Walidah Imarisha very generously continued the discussion of my last piece with me on Twitter and I have updated that piece to include her thoughts and to provide vital additional discussion. As always, don’t read me talking about things when you can read the words of the people who are out there fixing, changing the narrative, fighting and winning.
Thank you, Walidah!
The Only Way Forward is With No Names @iamajanibrown @WalidahImarisha #afrofuturism #worldcon #sasquanPosted: August 23, 2015
Edit: Walidah Imarisha and I had a discussion in Twitter after I released this piece and I wanted to add her thoughts and part of our discussion. I’ve added it to the end so that you’ll have context but I mention it here because her thoughts are the ones that you must read before you leave this piece. Never listen to me when you can be listening to the people who are living this and fighting it.
I’m currently at the World Science Fiction Convention in Spokane, Washington state. As always, my focus is education and (no surprise to long term readers) equity. I’ve had the opportunity to attend some amazing panels. One was on the experience of women in art, publishing and game production of female characters for video gaming. Others were discussing issues such as non-white presence in fiction (#AfroFuturism with Professor Ajani Brown) and a long discussion of the changes between the Marvel Universe in film and comic form, as well as how we can use Science Fiction & Fantasy in the classroom to address social issues without having to directly engage the (often depressing) news sources. Both the latter panels were excellent and, in the Marvel one, Tom Smith, Annalee Flower Horne, Cassandra Rose Clarke, and Professor Brown, there was a lot of discussion of both the new Afro-American characters in movies and TV (Deathlok, Storm and Falcon) as well as how much they had changed from the comics.
I’m going to discuss what I saw and lead towards my point: that all assessment of work for its publishing potential should, where it is possible and sensible, be carried out blind, without knowledge of who wrote it.
I’ve written on this before, both here (where I argue that current publishing may not be doing what we want for the long term benefit of the community and the publishers themselves) and here, where we identify that systematic biases against people who are not western men is rampant and apparently almost inescapable as long as we can see a female name. Very recently, this Jezebel article identified that changing the author’s name on a manuscript, from female to male, not only included response rate and reduced time waiting, it changed the type of feedback given. The woman’s characters were “feisty”, the man’s weren’t. Same characters. It doesn’t matter if you think you’re being sexist or not, it doesn’t even matter (from the PNAS study in the second link) if you’re a man or a woman, the presence of a female name changes the level of respect attached to a work and also the level of reward/appreciation offered an assessment process. There are similar works that clearly identify that this problem is even worse for People of Colour. (Look up Intersectionality if you don’t know what I’m talking about.) I’m not saying that all of these people are trying to discriminate but the evidence we have says that social conditioning that leads to sexism is powerful and dominating.
Now let’s get back to the panels. The first panel “Female Characters in Video Games” with Andrea Stewart, Maurine Starkey, Annalee Flower Horne, Lauren Roy and Tanglwyst de Holloway. While discussing the growing market for female characters, the panel identified the ongoing problems and discrimination against women in the industry. 22% of professionals in the field are women, which sounds awful until you realise that this figure was 11% in 2009. However, Maurine had had her artwork recognised as being “great” when someone thought her work was a mans and “oh, drawn like a woman” when the true owner was revealed. And this is someone being explicit. The message of the panel was very positive: things were getting better. However, it was obvious that knowing someone was a woman changed how people valued their work or even how their activities were described. “Casual gaming” is often a term that describes what women do; if women take up a gaming platform (and they are a huge portion of the market) then it often gets labelled “casual gaming”.
So, point 1, assessing work at a professional level is apparently hard to do objectively when we know the gender of people. Moving on.
The first panel on Friday dealt with AfroFuturism, which looks at the long-standing philosophical and artistic expression of alternative realities relating to people of African Descent. This can be traced to the Egyptian origins of mystic and astrological architecture and religions, through tribal dances and mask ceremonies of other parts of Africa, to the P.Funk mothership and science-fiction works published in the middle of vinyl albums. There are strong notions of carving out or refining identity in order to break oppressive narratives and re-establish agency. AfroFuturism looks into creating new futures and narratives, also allowing for reinvention to escape the past, which is a powerful tool for liberation. People can be put into boxes and they want to break out to liberate themselves and, too often, if we know that someone can be put into a box then we have a nasty tendency (implicit cognitive bias) to jam them back in. No wonder, AfroFuturism is seen as a powerful force because it is an assault on the whole mean, racist narrative that does things like call groups of white people “protesters” or “concerned citizens”, and groups of black people “rioters”.
