Monthly Archives: June 2015

A shadow on the future of our kids

Will the Future Be Post-Scarcity because Labour will be Underpaid?

One of the things that makes me nervous about the future of my children is the gradual disappearance of opportunities to earn a living. There are a few aspects to this, including the automation of many jobs and processes – and I know that “other jobs will be created”, but never at the level that jobs were lost…and in case you haven’t noticed, the global population is growing pretty rapidly. Here is an example of job-killing automation: Self-driving Trucks (and yes, if you go through the comments and come across Peculiarist, that’s me).

However, this post is inspired by this post: Adapt to What? – An Open Letter, by David Newhoff, about the devaluation not just of artistic work, but all work in general. He makes some very good points in a very clear way.

there’s like 80 million of you millennials in America, and the digital-age market only has room for one or two (usually one) major player in any category at a time. So, in terms of realistic ratios, even if a million of you might invent killer apps or become YouTube stars, neither of those enterprises will create and sustain real jobs for the the other 79 million.

I’ve seen this point before, and it’s a good counter to the “progress creates jobs” mantra that is mindlessly repeated. Industries in the past are often held up as shining examples of job creation, but they don’t correlate to modern technological advances. In the Self-Driving Trucks post above, someone argued in the comments that “people were worried about telegraph operators losing their jobs, but the invention of the telephone created a lot more” – which was irrelevant to the discussion, because having a telephone in every house was a completely new service greatly enhancing communication, whereas self-driving trucks are not a new service and won’t result in extra freight being trafficked. Even new services aren’t creating jobs – most of the tech startups that are being sold or floated for billions of dollars have employee numbers in dozens, so while they’re making a few people very wealthy they are not creating the jobs that, say, Ford did when he started mass-producing automobiles. In the past, one person with a good idea would create jobs for hundreds of thousands of others, but nowadays they simply don’t.

read between the lines in any number of trends and we see a hyper-efficient, data-centric view of the world, of culture, and of market value that appears to be fueling the growth of monopsonies empowered to dictate terms to every kind of worker from book authors to carpenters to truck drivers. And it occurs to me that for all its fluffy futility, OWS demonstrated that many of you were on the right track. You should be pissed off at the 1% and angry as hell at Wall Street. But I’m sorry to say that the business models of the digital age are not the antidote to Wall Street; they are its worst intentions on speed…major business owners in many sectors seem to be learning from these tech-based models how to take advantage of your talent, your time, and your costly educations for pennies on the dollar. They know the more that labor is devalued across multiple sectors and the more desperate your circumstances become, the more bargaining power they have.

If the above quote doesn’t make any sense to you (maybe because you’ve been in a steady job for 30 years, or maybe you’ve just gotten lucky) go and read the full article, it’s definitely worth it. It’s true that Amazon has created a way for independent authors to sell to a wide marketplace, and I’m grateful for it, but let’s never forget that the entity which profits the most from Amazon’s business model is Amazon. At the moment its goals often align with those of authors and readers, but if its (meager) competition disappears it’s likely to start getting aggressively awful. They’ve already done some things like this, such as the pay-per-pageview move recently introduced (I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing, but it’s a good example of them dictating to the market). That’s why I think giving Amazon exclusivity is a bad idea in the long run, because it’s better for authors if there are multiple markets for their books. However, as long as Amazon’s interests align with those of authors, everybody wins.

I picked Amazon because I’m an author, but it applies to everything – someone might make a few extra dollars driving for Uber, but it’s the creators of Uber who are pulling in the billions. So everything might be on demand and appear cheap, but that’s because people are getting underpaid for the services they provide. Buying local is a good start, but as Newhoff points out piracy also directly funnels money away from content creators and to major corporations. It may seem like there’s no way to derail this train of wealth inequity and hard-scrabble living the future promises, but there is: The consumer has the power here. When you buy something, you are tacitly supporting someone in the most effective way possible, with cash. To quote Newhoff again: “It may not occur to you that it is contradictory to hate on Wall Street and then order up an Uber car or pirate a movie or a book, and the VCs whose names you don’t know are counting on you not to notice.” You don’t have to change all your consumption habits, but just changing a bit will make a huge difference.

(Seriously, read his open letter).

Thicker Than Blood

Notice: This story is written and published under the auspices of AppleSoftBM Literary Entertainment. All Trademarks and Copyrighted words and phrases used have been cleared by their respective owners. Any breach of copyright on this work will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law and physics.

The banging on my NoFale™ security door brought me back to full wakefulness just as I was buying a ticket to slumbertown. The NoFale™ vidscreen showed the anxious face of my brother and I relaxed. He was always anxious about something: The GovMent™ was torturing this person, a corporation was invading that country … he always seemed to find something wrong with the world. I let him in.

