Friday 03 April 2015

In conversation with... Warren Ellis

Warren Ellis probably doesn't need an introduction. However, for the purposes of tidy article formatting, here goes: award-winning graphic novel writer; author of bestsellers Gun Machine and Crooked Little Vein; writer of Red, which became a film in 2013; of Iron Man: Extremis, which became the film Iron Man 3; currently working with Jerry Bruckheimer on a graphic novel adaptation for Fox; and so on. This intro could end up being longer than the actual conversation, so let's get to it and start with the Internet of Things.

It's ThingsCon's second year. Do you feel that the 'Internet of Things' (a horrid phrase, but one which we'll stick with given its ubiquity and the lack of viable alternatives) has reached some sort of a tipping point in terms of its place in popular consciousness in 2015, or is it still only something that tech geeks, sci-fi heads and advermarketing people looking for the next big thing actually care about? Does it, in a word, feel 'real' (insofar as anything ever does)?

WE: It's one of the things I'm kicking around. IoT (yes, horrible) is one of those things, like smartwatches, that a critical mass of people seem to be trying to will into reality. I think "IoT" is still an arcane term, but I think enough people, by now, of "using your phone to turn your house lights on" and the like.

The problem may be that most people may have heard of that in terms of "hey, did you hear that using your phone to turn your house lights on doesn't work?" And "that Internet house stuff doesn't recognise British Summer Time (or local variant thereof)?" It's an interesting point where it could all get very interesting or all go horribly wrong.

 

Have you been surprised at the direction the first wave of IoT applications has taken? I was rereading Thinks... by David Lodge the other day, published in 2000/1, and there's a vague allusion to IoT-type tech being used to potentially detect adultery which strikes me as a far more interesting application than letting you know when you need more eggs. Do you have any particularly utopian - or dystopian - visions of how it could and should be used?

WE: I suspect that example is more about David Lodge's particular interests.  That's a guy who thinks about adultery a lot. That said, I did once have a girlfriend who wanted me chipped so she could track me on a screen, so maybe Lodge has a point.  (It was mostly about my tendency to go off on a wander and/or end up in bars, I promise.)

Everyone's been talking about flavours of IoT for many, many years.  The old "Internet fridge" joke.  Amazon just announced an adhesive-backed physical button for eighteen different daily-use products -- hit the button and it'll be processed and out to you as an Amazon Prime order ASAP.  People are inevitably going to stick those on their fridges.  So who's laughing?  "Interesting" applications may be entirely beside the point.  "Interesting" stuff tends not to be fully baked, has too many options, breaks easily.  Maybe IoT should have been rebranded Boring Internet from the start.  
There's a whole thing in the air currently about "calm technology."  Moving fast and breaking things is great fun and sometimes useful but is also kind of teenage and callous.  Calm technology has a tone of maturity about it.  Remember when certain things really did Just Work?  That comes from an approach of simplicity.

In some ways, the dystopian version is already here with IoT.  People can't turn their fucking house lights on.  The clocks think they're in the next time zone over.  The thermostat has 404'd and the doorlock system's getting too many hits so you can't get inside your networked house that's gone insane anyway.  

And, on top of that: your networked house works through the kindly offices of various small start-ups.  What happens when the people who run your front door for you suddenly shut down overnight?  What happens when the houselights get bought out by Amazon?  And you have to install a new app to heat your home because Apple owns that business now?  What happened to your life that you outsourced the operation of your front door to a bunch of kids in the Mission District who pay $15 for artisanal toast in the morning?

 

I think the point you touch on at the end there is possibly at the crux of what disturbs me about a lot of this - we're sold this idea of the Internet of Things as this strange almost utopian playground where the...'things'...(whatever they may be) are allowed talk and laugh and play together making all our lives easier and better...but who 'owns' that 'Internet' and who moderates their 'conversation' and who fundamentally can and does listen to the 'conversation', and what do they do as a result, and...am I being paranoid? Facebook's announcements last week about them effectively wanting to BE the Internet (more than they already are) made me rather wary about a / the future in which everything passes through the Zuckermaw and gets chewed up and shat out in advertiser friendly pellets...

And isn't calm tech an oxymoron? Can you really ally concepts such as mindfulness, whatever you may think of it, and flickering screens?

WE: It's like any other web service: if enough people like it, someone will come and buy it up, and you may never ever see it, or the data it accrued, again.

