Saturday, December 17, 2016


I began this blog about three years ago, with a great and sluggardly reluctance, having received quite a few petitions signed by the entire science fiction and fantasy community urging me so to do.

Each of these countless petitions, which were annoying, and one of which I actually had to go to the Post Office to collect, thinking it to be something else and becoming disappointed when it was not, although the Post Office is not far, beseeched me, never mobilizing less than what I guess you'd call like the total syncretic ingenuity and imagination of the entire science fiction and fantasy community, although mobilizing said totality with each successive petition in some new configuration with unique emergent properties, to go onto Blogger or Wordpress, or onto Tumblr if need be, in order that I might occasionally put up some reviews of SF and fantasy, as well as put up some stray thoughts connected with my SF and fantasy Creative Writing PhD, whose commencement at Northumbria University at around that time was a commencement which, from what I could gather from these several petitions and the grapevines throwing themselves bodily at my window, the entire science fiction and fantasy community, including many of its dead, and some people who were just literally made up, both fiercely brooded upon individually, and also tumulted over frequently in public, and each petition signed by said entire community moreover entreated me to put up a little thingy on the side with links to other blogs, so.

OK but that's not all. Superadded to this general siege of opinion, I had started to feel that those closest to me would sometimes, in a real casual way, slip into conversation a chance remark, not obviously aimed at me, which intimated that to hide one's l33t under a bushel might itself be construed as vanity, and that in a way wouldn't you say that, like, the most ostentatious blog you can have as a white middle class western cis man is no blog at all -- the eyes flick anxiously to mine, linger an unsettling instant, flick away. I caved. My caving is all around you. In the end it was probably the dramatis personae itself that did it: what was reiterated strategum by strategum, however laughable the local strategic design, was this bald provocation: if so many millions of entities, living, dead, exotic, imaginary, could draw together under this one bloggenic banner, if Alex Dally MacFarlane, Alice Tarbuck, and Aliette de Bodard, if Amal El-Mohtar, Amy Sterling Casil, and Ann Leckie, if Anna MacFarlane, Benjanun Sriduangkaew, and Brad R. Torgersen‎, if Carol Emshwiller, Catherynne M. Valente, and China Miéville, if Christina Scholz, Chuck Tingle, and Connie Willis, if Elizabeth Jones, George O. Smith, and George RR Martin, if Gillian Anderson, Harlan Ellison, and Jack Vance, if Jim Butcher, John C. Wright, and John Scalzi, if Jonah Sutton-Morse, Joseph Tomaras, and Kate Paulk, if Kathy Acker, Kevin J. Anderson, and Kim Stanley Robinson, if Kir Bulychev, Lois McMaster Bujold, and L. Ron Hubbard, if Larry Correia, Laura J. Mixon, and Lavie Tidhar, if Margaret Cavendish, N.K. Jemisin, and Nalo Hopkinson, if Naomi Novik, Nick Mamatas, and Paul Weimer, if R.A. Lafferty, Renay, and Robert Heinlein, if Robert Jordan, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, and Saladin Ahmed, if Sarah Hoyt, Sofia Samatar, and Sophie Mayer, if Steven Gould, Tricia Sullivan, and Vox Day, if countless others, could all make cause together to beg this one blog of me, if even Alice Bradley Sheldon and James Tiptree Jnr. could set aside their differences to ask this one thing, why then could I not set my false modesty aside, look into my historically-determined and socially-constructed heart, and blog?

But now the PhD is kinda done, so ... well, this will probably go a bit dormant now. A volcano puffing out the odd mothball. Or if I do keep it going more energetically, it may have to broaden a bit thematically: if I add poetry, games, teaching and politics and economics stuff to the SFF stuff, it might limp nimbly onward. But there are already technically places for that (Sad Press, Sad Press Games,, WokesgivingEconomic Humanities), so we'll see!

Anyways. Not one to tout my own Norns, but here are my three publications in 2016:

Excerpts from a novel-in-progress:
  • Big Echo SF, 'Cat, I Must Work!' -- also a standalone novelette. Equivalent Exchange just kicked off their short fiction highlights series with it. It has been suggested that, had this story not been published in 2016, the Leave vote would have squeaked a narrow victory in the UK Brexist referendum in June, a squeak of uncertain economic consequences (although certainly cataclysmic economic consequences for the UK). Some critics have even argued that without this story, there would be ongoing further intensifications and normalizations of racism and xenophobia, some quite serious stirrings of a neo-fascist state, as well as some probably insurmountable difficulties cast into the heart of the Labour party, a party which thankfully -- because I did write this story -- is now finally for the first time in decades offering a viable parliamentary-democratic alternative to the catastrophic dogmatisms of the cult of neoliberalism. Also republished an as an ebook.
  • The Long+Short, 'Froggy Goes Piggy' -- also a standalone short story. This was part of Nesta's series of short fiction exploring collective intelligence, and may well have been discussed at an event at FutureFest 2016 (I couldn't go!). Momentum Bristol has also picked it up for its 'Satire' section, which is maybe a better label than SF, idk. (See also Economy Hub papers, btw). One of the things I'm quite proud of, in this story, is how it contributed decisively to a complete reworking of energy policies globally, a drastic drop in carbon emissions, and the slowing of global warming; a climatologist was explaining to me on Twitter the other day that this year, temperatures in the Arctic would now be 20 degrees higher than normal, had I not written this story.
A short story:
  • 'It's OK To Say If You Went Back In Time To Kill Baby Hitler', online at Medium and collected in Up and Coming, ed. SL Huang and Kurt Hunt, an anthology of John W. Campbell Award-eligible authors. I read the whole thing at BristolCon Fringe and there will be a podcast of that available in due course. One of the tiny things I am happy about is how this prevented the presidency of Donald Trump, while also setting the USA on a slow but secure trajectory to non-imperialist intersectional socialism. I shudder when I think back to those days when it seemed like the choice was between Clinton and neoliberalism and nothing, unless you count Trump and probably-weirdly-neoliberal neo-fascism as an option.
Although 'The Internet of Things Your Mother Never Told You' appears in Twelve Tomorrows 2016, it was actually published in 2015; besides which, it is possible with principal component analysis to reduce the number of futures in the volume to just three. I'm not a mathematician.


Wednesday, November 30, 2016

New Genre Wednesdays: Ghost Symposiums and Laissez Lecturers

It occurred to me today that Twitter bots probably resemble genres or forms more than they do poets or poems.

Recently, with the help of many others, I've put together some Twitter bots. Works-in-progress, but ...
  • @GhostSymposium is currently organizing a conference. Contains some ideas for papers that really should get written. 
  • @TuesdayWeek12 is leading a poetry seminar and it's going just great. Source code here. All the tweets are drawn from the same pool, no matter what poem the bot has just introduced. Hopefully some of the time it will make sense anyway. It's a version of a similar slightly spammier bot, @closeroboreadin (AKA Jobot), with whom it sometimes interacts.
Both are made using Kate Compton's Tracery and George Buckenham's Cheap Bots, Done Quick! @TuesdayWeek12 additionally uses Twuffer, till I can figure out a better solution. Thank you to Bath Spa students and Surrey workshop-goers.

Meanwhile, elsewhere, I have a fairly-recent novelette, 'Cat, I Must Work!' in Big Echo SF for free (or now on Kindle for not-free). See also a short story from July, 'Froggy Goes Piggy.' They are both pretty standalone but also excerpts from a novel in progress, working titles incl. Come Meet Me In The Long Grass, The Feminist's Wife, and Alice Shrugged.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

New Genre Wednesdays: silver-lined Commander-in-Chuff

On dark days, there is the serious pursuit of the silver lining, and then there is the pursuit of an even wispier kind of glimmer. A thing that is not really a ray of hope exactly, but stands in the same relationship to a ray of hope as a bump of some cheap and nasty norepinephrine-dopamine reuptake inhibiting quasi-legal high crystals stands to cocaine. These are the possibilities you entertain entirely for the short term affective hit they can give, in full if somewhat suppressed knowledge that that is what you're doing. These are like the reasons that dreams give you for going from one frame to the next. They aren't even really stories you tell yourself to make yourself feel better. They are more like stories you buy on your Kindle to make yourself feel like if you read them they might make you feel better. They aren't much different from scrolling through puppy pics, only the puppy pics are formally morphed into political analysis.

