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Law, Technology & the Arts Open Book Club with Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson, Greg Lastowka, Tadayoshi Kohno, Bethan Cantrell, Moderated by Professor Ryan Calo.

October 18, 2012

Ryan Calo:

Hi everybody, how’s everyone doing? Pretty good, yeah. Thank you so much for coming. Welcome to our open book club. This is a law school event. Of course, you are in the law school. It’s put on by the Law Technology and Arts program which is a wonderful program that serves as a hub of research and dialogue around the intersection of law, technology and the arts, all three of which I think are represented in our discussion today. I also want to thank Ada’s Technical Books for selling books outside. Copies of Reamde both hard and soft cover which just came out. So make sure to grab one of those if you get a chance.
As to introductions, I myself am a new law professor here at University of Washington School of Law and I focus on privacy and also on robotics. And I’m going to be your host and moderator this evening.
And I want to also introduce our panelists as well. We’re very excited to have an interdisciplinary set of practitioners, scholars and of course author the theme of today’s book Reamde. I’m just actually always curious about this, so how many of you are not trained or training to be a lawyer? Wow, okay, look at that. I love seeing that. I love that you guys are here and I think that’s really wonderful and I just love to have you here as part of this discussion. This is the best response to that question I’ve ever gotten. Other times it’s usually like a third and I’m very happy with that. That’s an overwhelming number.
Okay just quick introductions here. So, Bethan Cantrell is a privacy and gaming professional. Prior to her current role as a technical privacy lead for a gaming system, she actually worked in online crime prevention education which may had been useful to Peter if he had gotten that at some point as well as online safety.
Also with us today is Professor Yoshi Kohno. He’s a computer science professor here at the University of Washington. His team has done some really exciting, interesting revealing privacy and security vulnerabilities for instance in home robots, or embedded medical devices like pacers or smart cars showing that you can get information from these things and take them over, very exciting work and we’re really glad to have you here as well.
Greg Lestowka is a law professor at Rucker’s, Camden and he’s the author of Virtual Justice: The new laws of online worlds among other works about law in virtual environments. He’s really one of the foremost experts on the law of virtual spaces and we’re really excited to have him here. And he also came all of the way from the East coast and he is going to be traveling to where tomorrow?

Greg Lastowka:

Manchester, England

Ryan Calo:

Manchester, England
Which of course brings me finally to Neal Stephenson. So I’m going to say about Neal what this American Life host, Ira Glass said about Joss Whedon which is that Neal Stephenson is somebody who either you have no idea who he is or you love him, right? And I think that more and more people fall in that later category. So he’s obviously a bestselling award winning author of Snow Crash and Cryptonomicron and Diamond Age, and Anathem and many other works. And we’re really delighted and grateful to have you here so thank you very much.
And today of course we’re going to talk about Neal’s recent book Reamde. I’m not going to do a recap of the book on the assumption because this is an open book club, you guys have obviously all read it except for my student Alex. But this is a book that one New York Times critic who incidentally generally raved about the book described as “thoughtfully nuts” when he was talking about the plot of Reamde. But basically it’s a founder of a video game, Richard Forthrast who is searching for his twice kidnapped niece Zula across multiple continents and within zone game called T’rain. T’rain is itself a kind of fantasy themed, massively mole, type online role playing game, which is kind of a mouthful. It’s kind like a world of Warcraft, but much smarter.
So I thought we’d start off and I would just start to ask the panelists some questions and I was going to start with you Neal. So there is a lot that I want to ask you about this book, but I’ll start with this. So Richard the protagonist, he’s a reformed smuggler who creates a virtual world. Hero the protagonist of Snow Crash was a self-created smuggler who reforms a virtual world and I was wondering what if any relationship is there between Snow Crash and Reamde?

Neal Stephenson:

Snow Crash was written very early in the internet. I only had the vaguest idea that there was a thing. I’m pretty sure that at the time I wrote Snow Crash, if you’d asked me to define the difference between Ethernet and the internet I wouldn’t have been able to do that accurately. This was in the era when e-mail systems were Balkanized. We had CompuServe and a couple of different sort of local e-mail systems but they hadn’t been joined together yet into one sort of global e-mail system and the future of that just wasn’t clear at all. So Snow Crash was kind of my best guess as to how sort of 3D, graphical, virtual reality might become a mass media. And it turned out to be totally wrong.
I thought it was going to be like TV. And so the picture of that world that’s given in Snow Crash is basically TV-like in a certain sense and instead what happened was the kind of driving application for 3D graphics turned out to be video games. And so in Reamde we’re kind of seeing what really happened, which is that video games ended up being the thing that made 3D graphics into a household technology.

Ryan Calo:

Greg and I were talking about some of the similarities between those two characters and maybe I’ll let him ask the question in a moment. One thing I wanted to talk about with respect to Reamde in particular is that it is set in a contemporary context, and it’s a contemporary context that is full of restraints. And it’s something that we as, many of you are not, actually trained in sort of cyber law, but many of us that work on cyber law think a lot about constraints and constraints of different kinds, so not just legal constraints but the constraints of say physics. For example, not one set, but two sets of characters are constrained by the physics of gas consumption and wind: Marlon in the boat and Csongor in VanJoneses jet. Software of course acts as a kind of constraint and it empowers characters in T’rain but also beyond. So for instance, Marlon’s encryption of Los’s hard drive is a constraint imposed by code, one that has consequences resulting in economic loss and that’s one case. And then human nature is itself constraining so that you have the Sokolov’s obligations towards Zula and the like. Arguably one of the only constraints that’s missing in this book is the constraint of law on human behavior. And so I wanted to ask to comment on the role of constraint in Reamde if you would?