I mean, here's your hyperbole nightmare condition: you have to watch a Google ad before you can open your front door.  Or a Sponsored Post.

It's unlikely, but, ultimately, the big tech companies are at war with each other, and your house is one of the battlegrounds now.  Every cycle of innovation reaches a point where the players decide there's no more new ground to break and instead go into battle for the ground already broken.  Phones.  Smartwatches.  Networked houses.  Those last two barely exist as active sectors, but the point is that the big tech firms have decided for you that they do, and so the battle lines are drawn.  

It's no longer about you.  It's about them.  And, frankly, there are no laws in place to deal with that.  Which you may not think you need, but that's because you haven't thought about the day when Facebook experiments with the lighting in your house just to see what happens.  Emotional contagion algorithms in your house.  There was no law stopping them from trying to depression in a non-volunteer experimental group of Facebook users.  So who's there to complain to when they decide to test how your home environment affects your consumption of content and advertising?

Yes, I know, clearly hyperbolic.  But I'm also not talking about anything they haven't done before.  We all said, for years, until it became a cliche and boring and cause for instant dismissal -- on the Internet, you're the product, not the consumer.  Products don't have rights.

Oh, and: do you listen to music during times of calm and/or mindfulness?  I bet you do.

 

Can this be legislated against - and should it? There's an interesting set of concepts around 'ownership' here which are yet to be fully explored. If I buy my Internet-connected fridge I can be said to be the 'owner' of the metal and plastic and coolant canisters...can I also expect to have the right to absolute control over how that fridge behaves even if the software it runs off is owned by someone else? There are effectively two products you're buying there with two very different end-point functions - I'd imagine most people aren't aware of that, but it's going to become more and more of a thing. Does my fridge have my best interests at heart, or Google's (I think we both know the answer to that)?
Has there been anything about the pace of this sort of technological development which has surprised you over the 18 years since you started it - and what do you expect to see next, based on your uncannily accurate predictions of what 'now' looks like?) I wish I could smugly say that I only listened to vinyl, but I'd be lying.

WE: And even if you did only listen to vinyl, that's a technological process.  Two hundred years ago you'd only be able to hear your favourite music by hiring people to play it for you in the room.  Music playback is calm technology.

Here's some devil's advocacy: fifty or sixty years ago, we rented most things.  Houses, flats, televisions, house phones.  What if it's the general political drift to the right that's convinced us we need to own all our things, when in fact it might be fine to rent our utilities so long as they're not intrusive?  Right now, we're stuck between desiring the condition of absolute ownership and accepting things for free on the condition that they will both talk to us and listen to us all the time.  What if there's a condition in the middle where I rent my fridge from (say) Google and they provide unencumbered services in return for, you know, currency?

Terribly old-fashioned, I know.  But I'm concerned about the binary thinking.  The worst thing in the world would be to locked into the idea that there are only ever two choices.

Of course, the actual worst thing in the world is that half the IoT start-ups are coming up with insidiously clever ideas to serve one end or the other in order to become the most attractive possible meat for Big Data companies with wallets primed for buy-outs.  Getting into it just to obtain a rich exit is very good business, I'm sure, but it's shitty for everybody else.

Oh, god, I try not to do predictions.  It's a guaranteed way to look stupid, and I'd like people to stop doing it.  Things like the TRANSMET Makers were more metaphor than prediction.  If there's one thing that always somehow surprises me, it's how slow things move.  But that's probably just a function of my wanting to see as much of the the future as I can before I die of lung cancer or a thrashed central nervous system.

 

Maybe there's a market for that - drone orchestras which follow you about playing the music of your choice, live, on strings and woodwind. We'll be millionaires by Christmas.
I think that there's probably something in that, you know - I can see traces of it in the idea of that modular phone that Google (ALWAYS THEM, EH?) are working on. I mean, it's all happening already, isn't it - as you alluded to a few answers ago, we're the product. We're paying for use of the software infrastructure which underpins our lives by letting people advertise to use through it - it's a tiny step to the example you cite. I would love to see proper research about people's attitudes to that - there was an interesting play at the Almeida which I saw recently which imagined young people taking free accommodation in exchange for being shot with tranq darts three times a day by punters wanting a human safari thrill - the scary bit was how terrifyingly plausible it was, and how I could imagine an awful lot of kids I know thinking 'yep, not a bad deal, that'.
As an avowed lover of tech (or at least someone who's clearly thrilled and inspired by the possibilities it affords in both real and narrative terms) (sorry, that was wanky, but I hope you get what I mean), is there any part of you which would want to stop all this now before it goes a little too far for comfort, or are you enjoying the ride too much? And if you could put in the Internet in ANYTHING, what would it be?

