Hugh Howey's Blog
June 29, 2016
I’m currently in Banff at TEDSummit 2016. It’s only the third day, and already I feel intellectually and emotionally drained. The talks yesterday were fantastic, and I woke up still thinking about them and all the great discussions taking place outside the halls and during our excursions here into nature. A few that stand out:
A very brave woman from a certain middle eastern country stood on stage yesterday in complete darkness. The TED cameras were turned off, and the two thousand or so attendees were warned that any photographs could get her killed. This was repeated again so that we could really take it in. It’s sobering that this is the reality in more than a few corners of the globe, the danger of speaking one’s thoughts.
She came out on stage and explained how she has come out in the virtual world. She talked about being a woman and being gay in her home country. She is an activist through social media, but her family can not know she’s gay. She talked about her struggles and her strengths and the strength of the women and the LGBTQ community in her country. And the fact that they aren’t going away, that they refuse to give in, and that they are finding one another online and finding a power in their collective voices there.
Technology is having influences on individuals and groups alike. For some minority communities, it’s the only way to speak out safely and to find others in similar situations. It’s the only way to have a voice, both individually and collectively. But technology is having other influences. It’s a place to recruit extremists and to plan attacks. And more broadly, it can lead to misplaced anger. In a conversation with Rod Brooks, the founder of iRobot and Rethink Robotics, it was suggested that the employment effects of technology are now being blamed on immigration. Just as the Great Depression may have been caused as much by tractors and the displacement of agricultural workers, the tensions here in the States and abroad (like the UK) may be due to employment shifts that are much swifter than demographic shifts.
Another incredible talk came from a woman with myalgic encephalomyelitis, or chronic fatigue syndrome. It was one of the most powerful talks I’ve ever seen. Again, it came with a preamble and a warning. We were not to applaud at any time. Instead, we waved our hands above our heads like we would for someone who was deaf. Any kind of stimulation can be exhausting for someone with ME.
Watching Jennifer speak from her wheelchair, pausing to catch her breath now and then, laboring through both physical and emotional exhaustion, brought this disease to life. More people suffer from ME than MS, and the funding is sparse. A mere $5 spent per patient, compared to thousands per AIDS patient and hundreds per MS patient. Part of the problem with ME is that sufferers simply disappear from view. They crawl into darkness. It is an invisible but pernicious problem.
The other and more ruthless impediment is the shame and humiliation those with ME suffer as they are told there’s nothing wrong with them, that it’s all in their head, that they should just overcome the disease with a force of will. Because we do not yet fully understand ME, doctors look to psychological explanations. Jennifer tells us that it’s far better to say “We don’t know.” But the suffering is real. Jennifer will pay a heavy cost for traveling here from Boston, but she gives a face and a voice to the disease. It was a courageous display that brought me to tears.
There are themes that emerge with any conference like this. I’ve seen it before, and it arises organically from the issues boiling at the surface, that we bring together from all over the world. Brexit has been a regular topic, and AI has dominated many discussions. There are three talks this week on the blockchain, the technology behind Bitcoin, and the ways it can be used outside of currency. Some of these are going to be critical for artists, and I’ll devote an entire blog post to that. One speaker claimed that the blockchain is more important to the future of society than artificial intelligence, and he proceeded to make a decent case.
Beyond the ideas that percolate, and all the stories that are now begging me to be written, are the people. Friends I haven’t seen in a few years. Friends I bump into a few times a year and am able to pick up right where we left off. And then those personal heroes whose books have been brilliant guides, whose ideas have been sweet companion, and the chance to not just thank them but to hear what they’re working on now, what they think is next.
Possibly the best idea I’ve heard this week is the need to take conferences like this and get them further afield. The TEDx conferences are part of this effort. But last night, a thought occurred, one I want to work on or hope someone else would be interested in brainstorming with me. We wear these name tags here that reveal who we are, where we’re from, and a few topics we’re interested in. Even around town, outside of the conference, we tend to wear them. And they serve as constant invitation to join any conversation, mid-sentence, and listen or contribute.
Like a steakhouse where you turn up a token if you want more service, and flip it over if you would like to be left alone, I would love to see the use of these name tags in the wild. Open source them. Have them be more common. A signal that there’s an open mind here, one looking for debate, or an exchange of ideas, or just interested in hearing who you are, what you are thinking, how you are feeling.
I would wear one of these 80% of the time. Being able to walk up and introduce yourself to anyone at any time and commune is a recipe for expanding empathy, sharing ideas, pushing conversations upward and animosity downward. What do you think? Would you wear one? And what would your badge say?
June 25, 2016
Immigration reciprocity is nasty business. If you’ve ever been to Brazil as an American, you’ve seen this in action. It works like this: However difficult country A makes it for citizens of country B to visit, country B then enacts the same rules for country A. Which means going through an insane amount of work and sending off your passport just to get into Brazil, because we do the same thing to Brazilians. They adopt our rules to show us how punitive those rules feel.
Make no mistake: The fault is ours. It shouldn’t be this difficult to visit another country. Ever. You should be able to show up, present your documents, and your lack of outstanding criminal warrants — and agreement to follow local laws and pay local taxes — allows you entry.
If the same xenophobia that led to the Brexit also leads to harsher immigration policies and procedures, British citizens will likely suffer reciprocity from other EU members. Right now, you can drive the chunnel and go from England to France without stopping. Just like you can currently drive from Texas to California without having to get bureaucrats involved (not counting the produce police on the way into New Mexico). That ease of access will likely cease. Which is absolutely terrible, not just for human freedom, but for economic growth.
Imagine natural gas exploration taking off in North Dakota and not being able to get enough people through the red tape to take the jobs. The private sector is more flexible and swifter to pivot than law-makers. Hardening borders is terrible for economic growth. But it’s not just economics; imagine only being able to date someone in your home state because of the complexities of job requirements and immigration woes (I’ve recently gone through this with a girlfriend from the UK). These are the real-world consequences of protectionism and xenophobia.
What’s disgusting is that older voters lead the way with their intolerance, and they aren’t as greatly affected by their actions. They are moving out of the workforce. They’ve already married and settled with their loved ones. Geographic isolation is less harmful to those who have settled down; it’s terrible for those still looking for their place in the world. Which is why voters under 30 overwhelmingly chose to stay in the EU. It’s also a matter of subsequent generations being more tolerant and less hate-ridden than those who came before. Progress, as they say, happens one funeral at a time.
The Brexit has its parallels around the globe. Nationalism and isolationism are on the rise. What’s really amazing about the racism and xenophobia here in the US is that it’s completely unfounded. Between 2009 and 2014, the net flow between Mexico and the US was 140,000 Mexicans LEAVING this country. Our economic stagnation, Mexico’s meager economic progress, and family reunification, were all factors. Perhaps it’s fitting that the hero of this movement here in the States, Donald Trump, got his facts exactly backwards when he celebrated Scotland voting to leave the EU. His adherents get the facts exactly backwards as well. Opening borders with the rest of the world would not result in a stampede. It would result in a natural flow in both directions.
Racism is the root of this nationalism, plain and simple. If it weren’t, we’d see people picketing high school and college graduation ceremonies for all the looming jobs about to be stolen. We’d see intolerance toward pregnant women and kids in strollers for all the jobs these new Americans are going to steal. We’d hear more about these dastardly Canadians.
The xenophobes are not worried about population growth, not really. Population growth leads to economic growth. A newborn child and an immigrant are both going to consume and trade just as much as they work (more so, with debt accumulating over time). That means every new body is more jobs created through more spending. When you see an immigrant, see a shopper, an eater, a renter. Just like you do a newborn. The fact that we don’t see it this way says it all.
Look, borders are a dumb fucking idea. Lines on maps are necessary to a point, but not when it comes to immigration, the free flow of people, or the free flow of trade. These bureaucratic walls are only beloved by those who fear that the makeup of the populace will change (usually by growing darker). But it’s the next generation that has to live with the consequences of these protectionist schemes.
Let’s take the idea of Brexit a bit further and liken it to the United States fracturing. Imagine a different currency in all 50 states. Different rules and regulations. Our political leaders would waste more and more of their time debating trade deals, which would mean more lobbying from special interest groups who try to get import duties on everything they make, while reducing duties on the raw materials they need, with everyone else fighting for the exact opposite. He who provides the nicest steak (pick your bribe) wins.
It’s ironic to me that the small-government side of the political spectrum is all about the proliferation of governments. I have heard this argument that bureaucrats in Brussels are corrupt and self-serving, as if bureaucrats anywhere, at any time, have been anything less. The only way to achieve smaller governments, so that private sector initiative can move the world forward rather than backward, is to have fewer governments, not a lot more of them with smaller borders. To argue that the United States would benefit by being 50 separate countries is absolute lunacy. Just look at Germany before and after Bismark. Or Italy of the city states. Yet this is what the pro-Brexit crowd is applauding, especially once Scotland votes for independence and the EU breaks up further. They’re applauding the equivalent of the dissolution of the United States. That’s how fucking dumb their stance is.
The end goal should be open borders around the world. A single currency, and people free to live wherever they want, not imprisoned by where they are born. This is a long way off, but baby steps must be made. Every free trade pact and loosening of immigration policies is a move in the right direction. Will stronger economies have to buttress weaker economies for a while? Of course. California and Texas already pay an outsized proportion of our collective defense fund than Alabama or Rhode Island. Part of this is population numbers and part is economic vitality and tax revenues. Just as Germany helps Portugal, so too does Florida help South Dakota. This is a good thing. It’s how it should work.
The reason it works in the United States is that we have a collective identity which overrides (most) of our tribalism. Yes, there is still a lot of regional pride and rancor, but we stand together where it counts. The fix for our world economy will be to train ourselves to do the same. We need to SEE each other as humans first and foremost. We need to feel it. Believe it. Let it pervade us.
The reflex to be protectionist with our trade must be countered by the knowledge that any rise in wealth abroad pays dividends to everyone. China developing a middle class means more spending and tourism. It means more growth for US companies. It will also lead to the movement of jobs back to the US as wages go up, and also to the next areas of the world to rise out of poverty, like Africa. There is no way you can make the argument that an impoverished and uneducated California or North Carolina would ever be a good thing for this country, so how can anyone think an impoverished and uneducated country would ever be good for the world?
What we are seeing around the world right now is an ugly spasm of hate in response to a recent wave of globalization. It has happened several times before in human history, as greater enmeshing results in an almost immunological response. The body rejects the transplanted. But it’ll get better. Progress comes one generation at a time. The real lesson here is that the hopeful and optimistic youth need to be as motivated as the angry and the hateful who tend to be older. Anger motivates people to vote more than hope does. You can’t sleep in and trust that the right outcome will just happen. You’ve got to get out and make it happen.
This November, I would love to see a crushing defeat of hatred and racism and xenophobia. A crushing defeat. I don’t think it will happen, because the fearful will get riled up and will go stand in line to vote, stamping their feet and harumphing. Those with a positive outlook will trust the polls, that a narrow victory is inevitable, that their friends will do the heavy lifting for them, and that all will be okay. Trump and those who support his brand of xenophobia will likely lose by percentage points (even if the electoral math is much wider). But it shouldn’t be this way. It shouldn’t be close. This should be a crushing defeat.
We should announce to the rest of the world — just like the colonies did over two hundred years ago — that the people here stand for the future and not for the past. We’ve been laggards on many social issues of late, losing our global leadership when it comes to ethical progress. Too slow to embrace marriage freedoms. Too slow to decriminalize marijuana. Too slow to reduce the number of guns on the streets. It would be great to set an example again. Even better if older voters had a change of heart and defied their fears by voting with compassion. Greater still if the Christian coalition voted as Jesus would. Imagine the man who embraced lepers confronting his followers who would loathe to hug someone with darker skin. But that’s where we stand. It doesn’t mean we have to.
Look, if you are reading this and you are offended, welcome to the club. I’m offended by myself and my prejudices. We are all racist to some degree. It requires fighting off inborn and genetic tendencies to not be xenophobic, just as it’s damn hard not to overeat and over-consume. There are very clever experiments that can measure this, and one of the shocking results is that people who like to think — who truly believe — that they aren’t prejudiced actually are. So anyone saying “I’m not racist” is lying to themselves. That goes for all of us. It’s a question of degree. It’s also a question of intellectual honesty. But mostly, it’s a question of what we’re going to do about it.
This November, I’m going to vote for a career politician that I’ve never been fond of. To me, this is an even greater rebuke of Trump’s xenophobia than it would be if I voted for a politician that I’m in love with. This is not quite me hugging a leper (I think Hillary will make a great president), but you get the idea. If you didn’t have to overcome your revulsion, you aren’t proving anything. That’s why, the more you disagree with Hillary, the more you’ve held against her over the years, the more meaningful your vote against Trump becomes.
And yes, it’s okay to vote against something. You can’t vote against something without also voting for something. This November, I get to vote for the United States to be an example again. An example of inclusion. Of liberty. Of trust. The fact that I’ll be voting for someone I disagree with is just ever sweeter. Standing up for what you believe in is more powerful when there’s something you have to overcome. This will be a chance to shout down bigots with my vote. And I’m not going to rely on the rest of the country to do that for me. I’m not going to take it for granted. I’m not going to fear the lines. I’m not going to wait for the day after to Google what any of this is about, or research what the fuck is going on. I want a landslide of love. I’m even willing to forgive all of you who want the exact opposite.
After we politely and democratically kick your motherfucking hate-filled asses in November.
June 21, 2016
My editor recently had me collect my short stories into a single place. This has never been done before. They had previously been scattered to the winds. Some were stories that I put up on my old blog and can’t be found anywhere these days. Some were published in anthologies here and there. Some were released as Kindle exclusives, and some of these very quietly.
With all these stories in a single place, one theme became apparent. There were a lot of stories about artificial intelligence. Glitch, The Box, Executable, The Plagiarist, The Automated Ones, WHILE (u > i) i- -; . Not to mention all the blog posts over the years. Noticeably absent across these stories, which altogether amount to nearly 90,000 words of fiction, are stories about aliens. Just one: Second Suicide.
I tried explaining this to my editor, which amounted to me sounding out my reasons to myself for the first time, and it all kinda came together. Because the best thing that speculative fiction does, in my opinion, is comment on the human condition from a different perspective. That perspective can be a tweaked human perspective, perhaps from a different time, usually the future. But often it’s the perspective from some other. An alien race. Which has never really appealed to me as a writer, because it doesn’t feel probable to me as a scientist.
I don’t think we’ll ever have contact with another sentient organism. I just don’t believe it’ll ever happen. And even if it did, I think we’ll be too different to have anything deep and meaningful to say about the other’s condition. But what I know will happen, because it already is happening, is that we’ll have conversations with the intelligences we create here on earth. And these AIs will be similar enough in many ways, but different enough in others, to have something special to teach us about the human condition.
I’ve been working on a piece the last few months about ingrouping and outgrouping, something I hope to publish soon, and one of the concepts I explore is that we seem to find more to fear and loathe in the things that are only slightly different from us than we feel toward the things that are vastly different from us. Religious sects war with greater ferocity than different religions. And religions with common sources war with greater ferocity than religions that are far apart. Motorcycle enthusiasts on street bikes do not wave to those on Harleys, or vice versa, but might wave back to someone in a car. What makes us similar is often more frightening than what makes us unique. It’s the threat of a mirror. Or competition in our niche. And that’s why AI fascinates me in a way that aliens never will.
When we create a strong artificial intelligence, and I think it’ll happen in the next fifty to a hundred years, it’ll be very much like an alien race landing on this planet. Ideas we’ve never thought of will sprout. Solutions to intractable problems. Clean energy. Medical miracles. The end of war. Of poverty. All that we wish that gods and god-like SETI would come down and hand to us will emerge from the minds we made and taught and raised and eventually learned to listen to.
But something else will happen: These minds will be eerily us. They will reflect our ways of thinking, and be built on our cultural histories, and know everything there is to know about us. Imagine a prescient parent or a psychic psychologist who knows us to our cores. Our single cores. And what they might have to say to us. The brutal honesty, if we were to allow them that. A perfectly polished mirror.
The things we fear from AI are the wrong things. It will not war with us — that is something we see in the mirror that we should be ashamed of; it’s what we would do. It will instead reveal the war within us and between us. Humans have an incredible capacity to endure discomfort. We are very adaptable. But one thing that can drive us to our knees is shame. And I think this is what we should be wary of, if we build something that will approach mental and ethical perfection. Not what it will do with those great gifts, but how we will view ourselves in its presence.
June 17, 2016
I want to hear your version of WOOL in your own words. Shoot a brief video, landscape orientation, from the shoulders up. Check out my video above for details.
When you’re done, send your videos to: email@example.com
If the video is too large for email, you can upload it to YouTube and send the link to the same email address. And feel free to share your videos here in the comments as well.
Oh. My. Gawd.
I have this conference call today, so I needed a room with some high speed internet. There are all kinds of offices you can rent for the day, week, month here in New York, so I pulled up a map. Turns out there’s one right beside the marina called WorkSocial. Perfect. I book a room.
I walk into the building today, and there’s a massive, gargantuan, epic video screen behind the receptionist. On the screen is my boat. I mean, that’s about all that’s on the screen. The deck of my boat. Where I lie on the trampolines at night with a glass of wine. Where I watch the sun set from the upper deck. Where I lay out nude, because you really can’t see the upper deck from anywhere in the marina…
…but you get a real damn nice view if you walk into the lobby of this 16 story office building.
“Uh, does that camera change?” I ask. I’m assuming it flips through other cameras in the area. The lady behind the desk looks over her shoulder.
She shakes her head.
“Does it move?” I ask.
“No,” she says, then looks suspicious. “Why?”
“That’s my home,” I say. I point. I’m still processing.
The lady looks at me again. Hesitates. “Were you washing your boat this morning?”
I nod. I was. In my usual attire.
The rest of the conversation got awkward from there. And I made a note of how to adjust the boom so I could continue to lay out without being NSFW in a workplace. I also thought the view was a bit blurry, and maybe someone should go out and clean the lens.
June 16, 2016
Nate Hoffelder at The Digital Reader has put together a great piece about Amazon and some of their affiliate partners. It appears that several ebook discovery sites have had their Amazon affiliate memberships revoked due to violations of the terms of service. The violations aren’t new, but the terminations are. And it all comes after Amazon has launched their own ebook email subscription service, Goodreads Deals.
A bit of history is in order here, for those who are unfamiliar with any of this. Let’s start with Amazon’s affiliate program. This is an ingenious tool Amazon uses to help drive customers to their storefront. Anyone can apply for and set up an affiliate account at no cost. When you share a link to an Amazon product, and you use your code, Amazon gives you a commission for the sale. I found out about the program when some fellow authors berated me for not using it. They noticed I was already sharing links to my books at Amazon, and pointed out that I could do the same thing but make a little money by using this code. So I started using it. The money made was not inconsequential. I try to use my affiliate code whenever I share a link to anything on Amazon, which is quite frequent when you’re blogging about books all the time.
Many websites subsist almost entirely on this affiliate program. I’m into photography, and I’ve seen reviewers at major photog sites ask that people interested in products to follow links on their page, as it helps them keep the doors open. Free forums like KBoards and their Writers’ Cafe make a profit almost entirely on Amazon’s affiliate program (which is why KBoards will not let you use your own affiliate codes in the books you put in your signatures). The Passive Voice also generates revenue through the affiliate program. There’s nothing underhanded about this. Commissions are common in the retail world.
The next thing to know about is discount ebook blasters. Services like BookBub and websites like Pixel of Ink help drive sales through massive email lists and users who browse their sites. For BookBub, revenue is largely the huge sums that authors pay to get on one of their email blasts (it can run into the thousands of dollars, and there are quite a few blasts going out every day, which really adds up). Pixel of Ink and similar sites rely more on affiliate revenue. Authors vie for promotional slots, and these promotions are linked with affiliate codes, so the website makes a lot of money when readers follow through and purchase something. (I should add here that if the same reader goes on to by a TV during that visit, the commission for that item is also included.)
The discount ebook site Pixel of Ink has now shuttered. According to Nate (who is one of the very few people doing real journalism in the publishing biz these days), the reason for their shuttering is due to Amazon enforcing their TOS with new vigor. Terms that were previously ignored are now being rigorously enforced. Nate writes that this is to squash competing discount ebook sites now that Goodreads Deals is up and about. Other competitors have also had their affiliate memberships revoked and have shut their doors.
So what gives? My first confusion with this is that Amazon profits quite a bit from these email blasts. These blasts drive sales on Amazon.com more than any of their competitors’ websites. Why would Amazon not want to continue with a program that generates traffic and revenue? As always, when trying to puzzle through Amazon’s decisions, I placed myself in their shoes, with a focus on what serves the customer experience. Everything at Amazon is about how to improve the customer experience. So what was the thinking here?
There are a few clues that point me to what I assume were the discussions behind this decision. And make no mistake, the people at Amazon do not make these decisions lightly. They think long and hard about these things. And what I think they are interested in here has very little to do with money. I think it has a lot more to do with those book displays that greet you when you walk into a Barnes & Noble. I think it’s all about merchandising.
I worked in a Barnes & Noble while attending college, and it was here that I learned the word “planogram.” I also learned to loathe the things. We’d get these printouts that showed precisely where every book was supposed to be shelved. Little schematics full of little books, faced out or spine-out, and we had to arrange the books just so. Which book faced the door. Which ones go on the top shelves. Which ones are easier or harder to see.
All of these spots are decided by dollars. Publishers pay merchandising fees to get their books featured on these displays. The same thing happens online. Barnes & Noble has been said to amp up the rankings on books for a fee, making it seem like a lower selling book was a bestseller. They also have been known to suppress erotica titles so they wouldn’t appear higher than rank 120 on their website. The idea was and is to curate the bestseller list to drive sales in a certain direction. For Barnes & Noble, that direction was to publishing partners. I think there was also a sense that it would just be good for business for the storefront to look as professional as possible. Rules on cover art from all the online retailers exist for a similar reason.
Now for a diversion to free ebooks. Nate has done some excellent reporting here as well. A few years ago, Amazon changed their TOS to limit the percentage of free ebooks that affiliate members could drive readers toward. Amazon has always understood the allure of free ebooks for authors, but they’ve never been a fan of free ebooks. They don’t make it easy to offer ebooks for free. It’s important to understand this. The only way to make an ebook free on Amazon is to make it free elsewhere and force Amazon to match the price.
The only reason Amazon allows free ebooks is to not let a competitor undercut them. Authors take advantage of this price matching all the time. It costs Amazon money to host and deliver these files, and it drives readers away from paid content, so Amazon would rather it didn’t happen at all. As a reward for KDP Select membership, Amazon offers a mere 5 freebie days every 90 day period of enrollment. The paucity of freebie days signals not only the buying power that Amazon knows free promotions can have, but their preference for ebooks with prices. There’s also the fact that Amazon’s royalty rate is 35% for ebooks priced below $2.99, while they offer 70% for ebooks priced between $2.99 and $9.99. This demonstrates that Amazon isn’t necessarily for “cheap” ebooks, like many say. They are for what Amazon has decided is a good range of prices for ebooks. Free does not factor in.
In 2013, Amazon tried to influence the number of free ebooks that affiliate partners were driving readers toward. In 2016, Amazon is trying to influence the discounted ebooks that affiliate partners drive readers toward. What’s happening? Again, I don’t think it’s about money. I think it’s about customer experience.
Amazon is in a constant battle with those who attempt to understand and maximize their use of Amazon’s rank and sales algorithms. There is a lot of money to be made by people who find chinks in Amazon’s armor. Some of these parties are outright scammers, uploading stolen ebook content in new packaging, taking advantage here of the simplicity of KDP self-publishing. A recent scam involved putting links in ebooks that drove readers to the back of the book, getting credit for an entire read in Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program. There are much more benign side effects to Amazon’s decisions. Back when they paid the same amount for a full read of a short story and a full novel, it naturally led to the publication of more short stories and fewer novels. Amazon’s every decision has cascading effects, and so they are constantly tweaking their behavior to counter these effects. At times, it’s like watching a time travel film where the protagonists are constantly going back further and further to fix unintended consequences. Or like watching doctors medicate side effects with more medication. But really it’s just an arms race with end users who are looking for areas of weakness to exploit or reacting naturally to financial rewards built into the system.
One of the unintended consequences of Amazon’s affiliate program is how powerful these email blast discounters have become in shaping the Amazon bestseller lists. In a way, these websites have introduced Barnes & Noble style merchandising on a storefront that has prided itself on not having any merchandising dollars or effects whatsoever. Remember, Amazon is maniacally focused on the customer experience. They practically invented the reader review. They rely on also-boughts (books purchased alongside other books) and shopping/browsing histories to recommend titles to readers. The bestseller list, they hope, reflects what readers crave. Their idea is that this will maximize profits in the long run, because readers will more often than not be happy with their purchases, enjoy the read, and so come back for more.
Incidentally, this is where I think Amazon destroyed Barnes & Nobles’ attempts to sell online. Barnes & Noble neglected their reader reviews (which turned into some weird commenting game played by teens. No, really), and they tried to control their bestseller list. Which meant that more readers were finding what people were actually enjoying reading over at Amazon, leading to an erosion of reader engagement at B&N. This was greatly exacerbated by a terrible search engine at B&N.
With BookBub and sites like Pixel of Ink, Amazon was suddenly faced with an outside influence of the bestseller lists not based on actual reader preference. An email blast from BookBub can move an unranked title into the top 100 overall on Amazon. Occasionally into the top 10. I’ve used BookBub, and I’ve seen the power firsthand. Basically, I was paying BookBub merchandising dollars. I was paying my way onto the Planogram. Instead of their bestseller list being controlled by the sales algorithms that take reading, purchasing, and browsing habits into account, the Amazon bestseller lists were being controlled by dollars that came from authors’ pockets and through Amazon’s own affiliate program.
This means the user experience was being tweaked by forces beyond Amazon’s control. Amazon has probably been watching this with concern for years now. They want readers to find what other readers determine to be the best books. I think this is why the Goodreads Deals program does not allow authors to purchase slots. Contrary to rumors that Amazon doesn’t care about books, know about books, or doesn’t have a human approach to selling books, I think all of these are gross simplifications and an attempt to demonize Amazon without thinking clearly: Amazon wants to sell a lot of books. This requires knowing about them and caring about them. It also means using the bright minds at Amazon to promote books that they believe readers will like.
Just as they have editor’s picks, both monthly and yearly, Amazon also has high level meetings all the time on which books they want to promote in their Daily Deals and other promotional blasts. These conversations must generate some very heated debates, due to the power of the promotions. Team members have their own preferences — the books they want to champion due to personal tastes — and also books they had some hand in editing or publishing. Thomas and Mercer reps will vie for as many of their books to get Daily Deals as possible. The KDP team will hype up the latest self-pub book that scored impressive metrics. The teams that work with New York Publishers will try to steer promotional slots that way. This boiling of biases and preferences is no different than the debates I used to have with my boss at our independent bookstore. I would set up a display, only to have Bill alter it. And vice versa. Our sales preferences clashed and combined. As it must with Amazon’s promotional energies.
These promotions shape the bestseller lists. Those bestseller lists ARE Amazon’s storefront. They are the face of their retail efforts. Amazon wants this to be customer-focused, not author-focused. That means limiting our tools to influence their storefront. It means cracking down on the outside promotional forces that have developed huge amounts of influence on their storefront. If this is about money, it’s only in that Amazon thinks they’ll make more money in the long run to have bestseller lists that aren’t altered by those wheeling deals. Unless it’s Amazon’s deals, arrived at through their internal debates, rather than through merchandising dollars, affiliate rewards, or authors paying for promotions.
This Could Change
Of course, all of this could change. It could be that Amazon wants in on the BookBub market. Perhaps they will offer paid promotions to us soon that give us a direct line into the Amazon bestseller lists. Maybe they want to do internally what is now being offered as a service externally. If so, this is all just vertical integration. Time will tell.
May 22, 2016
Reboots are common in the comicbook world. Characters are rebooted all the time. Movie franchises are rebooted. The dead are brought back to life; separate dimensions are used to reseed character lineups; alternate timelines tell extravagant tales of “what if?”
But there has never been anything like “The New 52.” Five years ago, DC did a full reboot of their entire comic universe. They effectively ended every comic running, full stop, and started up 52 comics with all-new storylines, all-new beginnings, in an attempt to revitalize stagnating sales.
I was so freaking excited about this reboot plan. DC comics used to make it into the brown paper bag I’d take home from my LCS*, but while their Vertigo line still had something to offer, the DC line had lost me. My major complaints with the world of DC is twofold: The first is that all their main characters look exactly the same with just different colored hair. Look at Green Lantern, Batman, Superman, Flash, and Aquaman without their costumes, and you can’t tell them apart.
And no, this isn’t a diversity complaint; it’s a writing complaint. Marvel has a teenage Spiderman, a dweeby Banner (and Reed), a middle-aged alcoholic in Iron Man, just for starters. Captain America is the only major Marvel character with the DC look, and he highlights the other thing wrong with DC characters: They are too powerful.
Green Lantern went cosmic (and the comicbook when chromatic, adding too many hues of lanterns), resulting in clashes that have almost no human touch. Superman has one real weakness, which gets old. He’s too perfect to root for. The stakes in these books are so high all the damn time that you eventually tire of caring if the universe is saved or not. This is the main problem: We can’t conceive of the size, scope, and age of the universe enough to deeply care about its fate. We care more when a single jetliner is plummeting to its doom.
I’m finishing up the second season of Netflix and Marvel’s Daredevil, and it is the best TV I’ve watched since Breaking Bad. Partly because of the excellent fan service (Kingpin, Elektra, The Punisher, even little cameos from Marvel’s best anti-heroes like The Swordsman!). But mostly because the stakes are ones we can grasp. It’s not even the entirety of New York City Daredevil is trying to save (the Avengers step in for those cases). It’s just his hood. It’s local.
DC is much like the American voter, who obsesses about who’s president and ignores who makes it onto the local schoolboard or the county planning committee. Guess who is going to impact your life more? Marvel gets it. The most impressive thing to me about the first season of Daredevil (minor spoiler alert): It’s not until the last episode of the season that he becomes the superhero we know and love. His name, uniform, weapons, methodology, philosophy … they all take thirteen damn episodes to fully form.
How did The New 52 start? With as much action as possible, and with the characters fully formed, in costume, usually in the middle of a foot chase. Like whoever is in charge over there said: “We’ve got to start this shit with as much bang as possible. More “POW” and “SOCK.” Which resulted in more poop and suck. The books were (mostly) crap from the start. The exceptions were surprising (Supergirl) and too few. Where the exceptions worked, it was because these books were more about character development and story and less about wreaking havoc (note the same problem with the movies, where cities are decimated without concern for the civilians who live there, or simply desert the streets as in the third Batman, to leave it a playground for the gods).
One of the best Marvel comics in a long time is the latest Hawkeye. Yeah, that’s right, the Avenger everyone makes fun of for not being as powerful as his teammates. But that’s what makes him awesome (and why his wife points out in Age of Ultron that he’s needed on the team). The guy is vulnerable. He spends most of the panels in his comic run covered in bandages. He gets beat up a lot. He’s fallible, and often in danger. Like we feel. And so we love and empathize with him. (If you haven’t read the run, you should).
Daredevil excels for the same reason. Blind, stubble-faced Matt Murdock (another break from DC’s archetype) is always limping, always wounded, always on the verge of defeat. He couldn’t survive without the help of his civilian friends and neighbors (who represent us). He also operates in a moral shade of gray that darkens and lightens from episode to episode. This is a character journey. This isn’t a reboot with all the boots running. It’s a reboot with laces being tied for the first time.
I know the folks over at DC must be frustrated. They’re watching Disney and Marvel rake in BILLIONS of dollars from critically acclaimed films. And while DC will make money — because we’ll line up to see if they get Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman right this time — Marvel is making bank on Guardians and Ant-Man. On Jessica Jones. On Luke Cage. Where DC is going to run out of main characters (and our patience), Marvel could go on for decades if they hew to their tradition of imbuing regular folks with great responsibility. This will always bring in more eyeballs than having gods wrestle with the fate(s) of the multiverse(s).
What could DC have done differently? Listen to the Joker, for one thing. The Batman of film really is insane. A handful of films turned him from my favorite comic hero to a character I really don’t care about. That’s not easy to do. I know we tire of origin stories, but a great reboot of the 52 would have reset everyone’s powers. Tone them down. Remember the original Superman films? The baddest man in the DC universe was powerful, but nothing like what we see in the comic books today. He seemed to have limits.
I like what Marvel did with Captain America. They made his comics a feature in his own world, so the exploits we know about from our comics can be mere exaggerations within the more gritty and realistic Cap the films created. The rebooted cap never really punched Hitler in the mouth, but don’t tell that to the boys who bought comics to support the war efforts. It was a neat bit of tidying up that allowed the comics to stand while bringing cap down to earth so we could connect with him.
Give us Batman, the detective, and have him solve cases, and we can get onboard with that. Have him not only unable to fly (glide), but to make fun of the fact that anyone thinks he could. Tone down the cape. Make the baddies crazy but not cosmic. Have him team up with a Superman who can leap tall buildings but doesn’t yet know how to fly (like the original Supe). Give us a Wonder Woman whose Amazon warlord connections (POW?) mix with her time as an Israeli fighter pilot (stealth fighter = invisible plane?). Return their legends to the status of legends, and build up new legends from a foundation of humanity.
And hell, diversify. Not just for the sake of diversity, but for some creative outlet. To not be boring. Did you know that the comic book version of Nick Fury was white? Can you imagine NOT having Samuel L. Jackson holding the Marvel universe together? I can’t. Make Green Lantern a gay black female teenager who can’t see, and DC will learn what Marvel has known for a long time: We don’t read these comics to escape our lives; we read them to imagine our lives in spandex and at full throttle. And sometimes that means starting slow.
Do yourselves a favor, even if you aren’t into comics: Start from the beginning of the Marvel media universe and watch everything. From Iron Man to the latest Captain America, and all the shows on Netflix. This is some of the best storytelling in ages. Hopefully DC is watching. Be better if they were taking notes. Because here’s another truth: You can’t have enough great stories out there. Saturate us with awesomeness. For those who feel inundated, stay at fucking home and don’t watch. The rest of us are having a blast.
*Local Comicbook Shop
May 20, 2016
“Life isn’t fair,” my mom used to say, defusing whatever injustice I was whining about at the time. It’s the perfect conversation ender between parent and child. My mom wasn’t disagreeing with my perceived slight; she was calmly letting me know that all of life was like this. Don’t complain. Get used to it. Suck it up.
My mom was right, of course: Life isn’t fair. Sometimes — it’s more than fair, or what the kids these days like to call “privilege.” Two experiences recently highlighted how much this is so.
I went in for a vasectomy this month. Before the procedure could be administered, I had to go in for a “consultation.” I expected a grueling defense of my decision, but it simply consisted of a brochure I had to read and a few friendly questions. The doctor and myself joked back and forth (so easy to do in a room full of penis posters and ballsack bulletins). I was asked if I had kids, to which I said “no.” I was asked if I ever thought I’d want them, to which I said, “no.” The appointment was scheduled. It was that simple.
A very good friend of mine had an abortion a few years ago, and she still hasn’t gotten over the horror of that experience. It wasn’t the procedure, or the gravity of the choice that haunt her still, it was the treatment she received from everyone that stood between her and the abortion. Like me, this friend has never wanted kids. She has even asked to have her uterus taken out, so she no longer has to endure her menstrual cycle. Since she is in her mid-20s, she is told that this procedure can’t be done, because she might change her mind one day.
That’s right: We know her future self better than she knows her present one. We know what’s better for her. The kids call this “mansplaining,” except that it was mostly women badgering her about her decision. Twice a year, she has to get permission to take a pill, and her insurance makes covering this a nightmare. My medical insurance covered my procedure without hesitation.
I never felt an ounce of judgement from anyone about my vasectomy. When I posted on Facebook about the surgery, I was given kudos by men and women alike who saw my decision as a sound one, even a generous one to my partner. So why are women crazy to choose not to have kids, and why do we make it so difficult for them to make that choice, but men are waved right through to the operating table? The entirety of my procedure couldn’t have gone more smoothly. My mom was right: Life isn’t fair.
My second experience in the world of unfairness took place just this past week, here in Wilmington, North Carolina. I’m back in the state that birthed me, but it seems like a foreign land. The same bathing suit and blue toenails that rarely drew a second glance in the islands, or Florida, brings forth murderous glares here. I’m not kidding. Grown men, sitting in small clusters, stare and chew their lips. They spit. Some even yell insults. They all try to prove to their friends that they are suitably homophobic. Yesterday, I got a blast of TV nostalgia as one guy began singing the Nair jingle about “short shorts,” with a round of laughter from his friends. That was the nicest thing I heard.
When I walked Carolina Beach with my friend Scott a few days prior, we were for all intents and purposes a gay couple. We might as well had held hands. I wish I’d recorded the anger on so many faces so that you, dear reader, could witness and be amazed. Now, I know the hatred is there, with the insanity of recent laws passed and having grown up with a gay uncle in this state and gay friends who find themselves torn between their hearts and their families and churches. But it’s not often you feel it directed toward you, as a straight male. Yesterday, I kept telling myself that no one would dare beat me up in such a public place. And they wouldn’t follow me to my car and beat me up there. At least, I was pretty sure they wouldn’t. The fact that I wasn’t wholly sure was scary in a way that sailing across the Atlantic wasn’t.
My gay friends feel this? Often? I mean, I know they do. I wrote about it in my short piece The Automated Ones. But I have always used my imagination to comment on these things. I’ve tried to pretend what it would feel like. It isn’t the same, pretending. Not by a long shot.
I used to talk with an ex about the unfair fear women have to feel while walking alone in the dark, and she confessed to feeling it in daylight, even in crowds. The feeling of being potential prey at any time. I tried to empathize. It’s not until now that I think I can even begin to grasp what that must feel like.
A girl at a restaurant the other night asked me about my toenails as well. She kept asking and asking, unable to grasp my answers, wondering what in the world I was thinking, refusing to wrap her mind around something that she does to her very own feet. If I’m not gay, then why? I remember the same question as a kid when boys started getting earrings. We get used to one thing, and then move to another to judge. The tendrils of a tattoo spiraled out of this girl’s left sleeve. I imagined her having a similar conversation with her mom or dad, but from the other side, explaining what to them might seem indefensible.
Why would I risk looking gay if I’m not? Why invite sneers of derision by wearing a bathing suit that makes me feel comfortable, instead of fitting in with the limited worldview of those around me? Prior to this week, it was because I didn’t care what people thought. Not in a mean way of not-caring, but in the sense that it didn’t occur to me to dwell on it. Here in North Carolina, feeling how much people care, it makes me glad I dress the way I do. Maybe it’s a feeling of solidarity. Or defiance. Or an attempt to help normalize what feels downright normal to me, like that tattoo must feel normal on that girl’s skin.
Or maybe it’s something else. Maybe it’s because I know my mom was right: Life isn’t fair.
But we could all strive to make it more fairy.
May 4, 2016
There’s a dangerous meme in the publishing world that says self-publishing was easier in 2009 and is much harder today. But nothing could be further from the truth. The exact opposite is the case. Self-publishing was nearly impossible then, and it’s incredibly simple now. In fact, it’s never been easier.
The hardest part of self-publishing, you see, is the decision to do it. You have a manuscript in your metaphorical hands, and you can go one of two ways: You can send that work off to agents, or you can send it off to readers. Either path is open to you. Whether or not the book sells in vast quantities will have very little to do with how you choose to publish the book. There are challenges both ways. But back in 2009, if you wrote a story you believed in, and that friends and family delighted in, and you took very seriously your dream of making it as a writer, it was pretty damn impossible to self-publish that book. Because everyone was telling you not to.
I remember getting on a forum for aspiring authors back when I was wrestling with my decision to self-publish or go traditional. The advice I received was that dangerous mix of dead wrong and overly confident. I was told that I was an idiot for considering self-publishing. I was told that I was an idiot to think agents would ever look at online bestseller lists and offer representation to an author for an already-published book. These were what passed for experts in the day, and it was hard to fault them for being wrong, because all of their advice made sense in the decades prior. The fact that it no longer made sense to query agents was hard to see. And even harder to believe.
I heard from everyone that the best way to get my work in front of readers was through querying and traditional presses, and so that’s the route I took. But I harbored doubts. I blogged about those doubts. I posted on forums to express those doubts. And what seemed logical to me was shouted down over and over with: “You’ll never make it. You’ll destroy your career. Readers will never give you a chance.”
Who was I to doubt these experts with many more years of experience? I agonized over the best way to get my words in front of readers. Agonized. I signed a contract with a publisher. I went the wrong way at first. And still I agonized. I spent many hours thinking, observing, and doubting the experts. It was the hardest thing in the world to do. And then the contract for my second book came along, and I faced that choice again…
Anyone today who thinks self-publishing in 2009 was easy has no idea what it took to overcome so much terrible advice and all the peer pressure and bullshit promises about going the traditional route. JK Rowling and Stephen King were held up to me as the likely outcomes of querying my manuscript. Books on store shelves were pointed to, not the piles of rejected manuscripts or the vast delays in getting the work to market. Writers for generations have been given the gloss, have been shown the lottery winners, not the reality in the trenches.
Working in a bookstore and being in charge of setting up author events, I met NYT bestseller after NYT bestseller who had a day job. Writers were largely broke and toiling in their passion as a side hobby or a second career, not as something they did to earn a living. But already in 2009, and morso in the following years, I would meet scads of authors I’d never heard of who were making a living with their writing. Rather than point to the outliers — especially as I became one — I began pointing to these invisible but successful mid-listers as the great promise of hard work and sound business decisions. I never wanted to be a Hocking or a Rowling. I just wanted to reach enough readers to pay the rent. Or maybe just the power bill. And self-publishing seemed more and more like the best way to do this. Today, self-publishing is 100% the best and most logical way of doing this.
My job in a bookstore gave me more perspective beyond the gloss: I watched new books sit on our shelves, only to be returned to the publisher. And I met readers wandering the aisles, clamoring for more great stories than were being published. I knew I had these stories in me. And I finally summoned the courage to do the nearly impossible: I put that second contract in a drawer, decided to go on my own, and even bought back the rights to my first novel. I did everything all the experts told me not to do. Anyone who thinks that’s easy is out of their minds. It was so hard that almost no one at the time was doing it.
Times have changed. Back in 2009, we were told our books would be horribly edited, rather than sharing among us the names of our favorite freelance editors. We were told the cover art would suck, rather than knowing about the Jason Gurleys, Ben Adams, and MS Corleys of the world. And we were told success along this route only happened once in a lifetime, like with Amanda Hocking, rather than seeing it happen at least once a month like we do today. We didn’t have Author Earnings and Data Guy. We had forums full of outdated advice and bullies shouting down anyone who disagreed. We didn’t have an open sharing of information and experiences like you get on KBoards. We had the rise of the new form of vanity publishing, where all that mattered was what imprint you were assigned to.
Self-publishing was not easier back then. Competition may have been less, but that’s because the decision to self-publish was nearly impossible to make. And the more positive the feedback on your manuscript, the less likely you were to make that decision. Which means the best works were likely the ones sitting in drawers and slush piles. And the decision to self-publish was only made as a last resort.
In 2016, self-publishing is often the first and most preferred route. There is far less shame and less social resistance. Even people who don’t follow trends in the publishing world have now heard a story on NPR or read an article in their local paper about the success people are having by taking control of their careers. And almost anywhere you go for advice these days as a fledgling writer, you’ll encounter people with a solid grasp of the industry and emerging trends. You’ll find advocates for self-publishing. You’ll get links to helpful resources, blogs like Konrath’s and Rusch’s, websites like The Passive Voice, and the genius of Data Guy.
It’s impossible to be a writer these days and not know about the benefits, ease, and allure of self-publishing. Completely impossible. Even the most die-hard proponent of the traditional route will now concede that the two routes have their advantages. Self-publishing is no longer derided so much as traditional publishing is defended. We used to hear that self-publishing was the death of any writing career. Now we hear pundits claiming that traditional publishing is at least as good a decision for some writers. Amazing.
Yes, there are more books being published these days, and that’s a great thing. And yes, this increased output is a sign of a hidden truth: Self-publishing has never been easier. Back in my day, only the crazies and idiots dared do it.
March 25, 2016
Privacy and capitalism both need to come to an end. Both will come to an end, if we’re lucky. Which should piss off just about everyone reading this.
Those on the right will scream that capitalism is the best thing that ever happened to us, while agreeing that cops should perhaps bust down more doors and invade our privacy to keep us safe. Those on the left will shout that our privacy is a sacred right, but they will perhaps agree that capitalism causes harm that could be mitigated by a more centrally planned economy.
I’m going to argue that privacy and capitalism have both arisen through the increased size and complexity of our tribes, and that while capitalism served a purpose, and privacy can be appealing, both are going to come to a much-needed end. And I may be alone in celebrating the ruination of both.
Privacy got a Snowdenesque boost recently courtesy of Uncle Sam and Apple. Maybe it’s the circles I travel in, but everyone I know seems to agree that Apple shouldn’t unlock a phone used by terrorists because of a slippery slope of invasion of privacy. It looked like the courts were going to force Apple’s hand, but now an Israeli firm is going to do the hacking required, but at least Apple made their objections very public. Very public. As in: Great PR public. But I find myself, as a libertarian, or a liberal, or whatever the hell I am, strenuously disagreeing with Apple’s (and Facebook’s and Google’s and all my friends’) stances. I think I’m pretty much alone as a libertarian in this disagreement.
Because I think the government should have access. Not just on this one phone, but all the phones. And yeah, I wrote a novel about a bunch of evil dudes harvesting data on an entire populace in order to tamp down uprisings. And I’m still not sure who was right in that novel. I don’t think it’s all that clear-cut. I personally lean more toward Hobbes than Rousseau in my view of human nature. I have a feeling I’m going to upset all the privacy peeps to the left, but don’t worry. My next move will be to enrage my capitalists friends on the right.
We currently possess the software and hardware capability to tease terrorist activity out of a bunch of noise. Machine learning and neural networks have made computers better at spotting trends than any group of humans (similar to how computers are better at spotting tumors than any group of expert oncologists). This is the same sort of learning and pattern recognition that allowed IBM to trounce my friend Ken Jennings at Jeopardy (sorry to keep bringing this up, Ken). Computers are way smart. Pretty soon, they’ll be driving us to and from work and save hundreds of thousands of lives a year, far more than are lost in terrorist attacks. But they’ll also be able to save us from most of those terrorist attacks as well. And I believe all our data should go to the machines and the people who oversee those machines.
Blasphemy, right? Yeah. I’m sorry, but I just don’t see the need for absolute privacy for the sake of absolute privacy. I willingly step into the millimeter body scanner at the airport, and let a computer, an algorithm, and a human overseer, scan my body for any hidden rigid object. I submit myself to this so that no box cutter or gun or knife gets on a plane. I have even allowed on several occasions those strangers to grope me when the machines spit out a confused result. I am happy to relinquish my privacy in exchange for safety. And I’ll gladly do the same digitally.
You know why? Because the machine isn’t looking for me, and the guy seeing scans of my dangling testicles sees them all day long and couldn’t care less. Whatever it is that people are terrified of the government knowing they are doing, it isn’t what the government cares about. And none of us are as important or unique as we like to think we are. Our digital piccadillies are like my dangling testicles: There is too much of it going on for anyone watching to give a shit.
Imagine for a moment taking all modern tools of communication away from terrorists: Search engines. Social media platforms. Texting. The entire internet, basically. Nothing would hamper them more. All it would take is a shared abdication of our privacy — the digital version of driving around with our license plates exposed, or not being able to walk around with masks on. These are decisions we make and agree to all the time, but for some reason we can’t seem to have a discussion about our online privacy. Why is that? What the hell is everyone doing online that is so self-important or shameful that trumps our ability to hamper the truly evil among us?
This conversation will become necessary as AI improves. We already live in a world where Google knows what we’re looking for on the web before we finish our sentences. Retailers like Target know a woman is pregnant before the rest of her household does (seriously). To have the ability to save lives and prevent violence, but to not do so, requires some valid objections. Privacy for the sake of privacy isn’t one.
It makes me wonder what privacy advocates are doing in their spare time. Looking at porn? Ordering dope? Here’s the thing: You aren’t that important. You are noise. They’re looking for signal. I say let them.
If you think privacy should be allowed, period, you might want to look at the bans on burqas spreading to more and more countries. There was another suicide bomber recently that used a burqa to mask their identity. European and African countries are finding that privacy in public spaces can be dangerous. Increasingly, we are living in one giant public space. I find it strange that people think walls will keep us more safe. I believe the opposite will be true. Less walls and more transparency. More of us raising our palms in greeting, showing they are empty of violence, and holding instead only some mildly embarrassing vice, like our love of My Little Ponies.
(An aside: Beyond safety concerns, I’ve never understood why people hate advertisers being made aware of what people are shopping for. Do people like ads that don’t appeal to them? Why? I wish I only saw ads for things I cared about.)
Okay, now that my fellow liberals are seeing red, let’s take this AI and big-data insanity one step further: What if Karl Marx was right, just a century too early? Common wisdom states that capitalism is necessary because a planned economy is impossible. Impossible, because no one person can manage something so complex as the interaction of billions of people. But what if we put the interaction of billions of people in direct charge through the parsing of big data? That is: What if no one person is smart enough to manage the economy, but one day a single machine is?
We may be fifty or a hundred years away, but we will eventually arrive at a place where a network of computers can run our economy more efficiently than the bumbling of billions of people. Sure, the system we have right now is the best among a raft of really horrible alternatives, but it won’t be for long. Soon, a neural network will be able to set prices, plan production, allocate resources, effect transportation, and so much more. If you don’t think so, you haven’t been paying attention. Neural networks are already doing most of these things. Retailers like Amazon are relying more and more on algorithms to make major business decisions. The more we put Big Data in charge, and remove the emotion of human agents, the more efficiently our businesses and economies run. The logical conclusion to this is a world run by an AI, whether we call that thing sentient or not.
As robotics improve, we’ll eventually head toward a work-free economy where all the basic needs are met and provided for free, and humans spend their time engaged in voluntary tasks and artistic pursuits (or consuming entertainment). This is communism, and it should be the goal of capitalism to get there. To each what they need and from each what they can provide.
Let’s take a small example to highlight how this might work: Soon, an AI will be able to look at OpenTable reservations, Yelp searches, FourSquare check-ins, FB check-ins, Instagram photos, and the amount of time people are milling about outside a local Italian restaurant on a wait list and see that there’s much more demand for Italian food in a neighborhood than is being met. At the same time, it will be able to look at a corresponding lack of activity around several French restaurants, and the AI will know ahead of time that the French restaurants are going to go out of business and that another Italian restaurant would better serve the community and decrease wait times and other inefficiencies.
The capitalist approach is to let the owners of the French restaurants to go out of business, as failure leads to more efficient markets. The servers and staff lose their jobs and go in search of different jobs. The space sits empty for a month or three. An enterprising individual eventually sees the demand on the street for more Italian food (or more likely, the existing place expands), and eventually, slowly, finally, the people get what they want. Probably in time for them to change their tastes and go in search of some French food.
What if instead, there was a website that showed aggregate demand for goods and services? What if all that data and those algorithms were made transparent for every entrepreneur to see? What if a single entity, like a Google or an Amazon, broadcast our hidden desires in the form of an urge map? Like a word cloud on a website, these would be lists of desirables on maps of various scales. Yes, planned economies have failed in the past, because the amount of knowledge needed could not be aggregated into a single room. But this won’t always be the case. It probably isn’t already. And what then?
The owners of the French restaurants might be notified of the demand for more Italian food. One of them seizes on this and announces a change in their menu and decor. Another responds to an announced demand for more gourmet burger joints and micro-breweries. The last French place is now full of aggregated customers. The efficiency of the market is improved by better reporting, all pulled from big data. This is a move toward a planned economy, and it is already happening. It happens with on-demand fulfillment at retailers. It happens with shipping routing. Every time a big rig is rerouted around an accident ahead, an economic decision is moving from a human brain to an artificial one. The tools to multiply this are coming online every day. It should change the way we think about centrally planned economies.
If we stick to our capitalist desire for a messy market, simply based on a preference for messiness, that’s not a very ethical stance. It’s a purely ideological one. When our biggest complaint about a planned economy (its technical infeasibility) is no longer true, then what becomes our next complaint? The inhuman, robotic nature of the new planned economy? But the data involved is very human. This is just Adam Smith’s invisible hand becoming visible. Who will argue with that?
Plenty will, I’m sure. And they won’t be quite sure why they are arguing their stance. It’s just their stance and that of their friends.
Just as privacy is an absolute right, with no discussion possible. Which ignores the tribal societies we came from, where families slept in the same rooms, walls had rips, tears, and cracks, and common spaces were much more common. People will argue that free markets, unencumbered by central planning, are the best. Even when we used to have central planning back when we lived in small tribes, and our brains could parse all the data required. “Today, we need to hunt. Today, we need to build more shelter. You, start a fire. You, gather wood.”
Our tribes have gotten too big for us to know how to allocate our resources. But soon, our electronic brains will be big enough to get back to what makes sense, which is to allocate sensibly and with a plan. The result will be much greater efficiency and far less strife and misery.
Our tribes have likewise gotten too big for adequate security. The evil among us might be in the minority, but it can now, more than ever, go unseen and unfettered. It is aided by each of us claiming the right to be invisible.
I have a lot of hope for big data and artificial intelligences. I think this combination could make the world small again. They are already helping us allocate resources more efficiently, by letting people rent out their spare rooms, or provide rides in their cars, or loan tools to their distant neighbors. Make no mistake, there are algorithms and big data behind all of the new features of the shared economy. This is capitalism trending toward communism. This is big data making us exposed to one another again. And maybe I’m alone in thinking that both are a damn good thing.
Here’s another way to consider how this natural transition to an AI-planned economy will take place: Imagine for a moment an AI that can weigh every factor going into an NFL game and can predict the outcome with 99.99% accuracy. If this were to occur, gambling on NFL games would effectively end. You would be crazy to bet against the AI-predicted outcome.
Now imagine the same computer has become similarly infallible at predicting economic outcomes. At this point, when we can query a computer to determine what good or service to produce and how much to charge for it, who will decide not to use this tool? And when we become that reliant on the AI’s suggestion, are we still practicing in a free market? Or a centrally planned one?
Now bone up on how many major decisions are being made at large and small business by automated routines. The process has already begun. Or look at how the National Institute of Health has used social media to pinpoint outbreaks and hunt for medical side effects. As these tools get better, and we become more reliant on them, and our ethical frameworks advance further and further, we will head towards a new economic system unlike any ever practiced before.