Thursday, 28 August 2014

Some thoughts on time travel

No, nothing to do with killing your grandfather or sleeping with your grandmother...

This is a meme that's been at the back of my mind for some time now, but it was brought to the fore when, having moved to a new town, I gave our ten-year old a map and asked him to plan a walking route.

Not that he did badly; there's a lot of arcane symbolism on an A to Z if you're a ten-year old, although I would have thought going around one, not two, sides of a triangle would have been intuitive.

No, it was a large foldy piece of paper in the hands of a digital native.  Because he will grow up with a device, not a physical unwieldy map, in his hands.  And a device that translates and advises to boot.  And tells him where he is without having to look up a road name and then cross reference column and row and stare into the detail of a medieval streetplan, or line up churches, copses and hilltops on both paper and in reality.

Because they are all burdens which will be taken off his shoulders; necessitating skills, like hunting bison with sticks, which will become redundant.  His life will be easier than ours, particularly when we have connectivity up Everest and on the streets of El Dorado.

But - and this is where I don't know whether I'm being a seer or a fool - this is where I have a problem. Because challenges beget skills and abilities.  And without challenges we need be little more than Cartesian brains in jars.

Our generation learnt to read maps and then use maps.  His generation will simply be told where to go. There's a difference.  Our generation had the 'why learn maths when I can learn to use a calculator' question; his will ask 'why learn to do anything?'.  I genuinely wonder why we continually challenge him to improve his handwriting when he'll type virtually everything.

I've long thought that if and when the balloon goes up - let's say that sci-fi chestnut of the electromagnetic pulse that knocks over any silicon-based technology - that any fourteenth century youth would survive far longer than one from my generation.  He'd be able to catch, kill and cook his own dinner.  Mine would be looking for the tin opener and matches.  But my ten-year old's would be looking for the Ocado van and the fire-making app.

However, it's only just occurred to me that this process is on-going.  As technologies replace challenges (like the word processing package built into this blogger that takes the pressure off my being able to spell) our raw abilities erode.  And it's still going on.

So what of the future?  TV dinners mean some can't-cook-won't -cook; will food synthesis make it a completely lost art?  Anti-gravity will mean we'll never have to lift anything heavier than a finger ever again.  And then soon we won't be able to at all.  Communication by thought will destroy the art of conversation.  Robot cars will mean nobody can take the wheel when the machines go bad.  And so on...

But I know what you're thinking; can I cast any positives into this gloom?  Well, how about cryo-technology?  Because somewhere out there in this deskilled future may lie the last analogue native, deep frozen, probably thawing automatically, ready to explain to mankind what happens when nothing happens when you press a button.

Assuming somebody has the skills to revive him, that is...

Monday, 18 August 2014

Cosmic (dog) Egg

It is with great pleasure that I can announce that I've been offered a book contract for my sci-fi novel 2084, previously subtitled The Meschera Bandwidth which gives this blog its web address.

And it is with greater pleasure that I can say that it took me about ten minutes and no legal advice whatsoever to turn it down.

The lucky recipient of my decision was Cosmic Egg, an imprint of John Hunt Publishing.  As for my reasons, let me simply quote the feedback I left on their site (everything is done by logging into a database; even the contract offer email was unsigned and came from a no-reply address which rather gives an insight into their style):

Exploitative terms which do not suggest any desire on your part to develop a long-term mutually beneficial relationship

It wasn't so much that they wanted money to publish it - over £2000 - although I have a personal rule not to pay for publication; backing by a publisher, to me, represents independent verification of the quality of the raw material.  No, it was the fact that they would retain the rights, i.e. own the book, for the duration of copyright which, correct me if I'm wrong, would mean they would have it until 50 - or is it 75 now? - years after I'm dead.

But let's go back to the money question.  What other industry other than the arts makes the producers of the raw material pay for it to be processed?  No, really, think about it.  Name one.  I can't.

Actually, I have some sympathy for publishers and can understand why they'd wish to pass some of the business risk back to the author, particularly of niche products (which a sci-fi novel called 2084 isn't intended to be).  They'd argue that it is the information revolution, which has allowed me to submit to, and decline a contract from, Cosmic Egg with such ease that has flooded the market with product.  How do you get a new book by an unknown author noticed under those circumstances?

But my sympathy stops when a publisher wants me to pay for them to take a story off me for my lifetime plus most of my children's.

But maybe publishing is at a bleeding edge here?  What deal will farmers get when we can synthesise our own food?  What deal will anybody get when we have universal 3D printing with (to use Peter F Hamilton's term) 'raw' that can be turned into anything from aircraft engines to underwear?

The answer is simple: farmers will stop trying to sell foodstuffs at a loss, and the aeroengine and panties makers will adopt the new technology.  Only authors keep writing stories when the world has more books in it that anybody can read in a lifetime.  And under those circumstances is it any surprise they're increasingly being asked to pay to publish?

So, why do we do it?  Well, to paraphrase Louis Armstrong, if you've gotta ask you ain't never gonna know...

