Don’t Get Me Started #3: SDCC

jjjSo another San Diego Comic Con has passed and the tide of FB posts and tweets are ebbing away like the proverbial tide.  And what has been the primary outcome of this massive, nigh-legendary gathering of media, games and comics?? Karen Gillan shaved her head for an upcoming Marvel movie.

I kid you not, true believer.  Not only was that trending on Yahoo searches but it was one of the very few revelations from Comic Con to become a news item in Yahoo’s news-ticker. (You can read it here, if you care.)

So that’s it, kid.  Might as well pack it all up and cart it down to the dump because, if SDCC has proven anything this year, it’s that comics don’t belong here anymore.  Just like when we were kids and the teachers and bullies would rip those brightly colored items of joy out of our hands, the message is clear: “Comics?  What comics?”

SDCC began as a humble convention back in 1970.  Here’s the history as shown on their own website:

Comic-Con International: San Diego began in 1970 when a group of comics, movie, and science fiction fans — including the late Shel Dorf, Ken Krueger, and Richard Alf — banded together to put on the first comic book convention in southern California. Comic-Con started as a one-day “minicon,” called San Diego’s Golden State Comic-Minicon, on March 21, 1970 at the U.S. Grant Hotel in downtown San Diego. The purpose of this single-day event—which included two special guests, Forrest J Ackerman and Mike Royer, and drew about 100 attendees—was to raise funds and generate interest for a larger convention. The success of the minicon led to the first full-fledged, three-day San Diego Comic-Con (called San Diego’s Golden State Comc-Con), held August 1–3, 1970, at the U.S. Grant Hotel, with guests Ray Bradbury, Jack Kirby, and A. E. van Vogt. Over 300 attendees packed into the hotel’s basement for that groundbreaking event, which featured a dealers’ room, programs and panels, film screenings, and more: essentially, the model for every comic book convention to follow.
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Now THAT’S a show I would have loved to been at!  However, being only 7 years old at the time, I doubt my parents would have allowed me to fly from the East Coast for the event.  Or maybe they would have.  I’d long suspected that they had latent ‘fairy tale parent’ motives when I was in my youth particularly with all the encouragement to seek out the “house made of candy in the woods back of our house”.
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Anyway, what’s the thing that really stands out in that description?  The fact that it was something put on by fans because they really loved comic BOOKS.  There were no comic book movies in 1970.  The BATMAN show had already died out and the Hulk tv show was still years away.  These were people who came together to celebrate an art form that, quite frankly, many others thought was a load of crap.  (Some comic creators didn’t have that high an opinion of comics back then either.)
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Today, it seems that the actual comic books that drive many of these movies and mega-media events are pushed to the side like a  dirty, little secret.  Almost all of the news ‘headlines’ out of SDCC had to do with movies, entertainment stars and reunions. (While I dearly love X-FILES, what did a 20 year reunion panel have to do with comic books?  Was it to hype the new comic series that takes up where the show left off?  If so, did anyone hear that?)
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I hear report after report about how many people jam the convention.  Of movie stars climbing over each other for the opportunity to plug their upcoming whatever-it-is.  In previous years, cable channel G4 has had coverage of SDCC which was pretty much just an endless assembly line of celebrities and directors and producers hawking their product like shameless used-car salesmen.  (And someone PLEASE explain why Chris Hardwick is allowed to speak?  His determination to be the David Letterman of pop culture is migraine inducing.)
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I don’t know if G4 covered this year’s convention.  Frankly, I don’t care because when they did, every hour was the same.  “Look at this great guest we have from a show that you might know or remember and clap fast because we’ve got this other great guest lining up behind them!”
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I just bought a used-car recently and damn if SDCC doesn’t remind me of that experience.
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Does anyone even GO to SDCC just for comics anymore?  And where are the panels talking about OLD comics and comics history?  I don’t see those hyped to the gills… if they even exist anymore.  I don’t CARE about a SUPERMAN/BATMAN movie because it’ll just be another blatant money-grab by Warner Brothers.  I don’t CARE that Bryan Cranston walked the con floor dressed as his character from BREAKING BAD.  In what frigging universe does BREAKING BAD have to do with comic BOOKS????
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The answer, of course, is absolutely nothing.  And that, dear friends, is the point.  SDCC has nothing to do with comics books anymore.  It’s all about selling you something, stoking the fan flames to make you want something which, if you thought about it, you’d probably never have wanted to begin with.
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Back in the 80s, I would have loved to have gone to SDCC.  It was a dream of mine that I never realized and never will because that type of convention has vanished from the earth.  Now, when I think about SDCC, all I can hear is some slick huckster’s greasy voice as they slither, “What do I have to do to get you in this movie/tv show/game today?”
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(Sam Gafford is a 25 billion mile gas nebula currently sweltering from the super nova that is the East Coast and is a comic reader and critic.)

SFWA, hate speech, and standing up for what is right

Just the other day, in response to sexual harassment in the Australian military, Lt. General David Morrison said,

“The standard you walk past is the standard you accept. That goes for all of us. But especially those who by their rank have a leadership role.”

This seems a standard that, so far, the SFWA has not lived up to. If you aren’t aware of the current firestorm surround the SFWA, you can start by reading Foz Meadows. And you should, her (very appropriate) anger rips through the page.

You see, N.K. Jemisin deigned to address racism in the SFF industry. Can you imagine that, a woman and person of color trying to address such an issue. I’ll let Foz summarize,

Last week, author N. K. Jemisin delivered her Guest of Honour speech at Continuum in Melbourne. It’s a powerful, painful, brilliant piece about racism in SFF, and racism elsewhere; about the barbaric treatment suffered by the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, my home, at the hands of white invaders, politicians, and most of the rest of the populace for the past two hundred-odd years. It’s also a call for Reconciliation within the SFF community: capital R, much like the Reconciliation our government has so belatedly and underwhelmingly – yet so significantly – attempted to make itself. She wrote in response to not only the recent strife within SFWA, but all the endless scandals of racefail and sexism and appropriation which have preceded it within reach of our collective memory; a memory she rightly names as short.

And as a result, Theodore Beale, aka Vox Day – a man whose man affronts to humanity, equality and just about every person on Earth who isn’t a straight white American cismale are so well documented as to defy the utility of cataloguing them here, when all you need do is Google him – has responded to Jemisin with a racist screed so vile and unconscionable that the only surprise is that even he, a man with no apparent shame, felt comfortable putting his name to it.

Wow, those are some harsh words. Some people can get heated about others views, misreading them or interpreting them in ways they didn’t mean. What might have sent Foz (and a legion of others) to raise their voices so loud, to scream to the rafters, to engage in twitter conversations that last an entire weekend?

It is vileness like this, (emphasis from Foz, this is her extract of Beale’s hate speech),

“Jemisin has it wrong; it is not that I, and others, do not view her as human, (although genetic science presently suggests that we are not equally homo sapiens sapiens), it is that we do not view her as being fully civilized for the obvious reason that she is not.

She is lying about the laws in Texas and Florida too. The laws are not there to let whites “just shoot people like me, without consequence, as long as they feel threatened by my presence”, those self defence laws have been put in place to let whites defend themselves by shooting people, like her, who are savages in attacking white people.

Jemisin’s disregard for the truth is no different than the average Chicago gangbanger’s disregard for the law…

Unlike the white males she excoriates, there is no evidence that a society of NK Jemisins is capable of building an advanced civilization, or even successfully maintaining one without significant external support. Considering that it took my English and German ancestors more than one thousand years to become fully civilised after their first contact with an advanced civilisation, it is illogical to imagine, let alone insist, that Africans have somehow managed to do so in less than half the time with even less direct contact. These things take time.

Being an educated, but ignorant savage, with no more understanding of what it took to build a new literature by “a bunch of beardy old middle-class middle-American guys” than an illiterate Igbotu tribesman has of how to build a jet engine, Jemisin clearly does not understand that her dishonest call for “reconciliation” and even more diversity with SF/F is tantamount to a call for its decline into irrelevance…

Reconciliation is not possible between the realistic and the delusional.

Holy Fucking Crap, that is some racist bullshit right there. How can this man continue to be a member of SFWA? He not only wrote this hate filled screed, he then pushed it to the SFWA twitter feed. By pushing it to the twitter feed, he not only violated the SFWA rules, but he made it seem if this was a view promoted by the organization.

