Learning to build a science fiction story with remote-controlled sex toys

It's easy. Just lay out a bunch of these

It’s easy. Just lay out a bunch of these

A couple of weeks ago Monica and I did an exercise with a few of the Data & Society fellows. I printed out some cards that describe technologies we’re likely to have in the next couple of decades. (For these, muito obrigado to the Envisioning Technologies Research Foundation in Brazil. If you ever need to do a future-themed brainstorming session, they have some excellent visual aids.) Then I paired people up, gave each pair a card, and asked them to come up with the basis of a story involving that technology.

What is the basis of a story? Monica pointed us to the quick-and-dirty guide from TV writer Dan Harmon, which sums up a story structure as follows:

  1. A character is in a zone of comfort,
  2. But they want something.
  3. They enter an unfamiliar situation,
  4. Adapt to it,
  5. Get what they wanted,
  6. Pay a heavy price for it,
  7. Then return to their familiar situation,
  8. Having changed.

Cory Doctorow, who knows a thing or two about structuring sci-fi stories, and whom I had the good luck to run into at the D&S launch event this week, gave me an even quicker and dirtier version (apologies to Cory for paraphrasing):

  1. You have a character in a situation with a problem
  2. She keeps on trying to resolve the problem and failing
  3. Each time the problem gets worse
  4. Until the climax, when it’s resolved, in either a happy or a sad way.

So I asked the fellows to just get us to step 1. What is a situation that the technology on your card conjures up? Who is a character it might affect? What problem does it create for her that she has to get resolved? (Or, who are two characters for whom that situation creates competing needs?)

For the first round, I gave each pair one card. These included technologies such as:

  • In-vitro meat
  • Neuro-gaming (games jacked directly into your nervous system)
  • Infrastructure health sensors, embedded in bridges or houses.
  • Emotion-tracking devices

For round two, I injected some fun by giving each pair two cards with seemingly unrelated technologies and asking them to imagine a story involving both of them, such as:

  • Skin-surface biosensors + reputational economy
  • Agricultural drones + telepresence
  • Predictive crime prevention + teledildonics (i.e., sex toys people operate remotely over the internet)

That last one was my favorite.

It turned out that this game was easy. Ten minutes was plenty of time for each pair to come up with a plausible set of circumstances for a story. Mixing two technologies didn’t seem to make the task any harder. For predictive crime prevention and teledildonics, we devised a scenario involving an FBI operation that implants surveillance into teledildonic systems and monitors the people who use them for fetishes that might suggest they’re likely to carry out sexual crimes. An FBI agent discovers that some of his colleagues are using the system as a kind of illegal sting, manipulating people into behaviors that could get them flagged as sex offenders. He finds himself in a dilemma when he realizes that his only chance for stopping the program is to team up with a group of sex workers who are trying to sabotage the system, since it’s undercutting their business.

Why am I not worried about giving away this idea? Because what the session made clear was that ideas are two a penny. Execution, as every writer I’ve spoken to since starting this project has made clear, is the hard part. Coming up with believable characters and engaging descriptions, crafting a narrative that keeps the reader reading, finding a way to round it off without it feeling contrived—that’s where the work really begins.


My plan to do journalism through science fiction

Futuristic city

“Depiction of a futuristic city” by Cronus Caelestis – Own work. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Today I’m starting a part-time fellowship at the Data & Society Research Institute, the brainchild of the awesome danah boyd, dedicated to

addressing social, technical, ethical, legal, and policy issues that are emerging because of data-centric technological development. Data & Society will provide a space for researchers, entrepreneurs, activists, policy creators, journalists, geeks, and public intellectuals to gather, debate, and engage one another on the key issues introduced by the increasing availability of data in society.

When “entrepreneurs, activists, policy creators, journalists, geeks, and public intellectuals” talk to each other, how does what they talk about get out into the public realm? How do you make the extremely complex and multilayered issues (pdf) that data-based technologies raise—from how sensor data can upend urban planning to what happens when nobody’s DNA is private any more—comprehensible and meaningful for the people whose lives they’ll affect, i.e., absolutely everyone?

That’s what I’m here to help D&S figure out. And part of my answer is that the best, most accessible discussions about how technology changes us and how we react to it are to be found in science fiction. So among my goals at D&S is to turn the ideas being discussed here into stories about imagined futures, as well as collecting the best examples of other sci-fi writing that looks at these issues. Think of it as doing journalism, only in sci-fi form.

