I really can’t remember a time in my life which didn’t feature science fiction or fantasy in some form. Thinking back it probably stems from going to the Disney Movie of 20,000 Leagues under the Sea which was released in the year of my birth but still around in children’s cinema when I was very young. Cinema was special in those days as we didn’t have a television until 1965 when the BBC serialised Wars of the Roses which finally persuaded my mother to rent a television and shift us from a diet of Radio. I Never resented that by the way as Children’s Hour on the Home Service (now Radio 4) probably stimulated my imagination more than the special effects of modern television. From that point on I didn’t have to sneak around to friends’ houses to watch Doctor Who and I’m around to say that I have never missed a single episode of that classic, which took some effort before the arrival of VHS. I never really got into Comic Books though and I am not sure they would have gotten through a material censorship system which banned Biggles, James Bond and anything by Enid Blyton. The banning was on grounds of politics, by the way, not prurience. There are links here to some elite US schools that are educating their children without technology to give them an advantage by developing human sense-making skills in an age where meaning is in effect being curated by algorithms.
One of the scariest ideas in modern sci-fi can be found in Neil Stephenson’s 2019 book Fall, or, Dodge in Hell. Now I am a great fan of his work, especially the Baroque Cycle and Cryptonomicon which can be admired for their writing as well as their ideas. Fall, like Seveneves is more in the brilliant ideas, but rather rushed writing, style. Now most of Fall is about digital uploading into the cloud and the creation of Hell (shades of Iain M Banks much better Surface Detail there) and to be honest I found tedious, but once I have started a book I really can’t abandon it. The interesting idea, which is the basis for this blog post comes in the early chapters where he posits a world where only the rich can afford to have their information feed curated, everyone else is in effect a mark for anyone seeking to take control of how they see the world. In effect, only an elite can have any knowledge of what is true and what is false.
The trigger for this was the GOP attack ad after Biden declared his candidacy for President, using deep fake images. I was pulled into this via Linkedin on a post by Gary Marcus and also by Grey Swan Guild. I’ve criticised the latter for their approach to sensemaking/sense-making and knowledge management but I’m fully on board with them here. In the first of these posts, Michael Lissak (an old friend) said: “No different than the anti-Goldwater ad in 1964” which is sort of true in terms of content but there are three substantial differences: (i) speed and cost of creation, (ii) realism of the material & (iii) the ability of social media to target individuals with the material. The Stephenson novel makes these points brilliantly. The description of the town that fake news says has been wiped out, and the refusal of people to believe the truth in the face of evidence is terrifying.
Another point here is that there is an existential issue here and we would now allow people to build a nuclear plant in their back garden without regulation, but there is nothing to handle advanced forms of machine learning and there seems a strong anarchist drive. I was on the Jim Rutt show recently and while both of us had signed the petition to cry a halt, his motivation was to allow space for open source competition to Microsoft to emerge, mine was very different. The ideology of removing all controls to allow things to magically work out is deeply disturbing.
Realistically determining what is true in a virtual world is almost certainly a lost option. Hence our growing focus on curating input rather than output. I’m not really ready to say much about that at the moment as it’s still in R&D/early stage development. But we are open to discussion under NDAs. This is a significant switch in thinking and relates to our earlier Ponte project for the EU.
The other thing this has given me an idea for is a series on science fiction/fantasy and its implications so I’ve created a new category for that.
The opening picture is a scan of a cover of the April-May 1939 issue of Marvel Science Stories that has been retouched and is used under the terms of a Creative Commons licence. It was obtained from rawpixel
The banner picture shows a small part of my science fiction/fantasy collection which is organised by author name on shelves I built to optimise the number of books I could have out. It’s a little hazy because it is part of a ‘book corridor’ where to accommodate the collection, I put a row of bookshelves facing those on the wall to create a 70cm space shown to the right. I have two of those in my study and could, if necessary build one more but I would prefer to move to a smaller house, but with a large external building to convert to a library, study and meeting space; but that is a pipe dream for the moment.
For those with a book problem – throwing them away is NOT a solution, you can also knock down partition walls and replace them with a double-sided bookcase. Ditto structural walls but then you need an RSJ and it’s not a DIY job. I’ve done that several times in three different houses. Necessity is the mother of invention and all that ….
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