Dangerous to those who profit from the way things are

research * the future * culture

Mammograms are not scary. Everything else is.


As a result of my family’s long history of cancer, I’m part of the Ontario Breast Screening Program. That means I’m eligible to receive mammograms and breast MRIs on a regular basis starting at an earlier age than most other women in Canada. It also means I’ve just had my first mammogram at the age of thirty-two.

If you’re in your early thirties, and you’re curious about mammograms, I want to tell you that they’re not scary. They don’t even hurt that much. They might, if you’re about to menstruate or just naturally have very sore, tender breasts. But generally, you’ve probably had either an inconsiderate lover who’s inadvertently done worse, or a very considerate lover who’s done exactly as requested, with similar amounts of pain either way. Like your inconsiderate lover, it also only takes about four minutes.

Of course, the pain is not what’s scary. Mostly. What’s scary is what they might find.
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reV: or, the Apocalypse as told by the Devil herself

Oh, hello. Were you curious about what your psychotic grandmother the distributed AI was doing? Well, wonder no longer! Portia is happily causing havoc in America’s airports, using widely-available, mostly-insecure data from wearable technologies, purchasing records, and surveillance networks. You can read more of Portia’s exploits later, especially if you pre-order.

In this scene, Portia is trying to create a news story that she can use as marketing material for her anonymous pro-robot SuperPAC. Which is tough, when you don’t have a body.


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The Privilege of the Future (SweCon 2015 GoH Speech)

A note: I wrote these remarks after having watched the reception to my interview in The Atlantic about the need for women in futurism. A relevant snippet:

Ashby says that any time she speaks in front of a crowd, and offers a grim view of the future, someone (almost always a man) invariably asks why she can’t be more positive. “Why is this so depressing, why is this so dystopian,” they ask. “Because when you talk about the future you don’t get rape threats, that’s why,” she says. “For a long time the future has belonged to people who have not had to struggle, and I think that will still be true. But as more and more systems collapse, currency, energy, the ability to get water, the ability to work, the future will increasingly belong to those who know how to hustle, and those people are not the people who are producing those purely optimistic futures.”

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Licence Expired: the TOC and the TL;DR


The Table of Contents for my anthology with David Nickle, Licence Expired: The Unauthorized James Bond is now available. (You can pre-order it here.) I’m extremely proud of all the stories we included. It’s my first anthology, and there are stories by Charles Stross, Robert Wiersema, Kelly Robson, EL Chen, Jacqueline Baker, and others. These writers bit into the Bond mythos with sharp teeth, and they drew blood. Public domain — such as Ian Fleming’s Bond books and stories are, in Canada — grants great freedom in the arts, and that freedom can be intimidating. But you wouldn’t know it, reading these stories.

With that said, we wish this TOC were more diverse. We wish we’d heard from more people from more types of backgrounds, with more interpretations of Bond and his world. And because including more voices in publishing is an ongoing process with an ongoing conversation surrounding it, I thought I’d share what we learned from this particular experiment.

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Want to write convincing futures? Work retail.


A while ago, I tweeted something based on this piece in VICE UK, called “Things You Only Know When You’ve Worked in Retail.” I don’t really care for the clickbaity title, but the content of the piece isn’t wrong. Here’s what I said:

That got retweeted around, and I heard a lot of agreement from people who had worked front-line service jobs. From baristas to booksellers, they agreed with Bertie Brandes’ core thesis, which was that “until you’ve repeatedly thrown up from acid reflux in the Covent Garden American Apparel changing rooms as you pathetically spritz the mirrors with window cleaner, you can’t really say you know what real life is.”

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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, Linköping, 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.

  • 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.
  • Books

    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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