In this I’m drawing inspiration in part from Neal Stephenson’s 2011 essay Innovation Starvation, which calls for a sci-fi that supplies an antidote to the recent fashion for dystopianism and provides scientists and engineers with big visions to inspire them. (The new anthology Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future is in part an outgrowth of that essay.) I’m also thinking in the vein of MIT Technology Review’s annual Twelve Tomorrows anthology, which gathers some of the best new fiction about the near future, and some of the contributions to New Scientist’s brilliant Arc Magazine.

This isn’t to say I want to write about happy futures in which technology solves all our problems. Stephenson, in his essay, harks back to the utopianism of the Golden Age of sci-fi, but a little dystopian thinking—apart from making for a good yarn—is also essential if we’re going to have any serious discussion of technology’s risks. (Paolo Bacigalupi’s world in which fossil fuels have been exhausted, most crops have been wiped out, and a handful of agri-industry giants have gained a chokehold on the production of both food and energy is apocalyptic, but it’s perhaps the best fictional treatment there is of the risks of both global warming and monoculture.)

Rather, I think there is a space for—and, in the above anthologies, a trend towards—a realistic sci-fi that avoids the gravity well of despair about the near future on earth, but doesn’t seek escape velocity in fantasies about the far future in space. (Maybe it’s at a Lagrange point somewhere.) In the most recent issue of Arc, Marek Kohn criticizes the work of many sci-fi writers and futurists as “a sheaf of fashion sketches, a cult of possibility,” and counsels:

Realism is an engine for the imagination, not a drag on it. Grounding these castles of the future should be as rewarding as building them in the air. Futurist realism, examining possibility in the context of likelihood, requires asking what won’t change. It demands models that get the forces of continuity and the forces of change reacting with each other. It involves anticipating re-emergence as well as emergence. It means treating the future as real life.

So that’s what I’m here to do: treat the future as real life. Because it very shortly will be.

On writing short

(Inspired by this.)

The point of writing short isn’t to be short; it’s to be concise. The goal isn’t to reduce the time it takes to read from the beginning to the end, but to reduce the friction it takes to read from one sentence to the next. That friction, not how far away the end looks, is what makes a reader drift away; if each sentence compels you to read the next one, you’ll read a 300,000-word novel.

Words are what create friction, much as air does. You can’t breathe without air and you can’t write without words, but too much of either slows you down.

But being concise doesn’t mean being boring. We think adding words creates style, but that’s like thinking that adding food creates nutrition. It’s adding meaning, through words, that creates style. If each word you use adds meaning, you can use as many as you like. Even as garrulous a verbal pyrotechnician as David Foster Wallace doesn’t use a single superfluous word:

And in this new smaller company, the Director of Composition seems abruptly to have actuated, emerged as both the Alpha of the pack here and way more effeminate than he’d seemed at first, standing hip-shot with a hand on his waist, walking with a roll to his shoulders, jingling change as he pulls up his pants as he slides into the chair still warm from C.T.’s bottom, crossing his legs in a way that inclines him well into my personal space, so that I can see multiple eyebrow-tics and capillary webs in the oysters below his eyes and smell fabric-softener and the remains of a breath-mint turned sour.

If you can express the same thing in fewer words, you always should.


Some reflections on Aaron Swartz and the nature of martyrdom

Originally published at Quartz. Here are excerpts.

Martyrs tend to be made quickly, before the dust has settled on their lives, or their deaths. Such is the case with Aaron Swartz…


His rapid elevation to tragic folk hero is easy to understand when you look at his life. To those who knew him, Swartz was a kind of Arthur Rimbaud for the internet age…


The long list of projects that made up his brief but astonishingly productive career (covered in detail elsewhere) were united by a fierce commitment to making knowledge as widely available as possible.


The troubled young prodigy with the free-thinking ideals, the heartless bureaucrats exercising absurd governmental overreach—all the elements of a good myth, and in particular a good American myth, are here.


All movements that agitate for change make progress thanks to a mixture of radicals and moderates in their ranks. Swartz will be a martyr to some… But for the broader public, his death puts a human face to fundamental debates otherwise expressed largely in legalese and acronyms—SOPA, PIPA, PACER—about what sort of information society should be able to access without restriction. If his death helps makes those complex issues more widely understood, it will not have been entirely in vain…

Read the full article at Quartz.

On elephants, obsessions and wicked problems: A new phenomenology of news

Goodbye to the beat

The first “beat reporters” were probably the men sent by newspapers to hang around the criminal courts in the early 19th century. Today almost every news outlet is organized around fixed beats: “financial markets”, “real estate”, “technology”, and so on. These are now so ingrained that we see them as an actual description of reality—the things the world is made of.

