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Sunday, July 5, 2009

Cory Doctorow: Cheap Facts and the Plausible Premise

I was 15 when I got my hands on a grubby copy of Steal This Book, Abbie Hoffman's classic how-to manual for dropping out, living for free, and "ripping off the system." It was chock-a-block with fascinating tidbits like how to generate the tone that would get you free long-distance calls, how to organize a co-operative store, how to recycle tires into sandals and how to dumpster-dive dinner from your local supermarket. I was hooked — I read that book a dozen times that summer.

Steal This Book began my life-long love affair with secret knowledge: from texts on con-artistry like Maurer's seminal The Big Con (the basis for the film The Sting) and Lovell's How to Cheat at Everything: A Con Man Reveals the Secrets of the Esoteric Trade of Cheating, Scams, and Hustles to dubious demolitions manuals like The Anarchist Cookbook, to the streetlore that explained how to short out the contacts on the back of a payphone speaker to get an open dial-tone and what magic words will cause a collection agent to stop calling you for fear of prosecution for harassment.

At one point, I had quite a collection of this stuff: anarchy files from BBSes; grubby Paladin Press paperbacks on creating new identities and urban caching techniques; ancient phone-switch manuals from the old Bellcore research outreach department; and catalogs like Amok and The Whole Earth Catalog, which promised bottomless "access to tools and ideas." (It's a good thing I only dabbled in conspiracy theories, UFOlogy, and cryptozoology or I would have gone bankrupt).

Apart from prurient interest, this stuff is pure gold for science fiction writers — it lets you fake a pretty good spycraft, spin interesting scenarios that hatch in the crevasses of straight society, and provides texture and background on the woo-woo edges of reason and sanity.

I also grew up on science fiction novels that were full of this stuff: competent heroes and lovable rogues who worked the angles, solved the cons, and uncovered the truth that the shadowy forces of conspiracy wished to keep us mortals from discovering. These two literatures — the fiction and the how-tos — fed one another, because it wasn't enough to read about something being done, I wanted to find out how to do it. Not because I had any interest in blowing stuff up or hacking the phone company, but because it made the story better, and it gave me that frisson that genuinely forbidden knowledge can convey.

These facts were a currency in my social circle. We'd trade them like baseball cards. I'd show you my payphone trick and you'd show me your gag for turning the cellophane on a cigarette pack into a smoke-ring machine. Social capital accrued to everyone who could show or explain something that gave you power and insight into the mysterious workings of the world.

Like all currency, these facts were scarce. They were expensive. You needed access to esoteric books, secret BBS file-depositories, shady characters who knew knife-tricks and could roll joints one-handed (drug lore was a big part of secret knowledge, of course, our own version of the sacred rituals of a secret society).

Well, the market for facts has crashed. The Web has reduced the marginal cost of discovering a fact to $0.00. And that means that the two literatures — how-to and fiction — have effectively merged into one master story, the "plausible premise."

New warfare expert John Robb coined the term "plausible premise" to describe the new reality of  "open source insurgencies" ("insurgency composed of many small groups without any hierarchical leadership or organizational structure that typifies 20th century practice"). Open source insurgencies don't run on detailed instructional manuals that describe tactics and techniques. Rather, they run on a master narrative about how insurgency may be conducted — as screenwriter John Rogers put it:

What you really need is a plausible premise. i.e. "You can kill US soldiers with IEDs." and then the new Interconnected Marketplace Of Shitty Evil Ideas will solve the problem for anyone looking to kill US soldiers with IEDs.

Or, more succinctly, in order to get the marketplace off its ass to solve the impossible, you have to just pull off the highly improbable and make sure everybody knows about it. Show it can be done, show how you did it, and watch the "marketplace" attack because you've made the "premise" "plausible."

But this doesn't just work for insurgents — it works for anyone working to effect change or take control of her life. Tell someone that her car has a chip-based controller that can be hacked to improve gas mileage, and you give her the keywords to feed into Google to find out how to do this, where to find the equipment to do it — even the firms that specialize in doing it for you.

