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Friday, July 29, 2005

DAY OF THE DOCTOROW, PART IV

Continued from yesterday-- Doctorow on connectivity and human connectiveness, online subcultures, and the inevitablity of asshats...

Hamlet Linden: [Book club member] Kurtz Lawson says, "I was wondering about the significance of the access point in the empty house at the end."

Cory Doctorow: I wanted to connect the stories more explicitly, to make it clear that there was inexplicable magic at work in both the techie stuff AND the family stuff -- that no element of the story was immune to the irrational influences of the shadow world to which Alan and his family belonged.

HL: Your hero spends a tremendous amount of time trying to connect humans via wireless Internet, but the irony is, he hardly knows how to connect with them, himself!

CD: Well, that's the paradox of all social software, isn't it. We have geeks cooking up software where people are expected to explicitly enumerate their fuzzy, qualitative social relationships, which are inherently non-enumeratable. They are expected to do things like rate their friends' "sexiness" on a scale of 1-5, etc. It's like some kind of Asperger's-gone-wild thing, where people who are incapable of grasping non-explicit cues about the social world can finally force everyone else into wearing lapel-pins that set out all those fuzzy, hard-to-grasp social niceties. It's a world of Dr. Spocks who finally get to force the McCoys into giving up on irrational behavior.

Yeah -- again, the geek's paradox. A lot of science fiction people (me included) have that.

HL: "DAMMIT JIM I'M A DOCTOR, NOT A MOUNTAIN!"

HL [continued]: I like how, as the hero gains a little more understanding of how humans actually think and feel, his own fiction starts emerging from him.

CD: That's right-- he starts to use stories as a way of trying gedanken experiments to test his hypotheses about what it means to be a person.

HL: [Audience member] Jarod Godel asks, "A lot of the backstory and universe in Someome Comes To Town was left open; was this done on purpose, trying to encourage fan fiction to fill in those gaps?

CD: Not to encourage fan fiction per se, but the human imagination has a lot higher polygon-count than prose could ever have. Leaving most of the world in shadow lets readers fill in very high rez pictures where you don't have the throughput in the printed page. That said, if fan fiction emerged that filled that in, I'd be mightily chuffed.

HL: [Audience member] Sansarya Caligari asks: The book makes a statement about 'difference', and I wondered if you could expand on how the concept of difference is becoming less important as we move into alternative worlds. (i.e. Second Life)?

CD: Well, I wrote about this a bunch in my second novel, Eastern Standard Tribe-- I think that the network lets us form communities with people who are socially deviant in the same way we are, and thus escape the socially normative pressures that would otherwise bring us into line. I think that that has the tendency to make us less homogenous and at the same time more accepting of others point of views because we understand that everyone can have her own message board or alt.group or MMOG where she can be as weird as she likes.

Philip Linden [from the audience]: But isn't the 'Multiple Personality Disorder' nature of these many manifestations a sort of tragedy of the commons? Don't we all lose if we can be ever more of an a**hole in our 'a**hole' avatar?

Cory Doctorow: I dunno if I understand the question -- which "many manifestations"? The different names for the characters?

PL: Many different [MMO] accounts/identities online.

Ronin Arnaz [from the audience]: I think he means like that it's a bit of a shame we build these worlds, then some of us come onto them and be asshats (griefers).

CD: Well, that's kind of like asking, "Wouldn't it be better if it only rained when we brought our umbrellas along?" I mean, sure -- it would be great if there weren't people who behaved badly on the interweb, but people do behave badly, even when they're non-anonymous, and making everyone subject to editorial oversight turns the Internet back into AOL. I think that with all bad actors, we need coping strategies that help us filter them and socially bend them. Teresa Nielsen Hayden has written brilliant moderation hacks on her blog, Making Light, about encouraging good behaviour online.

Continued tomorrow...

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