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Last night was the triumphant return of [personal profile] freeradical42's Immodest Proposals salon, after nearly a year hiatus. The topic was kickstarter culture.

Since I haven't written about it in a year, a brief resume. Immodest Proposals began as a small salon in [personal profile] freeradical42's apartment, just a small group of friends sitting around a table drinking wine and arguing difficult questions about futurism and culture. As the program outgrew the apartment, it went public, taking up station at bars across the city. It's part discussion group, part panel discussion, part social mixer. We always try to strike the balance so that as much as possible it still feels like a small group of friends drinking and arguing about the future. Past topics have included the future of agriculture, the ethics of mental performance enhancing drugs, the consequences of offloading memory responsibility to the cloud, and a variety of other cases of practical applied philosophy.

Last night we talked about Kickstarter culture. Anthony Conto, a game designer about to launch a kickstarter, demoed his game and then served as panelist and focal point for a discussion about the way kickstarter has changed the way projects are funded and managed and operated.

We opened the conversation by asking what about this particular moment in the internet's young history made it ripe for the rise of crowdfunding, and a variety of factors were discussed and weighed: The changes in the legal system to make it easier for small investors, the rise at last of microtransactions in the form of app purchases and music downloads, the omnipresent always-on culture fostered by smartphones and wifi, the replacement of the boomer generation with a more internet savvy generation of consumers, new technologies and techniques making prototype and small batch manufacturing more available, faster distribution via UPS/Fedex... All of those things are involved. Someone also brought up a theory of the Adoption Curve of internet tech that argued that it just took time and critical mass for an idea that had a significantly earlier genesis to finally reach the cultural mainstream, that others had tried Kickstarter-like ideas earlier without success.

And then we started moving to the specifics of the change effected, and what it meant for creators and people wanting to start businesses. How kickstarter decoupled them from the venture capital scene, allowed them to attempt small batch projects.

Still, I raised some objection. All this talk of 'kickstarter culture' has a tendency to reject the value of past DIY cultures. I cited Trivial Pursuit and Monopoly as board games developed as small batch regional projects before they struck corporate distribution deals. I was shouted down in the moment for speaking from anecdata, and I wasn't invested enough in the point to really press it, but in the light of morning and with esprit d'escalier and nobody to gainsay me, I will mount a defense of my point.

In the past, there were plenty of people with kickstarter-like projects. They'd borrow a few thousand bucks from a friend or save up from their other job, hire out a small local print shop, and try to convince a local store to carry their product. If things worked out, if they managed to get local word of mouth, maybe they would look to expand. Maybe they'd look for partners to help them expand. This was at the core of American entrepreneurial culture.

And yes, most of these projects never hit it big. Most of these projects never made it past that first stage. Even most of the successes were only regional successes. But that's business. Even if kickstarter lets entrepreneurs today fund their first batch, there's no guarantee that any of them will continue to sell after that initial batch, either. (And since often kickstarters offer their product essentially as a discounted pre-sale, they're potentially cannibalizing future full-price sales for the seed money for that first print run. )

The real point is that we don't have the small local print shops and small local distribution venues that we used to have. Kickstarter fills a void in our entrepreneur culture because in the past few decades, corporate big box stores have eroded the place of the local entrepreneur.

At the same time, there's a related point that I wish I had made last night: For all that Kickstarter resists multinational corporate growth and big box store economics, I'd guess that most kickstarters with physical products outsource the manufacturing overseas. I really wanted to have a discussion of the place of Made in USA in the kickstarter conversation, but unfortunately didn't manage to squeeze it in. (We can have it here!) What is the responsibility of a kickstarter entrepreneur to help regrow American small-scale industry?

And then, as is typical for me, we ended with me asking a weird hypothetical that nobody was really willing to go along with. What would the internet look like today if 20 years ago Kickstarter had been around as a viable funding source? Would we still have Amazon and Google and the various other new tech giants in the same shape if instead of piles of speculative venture capital they'd been funded via some sort of crowdsourced funding?

I don't really know what answer I was looking for, but it wasn't "No, kickstarter wouldn't have worked back then, without the critical mass of internet-savvy people." I don't buy that, and anyway what's the point of a speculative hypothetical if you reject its premise and can't move past it. Boo, boring people. :P

Anyway, it was interesting and had me thinking about the shape our economy is going to take in the future, and the choices we will have to make to try to guide it where we want it to go.
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The Immodest Proposals mega-event was Wednesday. Probably 50 people, definitely the biggest ImP yet. The topic was titled "The Locationless Economy", and its focus was on start-ups, entrepreneurship (particularly ecommerce entrepreneurship), and its relationship with physical place. In particular, several of the panelists were advocates of a program called Start-Up Visa that would provide access to the US immigration system for would-be entrepreneurs wanting to start companies in America. The panel consisted of Alexis Ohanian, the founder of Reddit and Breadpig, Alex Torrenegra, a tech startup founder and Columbian immigrant, Jeremy Robbins, an official in the Bloomberg administration with a portfolio that includes startups, Craig Montuori from Politihacks, and Steve Berg from the blog Brooklyn startup. All of them were extremely thoughtful, extremely smart, and extremely well-spoken.

The panel part of the discussion went really well, though because the panel was so good and had so much to say there was a bit less give and take than usual with the audience. I don't think anybody wanted to stop them from talking. I definitely felt more hesitation when it comes to asking questions at certain moments, though ultimately I felt like I was active in shaping parts of the conversation through some of my questions. Immodest Proposals is so different from any other kind of political panel discussion I've been to because it gives you that opportunity to be part of the conversation from wherever you sit, and I'm always trying to take advantage of that both for my own enjoyment and to model that kind of participation for other people. The more people we have active in the conversation, the better, I think. At the midway point, we broke up into smaller groups, each with one of the panelists, and had a really good conversation about solutions for making America a better environment for business innovation.

The conversation began with the panelists discussing what they thought America did have to offer to entrepreneurs that set it apart. Generally speaking, this amounted to easy access to venture capital, a large, active, and technologically engaged market, access to skilled and educated workers, economic freedom, and in an idea we kept coming back to all night even though it was ill-defined, a culture of entrepreneurship and risk-taking that made it more comfortable for people to take the leap. On the downside, we have an economic regulatory regime that is less aggressive in making company founders feel comfortable than other countries: Alexis discussed getting an offer from Singapore with incredibly generous subsidies to locate a Reddit office there, and others talked about programs in England, Chile, and a number of other countries to entice entrepreneurs. Meanwhile, if a foreigner wants to move to the US to start a business they face inordinate obstacles just from the immigration process, let alone regulatory hurdles, adjusting to a new legal system, and cultural challenges.

Historically the US has grown and prospered by integrating immigrants and their ideas, vigor, and desire for improvement into our culture and our economy. Someone in the audience was very careful to caution us against reading that narrative nostalgically as containing a golden age where immigrants were fairly treated and encouraged to participate in the economy, since that age never existed. I went so far as to wonder aloud whether it was in fact, in some degree, the pressure exerted on immigrants that encouraged their success.

But in our breakout session we brainstormed ways to reengineer our immigration system to better foster growth. We talked about moving away from country-based quotas to mimic countries with occupation based quotas, or even doing away with quotas altogether. We proposed economic asylum or entrepreneurial asylum, where prospective immigrants could argue that conditions in their native countries posed obstacles to their starting businesses, and America would welcome the opportunity to show that we could alleviate those obstacles. We discussed parcelling out quotas to each state or municipal region and letting them decide what kind of immigrants they wanted based on local needs, rather than a one-size fits all national system. We discussed ways to let immigrant startup founders into the country that recognized and dealt with the fact that most startups fail, and this isn't necessarily a problem with the startup model. Can you build a system that says "Ok, you want to start a business? Come here, give it a shot. If you fail, we won't deport you immediately, but we will put pressure on you to get back into being economically productive."? That's not an easy thing to engineer, especially because the looming underlying question is how do we handle providing the social safety net to an immigrant who we know for sure isn't yet economically contributing, and who may never economically contribute, to America?

And meanwhile in another breakout group people confronted the cultural problems, how to make Americans think of immigrants as contributors to American growth instead of as potential drains on our social services. How to address problems as simple as the audience member who spoke of mild harassment from immigrations officials who seemed hostile or skeptical about the reasons for her visit. They came to a number of conclusions, but most of them circled around the idea that continued advocacy is the only way to move the needle on this stuff. The more you talk about it, the more you make people think about the fact that America is being pressed by other countries with more competitive legislative regimes, the more it becomes part of peoples' awareness.

