Tuesday, February 14, 2012


Edgeland House, Three Messages and a Warning
I went to a party two weeks ago. I rarely get out to such things, at least those that don't involve giant rodents shilling the worst pizza known to mankind. This party, on the other hand, involved actual grown-ups and genre-themed literary discussion, among other things. And it took place in Austin, so you know the hip factor was cranked up to 11. Any dedicated blogger worth his or her salt would've written up a breathtaking account of the festivities that very night whilst tweeting an incredibly witty, blow-by-blow account in real time. These people are neither as lazy nor as easily distracted as I am. So sue me.

The occasion was the release of Chris N. Brown's labor of love, Three Messages and a Warning, an anthology of Mexican science fiction and fantasy writing co-edited by Brown that had just celebrated a major booksigning event over at Bookpeople just a few days prior. Two of the authors in the anthology, Pepe Rojo of Tijuana and Bernardo Fernandez of Mexico City, flew in for the event. There is an unwritten law amongst the Austin SF community that international writers are not allowed to leave town without attending a party, so a party was thrown in their honor.

Edgeland House, Three Messages and a Warning

Of particular interest was the venue of this shindig--the new abode of Brown, the Edgeland House. I can honestly say this was the first event I've ever attended on a set straight out of Logan's Run. While not quite as eccentric-cool as living in a Ballardian missile silo, the sheer weight of its eco-futuristic gravitas is mind boggling. The floor is heated. The ceiling is designed as a digital projection display. Plus, they had lots of good beer that flowed freely. If Brown had any business sense, he'd charge 50¢ a ticket for tours and make a killing. He's got his own swimming pool with a built-in waterfall, people!

Edgeland House, Three Messages and a Warning

Most of the usual suspects of the Austin writing scene showed up and one point or other, including Don Well, Lawrence Person, Stina Leicht, Jessica Reisman and Derek Johnson. Lots of other people flowed through as well, but as I don't actually live in Austin, I'm not quite cool enough to hang with them or reference them on a first-name basis. Yet.

Edgeland House, Three Messages and a Warning

Edgeland House, Three Messages and a Warning

Edgeland House, Three Messages and a Warning

Edgeland House, Three Messages and a Warning

Edgeland House, Three Messages and a Warning

Edgeland House, Three Messages and a Warning

I, for one, am counting down the days until the first Turkey City is held at this residential wonderland of concentrated genre aesthetic.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Considering the Network as the radar detector of the Multitude

The Sunday before last, as I loaded up visiting Mexican writers Bernardo Fernández (Bef) and Pepe Rojo in my pickup for a day-trip half-way across Texas and back (their pilgrimage to meet the Maestro of East Texas noir), my passengers registered astonishment and alarm as I pulled out my radar detector and turned it on. It was early, we were tired, and the thing makes creepy electronic squawks. But the real source of their fascination and low-level anxiety was their presumption that any such device designed to help the citizen evade detection of his or her law-breaking by the police must surely be illegal.

I assured them it was lawful (without any jingoistic gringo proclamations of Texian liberty), only to later second-guess myself, knowing that there are a few states like Virginia where they are prohibited. I accepted my guests' assumption that radar detectors are a uniquely American thing, a consumerized derivative of freedom of travel and the right of revolt lurking behind Second Amendment jurisprudence.

Turns out that was wrong—radar detectors are legal in Mexico, if perhaps not all that useful to keep you out of trouble. But it is also clear that Bef is right in his assumption that the state will reflexively resist efforts by the people to conduct surveillance on power. As evidenced by the Brazilian government's prosecution of Twitter this week for hosting a site in which users can alert others to then locations of police roadblocks, radar traps and drunk-driving checkpoints. Causing one to wonder whether the the notion that you can't put toothpaste back in the tube would translate well into Portuguese.

My conversation with my visitors reflected our common presumptive fear that the use of a radar detector, whether lawful or not, will provoke the prosecutorial ire of the state and its agents. It's certainly one of the first things you want to hide if you get pulled over, even where legal, and even when you haven't been speeding. That fear is well-conditioned by state power, and always has been. But the Brazilian Twitter case is an enlightening glimpse into how that paradigm is being upended by network culture—in which the network serves as the ultimate radar detector.