Inevitably, this genre -- which might be a bit too fantastic to include among genres of the fantastic, but where else would you put it? -- has a certain ingrownness about it. Its narrative forms are difficult to make social, difficult to share with others, because they don't really invoke conventional communicative norms so much as seek loopholes and glitches in those norms. Trying to tell these things would be like trying to put the pleasure you get from tonguing a mouth ulcer into the form of a kiss.

Sometimes, perhaps, if you are willing to filter such notions through powerful abstracting platitudes, they might just flutter from one person to another. That Trump's bark is worse than his bite; that history is complex and you never know what anything will lead to; that this is why we have checks and balances, and besides, it's hard to make progress down-ticket while your party holds the White House; that what will be will be; that this is a wake-up call; that maybe now America will finally have to admit to itself what it's actually like; that if you're Pakistani or Yemeni the unpredictability of Trump could be a pro compared to the alternative; that we can still love each other and make the difference where we are and those differences are never small; that Trump doesn't exist in a vacuum and this way those supporters can be disappointed by their demagogue's lack of a YA science fictional wall with Mexico the way some of us were disappointed by Obama's deportations and drones; that Trump's defeat would have been little more than imperialist neoliberalism successfully adopting the mantle of a fierce, principled, and progressive defence of basic decency, a mantle with which its skin might easily begin to merge; that maybe now we'll get four years of Trump followed by eight of oh Elizabeth Warren instead of four years of Hillary followed by eight years of oh Ted Cruz; that you will not believe the ferocity with which the world, having been grabbed by the pussy, is now going to fight back; that maybe the new president means it about shaking up NATO, or about tariffs and protectionism and turning back the tide on outsourcing, and who knows where stuff like that might lead. There have been two reasons why these wisps have not really coalesced to sufficient stability to meet the low bar of -- not "plausible-sounding," but -- mistakably implausible-sounding platitudes that might feel good to momentarily entertain. The first reason is something that happened early in the night, if not earlier still; something that would have been true even had Hillary edged Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and some other state. All those fucking racists. Fuck them, including the ones who didn't vote. The second reason is the fucking planet.

Several temporary populations spring into existence on shadowy days like these, and then disperse when things get normalized, when our eyes adjust and it's as if it brightened. Maybe you are part of one of those temporary populations: the one with renewed political will, or at least a fight or flight reflex going crazy about now. Maybe you're a kind of ephemerid, possessing a perfect perspective and a whose mind is a towering cloud of ice. You're a kind of ephemerid, a creature who only lives for a few days, only the few days you live are scattered across time: you live only on the days after barbarian coronations. Loosely speaking. You might wanna lock yourself into something. Joining a mailing list might not be enough. Think big. You might not see this version of yourself for four more years. Do something you in four years' time would be proud of.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

I have started a little blog for my series of workshops on poetry, play, & technology. Links mostly. Maybe some video clips one day. Contribute to the Ambershadow Ambler.

& there's a new story in the Fall issue of Big Echo.

& Sad Press, the small poetry press that I co-edit, is fully glimpsable and skittering at the edge of everything extant, with recent titles by Tom Jenks, Karl M.V. Waugh, Sally Shakti Willow and Joe Evans, and a list for 2016/2017 which includes Anne-Laure Coxam, R.K., Eley Williams, Timothy Thornton, Jonathan Ferguson, Sarah Hayden, Emilia Weber, Andy Emitt, and Adam Roberts.


Enormous material prosperity has been secured by the advent of “makers” (Doctorow 2003: 150) and “Free Energy” (ibid. 6). There is no government and no law, and what collective organization does occur is described as “[a]d-hocracy” (ibid. 21). This pun on democracy and ad-hoc designates an anarchist model in which numerous autonomous, voluntary working groups set and pursue their own goals, inventing and dissolving their own working practices as they go. And when conflicts do arise? When shit does go down? When the cookie does crumble, who decides whereto it crumbles?

Whuffie decides.

In the thirteen or so years since Cory Doctorow’s short first novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom came out, its conceit of Whuffie has proved pretty prescient. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom imagines a world profoundly shaped by the data people generate by rating things. The Whuffie system constantly gathers data about how you feel about everything you encounter. Your Whuffie score is determined by how people feel about you and the things you're associated with.

Down and Out portrays Whuffie as a digital ‘currency’ that is earned and expended in a similar way to social status. Do things that people approve of, you'll earn Whuffie. Act like a douche, you'll lose it. Whuffie is a “reputation currency” (Das and Anders 2015 n.p.) in a world where “[r]eputation is everything” (Lewis 2003 n.p.). The novel’s narrator, Julius, describes Whuffie as having recaptured the true essence of money: "in the old days, if you were broke but respected, you wouldn’t starve; contrariwise if you were rich and hated, no sum could buy you security and peace" (Doctorow 2003: 8).

People with low Whuffie scores become social outcasts. They also have reduced economic rights. The novel is set in the Bitchun Society, an ambiguous utopia, the kind of place where all material desires can be met eventually. However, there may be crowds, queues, and other minor inconveniences, and for these things “Whuffie has replaced money as society’s mediating function” (Lewis 2003: n.p.). To be Whuffie-rich is to have the best seats in the house, to be ushered to the front of the line, or to have the most coveted voluntary duties.

Nowadays this all seems very familiar. Shares and likes on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook. Your Airbnb score, your Uber score, or whatever. Tinder and Bumble. Klout I guess. Peeple and China's citizen score system(s). Down and Out is set in the distant future, whereas more recent science fiction dealing with similar themes is set five minutes into the future.

But, on the other hand ... no! The thing is, it is difficult not to blur semi-relevant science fiction into whatever actually happens next. Once you know about something like Peeple, it's difficult to read about Whuffie, and not just conflate the two things. The science fiction accrues meanings from the history that subsequently unfolds, and those meanings come to occlude or even replace the science fiction. That's why every now and then you hear William Gibson popping up and saying, I haven't actually been as prescient as everyone seems to think. Gibson's cyberpunk featured telephone booths, not smartphones.

You will never get a straight answer out of me about Whuffie. I have spent far too long thinking about the stuff and now am bonkers with respect to Whuffie. Also the novel is full of fascinating tensions which may or may not be inconsistencies.

But just for instance, to pick out a few ways in which Whuffie is different from what we're seeing around us: first of all, Whuffie is magic. It really is. It rates everything and it isn't perturbed by the fact that some things contain other things, or are intrinsically entangled in ways you can't really disentangle. Whuffie can figure out Aristotelian efficient causes. It can divvy up the gestalt flow of life into discrete rate-able atoms. It can know your latent "opinions" about things in some kind of transcendent, context-independent way. We don't have anything like that. Something to explore another time, perhaps: is it metaphysically contradictory?

Second, Whuffie is also automatic and continuous. We don't rate things like that. Rating is a discrete act. Sometimes a pop-up might force you to rate something to continue, but there's still a definite moment where you do it. On the other hand, for many of us these days, our lives are subject to greater monitoring of an automatic and continuous kind -- there are wearable devices, there's Quantified Self, there's the Internet of Things, big data analytics, the continued growth of traditional forms of state and market surveillance. But all that stuff is somewhat separate from the ratings stuff. That is, the explosion in personal data collection is somewhat separate from the explosive reconfiguration of markets by metric assemblages that are generated out of P2P interactions. Which raises interesting questions. Like where and how do those two things, ratings and surveillance, overlap? And where and how could they overlap?

But perhaps most interestingly of all -- and this bit is totally feasible, implementation-wise -- in Down and Out, everybody has more than one Whuffie score. Or to put it another way, your Whuffie score is a set, not a number. Blink and you'll miss it, but it's there in the novel: the number of one-to-one Whuffie relationships is actually the square of the size of the population. By default, the Whuffie score you see when you look at me reflects how positively people you feel positively about feel about me. Because everybody knows different people and feels differently about them, everyone lives in their own, unique universe of Whuffie scores. Also people in the Bitchun Society know about this. It's part of what Whuffie means to them. It's not something opaque, something that some black box algorithm does when it curates your social media feed. They know, for instance, when it might be a good idea to switch out of the default setting. And this is not really what we're seeing around us, although again, there are some overlaps, and some potential overlaps.