Neal Stephenson:

Sure when I was a kid I used to read thrillers by Alice Durham McClain, so he wrote Where Eagles Dare and Guns of Nabaron. He was just a great thriller writer and produced these really kind of workman like thrillers that contained scenes and events in them that stuck with them. There is a sort of great cable car scene, not cable, but pram scene in Where Eagles Dar, for example. What thriller writers are doing is they’re making sort of artful use of constraints to tell an interesting story. So you’re on a cable car, there’s only one way down that’s not fatal how are you going to handle that? And so that’s kind of the name of the game in writing thrillers and what I wanted to do in the case of Reamde was to sort of write a new thriller. What I was aspiring to do was to make it at least as engaging as the McClain thrillers I used to read when I was a kid, but with a different set of constraints driving it. So there’s a familiar set of constraints that we see in traditional thrillers such as people get lost, we don’t know where they are, or they can’t communicate, the phone goes dead, or something like that or they can’t get some crucial piece of information. And then there are also other ways in which people are very unconstrained so if you want to get away you can sort of disappear in the crowd or something. In a way a lot of that has been flipped around and isn’t applicable anymore. So we’re all accustomed now to being able to Google, get any kind of information that we want, being able to pick up our mobiles and being able to call people all over the world whenever we need and know our exact coordinates on the app. At the same time, dissolving into the crowd isn’t really an option anymore. There’s surveillance cameras all over the place. So I was trying to see if an interesting story could be written that reflected the new set of constraints and sort of non-constraints that we live in today. And part of what I did in order ot achieve that because that’s a place where there is kind of ubiquitous surveillance of everything. Particularly if you are a Westerner in china, dissolving into the crowd is not an option. And everything that you do is going to be witnessed by a lot of humans and a lot of cameras. And so I just thought ath that would make kind of fertile ground for a new type of thriller with a new set of constraints.

Greg Lastowka:

On the question of not being able to sort of blend in and sort of having total visibility, obviously, the gaming environment is one in which in theory depending on how it’s architected, you could know everything about what people do and in fact, Richard and his team, they do…

Neal Stephenson:

They do and they don’t.

Greg Lastowka:

They do and they don’t. What don’t they know, what do they know? In some ways they know everything, IN some ways they know nothing,.

Neal Stephenson:

They can do a sort of database search and find out everything a particular character has done in that world, but they don’t know who that person is. They don’t know where in the physical world that player happens to be and what the identity of that player is. So what I was trying to do in this book was to create an interesting story by juxtaposing those two things together.

Greg Lastowka:

But it’s not the case that they have sort of zero information about where a person is for instance, right? Because ther’s all these weird linkages between you and say your IP address and where you might be and of course we see…

Neal Stephenson:

So you can make an educated guess about where somebody’s dialing in from. Well dialing is not the right word, I’m showing my age. Where a person is logged in from based on their global IP address. But if that location happens to be a city of eight million people in China, then well you’ve narrowed it down some, but you still have an interesting time ahead of you figuring out exactly who that person is.

Tadayoshi Kohno:

Actually maybe I’ll bring in Bethan in on this, but obviously the way that T’rain’s architecture ends up mattering a lot because it permits Avanoff to zero in on Marlon, but only at a particular time and only after a lot of due diligence and yet Marlon is able to launch Reamde Because of the relative anonymity that the architecture of T’rain affords him. So I guess I’m just going to ask, you having a background here in this, presumably it’s possible to build a system with zero anonymity or you know, complete anonymity? And what are some of the considerations that go into those things?

Bethan Cantrell:

So one of the principle privacy guidelines that we kind of follow is least collection. So you have something that you want to build and what is it that you need to collect from the customer in order to build that thing? And then you collect the least amount of it. And then people like me come along and on the backend, we say how can we make this data as useless as possible? So that all of the needs of the service or the game can be met without creating this really robust set of data about the customer that can be used for secondary purposes. So sometimes secondary purposes are okay. A secondary purpose would be querying it so I can find out what Marlon is doing, where Marlon lives, things like that. The purpose of collecting the data is so that Marlon can play the game and maybe so that if Marlon has a bad experience, he can call customer service and complain and customer service can do something to make Marlon feel better. The purpose is not to query it so that you can go and find Marlon and say Marlon, what are you doing…I mean unless he…[inaudible 14:32]So there is all of those kinds of things to consider, but the main one is least collection. You can architect for true anonymity if you don’t want to have any customer service or enforcement on the background. If you want to have customer service or enforcement then you have to have some method of identifying who that person is, at least enough that you can shut off their access to the system.

Ryan Calo:

So it’s interesting, it’s too bad that you didn’t work for corporation 9592 because in a way it feels like Richard’s way that he’s architect the system, he grants anonymity to allow for the participation of say Chinese teenagers because they contribute to the economic vitality of the space. Did you think at all Neal about sort of Richard’s motivations being good motivations or bad motivations? This is a theme of good and evil that comes up again and again in the piece.

Neal Stephenson:

What we’re trying to set up with Richard is this idea that he’s coming out of a pretty amoral background as a smuggler and he’s not inherently the kind of person who is going to be terribly concerned with ethical niceties. He just wants the system to work but he knows that it’s going to work better if the people who use it feel a certain sense of security and anonymity behind which they’re safe. I didn’t work this out in complete detail but I would say he would have worked the system out in such a way as to achieve that goal. And then lots of other people would have come in in his wake so that people who got hired to build it would have been worried about the kinds of things that Bethan is talking about and would probably see him as a kind of sacred monster in the organization, sort of smart and charismatic but lacking in sort of any particular moral compass. So these people would come along and try to set things up in a way that would avoid getting them in trouble and that’s kind of shown in the fact that when Zula is compelled to find the creator of the virus, to find Marlon, she has to sort of pull some strings and get access to some information that normally wouldn’t be given out.

Ryan Calo:

I remember when Google ended up having to fire an employee on Gmail because that particular Gmail was looking at people’s Gmails and then contacting them on that basis, and so it may be possible for somebody in one position to do it. But on this theme of good and evil and sort of Richard’s background, it’s just so interesting to me that Richard the way that he distinguishes T’rain from say a World of Warcraft is by this sort of hyper-realism, so you have the whole physics to it and the currency actually develops at a rate that it would in the natural world and yet, and there’s this whole narrative arch and all this time devoted to explain the story and yet when it comes down to this central conflict, it turns out to be between good and evil, and that of course is something that participants don’t buy into and they come up with their alternative scenario. And meanwhile I don’t know if there’s one character in Reamde that could be said to be purely good or purely evil. Was that conscious on your part? I guess I’ve always wanted to know, what role does the conflict between the brightness and the earth tone coalition play in your mind?

Neal Stephenson:

Well it’s kind of, it’s almost a little bit of an in-joke from Dungeons and Dragons. I mean D and D is the basis of all of these games. They’re all just basically some minor permutations on Dungeons and Dragons and back in the day, you if you were starting a Dungeons and Dragons character, you had to make the decision are they going to be good, evil, or chaotic. Which sounds really important, but in fact there was sort of no real difference. There may have been some difference in terms of what spells you could cast or what you were allowed to do but there was no actual conflict going on in that world between good and evil per se, so it was all just kind of pasted on just some labels. And so what’s happening in this story is basically that the vast gamer audience that plays this game is calling bullshit on that whole thing. They’re just saying there is no good and evil. It’s ridiculous. We’re just going to form sort of two different factions based on taste, based on a kind of intuitively held sort of sense of who belongs to which group and we’re going to fight it out over that and we don’t care what you top-down classification system is.

