Pluralistic: 05 Oct 2021

Today's links

The cover for the paperback of 'Attack Surface.'

The Attack Surface paperback is out (permalink)

It's my book-birthday! Today marks publication of the Tor (US/Canada) paperback edition of ATTACK SURFACE, a standalone adult Little Brother book.

Little Brother and its sequel Homeland were young adult novels that told the tale of Marcus Yallow, a bright young activist in San Francisco who works with his peers to organize resistance to both state- and private-sector surveillance and control.

The books' impact rippled out farther than I dared dream. I've lost track of the number of cryptographers, hackers, activists, cyberlawyers and others who told me that they embarked on their tech careers after reading them.

These readers tell me that reading Little Brother and Homeland inspired them to devote themselves to taking technological control away from powerful corporations and giving it to people, putting them in charge of their own technological destiny.

This has been a source of enormous pride – never moreso than in Citizenfour, Laura Poitras's documentary, when Edward Snowden grabs his copy of Homeland off his Hong Kong bedside table as he heads for a safe-house.

A clip from Citizenfour, Laura Poitras's Academy-Award-winning documentary, in which Edward Snowden grabs a copy of Homeland to put in his go-bag as he flees his Hong Kong hotel.

Despite the growing movement of public interest, ethical technologists, the main current of the tech industry for decades has been an unbroken tendency towards spying, control, and manipulation.

These technological shackles are made by geeks who bear striking similarities to the Little Brother readers who've told me the story of their technopolitical awakenings – they share a love of the power of technology and the human connections we make through networks.

Without these people and their scarce expertise – arrived at through passionate exploration of tech – these technologies of control wouldn't exist. They started from the same place as Marcus Yallow and his fans, but they took a very different path.

Attack Surface is the story of how that happens. Its (anti)hero is Masha Maximow, who appears as Marcus's frenemy in the first two books – a more talented hacker than Marcus, who bats for the other side.

In Little Brother, Masha is working for the DHS in its project to turn San Francisco into a police state in the wake of a terrorist attack. In Homeland, she's working on a forward operations base as a private military contractor, spying on jihadi insurgents.

When we meet her again in Attack Surface, Masha is a very highly paid senior technologist for a cyber-arms-dealer that sells spy tools to the most brutal, autocratic dictators in the world – something she's deeply, self-destructively conflicted about.

When Masha gets caught helping pro-democracy protestors defeat the spyware she herself installed and maintained, she is cashiered and flees back home to San Francisco, where she makes a horrifying discovery.

Tanisha, her childhood best friend, who has devoted her life to racial justice struggles, is being targeted with the same malware that Masha helped inflict on protesters half a world away. For Masha, the war has come home.

That's what makes this a book for adults, rather than a YA novel – it's a tale about moral reckonings. It's a story about being an adult that your younger self would neither recognize, nor approve of. It's a story about redemption and struggle.

Like the other Little Brother novels, it's a book whose technopolitics are firmly grounded in real-world technologies, from anti-malware countermeasures for state phone hacking to defeating facial recognition by exploiting machine learning's deep flaws.

The book's been out for a year now, and in addition to praise from the trade press and newspapers like the Washington Post, it's attracted a loyal following of readers, many of whom never read Little Brother or Homeland.

Like the public interest technologists who tell me how Little Brother helped set the course of their lives, these Masha Maximow fans tell me how reading Attack Surface helped change that course – made them confront the compromises they'd made and decide to make a change.

It's an honor and a privilege to have affected so many lives in this way, and I'm profoundly grateful to the readers who've contacted me to tell me about their experience of the book.

And now the paperback is out! A whole new group of readers can discover Masha, Attack Surface, and read about how it's never too late to reckon with the morality of your past self's actions.

You may recall that I produced my own audiobook for Attack Surface – something I had to do because Audible – Amazon's monopoly audiobook company – refuses to carry my work because I won't put DRM on it.

The audiobook was amazing – read by Buffy's Amber Benson, who put in a virtuoso performance, and the presales audiobook was the most successful audiobook Kickstarter in crowdfunding history.

Like the print novel, the audiobook for Attack Surface has enjoyed a brilliant post-launch afterlife, selling briskly and attracting great reviews.

A collage of the covers for the Little Brother/Homeland omnibus edition and the paperback of Attack Surface.