“Thank the good whatever,” he said. “I may be in a bit of trouble.” I made some Sparkling Tea fresh from the paradisiacal island of Sri Lanka™ and indulgently awaited his story. I was not at all prepared for what I heard next. “Have you heard of Chutzpah?”

The icy hand of panic caressed my heart. Chutzpah was an “independent underground magazine” as it styled itself, and “a dangerous attack on our rights and economy” as everyone else considered it. At least, everyone with power. Even to have heard of it was to draw suspicion as a dangerous rebel. So I said “it doesn’t ring a bell” as he launched into his story. I was worried that he had gone so far as to purchase a copy from some hoodlum, but it was worse than that — he had contributed.

“I did a series of cartoon strips about an elephant with a hand on the end of its trunk,” he said, and catching the look on my face hurriedly explained it was a metaphor for the power of the common man — a connection I couldn’t make, myself.

I wracked my brains for an infringement but nothing came to mind. Ever since the “Protection of Peoples Copyright Act” was passed in 2023 almost every creative development had been through entertainment companies. These had the resources to check for any infringement by the work being created, and of course also any infringement of the work which, due to the broad wording of the act, could be almost anything. That’s why independent creation was so dangerous.

I was aghast at the irresponsibility of my brother. Without the judicious help of an entertainment corporation there was no way to ensure that his metaphorical cartoons were sanitized, securitized and, above all, legalized. “And uh, is there a, uh…” I tried to delicately enunciate my question but my brother responded to the holding-terror-in-check look on my face with equal bluntness.

“Do you remember anything about Dumbo?” he asked. I was confused. Dumbo? An old kid’s word for a stupid person? Then a vague memory floated through my mind; the demented ravings of my grandfather as he wallowed in senility, about a cartoon he used to watch as a boy…something about flying? A flying elephant? Oh no…

My mind reeled and my blood flushed hot and cold. I largely ignored what my brother was saying, rambling on about writing under a pseudonym and the unfairness of the injustice system, always trying to find a way to justify his disregard for social mores and the law. Still, he was my brother, and I considered ways to hide him from a minor company. My hands clammy with sweat, I asked him which corporation he had inadvertently attacked.

“Disney.”

One word chilled me to the bone. The Wonderful World of Walt Disney (TM). No-one wanted to mess with the Wonderful World of Walt Disney™, which was widely believed to have convinced President Jenna Bush to nuke Brazil in retaliation for ongoing infringement of intellectual property.

I walked over to the CleerVue™ wallglass and gazed distractedly at the advertisements hovering outside, automatically trying to see past them to the streetscape. My skin was now cool and dry, my pulse had slowed.

“Don’t worry,” I told my brother. “You look exhausted, have a strong drink and go to bed, get some rest.” A few hours later, my brother’s profuse thanks ringing in my mind and his snoring sounding in my ears, I picked up the phone and dialed the number everyone knew by heart.

“Organization for the Defense of the Authors Moral Rights and the Works Underpinning the Economy of America the Land of the Brave and Free™. We’re here to help the public, how may I service you?” said the suave voice at the other end of the line.

“I have some important information that may interest the Wonderful World of Walt Disney,” I replied, hoping it would help me avoid my brother’s fate.

The Love-Hate Affair We Have With Copyright

Neil Gaiman, wordsmith that he is, exactly stated my attitude towards copyright in a recent piece in New Statesman:

So I do love it when people grab my stuff and take it and do things with it. I love copyright – I love the fact that I can feed myself and feed my children with the stuff I make up. On the other hand, copyright length right now is life plus 75 years, and I don’t know that I want to be in control of what I’ve created for 75 years after I’ve died! I don’t know that I want to be feeding my great-grandchildren. I feel like they should be able to look after themselves, and not necessarily put limits on what I’ve created, if there’s something that would do better in the cultural dialogue. I loved Les Klinger’s legal case, establishing that the Conan Doyle Estate had basically been ­running a shakedown operation for the last 20, 30 years, where they’ve been getting people to pay money to license Sherlock Holmes when Holmes was out of copyright.

For a vibrant culture we need copyright, artists can do a lot more if they can make a living off their work and not be beholden to wealthy patrons. But for a vibrant culture that copyright needs to be limited, people need to be able to play off ideas and mythos and other culturally relevant concepts…to reinterpret them and critique the underlying messages and all the other good juicy stuff that abounds in a strong, rich culture. There are limits, of course, but those limits are constantly challenged by big media companies, which works against creativity. At the moment, copyright laws are really for the big companies rather than the artists, anyway, and they should be reconsidered and rewritten with the purpose of supporting artists and allowing the referencing that has created strong cultures since humans started banging sticks together and chanting.