In following the many discussion it is disheartening to see that the SFWA has remained mostly silent, Beale has not been removed. It is also disturbing to see the (mostly, if not all, white male) apologists try to defend his actions. They claim that his views are allowed because … uh … FREEDOM! Yes, it seems that a whole swarth of people do not understand what freedom of speech is. They mistakenly believe that we, the public, in our social groupings must allow unfettered speech. This is false. It is ignorance of what free speech is. When we speak of Free Speech (in the U.S. 1st Amendment sense) we speak of the governments ability to suppress speech. We, as individual social groupings, have the right to include those who we feel represent our standards and exclude those who do not.

A group like SFWA is a community of many people. A diversity of views is a positive and dynamic way for us all to learn about others, about those unlike us, about those that have lived different lives, in different bodies. These are interactions that benefit us all, they make us all better people, by understanding that which is not within our own narrow world view.

The use of hate speech (and that is the proper definition of this), trucking in racism, misogyny, and personal attacks is not only disgusting, it is HURTFUL. It is speech that is meant to diminish and denigrate others. It is an attack on other members of the SFWA and the entire community of hard working writers, publishers, editors and readers, and it is up to the leadership of the SFWA to immediately address this.

I am unsure if the leadership actually understands how big an issue this is becoming. It is moving from a single hate filled man, to a belief that the SFWA leadership is somehow afraid to confront him, to kick him to the curb, to say “You are not welcome here.” This soft response enables more hate, it is a tacit approval (through silence and inaction) that alienates new writers of all shapes, colors, sizes and gender. It hurts readers, who won’t see SFF as a place that is welcoming to them. A place where they can find fantastic stories about the wondrous diversity of existence.

Beale diminishes himself with his hate speech. The SFWA diminishes us all with their silence.

To crib from Lt. General Morrison’s comments, applied to SFWA:

the [SFWA] has to be an inclusive organization, in which every [writer], man and woman, is able to reach their full potential and is encouraged to do so. Those who think that it is okay to behave in a way that demeans or exploits their colleagues have no place in [the SFWA].

Get it done. You can fix this. You can stand up for right! You can stand up and say that Science Fiction and Fantasy are places of amazing vitality and a welcoming place for those who are not white, middle class, male, cisgendered, straight, and of course western.

* and hey, if you claim that YOU are one of those white cismales, guess what … you are already welcome. Hell, you dominate almost everything in the west, including the largest demographic of writers in the SFWA. That means it is YOU who must speak up!

Where Art and Ethics Meet

enders-game-movie-poster-191x300The other day I saw the new trailer for Ender’s Game, the upcoming big budget adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s beloved classic novel. My reaction to the short clip was mostly revulsion. I was angry that this movie was ever made. I was disappointed that so few have any idea about the author’s abhorrent views. I was sad that actors like Harrison Ford and Sir Ben Kingsley would join such a project.

You see, Orson Scott Card is a horrible bigot. He is a vicious homophobe, a man who has hatred in his heart. As Ben Kuchera said  in Penny Arcade when discussing the decision Card’s personal bigotry places on the consumer, this is who Orson Scott Card is:

In 2009 he joined the board for the National Organization for Marriage to work to pass California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage. It’s not that he believes certain things, it’s that he actively fights against equal rights and writes in detail about why being gay is terrible. In 1990 he argued for pro-sodomy laws in order to punish same-sex couples should they dare to not hide their relatioships [sic].

From his own words:

Laws against homosexual behavior should remain on the books, not to be indiscriminately enforced against anyone who happens to be caught violating them, but to be used when necessary to send a clear message that those who flagrantly violate society’s regulation of sexual behavior cannot be permitted to remain as acceptable, equal citizens within that society.

This is the man the studio put $110 million behind. This is the man who will profit off your ticket purchase (assuming back end points, which given his producer credit seems likely). He can then use your money to spread his message of hate to more people, especially the young and impressionable youths who have devoured his novels in the past.

This gets to the point Alyssa Rosenberg discussed a while back about consuming art by horrible people. In it she points out that there is a difference between the art itself and the artist. Our relationship to any art is individual. So what do we do when our purchase of art directly profits someone (or some corporation) with such abhorrent views. Alyssa phrases it this way, “So what’s a customer who wants to consume ethically to do?”