WE: Liam Young and John Cale flew a drone orchestra at the Barbican a while back.
I'm torn about the whole March Of Technology thing.  On the one hand, I've spent my whole life watching for, and wanting to bring on, authentic outbreaks of The Future.  On the other hand, I have a 19-year-old daughter at university who may yet be trading food and shelter for being shot in the neck with tranq darts, so....

The thing about letting it all go out of control is that it would be a hell of a ride, and great fun to watch, and it comes with the false comfort of accelerationism, the avowed notion that there's an end point where it all smashes to splinters and we're free to start again with lessons learned and can build more wisely.  But I can't get all the way behind the idea.  I can't help but think that maybe there's no wall at the end of the ride, and it just gets faster and faster.  Maybe there's a point where the world gets too weird to sustain life but the systems that run the ride can dash on without us, self-sustaining and/or tended by the desperate and obsessed survivors.

I'd put the Internet in my head tomorrow if it wasn't absolutely certain that AdSense and Facebook tracking came with it.

 

I like the idea of a 'weird event horizon', somehow - that point where everything gets so bent out of shape by tech that we're no longer in any sort of society which could accurately be recognised as human any more; I almost think that that's more likely to happen sooner than the long-fabled 'singularity' of legend. Weird outlying humans subsisting on the edge of some sort of Gibsonian techtopia.
Though, of course, that just makes me imagine an endless and circular succession of conversations between brands on Twitter - pizza tweeting at soft drink until the sun explodes and ends it all. Tao Lin's probably writing a novel about it right now. Do you feel broadly optimistic about what your 19 year old is going to live through in the next 50-odd (maybe even 150-odd) years?

WE: I'm writing a new comics series that is at least in part about that weird event horizon, called Injection.  It sort of gives me a framework to talk about absolutely anything and everything.  The Green Man shows up partway through the first volume.  

I feel broadly optimistic that she's equipped to deal with the next century.  The things she's going to live through... I have concerns about that, yes.  But that gets us off into things like climate change.  Though, you know, there's always autonomous armed drones and self-driving houses going rogue to worry about.

 

It's fascinating, though - the more time I spend doing Web Curios, the more I see that the gap between what seems like parodic tech and actual, real-life innovation is becoming vanishingly small. I thought that the Amazon Dash thing today was an April Fool at first - the reality is that it's the first step towards the death of the supermarket. We need a new Internet law - there is nothing so idiotic-seeming that it can't be a startup / SaaS platform.

I'd like to close with two last questions.
Can you summarise your feelings about the future into one sentence (the answer may well be 'no' - I know this is a shit question, sorry, but I am curious)
There's an election coming up. I can't quite pin 'The Beast' or 'The Smiler' on any of this lot - any nicknames spring to mind for any of the assembled rabble we get to choose from? I don't know why, but I quite like 'the Face' for Farage.

WE: And for Amazon Dash, check out BERG'S Cloudwash design fiction from a year or two back.

There's a whole bunch of people who do "Uber for [insert absurd thing here]" on Twitter.  At least half of them will happen in the next eighteen months.

1. The future is supposed to make things better, and we need to watch the weather to make sure it isn't going to turn ugly and make everything worse.

2. They're ALL The Smiler.  Not one of them, Farage included, has the courage of their convictions.  Hell, none of them even have convictions, just learned responses, the belief that the country is run by those like themselves, and a bag of false ethics that they're primed to toss away the moment it looks like they can be traded for advantage.  It's a gaggle of fucking pantomime actors.  

 

Injection, by Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire, comes out in May, as does the second volume of the science fiction series Trees that Warren makes with Jason Howard, both from Image Comics. Warren’s excellent weekly newsletter, Orbital Operations, goes out on Sunday nights; subscribe here .

ThingsCon takes place in Berlin, 8-9/05/15. For more information and to book, visit the ThingsCon website.

Main image source/credits: Pic: Ellen J Rogers
Matt Muir

Matt Muir is interested in lots of different things, and as a result rather likes the internet. Web Curios is a weekly(ish) snapshot of what he has found interesting this week. You can find Matt on Twitter, where he's quite good. In his spare time, Matt tries to ignore the web as much as is humanly possible (not very much, it turns out).

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