One of the panelists spoke about more global approaches to startup culture, too. He talked about his own experience running a startup whose founders had presences in Argentina, Columbia, and the United States, and how that both built on the patriotism of its founders in building local connections in all three countries, and helped establish the company as an international story for an international age of business, where computers connect everyone and the location of customers is often not the location of the business itself. Someone else followed this up by mentioning a program in Silicon Valley where governments like New Zealand, Canada, and others have created 'launch pads' to give businesses from those countries an office to work out of when they're trying to establish themselves in the US with Silicon Valley venture capital investors. It provides them a place with familiar cultural touchstones when they're out in unfamiliar territory, and again establishes a sort of linkage between the local and the international.

I tried to push this forward a little, with an Immodest Proposals-style leap into 'world government' and how this can have an impact on startup growth. It didn't really take off or go anywhere, unfortunately. I think there's a lot of good questions to be asked in this area. Companies that do business around the world may benefit from streamlined payment systems. In fact, when the panelists were discussing reasons why America is a good place to start a business, the fact that you don't need to design your payment system to accept each country's payment models as you might in Europe or Latin America was cited as an advantage. I am not a bitcoin user, but I find it or similar ideas interesting because I do think an international currency and internationalized payment mechanisms would go a long way to making it easier to establish new markets for your company. I know that Dreamwidth itself has struggled to find ways to accept international money for accounts- at some point the only way for a non-American to buy an account was to mail a check across the pond. This is just one example of a place where international leadership instead of just American leadership can improve the chance of startup success. We're going to see more movement in this direction in coming years on a lot of fronts, I predict, because economics will demand it.

And then Alexis Ohanian closed off the night with a great little minispeech about the power of startups to change the world. He mentioned Skype, founded in tiny little Estonia. On the day of its highest valuation, it was worth one tenth the GDP of the whole country. That is a tremendous force for good and change, and all it takes, he said, is creative and daring people and the right support systems for them to try new ideas.
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Another Immodest Proposals salon last night. The topic was "The Kosher Pig, and other Bioengineered Foods". This is a topic name I came up with while drunk at the last topic brainstorming night, and I've spent some time since then trying to convince [personal profile] freeradical42 that it was a mistake. The kosher pig itself is not an interesting topic, because there's very little to say about it if you are a Jew, and even less to say if you're not a Jew. [personal profile] freeradical42 thought it was an eyegrabbing title that could segue into a more general discussion of the future of GMO and other bioengineered food in terms of ethics, economic and environmental impact, and food culture.

The night proved us both right. We did get at least one Jewish first time participant who expected the conversation to revolve more around the kosher pig, and there were moments in the conversation where it felt to a degree like participants were a bit hamstrung by the topic. There were other food ethics-related things people wanted to talk about, but if they spent too much time on it they felt self-conscious about topic drift. The conversation was a little choppy, a little uneven. The roadmap felt off.

That didn't stop the discussion from being fascinating, though.

We began by playing around with ethical rules for food consumption. How do we weigh the importance of food being cheaply available to those in need against the importance of not doing harm to the environment, against concern for the welfare of food animals? We discussed different rubrics different kinds of vegetarians adopt for determining whether the pain of animals is a problem for them, from Peter Singer's "anything that experiences pain as much or more than a fish" to [personal profile] freeradical42's "anything that possesses the neuronal correlates of empirically observed empathy/theory of mind", neither of which I found entirely convincing. The former is completely arbitrary. The latter gets me because I'm not sure I understand what 'empathy' is and why we should prioritize it.

Nonetheless, these attempts at definition were important as we moved into later parts of the discussion. As we looked at present food technology and possible future food technology, it was useful though not conclusive to ask whether these technologies would meet the standards we had proposed earlier in the evening. So that when I drunkenly mooted the idea of the 'planimal', part part and part animal, to try to pin down where vegetarianism might draw the line between them, someone offered up the reduction "a plant that can demonstrate empathy".

The planimal sort of became a recurring conversational point for me, though I'm not entirely sure where I was heading with it. In the light of morning I offer these synopses with some structure, but the truth is these conversations are always messier than they appear in them. People are figuring out what they think as they talk, through back and forth, through socratic investigation, through thought experiments and argument. I think there's something interesting in this plant/animal line because there was considerable consensus that the ethical rules for the treatment of plants is very different from the ethical rules for the treatment of animals, notwithstanding a few jokes about triffids and "Carrot Juice is Murder".

For example, despite the fact that plants move away from negative stimuli, nobody considered this to be a pain impulse worth being considerate of. Our conversation on the ethics of eating and engineering plants talked about environmental impact, caloric and economic costs, taste, but when someone suggested that the Monsanto 'terminator gene' deprived plants of their biological imperative to procreate, this theory was dismissed very, very quickly. So where is the line, what amount of consciousness of sapience or sentience do we require to start thinking about a foodstuff in terms of their needs instead of merely on their impact?