Ryan Calo:

So that’s sort of an example of participants in a virtual environment taking matters into their own hands and asserting control over that environment. I was actually going to bring Greg in to answer an question about, what sort of laws govern this? So imagine for a moment that Richard’s efforts to shore up the earth tone coalition were using a meteor spell that just takes out enormous groups of the enemy. But in doing so takes out a bunch of totally lawful and in fact invited economic activity. It’s not like Reamde if it’s a crime, literally someone is putting a lot of time and effort into making money and then some founder comes in and uses his ultra-powerful character to sort of put his thumb and in doing so displaces all of this economic activity, so what? Or is there any way that these people could respond?

Greg Lastowka:

Well what’s really interesting about the book is, for me, is that most everything that describes the stuff that is actually happening, so Second Life, is a platform where there is a purchase of virtual currencies for real money ad there is cashing out of the virtual currency back into real money and there are businesses on that platform. And certainly, World of Warcraft is explicitly discussed in the book and there are gold farming operations in China where people are working 24/7 trying to acquire gold and that’s a business for them just like Marlon’s business. And what happens in some cases, is the game company will say, your account is banned and then all of that investment suddenly vanishes.

Ryan Calo:

And that’s a risk that they’re just going to take?

Greg Lastowka:

That’s the risk that the gold miners will take. They stand to get a profit off of it, if they can avoid detection and sell the loot before it gets tracked down then they can turn their profit and keep on playing the game. The interesting thing that Neal does is this APIS system, I thought that was really clever, so you know Richard’s use of the goblin going in through the wrong way on the airport security detection scheme and tying in terrain with all of these kind of real world monitoring activities. It’s interesting because you say that well this is all marketing and it’s nonsense, but then other people do things. I think it’s exactly right, you create this new idea about a technology and then innovators will come in and actually build real working financial working models on top of that. So to your question would be, you have actually an APIS based real business making real money in T’rain, and a meteor comes and just destroys that business. I think the answer would be the terms of service. The terms of service would say you assume all risk when you offer on the Terrain platform, and if the company wanted to protest that suddenly they were destroyed by a meteor, I think that would happen, is Richard’s company would say, look at the terms of service and then they might actually, given that they actually have control over the environment, might reboot the backup servers and put back their stuff, but I don’t think there would be a cottonizable legal claim based upon that sort of risk that seems inherent in the environment. It’s kind of like an earthquake destroying a real company.

Ryan Calo:

Is it? Because I don’t know, I don’t have that intuition, I don’t know if you guys have that intuition. My intuition is that the big difference here, and I don’t know what your intuition is, is the fact that he built it on purpose to facilitate on purpose to facilitate economic activity in a way that World of Warcraft doesn’t. That’s his competitive differentiating point and the idea that you could use some lawyerly language in order to disabuse anyone of the notion that they could possibly rely upon that strikes me as amazing. So you really think the courts would just in every instance…

Greg Lastowka:

I really think a business to business transaction and that’s spelled out in the contract and they signed it and they say it could be destroyed at any time I think that would hold up, yeah.

Ryan Calo:

Even if it’s as arbitrary as one of the demigods in the environment deciding…

Neal Stephenson:

It would never get to that point because cooler heads, somebody like Richard would come in and say fine, I understand the legal argument but we’re going to lose business, people will hate us, we can’t have that.

Ryan Calo:

And then Corvallis would probably figure it out and do something technical.

Greg Lastowka:

So other forces, like market forces would intervene or these other human constraints…

Neal Stephenson:

I mean part of what you’re buying into if you’re in this line of work is that you’re having to be aware of the effects that your actions can have on the social media universe. And you need to be really clever about how you respond to those kinds of problems. You do not want to come off as the unhip clueless jerk who doesn’t get it.

Ryan Calo:

Especially when people’s, when money is on the line it feels like people would be particularly sensitive. So what are your intuitions Neal about the fact that this virtual environment makes Reamde possible? The virus it seems really couldn’t have worked without the architecture that Richard puts, and his company puts in place. Do they bear any responsibility in your view for making this possible?

Neal Stephenson:

Well it’s one of these things; it’s sort of the law of unintended consequences that always comes around to get you no matter what you do no matter what kind of system you create on the internet. Somebody is going to create some clever hack, some clever way to do something with it. Most of the time it might not amount to anything but every so often it ‘ll become homage. So this is one of those and we’ve seen it happen a lot on the internet and we’ll see it more in the future and I think it’s just a sort of risk that one accepts in doing business there. Part of what is going non in this book, is that we’re seeing Richard as a guy who’s been through some rough and tumble sort of, he’s kind of been relegated to a kind of ceremonial position in this company for a while because nobody knows what to do with him. But when this crisis happens, suddenly becomes the person everyone looks to for answers because he’s got this morally ambiguous background. He’s the only person who can really kind of deal with something this weird.

Ryan Calo:

So I want to bring in Yoshi here and talk about the technologies that have been deployed by the various parties. So there is of course this computer virus. There are these very sophisticated tracking techniques by whether it’s the English intelligence, or it is…so I guess my question for you is what are you seeing right now as sort of the cutting edge in emerging threats and how common is it for a new platform to emerge like in this case T’rain with certain characteristics that allows for an attack that was never possible before and how do people react to that?

Tadayoshi Kohno:

I think that’s a very good question. I think I might back up a little bit and describe what Reamde does for people that haven’t actually read the book. It’s a virus that spreads to people’s computers. Once you’re infected with it, it will take your hard drive or apportion of your hard drive and encrypt it with a key that only it knows. And then they keep a copy of the key and they say well if you want to have access to this data again, you need to transfer us some money. And the way they actually handle transferring this money is through the T’rain game as opposed to a credit card payment or any other type of payment system.
And so with respect to the evolution of bad guys and the kind of economics of crime on the internet, I think that any time there is a new platform out there, adversaries might try to think well is there some way for me to monetize this. And there is a number of reasons why they might do this. The first reason is that existing systems, people have already poked at it quite a bit, people have tried to monetize itquite a bit and the potential holes, lots of peole have already started ot plug. But if you have new systems coming online, the designers of the system may not have necessarily thought of all the types of attacks that someone might use with that system and then someone can think of something clever. In this particular case, I think that was a very clever idea to actually transfer the money within the game.