(If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve seen a fair bit of this. If you’re not following me on Twitter, @nickfalkner is the way to go.)
So point 2, if we know someone’s race, then we are more likely to enforce a narrative that is stereotypical and oppressive when we are outside of their culture. Writers inside the culture can write to liberate and to redefine identity and this probably means we need to see more of this.
I want to focus on the final panel, “Saving the World through Science Fiction: SF in the Classroom”, with Ben Cartwright, Ajani Brown (again!), Walidah Imarisha and Charlotte Lewis Brown. There are many issues facing our students on a day-to-day basis and it can be very hard to engage with some of them because it is confronting to have to address your own biases when you talk about the real world. But you can talk about racism with aliens, xenophobia with a planetary invasion, the horrors of war with apocalyptic fiction… and it’s not the nightly news. People can confront their biases without confronting them. That’s a very powerful technique for changing the world. It’s awesome.
Point 3, then, is that narratives are important and, with careful framing, we can discuss very complicated things and get away from the sheer weight of biases and reframe a discussion to talk about difficult things, without having to resort to violence or conflict. This reinforces Point 2, that we need more stories from other viewpoints to allow us to think about important issues.
We are a narrative and a mythic species: storytelling allows us to explain our universe. Storytelling defines our universe, whether it’s religion, notions of family or sense of state.
What I take from all of these panels is that many of the stories that we want to be reading, that are necessary for the healing and strengthening of our society, should be coming from groups who are traditionally not proportionally represented: women, People of Colour, Women of Colour, basically anyone who isn’t recognised as a white man in the Western Tradition. This isn’t to say that everything has to be one form but, instead, that we should be putting systems in place to get the best stories from as wide a range as possible, in order to let SF&F educate, change and grow the world. This doesn’t even touch on the Matthew Effect, where we are more likely to positively value a work if we have an existing positive relationship with the author, even if said work is not actually very good.
And this is why, with all of the evidence we have with cognitive biases changing the way people think about work based on the name, that the most likely approach to improve the range of stories that we will end up publishing is to judge as many works as we can without knowing who wrote it. If we wanted to take it further, we could even ask people to briefly explain why they did or didn’t like it. The comments on the Jezebel author’s book make it clear that, with those comments, we can clearly identify a bias in play. “It’s not for us” and things like that are not sufficiently transparent for us to see if the system is working. (Apologies to the hard-working editors out there, I know this is a big demand. Anonymity is a great start. 🙂 )
Now some books/works, you have to know who wrote it; my textbook, for example, depends upon my academic credentials and my published work, hence my identify is a part of the validity of academic work. But, for short fiction, for books? Perhaps it’s time to look at all of the evidence and to look at all of the efforts to widen the range of voices we hear and consider a commitment to anonymous review so that SF&F will be a powerful force for thought and change in the decades to come.
Thank you to all of the amazing panellists. You made everyone think and sent out powerful and positive messages. Thank you, so much!
Edit: As mentioned above, Walidah and I had a discussion that extended from this on Twitter. Walidah’s point was about changing the system so that we no longer have to hide identity to eliminate bias and I totally agree with this. Our goal has to be to create a space where bias no longer exists, where the assumption that the hierarchical dominance is white, cis, straight and male is no longer the default. Also, while SF&F is a great tool, it does not replace having the necessary and actual conversations about oppression. Our goal should never be to erase people of colour and replace it with aliens and dwarves just because white people don’t want to talk about race. While narrative engineering can work, many people do not transfer the knowledge from analogy to reality and this is why these authentic discussions of real situations must also exist. When we sit purely in analog, we risk reinforcing inequality if we don’t tie it back down to Earth.