My point with this, I believe now, is that whatever line we may have drawn in the past is going to need to be redrawn in light of bioengineering potentialities. We spent a lot of time talking about engineering lab-grown meat that wouldn't feel pain, but it seems possible to me that one might want to reengineer lifeforms that don't feel pain so that they now do: Pain serves as an important alarm system for higher lifeforms. It might be useful to create plants that sound such an alarm when they are attacked by bugs, or when they are low on nutrients. But I didn't quite reach this thesis last night.

We spent more time on the engineering tradeoffs involved in creating meat, and food generally, in industrial farming. Do you breed for richness of taste, or do you breed for mass production? Does grass-fed beef taste better, or is that a psychologically implanted illusion? How much animal suffering are we willing to tolerate if it means the hungry of humanity will eat well? How much tinkering with the genome will we tolerate if it means nutrient-rich rice to feed the starving?

I led us down a sidetrack once again as people started to explore the relationship of vegetarianism to 'progress' and a progress narrative. There were some appeals to ideas of primitivism ("Back in the day, people lived in tribes where eating or not eating that cow was the difference between living or dying.") that I wanted us to steer away from as much as possible, so I questioned the relevance of a progress narrative. I'm not sure I see how vegetarianism is more evolved, a representation in any way of a more perfected human ethics, and I wanted to see how people approached the idea. There were some interesting points made, about how reduction in scarcity has given people, particularly in the more affluent parts of society, freedom to make choices based on principles other than survival.

Um... we also talked about many other things. I probably ought to take notes if I want to accurately report what happened.
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Another Immodest Proposals discussion the other night. The topic was mind-enhancing drugs, for various definitions of mind enhancing. The primary real drugs discussed were adderall, alcohol, caffeine, marijuana, and percocet, for no reason other than those were the drugs that the people present had the most experience with. We also discussed a variety of hypothetical drugs, which seems to be an Immodest Proposals specialty. People are really good at imagining drugs that do interesting things to our bodies and minds. We discussed the drug from Limitless a lot. We discussed the drug from Flowers for Algernon. We discussed the Eternal Sunshine drug.

The discussion was broken into three parts, that were roughly: personal experience, social implications, and ethical implications.

In the first part of the discussion, we talked about what taking these drugs did for us. Artists and writers spoke about using marijuana or alcohol to help break down barriers in their minds, to access new ideas their conscious minds weren't able to bring up. A musician and writer talked about how adderall focused him and concentrated the diffuseness with which he otherwise experienced the world. I brought in an engineer's perspective when I commented that I seem to do arithmetic better while drunk, an experience other science/math types in the audience confirmed. I theorized this was because the arithmetic relationships were so deeply drilled in that alcohol freed us from thinking and made us more instinctive.

People spoke about the way some of these drugs brought a sort of 'childlike' approach to the world, and we argued a little bit, none too rigorously, about what childlike meant and why it was something artists sought. There was also some equally unrigorous talk about 'primitive approaches' that I would have preferred to skip altogether.

And then the conversation started moving into social issues provoked by these sorts of mental enhancements. Like what kind of pressure it puts on non-users when drug users reap intellectual or creative benefit? And even more simply, what kind of society do we live in where we're constantly seeking to change ourselves through biochemical experimentation? Some wondered if there were something uniquely American about the better living through biochemistry approach, which I doubt, though I think our scientific ethos has made us in some ways better at it. There was a detour into abuse of alcohol in the middle ages that didn't really lead anywhere. There was a proposal that the original addiction was to grain, which pulled us out of hunter-gathering by giving us an endorphin fix that made us want to continue to farm. There was some discussion of straight-edge culture and the various religious ascetic movements that believe the opposite is true, that drugs distract us from our full mental capacity. (In writing all of this down, I stare in wonder at how varied and creative the conversation can get at ImP. This was when the conversation started to drift away from just being about the panelists and started to take advantage of the varied crowd we had)

The third segment covered 'ethics', which really was focused primarily around comparing the ethics of mind enhancing drugs to the ethics of physical performance enhancing drugs. There is considerable agreement that doping in sports is unethical, though as you know I take a more permissive view on this than most people. Is doping in science class the same way? What about in professional academia? What about in an artistic competition?

One of the more intriguing questions I came up with was "Suppose we could create a cocktail that would enhance a chess grandmaster so that she could beat Deep Blue in chess. Would that count as a human beating Deep Blue?" I don't have an answer.