Neal Stephenson:

Thank you

Tadayoshi Kohno:

I thought it was very cool.

Neal Stephenson:

As you kind of intimated, the normal difficulty with Ransomware if you’re the bad guy is how do you get the money? You need to be able to do anonymous transfers of money and you need to be able to process them on an enormous scale. It’s not going to be one big score, it’s going to be many, many small scores and how do you create a system for doing that.

Tadayoshi Kohno:

I think it is very clever and to get to your main point, when new technologies arrive adversaries will try to see is there a way to make money with it.

Ryan Calo:

Well I wanted to open up the floor to you all to ask any questions that you have of Neal. I know I’ve been corresponding with you independently, each of you had a bunch of things that you wanted to find out yourself from the author, so I wanted to open it up to you to ask any questions that you might have at this time before opening it up of course to the audience as well.
Any questions Greg that you have.

Greg Lastowka:

Oh, yeah, lots, but I’ll try to be…Richards, the character of Richard, we talked about the constraints. The thing that really struck me about the book was this kind of fascinating, in a way it reminds me of Snow Crash, because of the themes of the virtual, but Richard is a much more mature character than Hero in some ways. And he’s embedded in this family structure. When you talk about constraints on him, the constraints of family seem to loom particularly large. And I’m wondering, in some theories of authorship they say that we break apart the author’s self into separate components, I was wondering if that’s potentially true of what’s happening with Reamde Is Richard some, in a way an evolution from where Hero was? Were you thinking of it that way at all?

Neal Stephenson:

I think from an authorial point of view this is one of the hardest things to deal with so it tends to come along later. So I think that earlier in one’s career it’s easiest to have your protagonist be an orphan with no kids or girlfriend or boyfriend and they just kind of run around and do stuff. And there are actually a lot of characters like that in literature especially in thriller type adventure literature because weaving somebody into a particular kind of family tapestry is hard. It’s a complicated thing. It does introduce constraints on their behavior and complications that consume a lot of cycles in the author’s brain. On the other hand, the point of view of what I was trying to do with this book which was to write a thriller that would be kind of interesting and kind of real, I feel like it’s a dead end to use characters who could only exist in thrillers. So there’s a certain type of character that shows up in thrillers who is completely rootless and yet possesses incredible skills with firearms and martial arts and computer hacking and so that’s easy, that’s easy. And so it’s more interesting to write about somebody who is constantly worrying about family issues. Right now I think the preeminent example of this is Walter White in Breaking Bad who is just this person who is in one sense, he’s living in a thriller world, making high tech drugs and engaged in organized crime but he constantly has to deal with these family complications. The cell phone rings at the worst possible time. So I guess it’s just building somebody who’d got more realistic family life, personal life, is just a challenge that feels worth taking on at a certain point in one’s career.

Ryan Calo:

Have other questions for Neal?

Tadayoshi Kohno:

I have a number of questions, and fortunately I have a notebook to help me remind me of them. But one of the things, that I really like reading the book, again, as Ryan mentioned I’m a computer scientist my area’s in particular computer security and one of the things that I enjoyed about reading the book is that every once in a while I’d see these nuggets related to computer security research that I might know a lot about or I might know a little bit about but it’s still research that we see being done either actively within the academic computer security community or in the blackout security community. And I guess my question to Neal was along the lines of how do you go about writing this book in terms of paying attention to technology? I’m trying to figure out the role that technology had in your creation of the bot in the sense of you see all of these things happening in the security community whether it had any systems like Thor or graphic systems, you know Ransomware and so on does that kind of feed into the creation of the plot or do you have kind of an idea of a plot and then pick out the nuggets that you’ve known from the technology?

Neal Stephenson:

Yeah, I mean I think it’s good to pay some attention but not pay too much attention to what’s really going on and look for examples that jump out as being particularly interesting. So one of the things that sort of launched this book quite a few years ago, was the case of the Filipino, I think it was like a fourteen year old Filipino kid in Manila who created a virus that just went nuts all over the world. I don’t remember which one it was, over the course of a few days and he became a kind of global celebrity out of nowhere because he had written this incredibly effective virus. So, one learns to look for events like that that they’re based in some kind of interesting technical phenomenon but they have effects that are easily understood even by nontechnical people. So a lot of what one talks about in the security world is pretty recondite mathematical goings on and it’s kind of hard to explain it but anyone can understand having their computer rooted and losing all of their data. And so this is one of those. This is a case where the virus happens to infect the computer that’s owned by a person whose data is very important to him and who really takes personal offense at it when this happens. And so situations like that are good for taking what might be hard to understand technical events and making them more understandable and real to a more general audience, I guess.

Tadayoshi Kohno:

I think that’s a very helpful answer. May I ask a follow up?

Ryan Calo:

Yeah, yes, sure.

Tadayoshi Kohno:

So actually I don’t know how long it takes to write one of these books, I presume it takes a significant amount of time and I’m just curious as you write them are you kind of nervous that some of the creative ideas that you’ve come up with are actually going to manifest in the real world and then kind of lose the punch in the book? Or do you see some of the ideas that you come up actually materialize?

Neal Stephenson:

I used to be a lot more nervous about that. And now I’m a little more relaxed. If something like that does happen, it’s just more kid of validation in a certain way.

Ryan Calo:

Bitcoin? Were you thinking about Bitcoin when you thought about this?

Neal Stephenson:

See Bitcoin, I became aware of Bitcoin after principle photography was complete for this book as it were.

Ryan Calo:

It’s a wonderful description of the way that he sets the economy. It’s almost exactly the same thing, cycles in order to build the stuff…

Neal Stephenson:

Well, yeah, building in constraints, mathematical constraints so that you can only produce money so fast. Well in a sense, that’s kind of the essence of any currency, right? So if you just print money, then the money is kind of worthless, so it’s kind of a self-evident idea.

Bethan Cantrell:

I have a question. Ryan and I were discussing it actually over cocktails in the cocktail hour. In a lot of your books you have this theme of privatization of street management in cities and lots of things. And for me when I think of that I think of libertarian concepts and the right to be left alone and things like that and I’m wondering along that same trend, when you’re looking at these societies where corporations own the stuff that they generate or they own the stuff that they control and they kind of divvy out the rights to it, who do you see owning data? Who would own the data that people are generating when they’re travelling those systems or when they’re being in identity within those systems? Does the individual own it? Or does the corporation that’s causing it to be generated?

