Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Award Season

Some ideas for Best Related Work:

ERIN HORÁKOVÁ, Boucher, Backbone and Blake: The Legacy of Blakes 7 (Strange Horizons)
JONATHAN MCCALMONT, Nothing Beside Remains: A History of the New Weird (Big Echo) [McCalmont: "I have decided to decline any and all future award nomi" -- whatever shut up]
VARIOUS HANDS, #BlackSpecFic: A Fireside Fiction Company special report (Fireside Fiction)
MANU SAADIA, Trekonomics

... having a category which includes big non-fiction books and online articles together doesn't make much sense (see Note).

By the way, since this is a time of year people read things, or remember things that they have read, I would be really interested to know of any genre fiction you've come across that touches on themes of economics and finance. For the Economics Science Fiction & Fantasy database, of course. Drop me an email, a comment, or let me know on Twitter.

For Best Editor:

A joint nomination for ANN VANDERMEER and JEFF VANDERMEER for The Big Book of Science Fiction.

Renay's Hugoogle sheets
The Sputnik Awards

For instance, perhaps also GEOFF RYMAN, 100 African Writers of SFF, Part One: Nairobi for Best Related Work? Although this is a fragment of a much larger ongoing project, so probably it deserves to be considered at a later stage. But I'm not sure. If an online article has a better chance of getting the award than a book into which it is later assimilated, surely that's a glitch in the award taxonomy?

How do literary awards fit in among other titles and title-like attributions, such as your professional qualifications and certifications, or the letters after your name, the letters before your name (such as Ms. or Colnel), your names, your nicknames, and your pronouns? I'm interested, for example, in how easy or how difficult it is for individuals to disentangle themselves from these public attributions.

Eligibility Posts:
Ian Sales was saying on Twitter the other day, if I saw and remember rightly, that he doesn't think eligibility posts are a good idea, and would simply quietly not nominate work by anyone who has written one. I've written in the past about why I think they are on the whole an OK idea, mainly because it's quite difficult to distinguish what is one and what isn't one (and any author who categorizes their shorter fiction according to the "short story / novelette / novella" wordcount taxonomy is to some extent swanning around eligibly), and because I think taking eligibility posts too seriously in the wrong way can be the first step to taking literary awards too seriously in the wrong way, and because they probably, on the whole, help to surface writing from the margins (although I'm on the fence about that).

That said, if you've only got a few nominations to make, I guess I would usually factor in my sense of the intensity and success of an author's self-promotion. So in a rough way I guess I do partly agree with Ian.

You could imagine a more hawkish version of his rule-of-thumb, where you refuse to vote for anyone who has not proactively sabotaged their writing career in the year in question.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Marta and the Demons

Marta is free! The demons are free! Marta and the Demons is free, for the next couple days anyway, on Kindle and Smashwords. This may be the last time for a little while, since I'll be removing it from both platforms to contemplate its absorption into something larger, currently invaginatingly indecipherable, but perhaps a novel?

Also, more free or free-ish fiction:
UPDATE: Invocation will shortly be free as well. I kind of now think the six individual books need titles. Maybe these: (1) The Moot Hoot; (2) The Cuddle in the Puddle; (3) Within a Buddy Grove; (4) It's My Party & I'll Scry If I Want To; (5) Thank ABAB for the Mnesic; (6) Off By Heart.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Interzone Guest Editorial

This week we announced the two finalists of the Sputnik Awards 2015/2016. Here's a guest editorial I wrote about the prize for Interzone 265 back in July (slightly tweaked).


After two years of faintly fusty Hugo Awards, the announcement came as a breath of fresh air with a zesty tang. In June, at WisCon 40, Nalo Hopkinson launched The Lemonade Award, to be presented for kindness and positive change in science fiction. The trophy is truly sublime. In fact, SubLEMON: each winner gets a sleekly fluted silvery Alessi® PSJS Juicy Salif Citrus Squeezer, a monstrous twelve-incher straight out of H.R. Geiger. When life gives you lemons, no one can hear you scream. Nalo Hopkinson should probably get the Lemonade Award for starting the Lemonade Award.

Meanwhile, signs of life are everywhere twitching. The Clarke Award, celebrating its 30th birthday, energetically contemplates future evolution. The new Eugie Foster Memorial Award plans to celebrate the best in innovative short SFF. Schneier and Quinn’s mathy analysis of mooted Hugo reforms show how things learnt in the context of fandom might have wider application. At File 770, Catherynne M. Valente and others toy with the notion of a new swarm of fine-grained smart prizes: ‘Best Action Sequence,’ ‘Best Twist,’ ‘Best Ending,’ ‘Best Villain’? ‘Best New Award’? Call them the Spoilers, Bruce Baugh suggests: “Make the trophy like a sci-fi hot rod’s spoilers. Seriously.” On YouTube, ambient SFF love reaches dangerous critical density and the BooktubeSFF Award bursts into existence.

And Sam Walton and I – from an original inkling by Ian Sales, and with assistance and dazzle from some dozen brilliant others – have created the Sputnik Award™. The winner receives a generously donated one year supply of Interzone. To delimit the Sputnik constituency, we’re adopting Valente’s procedure: “vote if you want, who gives a shit.” Voting is now open at

In fact, everything about the Sputnik Awards™ is open. It’s entirely experimental, and hopefully next year it will be a new experiment. We have settled on two themes to guide its evolution. One is digital democracy, or perhaps more generally, social media. Literary awards build spaces where fun and interesting conversations can occur, right? But you can say that about a lot of stuff. Perhaps a more compelling analogy is with user-driven content ecologies such as TV Tropes or Wikipedia. We collectively get back what we collectively put in, but that content is incentivised and transformed by a carefully-designed infrastructure. So could inputs be more varied than ‘books and votes,’ and the outputs more varied than ‘cultural capital’? We’ll see.

The second is politics, perhaps particularly left-wing politics. In 1843, after Arnold Ruge overheard Marx and his friends throwing him shade, Marx wrote to Ruge claiming that, “Ruge babes, our task is the ruthless criticism of everything that exists, babes.” Later that day, he wrote Capital. With Marx’s maxim in mind, perhaps the Sputnik Award™ trophy should be an almost traumatically vituperative critique of the winning novel. It could be, in Theodor Adorno’s words, written “from the standpoint of redemption,” and embedded in plexi-glass. Politics hasn’t decisively informed this year’s selection, but starting with next year, we’d like the Sputnik Award shortlist to give special attention to SFF with radical democratic themes, promoting social and economic justice, and celebrating not just individual freedom, but also collective freedom.

Oh and it’s Dungeons & Dragons themed, except with hedgehogs and stuff. It’s kind of dumb. Check it out.

Saturday, December 17, 2016


I began this blog about three years ago, with a great and sluggardly reluctance, having received quite a few petitions signed by the entire science fiction and fantasy community urging me so to do.

Each of these countless petitions, which were annoying, and one of which I actually had to go to the Post Office to collect, thinking it to be something else and becoming disappointed when it was not, although the Post Office is not far, beseeched me, never mobilizing less than what I guess you'd call like the total syncretic ingenuity and imagination of the entire science fiction and fantasy community, although mobilizing said totality with each successive petition in some new configuration with unique emergent properties, to go onto Blogger or Wordpress, or onto Tumblr if need be, in order that I might occasionally put up some reviews of SF and fantasy, as well as put up some stray thoughts connected with my SF and fantasy Creative Writing PhD, whose commencement at Northumbria University at around that time was a commencement which, from what I could gather from these several petitions and the grapevines throwing themselves bodily at my window, the entire science fiction and fantasy community, including many of its dead, and some people who were just literally made up, both fiercely brooded upon individually, and also tumulted over frequently in public, and each petition signed by said entire community moreover entreated me to put up a little thingy on the side with links to other blogs, so.

OK but that's not all. Superadded to this general siege of opinion, I had started to feel that those closest to me would sometimes, in a real casual way, slip into conversation a chance remark, not obviously aimed at me, which intimated that to hide one's l33t under a bushel might itself be construed as vanity, and that in a way wouldn't you say that, like, the most ostentatious blog you can have as a white middle class western cis man is no blog at all -- the eyes flick anxiously to mine, linger an unsettling instant, flick away. I caved. My caving is all around you. In the end it was probably the dramatis personae itself that did it: what was reiterated strategum by strategum, however laughable the local strategic design, was this bald provocation: if so many millions of entities, living, dead, exotic, imaginary, could draw together under this one bloggenic banner, if Alex Dally MacFarlane, Alice Tarbuck, and Aliette de Bodard, if Amal El-Mohtar, Amy Sterling Casil, and Ann Leckie, if Anna MacFarlane, Benjanun Sriduangkaew, and Brad R. Torgersen‎, if Carol Emshwiller, Catherynne M. Valente, and China Miéville, if Christina Scholz, Chuck Tingle, and Connie Willis, if Elizabeth Jones, George O. Smith, and George RR Martin, if Gillian Anderson, Harlan Ellison, and Jack Vance, if Jim Butcher, John C. Wright, and John Scalzi, if Jonah Sutton-Morse, Joseph Tomaras, and Kate Paulk, if Kathy Acker, Kevin J. Anderson, and Kim Stanley Robinson, if Kir Bulychev, Lois McMaster Bujold, and L. Ron Hubbard, if Larry Correia, Laura J. Mixon, and Lavie Tidhar, if Margaret Cavendish, N.K. Jemisin, and Nalo Hopkinson, if Naomi Novik, Nick Mamatas, and Paul Weimer, if R.A. Lafferty, Renay, and Robert Heinlein, if Robert Jordan, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, and Saladin Ahmed, if Sarah Hoyt, Sofia Samatar, and Sophie Mayer, if Steven Gould, Tricia Sullivan, and Vox Day, if countless others, could all make cause together to beg this one blog of me, if even Alice Bradley Sheldon and James Tiptree Jnr. could set aside their differences to ask this one thing, why then could I not set my false modesty aside, look into my historically-determined and socially-constructed heart, and blog?

But now the PhD is kinda done, so ... well, this will probably go a bit dormant now. A volcano puffing out the odd mothball. Or if I do keep it going more energetically, it may have to broaden a bit thematically: if I add poetry, games, teaching and politics and economics stuff to the SFF stuff, it might limp nimbly onward. But there are already technically places for that (Sad Press, Sad Press Games,, WokesgivingEconomic Humanities), so we'll see!

Anyways. Not one to tout my own Norns, but here are my three publications in 2016:

Excerpts from a novel-in-progress:
  • Big Echo SF, 'Cat, I Must Work!' -- also a standalone novelette. Equivalent Exchange just kicked off their short fiction highlights series with it. It has been suggested that, had this story not been published in 2016, the Leave vote would have squeaked a narrow victory in the UK Brexist referendum in June, a squeak of uncertain economic consequences (although certainly cataclysmic economic consequences for the UK). Some critics have even argued that without this story, there would be ongoing further intensifications and normalizations of racism and xenophobia, some quite serious stirrings of a neo-fascist state, as well as some probably insurmountable difficulties cast into the heart of the Labour party, a party which thankfully -- because I did write this story -- is now finally for the first time in decades offering a viable parliamentary-democratic alternative to the catastrophic dogmatisms of the cult of neoliberalism. Also republished an as an ebook.
  • The Long+Short, 'Froggy Goes Piggy' -- also a standalone short story. This was part of Nesta's series of short fiction exploring collective intelligence, and may well have been discussed at an event at FutureFest 2016 (I couldn't go!). Momentum Bristol has also picked it up for its 'Satire' section, which is maybe a better label than SF, idk. (See also Economy Hub papers, btw). One of the things I'm quite proud of, in this story, is how it contributed decisively to a complete reworking of energy policies globally, a drastic drop in carbon emissions, and the slowing of global warming; a climatologist was explaining to me on Twitter the other day that this year, temperatures in the Arctic would now be 20 degrees higher than normal, had I not written this story.
A short story:
  • 'It's OK To Say If You Went Back In Time To Kill Baby Hitler', online at Medium and collected in Up and Coming, ed. SL Huang and Kurt Hunt, an anthology of John W. Campbell Award-eligible authors. I read the whole thing at BristolCon Fringe and there will be a podcast of that available in due course. One of the tiny things I am happy about is how this prevented the presidency of Donald Trump, while also setting the USA on a slow but secure trajectory to non-imperialist intersectional socialism. I shudder when I think back to those days when it seemed like the choice was between Clinton and neoliberalism and nothing, unless you count Trump and probably-weirdly-neoliberal neo-fascism as an option.
Although 'The Internet of Things Your Mother Never Told You' appears in Twelve Tomorrows 2016, it was actually published in 2015; besides which, it is possible with principal component analysis to reduce the number of futures in the volume to just three. I'm not a mathematician.


Wednesday, November 30, 2016

New Genre Wednesdays: Ghost Symposiums and Laissez Lecturers

It occurred to me today that Twitter bots probably resemble genres or forms more than they do poets or poems.

Recently, with the help of many others, I've put together some Twitter bots. Works-in-progress, but ...
  • @GhostSymposium is currently organizing a conference. Contains some ideas for papers that really should get written. 
  • @TuesdayWeek12 is leading a poetry seminar and it's going just great. Source code here. All the tweets are drawn from the same pool, no matter what poem the bot has just introduced. Hopefully some of the time it will make sense anyway. It's a version of a similar slightly spammier bot, @closeroboreadin (AKA Jobot), with whom it sometimes interacts.
Both are made using Kate Compton's Tracery and George Buckenham's Cheap Bots, Done Quick! @TuesdayWeek12 additionally uses Twuffer, till I can figure out a better solution. Thank you to Bath Spa students and Surrey workshop-goers.

Meanwhile, elsewhere, I have a fairly-recent novelette, 'Cat, I Must Work!' in Big Echo SF for free (or now on Kindle for not-free). See also a short story from July, 'Froggy Goes Piggy.' They are both pretty standalone but also excerpts from a novel in progress, working titles incl. Come Meet Me In The Long Grass, The Feminist's Wife, and Alice Shrugged.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

New Genre Wednesdays: silver-lined Commander-in-Chuff

On dark days, there is the serious pursuit of the silver lining, and then there is the pursuit of an even wispier kind of glimmer. A thing that is not really a ray of hope exactly, but stands in the same relationship to a ray of hope as a bump of some cheap and nasty norepinephrine-dopamine reuptake inhibiting quasi-legal high crystals stands to cocaine. These are the possibilities you entertain entirely for the short term affective hit they can give, in full if somewhat suppressed knowledge that that is what you're doing. These are like the reasons that dreams give you for going from one frame to the next. They aren't even really stories you tell yourself to make yourself feel better. They are more like stories you buy on your Kindle to make yourself feel like if you read them they might make you feel better. They aren't much different from scrolling through puppy pics, only the puppy pics are formally morphed into political analysis.

Inevitably, this genre -- which might be a bit too fantastic to include among genres of the fantastic, but where else would you put it? -- has a certain ingrownness about it. Its narrative forms are difficult to make social, difficult to share with others, because they don't really invoke conventional communicative norms so much as seek loopholes and glitches in those norms. Trying to tell these things would be like trying to put the pleasure you get from tonguing a mouth ulcer into the form of a kiss.

Sometimes, perhaps, if you are willing to filter such notions through powerful abstracting platitudes, they might just flutter from one person to another. That Trump's bark is worse than his bite; that history is complex and you never know what anything will lead to; that this is why we have checks and balances, and besides, it's hard to make progress down-ticket while your party holds the White House; that what will be will be; that this is a wake-up call; that maybe now America will finally have to admit to itself what it's actually like; that if you're Pakistani or Yemeni the unpredictability of Trump could be a pro compared to the alternative; that we can still love each other and make the difference where we are and those differences are never small; that Trump doesn't exist in a vacuum and this way those supporters can be disappointed by their demagogue's lack of a YA science fictional wall with Mexico the way some of us were disappointed by Obama's deportations and drones; that Trump's defeat would have been little more than imperialist neoliberalism successfully adopting the mantle of a fierce, principled, and progressive defence of basic decency, a mantle with which its skin might easily begin to merge; that maybe now we'll get four years of Trump followed by eight of oh Elizabeth Warren instead of four years of Hillary followed by eight years of oh Ted Cruz; that you will not believe the ferocity with which the world, having been grabbed by the pussy, is now going to fight back; that maybe the new president means it about shaking up NATO, or about tariffs and protectionism and turning back the tide on outsourcing, and who knows where stuff like that might lead. There have been two reasons why these wisps have not really coalesced to sufficient stability to meet the low bar of -- not "plausible-sounding," but -- mistakably implausible-sounding platitudes that might feel good to momentarily entertain. The first reason is something that happened early in the night, if not earlier still; something that would have been true even had Hillary edged Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and some other state. All those fucking racists. Fuck them, including the ones who didn't vote. The second reason is the fucking planet.

Several temporary populations spring into existence on shadowy days like these, and then disperse when things get normalized, when our eyes adjust and it's as if it brightened. Maybe you are part of one of those temporary populations: the one with renewed political will, or at least a fight or flight reflex going crazy about now. Maybe you're a kind of ephemerid, possessing a perfect perspective and a whose mind is a towering cloud of ice. You're a kind of ephemerid, a creature who only lives for a few days, only the few days you live are scattered across time: you live only on the days after barbarian coronations. Loosely speaking. You might wanna lock yourself into something. Joining a mailing list might not be enough. Think big. You might not see this version of yourself for four more years. Do something you in four years' time would be proud of.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

I have started a little blog for my series of workshops on poetry, play, & technology. Links mostly. Maybe some video clips one day. Contribute to the Ambershadow Ambler.

& there's a new story in the Fall issue of Big Echo.

& Sad Press, the small poetry press that I co-edit, is fully glimpsable and skittering at the edge of everything extant, with recent titles by Tom Jenks, Karl M.V. Waugh, Sally Shakti Willow and Joe Evans, and a list for 2016/2017 which includes Anne-Laure Coxam, R.K., Eley Williams, Timothy Thornton, Jonathan Ferguson, Sarah Hayden, Emilia Weber, Andy Emitt, and Adam Roberts.


Enormous material prosperity has been secured by the advent of “makers” (Doctorow 2003: 150) and “Free Energy” (ibid. 6). There is no government and no law, and what collective organization does occur is described as “[a]d-hocracy” (ibid. 21). This pun on democracy and ad-hoc designates an anarchist model in which numerous autonomous, voluntary working groups set and pursue their own goals, inventing and dissolving their own working practices as they go. And when conflicts do arise? When shit does go down? When the cookie does crumble, who decides whereto it crumbles?

Whuffie decides.

In the thirteen or so years since Cory Doctorow’s short first novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom came out, its conceit of Whuffie has proved pretty prescient. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom imagines a world profoundly shaped by the data people generate by rating things. The Whuffie system constantly gathers data about how you feel about everything you encounter. Your Whuffie score is determined by how people feel about you and the things you're associated with.

Down and Out portrays Whuffie as a digital ‘currency’ that is earned and expended in a similar way to social status. Do things that people approve of, you'll earn Whuffie. Act like a douche, you'll lose it. Whuffie is a “reputation currency” (Das and Anders 2015 n.p.) in a world where “[r]eputation is everything” (Lewis 2003 n.p.). The novel’s narrator, Julius, describes Whuffie as having recaptured the true essence of money: "in the old days, if you were broke but respected, you wouldn’t starve; contrariwise if you were rich and hated, no sum could buy you security and peace" (Doctorow 2003: 8).

People with low Whuffie scores become social outcasts. They also have reduced economic rights. The novel is set in the Bitchun Society, an ambiguous utopia, the kind of place where all material desires can be met eventually. However, there may be crowds, queues, and other minor inconveniences, and for these things “Whuffie has replaced money as society’s mediating function” (Lewis 2003: n.p.). To be Whuffie-rich is to have the best seats in the house, to be ushered to the front of the line, or to have the most coveted voluntary duties.

Nowadays this all seems very familiar. Shares and likes on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook. Your Airbnb score, your Uber score, or whatever. Tinder and Bumble. Klout I guess. Peeple and China's citizen score system(s). Down and Out is set in the distant future, whereas more recent science fiction dealing with similar themes is set five minutes into the future.

But, on the other hand ... no! The thing is, it is difficult not to blur semi-relevant science fiction into whatever actually happens next. Once you know about something like Peeple, it's difficult to read about Whuffie, and not just conflate the two things. The science fiction accrues meanings from the history that subsequently unfolds, and those meanings come to occlude or even replace the science fiction. That's why every now and then you hear William Gibson popping up and saying, I haven't actually been as prescient as everyone seems to think. Gibson's cyberpunk featured telephone booths, not smartphones.

You will never get a straight answer out of me about Whuffie. I have spent far too long thinking about the stuff and now am bonkers with respect to Whuffie. Also the novel is full of fascinating tensions which may or may not be inconsistencies.

But just for instance, to pick out a few ways in which Whuffie is different from what we're seeing around us: first of all, Whuffie is magic. It really is. It rates everything and it isn't perturbed by the fact that some things contain other things, or are intrinsically entangled in ways you can't really disentangle. Whuffie can figure out Aristotelian efficient causes. It can divvy up the gestalt flow of life into discrete rate-able atoms. It can know your latent "opinions" about things in some kind of transcendent, context-independent way. We don't have anything like that. Something to explore another time, perhaps: is it metaphysically contradictory?

Second, Whuffie is also automatic and continuous. We don't rate things like that. Rating is a discrete act. Sometimes a pop-up might force you to rate something to continue, but there's still a definite moment where you do it. On the other hand, for many of us these days, our lives are subject to greater monitoring of an automatic and continuous kind -- there are wearable devices, there's Quantified Self, there's the Internet of Things, big data analytics, the continued growth of traditional forms of state and market surveillance. But all that stuff is somewhat separate from the ratings stuff. That is, the explosion in personal data collection is somewhat separate from the explosive reconfiguration of markets by metric assemblages that are generated out of P2P interactions. Which raises interesting questions. Like where and how do those two things, ratings and surveillance, overlap? And where and how could they overlap?

But perhaps most interestingly of all -- and this bit is totally feasible, implementation-wise -- in Down and Out, everybody has more than one Whuffie score. Or to put it another way, your Whuffie score is a set, not a number. Blink and you'll miss it, but it's there in the novel: the number of one-to-one Whuffie relationships is actually the square of the size of the population. By default, the Whuffie score you see when you look at me reflects how positively people you feel positively about feel about me. Because everybody knows different people and feels differently about them, everyone lives in their own, unique universe of Whuffie scores. Also people in the Bitchun Society know about this. It's part of what Whuffie means to them. It's not something opaque, something that some black box algorithm does when it curates your social media feed. They know, for instance, when it might be a good idea to switch out of the default setting. And this is not really what we're seeing around us, although again, there are some overlaps, and some potential overlaps.

Down and Out does portray something pretty similar to what you get in, for instance, the recent 'NoseDive' episode of Black Mirror (by Charlie Brooker, Rashida Jones & Mike Schur). It's a kind of riches-to-rags story, in which a character's score starts to slip, so that they encounter first-hand all that just-below-the-surface cruelty, callousness and irrationality. (Cf. Lee Falk's 1975 short story 'Time is Money' perhaps). But -- and this is one of the interesting tensions in Cory's novel -- it didn't have to go down that way. Whuffie is streamlined into the story so that it's usually treated as a kind of leaderboard, a single hierarchical schedule of value.

But the conceit is actually set up so that, in principle, you could be bottoming out with one set of people, while getting more and more popular with another set. I'm interested in that. 'NoseDive' was absolutely great at what it did. There was some interestingly subtle stuff in there (like the moment where a character gets a downvote apparently just because she's got a low score; or perhaps, because she's got a low score and is being uppity in some way she hasn't quite recognized yet). But for the most part, it streamlined things till it almost felt more like allegory than extrapolation. That is, the scores felt like allegories of money. Whereas I'd like to see more near future science fiction exploring the more complex dynamics implied by a conceit like Whuffie.

The Pitching Society

Some notes on Whuffie and entrepreneurship. At first glance, the Bitchun Society seems far removed from “the perennial gale of creative destruction” (Schumpeter 2012 [1946]: 103) which characterizes entrepreneurial capitalism. There are no corporations, no property, no banks, and no money other than Whuffie. Both in and out of the “ad-hocs,” the population of the Bitchun Society are busy with projects, adventures, schemes and rivalries, but like Banks’s Culture, the Bitchun Society is a utopia that has “all but done away with any sort of dull, repetitious labor” (ibid. 79).

Nevertheless, the figure of the entrepreneur still lurks in this post-money world. In particular, there is Debra, the de facto leader of an innovative, aggressive ad-hoc, who rapidly gains territory, influence, and Whuffie during the novel. As Schumpeter might put it, Debra’s talent “consists in getting things done” (Schumpeter 2012 [1946]: 103). Julius’s best friend Dan characterizes Debra as a “well-prepared opportunist” (ibid. 38). Debra also has a distinctive iconoclastic vision “beyond the range of the familiar beacons” (Schumpeter 2012 [1946]: loc. 2880). “If she had her way, we’d tear down every marvelous Rube Goldberg in the Park and replace them with pristine white sim boxes on giant, articulated servoes” (Doctorow 2003: 23).

In a deeper sense, Debra exemplifies one sense in which all the characters of Down and Out are entrepreneurial. In the Bitchun Society, fresh Whuffie is generated constantly, spontaneously and involuntarily, by a technological infrastructure which detects how its members feel about each other, and adjusts their Whuffie scores accordingly. Doctorow remarks in an interview:

Lucky for me it’s science fiction and not science so I don’t have to explain the workings of this stuff. [...] I also don’t have to explain the working of the neural interface, which [...] is capable of figuring out how you feel about any given thing anywhere in the world that you have any opinion about – without asking you.
(Doctorow int. by Koman 2003: n.p.)

Let's take a step back. Where does money come from? What's a 'wealth-creator'? Do entrepreneurs make money? Do they make it just for themselves, or for all of us (even though they get to use it first)?

With few exceptions, modern governments support but do not limit money creation. Capitalist finance is characterized by the coexistence, mutual dependence, and continually disputed boundaries between two kinds of power: “private economic power from the control of property and opportunities for profit-making, and the coercive territorial power of states” (Ingham 2011: 175). Particularly since the deregulation of the 1970s, the global economy has seen a shift towards private economic power, and an associated “shift towards demand-driven credit creation” (Bjerg 2014: 233; cf. Ryan-Collin et al. 2011: 104). This means private demand, not government policy, determines how much credit-debt the banks create. I think this is becoming more well-known, not least because some MMT economists really get off on being grouchy in public, and because elements of the prosletyzing Left (it me) have discovered QE and its variants and seem to believe all our problems are solved. Also there are some catchy simplifications: money is "made out of thin air by banks!"

It is also, in a way, made out of banks by entrepreneurs. The entrepreneur is the figure who knows how to correctly perform the 'demand' of 'demand-driven credit,' in two entwined ways. In one sense, the entrepreneur’s 'demand' is rhetorical: it is a petition or exhortation, organized by conventions of propriety, rooted in logical arguments, vividly anticipating future events, and woven together with vows of constancy. Schumpeter writes that the only person the entrepreneur “has to convince or to impress is the banker” (Schumpeter 1983 [1932]: 154).

Any individual bank does stand to lose money if any individual borrower fails to keep their promises. So convincing or impressing the banker may not be easy. Attuning to this audience’s formal creditworthiness assessment tools (such as ‘the five Cs’: character, capacity, capital, collateral, conditions), and informal expectations, and expertly acting entitled to money, is what produces money from nothing (cf. Burton et al. 2015: 533). Some informal expectations, such as those concerning race, class, age, gender, ability, and sexuality, may be unfulfillable by some performers (cf. e.g. Dedman 1997 [1988-1989]).