But people did have some interesting answers to some of the other questions. Some divided the ethical situation based on the permanence of the result. For example, if you create a great work of art that wins a competition while on drugs, that result has permanent beauty regardless of any taint placed on it by the drug use, so that it produces something worthwhile in a long term sense to society. So too a Nobel Prize-winning scientific breakthrough achieved while abusing drugs. In contrast, an athletic achievement lacks that permanence, generally speaking. The victory itself is the goal, so if that is tainted by an unfair advantage, the signpost of achievement is forever tainted.

Another interesting segmentation was based on a satisfaction heuristic. If you win at a game by taking an unfair advantage, you're generally not going to feel satisfied with yourself. If you achieve a scientific breakthrough, the achievement brings satisfaction. I'm a little skeptical of this on both ends. Many of the top professional athletes, in my observation, have a competitive disorder that makes winning be the only thing that matters to them. Roger Clemens achieved satisfaction by winning, whatever the cost. At the same time, there are plenty of people, athletes and scientists and artists, who don't feel satisfaction no matter how much they achieve without any illicit help.

I also tried to reshape the conversation by pointing to things that sit on both sides of one of these heuristics. The DARPA Grand Challenge is a competition whose only point is to win, because the resulting vehicle is nothing more than a toy. If you cheat, that taints your victory, because the only direct reward for winning is the prize and the bragging rights. On the other hand, the reason for the challenge is to hopefully provoke discovery of new technologies, and if that comes nobody is going to care that the breakthrough was achieved using mind-enhancing drugs.

Lastly, we considered the implications of national competition. If China is giving its scientists powerful mind-enhancing drugs and we are at war/in competition with China and lives are at stake, what is the ethical obligation of American scientists? I don't think we came to a firm answer on this, other than that it obviously depended on circumstances, but possibly would require an American response.

All in all, a really fascinating, deep conversation that took all the beautiful wrong turns I expect of an ImP discussion. Next month, the topic if Kosher Pigs and other bioengineering of food. I'm responsible for suggesting this topic, obviously, but I was joking, damnit.
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Another Immodest Proposals salon the other night. I'm... not sure I can adequately define the parameters of the discussion. It was a wide ranging conversation about information and communication technology and their impact on the smallest details of our lives.

Our starting point was the notion of cloud memory- our tendency to invest more and more of the information required to live our lives in the internet. Storing address books in the cloud, storing to-do lists in the cloud, storing all manner of personal information in social networks... But also storing facts in places like Wikipedia and other online databases rather than retaining that information.

I don't think the conversation went where anyone among us expected it to go. I thought there'd be a lot more trans/post-humanism in the conversation, but it was a smallish crowd, only about 15 people, the majority of whom were ImP regulars comfortable with sharing ourselves with each other. So we got personal, told stories about our work being influenced by the Internet, our social lives altered by the internet, our constructions of our identity being altered by the Internet.

We talked for several minutes about the way advertising on the internet is targeted to us, because so much information about us is stored and available to advertisers. Someone discussed the way it felt like the advertisers knew her, because the ads were so uniquely geared to her, and seemed to make intuitive leaps from "if she likes this kind of event, she will like that kind of event." Other people discussed failures of advertising, like a Jew getting ads for Christian dating sites because he listed a belief in God on various social networks.

We wondered if it would ever be possible to really erase some of the cloud's information about us, and if not, how that would have to change our culture. We talked about erroneously bad credit ratings and twitter rumors about celebrity deaths, how the cloud stores bad information alongside good, with at the moment only poor mechanisms for distinguishing. (I didn't mention it, but it now occurs to me that several SF novels have suggested that the best way to erase a person's sins is to drown them out in miasmas of misinformation- 'jazz' in Melissa Scott's parlance, for example) We talked about namespace overlap and how all of the good and bad deeds of every John Smith in the world are shared, to a degree. We contrasted that to the uniqueness of phone numbers and the quasi-uniqueness of usernames like seekingferret, and brought it back to the idea of cloud memory by folding it into the question of whether, in the future, we will remember phone numbers or rely on our computers to remember them for us.

We discussed a variety of new complexities the Internet has forced us to juggle- what is the etiquette of sending a text message, placing a phone call, making an email, poking someone by facebook? What do each of these things mean, in terms of formality, in terms of level of interruption? Our moderator suggested that this question could form a useful proxy for a lot of new questions about how to handle workflows high in interruptions, and we pushed on to a new thrust of the discussion- how to fight back against the cloud and build a world that isn't too dominated by electronic interruptions, without rejecting all of the good that the internet can do for us.