Neal Stephenson:

You mean ideally how should it be, or how is it going to be?

Bethan Cantrell:

I guess do you have a concept of that when you’re creating those societies? I know it’s a huge subject…

Neal Stephenson:

I’m trying to tell a good story, unfortunately the answer is really, whatever makes a good story. And typically what makes a good story is what scares the hell out of people. From my point of view, trying to write a story that people are going to get into, I’m much more drawn to scenarios that are fascinating to people because it preys on deeply concealed fears about what the internet is doing to us or what have you. So given the choice, I’ll always go for something like that. You can see it, this kind of worrier is really out in the open right now. Everyone is on Facebook all the time and yet at the same time that they’re Facebooking, they’re sort of nervous. They’re making these nervous little jokes about who is seeing this and how is this data being used by weird, mysterious corporations somewhere. And so to me that looks like an opportunity to tell a scary story about something. That’s not to be confused with how I think it ought to be. But I think that in this case a writer can perform maybe a socially useful role by surfacing certain fears and making the boogie man jump out of the closet and scare the hell out of everybody. And then it gives that concern or that anxiety certain name and face that people can then talk about, so I think that’s always been what writers do. I think 50,000 years ago, when people were sitting around campfires telling stories, that is what writers were doing, naming the scary thing so that people could talk about it.

Ryan Calo:

The follow up to that in terms of the scary thing, I mean we haven’t talked too much about the character of Jones and the role of global terrorism. One way to understand Richard’s brothers who live in this society that is somewhat technophobic in a sense, somewhat, certainly gun-toting, isolated, you could read it in many ways as a sort of vindication of that decision about lifestyles in so far as they’re actually in a position to deal with this terrorist threat. Were you exploring that at all in the book? Were you sort of thinking through, just because I’m carrying doesn’t mean no one is out to get me as a theme?

Neal Stephenson:

I found kind of an interesting way to be useful as a writer is to talk about the things that people aren’t talking about. And it is a fact that this is a society in which a lot of people own guns and some of them are quite open about it and like to talk about it and very kind of proud and open about their status as armed people. And then there’s a lot of people who just have a gun in the closet or in the safe down in the basement that they inherited or that they got when they were younger. But there is a kind of a cultural divide in the country I think it roughly falls along the red/blue divide around this topic and I find that kind of interesting. And one of the interesting manifestations of it is this kind of blue state people who have guns but never talk about it because they know it’s kind of an unacceptable, sort of hidden thing. So that seems like a kind of a raw nerve ending that I couldn’t resist poking at in this book. And this was one way to do it.

Ryan Calo:

Speaking of guns there is also just an unbelievable amount of detail about weaponry. Guns are just gone into in such incredible detail in the book that can’t be coincidental. Did you do a lot of research about guns? Did you just know about it? It’s incredible. I’m not asking if you have one…

Tadayoshi Kohno:

…on you right now?

Bethan Cantrell:

I know right?

Neal Stephenson:

So this is an example of what I was talking about. So to some people it seems like, “he goes on and on and on about these different guns, it seems like way too much about that.” And then there’s other people who read it and say he totally got that wrong, that’s not…And so as an example, I used the word clip as a synonym for magazine. A clip and a magazine are totally different things. I got many, many, very detailed, clear, rational, controlled, disappointed, but not furious e-mails about explaining, patiently the difference between a clip and a magazine. So I think that what one does in a thriller and let’s remember that what I’m doing here is very consciously trying to write a thriller, again, sort of, this is the one time in my career I’m going to try to challenge Alistair McClain, the hardware matters. And so it’s necessary to kind of get that right. It happens a lot in movies in thrillery type, imaginary, thriller universe where certain books and movies happen that weapons are used as a kind of magic problem solving technique by writers and it doesn’t ring true when one fails to sort of account for the technical details of how they work. A cheap sleazy trick that I’ve used over and over again in my career is to talk about nitty gritty technical details. Because when you see that, when you’re reading along and you see this kind of detailed explanation of how something works, how the ignition of a car works, or whatever, if you are a certain kind of reader, it kind of draws you in and makes you say, yeah, okay, this is real…And so since it’s a thriller and guns are important I put a lot of that in.

Ryan Calo:

So I just want to push back a tiny bit here. And I know you have a couple of other questions. I’m an educator, the majority, I guess the panelists here are educators, my mother was an educator, my father was an educator, etc…I just feel like the level of research and detail that you go into, it couldn’t just be a function of it making it feel real. There’s got to be a pedagogic function of your work, I feel. So for instance, in Snow Crash, the interesting weapon is a play on the last argument of kings being violence. Anathem is a great example of this. I can’t tell you how much I learned about quantum physics for instance in reading that book. Are you really just writing a thriller that is accurate or do you feel like you have a pedagogic function in what you write?

Neal Stephenson:

I was living in the DC era in the late 1980’s. I’m at the point now where I have to really work to get my decades straight. This was in the heyday of Tom Clancy and the number of books that he was selling was just unbelievable. And someone made the point that if you’re a mid GS level Washington government functionary riding the metro to work in the morning reading a novel, there’s a sense in which reading arty novels is viewed as a waste of time. It’s sort of highly suspect type of behavior, but when you’re reading a Tom Clancy novel you’re learning because he’s teaching you about the, you know how much thrust is delivered by the engines on an F18 hornet and how much fuel it consumes when it’s on afterburner. There’s all this sort of technical detail in those books that to a literary reader seems just bizarre, why is this in here, but to a lot of readers, it makes them feel like they’re learning something. So when you’re sitting there reading that book on the metro, you’re not just being entertained, you’re actually learning something. So without wanting to emulate Tom Clancy in every way, I do think there is something to that in the sense that people enjoy reading novels when they have a sense that they’re not just being entertained but kind of picking up some interesting information about the world as they go. There’s an interesting thing about history is that a lot of people when they’re students, they hate history class and then later on when they’re adults they love to read history books. And it’s because the way history is taught in school is essentially not through narratives but through a different kind of structure. Whereas once you get out of school, you are allowed to read books that tell historical stories in a narrative form that’s entertaining and fun.

Ryan Calo:

Well I wanted to offer you guys any opportunities to ask any other questions.

Tadayoshi Kohno:

I do have one more…

Ryan Calo:

Yeah, please.