Yet the beats aren’t so much an objective taxonomy as a convenient management tool, devised for an old technology. When news came in a sheaf of pages it made sense to divide them into sections—domestic, foreign, business, and so on—with an editor and a team of writers for each one, and make each writer responsible for a slice of that section: a beat. Matching people to pages made managing the newspaper easier, and covering all the news in each beat allowed it to be comprehensive—which was how it could appeal to the most readers and get the most sales.

Online, however, trying to be the one comprehensive publication makes no sense. Readers can browse hundreds of news sites at no extra cost. That drives the sites to specialise. Yet most still structure themselves around fixed sections and beats. Slide your mouse across the navigation bar at the top of almost any news site, and there they are, the phantom limbs of the newspaper creatures of old. It hasn’t occurred to them that when there are no pages and sections to constrain you, you are free to reframe your description of reality too.

At Quartz, we’ll try to fit the framework to the audience. We want to reach a global, cosmopolitan crowd, people who see themselves as living “in the world”. They are keenly aware of how distant events influence one another; their lives and careers are subject to constant disruption from changes in technology and the global economy.

So instead of fixed beats, we structure our newsroom around an ever-evolving collection of phenomena—the patterns, trends and seismic shifts that are shaping the world our readers live in. “Financial markets” is a beat, but “the financial crisis” is a phenomenon. “The environment” is a beat, but “climate change” is a phenomenon. “Energy” is a beat, but “the global surge of energy abundance” is a phenomenon. “China” is a beat, but “Chinese investment in Africa” is a phenomenon. We call these phenomena our “obsessions”. These are the kinds of topics Quartz will put in its navigation bar, and as the world changes, so will they.

Seeing like people, not like organisations

This is both a practical and a philosophical shift. Practical, because reporting these themes within a traditional beat structure is difficult: they often cut across beat boundaries, taking in politics, economics, technology, and other issues. Our journalists have to be, to some extent, all-rounders, who aren’t afraid to get outside their usual expertise and track the topic they’re following wherever it leads.

And philosophical, because it means changing what might (a little pretentiously) be called the phenomenology of journalism. Phenomenology is about how we structure our  experience of the world. Beats provide an institutional structure. Obsessions are a more human one.

What I mean by this is that when people notice a change in the world around them—a phenomenon—they don’t care what beat it belongs to; they just want to know what caused it. The institutional framework answers the question like the blind men in the Indian parable who are brought an elephant and asked to say what it is. The one who touches the elephant’s leg says it is a pillar or tree trunk, the one who feels the tail declares it to be a rope, and so on. But to unpack something like the financial crisis you can’t simply talk about securities, interest rates and banking regulation; to understand China’s activities in other parts of the world you need to be more than just a China specialist; to comprehend climate change you need science, economics, domestic and international politics, and more besides. To explain the world’s big phenomena you need to see (or feel) the whole elephant.

Quartz’s wicked problem

Doing this is hard, of course. It’s hard firstly because our institutions—academic, governmental, journalistic—create specialists. It takes time for someone to learn enough about each specialism to do good work that cuts across them. It’s hard secondly because while beats are pretty well established, reasonable people may disagree on what does and doesn’t count as a “phenomenon” worth paying attention to, or where its boundaries should lie.

And that’s because of a third difficulty: A lot of the phenomena we want to look at are so-called “wicked problems, a term used in policy and management studies. Jay Rosen of NYU, who has written thought-provokingly about how journalists might report on them, outlined the traits of a wicked problem thus:

It is hard to say what the problem is, to define it clearly or to tell where it stops and starts. There is no “right” way to view the problem, no definitive formulation. There are many stakeholders, all with their own frames, which they tend to see as exclusively correct. Ask what the problem is and you will get a different answer from each. Someone can always say that the problem is just a symptom of another problem and that someone will not be wrong. The problem is inter-connected to a lot of other problems; pulling them apart is almost impossible. In a word: it’s a mess.

Climate change is the archetypal wicked problem, but there are lots of others, like obesity, domestic violence, the drug trade, and certain epidemics. And then there are phenomena that are not necessarily problems, but are complex in the same wicked way: demographic change, the shifting role of the state, the long-term effects of the financial crisis. Even once you’ve identified a phenomenon worth covering, how do you make it manageable? How do you decide where it starts and ends? How do you follow it as an incrementally evolving news story while also helping your audience grasp the bigger picture?

That’s what Quartz will have to figure out. Reframing news in this way is its own wicked problem. Let’s see how we do.