Various social engineering hacks were offered, like using a timer to enforce limits on internet use. I mentioned my old high school technique for forcing myself off the computer: playing Eiffel-65's deplorable pop hit "Blue". (Somebody: "You put it on repeat?" Me: "I didn't have to.") We talked about how cigarette breaks had once sort of served the role of punctuating the intensity of the working day with a moment for your self, and how even in our more health-conscious society, that sort of artificial biological imperative to leave the beck and call of the computer had value.

Then the moderator offered his experiences with meditation as an alternative, and discussed the way the mind could be trained to offer focus. Others chimed in with similar experiences, but lamented the difficulty of allotting sufficient time to this kind of mental preparation.

And then the conversation kind of went off the rails. A newcomer starting monologuing, and it was a difficult, meandering monologue that was hard to figure out how to respond to. We tried to recapture the flow, but it didn't really manage to happen before the end of the night.


Oh well... it was an interesting conversation, though definitely a bit unmoored in places.
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Last night, another Immodest Proposals event. The topic was the ethics of pursuing what [personal profile] freeradical42 termed 'dual-use technologies' when their pursuit offered clear and present risks to humanity. We narrowed down dual-use technologies to any technology or scientific idea that offered both benefits to humanity and the risk of malicious abuse. We weren't as interested, specifically, in technologies that might lead to accidental injury. What we were interested in was technologies like nuclear fission, useful both as a clean and abundant energy source and as the mechanism of the atom bomb. Or GPS, endless source of good directions and a powerful tool for government surveillance and tracking.

And like research that's hit the news recently about the Avian Flu and apparently successful efforts to make it more easy transmissible to humans. Controversy has erupted over attempts to keep this research from being published because of its dual-use status, and it served as the impetus and focal point of the discussion. The panel consisted of two virologists with experience with influenza and a science writer with a lot of experience with public communication about science and the major journals.

The flu stuff was fascinating and occasionally terrifying, but I was obviously most in my element when we discussed the ethics of the Manhattan Project. I made a point of shaping that narrative and offering some correctives to the conventional narrative. Scientists working for private institutions artificially split the atom for the first time, then immediately started writing to the government seeking guidance and decision-making. That was not a case of the government taking over research over the objections of researchers. It was, by and large, a case of scientists turning over research to government because they didn't trust themselves with the ethical decisions at play. They felt it required a national debate and national leadership.

We discussed parallel discovery and serendipitous rediscovery and all the ways nature has of making it hard for Pandora to be put back in her box- if there ever is a Pandora's Box moment at all. It's not clear to me that you can pinpoint a certain point in the evolution of atomic energy and say "If we'd stopped with that discovery, there would have been no way for people to independently move forward and create the atom bomb." Science doesn't work that way. (Though someone raised the P=NP problem, a major potential scientific discovery that doesn't require any expensive equipment and might be discovered and then hidden by its discoverer for exploitation. The difficulty of the problem means it might sit discovered but unknown for decades or more if some lone genius solves it. This is implausible, I think, but possible.)

So we discussed mechanisms of classifying or otherwise suppressing information and the tradeoffs involved in classifying information and we were just heading toward the interesting topic of how to find a middle ground between complete classification and open public knowledge when we ran out of time. I think that middle ground is vitally important because public knowledge isn't just part of the problem, it's also part of the solution. A populace that doesn't know about H5N1 doesn't know how to respond to it, potentially exacerbating a dangerous situation. Figuring out how to balance those competing needs will be an important challenge going forward- after all, as the Greeks teach us, Pandora's Box can be closed, but it can never be refilled.


The social aspect of the event itself was great. So many unexpected appearances from old friends!!! Just lots and lots of good hugs and good conversations. New friends, too. Somehow ImP has become larger than we all expected it to become, and people who were attracted by I have no idea what have become friendly faces over the past months. It's always a good time.
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Today I feel like shit.

Last night was awesome, though. Another Immodest Proposals salon at the Waystation in Brooklyn, the topic being 'nerd culture and its evolution and the implications for future culture'. An enormous, impossibly gigantic crowd showed up- perhaps 40 people crammed into the tiny venue. An enormous, nerdy, enthusiastic crowd that managed to be respectful, listen to each other, and keep a conversation going for hours.

