Dangerous to those who profit from the way things are

research * the future * culture

No one cares about your jetpack: on optimism in futurism


This review of Disney’s Tomorrowland (and others like it that I have read) got me thinking about something I was asked at the Design In Action summit last week in Edinburgh. I was there participating in the “Once Upon a Future” event, where I read a story called “The Dreams in the Bitch House.” It’s about a tech sorority at a small New England university. And programmable matter.

After I did my keynote and read my story, I did a Q&A. After a few questions, someone in the audience asked: “Why so negative?”
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Deleted scenes from Avengers: Age of Ultron

As I’m sure you know by now, the theatrical cut of Avengers: Age of Ultron is missing about 25 minutes of footage, and Joss Whedon’s director’s cut will have an alternate ending. Here, exclusively*, are some of those missing scenes in screenplay format.
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How can the platforms fight harassment?

One thing that becomes eminently clear in this piece about the online stalking, harassment, and threatening of Zoe Quinn is that the police (and the justice system at large) know absolutely fuck-all about online harassment. Which makes sense. The Internet is the thing they use to send reports. It’s not a place where they live. It’s not a thing they police. (Policing the Internet is for the poor damned souls who work Special Victims. And maybe the Fraud Squad people. It’s not for common-or-garden desk officers who take the terrified testimony of women who are re-considering gun ownership.)

At the same time, asking victims of harassment and stalking to explain the Internet to police is both callous and inefficient. Police forces everywhere need to know how harassment online works, not just local precincts that happen to represent random targets. So, what is to be done?

Well, there is one group that has all the data on harassment, and a compelling interest in improving the optics of the situation. It’s not victims. It’s not harassers. It’s not even the police. It’s the plaforms themselves.

Yes. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube: this is on you. You can implement greater protections for users, and you should. But what you’re in a unique position to do is share data on how harassment happens with the people who know the least about it. You know who does it. You know how they do it. You know how often it happens. You know how open and vulnerable your networks are. And you have more than just anecdata: you have the numbers. You’re the ones who can tell police forces (and schools, and workplaces) how the Internet works. How communities work. How communication online works. After all, isn’t that what you were trying to build? A communications network that would be enticing enough to keep people in place long enough to show them ads? And haven’t you learned a little something about human behaviour, from that whole process?

And really, how different would explaining these phenomena be from, say a TED talk? Or a really depressing PowerPoint presentation? Isn’t knowledge-sharing a core component of Valley life? Don’t people visit you all the time, to talk about their cool projects? You could be the ones doing that — for the Department of Justice. Or Congress. Or associations of police chiefs.

So get on it, social media Powers That Be. Relating key sociological concepts to police officers shouldn’t be the victims’ job. You’re the ones who helped create this problem. It’s your job.

The Jeeps Look Up: on driverless vs. drones

I don’t drive. I hate driving. In high school, my driving instructor waited until I was trying to make a left turn in an intersection to start screaming “You’re trying to kill us!” Then I pulled over to the side of the road and said: “You will never speak to me that way ever again,” and quit the class. (What I should have done, instead of quitting, was gotten really great at driving, and then used those skills to scare the shit out of him during some later exam.) I still remember how cars work, but I have no urge to drive one. Neither did Ray Bradbury, for that matter. I’m in good company.

So I understand the charm of driverless cars, because I understand the charm of not driving. I understand that having a driverless or autonomous car could be safer than entrusting a vehicle to a person who may be drunk, distracted, or otherwise incapacitated. And I think that economies and air quality improve when we invest in more public transit. I think that instead of focusing on cars for a more sustainable and equitable future, we should focus on transit, and bike lanes, and telecommuting. (Because let me tell you — that office tower isn’t doing the environment any big favours, either. And sitting at that desk is slowly killing you. And Slack lets you keep conversations about workplace harassment and pay equity. And, and, and.)

But at the same time, I recognize that a) some people still need cars, and b) innovations in the automotive industry can turn into better products for drivers and non-drivers alike. Like, for example, Volvo’s IntelliSafe system. IntelliSafe feels like it could be driverless already — the collision detection, blind spot warning system, 360-degree camera system, and all the other features make the car more aware, as well as the driver. The driver becomes just one part of an integrated system, rather than the prime mover. Keep in mind that the word “cybernetics” stems from the Greek word for “pilot” or “steersman.” As cars grow more aware, that’s what drivers become — steersmen, not stuntmen.