Using Fantasy to Escape into Real Life

There’s a very fascinating conversation between Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro published in the New Statesman, which is definitely worth a read if you’re interested in the meta-surroundings of storytelling (as opposed to just enjoying the stories). One thing that leapt out at me was this statement by Neil Gaiman:

I remember as a boy reading an essay by C S Lewis in which he writes about the way that people use the term “escapism” – the way literature is looked down on when it’s being used as escapism – and Lewis says that this is very strange, because actually there’s only one class of people who don’t like escape, and that’s jailers: people who want to keep you where you are. I’ve never had anything against escapist literature, because I figure that escape is a good thing: going to a different place, learning things, and coming back with tools you might not have known.

This sounded very familiar; I recognised the idea from my bio, where I wrote “escaping into a fictional world and imagining how he would behave in particular situations or strange places helped prepare him for the challenges and moral quandaries he faced in real life”. That came from me trying to elucidate, for the first time, the usefulness of reading fantasy books (as opposed to science fiction books).

People do a lot of bad things (or fail to do good things) simply because they’ve found themselves in a situation they’re unprepared for with people telling them to do things that they haven’t considered the significance of. It’s a slow buildup of insufficiently pondered ideas, orders that are a little off but not enough to disobey, justifications of minor deviances, and other such things, that moves the line of what is reasonable and right slowly and surely into territory that would once never have been considered.

Reading fantasy stories introduces you to crazy ideas and unlikely situations and impossible people that nevertheless have a corollary in your real life. What would you do if an evil lich lord set up a deadly sports tournament that resulted in a lot of deaths, and therefore a lot of bodies to be resurrected which gave the lich more power, and wanted to hire you to convince the populace that it was in their best interests? Would you tell people that the players entered the sport of their own free will, seeking riches and glory, and well know the risks? Would you say that banning the game would be a move to oppress the liberty of the people? Would you turn down the offer, considering what it would be like to look in the mirror in the morning? Would you actively campaign against the lich, arguing that the game is bad for society as a whole and is only accepted because of misleading lies and misdirection spread by the lich?

What would you do if you work in a PR agency that accepts a major contract from a cigarette manufacturer?

There are so many small steps that people take on the road to doing something evil, and the direction of the steps is a lot easier to recognise if you’ve read something similar in “escapist literature”.

Where’d My Nerd Culture Go? Oh, There It Is.

When I was a kid I loved comics – I started off loving Archie, moved on to loving Spider-man and the Silver Surfer, and finally migrated to Hellblazer and Sandman. These were my escapist fantasies: Archie was full of dorky characters who nevertheless had friends and – quite often – girlfriends; Spider-man was the ultimate nerd who beat up the bullies and got the cute girl, while the Silver Surfer was not trapped on this “planet full of madmen” but could roam the galaxies on a cool surfboard; Hellblazer and Sandman were more complex stories, but still offered the dream that life wasn’t as fixed and staid as everyone kept insisting it was. Of course the characters were powerful and beautiful and had proportions that never exist in the human species, but no-one really expected an accurate anatomy lesson*.

My sister and mother had different escapist stories, Mills & Boon and Harlequin books where men were always impossibly handsome and brooding and just couldn’t resist the protagonist, who was normally strong and independent yet desperate to be swept off her feet. Or there were other books, Pride and Prejudice clones, where the normal-looking woman attracted the attention of the most sought-after rich, handsome and unattainable man, aloof and yet unable to maintain his display of disinterest around the protagonist.

Some stories we shared, such as Piers Anthony novels, TV sitcoms and the like.

groinvillainThat was when I was a kid. Now, superheroes are mainstream culture. They’re no longer nerd escapism, they’re intended to be entertainment for everyone, and as such they have to appeal to everyone, which means jettisoning a lot of the wish-fulfillment parts that attracted nerds in the first place. This has happened with a lot of “nerd culture” that I enjoyed growing up, to the point where there isn’t really a nerd culture anymore. This means a lot of people feel not only that their escapism stories are under attack, but that they personally are under attack. If the situation was reversed, and millions of men had started reading Mills & Boon novels, the same type of outcry would be underway but with different segments of the population.

So, the traditional nerd culture that I grew up with has been co-opted, has sold out to the lowest common denominator. And who is to blame for this? I’ll give you a hint: Nerds. I’m not talking about growing up and getting good jobs and suddenly having a lot of purchasing power and so on; I’m talking about the way we took it all too seriously.

