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Taking arms against a sea of assholes

Twenty years ago I wrote a short story called MORE TOMORROW, about a man who discovers something very not-good happening on the Internet, and is horrified by - amongst other things - other web-users' reactions to it. I've had many conversations about this story down the years with my father, an academic who has taken an interest in way in which people appear unable to acknowledge the reality of distant others. (If you're interested, the story's available in e-format on Kindle. I tried to make it free but Amazon won't let you do that. Bear in mind it comes from the neolithic era when the web itself was somewhat novel, everything was in black and white, and men still wore hats).

My father mentioned the story again to me on the phone this morning. He's in the UK, and following the current furore about trolling. I'm not going to add many more words to the millions already pouring forth on the subject, but...

Let's face it. Ninety nine percent of the assholes posting vile messages are cowards who'll shrink back under a rock when confronted (there's an example of this in a pretty balanced look at the phenomenon here). Most of these people are not credible threats. They're children, showing off, and spluttering bile. Too much attention produces more bile.

Let's also remember that not all troll-targets are women, and not all trolls are men. It's a mistake to present this as an issue of sex, or 'misogyny' (a term which is bandied about with perhaps excessive enthusiasm in some quarters). The truth is simpler but also scarier. Trolling is a manifestation of the broader fact that a large portion of humankind appears unable to comprehend or respect the reality of anyone outside their own heads and concerns. This failure is the wellspring of crime, rape, terrorism, and most of the world's other evils, and it's a tendency which is enabled and maginfied by the very nature of the Internet. It's never going to go away, and so the question is how we accommodate it.

I certainly don't this reserve is the answer, which is why I didn't join the #twittersilence. I don't believe that women - or anyone else - who've been subject to abuse should choose to lose their voice in the face of it (women, and entire races, have suffered in silence too long already). Instead we must educate where possible; vigorously repudiate when that doesn't work; and ultimately may simply have to choose to ignore the bad behaviour of others - meanwhile doing our best to cancel it out by acts of contradictory goodness.

Trolling is this month's flashpoint in an age-old conflict. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: the true battle amongst humankind is not between men and women, or race against race, or creed against creed... it's about the non-assholes of the world trying to hold back the relentless zombie tide of assholes.

It's us against them, and we win not by getting tied up in knots about how best to be nice, or by accusing an entire sex of being flawed: we win by not being assholes. Every time we're good, and kind, and reasonable, somewhere a troll's star goes out.

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The Anternet

One upside of my recent battles with ants - which are going passing well, thanks for asking: a combination of bait traps, orange oil, cinnamon barriers and no-holds-barred squishing (combined with finding the tin of not-quite-closed Golden Syrup which had evidently acted as their Mecca) has for the time being reduced them to the level of Minor Crisis - is that I’ve finally understood how the Internet works. Something I initially found freaky about ants - and still find freaky, now I've come to consider them properly for the first time in many years - is their operational model. They're really tiny, taken as individuals, especially these Argentinian ones I'm dealing with — minute little beats of life that go out into the world and explore, apparently at random. One goes this way, another goes the other, until finally one scout happens upon something worth taking an interest in, at which point said plucky ant goes bombing back to the colony and (how, I'm still not sure: by waving its antennae or pumping out pheromones or something) says "Holy cow, dudes, you'll never believe what I've found. They’ve only left a tin of liquid sugar open, way in the back of a cupboard. No, seriously! It’s the motherlode!”

At which point I guess he leads them back there, or some of them immediately scuttle back along the squirts of chemical the scout exitably left on his way hoe to break the good news, and later they return to the nest with confirmation in the shape of little dabs of sugar on their feet, and many more go back the same way... until finally there’s a bloody superhighway of ants marching back and forth across your kitchen. I’m sure any entomologists out there may be wincing at this description, but it seems to boil down to something along those lines.

Now. Yesterday afternoon I was sitting finishing off a short story when a text message came in. Neither I nor my phone’s address database recognised the number, which had a 618 code. The SMS simply said:

Hi ;D

Confused — this isn’t the way any of my friends would normaly greet me, even if they’d got or borrowed a new phone, I replied:

Hi to you, too. Um, who’s this?