To celebrate the paperback's release, I'm offering the Attack Surface audio, along with the audio for Homeland (read by Wil Wheaton) and Little Brother (read by Kirby Heyborne) – normally $70 in all – in a bundle for $30:

As with my other releases, my local indie bookstore, Dark Delicacies, is accepting orders for signed copies of the paperback – I'll even drop by and personalize them for you!

If the themes of Attack Surface interest you, I recommend checking out the video and audio archives of the Attack Surface Lectures, a series of eight online panels hosted by indie bookstores and undertaken with a range of stellar guest-speakers, available as video and audio.

  • "Politics and Protest," with Eva Galperin and Ron Deibert, hosted by The Strand:

  • "Cross-Media SF," with Amber Benson and John Rogers, hosted The Brookline Booksmith:

  • "Race, Surveillance and Tech," with Malkia Cyril and Meredith Whittaker, hosted by Booksmith:

  • "Cyberpunk and Post-Cyberpunk," with Bruce Sterling and Christopher Brown, hosted by Andersons:

  • "Opsec and Personal Cybersecurity," with Runa Sandvik and Window Snyder, hosted by Third Place Books:

  • "Sci Fi Genre," with Chuck Wendig and Sarah Gailey, hosted by Fountain Bookstore:

  • "Tech in SF," with Annalee Newitz and Ken Liu, hosted by Interrabang:

I'm eternally grateful to all the people who helped with this book – the editorial team at Tor, the booksellers, my co-panelists, the reviewers and critics, the audiobook team, my Kickstarter backers, and you, my readers. Thank you.

The cover of Dave Eggers' 'The Every.'

Dave Eggers' "The Every" (permalink)

"The Every" is Dave Eggers' latest novel, out today from McSweeney's. It's the sequel to his 2013 techno-dystopian satire "The Circle," and it's a deeply discomfiting, darkly hilarious, keen-edged tale of paternalism and its discontents.

Eggers' book is set in the confines of a company called the Every, a kind of sequel to Facebook/Google, which grew so big that it bought out and absorbed Amazon, becoming a totalizing, world-spanning tech giant to end all tech giants.

Delaney is the latest hire at the Every (an "Everyone"). She is there to destroy the company from within, a plan she hatched years before when an Every-esque Whole Foods-alike put her parents' quirky organic grocer out of business and turned them into haunted screen-zombies.

Delaney was mentored by a legendary tech critic, but disappointed the old woman by turning in a brilliantly argued thesis explaining why the Every is not a monopolist and should be shielded from antitrust scrutiny.

What her mentor didn't know was that the thesis was part of her plan – to be hired by the Every and then destroy it from within by pushing it to make social apps that were so destructive that people finally woke up to its evil.

The Every had already commodified every social relationship, tormented the world with its awful "social" apps that cheapened and mechanised our relationships – how hard could it be to push it all just a little bit further, to sharpen the contradictions and wake up the world?

Delaney's intake interview goes great. She pitches an app, a secret lie-detector that you can run on your phone while talking to friends or kids or employees and get a numerical score about their truthfulness. It's supposed to improve our relationships. The Every loves it.

Delaney – and her coder accomplice – turn out to be prodigies of terrible ideas that the Every loves. The worse her ideas are, the more the Every loves them, and so does everyone else, the Every's billions of users.

The world keeps getting worse, but its awakening is nowhere in sight. There's a lot of comedy in this cycle, of the ha-ha-only-serious variety, as so many of these destructive ideas are so plausibly ripped from a Silicon Valley VC's pitchbook.

But as the book progresses, the ideas take on a new tenor. They're not just about punishing people for social transgressions, but also for environmental sins. They found a new social movement, Bananakam ("Banana Shame") that excludes anyone who eats out-of-season fruit.

The mix of corporate cynicism and wide-eyed "conscious capitalism" is even scarier. Bruce Sterling talks about the "dead grandparent" test for environmental measures: "Any measure your dead grandparent can perform better than you because they are dead."

All of Delaney and the Every's environmental measures fail the dead grandparent test. There's a thing called "StayStijl," in which you replace travel (and its associated carbon footprint) with VR.

There's a product that accepts your beloved photos and treasures, scans them and incinerates them as a low-carbon fuel. There's an internal mania for Everyones to move into sleep pods on the company's Treasure Island campus to eliminate their commuting footprint.

They are trying to be conscious, and dead, and optimal, all at once – to save the planet, to build the company, to perfect the species. They are mad. Their untenable solutions to the world's real problems are pitched as the only way out.

