Posts Tagged ‘Charles Stross’

Rise of the machines: Links & comments 8/19/14

August 19, 2014

The Internet’s Original Sin by Ethan Zuckerman for The Atlantic.

The basic problem with the commercial Internet, according to this writer, is the use of advertising to finance Internet services.

Because an individual advertisement on the Internet has little impact, the value of advertising is based on the ability of the firm to target individuals who are interested in this particular product.  And the only way to do this is to gather data and use it to profile individuals.

Invasion of privacy is not a bug.  It is a necessary feature.  The reason it is necessary is that most people would rather give up their privacy than pay for Internet services.

Zuckerman thinks this is the reason that NSA surveillance is no big deal for most Americans.  We’re already accustomed to giving up our privacy.

He doesn’t have a good answer as to what to do about all this, and neither do I.

How We Imprison the Poor for Crimes That Haven’t Happened Yet by Hamilton Nolan for Gawker.

The science-fiction movie Minority Report imagined a world in which it was possible to predict when people would commit crimes and to arrest them before the crime occurred.  A predictive science of human behavior does not exist, but that does not stop people in authority from acting as if it did.

American courts are increasingly using what’s called “evidence-based sentencing” on which the severity of the sentence is based on a computer algorithm’s determination of the likelihood that the person will commit another crime.

In practice, what this means that that poor youth who grew up in a family without a father will get a worse sentence than a middle-class youth with access to psychiatrists and good job opportunities.

This is contrary to the basic principle of equal justice under law.   If you commit a crime, you should be punished for what you did, not for what somebody thinks you may do.

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The financial markets on automatic pilot

June 24, 2014

flash-boys-jkt_1In a well-ordered economic system, financial markets provide a means for business enterprises to obtain financing and for investors to judge the worth of a business.

Flash Boys, the latest book by Michael Lewis, tells how far the financial markets have gotten away from that purpose.

His subject was high frequency trading, a method of skimming money from other peoples’ financial transactions.  Enormous expense and ingenuity has gone into perfecting high frequency trading.  But from the standpoint of social good, the only question is to what degree it is extremely dangerous, moderately harmful or  merely useless.

High frequency trading is done by computers, because human beings are too slow.  Computer trading accounts for about two-thirds of transactions on U.S. stock exchanges.  There is even a venture capital company that has a computer algorithm on its board of directors.

The science fiction writer Charles Stross wrote about futures in which artificial intelligences incorporate themselves in order to gain legal standing as persons, and in which computers and robots have created a fully functioning society while human beings die out or are sidelined.

I don’t expect this to happen, of course, but it is a good metaphor for what is going on.   Putting such a large part of the financial system on automatic pilot is reckless, especially in an economic recovery that is fragile to begin with.

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Click on Scalpers Inc. for a review of Flash Boys by John Lancaster in the London Review of Books.  Hat tip to Steve Badrich for the link.  I haven’t read the book myself.

Amazon is bad for writers and book lovers

June 12, 2014

 Amazon’s tactics against the book publisher Hachette are not just bad for publishers.  They are bad for writers.   And, in the long run, they are bad for lovers of books.

What’s going on is part of a familiar pattern.   A powerful company uses its power to squeeze the profit margins of weaker companies.   This means the weaker companies can’t afford decent pay for the people who produce the work.   But the producers can’t get at the powerful company because it is buffered by the intermediaries.

That is how it works with fast-food franchisers such as McConald’s, their franchisees and low-wage fast-food workers.   That is how it works with electronics companies such as Apple and Sony, their sub-contractors in Asia, and the low-paid sweatshop workers.  That is how it works with Walmart, its suppliers and their low-paid employees (aside from what Walmart pays its own employees)

Hachette Amazon LogoAnd this is how, apparently, it is going to work with Amazon, book publishers and authors.

Jeff Bezos of Amazon refuses to provide good service to buyers of Hachette books unless the publisher submits to his terms for distributing their books.  In an earlier dispute with the publisher Macmillian, he simply deleted the “buy” button from all Macmillan books listed on Amazon.

One of my favorite authors, Charles Stross, who is published by Hachette, explained what is at stake.

Amazon’s strategy … is to squat on the distribution channel, artificially subsidize the price of e-books “dumping” or predatory pricing to get consumers hooked, rely on DRM on the walled garden of the Kindle store to lock consumers onto their platform, and then to use their monopsony buying power to grab the publishers’ share of the profits.  If you’re a consumer, in the short term this is good news: it means you get cheap books.

