through space. But while we are wide-eyed with wonder, we also get the point. And I often disagree with the point, especially when it comes to folks like Heinlein. But at least I can engage with it head-on, because the reading-writing relationship is almost clinical. I can mess around with my unconscious almost anywhere these days; but with these authors we get the whole clinical package, the emotional pieces and the ethic, and that package is the point of SF.

So I have to disagree with Cory. I don't think SF will be reduced to the point where it is completely crowd-sourced, and flying along the nape of the technologist's flat earth. The more technologically crazed the world is, the higher SF is going to have to fly to be able to maintain coherence on its "point". If your telecommunicator badges are being outdated every six months, it's time to think of plot lines that will not succumb. Otherwise, the point get's lost, and you'd really be better off reading a tech blog. I would imagine we see less tech in SF. Steve Jobs and his ilk are the gadget swingers now--the SF authors of the near future will be known for other things.

And while I take Bruce's comment out of context, I think it is a good description of what would happen if SF falls into the gears of the technologists. "These guys are assembling hardware in the same crowd-pleasing spaghetti at the wall approach that Web 2.0 web designers use in assembling features and applications." He's talking about the Makers--but the point is about the ethic, and applies to writers as well. "Crowd-pleasing", "spaghetti", "Web 2.0". Do you really want the future of SF to look like a MySpace clique? How about the future of technology? There is no plan, other than what feels good, looks good, is cheap, is possible, and will generate some hits on the blog. Most technologists are designing memes, not materials. In writing, they call this flash-fiction. Cut out all of the contextual work, the characters, and just write something quick. Wanna see a squid get shot with a steam-punk turbolaser? Bam. You got it. It's similar to fan-fiction, the remake, and the sequel. Let someone else do the hard part and develop the point. Now all you have to do is say, "Hmm, what do I want my action figures to do today? Sexually explicit robot submarine chase? Fall over some CG waterfalls? Done and done." There's no point anymore, except tickling the brain's emotional orifice.

"Close enough for rock and roll", but aren't most of those rock and roll guys dead or suing to try and up the millions they receive on DRM-encrusted media bits?

I envy the well-read writers as much as I do the guys and gals fabricating circuit-bent roller skates and flamethrower chopper bikes in their garage, and wish I had some cool output from my own hobbies. But the further folks get into these techs, the more they are going to have to think about what the "point" is. Mainstream industry (both publishing and tech goods, and even infrastructure) clearly haven't gotten to it. Will the "democratizing" forces? Or by the time that Makers are the only technology left, will it be laisse-faire free for all?

No comments: