Video: Brain Implants to Link and Augment Human Minds (The Science of Nexus)

Here’s video of my Le Web Paris talk, on Linking Human Minds. This is all about the current science of sending sights, sounds, and sensations in and out of human brains, and the frontiers of augmenting and transferring memory and intelligence.  Le Web did a fantastic job producing this. I love the split-screen showing me speaking and the slides at the same time.

The talk itself is a compilation of the very real science that I used in my novels Nexus (one of NPR’s Best Books of 2013) and Crux.

You can read fictionalized accounts of the uses and mis-uses of these technologies in the novels.  (Along with a non-fiction appendix at the back of each with more on the science.):
 Nexus
-  Crux 

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The Best Books Threaten the Powerful – My Video Message on Banned Books Week

My old friend Derek Wolfgram asked me to record a video message for Banned Books Week, on behalf of the California Library Association Intellectual Freedom Committee.  So here are some thoughts about the global brain, censorship as brain damage, and why the books that are banned are books we should go out and find a way to read.

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Actually: You ARE the Customer, Not the Product

Don’t believe the hype. You’re the customer, whether you pay directly or by seeing ads.

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: “On the internet, if you’re not paying for something, then you’re not the customer. You’re the product.”

This meme, and its various permutations, are meant to to convey that if you’re not shelling out direct cash for a service, that you should expect to be used by that service. Perhaps. But there are many many things wrong with it. In fact, it’s wrong in almost every way.

You are the customer.  You can do things no “product” can do.

Think about the things you can do that a “product” can’t do:

  1. You can stop using the service.  You can deny the company that provides it the revenue you represent. What product ever abandoned its parent company?
  2. You can look around for competitive offerings, and choose one of those. Again, no ‘product’ can do this. And this imposes pressure on those services that you and I use, and the companies behind them, that is very different than the model of customers as inert ‘products’ would imply.
  3.  You can use the service more… or less.  Your choices aren’t binary. You can scale up or down how much you use any of these services.
  4.  You can tell the world how great this service is, how great this company is… Or how awful they are.  You have the power not just to vote with your feet – but also with your voice, in all the myriad ways the modern world allows you to express it.  Companies know this. And it’s incredibly important to them.
  5.  You can make those choices on the basis of utility, or beauty, or privacy, or politics, or morality, or any principle or basis you choose.  The reasons are entirely up to you.
  6. You can change the service itself. That’s right. Everyone tells me that Facebook is on a one-way path towards less and less privacy. So why is it that over the last 6 months, Facebook has steadily introduced more UI that has made it clearer and clearer to me (in very proactive ways) who can see what information, and how to change that?  Those changes in Facebook’s UI and feature set are a response to customers. Not to ad buyers. But to you and I and everyone who complained about privacy. Inert ‘products’ don’t elicit change in the store shelves that house them.

Now, perhaps you’re sitting there, reading this, and saying “Ramez Naam has lost the plot. The real point here is that if a company isn’t charging me anything, they must be selling my data to make a buck.”  Well, consider this:

What stops a company that does charge you money to use their service from also selling your data?

The reality is much more complex.


  1. Charging for a service does not in any way imply a good privacy policy.  Getting your money does not mean that companies aren’t double-dipping to also sell your information.
  2. Similarly, monetizing via ads does not necessarily imply bad privacy. There are better and worse ad systems that reveal orders of magnitude different amounts of data to third parties.

What It’s Like Working On a Web Service 
Where does my perspective on this come from?  Well, I spent 7 years working on an ad-supported web service (Bing.com).  And what did we call the hundreds of millions of people who came to our site every day? We called them customers. And what was our obsession? To maximize their success at their tasks, their happiness with our product, their likelihood of coming back as satisfied customers again, and their odds of telling someone else that they had a good experience with us.

Does that mean we completely ignored monetization?  Of course not. The web services you use are, many of them, built by businesses. Those businesses exist to make a profit. But to make a profit, you have to have customers. And to have customers, to keep customers, and to grow your set of customers, you have to delight them, every day, again and again and again. That’s job #1 for any web service. No customers, no money.

Every successful web service knows that.  Every successful web company knows that you’re the customer. Any who forget won’t be in business long.   

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The Campbell Award – and Why I’m Optimistic About the Future of SF

Sofia Samatar has won the Campbell Award for Best New SF Writer! Huge congratulations, Sofia! Her victory makes everything about the post below, written before I knew the outcome, even more true:

This has been a challenging year for SF. It’s a year we’ve faced again the reality that sexism and racism and bigotry still exist here.

Yet I’d like to riff off of some thoughts I first saw Kameron Hurley express.