Nerds forgot that what they were enjoying was escapism, and started treating it as high art. Batman was an exploration of the psychological damage trauma could cause, Superman a biting commentary on the burdens placed on those with the power to save the world, X-Men an intelligent discourse on the problems faced by the different and dispossessed… We punished cookie-cutter scripts and tepid art and lauded Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Todd McFarlane and Sam Keith, which would have been all to the good if we didn’t also loudly and persistently try to convince everyone else that comics were a valid form of literature that everyone should read, lending copies of Alan Moore and Will Eisner willy-nilly, pushing books by Frank Miller and Jeff Smith onto all and sundry. Of course they all liked it, of course comics became popular, and of course the big entertainment industry began making blockbuster movies about them (something everyone had clamoured for) and of course those movies were targeted to a general audience. What did we expect?

batkissThis will never return to the escapist fantasies of old, and we wouldn’t be happy if it did. Underlying a lot of the you’re-not-a-real-nerd rage is the fear that once “nerd culture” falls out of fashion we will again be mocked for liking it, and further mocked for trying but failing to be cool by liking something that’s gone out of fashion. We can form enclaves where we can enjoy superheroes in our traditional nerdy ways, but whenever they get good they’ll just be invaded again. Besides, there’s a lot to be said for the mainstream superhero appreciation – the escapist comics would work better as b-grade movie schlock rather than Hollywood blockbusters anyway, and there’s a lot of great shows on TV plus the cosplayers at cons are really cool.

Nothing is meant to last forever, and I think this is hopefully also true of the need for escapist fantasies. It’s time we remembered that nerd culture, like any subculture, is just that: A subculture. It’s not mainstream, it’s on the fringes, it’s small groups of people enjoying what they like together rather than desperately flooding friends and family (and social media) with it in the hopes that people will belatedly realise how cool it is, and therefore how cool we are for doing it.

So, I think we should just enjoy the new versions for what they are, ret-cons and inclusiveness and all, and focus on following our passions irrespective of what society is up to – just like we’ve always done. It’s back to the indies for us, the self-published section on Amazon**, the band putting up their songs on YouTube, the pub or cafe meetings to argue about the finer points of radiation protection in space. Stop bitching about people not really understanding what we like, and just concentrate on liking it. The Mills & Boon crowd have done it – just look at the romance section in online bookstores, there’s everything from monster porn to romances that cleverly satirise international politics being published. As far as I can tell they’re just ignoring the bitching about Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey and getting on with enjoying what they like.

* That being said, comic book art did later morph into the realm of ridiculousness.
** I know, this could seem self-serving, but I’ve always waded in the indie section.

When nerds fight amongst themselves.

When nerds fight amongst themselves.

Review: Tinkers of the Wasteland

Nómadas del Yermo (nomads of the wilderness, although it is translated it as tinkers of the wasteland) is a fast-paced manga-style comic by Raúl Treviño, from Monterrey. I’m a fan of his art, which is a little rough around the edges but works well with the theme, and goes into pretty decent detail when warranted. I read the comic in Spanish paperback, but it is available online, and also in English.

NomadasPortada-baja-400x593The setting is post-apocalypse México, after civilization has been destroyed by a meteor shower. The meteor shower is still underway, which I suppose makes the setting intra-apocalyptic. The survivors band together to get food, protect themselves and attack other people. The plot of the first comic – Los pollos chidos del Apocalipsis – revolves around the three heroes/protagonists and their quest to liberate however many chickens they can from Rey Kuir, local crime boss and chicken hoarder. There is a lot of surreal absurdism, with the inclusion of aliens and mutants and chickens, a hallmark of Méxican stories, although the stories aren’t usually in this sort of setting.

The comic is constructed well; Treviño has worked as a colorist for Marvel, DC and Dark Horse amongst others, so he knows how a comic should be structured to make the reading path natural. The action is hectic; the comic is strongly reminiscent of Mad Max in its long sequences of people battling in souped-up cars with strange attachments and weapons. It’s very easy to keep reading the comic until the end.

My main complaint is of the character of Milla, the female in the group of three protagonists. She is portrayed as a harridan, forever complaining, insulting and scolding without offering any useful comments, suggestions or plans. I suspect this might be an attempt to create a “strong woman” character, but it falls flat if the character isn’t actually useful. The only other female in the comic is seen in one panel, a woman kept prisoner as a sex-slave. Since this comic is the first part of a three part series (and the only one I’ve read) it’s possible that the character gets further developed in the next couple of comics, and other females are introduced. I’m hoping.
NomadasMila
Final Verdict: I liked it. It’s a good comic if you favor action over moody exposition, and I’ll be reading the rest of the series.