Down and Out does portray something pretty similar to what you get in, for instance, the recent 'NoseDive' episode of Black Mirror (by Charlie Brooker, Rashida Jones & Mike Schur). It's a kind of riches-to-rags story, in which a character's score starts to slip, so that they encounter first-hand all that just-below-the-surface cruelty, callousness and irrationality. (Cf. Lee Falk's 1975 short story 'Time is Money' perhaps). But -- and this is one of the interesting tensions in Cory's novel -- it didn't have to go down that way. Whuffie is streamlined into the story so that it's usually treated as a kind of leaderboard, a single hierarchical schedule of value.

But the conceit is actually set up so that, in principle, you could be bottoming out with one set of people, while getting more and more popular with another set. I'm interested in that. 'NoseDive' was absolutely great at what it did. There was some interestingly subtle stuff in there (like the moment where a character gets a downvote apparently just because she's got a low score; or perhaps, because she's got a low score and is being uppity in some way she hasn't quite recognized yet). But for the most part, it streamlined things till it almost felt more like allegory than extrapolation. That is, the scores felt like allegories of money. Whereas I'd like to see more near future science fiction exploring the more complex dynamics implied by a conceit like Whuffie.

The Pitching Society

Some notes on Whuffie and entrepreneurship. At first glance, the Bitchun Society seems far removed from “the perennial gale of creative destruction” (Schumpeter 2012 [1946]: 103) which characterizes entrepreneurial capitalism. There are no corporations, no property, no banks, and no money other than Whuffie. Both in and out of the “ad-hocs,” the population of the Bitchun Society are busy with projects, adventures, schemes and rivalries, but like Banks’s Culture, the Bitchun Society is a utopia that has “all but done away with any sort of dull, repetitious labor” (ibid. 79).

Nevertheless, the figure of the entrepreneur still lurks in this post-money world. In particular, there is Debra, the de facto leader of an innovative, aggressive ad-hoc, who rapidly gains territory, influence, and Whuffie during the novel. As Schumpeter might put it, Debra’s talent “consists in getting things done” (Schumpeter 2012 [1946]: 103). Julius’s best friend Dan characterizes Debra as a “well-prepared opportunist” (ibid. 38). Debra also has a distinctive iconoclastic vision “beyond the range of the familiar beacons” (Schumpeter 2012 [1946]: loc. 2880). “If she had her way, we’d tear down every marvelous Rube Goldberg in the Park and replace them with pristine white sim boxes on giant, articulated servoes” (Doctorow 2003: 23).

In a deeper sense, Debra exemplifies one sense in which all the characters of Down and Out are entrepreneurial. In the Bitchun Society, fresh Whuffie is generated constantly, spontaneously and involuntarily, by a technological infrastructure which detects how its members feel about each other, and adjusts their Whuffie scores accordingly. Doctorow remarks in an interview:

Lucky for me it’s science fiction and not science so I don’t have to explain the workings of this stuff. [...] I also don’t have to explain the working of the neural interface, which [...] is capable of figuring out how you feel about any given thing anywhere in the world that you have any opinion about – without asking you.
(Doctorow int. by Koman 2003: n.p.)

Let's take a step back. Where does money come from? What's a 'wealth-creator'? Do entrepreneurs make money? Do they make it just for themselves, or for all of us (even though they get to use it first)?

With few exceptions, modern governments support but do not limit money creation. Capitalist finance is characterized by the coexistence, mutual dependence, and continually disputed boundaries between two kinds of power: “private economic power from the control of property and opportunities for profit-making, and the coercive territorial power of states” (Ingham 2011: 175). Particularly since the deregulation of the 1970s, the global economy has seen a shift towards private economic power, and an associated “shift towards demand-driven credit creation” (Bjerg 2014: 233; cf. Ryan-Collin et al. 2011: 104). This means private demand, not government policy, determines how much credit-debt the banks create. I think this is becoming more well-known, not least because some MMT economists really get off on being grouchy in public, and because elements of the prosletyzing Left (it me) have discovered QE and its variants and seem to believe all our problems are solved. Also there are some catchy simplifications: money is "made out of thin air by banks!"

It is also, in a way, made out of banks by entrepreneurs. The entrepreneur is the figure who knows how to correctly perform the 'demand' of 'demand-driven credit,' in two entwined ways. In one sense, the entrepreneur’s 'demand' is rhetorical: it is a petition or exhortation, organized by conventions of propriety, rooted in logical arguments, vividly anticipating future events, and woven together with vows of constancy. Schumpeter writes that the only person the entrepreneur “has to convince or to impress is the banker” (Schumpeter 1983 [1932]: 154).

Any individual bank does stand to lose money if any individual borrower fails to keep their promises. So convincing or impressing the banker may not be easy. Attuning to this audience’s formal creditworthiness assessment tools (such as ‘the five Cs’: character, capacity, capital, collateral, conditions), and informal expectations, and expertly acting entitled to money, is what produces money from nothing (cf. Burton et al. 2015: 533). Some informal expectations, such as those concerning race, class, age, gender, ability, and sexuality, may be unfulfillable by some performers (cf. e.g. Dedman 1997 [1988-1989]).

However, ‘demand’ is also a term of art within economics, meaning psychological resolution and sufficient money to purchase something (cf. Mankiw 2003: 53-56). For the mainstream economist, someone who is dying of thirst but cannot pay anything for water has zero demand for water. On this second understanding, bank loans are ‘demanded’ to the extent they are purchased, by paying back interest on top of principal (cf. Ryan-Collins et al. 2011: loc. 547). This presents an apparent puzzle. Money creation is ‘demand-driven,’ where the word ‘demand’ means ‘willingness and ability to purchase something.’ If new money is purchased into existence, where does the money to purchase it come from? But this ‘puzzle’ is really only an artifact caused by abstracting away the messy detail. Restoring some of that detail – inflation, international capital flows, economic growth, including demographic growth, asset appreciation, international balance of payments surpluses, as well as insolvencies, debt defaults and restructurings, and of course a perpetual cycle of refinancing as new credit repays old debts – makes it less surprising that money may be found to repay any particular loan, or that overall most loans are repaid.

The figure of the entrepreneur, however, offers an entirely different solution. It is a neater solution, but also a fantastical one. Like the worker and the sovereign, the entrepreneur intimates that they personally are the means by which “new money comes into being and is introduced into the economy” (Bjerg 2014: 1). In this, they become “the one who introduces the new, the innovator driven by the joy of creation – a figure with strong overtones of a Nietzchean individual hero, giving capital its constant forward movement” (Hardt and Negri 2009: loc. 3348).

Whuffie might be interpreted as an estrangement of the sphere of human activity that lies outside both markets and government. Concepts that try to characterize such a sphere – Tocqueville’s civil society, Tönnies’s community, Habermas’s lifeworld, Putnam’s social capital – all differ from Whuffie in resisting precise quantification. “Profits are measured in dollars [sic]. What is social capital measured in?” (Slaper and Hall 2011 n.p.). By contrast, Doctorow portrays Whuffie as a kind of ostentatious numeric embodiment of prestige. Whuffie does have a subjective aspect, since what score is displayed depends on who is looking. But Doctorow also implies this is only a default setting: any relationship in the Whuffie network is publicly accessible in principle. Whuffie’s front-end is quantitative, its outlines crisp and precise: “I pinged my Whuffie. I was up a couple percentiles [...]” (Doctorow 2003: 35).]

Whuffie resembles a network of credit-debts, rather than a simple popularity leaderboard. In this way, it reflects two aspects of reputation. First, especially in a large, complex society, an individual’s reputation may be many-sided and uneven. Second, although an individual can’t exactly transfer or exchange their reputation, they will tend to influence the reputations of people with whom they associate.

Drawing on the credit theory of money, we can picture every moment of feeling as the creation ex nihilo of a credit-debt. When Lil experiences positive affect about Julius, perfectly balanced assets and liabilities of Whuffie spring into existence. When Lil “[radiates] disapproval” (Doctorow 2003: 23) the two bookkeeping columns are reunited to some extent, cancelling some of the existing Whuffie. This is the sense that all Whuffie must be Whuffie ‘with’ someone – every asset implies a kind of liability somewhere else in the Whuffie system.