Tadayoshi Kohno:

…yeah, I’ll limit myself to one more. So maybe a brief comment before I dive into the question. I really love the balance between both the technical world and the physical world in this book and I thought that was really good, but I preface my question with that because I’m going to ask a question about technology because obviously I’m from the computer science department. I know a bunch of people here are from that department as well. I imagine that as over the course of creating something like this, there are many, many ideas that you come up with you thought would be great or very interesting from either the technological perspective or some other perspective that you weren’t able to include. And I don’t necessarily want you to give away anything that you want to keep for a future book, but I’m very curious if there are some ideas of things that you really wanted to talk about from a technological perspective or any other perspective actually but just weren’t able to fit in.

Neal Stephenson:

Into this one? Well not so much into this one because it’s a more focused book. But this does happen. I’m involved in a project now called hieroglyph which is a project to make optimistic science fiction because I've written so much pessimistic science fiction there is no farther I can go in that department. So we’re trying to create an anthology in which the contributors will write science fiction stories about interesting things that we could build today if we decided to do it. So my contribution is going to be a bout a tower, a steel tower kilometers high. So far I’ve only gotten the engineer to sign off on fifteen kilometers. But I’m trying to give him pep-talks and work him up to twenty. That’s going to be a kind of repository for ideas of that type, not only from me but hopefully from a number of other…

Ryan Calo:

Greg, I’m curious about because you write so much about virtual worlds, do you end up reading a lot of science fiction as a way to generate ideas about what you write about in your scholarship?

Greg Lastowka:

There’s enough to keep me busy with the real world at this moment. What I find interesting about, for instance, Snow Crash is that, and a lot of science fiction is exactly this in that Second Life, the creators of Second Life, the virtual world that I said is basically a lot what we're talking about here. They were inspired by Snow Crash. They said we want to create the metaverse as it existed in Snow Crash. The term avatar, a lot of people use that term because of Snow Crash.
So I think it is really telling that a lot of the engineering accomplishments are people trying to fill the dreams of science fiction to some extent, so I think that’s an important project.
Can I ask a question?
One thing that was really interesting in this book was the d-squared skeletor examples of science fiction back story, hack writing in a way and the contrast between like a deep role building, it’s kind of Tolkienesque getting into the linguistics versus churning out the novels and they’re both blindsided to a certain extent by the fact that the player population decides to do something completely different that doesn’t jive with the back story. And I know that you are currently involved in some interactive media projects and new media approaches and I was wondering if, and as a writer I think you’re kind of positioned in a way outside in some ways of some of the stereotypical aspects of the science fiction genre. Is there a commentary there? Do you see that there is something happening with regard to this? Your initial comment was that you thought this would be, to a certain extent the metaverse would be like television, but you’re saying it’s more like a game. Does the ludig approach towards culture herald something different for writing a narrative in the future?

Neal Stephenson:

Both of those writers in the book are essentially self-parody. So just to be clear they are both like the angel and the devil that sit on my shoulders all day long and the only thing that they have in common is that they tend to write at great length. There is a, I won’t say it’s a new thing because it’s been around for a while, but mega-fiction is a term that I heard from George R.R. Martin. I don’t know if he coined it, but maybe he did. It’s sort of the idea of fiction that’s just enormously long and complicated and it kind of overspills the boundaries of the conventional book. The common arena is the world of speculative fiction. There are many examples of it, the Harry Potter novels seven volumes which got to be pretty long volumes toward the end. And all of them I found totally engaging. I never had any sense of O, god when is this going to end? It’s the same with George’s stuff. So those two writers in the book are sort of my attempt at making wry comment about the existence of sort of mega-fiction in the world and how it gets manifested at the top and the bottom of the scale, of the continuum of literary respectability.

Ryan Calo:

I wonder Bethan , do you feel that as a person who works in this industry, is there a real, when you make decisions that are compliance decisions or decisions that are dealing with complaint, do you think about the narrative much in your day to day of the game that you’re working on?

Bethan Cantrell:

I think about the culture of the gamer and their level. Some games are much more skill based. Some games are purely enjoyable. Some games are targeted towards children. Some games are targeted towards mature audiences. So I think about how their level of comprehension based on who is portrayed by the primary consumer. I think a lot about the other people that I drink beers with from the EFF. What story am I going to tell them about the decisions that I’m making? How would I rationalize this? How would I rationalize this? Because I know that there are some technologies that are so complex that you have to make that story so simple and the user interface that you give to the customer, the privacy statement, the terms of service or the terms of use. Those are the ways that we tell the story so that the customer can understand it, but for the most part, the internal narrative or the target audience are the primary ways that we rationalize.

Ryan Calo:

I mean the narrative plugs into the marketing which then determines to a certain extent who your user base is going to be.

Bethan Cantrell:

Typically when you are working on a project that’s a specific project, a specific game or service you already know who you want your consumer to be and so you work backwards from that. If it’s something socially based, but targeted towards children then you’ve got a more complex narrative that you want to deliver to ward parents but you want to make them appealing towards children. If it’s something that is not socially based, but it’s very skills based, where Halo gamers want to play with themselves or I don’t know whatever. Reddub redemption, these different kinds of titles that you play in different kinds of titles that you play in different kinds of environments and what is that environment and how does that translate to what the customer expectations about data exchange are going to be.
I just usually talk to privacy geeks all day long or security geeks all day long, so.

Ryan Calo:

No that makes perfect sense.
Well I definitely want to get a chance for everybody to get in. I just want to ask one more question and then go to audience questions unless other ones come up organically here.
I really would like to understand Neal and others, would you want to play T’rain and why? Did you design a game that you would want to play? And was it a commentary on the existing games that are out there?

Neal Stephenson:

It’s wish fulfillment in a certain way. It’s kind of the game I always wanted to build or to have. Having said that the primary feature of these games is they are addictive and they are very carefully engineered to be addictive. There’s only so much time. If the perfect game came up I would just play that until I died, probably.

Tadayoshi Kohno:

Can we ask questions amongst ourselves too?

Ryan Calo:

Yeah, of course.

Tadayoshi Kohno:

So I think that the question about is this a game you’d like to create would be interesting. I think Bethan ’s with EFF people is a good comment too.

Ryan Calo:

It’s Electronic Frontier Foundation; they’re a civil rights group out of California.