In the age of cheap facts, we now inhabit a world where knowing something is possible is practically the same as knowing how to do it.

This means that invention is now a lot more like collage than like discovery. Bruce Sterling's new Imaginary Inventions project is seeking to catalog the imaginary inventions of fiction, hucksters, failed entrepreneurs, and other imaginers. I sent him some excerpts from my forthcoming novel Makers (Tor, HarperCollins UK, Fall 2009), which concerns hardware hackers whose principle activity is thinking up stuff that would be cool, then googling to figure out how to build it, and Bruce replied,

There's hardly any engineering. Almost all of this is mash-up tinkering. It's like the Burroughs cut-up method applied to objects. These guys are assembling hardware in the same crowd-pleasing spaghetti at the wall approach that Web 2.0 web designers use in assembling features and applications.

That's exactly right. That's the plausible premise right there — spaghetti-at-the-wall hacking that assembles, rather than invents. It's not that every invention has been invented, but we sure have a lot of basic parts just hanging around, waiting to be configured. Pick up a $200 FPGA chip-toaster and you can burn your own microchips. Drag and drop some code-objects around and you can generate some software to run on it. None of this will be as efficient or effective as a bespoke solution, but it's all close enough for rock-n-roll.

Plausible premise invention is everywhere. Look at the incredible games flying out of Seattle's Valve Corporation: Half-Life, Counter-Strike, Portal, Left 4 Dead — all built on the same engine with radically different narratives and play mechanics and atmosphere, a GURPS approach to game design that shrugs off the macho business of creating your own 3D engine from scratch in favor of pulling something down off the shelf and remixing it.

What does this all mean for science fiction? Well, it probably means that SF writers are going to get credited with a lot more invention than we're accustomed to. The formerly rare occurrence of technology jumping off the page and into the world (Heinlein's waterbeds, Clarke's geosynchronous orbits) are about to become a lot more common. When readers can download or mail-order off-the-shelf components and instructions for integrating them, it becomes much simpler to turn fiction into reality.

For better or for worse.

From the July 2009 issue of Locus Magazine



Blogger datakid said...

rtmark were a decade ahead of their time? Sounds a lot like...Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge; or the XKCD-throw-away-idea-turned-real effect...

July 6, 2009 4:57 AM  
Blogger wurp said...

I agree with the point of the article, but it's important to point out that there's still a place for knowing what you're doing. Molecular manufacturing, solar collector satellites and brain backups aren't going to come from mash-up tinkering alone. There's still a place for spending decades of your life coming to understand how something works that (almost) no one else does, and making it (and the implications) clear to the mash-up masses.

July 6, 2009 7:49 AM  
Blogger Jean-Marc Liotier said...

Once you know it is possible, indeed it is nowadays trivial to find how it can be done. But there is still a need for someone to blaze a trail by showing it is possible.

Science fiction authors often provide insights into innovative applications, but they still rely on a frame of fundamental research that, in spite of acceleration through network-wide collaborative efforts, can still be considered as an elite sport.

July 6, 2009 1:22 PM  
OpenID sixty4k said...

At what point does it become clear that mashups only work if there are people creating the first round of material for the second wave to mash with? Be it music, art, or inventing.

July 6, 2009 8:14 PM  
Blogger Noz said...

sixty4k, that's a very rigid way of thinking about mashups. It's more like, "here are some generic components created by a specialist. Now assemble them into something greater than the sum of the parts."

July 6, 2009 8:35 PM  
Blogger Mystery Cat said...

Bit late for comments, I realise, but this made me think of an article in New Scientist a couple of weeks back about technological evolution. (found it:

The gist was that both organisms and technology produce new mutations in roughly the same way: by making use of pre-existing technologies and combining them in new and interesting ways. It's good stuff, and resonates with what you're taking about here. Take a look, if you've got time.

September 8, 2009 4:28 PM  

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