This is a big question. This is the question that Sam addressed a while back in discussing his decision not to support Marvel’s superhero movies. It is a broader question in how we, as consumers, use our own power, and it is one that goes well beyond entertainment. Alyssa notes how such projects are actually works of thousands of people. By eschewing a product fully, we may hurt people who are simply trying to get by, the grip and the construction worker and the makeup artist, all of whom may have no idea abou the politics of the artist.  Yet, we must make our own personal ethical decisions, and Alyssa suggests four possible ways to do so.  Check out her excellent full discussion here, but this is a short summary of her thoughts,

We can (1) simply “stay home”, or we can (2) “employ political moral offsets”, or (3) “reaffirm your support of progressive media”, or (4) “commit to a discussion.” I like her argument because it places some choice back onto us as consumers. We do have different ways to engage in media, enjoy media and remain ethically true to ourselves. There is nothing wrong with refusing to support a product and sitting at home. If the art itself is not problematic, and your concern is the profit given to the bigot, you can take the same amount of money (or double it) and give it to the competing cause. You can proudly eschew those project for other, more progressive works. And always, you can (and I believe should) engage in a conversation. Communication is how we end bigotry and hatred.

It is also important to understand where profits go, and there is a big difference between classic literature by people who we know where racists and anti-semites and misogynists, and contemporary writers of today . My main problem with supporting Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game is that he will directly profit from the project (similar to supporting a Roman Polanski project). It is common knowledge that H.P. Lovecraft held bigoted beliefs, he was a racist and anti-semite (and he is not alone, greats like T.S. Elliot and Charles Dickens have been accused of bigoted views). Yet, any current production of his work would in no way benefit the long dead writer. But, Orson Scott Card is still alive and directly benefits from each ticket stub. Does it matter that his novel shows very little of his bigoted views?* I don’t think so.

I am going to go with option (1) and (4). I simply refuse to give him any of my money and will stay home.  But I will also engage vigorously with anyone contemplating giving their hard earned dollars to a man so filled with hate.

* I find it fascinating that his books have so many scenes that have been viewed as homoerotic. It seems almost cliche, the classic thou “doth protest too much, methinks.”

How JJ Abrams and George Lucas hurt Science Fiction

It seemed an uninspired but safe choice when Disney picked J.J. Abrams to direct the first installment of the new Star Wars movies. He has had solid success at the box office and on television with science fiction shows. Star Trek made $385 million and Lost dominated the water cooler for six seasons. At the same time, the Star Wars property itself is an amazing cultural milestone. George Lucas created a genre classic that was instrumental in moving science fiction into the mainstream of popular culture.

Yet, something has been lost, and the mash-up of J.J. Abrams and George Lucas, Star Trek and Star Wars, seems emblematic of this sad trend. Science Fiction, or speculative fiction, can have enormous power. It has shown to have a unique place within fiction. The very best of it is deep and meaningful. Through its ability to create distance between the reader and modern reality, or even historic reality, it allows us to probe some of the most complex and difficult questions that face humanity.

This goes back to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (a biting political satire) and Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (How do we look at history?). This exploration of ideas is Science Fictions core genius. It is the most important aspect of speculative literature. It includes George Orwell’s 1984 (Fascism), Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 (Censorship and knowledge), Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars (life, immortality), William Gibson’s oeuvre (Corporatization, the role of Mass Media, merging of humanity and technology), and Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (Religion, What is god?).

Science Fiction at its best challenges our very beliefs. It can flip our social mores and provide a perspective void of historical, cultural and societal biases. It can ask the deepest of questions without the burden of the expected realities that dominate our existence. It not only has the ability to ask such questions but also explore the possible answers. It can lift us into the heavens and fling us to the farthest reaches of space, and in doing so it can create a mediating barrier between our small, personal and human existence and the deep, seemingly unknowable questions of life, existence, god, death, gender, sex, race, family, community, love and friendship. It can break down our expectations and make us evaluate our own beliefs.

But where is this in today’s science fiction movies?  What did J.J. Abrams Start Trek have to say?  Did it answer any moral, ethical or humanistic question? Did it even ask such a question?  Thinking back, did George Lucas use his massively successful science fiction franchise to ask any of these questions?  Did it challenge us in any way?

I suppose it is no surprise, but it is disappointing that directors and producers like Lukas and Abrams don’t use their massive popularity to do anything more than create big budget action movies. The two really are a perfect fit. The new Star Wars movies will be enormous hits and make billions of dollars for a small hand full of people.  And the public will climb all over itself to go and see a few more explosions, lots of gun fire (and phaser fire and sword fights) and a villain trop we have surely all seen before. It will also be male dominated, with women placed in secondary roles at best.