However, the trouble with driverless cars is not their technological feasibility, it’s their liability and accountability. If a driverless car gets in an accident, who is to blame? Whose insurance pays out? Whose premiums get raised? Not to mention the fact that traffic might actually increase with the arrival of these vehicles.

Enter drones. Sure, you can control a car with one. That’s already happened. But that’s only half the solution. The other half is the shut-in economy.

Say what you want about Uber-nomics, and the gig/freelance/shut-in/Dickensian urchin economy (and there’s a lot to say about all that), but past a certain point, there’s no reason for your car’s driver to be in the car with you. What does exist is a legion of part-time workers who can complete a drone-driving program and don’t even need to own a car to make money. And if they lose control of the vehicle due to signal latency issues? That’s when a driverless system could kick in. Or a designated driver (see what I did, there?) could take the controls, thumbing into the driver interface thanks to a pre-approved biometric whitelist.

The neat thing about this is that you get to keep your mobile fuckden status symbol throne of seething rage car, without ever having to take responsibility for it. Sure, you would pay for it, and fuel/charge it, and probably keep it clean, but the chain of decisions about what to do with it — beyond where to hang your rosary — would vanish. All of the style. None of the substance. Bliss.

“But would that really be safe?” you’re asking.

Well, I suspect it might actually be safer than asking a drone pilot to shoot bunker-buster missiles into densely-packed neighbourhoods based on camera input, data mining, and bit of HUMINT. It’s about as a safe as long-distance surgery performed by robot. Both of those things happen, already, and both processes are just as vulnerable to technological and human foibles as driving. Is getting the kids to soccer really more dangerous than heart surgery? Is your still-drunk 11:48 dash to Taco Bell more fraught than counter-terrorism efforts? Probably not. Probably, you could trust an auto-pilot (see? this is so much fun!) to do the driving for you.

At least, I would. Anything to avoid driving. Or buying a car.

Upcoming appearances

It’s gonna be a busy spring (and summer). Here are the appearances I have booked thus far:

    1. Ad Astra, April 11, Toronto, where I will be participating in panels about AI, privacy, and Hannibal.
    2. Ada’s Technical Books, 5 May, Seattle, where Glenn Fleischmann and I will be talking about…stuff. Probably robots. And earthquakes. And how much I miss Bauhaus Books & Coffee. Also I’ll be speaking to students at my alma mater, and attending my 10-year reunion. Because I am really lucky to be in the position that I’m in, and I want to tell people who are just starting out that things may in fact turn out okay.
    3. Design Business: The Scottish Design Summit, 21-23 May, Edinburgh, where I will be keynoting the “Once Upon A Future” event at the Warburton Gallery, talking about our Gothic future.
    4. Swecon, 7-9 August, Link√∂ping, where I am a Guest of Honour and where I will probably try to buy a winter coat, because Sweden doesn’t believe in bad weather, only bad clothing.

And then in October, I get married. Of all these events, that’s the one I’m most excited about. But if I don’t email you back about something, especially during the fall, that may be why.

LICENCE EXPIRED: open for submissions!


That’s right, agents. We’re open for business.

David Nickle and Madeline Ashby are co-editing Licence Expired: the Unauthorized James Bond for ChiZine Publications, seeking stories based on the character of James Bond as described in Ian Fleming’s fourteen published works. The anthology will be published by ChiZine Publications in Canada only, as Fleming’s work has entered the public domain only in Canada and a few other countries.

Because of those legal restrictions, stories must only reference elements from Fleming’s stories, and not elements introduced exclusively in the films, new novels and stories, games or other media.

So take up your pens, fill them with poison gas, and get to writing!

Immigration is an information design problem.

While writing this column for the Ottawa Citizen on proposed changes to Canada’s immigration policy, an idea occurred to me that had taken years to crystallize. It emerged, strange but sharp, like a thorn buried under the skin that slowly eases free of the body’s confines.

Immigration is an information design problem.

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Meet me in Winnipeg!

Actually, meet me and David Nickle, hosted by SM Beiko and Chadwick Ginther. Yes, in the fine old tradition of Bogart and Bacall, Gaiman and Palmer, and Bob and Bing, the nice folks at the McNally Robinson Bookstore in Winnipeg are presenting An Evening With Madeline Ashby & David Nickle, Friday March 13 at 7:30. (Yes, that’s Friday the 13th. Bring your own chainsaw.) Come watch us do our William Tell routine. We’ll read, we’ll sign, we’ll do the whole bit. Come out to the ‘peg, we’ll have a few laughs!