We talked about a shift in the way traditional 'nerd cultural' objects are regarded in the mainstream, debated whether this is purely a marketing evolution or if it marks a cultural shift as well, speculated about origin points (Lots of disagreement here. People pointed to LotR, to Harry Potter, to the Simpsons... someone suggested the key point was when fans or nerds became professional creators, when shows like the Simpsons were being created by people who were visibly passionate about nerdy things. I pointed, though at three beers in I think rather clumsily, to the moment when Scott Kurtz created the Joss Whedon Is My Master Now shirt. It combined a reference to a Star Wars fandom joke with a Firefly/Buffy reference and also included the wearer in the nascent webcomics fandom... and it suggested that it was possible for there to be an ur-fannish consciousness that wasn't connected to a particular show.)

In retrospect, I think there wasn't enough care taken to distinguish nerdiness/geekiness from fannishness, and the conversation troved over a lot of territory related to both.

But we talked about what it meant to be proud of being a geek, how the nuances of the social hierarchy have evolved, how the internal nerd culture social hierarchy compares to the external mainstream social hierarchy (We talked about furries as the sort of outlaw fringe of the nerd community, but the disparagement felt somehow less nasty and clueless than usual. Sort of like, "Yes, we find it weird, but they're our weirdos, and we're grateful for nerd culture as a place that allows even things we find weird." And someone made the interesting and important point that the mainstreaming of nerd culture seems to involve shoving the sexual minority cultures to the side)... what all of this may mean for nerds growing up today.

And then we took a typical Immodest Proposals leap into discussion of what a geek political platform might look like. This was odd and fascinating and certainly the best part of the discussion, for all the different directions it took. I think the most illuminating part of the conversation was when we talked about copyright law and realized to my surprise that there is huge and compelling reason for many geeks to be pro-copyright, even as the present copyright regime hugely damages other sorts of geeks. Someone else at my table summarized the conversation as "We don't agree on the policy position, but we agree that paying attention to copyright law is part of the geek agenda."

Another interesting point of contention was the idea that if nerdiness involves a certain obsessive, fixating personality, this may or may not be a virtue in a politician. The point was raised that if nerdiness isn't so much a political ethos as a political methodology, it could be hampered by an unwillingness to explore new ideas. On the other hand, certain nerd subcultures such as the science nerd have openness to the possibility of being wrong drilled in from stage 1, and other people doubted that a person with the classic nerd lack of assertiveness could be an effective leader. In the end, though I thought this conversation was interesting, its reliance on stereotyping meant it only went so far, and everyone was pretty aware of that, too.

After the event was over I hung out with everybody for another hour or so. New friends, old friends, borrowed friends, it was a great crowd and the discussion was a great icebreaker for just jumping into conversations with people. "Hey, I really liked the point you made... by the way, my name is Ferret." For a pile of nerds, for whom no matter how mainstreamed we are the social awkwardness is still often a component, this was a good thing.

Also, Alai and I pulled into a corner and had a productive conversation about the TNG fic we're working on co-writing.

And then we get to the part I promised at the beginning. So I decided to try to not pay the exorbitant Verrazzano toll by taking the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan and the Holland Tunnel out. Little did I know... We reached the Brooklyn Bridge and found it was closed for night maintenance. So I putzed through detours for a while and eventually crossed into Manhattan at the Williamsburg Bridge. Then I skipped across town pretty easily until I hit the Holland Tunnel, which also had a lane closed for night maintenance. And then I was stuck on line for that tunnel for a long time. All told, the typical hour drive home ballooned into a two hour monstrosity and I didn't get home until after 2AM. And woke up at 6AM with, you know, typical hangover symptoms making getting the rest of the sleep I needed tricky. So yes, today I feel like shit.

Probably it was worth it, though.
seekingferret: Word balloon says "So I said to the guy: you never read the book yet you go online and talk about it as if--" (Default)
I went to another of [personal profile] freeradical42's Immodest Proposals salons last night. This one was the awkward futurists discuss socialist theory without ever using the S-word hour. My favorite moment was when one of the other participants started ranting about the damned Republicans and I piped up with "I should mention that I'm a Republican." There was the other lovely moment where we went around the circle and asked if we were in favor of raising taxes at the moment, and I was the only person who thought that would be a bad idea in the middle of an economic recovery. There are times when I adore having almost no conservative friends. :P

Nah, in all seriousness the topic of conversation was a Mother Jones article suggesting that the American response to this recession- cutting back on workers and demanding greater and greater productivity from those workers who remained- was problematic and the result of American values about work that might be out of proportion. Certainly a topic presented with a deep socialist bias, but an interesting topic of conversation nonetheless because it gave us a lot of opportunities to put our specific work experiences in a broader American context, escape the tunnel vision that can often afflict us when thinking about something that directly affects us, and wonder as always about what the future might look like.