Friday, 8 August 2014

The Off-Net

Last time I mused on some fairly obvious future inventions.  I did try to spin the in-ear translator into a storyline involving the 2065 peace negotiations between the Taliban and the west, but I kept coming back to gremlins translating innocent phrases into pork products, and given Daily Science Fiction put a parental warning sticker on my last story over a fairly lame bit of slang I didn't see it having legs...

I'll add a couple of culinary items to the list.  Firstly, the microwaveable tin can.  I'd pay the premium.  Secondly, genuinely hob to table cookware - a pan with a lid that acts like a sieve to drain my pasta but still seals when I want it to, and a body that can take a flame but I can also eat out of; non-stick even when I've gouged it with my knife.  If you want to have a go inventing that remember to send me my 10%...

But this posting wasn't intended to be about reinventing the kitchen, although co-incidentally Radcliffe and Maconie were musing on the possibility of cubic peas on 6Music yesterday.  I thought I'd predict a black swan that is, possibly, already happening.

The rise of The Off-Net.

We all know people who aren't online because of circumstances, lack of confidence, lack of knowledge, or plain old inertia.  They probably make up most of the planet.  Here I'm positing another group, a blink-and-you-miss it demographic - those who actively refuse to take part in the Information Age.  Those who have opted-out.  The Digital Amish.

And opting-out is an activity.  It's like sitting in a leaky boat trying to stop data escaping.  Actually, a better analogy may be like trying to stop water evaporating, with the rise of CCTV snapping your face daily.  Just sitting still may be being recorded somewhere, somehow.

It's hardly surprising some will take minimising their digital footprint to an extreme.  We hear a lot about the dark side of the net, whether it be child abuse, personal data wriggling loose, or active snooping on us by governments.  We probably don't know the half of it.  I'm not the first person who gives a digital shrug to most of it which, when you think about it, is an odd response.  It's like we've all been conditioned to, well, not give a monkey's.  Conditioned?  Mentally poisoned, possibly...

But I know there are people out there who take it seriously.  I'd say too seriously but, hey, I'm one of the ones who have already been got.  They're Donald Sutherland and I'm Jeff Goldblum, or possibly Veronica Cartwright (hmm...).  They're the people who used to wear tinfoil hats but have got more subtle since the 60s.  They're the Off-Net.

I included the Off-Net in a story, They Hide in Plain Sight, yet to be sold.  In this, in the 22nd century, they're space hippies brought together by word of mouth to worship a new messiah.  Not sure it's the most coherent piece I've ever written but, hey, is all of PK Dick's oeuvre?  But those are the successors to today's Off-Net, some of whom may still have their parents' tinfoil hats as heirlooms.  Who knows who they are or what they're doing today.  All I know is that they won't be reading this...   

Saturday, 2 August 2014

The Black Swan - the Impossibility of Invention

I've been reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb's 'The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable' which, unfortunately, doesn't include Natalie Portman getting down with Mila Kunis.  Never mind.

Like many work colleagues and former college friends it's garrulous and engaging and takes you places where you find you don't really want to be.  Intellectual places.  I haven't yet finished it - that'll come when we have another week under canvas and will then I'll post a review on  - but one area I've so far got to where the mechanism of deception comes up over the radar relates to inventions, and this speaks to the point I made about Mark Twain predicting the web.

Taleb says - seems to say, it's tricky paraphrasing an argument that you suspect is screwy - that it is logically impossible to predict the future because, if you have done so, then the future has arrived.

Take the wheel.  If a caveman had said to himself, I predict the invention of the wheel, then, by thinking about the wheel he'd invented it.

Well, on the face of it, yes.  But what Taleb doesn't seem to allow is the caveman saying, I predict that very soon somebody will invent a better way of moving these dressed granite stones across Salisbury Plain...  He can't seem to separate the what from the how. 

Sci-fi is packed with 'what' predictions, the usual dilithium hyper-star-drive that allows our characters to get on with it.  And we live in such a complex world the what is now far, far separated from the how.  Think of the wheel - the what is in the shape which is also the how.  Now think of the Space Shuttle, or indoor fireworks, or paint that goes on pink but dries white.

But, putting sci-fi aside, there are more practical predictions we can make (doesn't mean to say that we may get them all right) just by looking at the way the wind is blowing.  I predict that electric cars will get more prevalent,  that their batteries will get lighter, that they'll develop solar roof panels as standard, that they'll get more efficient and effective.  A virtuous circle.

I predict government data sources joining together meaning it'll be impossible to receive a tax refund if I've got an outstanding speeding fine.  (I suspect this has been standard practice in sensible places like Scandanavia and the Netherlands for decades).

I predict in-ear translation devices.  One day.

There.  Three swift 'what' predictions before 7am without any attempt at the 'how'.  Just by seeing how the world is changing, none of them that original.

Actually, it makes me realise that I don't even know how much of the present works, let alone the future.  Take our satnav which knows where there are traffic delays in real time.  Is somebody feeding this in?  Doubtful - never seen an advert for that callcentre.  Or, more probably, is it working off feedback from other satnav users?  In which case when I'm told my route has a thirty minute delay, is it just you having pulled over to splash your boots and tuck a sandwich away?