In their constant scheming, spats, rivalries, romances, their anxiousness to win and retain esteem, and their all-consuming preoccupation with Whuffie, the characters of Down and Out are permanent entrepreneurs. In the Bitchun Society, every public act – even before an intimate public audience of one – is a tacit demand to create new credit-debt. It is a pitch before an existing or potential investor. The populace of the Bitchun Society are perpetually characters in each other’s dramas, whilst perpetually locked in competitive struggle.

Construed as an allegory about forms of digital commerce, collaboration, and sociality, Down and Out is in equal parts enthusiastic and cautionary. The paradisiacal semblance of the post-money Bitchun Society is perturbed by its heartless fascination with quantification, as suggested by the brisk advice given to a suicidal character: “He’s got to get back on top. Cleaned up, dried out, into some productive work. Get that Whuffie up, too. Then he can kill himself with dignity” (Doctorow 2003: 18). There's a whiff of Le Guin's Omelas about Whuffie too.

But in a 2016 article, perhaps looking back on Down and Out through the rise of the brutally exploitative business models of platform capitalism (not to mention a lot of Instagram mocchas), Doctorow collapses the waveform of his ambiguous utopia. The Bitchun Society is a cautionary “dystopia.” Reputation “is a terrible currency,” and Whuffie “ends up pooling up around sociopathic jerks who know how to flatter, cajole, or terrorize their way to the top” (Doctorow 2016 n.p.).

Wetwork in the Network

Whuffie may be seen as an estrangement of what anthropologists have often called primitive currencies, but what I will follow David Graeber in calling “social currencies” (Graeber 2011: 130). Graeber describes how “the objects used as social currencies are so often things otherwise used to clothe or decorate the human body, that help make one who one is in the eyes of others” (Graeber 2011: 159). Whuffie also shares this quality of sartorial self-fashioning, although with a futuristic twist. Its users are all cyborgs, inhabiting an augmented reality, with Whuffie scores woven into their visual fields. Turning on Whuffie monitors is “normally an instantaneous reaction to meeting someone” (Doctorow 2003: 46). Whuffie is an integral part of how Doctorow’s characters look to one another.

Just like Whuffie – “your personal capital with your friends and neighbors” reminiscent of “the old days” (Doctorow 2003: 8) – social currencies form mathematically precise status networks. For Graeber, the paradigmatic social currency is used “to create, maintain, or sever relations between people rather than to purchase things” (Graeber 2011: 158; cf. ibid. 133). A social currency may be devoted, for instance, to arranging marriages or settling blood feuds. Although Down and Out keeps the details of resource allocation vague, the overall pattern is that the Whuffie rich enjoy priority access to “the piffling few scarce things left on earth” (Doctorow 2003: 71), without having to deplete their Whuffie to get them.

By turning the rhetorical demand for credit into the inexorable ground state of all social relations, Whuffie turns everybody into entrepreneurial figures. Yet in another sense, by so thoroughly merging money with the human, Whuffie threatens the figure of the entrepreneur with obsolescence. The entrepreneur claims to go beyond the values quantified by mundane market mechanisms in order to acquire truly new value. But Whuffie’s fine-grained omniscience might leave no value unquantified.

Traditional social currencies may likewise be ill-suited to entrepreneurship. They are usually not loaned and borrowed, nor “transferred to a third party in payment for commodities or services” (Bjerg 2014: 267). The value of a social currency is bound up in the way it tells a society’s story, a story that becomes less legible as the possible causes of exchanges multiply. Bridewealth or blood-money brought from “beyond the familiar beacons” (Schumpeter q.v.) would certainly be of dubious worth. However, in exceptional circumstances, social currencies may be used in anomalous exchanges. Bloch and Parry, summarizing the fieldwork of Bohannan among the Tiv of northern Nigeria – who had three distinct spheres of exchange prior to contact with Western money – hint at the rich frictions involved in conversions from sphere to sphere:

The vast majority of exchanges were [...] ‘conveyances’ within the sphere, and these were morally neutral. But under certain circumstances ‘conversions’ between spheres were possible, and these were the focus of strong moral evaluations [...]
(Bloch and Parry 1996 [1989]: 12)

Intriguingly, Down and Out also offers one morally fraught anomaly. An assassin, hired by Debra, confesses to a contract killing: “Debra would give me Whuffie – piles of it, and her team would follow suit” (Doctorow 2003: 191). However, Debra’s team are ignorant of the arrangement. Even Debra, by means of a mind-wiping technology, arranges to forget. The adjustment in Whuffie thus cannot be based, as it usually is, in affective states. The implication is that for once Whuffie must be alienable, a credit-debt which can be transferred from one party to another.

By engaging in exchange, Debra partway extricates herself from her idiosyncratic Whuffie nexus, and loops the loosened ends haphazardly around her hired gun. Qualitative human bonds are converted into “generic value capable of being added and subtracted and used as a means to measure debt” (Graeber 2011: 159). When the murder victim is “recovered [...] from backup [..] into a force-grown clone,” (Doctorow 2003: 29), he quickly glosses over the question of whether he is really still the same person (ibid. 36). Yet that is just the question which is raised by, not only the assassination, but also the anomalous Whuffie exchange which led to it: “How does it become possible to treat people as if they are identical?” (Graeber 2011: 159).

Whuffie’s topsy-turvy logic allows a mere “conveyance” (Bloch and Parry q.v.) to involve the rewiring of social connections normally characteristic of a “conversion” (ibid.). This is because Whuffie presents value as particularized according to its context. The upshot is that any transfer of value (‘conveyance’) is potentially a conversion from one kind of value to another, and may be “the focus of strong moral evaluations” (Bloch and Parry ibid.).

When the assassin makes Whuffie in this exceptional way, by an act of exchange, it also suggests the second aspect of entrepreneurial demand. That is, it suggests the entrepreneur’s marvelous gift for beating the market is not obsolete after all. The extra value may appear to come out of thin air, but there is a hidden history of violence at its root. The entrepreneurial figure themselves may be curiously oblivious to its source. Following the mind-wipe there is “no memory of the event, just the Whuffie” (Doctorow 2003: 192).

Down and Out hints that the entrepreneurial figure may be the addict of “expedience” (Doctorow 2003: 88), someone who must beat the market, perhaps claiming moral justification, but finally driven only by “pure brain-reward, a jolt of happy-juice” (ibid.). Debra’s anomalous use of Whuffie implies a drive to beat the market, even when the market is utopia.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Works Slighted

Ghost bibliography. From an essay that was never written.

