Pluralistic: 30 Nov 2020

Today's links

Twitter is more redeemable than Facebook (permalink)

Of all the articles I read on my weekend off, the one that has stuck with me most is Natalie Ashton's account of the "epistemic superiority" of Twitter relative to Facebook.

She's a university philosopher, and in her post, she makes a sharp, coherent case not just for why to use Twitter, but HOW.

What is "epistemic superiority?" It's the ability to learn new things, to become better at discerning truth.

Ashton cites José Medina's theory of "epistemic friction" – the feeling of heat you get when you rub differing viewpoints together – to "respond to other viewpoints in the right way [to] produce understanding of the viewpoints we encounter, and of our own in comparison."

And this is where Twitter is superior to Facebook: Facebook structures your conversations around people you know, who are more likely to share you viewpoints and will therefore produce less productive friction.

By contrast, Twitter's a place of viewpoint collisions, driven by interests, where the currency of the retweet means that the people you follow are constantly exposing you to the people THEY follow, and so on.

But it's not enough to encounter contrasting viewpoints (you can get that on cable news). Ashton values Twitter because it can put you in contact with "marginalized viewpoints" that you are unlikely to encounter in daily life.

And here's where she gets into really interesting stuff, acknowledging that Twitter "indiscriminately" promotes marginalized viewpoints – both BLM and Nazis, for example.

What are we to do with this? Should we follow both kinds of accounts to get that epistemic friction?

This is a common problem – the problem of a mind so open that your brains fall out of your ears. You need some kind of criteria for which out-of-mainstream ideas you engage with and which ones you ignore. Flat Earth? Antivax? Qanon?

Ashton proposes a test: "elevate voices that are unacknowledged for non-epistemic reasons, like historical (and current) oppression."

In other words, you can ignore marginalized ideas that have been pushed out because we've argued about them and they lost (eugenics). But you should investigate ideas whose marginalization is driven by social factors (trans rights).

She's not saying you have to agree with these marginalized ideas – but that you should engage with them, think about them, rub up against them to generate that epistemic friction that helps improve your own ideas.

Secondarily, Ashton proposes zones of "epistemic respite" – spaces reserved for thinking through your own stuff without having to argue about it and defend it. She calls for "equilibrium" between "likeminded community" and "friction."

She finishes it up by contrasting Facebook and Twitter and shows how the system of mutual following on FB cuts against both friction and respite – with tools like Twitter's "mute phrases" providing respite.

Out of all of this, I'm most interested in Ashton's test for which out-of-the-mainstream ideas to pay attention to. It's not a bright line test by any means, but it's so much crisper and more compact than any other I've seen.

Open law and the rule of law (permalink)

Rogue archivist Carl Malamud isn't a mere open-access advocate: he is a highly specialized open-access ninja who is laser-focused on access to the law, which is weird, because you'd assume that the law is public by default.

And it has been, historically. But the neoliberal era, with its emphasis on starving governments of the budgets needed to do their work, offset by private-public partnerships that shift core government functions to for-profit entities, has been a disaster for access to law.

Take public safety codes: these are developed by "nonprofit" consortia and standards orgs, often will millions in revenue and six-figure execs, and then "adopted by reference" into your city's safety code.

If you want to know whether your contractor has complied with safety codes, or what you should do to make your own lawful upgrades, it can cost thousands of dollars – just to find out the laws you're expected to follow.

Or jury instructions – how judges tell juries to deliberate. Without access to these, lawyers can't determine if their clients are getting a fair shake. But in WI, they're copyrighted, cost $500/year, and many lawyers depend on outddated versions.

Or annotated law: the official annotations that judges rely upon to interpret the law. States have partnered with outside orgs to create these, which means if you live in that state and want to know what your law means, you have to pay to see it.

Carl Malamud has gone to court – even the Supreme Court – to defend your right to read and utter the law. He's risked millions in personal liability, even criminal prosecution, all because of his conviction that you should face no barriers to reading and reproducing the law.

Malamud set out the case for making the law free to read and publish in his 2013 essay, "The Twelve Tables of Code."

It's a powerful statement – and a whirlwind history – of the relationship between the law's legitimacy and its public accessibility. Now, he's recorded a new video edition:

Which you can also get as audio:

It's powerful, stirring stuff from a person who has selflessly and tirelessly fought for one of your most foundational rights.

(Image: Joi Ito, CC BY)

RÄT (permalink)

When I learned I was going to be a dad, I asked dads I respected for advice. Mostly, I asked cyberpunks (obviously). Bruce Sterling reminded me that no matter how bohemian and outre I was, I would be the epitome of contemptible bougie normalcy in my kid's eyes by the age of 15.

But then I asked Rudy Rucker, and he said, "My kids kept me cool" and Rudy was like, the coolest adult I knew, so I was in (plus his kids are super cool – Isabel made my cipher-wheel/wedding ring and Rudy Jr runs San Francisco's amazing Monkeybrains ISP).

Both predictions have come true. My kid is 12 and ahead of schedule on the "contemptible bougie normalcy" project, but she's also keeping me cool. This weekend, she played Penelope Scott's viral Tiktok hit RÄT for me. Holy shit is it amazing.

It's a bouncy, upbeat chiptunes track about the disillusionment of Big Tech billionaires who turn out to be sociopath self-dealers whose techno uptopianism is a mask for extraction, exploitation, selfishness and eugenics.

The lyrics are structured as a breakup letter with Elon Musk, but Scott's said that he's a stand-in for every personality-cult tech grifter.

Those lyrics! A perfect bathetic mix of silliness, braininess, scathing wit, self-examination and hope.

It's a balance between damning tech's leaders and holding out hope for a better future:

God damn, I fell for you, your flamethrowers, your tunnels, & your tech

I studied code because I wanted to do something great like you

And the real tragedy is half of it was true

She's merciless on the venality behind the rhetoric:

When I said take me to the moon, I never meant take me alone

I thought if mankind toured the sky, it meant that all of us could go

But I don't want to see the stars if they're just one more piece of land

For us to colonize, for us to turn to sand

By the time she hits the third chorus, I was on my feet cheering:

So fuck your tunnels, fuck your cars, fuck your rockets, fuck your cars again

You promised you'd be Tesla, but you're just another Edison

'Cause Tesla broke a patent, all you ever broke were hearts

I can't believe you tore humanity apart

With the very same machines that could have been our brand new start

I mean.


You can buy Scott's whole album Public Void on Bandcamp for $6, or just this track for $1.

(I paid $10)

Meanwhile, if you're looking for something less acerbic but no less brilliant on who gets to go to space in our imaginations and our future, try Ada Palmer's "Somebody Will." It pairs beautifully with RÄT.

Attack Surface in the New York Times (permalink)

I took the weekend off! Thursday was my first day off since March and apart from two Zoom presentations (Canadians and Europeans don't take US Thanksgiving off) and writing a speech for this morning, I didn't do any work.

It was a heavenly interlude, seriously. But you know what made it even sweeter? The one-two punch of having my latest novel, Attack Surface (the third Little Brother novel) picked as a 2020 must-read by the New York Times and Macleans.

For the Times's Book Review, Amal El-Mohtar wrote,

Doctorow is vocal and unflinching in his activism on surveillance and intellectual property, among other issues, it doesn’t arrive completely naked on the page: He writes fascinating, interesting villains with comprehensible motivation, and flawed, wounded protagonists caught in complicated relationships with them. “Attack Surface” is ultimately optimistic, and that optimism is rooted in a belief that humans will choose meaningful connections over the numbing, narcotic effects of instant, empty gratifications.

Meanwhile, in Macleans, Brian Bethune wrote: "the tension and sobering revelations of how vulnerable we all are make this novel one of the Canadian-born author’s finest."

It's always exciting to get a good review, doubly so in respected national media, but the thing about these that put me in such good spirits is that they liked the parts I cared about – the balance between hope and warning, tech and humanity.

Attack Surface is available wherever you buy books. If you'd like a personalized, signed copy, check out my local bookseller, Dark Delicacies, whose shop is close enough for me to drop by and inscribe a copy for you.

The ebook is DRM-free on all platforms. If you want to get an ebook straight from me, I've got you covered:

There's also a stunning indie audiobook, narrated by Amber Benson, which smashed Kickstarter records with a crowdfunding campaign last month. You can also get that direct from me, or via, Bandcamp, and Google Play.

Alas, you can't get it at Audible or Itunes, since both platforms have mandatory DRM, which is – to use a technical term – evil bullshit.

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Programmers on Sony’s spyware DRM asked for newsgroup help too

#15yrsago Sony CD spyware installs and can run permanently, even if you click “Decline”

#15yrsago Sony knew about rootkits 28 days before the story broke

#10yrsago Paolo Bacigalupi’s SHIP BREAKER: YA adventure story in a post-peak-oil world

#5yrsago The Paradox: a secret history of magical London worthy of Tim Powers

#5yrsago The dystopian First Contact/alien abduction sf story hidden in the Thanksgiving tale

#1yrago Amazon secretly planned to use facial recognition and Ring doorbells to create neighborhood “watch lists”

#1yrago Talking Adversarial Interoperability with Y Combinator

#1yrago Profile of Mariana Mazzucato, the economist who’s swaying both left and right politicians with talk of “the entrepreneurial state”

#1yrago A layperson-friendly introduction to MMT, a heterodox school of economics that could finance a Green New Deal

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Poesy Taylor Doctorow, Naked Capitalism (

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Wednesday's progress: 520 words (88402 total).

Currently reading: The Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson

Latest podcast: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 24)

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