Neal Stephenson:

They are the kind of people who would be hardest on Bethan about the privacy ramifications…

Tadayoshi Kohno:

I’m kind of curious to hear your thoughts if the authors of T’rain had to be accountable for the EFF, would the system look this way? Would it look somewhat different?

Ryan Calo:

If Marcia Hoffman was calling or Col. Paso what would they say about T’rain?

Bethan Cantrell:

Well I would need to see the user interface before I make the final call. The fact is as adults especially, when you go into our game you need to make decisions for yourself. I read privacy statements and I actually bookmark the terms of service for the stuff that I use a lot so that I can go and read it if something comes up that doesn’t seem right, I go and scan for it and I see does this make sense? Do those two things make sense with each other or am I seeing something that might be a flaw in the system. And early on in the internet you saw a lot of things where they didn’t quite tie together because people hadn’t quite figured out how to make the privacy statements, and the terms of use and the user interfaces and agreements all come together. I think T’rain looks like a really cool game. And I think that as long as you’re going into it as an adult and you’re aware that micro-transactions happen in a certain way, yeah cool, you know it seems like a pretty legitimate system. I was actually wondering how much research you did on that, was that a time…

Neal Stephenson:

Not that much.

Ryan Calo:

I definitely want to give people out there to ask some questions of our panelists. We’re actually recording this, I should say speaking of terms of service and privacy. We’re recording this and so it is totally conceivable that if you have a question people could hear it. But in light of that we’d also like for you to come up to the mic and ask your questions and maybe queue up and we’ll take a few and then we’ll call it a day, but please, by all means maybe start over here and then go…

Audience 1:

Hi, I wanted to say thank you for devoting your brain cycles and not to actually executing on the smuggling and cyber-security ideas that you have. My question is about suspension of disbelief and internal consistency. I think that a lot of us here are very literal scrutinizing minds. People are criticizing you for using clip instead of magazine or magazine instead of clip. What’s your own bar for building a world that is either very real like Reamde or not real at all in terms of how much scrutiny it can stand up to?

Neal Stephenson:

Well the basic thing that all fantasy and science fiction writers are doing is world building. So the fundamental thing difference between fantasy and science fiction versus other kinds of fiction is that, is that fantasy, SF takes place in alternated worlds that are in some sense more developed than what you see in the page and those worlds are judged pretty scrupulously by their fans according to how internally consistent they are. And so that is a crucial feature of any of this kind of fiction and that’s how we get judged. The one kind of loophole in this case is that the people sort of understand that in a written story you can do anything you want but that in a game you are subjected to constraints on processing power and what software and hardware are capable of doing. So there is a kind of agreement between the people who make these games and the people who consume them that the consumers aren’t going to be too picky and so if you’re playing Halo and you find that you just can’t go in a certain direction, you understand that it’s because they can’t actually make an entire planet. So there is just this tacit understanding between you and the people who make Halo that you’re just not going to complain about that. You’re just going to turn and go back the other way and kill some more aliens.

Audience 2:

I have a question for the panel in general. Earlier there was a discussion about a company building a game like T’rain where people are actually building businesses inside of it and what sort of responsibility they would have to these business people. Obviously the conclusion was that the terms of service is used as a way to protect the company against any occurrences, but it occurred to me that while protecting the company this could also cause them to lose potential revenue. For every Marlon out there, there’s probably ten entrepreneurs not willing to take the risk involved in. So I was wondering do any of you see a future where companies are willing to build games like this but make more guarantees to their customers or willing to take on more legal risk in order to encourage people to start businesses who might not otherwise?

Greg Lastowka:

I’ll just answer that quickly. Yeah, I do think that that is happening actually now and if you’re enthusiastic about that, one of the things that you’ll see is that just as contract can be used as a shield to insulate the company from liability because they don’t want to take the risk that all of the consumers are going to claim that they own virtual items or that they have stake in the world. You can also pull it back and provide a certain level of guarantees if you think that that’s going to lead to additional investments. You’d better be prepared to answer those consumers if you have promised them they have real stakes. There has actually been cases about this, I talk about some of them in my book, where consumers have said you promised me a real stake in your platform and now you’re doing something that’s inconsistent with that and I’m going to sue because you are converting my virtual property, for instance. But I do think that would happen, just normal market development.

Ryan Calo:

I want to add something to that as well. I think increasingly you are going to see a sort of corporeal element entering into some of these games and the like. As a person who studies robotics, we’ve actually gotten away with a ton when it comes to computers and the internet because all we’re talking about is information, here, right? And so in early days of computing there would be some glitch where you lose some really important document, maybe it was a spreadsheet with all of your clients on it or something like that and you’d go to the courts and say gosh I relied upon this computer and the court said, take a hike, it’s just a bunch of bits, a bunch of data and they invoke things like the economic laws doctrine which says all you really get is the cost of your software back or something like that. But to the extent that there is anything physical on the line, what you get, I think, increasingly is going to be the case. I mean now you have it in terms of sensory input. You have people using Kinect. You have folks developing games that have sword fighting as a major component of it and the like and I think soon enough you will also have the delivery of physical result on the other side as well that will no longer be possible. And so I don’t necessarily share Greg’s intuition that anything goes as long as it’s in the terms of service. I think there are going to be limits to that. He obviously is the expert. I am not second guessing you. I think that there are limits to that somehow.

Tadayoshi Kohno:

There ought to be. It is interesting that you propose that as the games change what happens? As the games change what happens. At least as the games start interacting in the physical world and affecting things in your environment.

Ryan Calo:

Like a 3D printer so you achieve a certain level and you get something physical as a result of it or you hurt yourself playing Wii. All of a sudden I’m not sure that those same terms of service, even if they said this is a physically driven sort of exercise, you are responsible for it. I’m not sure the courts would end up upholding that ultimately.

Audience 3:

Thank you. You made a comment earlier that you wrote a lot of pessimistic works and you want to write something more optimistic. I guess maybe partly because you said in a good plot you said you look for something that will really scare people. But I think not just in your works but other science fiction writers William Gibson, Margaret Atwood to name two, you really see this trend toward dystopian, pessimistic novels. I’m just curious what will it take to write something more optimistic and why don’t we see more optimistic, forward looking plots?