The response came back:

How about we catch up on Ya-H00 IM User-name is annagirly03

So, unless this is someone delightful that I’ve met one evening while unusually drunk (note to wife - that’s a joke) it’s SMS spam. But how’s it supposed to work? I have to make the effort to go to the computer, find a way of using Yahoo IM — which I’ve never done before — and speculatively send out a message to annagirly03 in the hope of either clearing up a confusion or meeting someone? What happens if I do? Does whatever vague entity commands that handle then try to reel me in on some scam? What are the chances of me being dumb or bored enough to fall for that? About the same, I suppose, as me responding positively to a Nigerian plea for assistance in banking $72M, or clicking on what purports to be a receipt for a piece of hardware I know I haven’t ordered, or being stupid enough to click on a missive from PayPal or a bank I don’t have any money lodged with, saying my account’s in suspension... without hovering my cursor over the action link to check it first, in the full knowledge it will be “www.thievingrussianbastards.ru/scamfest2013/moohahaha.php”

I realise now that the chances don't have to be high, because each of these pieces of spam are scout ants, of course — sent out in their hundreds of thousands, randomly crawling across the vast kitchen of the internet in the hope one of them will find a pot of sugar. Clicking on a link is like sending the scout back to the colony with good news — we’ve found a sucker — and concerted attempts will then be made to relieve me of my money. Never mind the fact that had someone’s wife or girlfriend found the SMS message I received above, and been of a suspicious frame of mind, an apocalyptic fight might have ensued. Ants don’t care about you, you see. They don’t even really understand that you exist. Spammers and phishers are the same. They’re not the same as us. They’re a different species that just happens to look similar. They are aliens who steal.

It’s bigger and more generalised than this, though. For years my in-tray was blissfully free of spam (I’ve long had a .mac account, and that alone was well worth paying the sixty quid a year that people used to bleat about). At some point in the last few months, however, I’ve evidently given my address to some site or piece of software that has passed it on - squirted a trail of pheremones leading to me, in other words - and now I spend a small portion of each day deleting or unsubscribing from spam lists, like squishing ants (and yes, I’m fully aware that hitting “unsubscribe” on especially unscrupulous pages is just a way of confirming that your email address is live). Just to be clear, if they’re listening, I really don’t want to join your site, Christian Singles dating agency — and I don’t actually think you want me on your books, either. And what would Jesus think if he knew you’d been spamming people? You should be ashamed of yourselves. You just wait until your God gets home.

But this isn’t the end of it either, of course. Use Facebook? Every time you “Like” something — especially on a commercial site — you’re prising open a little pot of sugar. Little advertising ants will come and roam around your home page forever more. Use Google search or Chrome without taking the precaution of turning off your history? You’re leaving a phereomone trail that will lead scout after scout into your virtual kitchen until the end of time. In both cases the Queen sits back in her lair in Silicon Valley, watching her colony getting bigger and bigger and more and more successful and rich.

The accumlation of Argentinian ants along the Californian coast I mentioned in the last post must include a truly vast number of the little buggers, but it’s only 500 miles long. The internet behemoths cover the entire world. We’re surrounded by them, all the time.

We all live inside the colony now.

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The Paperless Trail

As someone who’s spent the last three weeks packing up a house ready to move — and has another two weeks of it to go — I feel compelled to share some weary pieces of advice with you. 1. Throw everything away, immediately. The instant someone gives you something, or you buy it, or an object in any other way intersects with your life, get rid of it. By all means sell or re-cycle or hand on (the charity shops of North London should be letting off fireworks every night, given the cubic yards of stuff they’re getting from us), but GET RID OF IT.

2. Don’t stow something large, heavy and cumbersome in depths of the attic unless you’re prepared for yanking it back out again on a hot, humid day when you’re ten years older than when you put it there. Instead, see (1).

3. No, that [insert object name] will not ‘come in useful at some point’. It’s a piece of crap, otherwise you’d want it now. See (1). 4. Point (3) especially applies to computers or bits of technology being sidelined because you’ve bought a new one. That just-replaced laptop will not mellow with age. Get rid of it now, while it might conceivably still be of use to someone.

5. Any box you find which hasn’t been opened since the last move should be thrown into a skip immediately, without opening. (Unless, apparently, it contains a wedding dress. I’m never going to hear the end of that one).

6. The bloke who came to do a quote for our shipping spoke darkly of the tendency of hitherto-unnoticed objects to ‘come out of the walls’ during the packing process. He’s right. They do. Therefore...

7. Buy at least twice as many cardboard boxes as you think you can conceivably use, even if this requires going against the strident counsel of your partner. The same applies to bin bags, and you don’t want the rubbish flimsy ones.

8. If you have sets of things that are no longer mission critical — magazines, VHS videos, baby clothes — pick one symbolic item of each to keep, to ease the realisation that your life has moved on, and the rest... See (1).

9. The days when you could just ‘throw stuff away’ are long gone, my friend. Unless you want to spend all day, every day trolling back and forth to the dump and recycling centre,  talk your neighbours into having major building work done, and make covert use of their skip.