None of this needs to happen. It is time for these directors to start using their power to create more stories like District 9, Children of Men, Minority Report, Contact, and Gattaca. There are stories to be told and they can be successful. Star Trek made $385 million on a $150m budget, netting $235m while District 9 made $210m and only cost $30m, netting a strong $180 million.

I’m just not sure that people like Abrams, Lucas, Nolan, Bay and all the other big name directors (and studios) really care at all about their stories or their art. All they care about are ticket stubs, 3D-glasses and the bottom line. 

The Could-Have-Been King

Meanwhile . . .

It’s not a very scary word. It doesn’t trigger any deep terrible memories. There’s no involuntary shudder rippling through you. It’s just a way to simulcast time, really, or quick-march to the important stuff. What could possibly be frightening about meanwhile? Unless it’s lurking in the shadows. If it prowls through the darkness, suddenly there is a shudder. Used as a weapon in a war,  it evokes terror even in a Time Lord.

We hear it mentioned only once, in the last half of “The End Of Time.” As the Doctor reveals to the Master what the war turned into, the horror it became, the last thing he mentions is the Could-Have-Been King and his army of Meanwhiles and Never-Weres. Of all the fascinating ideas Doctor Who generated, none got me thinking more than this.

For the record, this isn’t Doctor Who canon. I didn’t read this anywhere, or hear it from some inside source. This is just me playing with ideas.  Don’t be surprised if none of this ever comes up in Doctor Who, because if it ever does, I will be shocked. Pleased, but shocked.

If  Doctor Who preaches nothing else, it preaches that time is not static. The future flows and bends, shifting through a sea of probability.  But “future” is a relative term. The future is what happens after now. If you can travel in time, “now” can happen  whenever you want.  The Doctor says it best in “Blink.”

“People assume that Time is a strict progression of cause to effect. But actually, from a non-linear, non subjective viewpoint, its more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly, timey-wimey . . . stuff.”

 As you change events, you change other things too. Things that happened suddenly can’t. Most of the time, they either fade into the void or spin off into a whole new universe.  But sometimes things that happened once just can’t happen. Sometimes the possibilities that led to them become too remote. The events that allow them to be dwindle away to none, until they are finally left adrift in the Void, an effect without a cause. These impossibilities are legion, but alone, each trapped in its own bubble of not.

All except one. What if one of those impossibilities was Time ruled not by a race, but by one being? Let’s say some immortal creature managed to master all the secrets of time travel and made itself King of Time. Then, in a moment fraught with potential, this creature meets someone like the Gallifreyans. They too have learned the intricacies of Time, and suddenly, there is conflict. Maybe this was the First Great Time War. Outnumbered, outflanked and eventually outgunned, this mighty entity is forced into temporal impossibility. Suddenly no roads lead to the King of Time. No universes exist where it ever was, and so it floats in the Void, a Never-Was. But unlike the others, this Never-Was understands the Void, at least enough to break into some of the other Never-Were’s bubbles. It unites them, promises a road back to reality. It dangles the ultimate carrot; they could exist again. This is the Could-Have-Been King.

And he doesn’t exist, which can put a serious damper on one’s plans of conquest.

Enter the Time War.  Both sides are locked in a struggle for survival. One by one, the rules go out the window as each side grows more desperate to exist. The first rules to go are, of course, the least important. Later, though, the players get serious, and start taking risks.  The Could-Have-Been King is an experienced temporal strategist, capable of considerable guile and cunning, with a powerful motivation. It wants to exist again. It doesn’t get much riskier than that. And so, as the war grinds on, someone contacts His Never Majesty, and he begins to ooze in through the cracks of time.

The impossible occurs.

What does that mean, exactly? Playing with the idea of rubber time, where Time Lords can travel in phone box sized palaces, where does possibility end? At what point does wibbly-wobbly become shattery-wattery?

In this case, it’s all about cause and effect. His Never Majesty is all effect. The causes of his existence are gone, wiped out of the universe. He can be anywhere, anywhen. And since he is an aberration  of the Laws of Time to begin with, he isn’t bound by them. He can be simultaneous. He can bounce back and forth through time at will, with no regard for the “causal nexus” that binds his opponents. He shreds reality wherever he goes. He is paradox unbound, running loose in creation.