Because this is also the year in which the most celebrated book, no matter who wins the Hugo tonight, is Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. And it’s a year in which it’s worth repeating the names of nominees for the Campbell Award, for Best New Science Fiction Writer, an award very much about the future.

I’m writing this before the award, so I don’t know who won. But the nominees speak for themselves.

Besides myself we had:

Benjanun Sriduangkaew.

Max Gladstone.

Wesley Chu.

Sofia Samatar. [Who Won!]

That’s a ballot that looks more like a cross section of the WORLD than any other. This is a ballot that’s exciting and forward looking, in the diversity of the authors on it – their genders, their ethnicities, the nations they hail from and that they’ve lived in and live in now – and of the science fiction and fantasy themes that we collectively write on.

And if these are the best new science fiction authors, if these are the rising voices of SF, then I am profoundly optimistic about the future of science fiction and fantasy.

Fifty years ago this year, no lesser a dreamer of the future than the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King wrote that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”[i] I believe Dr. King was right. There are still some bad apples even in a community as progressive as SF. But overall, the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice. And we are the ones who bend it.

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Nexus is a Finalist for the Endeavour Award!

I’ve just found out that Nexus is a finalist for the 2014 Endeavour Award, for the best SF or fantasy book written by a Pacific Northwest author in the previous year.  Wonderful!

The full list of finalists is:

King of Swords by Dave Duncan (47North)
Meaning of Luff by Matthew Hughes (CreateSpace)
Nexus by Ramez Naam (Angry Robot)
Protector by C.J. Cherryh (DAW Books)
Requiem by Ken Scholes (Tor Books)

The winner will be announced OryCon, in Portland, Oregon in November. And it comes with a grant of $1,000.

So now for Nexus that’s:

  1. Winner of the 2014 Prometheus Award (tie with Cory Doctorow’s Homeland)
  2. Shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award (which Ann Leckie’s wonderful Ancillary Justice won)
  3. Shortlisted for the Kitschies Golden Tentacle Award (which Ann Leckie’s wonderful Ancillary Justice also won)
  4. Shortlisted for the Endeavour Award
  5. An NPR Best Book of the Year
I must say I’m completely thrilled!

Buy Nexus

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Nexus and Cory Doctorow’s Homeland Tie for the Prometheus Award

My novel Nexus and Cory Doctorow’s novel Homeland have tied for the Prometheus Award! The award is given to the best pro-freedom science fiction novel of the year.

Buy Nexus

I love the Prometheus Award because it’s focused on a particular criteria: Science fiction novels that both examine and advocate for freedom.

I wrote Nexus and Crux to explore the potential of neuroscience to link together and improve upon human minds. But I also wrote them to explore the roles of censorship, surveillance, prohibition, and extra-legal state use of force in a future not far from our own. – where the War on Terror and the War on Drugs have run smack into new technologies that could improve people’s lives, or which we can treat as threats.

Science and technology can be used to lift people up or to trod them underfoot. Making those abstract future possibilities real in the present is a core goal in my novels. I’m glad the selection committee saw that, and I’m very grateful to them for this award!

I also love that, while the award is given out by the Libertarian Futurist Society, the committee is extremely evenhanded in who they’ve awarded it to. Looking over the award’s history, it’s gone to roughly as many socialists as libertarians and largely to people who are neither. The common theme is science fiction that advocates for human liberty.

Finally, it’s a huge honor for me to share the award with Cory. As a novelist, a blogger, a columnist, and a speaker, he’s one of the most articulate voices for civil liberties in the digital age that we have. And he’s also been quite generous to me in reading and reviewing Nexus and Crux. I was really delighted just to be on the same shortlist.

From this year’s press release:

Doctorow, Naam tie for Best Novel

There was a tie for Best Novel: The winners are Homeland (TOR Books) by Cory Doctorow and Nexus (Angry Robot Books) by Ramez Naam.

Homeland, the sequel to Doctorow’s Prometheus winner Little Brother, follows the continuing adventures of a government-brutalized young leader of a movement of tech-savvy hackers who must decide whether to release an incendiary Wikileaks-style exposé of massive government abuse and corruption as part of a struggle against the invasive national-security state.

Nexus offers a gripping exploration of politics and new extremes of both freedom and tyranny in a near future where emerging technology opens up unprecedented possibilities for mind control or personal liberation and interpersonal connection.

The other Prometheus finalists for best pro-freedom novel of 2013 were Sarah Hoyt’s A Few Good Men (Baen Books); Naam’s Crux, the sequel to Nexus (both from Angry Robot Books); and Marcus Sakey’s Brilliance (Thomas & Mercer).

You can read the whole thing here.

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Political Polarization: Seek First to Understand

America is now more politically polarized than at any point in the last 20 years. This isn’t just Congress – this is the American people. That polarization shows up in beliefs about politics, about everyday life, and even in where conservatives and liberals live. And it’s most intense in those who are the most politically engaged.

In this world, I believe it’s more important than ever to try to actually understand what people of the ‘other side’ are saying, and to seek comprehension and to assume some positive intent behind their viewpoint, at least at the outset. That may turn out to be incorrect. Sometimes it’s just fear or hatred. But mutual comprehension is an increasingly scarce resource, and mutual distrust an increasingly abundant one.

I also believe it’s a civic responsibility to praise good ideas from the ‘other side’ and to point out misunderstanding, error, or bad ideas on one’s own side. I realize that isn’t popular (believe me, I do) but I see it as necessary if we’re to rebuild any degree of mutual comprehension and trust.

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Can We Beat the Surveillance State? My Keynote at CFP 2014

I was honored to be one of the keynote speakers at the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy 2014 Conference this year.

My talk gave an overview of the surveillance state we’re building today, and then used lessons from the past to show how incredibly dangerous that can be, before launching into the steps we must take – and are taking - to roll back that surveillance state and strike a more reasonable balance.

You can watch it below.

Big thanks to Amie Stepanovich and the other organizers of CFP 2014 for the invitation to speak at the event. It was an honor for me and also incredibly enriching. I learned a lot while I was there and met some incredible people working on the front lines of these issues.

You can see video of all the main-hall talks from CFP 2014 online now:

CFP 2014 Day 1 Talks

CFP 2014 Day 2 Talks

And for those of you who missed my talk at ADA’s Books, that bookstore talk wasn’t recorded, but the talk above is an evolution of it.

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Reducing Carbon Emissions Will Be Cheaper Than Expected – It Always Is

With the announcement of EPA’s proposed cuts to carbon emissions from existing powerplants, there’s already tremendous argument about how much they’ll cost. Some will argue that they’ll destroy the economy. How has that argument worked out in the past?

 


Not so well.

History tells us that pollution reductions are almost always cheaper than projected, even by the EPA.  I wrote about this in The Infinite Resource.  Here’s a slightly modified excerpt:

Ozone / CFCs

In the late 70s, DuPont’s Chairman of the Board had asserted that any connection between CFCs and ozone depletion was “science fiction.”   The company warned in the 80s that phasing out CFCs could cost the US more than $130 billion and that “entire industries could fold.”[i]

The EPA expected the phase-out to cost a total of $28 billion to the US economy.

At a Congressional hearing, a representative of the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (an industry lobbying group) testified that, if CFCs were phased out on the proposed schedule, “We will see shutdowns of refrigeration equipment in supermarkets. … We will see shutdowns of chiller machines, which cool our large office buildings, our hotels, and hospitals.”[iii]  As late as 1994, the Competitive Enterprise Institute was claiming that phasing out CFCs would cost the country between $45 billion and $99 billion.[iv]

According to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, the actual cost across the entire US economy turned out to be less than $10 billion.[v]   And the country’s air conditioning and refrigeration kept on working without disruption.

$10 billion is less than a tenth of what DuPont estimated, less than a quarter of the lowest end of the cost estimates from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and only slightly more than a third of what the EPA itself estimated.

Benzene

In the 1970s, when the EPA began to put limits on the amount of cancer-causing benzene that could be released, chemical companies forecast that it would cost $350,000 per plant to install equipment to meet the new targets.  A few years later, new processes that eliminated benzene entirely reduced the cost to zero.

Non-Freon Air Conditioning in Cars

During the CFC phase-out debate, US automakers predicted that it would cost $650 – $1200 per car to fit new vehicles with air conditioners that didn’t use Freon.  In 1997, the cost was estimated at between $40 and $400 per car, less than a third of the initial projections.

Asbestos

In the 1970s, OSHA, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, estimated that ending the use of Asbestos in manufacturing and insulation would cost $150 million.  A few years later, the cost was found to be half that, at $75 million.

Steel Coke Ovens

In 1987, the EPA estimated that reducing air pollution from the steel industry’s coke ovens (where coal is cooked as part of the process of making steel) would cost $4 billion.  By 1991, experience had dropped the cost estimate to less than $400 million, a ten times reduction.

Everywhere we look, the cost of reducing either resource use or pollution drops through innovation.   Even the cost estimates of regulators turn out to be too high.   And necessity – or profit - is the mother of innovation.