10. You already have enough clothes, notepads, shoes and tins of sweetcorn. Never buy any of these ever again.

 

There are doubtless a thousand more, but I’m too knackered to remember them. Something else that has struck me forcibly, however, is that the next time I move (which will be NEVER EVER EVER), one type of object will not have increased in number, and that’s paper, in the form of letters, souvenirs and momentous of days gone by. A few examples:

For every novel since SPARES, I’ve presented the first laserprinted copy to my wife, my first reader. She has all of these, each in a file box, as presented. Taken together they’re really heavy and take up a non-negligible cubic footage of space, but she seems unwilling to let them go. With the novel I’ve just finished, however, I shot her a pdf and she read it on her iPad — so that’s the end of that.

Correspondence, too, whether it be to do with work or friendship — all that’s gone virtual. Yes, the emails I receive are filed (I’m dogged about this, and only feel relaxed when my inbox is empty apart from a couple of things left as To Do items or memory-joggers) — but that’s not the same, somehow. There’s also the issue of forward compatibility. For a long time I slogged along with Microsoft Entourage (mainly because I liked its PIM-like integration of email, diary and contacts, an approach Apple remains resistant to, for reasons I cannot fathom). My databases from those years are stowed on backups somewhere, I think, but I’m not sure I have a copy of the application any more, and there will come a time when re-accessing those old emails would be far more trouble than I or a descendent might wish to spend on the task. I’m certainly never going to simply happen upon them, in the way that last week I came across the very first letter I was sent by the woman who’d go on to be my wonderful editor for over fifteen years, in response to my enquiry as to whether she’d fancy publishing a short story collection (her letter was remarkably polite).

To Do lists are now stored in an ever-evolving personal ecosystem of apps. Notes and planning thoughts are most often now jotted straight into a computer... All these shards and leavings of a life of work have departed the concrete world of bits of paper, and are now digital.  Reviews, too — no longer do I see these as hard copy, but as pdfs emailed by the publisher. If I attend a convention or other event, chances are most of the information will now be accessed via pdf or Web site or app. I file these digitally, of course. But neither I nor some vaguely-interested relative are going to come across them accidentally after I’ve gone, just as family photos sturdily filed away in iPhoto or Aperture libraries are not present in the world, there for idle perusal, in the way they would be in an old skool photo album on the shelf. They’re doubtless safer, as they can be backed up hither and yon, but they’re not as accessible. They’re not there: they’re somewhere.

It’s not just work stuff, either. I found a file box from our honeymoon, which contains everything from a cork popped at some point, to travel itineraries, receipts from restaurants and hotels, and airline tickets (sentimental, I know, but it was my bloody honeymoon). When we travel now I get hotel bills emailed to me. Airline and car bookings and just about everything else is stored up in the Cloud, courtesy of TripIt and allied/compatible iOS apps.

Rather than being simply there, even if ‘there’ means ‘in a dusty and damp box full of mouse poo, shoved way in back of the attic’, all these things are now invisibly sidelined into backup drives or thrown up into the Cloud. They will never be seen by accident or happenstance but only as a result of focussed effort, and who has time for that these days? The Cloud has a lot to live up to, if it’s truly going to replace the dusty shoeboxes of yesteryear.

We used to leave a physical trail as we wandered through life, something that others — and ourselves — could look back and witness, like the fossilised prints of dinosaurs on a long-vanished shore. It doesn’t seem like that’s going to be the case for much longer. I’ve no idea what to take from this, except to think that maybe it’s even more important than ever that we’re fully aware of things as they’re actually happening.

In the shoebox of the soul paper never fades, and it’s always now.

 

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Stop, thief: yes, you - ebookr.com

It strikes me that I haven't crapped tediously on about copyright theft for a while, which must be a disappointment to all of you. Luckily a trigger has dropped into my lap in the shape of a friend letting me know that yet another site had all my books up on it.

The site was ebookr.com. Go check it out. It's a nice-looking, cheery, friendly little website. Their tagline declares "We love ebooks". Maybe they do. They also evidently love charging people to download, but don't so much love bothering about the fact they're trading in things that don't belong to them.