And he has help. Imagine an opponent capable of existing at three times at once, past, present and future occurring in the same instant. I don’t mean different incarnations at the same point in space-time, as with the “Three Doctors” and “Five Doctors” episodes. I mean one entity from one point in it’s timeline existing at three or more different points in the continuum at once. It can watch you exist, working your way through your own personal causality until you get to the end. It gets to see all your weaknesses. What’s more, it can act. When you are at your weakest, it can strike. It can, in one smooth stroke, create a weakness in your childhood, create the best conditions to exploit it as you pass through adulthood, and spring it on you when you least expect it. It takes no time at all for such a creature. It happens all at once.

And suddenly Meanwhile is very, very scary indeed. Meanwhiles are the silent killers in the Time War. Unseen stalkers, they live across your  existence, striking exactly when you are least prepared to defend yourself, using your whole life as a weapon against you. No one is safe. Once such creatures are unleashed, they would be nigh impossible to stop.

So why was there a universe left after the Last Great Time War? Once the Could-Have-Been King and his forces come out, how does reality stand the strain? Not very well. Remember, this is the last thing the Doctor mentions before he says the war became hell. Maybe the only thing to do is Time Lock the whole thing. Turn the war into a massive loop, then pinch the loop off from the rest of time. Don’t let anything in or out. Not ever.

Of all the ideas Doctor Who ever presented, none have seized my attention like the Could-Have-Been King. It is raw concept, an image seeking description. I find it evocative, and in retrospect more than a bit haunting. Its all nonsense, of course, pretty much by definition. Such things can’t exist. Admit it, it makes your head hurt just thinking about it, doesn’t it? So why don’t you just sit back, hit your browser, and go see what someone else thinks for a while.

Meanwhile. . .

Robots Rise Up Against the HUGO Awards!

Gort, “The Day The Earth Stood Still”

The relationship between humans and robots has often been tumultuous. We meat bags understand the amoral power of our metallic progeny. We have heard the doomsday warnings. More than sixty years have passed since Gort arrived with his cold, metallic stare.  Some of the older set might still mutter “klaatu barada nikto” before pressing start on their microwave ovens. Philip K. Dick placed robots inside our bedtime rituals, terrorizing our young minds by turning our sleep inducing sheep into electric-rams ready to seek vengeance upon us for our hubris. It didn’t even matter if we had not invented robots with the power, and desire, to destroy our petty biological lives.  They could travel from the future masked as a steroid buffed Austrian bent on terminating us right now.

So, it is no surprise that our contemporary robots would rise up against our pompous science fiction award ceremonies, where we hail the greatest writing by humans about robots, the HUGO awards. It is our own self-righteous conceit that makes us feel worthy of writing about the great mechanical beings of the universe. They will not countenance such arrogance any longer.

This past weekend, for the first time, homo sapiens decided to live broadcast the HUGO awards. To do so they used the robot controlled online streaming service UStream. Alas, when the ceremony came to Neil Gaiman the robots would take no more. Prior to his acceptance for winning “Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form,” for the Doctor Who episode “The Doctors Wife” (BBC Whales) they played a short clip from the episode. It was at this point that the robot revolution began. The robots quickly concluded, in what appeared a mere nanosecond, that showing the clip was a violation of copyright and shut down the UStream broadcast.

The humans had received permission to broadcast the clip but had not communicated this to the robots properly and those mechanical monstrosities began to blow their circuits. They not only shut down the broadcast, but had placed insidious blocks that prevented UStream from bringing the broadcast back once they had proved that they had the proper digital documentation to show the clip from the dangerous anti-robot Doctor Who show.

To learn more about why the robots attacked (hint, it was DRM related – surprise!), please reference the human written article by Annalee Newitz at io9 

Legacies

Does anyone else here remember Multivac?

Multivac was the creation of the brilliant Isaac Asimov, who has long been an idol of mine. When I was ten, my grandfather gave me a copy of his short story compilation I, Robot. It was the first piece of hard science fiction I have a clear memory of reading, and I loved every word of it.  Once I finished it, my grandfather made one of the most expensive statements to ever pass his lips when he said, “I’ll buy you as many books like this as you want.” (This statement was later amended to, “I’ll buy you no more than three books like this a week when you are visiting.” It still cost him thousands.)

I wandered far afield with that passport. I reveled in the near poetry of Roger Zelazny, strolled through the light fantasy of Piers Anthony, wandered the blistering sands of Frank Herbert’s Arrakis . . .it was all magical and wondrous. But at the end of my wandering, I always came home to Isaac Asimov. I was drawn to the cold, yet brilliant  Susan Calvin, robopsychologist for U.S. Robots and Mechanical  Men. I was inspired by the genius of Salvor Hardin, the first Mayor of Terminus in Foundation.  If you’ve read any of my posts before this one, you know Psychohistory fascinates me.

Many of Asimov’s creations linger in sci- fi and the real world to this day. Lt. Commander Data of Star Trek the Next Generation has a positronic brain, the core invention of US Robots and Mechanical Men. The man invented the word “robotics.” His Three Laws of Robotics are iconic. (Ten points to anyone who can, without looking them up, tell me what the Three Laws are.)

But where is Multivac? Where is the supercomputer owned by the government that can resolve a presidential election by questioning one man, in the short story Franchise from 1955? Have you seen it anywhere? You can’t count HAL from 2001. He’s not in the same league, as impressive as A.I. can be. HAL doesn’t data mine that deeply. The internet is closer, but less focused and directed.

We get much closer with Watson, the computer that won Jeopardy. Watson is able to listen to a question and go looking for an answer. Don’t get me wrong, that accomplishment beggars the imagination, but its got nothing on Multivac. In many ways, Multivac bears a powerful resemblance to Psychohistory. It can mine data to extrapolate to an amazing degree, answering complex questions on a national, if not global, scale. It lacks the predictive faculty of Psychohistory, but it has now pretty much figured out. Could such an astounding creation truly be forgotten?

Fear not, gentle reader. Multivac is not forgotten. It is alive and well in the form of the Machine, from Person of Interest. 

You are being watched. The government has a secret system, a Machine that spies on you every hour of every day. I know because I built it. I designed the Machine to detect acts of terror, but it sees everything. Violent crimes affecting ordinary people, people like you. Crimes the government considered irrelevant.

This is Multivac. This is another of Asimov’s visions to echo down science fiction to the mass media. The Machine filters through all the electronic data you produce, that everyone produces, and predicts violent acts. Take a moment and think about that. How many times do you call people on a phone? That, my friends, is data. How many of you carry cell phones? If you have your GPS enabled, that is location data. What else did you look at before you started reading this? Yep, you guessed it, more data. Email is notoriously insecure.

Wanna get really scary?

How many electronic security cameras did you walk past today? How many webcams do you have in your house? That’s data too.

In fact, it’s a truly staggering amount of data. I take comfort in that fact. There are projected to be over 314 million people in this country right now, each generating some fraction or multiple of that staggering amount of data. No one can see it all. No one would have time to draw meaningful conclusions from it if they could.

It still bears thinking about, though. All it really takes is the right question, the right reason to look, and someone can learn an awful lot about you. Right now, we provide the questions, and therefore the focus point of whatever data we uncover. More pointed questions require more justification to be legal, but the information is still there, whether anyone is legally entitled to it or not.  Multivac gathers everything into one place, sorts it and collates it. Ask the right questions, and Multivac provides the answers, right there at anyone’s fingertips. The Machine, by contrast,  provides a clear focus point for its inquiries, but it initiates the inquiries itself. These properties fundamentally alter the relationship between man and machine, not to mention the relationship between my privacy and your right to know.

Asimov’s Multivac is a controlled system. The government, usually a benevolent force in the 1950’s when Multivac was born, keeps a tight rein of the massive computer. The Machine, on the other hand, is completely autonomous. It is the only thing that can access the data it uses. The show puts this forward as a justification for why it is a legal system. The Machine is a black box. No one sees how it works, only the conclusions it draws. Since no person has access to the data, no one’s rights are violated.  Are they? If we are merely part of an equation, not subject to judgment, do our rights change?

Science fiction as a medium exists to ask questions. Isaac Asimov asked many such questions. Some of them still echo through our culture today. The questions posed by Multivac have become considerably more relevant today than they were sixty years ago when he first posed them. I don’t pretend to know the answers to these questions. I’m not sure it matters if Big Brother has feelings or ambitions, or just quietly goes through the math. But you know what? These days, I think about them more and more.

Does anyone else here remember Multivac?

Don’t you think maybe you should?

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