I was there when “lifehacking” was born. It was the 11th of February, 2004, at the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference, held in a giant conference hotel in San Diego. I was on the committee for ETech (as we called it) and I had lobbied hard for the inclusion of a talk called “Life Hacks: Tech Secrets of Overprolific Alpha Geeks” by Danny O’Brien, a technology ...Read MoreRead more
Cheating is a given.
Inspectors certify that gas-station pumps are pumping unadulterated fuel and accurately reporting the count, and they put tamper-evident seals on the pumps that will alert them to attempts by station owners to fiddle the pumps in their favor. Same for voting machines, cash registers, and the scales at your grocery store.
The basic theory of cheating is to assume that the cheater is ‘‘rational’’ and won’t ...Read MoreRead more
The legendary musician, producer, and weirdo Brian Eno has many notable accomplishments and high among them is the production of the ‘‘Oblique Strategies’’ deck, a deck of cards emblazoned with gnomic and hard-to-parse advice that is meant to shake your creative rut: ‘‘Fill every beat with something,’’ or ‘‘Infinitesimal gradations’’ or ‘‘Do nothing for as long as possible.’’
My favorite of these – first learned from Bruce Sterling – is ...Read MoreRead more
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’’ To this day, especially in times of ‘‘disaster,’’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.
In ...Read MoreRead more
In 1972, a group of researchers funded by the Volkswagen Foundation published a seismic book called Limits to Growth, which used the most sophisticated techniques of the day to model the planet Earth and project its future. The book’s authors were trying to figure out how rosy a future the world’s poor could count on: would they some day enjoy the cars and refrigerators and other benefits of the ...Read MoreRead more
Let’s say for the sake of argument that you voted for Donald Trump and you’re ecstatic that he’s taking the White House. You might even be rubbing your hands in glee at the thought that Obama was dumb enough to operationalize George W. Bush’s surveillance apparatus – rather than living up to his election promise to dismantle it – because now there’s a technological means by which President Trump can ...Read MoreRead more
William Blackstone is a towering legal authority, whose 18th century Commentaries on the Laws of England are still studied today. Blackstone was big on private property as a cure for humanity’s woes. In Commentaries, he wrote one of the most famous definitions of private property in English-language history:
There is nothing which so generally strikes the imagination, and engages the affections of mankind, as the right of property; or ...Read MoreRead more
It used to be that server logs were just boring utility files whose most dramatic moments came when someone forgot to write a script to wipe out the old ones and so they were left to accumulate until they filled the computer’s hard-drive and crashed the server.
Then, a series of weird accidents turned server logs into the signature motif of the 21st century, a kind of eternal, ubiquitous exhaust ...Read MoreRead more
Ever since the first days of public access to the Internet, activists like me have been making dire warnings about the privacy implications of leaving data-trails behind you when you engage in everyday activity. We hoped that people would think forward to the potential risks of disclosures down the road – that the individually harmless crumbs of personal information could be painstakingly, disastrously aggregated by criminals, or repressive governments, or ...Read MoreRead more
E-books are game-changers, but not in the way we all thought they would be. Far from taking over print, e-book sales have stagnated at less than a quarter of print sales and show every sign of staying there or declining for the foreseeable future.
But e-books continue to be a source of bitter controversy that divides publishers from two of their most potentially useful allies: writers’ groups and libraries.
Below, ...Read MoreRead more
I need to confess something: ‘‘Whuffie’’ would make a terrible currency.
In 2003, I published my first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, in which all society’s scarcities, even death and energy, have been overcome, and where conflicts over resources – notably, who gets to run Walt Disney World and what they get to do there – are apportioned using a virtual currency called ‘‘Whuffie.’’ Unlike other ...Read MoreRead more
A problem is said to be ‘‘wicked’’ when the various parties engaged with it can’t even agree what the problem is, let alone the solution. As the name implies, wicked problems are hard to deal with.
More than a decade ago, the Federal Communications Commission got its first inkling of a wicked problem on its horizon.
Here’s the problem: around the world, we chop up the electromagnetic spectrum into dedicated-use ...Read MoreRead more
Technologist Anil Dash has a law. ‘‘Three things never work: Voice chat, printers, and projectors.’’ It’s funny because it’s true. We’ve all struggled with getting a printer to work; we’ve all watched a presenter and an AV tech sweat over a projector in a room full of awkwardly shifting audience-members; we’ve all noted the perverse tendency of voice-over-IP calls to turn into slurred, flanged Dalek-speak just as the other person ...Read MoreRead more
The Internet of Things is starting to emerge. You can tell it’s just starting, because we’re still using the ungainly name ‘‘Internet of Things.’’ It’s one of those coinages that tells you that we don’t know what a thing is or what it’s for, like ‘‘horseless carriage’’ or ‘‘3D printer.’’
But there’s one thing we do know about the IoT: it involves a lot of sensing. The IoT is what ...Read MoreRead more
As I’ve written here before, science fiction is terrible at predicting the future, but it’s great at predicting the present. SF writers imagine all the futures they can, and these futures are processed by a huge, dynamic system consisting of editors, booksellers, and readers. The futures that attain popular and commercial success tell us what fears and aspirations for technology and society are bubbling in our collective imaginations.
When you ...Read MoreRead more
When I started writing, I thought I was talented. I was six, and I’d written something precocious that attracted praise from the grownups around me, and that praise included a descriptive dimension: I hadn’t just written something that was good – I was a good writer.