But if you’re a reader, you probably like to read new books.  By driving down the unit revenue, Amazon makes it really hard for publishers—who are a proxy for authors—to turn a profit.  Eventually they go out of business, leaving just Amazon as a monopoly distribution channel retailing the output of an atomized cloud of highly vulnerable self-employed piece-workers like myself.

At which point the screws can be tightened indefinitely.  And after a while, there will be no more Charlie Stross novels because I will be unable to earn a living and will have to go find a paying job.

via Charlie’s Diary.

There is an old tradeoff:  Speed.  Price.  Quality.  Pick any two.  The business model being pushed by Jeff Bezos would pressure publishers into signing up authors who are prolific and cheap.  That literature has a value in and of itself doesn’t enter into his thinking.  As Stross said:

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Charles Stross on pre-emptive counter-revolution

October 8, 2013

The British SF writer Charles Stross, disturbed by the UK equivalents of the U.S. Homeland Security Administration, thinks his government is acting as if the powers-that-be fear a public uprising.

I have a new speculative hypothesis … . It is this: the over-arching reason for the clamp-down on dissent, migration, and freedom of expression, and the concurrent emphasis on security in the developed world, constitutes the visible expression of a pre-emptive counter-revolution[snip]

Charles Stross

Charles Stross

I believe what we’re seeing is a move towards the global imposition of a police state in the developed world, leveraging the xenophobia that naturally emerges during insecure times, by a ruling elite who are themselves feeling threatened by a specter.  Controls on movement, freedom of association, and speech are all key tools in the classic police state’s arsenal.

What’s new about this cycle is that the police state machinery is imposed locally, within national boundaries, but applies everywhere: the economic system it is intended to protect is transnational and unconstrained.  Which is why even places that were largely exempt during the cold war are having a common police state agenda quietly imposed. There is to be no refuge, other than destabilized “failed states” where the conditions of life make a police state look utopian in comparison.

via Who ordered *that*? – Charlie’s Diary.

Democracy in the UK is ineffective, Stross wrote.  He sees the Conservative, Labor and Liberal Democratic parties as different wings of the same Ruling Party—much as I see the Republican and Democratic parties in the USA.  If there is no hope for progressive change within the political system, then, as a matter of logic, the only possibility for change is a revolt against the system.

My conclusion is that we are now entering a pre-revolutionary state, much as the nations of Europe did in 1849 with the suppression of the wave of revolutions that spurred, among other things, the writing of “The Communist Manifesto”. It took more than a half-century for that pre-revolutionary situation to mature to the point of explosion, but explode it did, giving rise to the messy fallout of the 20th century.

I don’t know how long this pre-revolutionary situation will last — although I would be surprised if it persisted for less than two decades — but the whirlwind we reap will be ugly indeed: if you want to see how ugly, look to the Arab Spring and imagine it fought by … killer drones that know what you wrote on Facebook eighteen years ago when you were younger, foolish, and un-cowed.  And which is armed with dossiers the completeness of which the East German Stasi could only fantasize about.

via A Bad Dream – Charlie’s Diary.

Revolutionary violence does not appeal to Stross, nor to me.  But as President John F. Kennedy said, those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.

Charles Stross’s reasons to be cheerful

January 13, 2011

The science fiction writer Charles Stross opened 2011 by posting a list of reasons to be cheerful on his web log.  Here are a couple of them.

Charles Stross

Between 2000 and 2010, AIDS somehow turned into a non-fatal-if-treated chronic medical condition, and the drugs got cheap enough that even developing world countries can afford them; and despite the huge epidemic, AIDS is no longer killing more people than tuberculosis or malaria or the other classic hench-plagues of the grim reaper.

Both China and India underwent annual economic growth averaging around 10% per year throughout the decade. The sheer scale of it is mind-numbing; it’s as if the entire population of the USA and the EU combined had gone from third-world poverty to first-world standards of living. (There are still a lot of dirt-poor peasants left behind in villages, and a lot of economic — never mind political — problems with both India and China’s developed urban sectors, but overall, life is vastly better today than it was a decade ago for around a billion people.)

Click on Charlie’s Diary for his complete list.

Most of his bright spots are in the developing world.  I sometimes get discouraged about what is going on in the part of the world I’m sitting on, and it is good to get a perspective that looks at the world as a whole.