Adams, Douglas. 1988 [1987]. Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. New York: Pocket Books.
Adams, Douglas. 2010 [1980]. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. London: Macmillan.
Atwood, Margaret. 2003. Oryx and Crake. London: Bloomsbury.
Atwood, Margaret. 2008. Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Work. Toronto: House of Anansi Press. eBook edition.
Bourdieu, Pierre and Loïc Wacquant. 1992. An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1986. ‘The Forms of Capital.’ In J. Richardson (ed.), Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. New York: Greenwood.
Brantlinger, Patrick. 1975. ‘“News from Nowhere”: Morris’s Socialist Anti-Novel.’ Victorian Studies, 19(1), September 1975.
Brown, Carolyn. 1996. ‘Utopias and Heterotopias: The “Culture” of Iain M. Banks.’ In Derek Littlewood and Peter Stockwell (eds.), Impossible Fiction: Alternativity, Extrapolation, Speculation. Amsterdam: Rodopi.
Brown, Chris. 2001. ‘Special Circumstances: Intervention by a Liberal Utopia.’ Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 30(3).
Cairns, Craig. 2002. ‘Player of Games: Iain M. Banks, Jean-François Lyotard and Sublime Terror.’ In James Acheson and Sarah C.E. Ross (eds.), The Contemporary British Novel Since 1980. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. 2006 [1817]. Biographia Literaria – Or, Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions. Pomona Press.
Crawford, Kate. 2016. ‘Can an Algorithm be Agonistic? Ten Scenes from Life in Calculated Publics.’ Science, Technology & Human Values 41(1).
Delany, Samuel. 2009 [1978]. The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press.
Doctorow, Cory. 2003c. ‘Truncat.’ August 2003. Accessed online at on 11 September 2016.
Duggan, Rob. 2007. ‘Iain M. Banks, Postmodernism and the Gulf War.’ Extrapolation 48(3).
Egan, Greg. 1994. Permutation City. London: Orion/Millenium.
Fleming, P. and M.T. Jones. 2012. The End of Corporate Social Responsibility: Crisis and Critique. London: Sage Publications.
Guerrier, Simon. 1999. ‘Culture Theory: Iain M. Banks’ ‘Culture as Utopia.’’ Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, 28(76).
Hartwell, David G. and Kathryn Cramer (eds). 2006. The Space Opera Renaissance. New York: Tor.
Haworth, John T. and A. J. Veal. 2003. Work and Leisure. Routledge: London and New York.
Heeks, Richard. 2008. ‘Current Analysis and Future Research Agenda on ‘Gold Farming’: Real-World Production in Developing Countries for the Virtual Economies of Online Games.’ Development Informatics Group. Accessed online at on 1 September 2015.
Huizinga, Johan. 1955.  Homo Ludens: a study of the play element in culture. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. [First English edition Roy Publishers 1950. Previously published in Dutch and German].
James, Edward and Farah Mendlesohn (eds). 2003. The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Khouri, Nadia. 1980. ‘The Dialectics of Power: Utopia in the Science Fiction of Le Guin, Jeury, and Piercy.’ Science-Fiction Studies 7, no. 1 (March, 1980): pp. 49–61.
Kulibicki, Michal. 2009. ‘Iain M. Banks, [Ernst] Bloch and Utopian Interventions.’ Colloquy: Text, Theory and Critique, vol. 33-34, pp. 372-86.
Le Guin, Ursula K. 1976. ‘Introduction’ to The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Ace. [The Left Hand of Darkness first published 1969].
MacLeod, Ken. 2003. ‘Socialism: Millenarian, Utopian and Science-Fictional’, in Butler Andrew M. and Mendlesohn Farah (eds), The True Knowledge of Ken Macleod, Reading, Science Fiction Foundation.
Marcuse, Herbert. 1969. An Essay on Liberation. Accessed online at on 20 July 2014.
Maughan, Tim. 2015. 'The Inevitable Rise of the Internet of Shipping Containers.' Motherboard, September 24, 2015. Accessed online at on 15 April 2016.
Mendelsohn, Farah. 2005. ‘The Dialectic of Decadence and Utopia in Iain M. Banks’ Culture Novels.’ Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, vol. 93, pp. 116-124.
Morris, William. 1936. ‘Thoughts on Education under Capitalism,’ in William Morris: Artist, Writer, Socialist, ed. May Morris. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. [Essay first published in Commonweal, Vol 4, No. 129, 30 June 1888, pp. 204-205].
Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1996. Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits. Trans. R. J. Hollingdale. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Parker, Stanley R. 1985. Leisure and Work. London: Allen & Unwin.
Piketty, Thomas. 2014 [2013]. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge Massachusetts: Belknap Press. eBook edition.
Roberts, Adam. 2010. New Model Army. London: Gollancz.
Stephenson, Neal. 1992. Snow Crash. New York: Bantam Spectra.
Stephenson, Neal. 1995. The Diamond Age, or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. New York: Bantam Spectra.
Stross, Charles. 2003. Singularity Sky. New York: Ace Books.
Stross, Charles. 2013. Neptune’s Brood. London: Orbit.
Suvin, Darko. 1988. Positions and Presuppositions in Science Fiction. Kent OH: Kent State U.P.
Terry, Judith. 1988. ‘Seen But Not Heard: Servants in Jane Austen’s England.’ Persuasions 10.
Tolkien, J.R.R. 2001 [1937]. ‘On Fairy-Stories.’ In J.R.R. Tolkien, Tree and Leaf. New York: HarperCollins. [‘On Fairy-Stories’ delivered as a lecture in 1937. First print appearance 1947. Tree and Leaf first published in 1964].
Watts, Peter. 2006. Blindsight. New York: Tor.
Žižek, Slajov. 2012. The Year of Dreaming Dangerously. London: Verso.
Žižek, Slavoj. 2011. ‘Address to Occupy Wall Street, 9 October 2011.’ Impose Magazine. Accessed online at on 11 September 2016.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Calling USA

America, can you help me? This is a key speech in a story I'm writing ('The Ballast of All Possible Worlds.') The character who speaks it is from the US. It is probably peculiar in all kinds of ways. But the thing I am really keen to avoid is any accidental British-isms. What do you think? Is there anything there that jumps out at you? Let me know in the comments or get me on Twitter.
Another fun fact. Black slaves built white America. Did it to spec and on time. But the check’s not in the mail. Let me be clear, Farah. The grind, the passion demonstrated by LAB’s allies – I’m speaking of the traditional slavery reparations movement here – the ingenuity, the courage, ain’t nobody going to question that. Ain’t nobody going to forget that. Yet LAB believes that the time has now come ... can I say, the time has now come for some of us more energetically to concern ourselves with the husbandry of the law. 
That’s why LAB proposes a return to the aspiration of Cato v. the United States, 1984. Heard of it? Not sure? Don’t worry, you’re okay. A thing I hear a lot, and especially from white folks, is that we need to focus on the future. The future, not the past. We can’t let our history hold us back. Cato might agree. But maybe not the way they mean it.  
Cato’s suit began with the forced ancestral indoctrination of Africans into a foreign society, and it pursued that original injustice, tracked it doggedly through history, right up to the present day. LAB does a lot of things, but the project closest to our hearts -- and because our hearts are forever falling, this project also is on the down-low! -- it’s a project in the algorithmic reparations space. Because you see, in the end, Cato’s complaint was judged to be too abstract. Too abstract, without concrete injury fairly traceable to concrete perpetrators. You can put a multinational in the dock, sure. You can put the government in the dock, if the government consents. Want to go a little higher? You want to put a system in the dock? That’s when you hear, ‘Oh, I’m sorry. We're not racist, but that’s too abstract.’ Abstract.  
Tell me something, Farah. When you are excluded from education, from housing, when you get underpaid, deceived, banned, shunned, barred, ridiculed, enjoyed, hounded, permitted unfit food, unclean water ... when your lungs get forced to breathe a different air from white folks’ lungs ... when you are raped, tortured, sterilized, your reputation smeared, your dignities snatched away, tormented psychologically, swindled, your loved ones taken ... when you are entrapped, framed, hunted and snared ... fearful to drive, fearful to walk, fearful to stay at home ... taken to factories and plantations that call themselves prisons, while your transgressions, as often as not, are themselves a kind of side-effect of our peculiarly American system of recruitment ... when you get beat down, without concern for your survival, and when you get shot down, lawfully shot down, because you too swiftly heed a police officer’s instruction, or do not heed it swiftly enough ... now, will that feel abstract to you?  
And I assure you, I am speaking as abstractly as I can manage. Farah, if the law construes these injuries as too abstract, could it be our job to make them more concrete? To quantify racism? And in so doing, to quantify its undoing?
PS: The story, I should say, does not in any big way follow the provocation introduced at the end of this speech. Maybe in another story. Though I don't know if I'll ever be ready to write something like that.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Voyager Scarcity

Had a smol think about (post-)scarcity again the other day. "Scarce" technically means "limited relative to requirements" rather than limited per se. Scarcity is always about the relationship between resources and the various things that might be done with them. Scarcity is never about whether those resources are finite or infinite.

Science fiction probably ought to try to keep that in mind, because it implies that (post-)scarcity can never apply absolutely to any setting or story whatsoever. (Maybe there's some weird example that can prove me wrong there?). Rather, (post-)scarcity is always one of those "it depends how you mean it" kind of things. Any resource is always scarce in some ways, but not scarce in others, depending what you happen to be counting as a requirement.

(That's not to say that science fiction shouldn't also be interested in infinity and finitude as well, of course. Just that that problematic is slightly offset from the post-scarcity problematic).

Some (post-)scarcity science fiction gets very interested in the idea of social connectivity as a kind of intrinsically scarce resource. "Alas, all my material desires are fulfilled, and yet all I want is for senpai to notice me." Maybe that's why you often see a funny kind of pettiness appear in some self-consciously post-scarcity settings.

In Look to Windward, Iain M. Banks equips Culture characters with an idiom for when something is especially desirable: “[t]hey’d reinvent money for this” (ibid.). When the Culture’s particular brand of plenitude is compromised in an apparently trivial way, some Culture characters do reinvent money.