I am still trying to attack a biased system to widen the narrative to allow more space for other voices but, as Walidah notes, this is catering to the privileged, rather than empowering the oppressed to speak their stories. And, of course, talking about oppression leads those on top of the hierarchy to assume you are oppressed. Walidah mentioned Katherine Burdekin & Swastika Nights as part of this. Our goal must be to remove bias. What I spoke about above is one way but it is very much born of the privileged and we cannot lose sight of the necessity of empowerment and a constant commitment to ensuring the visibility of other voices and hearing the stories of the oppressed from them, not passed through white academics like me.
Seriously, if you can read me OR someone else who has a more authentic connection? Please read that someone else.
Walidah’s recent work includes, with adrienne maree brown, editing the book of 20 short stories I have winging its way to me as we speak, “Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements” and I am so grateful that she took the time to respond to this post and help me (I hope) to make it stronger.
Teleporters, in one form or another, have been around in Science Fiction for a while now. Most people’s introduction was probably via one of the Star Treks (the transporter) which is amusing, as it was a cost-cutting mechanism to make it easy to get from one point in the script to another. Is teleportation actually possible at the human scale? Sadly, the answer is probably not although we can do some cool stuff at the very, very small scale. (You can read about the issues in teleportation here and here, an actual USAF study.) But just because something isn’t possible doesn’t mean that we can’t get some interesting use out of it. I’m going to talk through several ways that I could use teleportation to drive discussion and understanding in a computing course but a lot of this can be used in lots of places. I’ve taken a lot of shortcuts here and used some very high level analogies – but you get the idea.
- Data Transfer
The first thing to realise is that the number of atoms in the human body is huge (one octillion, 1E27, roughly, which is one million million million million million) but the amount of information stored in the human body is much, much larger than that again. If we wanted to get everything, we’re looking at transferring quattuordecillion bits (1E45), and that’s about a million million million times the number of atoms in the body. All of this, however, ignores the state of all the bacteria and associated hosted entities that live in the human body and the fact that the number of neural connections in the brain appears to be larger than we think. There are roughly 9 non-human cells associated with your body (bacteria et al) for every cell.
Put simply, the easiest way to get the information in a human body to move around is to leave it in a human body. But this has always been true of networks! In the early days, it was more efficient to mail a CD than to use the (at the time) slow download speeds of the Internet and home connections. (Actually, it still is easier to give someone a CD because you’ve just transferred 700MB in one second – that’s 5.6 Gb/s and is just faster than any network you are likely to have in your house now.)
Right now, the fastest network in the world clocks in at 255 Tbps and that’s 255,000,000,000,000 bits in a second. (Notice that’s over a fixed physical optical fibre, not through the air, we’ll get to that.) So to send that quattuordecillion bits, it would take (quickly dividing 1E45 by 255E12) oh…
- Information Redundancy and Compression
The good news is that we probably don’t have to send all of that information because, apart from anything else, it appears that a large amount of human DNA doesn’t seem to do very much and there’s lot of repeated information. Because we also know that humans have similar chromosomes and things lie that, we can probably compress a lot of this information and send a compressed version of the information.
The problem is that compression takes time and we have to compress things in the right way. Sadly, human DNA by itself doesn’t compress well as a string of “GATTACAGAGA”, for reasons I won’t go into but you can look here if you like. So we have to try and send a shortcut that means “Use this chromosome here” but then, we have to send a lot of things like “where is this thing and where should it be” so we’re still sending a lot.
There are also two types of compression: lossless (where we want to keep everything) and lossy (where we lose bits and we will lose more on each regeneration). You can work out if it’s worth doing by looking at the smallest number of bits to encode what you’re after. If you’ve ever seen a really bad Internet image with strange lines around the high contrast bits, you’re seeing lossy compression artefacts. You probably don’t want that in your genome. However, the amount of compression you do depends on the size of the thing you’re trying to compress so now you have to work out if the time to transmit everything is still worse than the time taken to compress things and then send the shorter version.
So let’s be generous and say that we can get, through amazing compression tricks, some sort of human pattern to build upon and the like, our transferred data requirement down to the number of atoms in the body – 1E27. That’s only going to take…
years. Um, again. Let’s assume that we want to be able to do this in at most 60 minutes to do the transfer. Using the fastest network in the world right now, we’re going to have get our data footprint down to 900,000,000,000,000,000 bits. Whew, that’s some serious compression and, even on computers that probably won’t be ready until 2018, it would have taken about 3 million million million years to do the compression. But let’s ignore that. Because now our real problems are starting…
- Signals Ain’t Simple and Networks Ain’t Wires.