Why young journalists shouldn’t ask me for career advice

Israeli journalists in 1948

Photo by Shershel Frank, 1948, via Israel Govt Press Office

After 16 years in journalism I am, quite possibly, the person least qualified in the world to give advice to a young journalist just starting out. So Ann Friedman, ex editor of GOOD, has just done me a huge favour. Now, when people ask, I can just point them to her post “#Realtalk for the j-school graduate on the first five years of your career“.

I am not qualified partly because, as Ann observes…

Assistant editors and blog editors and up-and-coming freelance writers are going to have career advice that is way more relevant to your life than wisdom from 20-year veterans. (Their advice is valuable too! Just…different.)

… and partly because my my tried-and-tested recipe for career success is this:

  1. Graduate from a programme so obscure that only half a dozen universities in the UK teach it. (Physics and philosophy)
  2. Do an even more obscure master’s. (Philosophy of social science)
  3. Happen to leave university just as one of the world’s best publications advertises a job vacancy tailor-made for you, saying explicitly that journalistic experience is not a prerequisite. (The Economist; science writer).
  4. Have a bored senior editor waiting for page proofs one evening accidentally come across your CV as he is idly riffling through the reject pile, and take a shine to you. (The late, much lamented Peter David.)
  5. Get hired, but not before verifying that the publication will, years hence, turn out to be one of the only ones in the world virtually untouched unharmed by a digital media revolution that nobody, and least of all your green tyro self, knows is coming.

It worked for me; it can work for you.

Luck aside, it’s striking just how much of Ann’s advice is the opposite of what it was when I began. Here are some of her tips, and my comments.

Write something short every day. Invest time and energy in the spaces you control: your blog and Twitter account… Use them to dash off quick opinions and keep track of things you’re interested in exploring at greater length…

Well, of course you could have written something every day if you wanted—probably good practice. But nobody would have seen it, which is the main point of Ann’s tip. And unthinkable the notion that you might publish something in half-baked form to develop it later—and, horror of horrors, make your ideas visible to other people before you’d wrung every drop of juice out of them.

Your ideas matter more than your prose. Sorry to crush your illusions, but it is possible to succeed in journalism without being a great writer…

This has always been true, as has the fact that brilliant writers can get away with a great deal more shoddiness in the idea department. But in the past these people were known as “columnists”, and they were paid handsomely for churning out what was often reheated garbage. Today only a handful can turn a thin idea into a thick pay-packet. And those who recycle their writing are more likely to get called out.

As for the not-brilliant writer, today he or she can be even less brilliant and still survive, thanks to spell-checkers. And the rigorous, even brutal training in the spare journalistic style that John Pilger describes is a rarity now. (In a piece I cannot find online, he wrote of how he petitioned an editor who had imposed a ban on adjectives to let him describe a fatal fire or some other event as “tragic”; the editor acquiesced, grudgingly, with a warning not to make a habit of it.)

Learn to write headlines…

In the old days, who gave a crap about headlines? It wasn’t the writer’s job but the editor’s, and they didn’t matter nearly as much as where on the page your story was placed. Now, of course, with SEO, the headline is paramount.

Email the people who have the job you want tomorrow

As in, don’t email them tomorrow (well, actually, do), but email the people who have today the job you want to have next. This is the bit where she gently mocks the wisdom of 20-year veterans and the one I most heartily applaud. Stop emailing me, really. I have absolutely no idea what to say to you.

Practice horizontal loyalty. Prioritize your relationships with people who are at a similar stage in their career. Yeah, it’s helpful to befriend accomplished older journalists, but it’s really the relationships with people on your level that will sustain you.

Indeed: the concept of “mentor” has shifted radically. People need older mentors, sure, but perhaps those mentors don’t need to be journalists. (Actually, scratch that; they should be, if only to give us over-40s a sense of self-worth and as a source for you of wacky stories about that weird planet we came from.) As with the previous point, today anyone who has just done what you want to do is a mentor. And thanks to the internet they’re also much easier to find. You can get mentored via Twitter, if you don’t make yourself a total pain in the ass.

So I am absolutely the wrong person to tell a young journalist how to get ahead in life. If, on the other hand, you are an old journalist wanting to figure out how not to get trampled into the dust by the young’uns and left for dead, I have some ideas for you…

On Huffington., jobs and quality

Arianna Huffington and Tim O'Brien

Arianna Huffington and Tim O’Brien

Last night, the launch of Huffington. magazine. (That’s right: the full stop is part of the name. Yahoo! wasn’t enough?) At the moment I took the picture above, Arianna Huffington had just finished crowing about the journalists HuffPo had lured away from the quality media: Tim O’Brien (now HuffPo’s executive editor), Peter Goodman, Lisa Belkin and Tom Zeller of the New York Times, and Howard Fineman of Newsweek; plus, of course, David Wood, who won the Pulitzer for HuffPo this year.