A one-off music concert is set to take place in a limited-capacity venue, and everyone wants to go. Concert tickets become a kind of money. What do they buy and sell with it? Don't they have everything already? They buy and sell commodities arising from a division of affective, sexual, reproductive, and performative labor. Or in other words, they buy and sell aspects of social relationships. "People who can’t stand other people are inviting them to dinner [...] People have traded sexual favours, they’ve agreed to pregnancies, they’ve altered their appearance to accommodate a partner’s desires, they’ve begun to change gender to please lovers; all just to get tickets" (Banks 2000: 276). 

It struck me that Star Trek: Voyager also has a little of this going on: social meaning is its key scarce resource.

In the Star Trek universe, you got your replicators that can synthesize you fancy meals or whatever ex nihilo with just one squirty beep. Maybe even more importantly, you got your holodecks, rooms that can spin you whatever reality you desire to dreamily live in.

Voyager casts one vessel really, really far from home. (I can't remember the premise exactly, but I think maybe in the pilot episode they fall asleep on the space night bus). The same post-scarcity technologies are present, but they don't project the same aura of coziness and security.

And I bet that was part of the point: there's a heightened sense of peril that must be met with careful resource management, else this bucket of bolts isn't going to make it home in one piece. But also, the resource which Voyager brings to the fore as limited and precious are human (and Talaxian yadda yadda) relationships. This is stitched into the fabric of the story. Everything, everything that occurs in Voyager, occurs in relation to the process of people drawing closer together or failing to. Their movement is both literal and a metaphor for social de-atomization. The most estimable treasure that Janeway can win in any episode is to shave time off Voyager's ETA, or to make some kind of Starfleeting contact ...

At the same time, the show seems to think a lot about its domestic production of meaning. It thinks about ways in which Voyager already is home. (That theme often seems to swirl around Neelix, who I think is responsible for "morale").

And I think it does a pretty good job, in that liberal, cosmopolitan, look-the-Borg-is-not-intrinsically-other, look-even-the-hologram-is-not-intrinsically-other, kind of way that Star Trek does. But it also makes me wonder if the general vibe of a more strictly material kind of scarcity is getting rather dangerously applied in ways that ideally it really shouldn't be. Human relationships, after all, aren't actually resources, with alternative uses, resources that require efficient production and allocation to fulfill some requirements although sadly not others. Whatever they are, it's not that. They have their own logic. And for what it's worth, pretending that human relationships are merely precious resources, rather than whatever they really are, is something that goes very neatly together with the nostalgic longing for the homeland, the longing that is ultimately what functions to distinguish friend (including assimilable outsider) from enemy, to distinguish "us" from "them."

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Marta-Led Demons

Didja miss me don't even answer that shut up you're not even that funny okay you are. There is a snippet below about labour theories of value in the era of Quantified Self.

Here's the context (or skip to the snippet): I've been finishing up a Creative Writing PhD, which is a funny sort of thing. Actually, it's several funny sorts of things, because there's a fair bit of formal variation from university to university, and from PhD to PhD. Which is a good thing. I understand in Coventry, evaluation of the practice component focuses quite heavily on your performance, with respect to the other PGRs in your intake, within a vast verdant combat arena tucked full of traps, weaponry, intrigue and heartbreak. But in every practice-led PhD, there's always a 'practice' component -- for me, that means some fiction, including "Froggy" and Marta -- and then a critical/reflective component.

I initially found that critical/reflective bit quite difficult, since it wasn't a mode of writing I was familiar with / fruitfully unfamiliar with when I got started. But I think I more or less have got it now, which is pretty cool because I'm supposed to hand it in next week.

One aspiration for afterwards, BTW, is to spin off my two cents on practice-led research (also known as practice-as-research or practice-based research, although each phrase has its own connotations) and especially on how it formally relates to speculative fiction.
  • Speculative fiction may sometimes aspire to 'lead' research, offering to shift our technoscientific imaginary, and opening spaces which stricter R&D methodologies may explore (shout out DARPA you avant-garde murderous fucks). 
  • 'Hard' speculative fiction may also be implicated with expert discourses (whether that's physics or sociology), in a way which resembles the dialectic between the creative and the critical/reflective components of practice-led research. 
  • Both speculative fiction and practice-led research are prone to adopting a slightly tricksterish attitude toward external evaluation, eluding or deferring judgment by a kind of bait-and-switch which insists that you've usually evaluated the wrong thing, and that they know more than they're letting on. Speculative fiction's version of this is, of course: "oh no, of course I don't claim to predict the future, ha ha ha" (zooms meaningfully away on hoverboard with fixed wide-eyed stare). 
In a nutshell, I feel like practice-led research and speculative fiction have stuff in common, which means things can actually get quite awkward (but interesting) when you try to do both of them at once.

All of this serves as a kind of apology for various aspects of the following snippet (which probably bug only me anyway), which is a fragment of reflective commentary, about a very brief passage in the mini-novel Marta and the Demons

(So it's me talking about some fiction I wrote. But in this bit, the themes of money, labour, and Quantified Self predominate. The yys are because I haven't done the page numbering yet and/or because I generously "allow readers to decide for themselves". Also, I've shouted it out before, but Tim Maughan's sf-ish vignette "Zero Hours" is great and still really relevant here).

Work as Money

[...] This scene [a drunken conversation between Myeong and Carly, about trying to invent a labor-based currency,] was partly inspired by schemes such as Local Exchange Trading Systems and time‑based currencies.[1] Under such systems, a member might earn one credit by working for one hour, which can be spent to hire an hour’s labor from another member. It was easy to imagine Carly thinking along these lines; at this moment in Carly and Myeong’s relationship, it felt right that Carly might have recently re-calibrated her speculative faculties, and be eager to support inchoate wishes, while still ready to feel like the grounded pragmatist of the pair.

Carly comes up with the name “WorkCoin,” and envisions WorkCoin’s value deriving from “the number of hours [worked]” (M: yy). But for Myeong, whose entrepreneurial obliviousness is reaching its peak, the word ‘hours’ is already enough to cut Carly short. 

One objection to time‑based currencies is that every hour of work is qualitatively different to every other hour. Of course, flattening such heterogeneity according to egalitarian principles, rather than market mechanisms, may be part of the appeal of time-based currencies. But I wanted Myeong to focus on something different. Myeong wants to preserve the qualitative heterogeneity of work, conceived primarily as a phenomenological heterogeneity, but with gestures toward the importance of third-person perspectives.

My second inspiration for this scene was Viviana Zelizer’s account of money’s own heterogeneity. Zelizer contests money’s reputation as a uniform, impersonal, and fungible social relation. For Zelizer, “people are constantly creating new monies, and they do so by segregating different streams of legal tender into funds for distinct activities and relations” (Zelizer 2011: 89). Money “may well ‘corrupt’ values into numbers, but values and sentiment reciprocally corrupt money by investing it with moral, social, and religious meaning” (Zelizer 2011: 97). Myeong, Zelizer, and I conspired to flesh out Myeong's aspiration, barely acknowledging Carly's contributions. Instead, Myeong would aspire to use technology to accentuate, extend, and rationalize money’s existing heterogeneity, in order to reflect the heterogeneity of work. Every hour of work is different from every other. Every penny is different from every other. Why shouldn’t we map one set of differences onto the other?

Myeong’s vision is probably ultimately incoherent. Formulating it coherently certainly offers a challenge. First, how should work be demarcated from non-work (cf. §2.5.2)? We certainly cannot get by, in this context, with the approximation that paid work is ‘real’ work (not without begging the question). Nor should we really want to. Nancy Hartsock tersely invokes the theme of what counts as ‘real’ work by describing “a third person, not specifically present in Marx’s account of transactions between capitalist and worker (both of whom are male),” who “follows timidly behind, carrying groceries, baby, and diapers” (Hartsock 1983: 234). Second, since any sum of WorkCoin will have passed through many hands, whose work should count as “what real people [have] really done, to make that money exist” (M: yy)? Third, even if work could somehow be legitimately demarcated and documented, how can WorkCoin legibly represent such data for human subjects? Who could experience something like WorkCoin, and what would they experience? How could WorkCoin’s quantifications be visualized, aestheticized, and perhaps – given Myeong’s desire for a WorkCoin in which “you could see the workers” (M: yy) – embodied and personified? Fourth, even if a legible WorkCoin were possible, why should that materially alter labor’s subjugation within some interlocking “matrix of domination” (Collins 2000: yy)? In other words, a fine-grained mapping of labor to value may sometimes lead to fairer compensation. But it can also – as the example of Amazon shortly shows – lead to something else entirely. On a larger historical timescale, the questions multiply. How would Myeong’s WorkCoin reflect the particularity of work, when that work is implicated with events – such as the production of the means of production – which have taken place long before WorkCoin came into being? Or when some properties of today’s work may take months or centuries to surface? How would something like WorkCoin function as a transferable IOU (cf. §3.4.2, §4.1), connected not only with past labor, but also with promises of future labor? Whenever I tried to extend the quantification of labor deep into the past and future, I felt it lost its particularity again. It became more nebulous and colorable, more manipulable by existing power hierarchies. Beyond these questions lay further concerns about access and exclusion, about privacy, and about energy and sustainability.