We discussed the way the movement of the economy has demanded workers whose skillsets are more generalized- hypothesizing that both trained welders on one side and Ph.Ds with highly specialized areas of interest were ill-suited to an economy where a worker needs to be able to not only do their job but also handle numerous other subjobs that had once been given to others. One person said that their boss, who supervised 200 people, had no secretary and was expected to do his own word processing, scheduling, etc...

We spent a considerable amount of time debating the dynamics of the 'American work ethic', contrasting it to European labor standards that feature more vacation and discussing anecdotal evidence like the fact that it is apparently rude in France to ask what someone does at work. I took the lead in arguing that much of this idea is American exceptionalism, citing counterexamples like the trope of the Ugly American abroad to show that the idea that some sort of (Possibly Protestant) work ethic makes Americans value high productivity more than other countries is perhaps wishful thinking on our part. But others did make a strong case. I do think that some mixture of Protestant ideology, frontier ethos, constant influx of immigrants, the dynamics of the American labor movement, America's rapid move in the post-War era to the forefront of the world economic system, and other factors can be said to have shaped America's general cultural approach to work ethic, but I'm skeptical that it's really that different from our Western neighbors.

And then the conversation took a predictable futurist turn as we contemplated technological change and its influence on productivity. We discussed sociological advances designed to make the workplace a more satisfying environment, like a theory that making work seem more like a video game would reward the worker for completing tasks. And we discussed the omnipresent possibility that computers and robots could take all our jobs away, and what that might look like. Honestly, I didn't take much out of this part of the conversation but ideas for science fiction stories. In particular, I pondered the notion of an inflection point on the path between our present economic system and a system where money has been completely reshaped in its meaning by the fact that valuing money based on labor performed has been obviated by a universal robot labor pool. That transitional moment seems really interesting to me and I haven't really seen it explored much in SF. Except for that awful Harry Keeler short story I posted about using compound interest to crash the financial system. Taking us back, in the end of this post, to socialist propaganda. :P

Anyway, I had a nice drive home from Brooklyn listening to variations on a Middle Eastern scale on New Sounds. But I need to get better at navigating Brooklyn streets, because I screwed up two opportunities to take the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan and avoid the exorbitant Verrazano toll. I did save a little money by taking 9 South instead of the Turnpike, but that was more a moral victory than anything. I only saved about 50 cents by doing that.
seekingferret: Word balloon says "So I said to the guy: you never read the book yet you go online and talk about it as if--" (Default)
Good time last night. Went to another of [personal profile] freeradical42's salons. The topic was targeted erasure of memory. We sprawled all over- erasing memories from trauma victims, either episodic memory or emotional memory, was a big topic, but we discussed the ethics of this as a tool of warfare and interrogation, whether the fact that you could erase a traumatic memory from a victim of war would make it easier to wage war. And we discussed erasing a whole section of your life, or a continuous block of time from your memory, and what that experience might be like. People mentioned various interesting neurological cases involving loss of memory, like a man permanently stuck thinking he's 22 years old. I raised the troubling possibility that one might erase memories recreationally, just for the odd sensation of having a gap in your memory. We discussed the way some people really do that, through alcohol abuse and other drug abuse, and this led to a discussion of whether blacking out from alcohol abuse provides an appropriate analogy to consider this kind of memory loss, given that none of us had any real direct experience with the kinds of amnesia we talked about. And with all this conversation, there was a tendency to shrug, say "Yeah, that's a tough question", and move on to the next idea because the topic was difficult, complicated, and full of interesting questions. Eventually this broke up into a series of small satellite conversations, so I can't quite faithfully reproduce everything that was said, but it was fun.

And I drank a reasonably considerable quantity of Guinness in honor of Bloomsday, and others drank considerable amounts of wine. And I kept making jokes about not remembering the topic and people kept laughing. And at some point a pretty girl I'd never met before licked my beard.

And then I sobered up a bit and drove home to the sound of Molly Bloom's soliloquy on WNYC, broadcast from the annual Bloomsday on Broadway celebration. and yes i said yes i will yes. Oh, I do love Penelope more than almost anything in the world. I don't think I'd realized before the link between Molly's comment about performing fellatio on a statue and Stephen's A Pisgah Sight of Palestine, but it was lovely and surprising. Joyce is so good at making parodies of faith weirdly devotional.

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