However, ‘demand’ is also a term of art within economics, meaning psychological resolution and sufficient money to purchase something (cf. Mankiw 2003: 53-56). For the mainstream economist, someone who is dying of thirst but cannot pay anything for water has zero demand for water. On this second understanding, bank loans are ‘demanded’ to the extent they are purchased, by paying back interest on top of principal (cf. Ryan-Collins et al. 2011: loc. 547). This presents an apparent puzzle. Money creation is ‘demand-driven,’ where the word ‘demand’ means ‘willingness and ability to purchase something.’ If new money is purchased into existence, where does the money to purchase it come from? But this ‘puzzle’ is really only an artifact caused by abstracting away the messy detail. Restoring some of that detail – inflation, international capital flows, economic growth, including demographic growth, asset appreciation, international balance of payments surpluses, as well as insolvencies, debt defaults and restructurings, and of course a perpetual cycle of refinancing as new credit repays old debts – makes it less surprising that money may be found to repay any particular loan, or that overall most loans are repaid.

The figure of the entrepreneur, however, offers an entirely different solution. It is a neater solution, but also a fantastical one. Like the worker and the sovereign, the entrepreneur intimates that they personally are the means by which “new money comes into being and is introduced into the economy” (Bjerg 2014: 1). In this, they become “the one who introduces the new, the innovator driven by the joy of creation – a figure with strong overtones of a Nietzchean individual hero, giving capital its constant forward movement” (Hardt and Negri 2009: loc. 3348).

Whuffie might be interpreted as an estrangement of the sphere of human activity that lies outside both markets and government. Concepts that try to characterize such a sphere – Tocqueville’s civil society, Tönnies’s community, Habermas’s lifeworld, Putnam’s social capital – all differ from Whuffie in resisting precise quantification. “Profits are measured in dollars [sic]. What is social capital measured in?” (Slaper and Hall 2011 n.p.). By contrast, Doctorow portrays Whuffie as a kind of ostentatious numeric embodiment of prestige. Whuffie does have a subjective aspect, since what score is displayed depends on who is looking. But Doctorow also implies this is only a default setting: any relationship in the Whuffie network is publicly accessible in principle. Whuffie’s front-end is quantitative, its outlines crisp and precise: “I pinged my Whuffie. I was up a couple percentiles [...]” (Doctorow 2003: 35).]

Whuffie resembles a network of credit-debts, rather than a simple popularity leaderboard. In this way, it reflects two aspects of reputation. First, especially in a large, complex society, an individual’s reputation may be many-sided and uneven. Second, although an individual can’t exactly transfer or exchange their reputation, they will tend to influence the reputations of people with whom they associate.

Drawing on the credit theory of money, we can picture every moment of feeling as the creation ex nihilo of a credit-debt. When Lil experiences positive affect about Julius, perfectly balanced assets and liabilities of Whuffie spring into existence. When Lil “[radiates] disapproval” (Doctorow 2003: 23) the two bookkeeping columns are reunited to some extent, cancelling some of the existing Whuffie. This is the sense that all Whuffie must be Whuffie ‘with’ someone – every asset implies a kind of liability somewhere else in the Whuffie system.

In their constant scheming, spats, rivalries, romances, their anxiousness to win and retain esteem, and their all-consuming preoccupation with Whuffie, the characters of Down and Out are permanent entrepreneurs. In the Bitchun Society, every public act – even before an intimate public audience of one – is a tacit demand to create new credit-debt. It is a pitch before an existing or potential investor. The populace of the Bitchun Society are perpetually characters in each other’s dramas, whilst perpetually locked in competitive struggle.

Construed as an allegory about forms of digital commerce, collaboration, and sociality, Down and Out is in equal parts enthusiastic and cautionary. The paradisiacal semblance of the post-money Bitchun Society is perturbed by its heartless fascination with quantification, as suggested by the brisk advice given to a suicidal character: “He’s got to get back on top. Cleaned up, dried out, into some productive work. Get that Whuffie up, too. Then he can kill himself with dignity” (Doctorow 2003: 18). There's a whiff of Le Guin's Omelas about Whuffie too.

But in a 2016 article, perhaps looking back on Down and Out through the rise of the brutally exploitative business models of platform capitalism (not to mention a lot of Instagram mocchas), Doctorow collapses the waveform of his ambiguous utopia. The Bitchun Society is a cautionary “dystopia.” Reputation “is a terrible currency,” and Whuffie “ends up pooling up around sociopathic jerks who know how to flatter, cajole, or terrorize their way to the top” (Doctorow 2016 n.p.).