It made me think back to the famous chart LinkedIn published in March (below) of which industries are growing and shrinking fastest. At the top: online publishing. At the bottom: newspapers.

Growing and shrinking industries

Some said: take the average of those two dots, and the picture for the news media overall ain’t so bad. But that’s only in terms of job numbers. It’s a different story when you look at quality. On balance, quality news is diminishing and trashy news is taking its place, because the simple economics of the web require the high-volume output of cheap, fast content.

HuffPo, of course, was the embodiment of that, but it’s been trying to tilt the balance towards quality. Arianna gave out some stats: 1,500 posts a day on HuffPo, of which 70-80 are “original”, ie, real reporting, not aggregation. I met one of those reporters, who covers environmental health: she does about three stories a week, not at all excessive on a decent newspaper.

But it’s still a content factory: the 1,500 daily posts include 350-500 from HuffPo’s 35,000 celebrity and not-so-celebrity bloggers, which take a team of 19 editors to handle them. (These figures are from Stuart Whatley, the head of that team, who started as an intern just three years ago. These new publishing outlets don’t just make jobs, they make careers.)

All in all, then, “quality” is still only about 5% of HuffPo’s business. How much is that likely to grow? HuffPo said it had turned a profit the year before AOL bought it, but we don’t know whether its impressive traffic growth (and hence revenues) have kept pace with its also impressive staffing increases since then. (And let’s not even talk about AOL.) Having a magazine to showcase the best quality, and charge a dollar a week for it, makes sense as a way to earn a little more from the existing material. But having created a core of quality material, it probably doesn’t make business sense to grow it much further. The quality core serves to bring in readers who might otherwise spurn HuffPo, and once they’re in, it’s hard not to click on just a few more links…

Images from Tahrir Square

This morning, Hosni Mubarak and his interior minister, Habib el Adli, were sentenced to life imprisonment for the deaths of 840 people during Egypt’s 18 days of revolution in 2011. Six senior police officers below them, however, were all acquitted. To many Egyptians that looked like a signal to the police that they could continue to act with impunity, scapegoating Mubarak to save the regime itself. In the evening, tens of thousands crowded Tahrir Square in protest.

Protesters, Tahrir Square

Tahrir Square

Food cart, Tahrir Square

Street children, Tahrir Square

More photos here.

Reinventing news articles as “assets and paths”

Just a quick one to note the latest discussion by Jeff Jarvis and others on the reinvention of the news article, one of my pet subjects. As Jeff says,

[…] let’s subtract from the article, deconstructing it into its core assets. Draw that inverted pyramid and its constituent elements and then imagine each as a separate entity in its optimum form.

My sentiments exactly. The ensuing Twitter discussion (Storify) between Jeff, Jay Rosen, Anthony de Rosa and Felix Salmon recapped Jay’s long-time obsession with the need to be able to give readers of a story more context, but that’s just a starting point for reimagining the story wholesale. This too is something various people (including me) have been discussing for a while, but Jeff had an interesting twist on it:

Yes. Reinventing the news story is a serious user-experience design problem; how to make it easy to navigate to the stuff you need to know, instead of being presented with the same canned version as everyone else. A Prezi is not a bad analogy. A story about the Deepwater Horizon, let’s say: you may start with a handful of lines telling you the latest in the attempts to cap the well, but from there, instead of the nut graf and bits of context that you either already know or are far too sparse to help you, you can branch out into any direction you want to learn more about oil rigs, regulation, various oil companies’ safety records, the environment, and so on.  (This also turns it into a serious journalistic workflow problem, but more on that another time.)

But it does one have corollary, of course: you can’t run a pageviews-based business model if you’re packaging all this information into a single navigable entity. A typical news website wants each of those steps of exploration you make to be a click away, and then another click, and then another; even those that make their money off subscriptions haven’t broken free of the page mentality. That, I think, is one of the main reasons we have been talking about this for so long and so few of us are doing very much about it. But it’s terrible UX, because it breaks up your learning experience into pieces, making it harder for you to track where you came from and what you’ve learned.

I’m joining Quartz

After 16 wonderful years at The Economist I’m thrilled to be joining Atlantic Media’s new business news startup, Quartz. I’ll leave it to Kevin Delaney to explain