While I tried to position WorkCoin as a wild and impractical fancy, it is also “essential that estrangement leads to the realization that things do not have to be the way they are” (Spiegel 2008: 370). I expected WorkCoin could create a space for speculation about more practical implementations of a labor-based currency, both in terms of its enticements and its dangers.

One precedent is the Quantified Self phenomenon – loosely what Myeong has in mind when she refers to “fuddy-duddy, gamified, making-flossing-fun, improve-the-way-you-sit bullcrap” (M: yy). Quantified Selves are people who aim to improve their self-knowledge and autonomy through “novel ways of self-tracking with the help of digital technologies” (Lupton 2016: 9).[2] Gary Wolf, one popularizer of the term, describes his fine-grained self-tracking in a work context:

Taking advantage of the explosion of self-tracking services available on the Web, I started analyzing my workday at a finer level. Every time I moved to a new activity – picked up the phone, opened a Web browser, answered e-mail – I made a couple of clicks with my mouse, which recorded the change. After a few weeks I looked at the data and marveled.
(Wolf 2010: n.p.)
Similar tracking technology is also used in factories, warehouses, and other workplaces; a high-profile example is Amazon’s avant‑garde brutalizing of its workforce, “in the use of monitoring technologies to track the minute-by-minute movements and performance of employees” (Head 2014: n.p.):

With this twenty-first-century Taylorism, management experts, scientific managers, take the basic workplace tasks at Amazon, such as the movement, shelving, and packaging of goods, and break down these tasks into their subtasks, usually measured in seconds; then rely on time and motion studies to find the fastest way to perform each subtask; and then reassemble the subtasks and make this “one best way” the process that employees must follow.
(ibid. n.p.)
While such monitoring technologies come nowhere near to disentangling “real people” or “[o]ur own true selves” (M: yy) from the abstract figure of the worker, they do enrich that figure with fine‑grained data. They suggest how Myeong’s first bold vision of WorkCoin, as a marvellous money inscribed with all the heterogeneity of work, might yield to something more practicable. Instead of expressing “[o]ur true selves,” a WorkCoin analogue might simply express some salient data about the work which underlies it.[3]

Some time later, after attending a workshop involving time-based currencies, and speculatively exploring hybrid forms of monetary value  with price determined by interactions of supply, demand, and labor time  I did consider fleshing out WorkCoin further, perhaps in a later story. At the same time, I was wary that, merely seeking to estrange money, I might inadvertently glamorize, celebrate, normalize or naturalize the use of such intimately oppressive tracking technologies; or I might point to unlikely ways of appeasing, containing, or mitigating technologies that are hungrily bent on coercing workers to squeeze every last drop of labour-power from their bodies (Moore and Robinson 2015: 7). For the time being at least, I decided to let WorkCoin, like the incomes perceived by Li Shu (M: yy), and like Encarl’s Smartgularity (M: yy), remain a faintly implied shape, only partly jutting into story cycle’s representational field. 

The difficulty of theoretically demarcating work from non-work, and the brutal and exploitative history of such demarcation as it has practically occurred, could be no security against the possibility that technologically accomplished quantifications of work might in principle gain legal backing or widespread social acceptance. Stock prices already make a resounding claim to quantify the future flourishing of firms; the reputation metrics of digital matching platforms such as Uber and Airbnb make a fairly resounding claim to render precise and legible the trustworthiness of taxi drivers or holidaymakers. It seemed important to confront the possibility of some specific socio‑technological ecology of data collection, extraction, warehousing, analysis, and visualization and gamification, making a resounding claim to render ‘work’ – or perhaps ‘smart work,’ ‘hard work,’ or even ‘happy work’ – as precise and legible data.

The stories Moneykins, and perhaps especially ‘Alice,’ often feature imagery of bodies surfacing and stretching free from the media in which they have been obscured and imprisoned, and even in which they have been constituted. For instance, the Weaver breaks free from her cloud and its enigmatic Chesses, and the leprecoins from their magic metal (M: yy, yy). These images arrived in my writing of their own accord, but I started to think of them as small, scattered allegories about humans disentangling themselves from money, whether partly or fully, temporarily or for good.

At the same time, as explored in §2.1-§2.5, money can be tenacious, adaptable, and stealthy. It can linger in the places it has explicitly been banished from. Bewitchingly detailed representational regimes – such as Quantified Self technologies, the reputation metrics of the sharing economy, Doctorow’s Whuffie, or Myeong’s WorkCoin – may promise to extricate humans from money’s power, to create alternative ways of organizing collective action, and to in effect “render gold and silver of no esteem” (More 1997 [1516]: 44). Yet they may actually end up extending the power of money, in new forms, deeper into human lives. [...]

[1] See e.g. The Economy of Hours ( and TimeRepublik (; for historical background cf. Warren (1852).
[2] I prefer to say ‘Quantified Selves’ because I am a little reluctant to call Quantified Self a ‘movement’ with ‘members.’ There is an awkwardness around the term, perhaps because it tends to emphasize the agency and knowledge of the quantified individual, and downplays the way in which, even in the most sanguine circumstances, the Quantified Self is inevitably also a Quantified Other. But the term has widespread recognition, and I find even the awkwardness itself sometimes useful, a constant reminder of the unwieldiness and counterintuitivity of the subject matter.
[3] For instance, a few important dimensions of distinction might include tedium, discomfort, and other affective states; freedom and constraint; the ‘embedded labor’ of prior training and experience; the ‘quality’ of the work as measured by innumerable metrics; the danger and luck involved; and of course the work’s financial productivity. These evade tracking technologies to different degrees and in different ways. WSTT [Wearables and other Self-Tracking Technologies] measure only users, creating an illusion that the precarian worker – constructed by a particular affective and social field of which these technologies are a part – is identical with humanity,” and the illusion that this worker figure is also the defining point of human bodily capabilities and the point from which we should start – an outer limit of ‘human nature’ which restricts political and social possibility (Moore and Robinson 2015: 5; cf. also Maughan 2013).

Friday, July 22, 2016

Real quick

1) My novelette "Froggy Goes Piggy" is up at The Long+Short. Here's the story and here's a tiny bit about it.

2) Voting for the Sputnik Awards is still open. Shortlisted: Jim Butcher, The Cinder Spires (Roc); Becky Chambers, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (Hodder & Stoughton); Berit Ellingsen, Not Dark Yet (Two Dollar Radio); N.K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season (Orbit); Emma Newman, Planetfall (Roc); Peter Newman, The Vagrant (Harper Voyager); Naomi Novik, Uprooted (Del Rey); Nnedi Okorafor, The Book of Phoenix (Hodder & Stoughton); Adam Roberts, The Thing Itself (Gollancz); Kim Stanley Robinson, Aurora (Orbit); Neal Stephenson, Seveneves (William Morrow); Fran Wilde, Updraft (Tor Books). If the UK can vote to leave the EU without knowing what it is or whether we're actually in it, you're probably OK to cast a battle-ballot in the Sputniks. I wrote an editorial in the current Interzone to talk a bit about the Sputniks and other new awards.

3) SFRA & CRSF conferences were fun. My papers, "Marvellous Moneys & Financial Familiars" and "The Dystopglyn Glyns," are online at The first one was basically a primer on controversies in the ontology of money, then a few selections from the Economics in SFF project. The second was an attempt at thinking about some of the huge everyday topics and tools of SF Studies (utopia, the future, diegetic prototyping, SF vs. fantasy, Suvin's cognitive estrangement).