In earlier days of the telephone, the movement of the diaphragm in the mouthpiece generated electricity that was sent down the wires, amplified along the way, and then finally used to make movement in the earpiece that you interpreted as sound. Changes in the electric values weren’t limited to strict values of on or off and, when the signal got interfered with, all sorts of weird things happen. Remember analog television and all those shadows, snow and fuzzy images? Digital encoding takes the measurements of the analog world and turns it into a set of 0s and 1s. You send 0s and 1s (binary) and this is turned back into something recognisable (or used appropriately) at the other end. So now we get amazingly clear television until too much of the signal is lost and then we get nothing. But, up until then, progress!
But we don’t send giant long streams across a long set of wires, we send information in small packets that contain some data, some information on where to send it and it goes through an array of active electronic devices that take your message from one place to another. The problem is that those packet headers add overhead, just like trying to mail a book with individual pages in addressed envelopes in the postal service would. It takes time to get something onto the network and it also adds more bits! Argh! More bits! But it can’t get any worse can it?
- Networks Aren’t Perfectly Reliable
If you’ve ever had variable performance on your home WiFi, you’ll understand that transmitting things over the air isn’t 100% reliable. There are two things that we have to thing about in terms of getting stuff through the network: flow control (where we stop our machine from talking to other things too quickly) and congestion control (where we try to manage the limited network resources so that everyone gets a share). We’ve already got all of these packets that should be able to be directed to the right location but, well, things can get mangled in transmission (especially over the air) and sometimes things have to be thrown away because the network is so congested that packets get dropped to try and keep overall network throughput up. (Interference and absorption is possible even if we don’t use wireless technology.)
Oh, no. It’s yet more data to send. And what’s worse is that a loss close to the destination will require you to send all of that information from your end again. Suddenly that Earth-Mars teleporter isn’t looking like such a great idea, is it, what with the 8-16 minute delay every time a cosmic ray interferes with your network transmission in space. And if you’re trying to send from a wireless terminal in a city? Forget it – the WiFi network is so saturated in many built-up areas that your error rates are going to be huge. For a web page, eh, it will take a while. For a Skype call, it will get choppy. For a human information sequence… not good enough.
Could this get any worse?
- The Square Dance of Ordering and Re-ordering
Well, yes. Sometimes things don’t just get lost but they show up at weird times and in weird orders. Now, for some things, like a web page, this doesn’t matter because your computer can wait until it gets all of the information and then show you the page. But, for telephone calls, it does matter because losing a second of call from a minute ago won’t make any sense if it shows up now and you’re trying to keep it real time.
For teleporters there’s a weird problem in that you have to start asking questions like “how much of a human is contained in that packet”? Do you actually want to have the possibility of duplicate messages in the network or have you accidentally created extra humans? Without duplication possibilities, your error recovery rate will plummet, unless you build in a lot more error correction, which adds computation time and, sorry, increases the number of bits to send yet again. This is a core consideration of any distributed system, where we have to think about how many copies of something we need to send to ensure that we get one – or whether we care if we have more than one.
PLEASE LET THERE BE NO MORE!
- Oh, You Wanted Security, Integrity and Authenticity, Did You?
I’m not sure I’d want people reading my genome or mind state as it traversed across the Internet and, while we could pretend that we have a super-secret private network, security through obscurity (hiding our network or data) really doesn’t work. So, sorry to say, we’re going to have to encrypt our data to make sure that no-one else can read it but we also have to carry out integrity tests to make sure that what we sent is what we thought we sent – we don’t want to send a NICK packet and end up with a MICE packet, for simplistic example. And this is going to have to be sent down the same network as before so we’re putting more data bits down that poor beleaguered network.
Oh, and did I mention that encryption will also cost you more computational overhead? Not to mention the question of how we undertake this security because we have a basic requirement to protect all of this biodata in our system forever and eliminate the ability that someone could ever reproduce a copy of the data – because that would produce another person. (Ignore the fact that storing this much data is crazy, anyway, and that the current world networks couldn’t hold it all.)
And who holds the keys to the kingdom anyway? Lenovo recently compromised a whole heap of machines (the Superfish debacle) by putting what’s called a “self-signed root certificate” on their machines to allow an adware partner to insert ads into your viewing. This is the equivalent of selling you a house with a secret door that you don’t know about it that has a four-digit pin lock on it – it’s not secure and because you don’t know about it, you can’t fix it. Every person who worked for the teleporter company would have to be treated as a hostile entity because the value of a secretly tele-cloned person is potentially immense: from the point of view of slavery, organ harvesting, blackmail, stalking and forced labour…
But governments can get in the way, too. For example, the FREAK security flaw is a hangover from 90’s security paranoia that has never been fixed. Will governments demand in-transit inspection of certain travellers or the removal of contraband encoded elements prior to materialisation? How do you patch a hole that might have secretly removed essential proteins from the livers of every consular official of a particular country?
The security protocols and approach required for a teleporter culture could define an entire freshman seminar in maths and CS and you could still never quite have scratched the surface. But we are now wandering into the most complex areas of all.
- Ethics and Philosophy
How do we define what it means to be human? Is it the information associated with our physical state (locations, spin states and energy levels) or do we have to duplicate all of the atoms? If we can produce two different copies of the same person, the dreaded transporter accident, what does this say about the human soul? Which one is real?
How do we deal with lost packets? Are they a person? What state do they have? To whom do they belong? If we transmit to a site that is destroyed just after materialisation, can we then transmit to a safe site to restore the person or is that on shaky ground?
Do we need to develop special programming languages that make it impossible to carry out actions that would violate certain ethical or established protocols? How do we sign off on code for this? How do we test it?
Do we grant full ethical and citizenship rights to people who have been through transporters, when they are very much no longer natural born people? Does country of birth make any sense when you are recreated in the atoms of another place? Can you copy yourself legitimately? How much of yourself has to survive in order for it to claim to be you? If someone is bifurcated and ends up, barely alive, with half in one place and half in another …
There are many excellent Science Fiction works referenced in the early links and many more out there, although people are backing away from it in harder SF because it does appear to be basically impossible. But if a networking student could understand all of the issues that I’ve raised here and discuss solutions in detail, they’d basically have passed my course. And all by discussing an impossible thing.
With thanks to Sean Williams, Adelaide author, who has been discussing this a lot as he writes about teleportation from the SF perspective and inspired this post.
One of the other more interesting panels I went to at WorldCon was “Rat’s Monkey’s Ass”, a panel with Pat Cadigan, Gavin Smith, Mihaela Marija Perkovic, and Charles Stross on the use of swear words in genre fiction. Many pieces of work feature constructed swearing, such as frak in Battlestar Galactica and some of the more farcical attempts at science-oriented swearing in earlier science fiction. (Let’s not even start on Harry Harrison’s bowbidy-bowb.)
I’ve met Mihaela before, when she visited Australia, and she did a great job on keeping the panel going, as well as contributing some excellent swear words of her own. Of course, the authors present did a great job of swearing like a variety of troopers from a range of different timezones and militaries, but there are important aspects to this, which were also excellently covered.
The blurb for the panel reads:
Swearing in science fiction and fantasy is occasionally a minefield of anachronism, but then, there’s often nothing weirder than hearing someone yell “frak”. Or even worse, a teenage character that refuses to curse at all. This panel will explore swear words in the genres. What purpose does swearing have within a society? What purpose does it serve in fiction, and how important, or not, are profanities to the narrative? When are invented curses more (or less) effective than real (contemporary or historical) examples, and why?
The general feeling was that conveying emotion is important and that swearing is an important part of this. It feels really hollow when a hardened space pirate says something like “Oh, dash” and this matters when you’re trying to convey the sense of reality required to hold up the parachute silk of disbelief.
There is one issue, which I raised in question time. Given that many young people do not have the delightfully proper middle and upper-middle class upbringing we see so often in Young Adult fiction, it’s positively disingenuous to remove swearing from certain works because that is the world those kids are growing up in. When people have fewer words at their disposal, they make use of the ones that they have. We know that children in the US from non-educationally successful backgrounds, with few books, can have a vocabulary deficit measured in the thousands of words and, probably, a lot of their emotional conveyance is going to come from the use of swearwords, whether we like it or not.
When someone picks up a book, they have to have a reason to keep reading, either by seeing themselves in there or just being really interested. When YA is a sterile “Boy’s Own” adventure of “Gosh” and “Golly”, this would seem farcical to a teen who is told to take out the f-ing garbage at night or they’d be in the s*. (Bowdlerised to keep my blog’s general rating, embarrassingly enough.) There’s an important issue in reaching the reluctant reader and we’re already aware of how much certain areas of education, such as Computer Science, have to be hidden from peer groups for not being perceived as “cool” enough.
I’m not recommending that Harry Potter has to start calling Ron an *#&*&#$@ piece of #(*#$ that wouldn’t *&#($ in a (()#$# )()#$, but there is a wider world that swearing can constructively reach, if we’re going to try and engage some of these borderline readers. (Of course, the frequency of pseudo-racist slurs between pure bloods and non- in the Potter world is astoundingly awful when you come to think about it, but I’m not actually as positive on that. There’s a big difference between giving people a voice that sounds like theirs and having a large number of cheerful racists mostly getting away with constant, casual racism.)
Panellists may have a completely different opinion on this so I welcome followups! Thank you!
Sorry for the belated report, I’ve been catching up and a little unwell. I was lucky enough to participate in a panel entitled “We Need To Talk About TED”, which was chaired by Chad Orzel and featured (in programme order) Dr Sarah Dillon, Andrea Phillips, Vanessa Harden, and me! The panel was split into two groups based on who had and who had not given a TED talk (and for the record, I haven’t) so we focussed on the experiences of people who had undertaken TED talks and, from the academic perspective, the impact, reach and curation issues of TED talks. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design and the basic idea is that TED is used to disseminate “Ideas worth sharing” and has been for about 30 years. In recent years, electronic delivery has increased the reach of TED and TED talks have a very high impact across the video streams of the world.
From those who have attended, a big TED event is an absolute blast. You do a full rehearsal the day before, it’s high production, you get a big haul of high-quality swag, and it’s a reputation booster. Vanessa, an artist who works in interventions (altering spaces to get people thinking and interacting with the space in new or other ways), made the really good point that there was such a big divide between those who had been part of TED and those who were looking in from it, as an academic perspective. This is a great point, because it helps us to remember that TED talks (the big ones) are something that you strive to get to present. The main conference is limited to a smallish number of people and is very expensive, so you have to be showing something pretty good to get there. Chad commented that, from his experience, TED talks were pretty well-balanced in terms of demography and inclusion and this was reiterated by other panellists as well.
My issue stems from my outsider’s view on TED, looking at what we are seeing, the impact of these highly professional and appealing videos and what has come from them. I’m a bit of a numbers guy so let’s look at the numbers. (The other panellists should feel positively inspired to jump and down in the comments to get their points further exposed too. Please!)
Overall, if we look at the top 20 TED talks, they are roughly 15:50 minutes long (on average), which is longer than the usual TED average of about 14:10, and they have, in total, over 88 million views. If people are watching them to the end, then that means we have spent:
watching the top 20 TED talks alone. That’s quite a lot of time, so are all of these videos worth watching? Well, a few of them deal with technology that has … for what of a better word … never quite worked outside of the TED talk or delivered on the scale promised. If we look at SixthSense technology, people have spent about 400 years watching videos on something that has never quite delivered. Why are these videos still in the top 20?
There’s something called the Matthew Effect, which basically means that success breeds success (you might know it as ‘accumulated advantage’). Because these talks made it on to the top 20 a few years back, they get watched more because they have made it on to the top 20. Now, within the top 20, we do some movement up and down the rankings, and, yes, the SixthSense stuff is dropping (about 5 places over the last 2 years) but it’s still there because you look for a list of top 20 videos (this one is from 2012) and that’s what comes out. New videos do make it on and make it higher up – the video on things you didn’t know about orgasm is (quell surprise) 5 places higher after 2 years – but, in terms of a video, success breeds success because of the way that our recommender and listicle based web culture works.
So, even thought TED can distribute ‘ideas worth sharing’, there is inertia in getting rid of “ideas that would have been worth sharing had they actually worked properly”. Don’t get me wrong, the tech world is full of “tried it, didn’t work, try something else” but the problem here is that the well-produced and lingering TED videos can make something look current and attractive when, in reality, it’s over and done. As far as I know (corrections below please), there is no TED expiry mechanism.
TED really shines at Entertainment and Design because TED is a platform for 15 minutes of inspirational wonder – there is no doubt that some of the best talks on the Internet can be found at TED. (My favourite is Dan Pink, to no-one’s surprise.) But as those who had given TED talks on the panel noted, if your rehearsal was too technical in nature, it was time to remove slides and keep the message moving along a little more simply. And this is where we started to head into murkier waters with technological issues.
There’s nothing special about technology and giving inspirational talks about technology, as long as we’re clear on what we’re talking about. There is a big difference between talking about something that works and talking about something that might work. An idea in entertainment and design can be realised by many people and shared widely. An idea based on technology and the development of a key platform will need that platform, which is where SixthSense appears to have fallen down.
So the next thing about TED that we really have to talk about is that it’s always going to be light on the detail of technology and it’s easy to confuse wishes with reality, presentations with progress. Not a problem if we’re clear but a real problem if we’re not.
The final thing that I wanted to address was the curation of TED because not every TED talk goes up on the web. It’s a big deal to make it up onto the TED site, or associated YouTube channel, especially if you’re coming from one of the TEDx local talks or something other than the big talks. And one thing that happens in that curation is a demographic shift. Suddenly, the balanced environment of the conference turns into a video presence that is only 27% women, and a vast over-representation of Californians. There also appears to be a (questionably subtle) bias against certain issues, including women’s reproductive health and some less conventional approaches. If we were getting all of the TED talks then we would see what was going on. Instead, what we see is a snapshot that appears to refine the TED message seen by people at the talk into something that we get to see from the outside. And that’s not ideal.
So, if TED inspires you, that’s great but you need to keep in mind the list of things I outlined above, which comes from the whole group of people on the panel:
- TED talks are popular, at least in some part, because they are popular and there’s no clear way of telling if a TED talk is a good presentation for an idea that is proven, yet to be proven or has in fact been found to need a lot more work.
- TED is great for the E and the D but the technology can be light on. That’s fine if you’re looking for inspiration but not always so great if you’re looking for platforms that work and work now.
- The curation of TED appears to have some bias issues and, whether that’s a deliberate or an accident, it’s skewing TED to being a bit of a “things Californian guys like” and, while that isn’t necessarily a problem, it doesn’t appear to reflect what TED is when you get inside.
- TED may not set out to be elitist but its exclusivity and curatorial approach appears to cultivate an elite aspect that could fall into that trap.
It was a fascinating panel to be on and I learned a great deal from talking to the other panellists! I’m sure that they will pull me up on things that I missed.
WorldCon 2014: LonCon3. Why I was wrong not to come sooner and why you should be here next time. #LonCon3 #WorldConPosted: August 19, 2014
I’ve been at the World Science Fiction Convention (WorldCon) for the past few days – as anyone with a Twitter account knows if you’ve been following the #LonCon3 tag. Before I say anything else, let me be up front and say that I was pretty stupid not to have made the effort to come to a WorldCon before but, and this is a big but and I cannot lie, you shouldn’t change your mind on WorldCon and SF Cons in general from listening to me, because if you’re not quite sure about them then you should probably look deeper. SF Cons don’t need the external approval of the temporary visitor to make them worth doing so let me remove myself from the role of anthropological validator.
I am, and have been for years, someone who enjoys Science Fiction and Fantasy. I grew up on it and viewing and reading SF&F was an essential part of my fascination with reading. But I had never considered myself a fan as I had some weird ideas in my head about what fannish culture is. And, like any stereotype, I was stupidly, badly, and offensively wrong. Of course I’m a fan. I like things in the SF&F domain and I follow them, think about them and (occasionally) study them. So I’m a fan.
