Pluralistic: 15 Oct 2020

Today's links

Dystopia as clickbait (permalink)

Writing on, Christopher Brown proposes that dystopian narratives are a form of clickbait: as the "boundary between dystopian fiction and the evening news" blurs, dystopian narratives become political ads.

When the NRA wants to scare old white people, they run ads that look movies adapted from the "second civil war" novels that emerged after 2016, amping up the underlying message of dystopia: to "excuse or encourage our failure to take agency over our own futures."

Brown is a dystopian novelist himself; his recent novel FAILED STATE revisits a world in peril that he documented in two previous novels that blended authoritarian rule and ecological collapse, and finds tantalyzing glimmers of hope.

Brown draws a distinction between dystopian sf ("a useful tool to shatter exceptionalist myths and amplify what’s wrong with the world") and weaponized dystopia: "distorts the truth, achieving an effect like those chumbox ads that stroke our darkest fears").

Dystopian sf is especially powerful "when the whole world seems unable to get a handle on what tomorrow will bring" and it is most powerful "when it births a vision of utopian possibility."

("Fighting the Empire is great, but what comes after the Ewok party?")

"As pandemic compounds political uncertainty and climate angst to further confound our ability to get a bead on the present, SF has an opportunity to provide fresh visions of what lies on the other side, help us stop doomscrolling through this dystopian Groundhog Day."

Chris is joining me and Bruce Sterling (who also gets cited in his article) for a event as part of the tour for my new novel ATTACK SURFACE on Oct 19 to discuss "cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk."

Trail of Mars (permalink)

I first encountered John McDaid through "Uncle Buddy's Funhouse," his 1993 ground-breaking, award-winning hypertext project – one of the first CD ROMs written up in the NY Times. It was such an exciting, original, weird and artistically satisfying piece, especially the music.

Later, John and I became writing colleagues, attending workshops together, and then friends – for decades now. His work remains weird, erudite, accessible, madcap and brilliant.

He's just released a new album of filk/folk music: "Trail Of Mars," recorded during the plague months with an all-star set of session musicians whom John was able to contract with thanks to the unprecedented drought in musical work.

The music is both fun to listen to and (obviously) brilliantly performed and mixed, but the standout here is McDaid's lyrics – superb, funny, weird and unexpected poetry in the mode of a Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan in Subterranean Homesick Blues mode.

The top single on the album is "Lost in Translation," a track I listened to three times in a row and have been thinking about ever since:

The album is $12 on Bandcamp, DRM-free, with a 16-page booklet including lyrics and notes. McDaid is a wild man of enormous and varied talents. Highly recommended.

Bride of Frankenstein and the Monster (permalink)

Of all the artwork hanging on the walls of my home, one of my favorites is Brian Ewing's incredible rendering of Elsa Lanchester as the Bride of Frankenstein; it's part of a series of remixes he did of the classic Universal monster gang.

Periodically, Ewing will do something fresh with his design and reissue it – spot color, moire patterns, etc. They're universally great, and they always sell out quick.

Today, Ewing's list informed me that he's got new Hallowe'en variants coming of both the Monster and the Bride in runs of 50, with a foil-embossed variant, at $50 & $75 per:

I'm very happy with the version I have, but man, these are tempting!

The Passenger Pigeon Manifesto (permalink)

In 2014, I gave a keynote at Museums and the Web on the suicide-mission of cultural institutions that had decided to sacrifice access – making their collections as broadly available as possible – for revenues (selling licenses to rich people).

I argued that rich people didn't want museums, they wanted to own the things the museums had in their collections; so if museums eschewed universal access to get crumbs from plutes, they'd end up with rich people slavering to dismantle them and no public to help them resist.

Now, a group of professionals and institutions from the galleries, libraries, archives and museums (GLAM) sector have published the "Passenger Pigeon Manifesto," in which they eloquently make the same point.

"Preservation, the goal of cultural institutions, means ensuring not only the existence of but the access to historical materials. It is the opposite of owning: it’s sustainable sharing. Similarly, conservation is not capturing and caging but ensuring the freedom to live."

Here are their demands:

I. Cultural institutions should reflect on and rethink their roles in relation to access: "Without free, public access, these items will only be objects to be forgotten"

II. Physical preservation is not enough: "To ensure the longevity of digital items, the existence of the highest possible number of copies is required: this can be achieved by sharing through free access."

III. Beyond preservation and providing access, institutions need to communicate the existence and content of their collections, our cultural heritage: "Approachability and good communication is crucial in reaching people"

IV. Publicly funded institutions must not be transformed by the market logic of neoliberalism: "Allow cultural commodities to be archived, described and shared in the frameworks of open access and open science"

V. Liberate and upload all digitised photographs and artworks that are in the public domain or whose copyrights are owned by public institutions: "open by default, closed by exception" (exceptions largely related to respect for indigenous cultures)

VI. All collections should be searchable and accessible in an international, digital photo repository: "the ideal candidate for an independent, central imagebase that provides the widest possible reach is Wikimedia Commons"

100% to all of this. Cultural institutions are about to be HAMMERED by austerity. The 1% are slavering at the thought of looting them and transferring their contents to superyachts and luxury bunkers.



Bricked Ferrari (permalink)

DRM is a system for prohibiting legal conduct that manufacturers and their shareholders don't like.

Laws like the US DMCA 1201 (and its equivalents all over the world) ban tampering with DRM, even if no copyright infringement takes place.

That means that manufacturers can design products so that doing things that displease them requires bypassing DRM, and thus committing a felony. It amounts to "felony contempt of business model."

The expansive language of DRM law makes it a crime to break DRM, to tell people how to break DRM, to point out defects in DRM (including defects that make products unsafe to use), or to traffick in DRM-breaking tools.

Beyond mere profiteering, though, DRM has more insidious consequences: it creates a world where using objects in ways that suit you can be a literal crime, even if those uses have NO impact on the company's bottom line.

For example, EME is a video encryption standard approved by the W3C. It has many accessibility tools built in, but only those that manufacturers and committee-members thought people with disabilities needed.

If your disability isn't on the list, you can't adapt video without risking felony prosecution (there was a popular proposal to legally require the companies that made the standard promise not to attack people with disabilities for doing this, but they rejected it).

So if you have photosensitive epilepsy, you can't write (or pay someone to write) a filter that looks ahead in video-streams for seizure-triggering effects and block them. You can beg the companies to do this, but you can't do it yourself.

"Legitimate things that the designers didn't anticipate" is an expansive category! For example, Medtronic is one of the largest med-tech companies in the world (thanks to a series of mergers that also allowed it to dodge its taxes).

Despite having been founded as an independent med-tech repair shop, the company is waging bitter war against independent service, so that hospitals must pay its – high-priced – technicians to service their equipment.

Medtronic's PB840 ventilators are the most common ventilators in the world. The pandemic has spiked demand for PB840s even as it has grounded Medtronic's authorized technicians and busted the supply-chain of official parts.

Independent techs are doing life-saving work fixing PB840s, scavenging parts from multiple units. To do this, they have to risk five-year prison sentences, using black-market DRM-breaking tools made by a lone Polish hacker and sent around the world.

There are so many contingencies that design teams can never anticipate, and there are also some that they should anticipate. The omissions and blind-spots of companies are bad enough, but when correcting them is a felony, it gets really stupid and ugly.

No one is immune. Consider this tale by Redditor Zeromindz, about a wealthy Ferrari owner whose car-seat installation bricked a performance car.

The car was designed to lock the engine if it detected "tampering" and the only way to unlock it afterwards was via the car's built-in cellular modem. However, the work was being done in an underground garage where there was no cell service.

A Ferrari technician flew in, but couldn't fix the $500,000 car. Eventually they managed to release the brake and a team of workers pushed the car up the ramps and into range.

But then they discovered that some part of all that work had permanently bricked the car. It had to be hoisted onto a flatbed and returned to the dealer.

This is darkly comic, to be sure, but it's also a reminder of the dangers of allowing companies to create an everything-not-forbidden-is-mandatory system for their products.

Under normal market conditions, some enterprising soul would be making and selling "Ferrari unbricking devices" and mechanics would keep one in a drawer, just in case. Instead, a company's war for excess profits becomes a war on unexpected customer situations.

There's a saying: "If you're not paying for the product, you're the product." That's wrong. Someone paid $500k for this product. Their ability to use it as they see fit is still contingent on the forbearance of a multinational corporation.

Better to say: "If a company can make you the product, you are the product." If monopolies or DRM-law (which creates and reinforces monopoly) can force you to arrange your affairs to benefit them, not you, they will.

That, after all, is the ultimate grift – the legal grift. The con that says that you are a lawless cur for having the temerity to have pockets full of money that, legally speaking, the grifter should have.

(Image: Zeromindz)

The Dennis Ball Show (permalink)

A great hero of the copyright wars is djBC, AKA Bob Cronin, creator of the amazing groundbreaking Beastles mashups, a virtuosic combination of the Beastie Boys and The Beatles:

Cronin's new project is VERY different. He's hosting a Youtube channel starring a dad-joke-cracking tennis-ball puppet called The Dennis Ball Show.

We recorded an episode last month that was nominally about my new book but swiftly became a discussion of the Haunted Mansion.

In fact, we talked for so long that we shot past his self-imposed length cap and so the signature Dad Joke segment was relegated to a second, short coda episode:

It's 2020. Everything is terrible and on fire. But the world still turns, and remains full of extraordinary things, like a chance to talk to a tennis-ball puppet wielded by an illegal art pioneer about history's greatest dark-ride followed by hot lashings of dad jokes.

This day in history (permalink)

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Adam Harangozo.

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 566 words (72876 total).

Currently reading: Harrow the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir

Latest podcast: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 17)

Upcoming appearances:

Recent appearances:

Latest book:

Upcoming books:

This work licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. That means you can use it any way you like, including commercially, provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link to

Quotations and images are not included in this license; they are included either under a limitation or exception to copyright, or on the basis of a separate license. Please exercise caution.

How to get Pluralistic:

Blog (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Newsletter (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Mastodon (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Twitter (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

Tumblr (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla