The Cosmic Horror of the Nazis

From Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962), on Nazis: “They’re not idealists . . . they’re cynics with utter faith.”

Their view; it is cosmic. Not of a man here, a child there, but an abstraction: race, land. Volk. Land. Blut. Ehre. Not of honourable men but of Ehre itself, honour: the abstract is real, the actual is invisible to them. Die Gute, but not good men, this good man. It is their sense of space and time. They see through the here, the now, into the vast black deep beyond, the unchanging. And that is fatal to life. Because eventually there will be no life; there was once only dust particles in space, the hot hydrogen gases, nothing more, and it will come again. This is an interval, ein Augenblick. The cosmic process is hurrying on, crushing life back into the granite and methane; the wheel turns for all life. It is all temporary. And they – these madmen – respond to the granite, the dust, the longing of the inanimate; they want to aid Natur.

And then, he thought, I know why. They want to be the agents, not the victims, of history. They identify with God’s power and believe they are godlike. That is their basic madness. They are overcome by some archetype; their egos have expended psychotically so that they connot tell where they begin and the godhead leaves off. It is not hubris, not pride; it is inflation of the ego to its ultimate – confusion between him who worships and that which is worshipped. Man has not eaten God; God has eaten man.

What they do not comprehend is man’s helplessness. I am weak, small, of no consequence to the universe. It does not notice me; I live on unseen. But why is that bad? Isn’t it better that way? Whom the gods notice they destroy. Be small … and you will escape the jealousy of the great.

I can’t help thinking of H.P. Lovecraft’s interwar visions of cosmic horror: mad cultists worship uncaring gods that are more principles of reality than beings, in hopes of bringing forward the day when the stars are right, the gods awaken, and the human race descends upon itself in murder and depravity. His heroes fight the darkness, but in fighting it they come to understand man’s lonely insignificance, and go mad.

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

That cult would never die till the stars came right again, and the secret priests would take great Cthulhu from His tomb to revive His subjects and resume His rule of earth. The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and revelling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom.

Like the Nazis, Lovecraft was obsessed with race and blood: miscegenation with fish people, people devolving into rats things, the ancestry of bad blood making itself known and turning innocent descendants into monsters. Moving briefly to New York City, Lovecraft was terrified of the multicultural multitude and fled in horror back to Providence.

2008-06-21

Darknet

I have been subscribed to J.D. Lasica’s blog for some time, so I looked forward to reading his book, Darknet: Hollywood’s War against the Digital Generation1. But despite the rich supply of research and interviews with insiders to the conflict around copyright and piracy, I found the book disappointing and lacking in depth.

For me, Lasica’s best subject was Forest. As a movie pirate and double agent, Forest was paid by Hollywood to infiltrate deep into film sharing networks. In return, he kept his bosses informed of the techniques and activities of the pirates. He is an ambiguous character: on the one hand, he was a spy; on the other, he didn’t necessarily share the perspectives of his masters. Forest is a fascinating character: proud of his skills, of his contacts, of the romance of his double life. Now retired from espionage, he has turned his sights to providing legal downloads. He appreciates why people pirate, and doesn’t believe the practice can be stopped. Of his daughter’s music piracy, he says “I don’t condone her pirating material, but that’s how kids get their music these days2.” At one point he offers Lasica access to his library of pirated movies.

The tension between Forest’s profession and his activities echoes through the book as Lasica searches for a middle way between freewheeling piracy on the one hand and respect for intellectual property and the law on the other. Lasica touches on the major issues: how stopping down copying can shut down creativity, the social acceptance of piracy, the political dimensions of copying as speech. Yet the book seems bounded by conventional discourse about copyright, participation, and creativity. When his subjects raise one of the big questions, Lasica notes it, but he does not deal with the necessary consequences.

The most important failing is the handling of democracy and freedom. For me, democracy is central to the argument for weaker copyright. This is something understood well by other writers on the topic; Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks stands out in this regard for its emphasis on the essential role of speech in underpinning democracy. The special importance of speech elevates debates about copyright beyond questions of whether music filesharing is right or wrong. Without speech, this is simply another question of economics and policy with no particular claim to political or moral importance.

The book does describe how Diebold, a manufacturer of electronic voting machines in the U.S., used copyright laws to hinder distribution of information about security vulnerabilities in its products3. In this context Lasica quotes Ian Clarke, founder of Freenet (a network used to communicate the problem with Diebold despite the legal problems) saying, “Ultimately, what is more important to you: copyright or freedom of communication, which is essential to democracy4?” This is an essential question without simple answers. But Lasica hardly follows up. Five pages about politics are buried in a chapter about the construction of file sharing networks. Two pages after this quote, the book returns to its focus on movies and music. Politics don’t appear in Lasica’s ten point recommendations at the end. The book claims “the Internet is not an entertainment medium5.” But it doesn’t seem to be interested in what that means.

Similarly, the book fails to investigate the political relevance of art and cultural forms. It discusses the participation of audiences and contrasts consumers with users (but not with citizens). The distinction, however, between users as first-class creators and as second-class contributors to existing industries is blurred. Writing of fan materials, Lasica suggests DVDs should include fan commentaries6. It’s a nice idea, but it only reinforces the subordinate position of the audience. Too often the book’s support of participatory culture and media elides with a sharecropping mentality in which the media industries remain firmly in control. In fact, the promise of revitalizing these industries and their dominant players is a refrain throughout the book. Lasica believes the “media companies need to learn to let go.” The problem, he believes, is not a fundamental difference of interests between companies and citizens, but a misunderstanding on the part of Hollywood and the RIAA who really would be better off if they acquiesced to change that challenges their dominance.

Weak analysis is also a symptom of the book’s treatment of piracy. Piracy is central to darknets – digital networks designed to conceal the activity and identities of their users, typically file sharing. Lasica interviews people with varying perspectives on piracy and its opponents (although artists are largely absent). Some oppose it outright, some attempt to justify it, others accept it as unstoppable. At one point the book explains how the recording industry exploits artists; most musicians likely benefit from file trading. Courtney Love says the whole industry “is based on piracy7“. Yet Lasica himself appends a comments reducing the issue to simple right and wrong: “All of this is not to excuse fans who routinely download music illegally for free. That’s wrong8.”

The problem is that although he repeatedly makes such statements, nowhere does he investigate or justify his stance. There are many good arguments in support of his position against “routine” piracy (about democratic governance and the rule of law, the fact that paying an artist benefits her more than pirating her music, and so on). Lasica never deploys them. Against them stand the amoral behavior of many of the companies involved, the lobbying and influence that led to draconian laws, the enclosure of culture and the dangers to democracy. Lasica doesn’t deal with these either. The problem is not that his position is not legitimate – it is. The problem is that the book fails to be critical and searching in its exploration of the moral issues connected to speech and copyright.

Despite my criticisms, I think at some level Lasica “gets it” – but he doesn’t let on. Perhaps his journalist’s instincts get in the way, leading him to restrict his commentary and tempting him to return repeatedly to the glitter of Hollywood. The contradictions lie latent. Lasica looks at the issues, but he doesn’t see them. Speaking of restrictive technologies and laws, he writes:

In the end, this may be the greatest potential loss to society: the service that never rolls out, the device that never gets invented, the cultural advancement that never takes place – all for fear of a Hollywood lawsuit8.

No. The greatest potential is for citizens to create, to share, and to participate in their society. The greatest potential victim is democracy.

Notes

1 J.D. Lasica, Darknet: Hollywood’s War against the Digital Generation, US, Wiley, 2005.

2 p. 65

3 Update 2006-06-19: Oops. I mistakenly credited Darknet with David Bollier’s introduction to Silent Theft when I wrote, “The book starts well, with an excellent description of how one company uses copyright to charge for access to American legal decisions.”

4 p. 227

5 p. 264

6 p. 78

7 p. 194

8 p. 196

9 p. 119

2006-06-15

Paying the Door

The door refused to open. It said, “Five cents, please.”

He searched his pockets. No more coins; nothing. . . . “What I pay you,” he informed it, “is in the nature of a gratuity. I don’t have to pay you.”

“I think otherwise,” the door said. “Look in the purchase contract you signed when you bought this conapt.”

— Philip K. Dick, Ubik

Pricing is sometimes touted as a universal path to efficiency. Big telecoms providers plan to charge for premium access to specific third-party web sites over their networks; this would entail tracking the priority of all data crossing those networks. Yahoo and AOL want to charge a quarter of a cent per email for guaranteed delivery. Hollywood and the recording industry plan a future in which technology can track everything you do with their content and bill you accordingly.

When these companies argue their new pricing will increase efficiency, we should ask for whom. Ubick‘s apartment-dweller who can’t afford to pay to open his own door illustrates the perversity of markets gone mad. It isn’t efficient to price everything. It isn’t efficient to pay the door – unless you’re the door, that is.

2006-04-21

Foundation and Prophecy

Much of the successful fantasy that I have read is obsessed with prophecy. Perhaps it makes sense: it harkens back to the old idea of cyclic time, the reassurance that what was will be again. But I don’t get it. Prophecy robs the characters of agency; it turns them into puppets. Yet it comes up again and again in the most successful fantasy—and science fiction.

Two examples from fantasy will suffice: The Belgariad, which I loved when I was twelve, and The Wheel of Time, which was diverting (though with an infuriatingly childish view of the differences between the sexes) but rapidly became tedious. Both are about young men born into simple farming communities, unaware of their magical potential (echoes of Star Wars). Both replay events of ages past; both are foretold in prophecies. The Wheel of Time tells explicitly of repeating cycles, as its title indicates. The first book of The Belgariad is Pawn of Prophecy.

It is an old pattern. Achilles was fated to live to an old age, or to die young, a hero; Cassandra fortells Agamemnon’s murder—half fasting, half eating, half bathing, half dry1; Oedipus to kill his father and marry his mother. But in these stories the prophecy creates tension: Oedipus’s father, in trying to cheat fate, becomes trapped by it. Cassandra’s curse is that no-one will believe her. Achilles makes a choice.

In these newer fantasies, heroism is a birthright: it is like being born with money. The fate of these characters seems unearned. On the one hand, these stories seem to say, anyone could be born a hero or a prince, even a poor farm boy. On the other, heroism is in the hero’s blood, not in his actions. It is a terribly romantic attitude.

How strange then to find it in Isaac Asimov’s rationalist Foundation.

Foundation is about the fall of an empire and the rise of its successor. One man, Hari Seldon, predicts the collapse. He sees that the empire will fall; he sees too that it will be followed by thirty thousand years of barbarism. But Seldon is a scientist: a genius of psychohistory. This discipline applies scientific reason to predict the behaviors of large populations. Seldon uses his psychohistory to chart an alternate course for human development, one which will shorten the dark age to a mere millennium. He plants two Foundations and sets them on courses which will control humanity to bring about his shorter dark age (though reading the books, I wonder what characteristic of the dark age makes it dark: the fallen empire seems as flawed as the fragmentation that follows).

Asimov’s Seldon Plan is no less a prophecy for being based on scientific mumbo-jumbo. The naive faith that reason could predict so much is somewhat charming for its obsolescence; like the old Star Trek it makes me wonder that people really thought that way. But it too denies agency to its characters; they are cut-outs whose actions only reveal the power — and justice — of the prophecy. The image of Seldon reappears from time to time to demonstrate the truth of his prediction and underscore the control his science has over humanity. This all strikes me as profoundly anti-human (Wikipedia says paternalistic), and little different from the romances I might expect his rationalism would oppose.

What about the greatest commercial successes — Star Wars and the Lord of the Rings?

Star Wars lacks the explicit prophecy, but the story of Luke echoes both the fantasies I mentioned and the history of his father. More importantly, he too is born a hero: his Force is in his blood.

While Lord of the Rings shares some of the qualities of the other fantasies (the unlikely small-town heroes, the weight of the past on the present), it is not as guilty of predetermining the fates of its characters. While I am convinced that the true subject of the story is technology2, in Lord of the Rings it is race that dictates fate. Body and spirit are split into dwarves and elves. Orcs are fallen elves, echoes of Lucifer. Hobbits embody the romantic values of rural society beloved of Tolkien. Only humans are ambiguous, and they are not central.

The stories are without prophecy, but that doesn’t mean the characters are in command of their futures. What I don’t understand is the popularity of these stories in which heroes do not choose their fate, it chooses them. Do we like to think we are not in control? Do we believe that the only way we can achieve greatness is to have it forced on us? Perhaps we are sensible, like Tolkien’s hobbits, and don’t really want it at all. Though that’s not the choice Achilles would have made.

Notes

1 This is how I recall Agamemnon’s death and Cassandra’s prophecy; however, a short search online hasn’t turned up support for this version. There are apparently several variants of the story.

2 Several years ago, an article in the New Yorker explained Tolkien’s romanticism and his objection even to the first automobile in his town.

2005-07-06

Books

I’ve been reading about hackers, open source, Microsoft, project management, and the golden age of cities.

The 12 Simple Secrets of Microsoft Management is a quick and easy read. It gives a clear picture of an organization with good management practices – excepting the cut-throat competitive culture. The Success of Open Source analyzes open source software in hopes of discovering whether its economic and social organization are applicable to things other than software. Although open source and Microsoft are the great success stories and natural enemies of the software world, from what I’ve read so far they are nearly twins. Pekka Himanen takes a wonderfully broad and diverse – and very seductive – view of the hacker phenomenon in his book, The Hacker Ethic1.

The original Mythical Man-Month is a classic, and there are many excellent descriptions of the problems of software development; his explanation of the joy of programming is a work of beauty. However, I must say that I’m uncertain of many of his solutions, mostly perhaps because of the implicit acceptance of the waterfall model of software development2. Mr. Brooks is indeed a wise man, for points this out himself in one of the later essays. Unfortunately, many software engineers I’ve met haven’t kept up.

Reading about Renaissance Florence I was struck by how many of the descriptions and contemporary quotes would apply equally well to hackers and software development. In fact, Paul Graham’s blog, which I found through Tim Bray’s Ongoing, explicitly compares painting to software development.

References

  • The Hacker Ethic, by Pekka Himanen
  • The 12 Simple Secrets of Microsoft Management, by David Thielen
  • The Success of Open Source, by Steve Weber
  • The Mythical Man-Month, Anniversary Edition, by Frederick P. Brooks
  • Cities and Civilization, by Peter Hall
  • Tim Bray’s Ongoing
  • Paul Graham

Notes

1 I always thought the Hacker Ethic was, “Information wants to be free.”

2 The waterfall model breaks development down into discrete steps for analysis, design, and development. This model has since been shown to be brittle and tragically restrictive for developer creativity, but in my experience many who claim to reject it remain its slaves. The Success of Open Source attacks this assembly-line “Fordism” head on , and explains that it was implemented by companies and managers when software ceased to be the exclusive realm of hackers and academics and became a business in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The success of Open Source itself is probably the most eloquent rejection of this methodology.

2004-04-13