But I’m not validating this space because (a) it’s offensive to think I have that level of authority and (b) it comes pre-validated by the 10,000 people who showed up. This is a strong community and, as I discovered, it’s a diverse, accepting, warm and friendly community, full of interesting people. Are there some jerks? Yes. But far fewer than I’ve run into outside of this space so let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that this is some sort of amazing jerk space. You’ll meet more jerks in the average pub and you won’t be able to talk to them about something that fascinated you when you were 12. 🙂
So let’s go through some reasons why, if you like any SF&F, you should try to make it to one of the big cons.
- WorldCon has spent a lot of time making this a safe, inclusive and accepting space.
Some years ago, and in the news recently, we’ve heard a lot about people being creepy at Cons and semi-powerful people who abuse that power. This year, I saw a couple of jerks, but WorldCon has a Code of Conduct that clearly accepts non-harmful behaviour but totally rejects anything that cause problems for other people. I’ve seen it in action and it works, swiftly. People have a right to feel safe and the new Code of Conduct policies guarantee that.
Having said that. this is such a queer/trans/body-shape/everything accepting space (not tolerant, because people aren’t putting up with it, they’re accepting it) that it’s hard to imagine a place that would be more so.
This is a city of 10,000+ people where everyone is accepted unless they are being an arse. This is, thanks to oversight and fantastic volunteers, a very safe space.
- Someone here is as interested in your interests as you are.
I have lost track of the discussions I’ve had with total strangers in lifts, escalators, walking around and the amount of information we’ve shared. If you like it, someone else does too. Better still, they may know something about it you didn’t and you can enjoy talking about that.
Hate something? I guarantee that you can have a bile-rending discussion over a beer with someone who also thinks that (insert popular thing here) is a blight upon the history of our species. But these are fun discussions, controlled and shared knowledge between equals. I saw very little knowledge snobbery here.
- You will get to meet, listen and talk to the giants of the field, other fans and experts as they talk about everything.
LonCon3’s problem was not that there was not enough to see in the way of signings, discussions, panels and talks, it was that it was impossible to fit everything into one track for all of these days so collisions in the schedule were inevitable. But if you like Charles Stross, well he’s talking over there. Big fan of Culture politics? There’s a panel for that. Do you like Karaoke with SCA members? That’s an event from 11pm.
And everyone is just wandering around and you can talk to them if you want to. Better yet, do you think that you have something to say – let them know and you might be able to get onto a panel or a talk.
- The people are lovely in the vast majority.
I have spent the last four days being amusedly tolerated in my wide-eyed cluelessness by a large number of lovely people but, even when bumping into someone, the mutual apologies have almost become farcical. Yeah, there are a very small number of clueless jerks but I had worse experiences getting here on the Tube than I did for the whole Con.
I was fortunate enough to come here with my very generous cousin, Curt, and quickly caught up with Australians, but I also fell in with a very nice (if slightly mad) group of Canadians who have welcomed me (or at least been astoundingly polite about not getting rid of me.) Everyone is here to have fun and enjoy the community. The code of conduct covers those who can’t play well.
- There is a lot of stuff here.
There is art, books, items, t-shirts – the Dealers’ room is regularly travelled and things are at a reasonable price. There’s a bar and lots of food so that if you are eating and drinking at weird hours then you are catered for. Better still, you will run across people who know where to find what you want if it doesn’t happen to be here.
- It is a whimsical, beautiful space. Seen the Lego Movie? The random and ephemeral beauty of Cloud Cuckoo Land captures the sense of this very well. Want to dress up as Holmes and Watson but you’re two young women in love and walk around hand-in-hand? This is your place. Do you like Tiki Daleks? Welcome. Every so often, bubbles drifted through the space and lent a strange and alien air to the proceedings.
- They are very kind to newcomers. I stumbled around slightly lost and looking for all the world like some kind of alien anthropologist who had finally deigned to look at the ants’ nest rather than following random ants. But people realised that my curiosity and questions came from a desire to understand and, as I said, now I’m a fan.
I was expecting it to be good, but I wasn’t expecting it to be great. And if I’d known how good it was, I would have started making time to come years ago. Three friends of mine made it possible for me to undertake this but two of them couldn’t make it this year and I miss them, firstly because it would have been great to see them, but also because I know how much delight they would have taken at me finally getting my head out of my arse on this and realising how good it was. Thank you, Curt. Thank you, D & J.
I certainly hope to be back!