I’ve been thinking a lot about Octavia Butler lately, the science fiction writer, and her tortured telepaths. Sometimes her books feature entire households of sensitive souls, with insufficient defenses against empathy. At least they know they’re not alone, which helps a little.
The Open Source Conference opening keynote today (before the fire alarm sent geeks thronging out of the convention center) was about a thrown-together computer application, since matured, aimed at finding empaths who might help destitute Americans pay their water bills, or have their water shut off by the city.
Tiffani Ashley Bell, the author of this Ruby on Rails masterpiece, urged the assembled engineers to work on developing a social conscience. Use technology for good, not for concentration camps. She actually used those words, which I thought was brave. She won our enthusiastic applause (though not a standing ovation), before we evacuated the building.
I had just learned about Willem Van Spronsen the night before, a nonfictional seventy-something who sacrificed his life trying to set fire to some buses used by a for-profit detention center near Tacoma. He knew they’d take him out, and left behind his manifesto, wherein he nurtures hope. My house guest told me about this sad episode. She only knew about it because she lives in Washington, and some of her friends knew the guy. The media have given the story scant attention.
They don’t call it “human trafficking” when the government orders it. Nor do they call the people they’re rounding up “Americans” even though the Americas is where they’re from. You’re either a “citizen” or “an illegal” in today’s parlance, unless you have a visa or green card. The bureaucracy has come a long way since Hollerith machines, used for “keeping tabs” and assigning status.
Millions suffer in North America, yet the humanitarian crises for which military solutions are sought, seem always to be somewhere distant. The military socialists will save us from socialism, we’re told, especially where lucrative natural resources might be involved.
People may not believe the hype, but military socialism does offer some benefits (food and shelter), possibly out of reach in civilian life.
I watched Triumph of the Will recently, a Nazi party propaganda film. Those soldiers sure seemed to be having a good time, and look at all those sausages. I pictured myself a German in the audience, suffering under allied-imposed sanctions and post war debts.
Most near future science fiction is pretty bleak, and the majority of Americans expect things to go from bad to worse. The statistic cited, during one of the sessions, was two in three Americans are pessimistic. Trust in “the system” has reached historic lows, even as income inequality has skyrocketed.
If any threads of positive futurism still linger, one might hope to find them at OSCON, given “open source” has been associated to some degree with “save the world” idealism.
I say “save the world” with with no hint of mockery as it’s a livable world that we stand to lose. What do the open source engineers have to offer, besides artificial intelligence and driverless everything? Some people complain that Silicon Valley is too heartless. Here is a chance to change the image.
A lot of hope is going into “the blockchain” which has definitely achieved buzzword status.
Blockchain technology is about achieving consensus on what transactions have already occurred, what the history really is. When history is up for grabs, then so is the future. When history is in the bag, immutable (not subject to future change), then maybe the future will seem more that way also, and therefore more secure?
If we look at ordinary history, we see competing narratives, and depending on how we cast the past, we conceive the future. In Triumph of the Will, the story is about a Third Reich that will last at least a thousand years. Something new, yet based solidly in the old, something permanent, has been created. The counter-narratives were equally insistent and undermining. No such past or future was credible, the Allies would see to it.
Banks always shoot for the same keywords: trust, fidelity, permanence. Save with us, and your investments will stay secure. Join with us, and your money will grow. They make their statements in architecture. The heavier and more imposing the edifice, the more gravitas. Yet history is littered with institutional failures, naturally, because of the truth of impermanence.
Beyond the blockchain talks, another well-attended session (I started out on the floor, a latecomer, until a few geeks made some room), was about Git. Git and blockchain are not entirely unrelated in that both represent a chain of transactions.
But in Git, we’re allowed to speculate, simulate, take stock, and roll back. If a branch doesn’t work out, appears to be a dead end, Git is not punishing. Explore another branch instead. Keep one branch as “master” and merge the fruits of explorations. With sufficient project management, the idea is multiple programmers learn to collaborate in this way.
How I bring these threads together in my own writing is I think we need a rollback of the current branch, whatever that means. To me, it means going back to where we remember a more positive futurism, and follow that branch instead. I’m talking about “the industry industry missed” meaning mass produced high tech affordable housing. Yes, I’m back to the “bucky stuff” which, as a programmer, is what I write and code about the most.
In order to revert successfully, we need to speed up the process of establishing a consensus narrative. In the messy world of peer to peer, that’s not so easy, nor cryptographically secure. The goal is to tell a story in which humans are winners, not losers. The story cannot be about a Fourth Reich. But nor can it be about another outward war. We’ll need those Octavia Butler telepaths. We’ll need the Quakers. How it all goes, is not up to me. I’m just another node on the network, computing as fast as I can.