What happens when you discover some new bunch of pirate gobknobs has stolen your booty? There's no email address on the site (which might seem odd, surely, in such a fresh-faced and approachable place), but there is a form. So I used it, and asked them to take my work down. Five days later I hadn't heard back. Surprise surprise. I knew what would happen if they did eventually reply, because in this game of whack-a-mole it's the same story every time. They'll refer you to their DMCA page. In case you're wondering, here are the kind of hoops you have to jump through:

What information do we need in a DMCA Notice? A properly formatted DMCA Notice will adhere to the guidelines and principals established by the DMCA itself. The necessary elements of a properly formed DMCA Notice are: 1. Clear identification of the person or entity submitting the DMCA Notice. 2. Clearly stated relationship to the copyright holder (self or authorized agent). 3. A specific listing of all content the DMCA Notice is requesting eBookr take down. Please keep in mind some content is posted multiple times and each instance will need to be specifically referenced. 4. Clear statement, under penalty of perjury, that the information in the notification is accurate and that you are copyright holder, or authorized to act on behalf of the copyright holder. 5. A "physical or electronic signature" of an authorized person to act on behalf of the owner. This is fulfilled by a name and a physical address that the authorized individual can be contacted should someone wish to contest your notification. 6. While not legally required by the DMCA, including "copyright violation" in the subject line of your email will flag your DMCA Notice and bypass spam categorization. 7. Submit the Notice to dmca (at) ebookr.com.

Yep. Not only do you have to prove you're the author, but you're required to reference every occasion on which some 'sharing' tossfrot has uploaded your book - despite the fact that someone must have written the bloody things, so it's pretty obvious that someone's copyright has been infringed, no? Notice the brazen assumption of the moral high ground, too - meanwhile huffily warning you not to commit the crime of perjury. Nice.

In the end I notified the publisher of the novels in question, and they set their legal department on them. My books were taken down. But you don't have to look hard to find them on other sites...

And so?

Partially in response to my rather inflamatory post on SOPA, the very excellent Megan Lindholm proposed that instead of excessive measures like the bill, people should hound sites like these in a kind of grass roots protest, shaming them into behaving differently. It's a lovely idea, but my suspicion is it simply wouldn't happen. And note again how there's no email address on the ebookr site: this is a deliberate policy, because it makes it just hard enough that most people won't bother (and it also makes the site impossible to mailbomb).

So. What do you think? What can or should be done about this? Would you be willing to try to take a site like this down, or at least shake it gently by the throat until it stopped this kind of behaviour? Do you actually care? I wouldn't blame you if you don't, to be honest — it's not your stuff. And that's the reason sites like this do, and will always, exist... and they'll get smarter, too, and use chirpy graphic design to portray themselves as hip and friendly and got-t0-be-legit, to the point where some people may not even realise they're trading in stolen goods. With a place called 'The Pirate Bay', it's pretty obvious. With these guys — and others, like Scribd — it's down to you to remember that we're still labouring under a capitalist model where people kinda want to get paid for what they own.

In the end...

And this is the reason I keep banging on about this stuff. It's not just about grouchy authors trying to make sure they get the pennies that are owed. It's about the fact that we're still taking early steps into a truly new type of environment, and need to keep an eye on the changes we're blithely accepting in our world. Are we okay with Google and Facebook having total and lasting access to everything we say and do and click? Are we comfortable with the way in which the Internet often makes it so easy to forget that we're dealing with real — albeit distant — others, making people so rude or assumptive the whole damned time? With a little search savvy I can find out what you paid for your house, who your friends are, where your kids go to school, where your sister likes to hang out (she Foursquared and Instagrammed twice from 57 Bottles on Main twice this week, and the second time she was kind of drunk, I should know, I made sure to sit near to her) — are you fine with that? You are? That's fine. Just checking. I'm not saying the Internet is evil. I'm just saying let's keep our eyes open and not simply say 'yes' to everything just because it's convenient; because it's nicely-designed; because it's (apparently) free.

This latest episode has at least helped me to ratify a personal position on copyright theft, which is to try to stop caring about it. If you want, you can do a search and find my books on similar "social sharing" sites, or stealeasys (not a real word, I've just made it up) like FileSonic, and have the lot for free. It's up to you, in the end. It's always up to all of us. I choose to believe the majority out there are honest - because I know that's true. So, you know, I'm, like, totally chilled about it.

Though if you feel like retweeting to the effect that ebookr.com are assholes... then, well, I'm not going to stop you.

And in the meantime, here's a probably naive thought toward another grass roots accommodation to our new world. It's up to you whether you download my books for free (or someone else's music, or TV show, or software). Your call. But if you do, maybe you could at least give a couple of bucks to a charity for something you do care about, or overtip your next underpaid waitress, or drop a coin in the broken-down busker's hat even if he's really not any good. Though I guess if FREE is so important to you, you're going to be tight-fisted with cash across the board. So maybe let someone else take the last seat on the bus instead, or give an extra stroke to the next cat you encounter...

... but do something, yes? If you can't tell the difference between right and wrong, I can't help you with that. But it'd be nice if you gave something back.