Mexico provides a compelling example of how computer-based social networks enable the citizenry to turn the tables on power, and countering fear through the unity of multitude. Nelson Arteaga Botello of UNAM has done amazing work studying how citizens of Monterrey and other northern cities cial-ntwking.pdf>use social networks to conduct counter-surveillance of narco blockades imposed on their metropoles. The network provides the people with the means to monitor and evade the control of the sovereign, be it a constitutionally elected government or a band of violent warlords (or, as in most cases, some combination thereof).

The difference between Twitter feeds about speed traps and Wikileaks dumps of the government's classified interoffice memoranda is just one of degree. Without secrets, government must either persuade the populace of its legitimacy, or abandon legitimacy for force of arms. We can expect a decade or two of efforts by governments and other powers (corporations, cartels, and perhaps copyright holders) to try to use law (and force) to prevent the popular use of the network to expose institutional secrets, and it seems certain they will all inevitably fail. Trying to control the use of communications networks is like trying to exterminate the rhizome under your lawn. (Ironic, perhaps, that a technology designed by the military-industrial complex to ensure viable communications in the event of nuclear attack ends up appropriated by the people and able to withstand attack by its creator.)

The biggest challenge to fully realizing the power of networks to enable the citizen polity will be this: the Network we consider our public space is really just an aggregation of private networks, owned by parties who are much more amenable to government pressure than a distributed and informed multitude of individuals. Consider Wikileaks, which the U.S. broke by exploiting its control over the electronic payment networks that control substantially all of the transaction commerce of the globe. The U.S. government doesn't need a reasoned legal basis to shut down Wikileaks—it just needs to communicate to MasterCard, Visa, Amex and PayPal that there will be adverse consequences if they don't conduct themselves in a, you know, PATRIOTic manner.

As our networks become the town hall of our emerging global politics, the radar detector is going to be squawking a lot.

Recommended reading:

Peter Singer, "
Visible Man: Ethics in a World Without Secrets
"—Harpers, August 2011

Nelson Arteaga Botello, "Violence and social networking in Mexico: Actors and surveillance technologies"—from "Cyber-Surveillance in Everyday Life: An International Workshop," May 12-15, 2011, University of Toronto

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Ardath Mayhar has passed away

Joe Lansdale is reporting that Ardath Mayhar has passed away. For those of you unfamiliar with her, she was the reigning empress of Texas SF writers. She was named SFWA Author Emeritus in 2008, one of the first media releases I wrote as SFWA publicity chair, and one of my happiest. I met her many years ago, so long ago, in fact, I can't really remember a time when I didn't know her. My first SF convention, Aggiecon 20, is the likely date. She was a fixture at many Aggiecons way back when, the gracious grandmother figure with knitting needles stuck through her bun of hair. To everyone in Texas science fiction circles, Ardath seemed eternal.

Ardath Mayhar and Neal Barrett, Jr.

Ardath Mayhar and Neal Barrett, Jr.

She wrote many, many books. Too many for me to list here, but her SF Encyclopedia entry makes a pretty good starting point. She ran a bookstore in East Texas for many years with her late husband, and helped many writers over the years with advice and by teaching in workshops. Nobody who met her came away unimpressed. One of my fondest memories of her came in 2000, at Aggiecon again. Her health was declining, and her convention attendance was becoming sporadic. I hadn't seen her in several years, but this time, if I recall correctly, Joe Lansdale brought her along so she wouldn't have to drive. That year, Harlan Ellison was guest of honor, alongside Terry Pratchett. In between programming events, Ellison was sitting at a table in the MSC Ballroom, having a discussion with a handful of fans or writers or somesuch. I was sitting to the side, content simply to listen. Ardath wandered in right in the middle of the discussion, and the transformation that came over Ellison was immediate and dramatic. He dropped everything and literally doted on Ardath. He got her a seat, brought her into the conversation and went out of his way to defer to her. Ellison, for all his reputation and ego and every bad thing ever said about him, Knew Who She Was, and showed Ardath a magnificent amount of grace and respect. Ardath had that effect on people.

We are all diminished by her loss.