No one notices that they're also turning the Every into the digital, algorithmic dictator of our lives, economy and politics, with a surveillance "smart" speaker in every home.

Eggers is doing something hard and weird and important here, making us confront the degree to which crisis makes us willing to accept authoritarianism, making us face up to the warm comfort of subjugating ourselves to someone else's automated will.

His techies are mostly very smart and often very likeable, and if they are con artists, their original marks were themselves. They call the Every campus "Everywhere" and they call the rest of the world "Nowhere."

We Nowhere dwellers are shadowy, but we are definitely willing and enthusiastic consumers of everything Every wants to sell us. And though Eggers gets in an occasional cheap shot, mostly he's punching up, and some of those blows will land on every reader.

For a book that is often hilarious, and always a page-turner, this is an awfully uncomfortable read, and it stays with you afterward, lingering and surfacing every time you brush up against the technology in your life.

The label for a bottle of Open Access Ninja beer.

Open Access Ninja (permalink)

I call him the "rogue archivist." Carl Malamud's been around a long while, doing a lot of stuff. He could have been yet another tech entrepreneur (he pioneered streaming audio) but no, he chose the less glamorous, less remunerative, more important life of a tech activist.

For decades, Carl's cause has been open access: universal access to all knowledge. He worked with Aaron Swartz to publish millions of pages of paywalled court documents. He published proprietary building and safety codes that had been turned into law that you had to pay to read.

Point Carl at a proprietary, paywalled source of public knowledge and he'll rip it, digitize it, annotate it, and publish it – no matter what the risk. He's been sued for millions. The Georgia legislature tried to take him to the Supreme Court. They lost. He won.

He usually wins, because he's on the right side of history. The knowledge that we produce at public expense – laws, records, safety codes, art, legislative debates – belong to all of us.

They should not – they must not – be locked up through private-public partnerships that let hoarders charge us a toll to access the knowledge we all helped to produce, for our common good.

Carl's genius isn't merely in his ethical commitment to open access – it's his showmanship. When Carl frees something, he makes it splashy, fun, and whimsical. Even…intoxicating.

No, literally. Carl's making beer now.

Open Access Ninja ("The Brew of Law") is a public domain pale lager created by free culture advocate and brewer Thomas Gideon. You can brew it and drink it. I have drunk some myself. It is goddamned great beer.

There have been open access beer recipes before – indeed, brewing culture in by nature collaborative and open. But the point of Open Access Ninja isn't (merely) making beer – it's making a point. It's that malamudian showmanship.

To experience the show, check out the beer commercial that Carl and friends made for OAN – or rather, the documentary disguised as a beer-commercial:

(Internet Archive mirror):

Over the course of 43 minutes, OAN traces the connections between brewing to Gandhi to equitable access to the law to the horror of proprietary life-forms and beyond – with captions in 109 languages (!), all with no rights reserved.

It's a very beautiful video – thank videographer Kirk Walter – but it's also a very moving one. Malamud connects open access to "Let My Country Awake," the Nobel-prizewinning Bengali poem by Rabindranath Tagore.

But, improbably, it's also a beer commercial, with actual rockin' tunes – also released with no rights reserved:

Open Access Ninja:

Do (Make Your Bread):

Open Access Ninja is a pure malmudian glory and folly – an over-the-top, tangible, wide-ranging, collaborative project that renders the abstract in the most tangible form. It's a glory.

This day in history (permalink)

#5yrsago Left-wing activists across the former USSR launch ‚ÄúSeptember,‚ÄĚ to rally opposition to far-right movements

#5yrsago Canadian government has turned ‚Äúconsultation‚ÄĚ on warrantless mass surveillance into a sales-job

#1yrago Facebook's living will

#1yrago Ad-tech is a bubble

#1yrago The Internet is for End-Users

#1yrago Squeeze Me

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources:

Currently writing:

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. Yesterday's progress: 393 words (22349 words total)

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. Yesterday's progress: 1033 words (9596 words total).

  • A Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. PLANNING

  • A nonfiction book about excessive buyer-power in the arts, co-written with Rebecca Giblin, "The Shakedown." FINAL EDITS

  • A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause." FINISHED

  • A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues." FINISHED

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: Breaking In
Upcoming appearances:
* Reconciling Social Media & Democracy, Tech Policy Press, Oct 7

Recent appearances:

Latest book:

Upcoming books:

  • The Shakedown, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press 2022

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