Talent is a destructive myth. To call someone talented is to imply that their abilities are intrinsic. Having written and taught for decades now, ...Read MoreRead more
In Thomas Piketty’s ground-breaking 2014 economics blockbuster Capital in the 21st Century, the economist carefully documents the increasing wealth disparity around the globe, a phenomenon that has animated the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, Pope Francis, and political activists around the world. Some of Piketty’s critics have tried to call his math into question, but on this front Piketty seems most sound. The data-set he worked from represents an ...Read MoreRead more
Last November, I published a book-length essay about how copyright is failing to serve artists, and how it has come to present a clear and present danger to wider society. The book is called Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free, and it is composed of three snappy arguments (along with forewords by Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman) which I will summarize snappily, below:
1. Any time someone puts a ...Read MoreRead more
I’ve mentioned before, stories are weird. I mean, really, really weird. Nothing that happens in a piece of fiction has any consequence in the real world. Romeo and Juliet did not live, did not die, and the ‘‘tragedy’’ they represent is objectively less important than the tragedy of the live yogurt culture I digested at the breakfast table this morning.
My theory is that the parts of our brains that ...Read MoreRead more
It’s been half a decade since I coined ‘‘Doctorow’s first law of electronic publishing’’: ‘‘Any time someone puts a lock on something that belongs to you, and won’t give you the key, you can be sure that the lock isn’t there for your benefit.’’
I’m talking, of course, about ‘‘digital rights management,’’ one of those immortal, terrible ideas that resurfaces under a new name every couple of years. You may ...Read MoreRead more
Edward Snowden wasn’t the first person to leak information about US mass surveillance. The mass surveillance story has been unfolding since an AT&T technician called Mark Klein blew the whistle on the NSA in 2006, but the Snowden story is the first one that’s caught and held the public’s interest for more than a brief moment. I wish I knew why that was. I suspect that if you knew what ...Read MoreRead more
There’s a popular forum on the Reddit online service called ‘‘Explain Like I’m Five,’’ in which redditors pose difficult and esoteric questions whose settled answers are beyond their comprehension, and ask their fellows to simplify these answers to the point where a five year old could follow them.
Parenting is a long-running game of ‘‘Explain Like I’m Five’’ (actually, it starts with ‘‘Explain like I’m a pre-verbal infant,’’ and I ...Read MoreRead more
Legendary science fiction editor Gardner Dozois once said that the job of a science fiction writer was to notice the car and the movie theater and anticipate the drive-in – and then go on to predict the sexual revolution. I love that quote, because it highlights the key role of SF in examining the social consequences of technology – and because it shows how limited our social imaginations are. Today, ...Read MoreRead more
Plots are funny things. In the real world, stuff is always happening, but it’s not a plot. People live. People die. People are made glorious or miserable. Things eagerly awaited are realized, or hopes are cruelly dashed. Love is gained; love is lost. But all these things are not a plot – they lack the fundamental tidiness and orderliness that makes a story a story.
In fiction-land, stories have beginnings, ...Read MoreRead more
Project Paperless LLC, a strange company whose ownership is shrouded in mystery, wants $1,000 for every person in your company who scans documents and e-mails them. They claim that they have a valid patent covering this ‘‘invention,’’ and while $1,000 per employee is a lot of cabbage, it’s nothing compared to what it would cost you to prove to a court that the patent is as bogus as we all ...Read MoreRead more
At the start of the summer, I traveled to Chicago for the annual national conference of the American Library Association. It was great. There are many utterly baseless clichés about librarians – the shushing spinster who prefers the company of books to humans is a creation of pure and unimaginative fantasy. But there is one way in which librarians live up to their reputation: they are superbly organized. I’ve been ...Read MoreRead more
A quote variously attributed to Richard Feynman and Albert Einstein has it that ‘‘If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t really understand it.’’ Most of us have encountered this in our lives: you think you really know something and understand it, and then you try to teach it and realize that you never understood it in the first place.
Computers are the children of the ...Read MoreRead more
I’m not complaining when I say that YA book-tours are a death march. I relish the chance to go on the road, and I’m profoundly grateful to my publisher, Tor, for sending me out with my books – in February, I hit 23 cities in 25 days with my novel Homeland, and in most cities, I did multiple school presentations as well as press stops and then a public ...Read MoreRead more
On February 5, 2013, Tor Teen published Homeland, the sequel to my first YA novel, Little Brother. As I write this in January ’13, I’m just gearing up for the tour, which mostly involves sending semi-form e-mails to nice people who’ve asked me to do something time-consuming, explaining that I’ve only got two weeks left until I disappear into the Tour, wherein I will see 22 cities in ...Read MoreRead more
Fiction is weird. The people in fiction are, well, fictional. Made up. They have no lives, and nothing they do, and nothing that happens to them has any consequences in the real world. By definition: made up people don’t affect reality.
And yet, our bodies don’t seem to know this. Yesterday, I actually made a loud, horrified noise as I read an advance copy of Daniel Kraus’s forthcoming – and ...Read MoreRead more
As I write this in September, 2012, Charlie Stross and I just returned from a tour with our novel Rapture of the Nerds, a book about – among other things – technological immortality as achieved through brain uploading. Digital mortality was very much on my mind as we crossed the country. I had begun my trip with a few days in Toronto, attending to a strange and new kind ...Read MoreRead more
My friends (and especially my wife) all understand that I’m the wrong guy to take to a big budget science fiction movie. I will freely admit that this is the case. Every summer, as I sit down in one darkened cave after another to eat candy and watch some very expensive polygons interact with another bunch of very expensive polygons, I find myself swirling with a curious and unpleasant mix ...Read MoreRead more