…Okay, I’m out of jokes. But I am genuinely excited to share the stage with the love of my life, especially when that stage is at one of the best bookstores in Canada. So come on out and say hello.

Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Having Never Done One

So there’s this piece going around, about what students need to do succeed as writers in literary MFA programs. A lot of it is pretty basic — show up, do the work, read good books, nurse your talent. And a lot of it is pretty bitchy — there’s a bit about how being abused as a child can’t make you a better writer, which is both unnecessary and sidesteps the central literary issue of abuse narratives, namely that coming forward to tell a story is the often first step in ending abuse.

But that’s an issue for another post. I’m here to tell you something else about MFAs, and writing in general.

MFAs are bullshit. You don’t need one.

You may simply want one, which is something else. And this isn’t to say that you can’t make use of one. Or that the process of obtaining one isn’t helpful. Getting a Master of Fine Arts degree can be a great way to hone your craft, meet other writers, find mentors, and enter a local literary community. From a networking perspective, it’s a good idea. Especially if you’re writing mainstream lit, you’ll need to find a way to set yourself apart from all the other writers who talk about three generations of women coming together for a funeral, or alcoholic forty-something English profs who fall for their students, or the divorced thirty-somethings returning to their tiny rustbelt towns and reuniting with the parent of the pregnancy they had aborted back in high school, or whatever.

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What can serial killers tell us about artificial intelligence?

I first wondered this while watching the second series of The Fall, a challenging and unapolegetically feminist take on the now-standard serial killer drama. In it, a handsome and fit man by the name of Paul Spector routinely stalks and murders women — in between making appointments as a certified bereavement counselor, going on date nights with his wife, and looking after his two children, ages eight and six. His foe is Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson, an empowered take on Alfred Hitchcock’s blonde archetype from the London Metropolitan police called to Belfast first to participate in a departmental review, and then to oversee the investigation into Spector’s killings. It’s Gibson who links Spector’s murders together, spotting similarities in both victim profile and killing methodology. From then on, the drama unfolds as a story of two very brilliant people slowly discovering more about each other from a great distance. With every murder, Spector reveals more of himself. And at every crime scene, we learn what makes Gibson the ideal investigator to see straight through Spector’s self-righteous, pseudo-intellectual bullshit to the grimy engine of misogyny that drives him deeper down his inevitable spiral.

In other words, it’s a Chinese Room story.

In philosopher John Searle’s Chinese Room argument, intended to refute arguments for strong AI, Searle argues that an appropriate contextual response to stimuli is not evidence of genuine consciousness. This acceptance of consciousness as biologically naturalistic has since been called into question by neuroscientists. We are often unconscious of behaviours, leading biologists to wonder what the point of consciousness is, or even if it’s literally just a side-effect of developing vision.

Now imagine that instead of consciousness, we were debating the existence of empathy.

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  • Madeline Ashby…

    ...is a science fiction writer, futurist, speaker, and immigrant living in Toronto. She writes a column for the Ottawa Citizen. She is represented by Anne McDermid & Associates, and IAM Sports & Entertainment. You can buy her novels here. She has written narrative scenarios and science fiction prototypes for organizations like Intel Labs, the Institute for the Future, SciFutures, Nesta, Data & Society, and others. Her short fiction has appeared in Nature, FLURB, Tesseracts, Imaginarium, and Escape Pod. Her other essays and criticism have appeared at BoingBoing, io9, WorldChanging, Creators Project, Arcfinity, and Tor.com.
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    Madeline Ashby's books on Goodreads
    vN vN (The Machine Dynasty, #1)
    reviews: 18
    ratings: 27 (avg rating 3.56)

    Shine: An Anthology of Optimistic SF Shine: An Anthology of Optimistic SF
    reviews: 18
    ratings: 44 (avg rating 3.45)

    Tesseracts Eleven: Amazing Canadian Speculative Fiction Tesseracts Eleven: Amazing Canadian Speculative Fiction
    reviews: 6
    ratings: 14 (avg rating 3.50)

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  • Madeline 's bookshelf: read

    Designing for Interaction: Creating Innovative Applications and Devices (2nd Edition)Super Natural Cooking: Five Delicious Ways: To Incorporate Whole & Natural Ingredients into Your CookingGluten-Free Girl and the ChefPeople Crossing Borders: An Analysis of U.S. Border Protection PoliciesHalf the Day Is NightThe Magicians

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