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Caution: Contains Nitpicking

I knew my last post would be deeply unpopular in some quarters (though, to be fair, it also had strident support, and not just from people in creative professions). I got a lot of irate tweets, and lost followers. I'll live. The piece's potential unpopularity was kind of why I posted it, rather than getting it out of my system and leaving the file safely on my hard disk.

I didn't do it to be provocative, but to be honest.

It's extremely easy - especially in popularity contests and profile-conscious opportunities like Twitter - to always play to the crowd, stay safe, not antagonise the demographic. Pretending you always agree with the unconsidered zeitgeist is easy. But kind of empty, surely? If you're going to say stuff, then mean it. Otherwise remaining silent is a more honourable course - except, of course, for the fact it may be taken as tacit approval of what everyone else is saying, however dim that may be. It's a minefield. So I posted, and now some people evidently think I'm a stooge of Old Business and the Federal Government, and an active supporter of the worst forms of Censorship (It's not entirely clear to me how cracking down on theft counts as "censorship", but that's because I'm a stooge of the etc, etc).

For the avoidance of doubt, I'm not for SOPA, okay? I'm simply disenchanted with some of the reasons people have for opposing it. If you've read the bill (including the revisions) and have strong arguments and/or reasons for opposing it, you have my respect. If not... I'm just saying think about it first. Don't just press ME TOO. And while I'm on the subject, if you're so in favour of WikiPedia, you might want to donate something toward it, eh? See the button at the bottom of the right-hand column on this page. Even "free" things cost somebody something, somewhere. Their time, their effort, their love. They give. You can too.

Anyway. Allied to all this, it's struck me this afternoon how the Internet is changing the meaning of a couple of words - and how these speak to this overall debate.

1. "Contains" As in "This software may contain profanity, adult themes, violence, nudity, etc". Seen most often with browsers, Craigslist apps, and anything that accesses the Internet.

But the thing is... the software doesn't contain these things, really. If the web browser had drop-down menus featuring swear words, or popped up a dialog box every ten minutes showing a picture of people shagging, then it would "contain" these things. But it doesn't. It merely provides a window onto a world in which these things pre-exist. It's interesting that the software is being held to account here - like blaming a sheet of glass for standing between you and an atrocity. It may seem like I'm splitting hairs, but to me this usage covertly implies it's not the web or its users which should be held responsible for the content of the Internet or the the way people use it. The Internet's in the clear - perfect and true and blameless. So are the internauts. It's the naughty software that does the wrong.

I'm really not sure this is true, and I think it's indicative of the way the Internet and some of its users hold themselves unaccountable for both their content and their actions.

2. "Free" This word now apparently means 'it is possible to acquire this good or service without paying for it'. Here's an example, just in this morning:

http://blog.karachicorner.com/2012/01/35-high-quality-free-fonts/

It's a useful blog and you see this kind of thing all over the web (and I picked up the link via the venerable www.iconfactory.com), but to me it neatly encapsulates a key schism in the way people respond to the availability of resources on the Internet. A number of the faces featured in this list (and others of its kind) are available from www.losttype.com, an excellent site where designers showcase interesting new work for sale on a pay-what-you-like basis. And there's the thing. Some users will immediately interpret this as: "Cool - free fonts". Others will equally unthinkingly say: "Wow - nice typeface. A lot of work went into that. I'll donate ten bucks in recognition of the person's time and creativity, and in the hope they'll make more."

(And yes I know some people have more ready cash than others - but don't claim to be "poor" if you've got a broadband connection and a computer to download stuff onto. That's a vicious mis-use of the word "poor" in a world where millions of children don't have anything to eat.)

I guess probably neither approach to pay-what-you-want is right or wrong. They're just different. A lot of people do what they do ultimately out of love, and that's the way it should be: but when there's rent to be paid and food to be bought, nothing says 'love' like a little cash. Anyone who finds this observation distasteful has never tried to make a living via their creativity alone. I'm not dumping on the referring site, note - there's a strong chance that by steering surfers to Lost Type, they'll provoke at least a proportion of visitors to donate, which is the basis on which the designers put their work up there, after all; and many people - including myself - are happy for some free stuff to float around the web as a goodwill gesture, marketing tool, or just out of an open heart. I'm merely saying it's interesting how the word is now being used, and how it perhaps speaks to some of the debate on SOPA.

So - what do you think? Does Safari "contain" profanity? Are the fonts I'm talking about actually "free"? Am I really a stooge for the dark, censoring elite of the New World Order - and if so, why haven't they bloody well paid me yet?*

*Caution: sentence contains profanity.

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