4) It is not long since the last flake of the Smurfette fake tat I won for losing Laser Tag washed off my shoulder. Though I think she may have enlisted as a Pokemon. Meanwhile, wouldn't Ghostbusters make an intriguing location-based AR game? Especially if it was genuinely terrifying. A bit Five Nights at Freddy's maybe.

5) If anyone has material they would be willing to contribute to the Economics in SFF project, I'd love to take a look. Here's a formal-ish CfP, but if in doubt, just get in touch.

6) Are you organising a conference or something similar in 2017? Maybe you should get in touch too. There's something I want to talk to you about.

7) "Who?" Here's a good game you can play when you meet new people (& here's the original).

8) Those science fiction conferences. So, there was really far too much great stuff at SFRA & CRSF to attempt even an attempt at a report, but I want to pick out three moments almost at random. One was the long feared and in the event totally gratifying and stimulating collision of contemporary experimental poetry with SFF in the Stephen Mooney panel. A second was Sarah Lohmann's paper on feminist utopias, science, and chaos/complexity. Before I heard that paper and let it sink in a little, I would have said that the problem with utopia-as-CAS is that the transformations of CASs are by definition unpredictable: too open, too flexible, too fickle, and incapable of cherishing and protecting anything worthy of the name utopian. The just-maybe-brilliant insight that suddenly makes me, in a really good way, way less sure, was the focus on science work as a CAS. A society organised according to edge-of-chaos utopian science feels like a very different proposition to a society organised as edge-of-chaos utopia. A third was Joan Haran's keynote, an attentive exploration of points where SFF and activism touch (swirling around WisCon, The Fifth Sacred Thing, Octavia's Brood, and possibilities for genomics SF research activisms).

9) Liverpool is so hot right now. Prof Michael Dougan on Leave and criminal irresponsibility.



Terraforming: Ecopolitical Transformations and Environmentalism in Science Fiction

12) Fredric Jameson in 1982: "For the apparent realism, or representationality, of SF has concealed another, far more complex temporal structure: not to give us 'images' of the future—whatever such images might mean for a reader who will necessarily predecease their 'materialization'—but rather to defamiliarize and restructure our experience of our own present, and to do so in specific ways distinct from all other forms of defamiliarization." The sort of thing I'm trying to return to and perhaps gently productively disagree with in that triptych of talks at Northumbria Summer Speakers / Fantasies of Contemporary Culture / CRSF.

13) Science Fiction and the Medical Humanities at Glasgow University was also good craic. Particularly enjoyed the first panel I went to (Imogen Woodberry, Phoenix Alexander, Joshua Odam) which poked me into seeking out Octavia's Brood ed. Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown. Wish I'd done so sooner. Snippet from the intro:
"Visionary fiction" is a term we developed to distinguish science fiction that has relevance toward building new, freer worlds from the mainstream strain of science fiction, which most often reinforces dominant narratives of power. Visionary fiction encompasses all of the fantastic, with the arc always bending toward justice. We believe this space is vital for any process of decolonization, because the decolonization of the imagination is the most dangerous and subversive form there is: for it is where all other forms of decolonization are born.  
Many of the contributors to Octavia's Brood had never written fiction before, let alone science fiction. When we approached folks, most were hesitant to commit, feeling like they weren't qualified. But overwhelmingly, they all came back a few weeks later, enthusiastically, with incredible ideas and some with dozens of pages already written. Because all organizing is science fiction, we are dreaming new worlds every time we think about the changes we want to make in the world. The writers in this collection just needed a little space, and perhaps permission to immerse themselves fully in their visionary selves.
14) Two very different speculative fiction anthologies out recently.

15) "Work as if you live in the early days of World War III."

16) I'm reading some kind of SF or fantasy prose with TBC in the BristolCon Fringe on 15 August. Come!

Wednesday, July 20, 2016


St. Thomas Aquinas explains: “thus also will his body be raised to the characteristics of heavenly bodies — it will be lightsome (clarity), incapable of suffering (impassible), without difficulty and labour in movement (agility), and most perfectly perfected by its form (subtlety). For this reason, the Apostle speaks of the bodies of the risen as heavenly, referring not to their nature, but to their glory.”

Ghostbusters was not rebooted: it died and was resurrected, shining, impassible, agile, and subtle. From the trailers and one or two reviews I expected it'd be mugging for squees, one of those family films with a layer aimed at kids and another layer aimed at adults who like to say stuff like "adulting is hard :(" a lot ... but it ain't that in the least.

It's shining. It seems to do that thing (that I think Orange is the New Black and maybe Unbreakable Kimmy Schmitt does) where the mild psychological complexity and heft requisite for realist comedy sporadically dissolves into clomping, larger-than-life sketch comedy ... but then the realist comedy somehow reassembles straight afterward as if nothing happened, and you're back with characters you care about. It's not about breaking the fourth wall: it's about passing through innumerable walls, temporarily demonstrating your spectrality.

Reckon it needed to be five minutes longer, to give significant plot points their due weight. Ideally take like twelve minutes, and give Patty some backstory and/or development, and ectoplasm out the ghosts as characters too. Maybe the combat ontology could have been a little more firmly established before the big showdown too. Because I wasn't quite sure what their gear could do, the Ghostbusters felt even more immortal than normal characters-that-will-definitely-be-fine. Also, Zach Woods inexplicably survives a very glowy, goopy, should-really-be-game-over first brush with the undead, which kind of makes them look a bit dud and inept. So how to tweak that? Well, maybe lingering on Bill Murray's broken and bloodied body would have been one more handy reminder of the stakes for mortals, and during the back-alley gizmos showcase scene, just a boring line along the lines of, "With these new side-arms, we no longer need the box on the floor to snare these wraiths, ladies; we may dissipate their morphic resonance directly" -- and then a joke -- might have made the later haunty heiny-kicking hijinks more immediately legible and compelling. And/or your man Rowan could have had a spooky security guard helping him out at the lab as a mini-tutorial in ghosts vs. Ghostbusters (that mini-showdown felt pretty rushed anyway). So maybe it needed to be fifteen minutes longer. But could get away with five.

Cecily Strong is brilliant and I hope she's in the sequel too. Also are they actually almost corpsing in a proper big film in the Technobabble ex Machina bit? Kevin's character is less believable than any of the swirly baddies, but that's OK. I could have done with a little more muppety body horror and grotesque visual gags, but now I'm just nitpicking. Totes ace, Thomist af.

Or ...

What is a movie, anyway? A movie begins to be interpreted before it's even been fully shot, and those interpretations must still be interpretations of the movie. Is the Ghostbusters eventually seen by the misogynists who are determined to hate watch it, and whose experience of it is textured and weighted and colored by their fruitful, ingenious expectations, part of the real Ghostbusters movie or not? I believe it got loads and loads of ratings, both positive and negative -- mostly negative, from folk who objected to the genderflipped reboot (and the positive ones possibly in the spirit of redressing the balance) -- from people who probably hadn't seen it. If there are real criticisms to be made of the film, they should be of the swirling green CGI hell version of it, the version that deserves to be whipped into boxes with protons for its essential ugliness, the film as it is construed in the hearts and minds twisted resolutely against it. To honor not only the genderflip but also the flip that was there already: the flip that makes what is dead live and what is in hell heavenly.

Also I'm glad there was a Swiss army knife in it, because (a) we've been discussing them a lot recently and (b) it reminds me of the line in the play Woundman and Shirley that describes Woundman as looking like "sort of a cross between Bill Murray and a Swiss army knife."

Also Ghostbusters could make an interesting location-based AR game. Gotta bust 'em all.

Also more like Slimo Yiannopoulos but whatever.

Also ScotCoin: I ain't afraid of no groats.

Also I think one of the things that stops Holzmann being just a tube for squirting kook is those moments where she gives brief, assured, no-nonsense tutorials on the stuff she's made. I feel like I've met people like that? They act out so much you think they're going to be actors or poets or something, and then you realise that they're scientists or engineers, and that blend of arrogance and joy and insecurity and yearning trollishness is actually grounded in a sense of, "fuck it, if all else fails at least I know how to make stuff." Maybe?

Also have you seen Ghostbusters? It's not as good as the BOO!