Wetwork in the Network

Whuffie may be seen as an estrangement of what anthropologists have often called primitive currencies, but what I will follow David Graeber in calling “social currencies” (Graeber 2011: 130). Graeber describes how “the objects used as social currencies are so often things otherwise used to clothe or decorate the human body, that help make one who one is in the eyes of others” (Graeber 2011: 159). Whuffie also shares this quality of sartorial self-fashioning, although with a futuristic twist. Its users are all cyborgs, inhabiting an augmented reality, with Whuffie scores woven into their visual fields. Turning on Whuffie monitors is “normally an instantaneous reaction to meeting someone” (Doctorow 2003: 46). Whuffie is an integral part of how Doctorow’s characters look to one another.

Just like Whuffie – “your personal capital with your friends and neighbors” reminiscent of “the old days” (Doctorow 2003: 8) – social currencies form mathematically precise status networks. For Graeber, the paradigmatic social currency is used “to create, maintain, or sever relations between people rather than to purchase things” (Graeber 2011: 158; cf. ibid. 133). A social currency may be devoted, for instance, to arranging marriages or settling blood feuds. Although Down and Out keeps the details of resource allocation vague, the overall pattern is that the Whuffie rich enjoy priority access to “the piffling few scarce things left on earth” (Doctorow 2003: 71), without having to deplete their Whuffie to get them.

By turning the rhetorical demand for credit into the inexorable ground state of all social relations, Whuffie turns everybody into entrepreneurial figures. Yet in another sense, by so thoroughly merging money with the human, Whuffie threatens the figure of the entrepreneur with obsolescence. The entrepreneur claims to go beyond the values quantified by mundane market mechanisms in order to acquire truly new value. But Whuffie’s fine-grained omniscience might leave no value unquantified.

Traditional social currencies may likewise be ill-suited to entrepreneurship. They are usually not loaned and borrowed, nor “transferred to a third party in payment for commodities or services” (Bjerg 2014: 267). The value of a social currency is bound up in the way it tells a society’s story, a story that becomes less legible as the possible causes of exchanges multiply. Bridewealth or blood-money brought from “beyond the familiar beacons” (Schumpeter q.v.) would certainly be of dubious worth. However, in exceptional circumstances, social currencies may be used in anomalous exchanges. Bloch and Parry, summarizing the fieldwork of Bohannan among the Tiv of northern Nigeria – who had three distinct spheres of exchange prior to contact with Western money – hint at the rich frictions involved in conversions from sphere to sphere:

The vast majority of exchanges were [...] ‘conveyances’ within the sphere, and these were morally neutral. But under certain circumstances ‘conversions’ between spheres were possible, and these were the focus of strong moral evaluations [...]
(Bloch and Parry 1996 [1989]: 12)

Intriguingly, Down and Out also offers one morally fraught anomaly. An assassin, hired by Debra, confesses to a contract killing: “Debra would give me Whuffie – piles of it, and her team would follow suit” (Doctorow 2003: 191). However, Debra’s team are ignorant of the arrangement. Even Debra, by means of a mind-wiping technology, arranges to forget. The adjustment in Whuffie thus cannot be based, as it usually is, in affective states. The implication is that for once Whuffie must be alienable, a credit-debt which can be transferred from one party to another.

By engaging in exchange, Debra partway extricates herself from her idiosyncratic Whuffie nexus, and loops the loosened ends haphazardly around her hired gun. Qualitative human bonds are converted into “generic value capable of being added and subtracted and used as a means to measure debt” (Graeber 2011: 159). When the murder victim is “recovered [...] from backup [..] into a force-grown clone,” (Doctorow 2003: 29), he quickly glosses over the question of whether he is really still the same person (ibid. 36). Yet that is just the question which is raised by, not only the assassination, but also the anomalous Whuffie exchange which led to it: “How does it become possible to treat people as if they are identical?” (Graeber 2011: 159).

Whuffie’s topsy-turvy logic allows a mere “conveyance” (Bloch and Parry q.v.) to involve the rewiring of social connections normally characteristic of a “conversion” (ibid.). This is because Whuffie presents value as particularized according to its context. The upshot is that any transfer of value (‘conveyance’) is potentially a conversion from one kind of value to another, and may be “the focus of strong moral evaluations” (Bloch and Parry ibid.).

When the assassin makes Whuffie in this exceptional way, by an act of exchange, it also suggests the second aspect of entrepreneurial demand. That is, it suggests the entrepreneur’s marvelous gift for beating the market is not obsolete after all. The extra value may appear to come out of thin air, but there is a hidden history of violence at its root. The entrepreneurial figure themselves may be curiously oblivious to its source. Following the mind-wipe there is “no memory of the event, just the Whuffie” (Doctorow 2003: 192).

Down and Out hints that the entrepreneurial figure may be the addict of “expedience” (Doctorow 2003: 88), someone who must beat the market, perhaps claiming moral justification, but finally driven only by “pure brain-reward, a jolt of happy-juice” (ibid.). Debra’s anomalous use of Whuffie implies a drive to beat the market, even when the market is utopia.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Works Slighted

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