EPI has an excellent research paper on this topic. Recommended reading. Here is a key table showing how, time and again, pollution reductions are dramatically cheaper than expected:

You can read more about how we reduced CFCs and reduced other pollutants in my book on innovating to overcome climate, energy, food, water, and other environmental and natural resource challenges looming ahead of us, The Infinite Resouce: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet 

 


[i] Masters, Jeffrey. “The Skeptics vs. the Ozone Hole.” Wunderground.com, . http://www.wunderground.com/resources/climate/ozone_skeptics.asp

[ii] Whittemore, Jessica. “Reagan and the Montreal Protocol: Environmentalism at its Unlikely Finest.” The Presidency, 2008. http://www.thepresidency.org/storage/documents/Fellows2008/Whittemore.pdf

[iii] Cry Wolf Project, “Industry Claims About the Clean Air Act.” June 16th 2009. Accessed March 7, 2012. http://crywolfproject.org/quotes/quote-–-air-conditioning-and-refrigeration-institute-house-committee-energy-and-commerce.

[iv] Lieberman, Ben. “The High Cost of Cool: The Economic Impact of the CFC Phaseout in the United States.” Competitive Enterprise Institute, June 1994. http://cei.org/studies-issue-analysis/high-cost-cool-economic-impact-cfc-phaseout

[v] Hodges, Hart. “Falling Prices; Cost of Complying With Environmental Regulations Almost Always Less Than Advertised.” Economic Policy Institue, 1990. http://www.epi.org/page/-/old/briefingpapers/bp69.pdf

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Nominated for the Campbell, Clarke, Prometheus, and Kitschie!

I’m up for some awards, and on those lists with some fantastic people.

1) The Campbell Award

On Saturday the finalists for the Hugo Awards and Campbell Award for 2014 were announced.

So now I can reveal that I’m a finalist for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer.  I’m incredibly honored to be on that list, along with my friend Wes Chu, and fellow authors (and new friends) Benjanun Sriduangkaew, Sofia Samatar, and Max Gladstone.

This is an awesome list of new voices in science fiction and fantasy. Whoever wins in August, I’ll be cheering, and delighted to have been among them.

For me, this is the capstone of a few incredible months of recognition.

2) The Clarke Award

Nexus is a finalist for the 2014 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Out of 121 books submitted, Nexus was one of the 6 finalists picked, along with God’s War by Kameron Hurley (whose awesome, Hugo-nominated essay We Have Always Fought you should also read), The Disestablishment of Paradise by Phillip Mann, The Adjacent by Christopher Priest, The Machine by James Smythe, and of course, Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (the novel that has been on almost every award shortlist).

This is an award that’s previously gone to Margaret Atwood, Jeff Noon, Bruce Sterling, China Miéville, Neal Stephenson, Ian Macleod, Richard Morgan, and Lauren Beukes. Being on the shortlist for this year is utterly amazing.

And this year, three of the six finalists are debut novels, a fact I think is both remarkable and wonderful.

3) The Golden Tentacle (the Kitschie Award for Best Debut Novel)

Nexus was also a finalist for this year’s  Golden Tentacle Kitschie Award for the most ‘progressive, intelligent, and entertaining’ debut novel in science-fiction and fantasy. The Kitschies were announced already, and the wonderful Ann Leckie won for Ancillary Justice. You can watch her acceptance speech here.

Also on the short list was A Calculated Life by the fabulous Anne Charnock (who I’ve just met and immediately clicked with), a novel that explores similar themes to Nexus in a very different way; Stray by Monica Hesse; and the much-lauded Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan.

4) The Prometheus Award

Amazingly, both Nexus and Crux are on the shortlist for the 2014 Prometheus Award. They’re up against Cory Doctorow’s Homeland, Sarah Hoyt’s A Few Good Men, and Marcus Slakey’s BrillianceThe Prometheus Award honors books that celebrate liberty, and in that respect, it’s a huge honor to be on the same ballot as Cory Doctorow, who’s a non-stop champion of individual rights, and who’s been a huge booster for Nexus and Crux.

5) An NPR Best Book of the Year

Finally, while not an award per-se, it was awesome to see Nexus named as one of NPR’s Best Books of the Year

So that’s 6 placements on 4 awards shortlists and one prominent best-of list. It’s an incredible honor.

I have no idea if I’ll win any of these, but the recognition is…amazing. It’s more than I hoped for, particularly as a debut novelist, writing stories outside the traditional norm of science fiction.

Perhaps the best thing is that I’m on those ballots with friends, with authors I’ve read and admire (and who’ve been incredibly kind to me), and with the most celebrated and innovative up-and-coming authors in the field. Indeed, many of the people on those lists are becoming friends, as we speak. It’s a privilege to share the recognition with them all. With you all.

As the winners of the rest of these awards (and the large number of Hugo Awards) are announced, I’m pretty sure I’m going to be cheering on friends and people I admire. That’s a great feeling.

Mez

p.s. – There’s a fair bit of controversy around the Hugo Awards this year.  On that topic, Kameron Hurley brings exactly the right perspective.

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