Science Fiction and Fantasy: Looking at Information Technology and the Information Rights of the Individual

Science Fiction and Fantasy: Looking at Information Technology and the Information Rights of
the Individual, Saturday, 28 June 2008, 4:00 pm – 5:30 pm in the Anaheim Convention Center, 304 A/B, Anaheim, CA (Disneyland)

Distinguished science fiction and fantasy authors discussed their ideas about old and new technologies, how technology impacts humanity and future implications for privacy rights. Authors were Cory Doctorow, Eric Flint, Vernor Vinge, and Brandon Sanderson.

Vernor Vinge was first to address the audience. Vernor Vinge, who argued back in 1993 that “we are on the edge of change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth. The precise cause of this change is the imminent creation by technology of entities with greater than human intelligence” (“The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era“) began the session with a warning of a possible coming “Informational Dark Age.” He mentioned that Digital Rights Management proponents who favor proprietary formats can hinder technological progress, which he believes is crucial for human progress. He mentioned Charles Stross’s Glasshouse as a useful analogy.

Brandon Sanderson spoke about the appeal of uchronias or alternate histories, where one looks at a time period “through rose colored lenses” in places where modern people and concepts exist. He mentioned that fantasy fans love uchronias, noting steampunk, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Burroughs, Robert Jordan, and J.K. Rowling. He said scientific uchronias were popular in the early 1900s, involving warrior-heroes, and now the trend is toward wizard-heroes, where physical strength is not as important as mental acuity, where information is power and “the person who gives information is one who wins in the end” adding, “what librarians have always known.”

Sanderson shared that he was initially a reluctant reader because he was given only “classics,” which only taught him that reading was boring and that he wasn’t a “good enough” reader. The book that made him a reader was Dragon’s Bane. This story, though fantasy, was familiar to him because the struggles within it paralleled his own family’s struggles. He said librarians should teach people to love information first and focus on getting readers books they will love because that will make them readers.

Eric Flint argued strongly against current copyright laws. He said the Berne Convention was badly structured and that author copyright protections encompassing 75 years are ridiculous. He believes 40 years is enough to support an author, that anything longer actually hinders authors and other creators. Flint states that copyright law works in favor of corporations and that corporations want to define fair use out of existence.

Flint also talked about the advantages to e-publishing, noting that one format does not rule out another. He mentioned that although his first book is still in print it still sells well even though it is available online for free through the Baen Free Library (which offers 40 authors and 100 different works with no encryption- the only restriction is that you do not make money off of it).

Cory Doctrow said that copying isn’t what the Internet is good at; the Internet is best at making it cheaper to take collective action, which he says is another name for family, library, school, academic disciplines, government, and culture. The Internet is about “storming, forming, and norming.” It is communicating and creating communities of practice.

Doctrow says we are in an era of universal access to all human knowledge. He says that humanity has progressed from the days of hoarding information to sharing all knowledge. He said this is true about developing nations as well and cited his findings from his work with ALA-IFLA in Africa. He said that no matter where you were people accessed technology, whether it be regularly in real time on the Internet or every quarter year by latent links from a CD-ROM.

Doctrow said information architecture is political. He sent a rallying cry to everyone to “fight for the future of civilization. Fight over whether devices will control you or obey you.”