Neal Stephenson:

Big and interesting topic. It’s a bunch of things. Science Fiction, I think kind of jumped the shark at a certain point being too optimistic sort of a picture of the future showing of the original Star Trek was pretty sanitized and people sensed at some level that that was bogus and so when people came along with darker visions of the future in Blade Runner, Alien, or whatever. That felt a lot hipper and a lot cooler and that kind of became the way to be for a long time. It’s also in a certain sense an easier project to write a dystopian piece. You look at say the transistor; look at everything that happened as a result of the transistor that’s a pretty big field. And so it’s pretty intimidating right now to look at all of these technologies that could be at least as influential as the transistor and try to imagine where all of that could lead. It’s easier to say well there’s a worldwide epidemic only five people survive and they have to make weapons out of car parts and kill zombies. That’s a simpler project and in some ways it’s more entertaining. But the thing that we’re working on now, it’s kind of an experiment and it came out of the idea that if all of our pictures of the future are dystopian, then what incentive do people have to build the future? And could that be related to the fact that it seems like there has been a big slowdown in our adoption of new big world changing technologies? I mean obviously a lot has been going on with mobile devices and the internet and biotech, but compared to the difference 1900 and 1967 in terms of our build environment, the difference between 1967 and now isn’t that great. So what’s going on? What’s up with that? So Hieroglyph is a kind of experiment where we’ll try to get a bunch of people to write some stuff that’s more in the vein of let’s build a jet pack and see where that leads us. The worst thing that could happen is that it will be some entertaining stories and maybe it will actually lead to some real world innovation.

Audience 3:

I look forward to reading more like that.

Tadayoshi Kohno:

Can I jump in on a kind of commentary on the question and maybe I’ll clarify something on my remarks. So I’m coming again from a technologists perspective particularly a security person’s perspective. The question was about why are these books all pessimistic. I’m probably not as well read as many of the people here, but one of the things that I believe is that technology brings many benefits but if we think about security and privacy and all of the other risks. I don’t think that we as technologists know how to do it right in a way that doesn’t actually have these risks and so my hypothesis is that if we try to create this fictional scenario in the future there is bound some sort of problem simply because we don’t know enough about how to actually secure these technologies. And so I guess maybe yeah, that’s why.

Ryan Calo:

Neal I want to give you the first answer if you want it.

Neal Stephenson:

I don’t know if you followed the outing of The Violent Acres on Reddit so this is sort of capsule of this whole issue. The Violent Acres is the username of a person on Reddit who has been posting a lot of offensive content and someone finally got fed up with him, found out who he was and published his real name. He lost his job. He’s in a lot of trouble now. And so there is this huge controversy about it. No one knows what the right answer is. People feel they know the right answer. There is a point of view that says anonymity is good. People should be allowed to be anonymous on the internet. That encourages freedom and so one. And there’s another view that says it just leads to people behaving in reprehensible ways and it’s fine to out people who are behaving that way. So I don’t think we have right now the vocabulary or the kind of structures in our heads to know what is the right answer. There is people on the internet now, so the big argument between Reddit and Gawker, the two sites that just hate each other on the internet over this one issue. They are both sort of claiming to embody the ideals of pure good free internet behavior and they have arrived at totally opposite conclusions and they are sort of censoring each other and then attacking each other for being censors.

Ryan Calo:

I have a far less interesting answer that I now I feel terrible putting forward. I was going to say that for all the techno-pessimism that you see in literature and for all the thoughtful people like yourself who question whether we are able to build technology in a way that doesn’t run afoul of these security and privacy issues. You’d be surprised how often technology is touted as the answer to some problem involving privacy and how often companies will say it’s just a matter of changing the technology just a little bit or it’s just a matter of using privacy enhancing technologies. Technology ends up being what’s supposed to be the solution in an incredible myriad of different areas. I don’t know if you’ve seen those arguments as I have, but it’s very common that people will believe at least in a regulatory environment that technology is going to be some panacea, even so far as people not worrying about global warming because we’re just going to create an umbrella, a giant umbrella that’s going to protect us all. So at the same time there is this counter-thrust that is this techno-optimism that is so incredibly deep.

Audience 4:

I have a question about the creative process. This is mainly for Neal, but as far as everyone does creative work here, I would like to hear your answers too. Do you have any thoughts about overcoming resistance? Did you have any writer’s block while writing Reamde and how did you overcome it? And as a related note, you may be aware of the work of Steven Presfield, The War of Art and efforts like national novel writing month to overcome resistance in general and I’d like to hear you thoughts about the benefits of those activities.

Neal Stephenson:

I’m not a big sufferer of writer’s block. I think it’s almost a definitional question. I think that a lot of people get hung up on the idea that it’s a kind of a mysterious thing. That’s an obstacle. That’s a barrier. It’s more of a craft; it’s more like cabinet making. You don’t hear cabinet makers having cabinet making block, they might not have the right wood or maybe their tool isn’t sharp enough but they know how to address that problem. And so that’s kind of my take on it. It probably sounds like a horrible thing to say for people who actually do have writer’s block. But I just think that the idea of it is this mysterious art is setting people up for failure and it’s really about practice and it’s just about doing it a lot. From that point of view, I am totally in tune with the overall vibe of national novel writing month in that it’s not: “wait for the muse to descend from heaven on a ray of light and give you perfect inspiration.” It’s just :it’s November, it’s November, right, get going, write a novel.” I think that’s a nice alternative approach to thinking about writing that I prefer to the kind of fine art mentality.

Audience 5:

I’m a technologist and a scientist and so I’m not asking this from the perspective of a Luddite, but it was helpful to me that this started talking about constraints because really it sort of put the finger on how I put the finger on how I feel about virtual environments. I really suspect that there are virtual prisons. It’s true that they are freely chosen, but drugs are freely chosen and they are heavily and socially engineered by people that have a lot of social psychology technology behind them and there’s a lot of social influence that gets people in these addictive closed environments that are controlled and they frighten me and I think they might have something to do with the stagnation of change. I believe, of course, it started with television and other virtual environments like that. And it concerns me. And also talking about terms of service really concerns because there is really no way to comprehend like all of the end user license agreements that you have to face today. I put wire taps on my computers to find out what they are doing and I am amazed at the information that they are giving away that I have absolutely no idea about and I just think that to me virtual environments are constraints but maybe you could speak to the freedoms of them.

Bethan Cantrell:

I myself, I feel like I came to technology relatively late. I was 22 or 23 years old before I became completely obsessed and hooked on it. And what I’ve seen having been completely immersed in it for the last eighteen years is that there are aspects of technology, some aspect of technology that appeals very strongly to certain aspects of all of our characters and those aspects of our characters very often are strongly drawn to that. And much as we give away data without realizing that we are giving away data or that we are becoming heavily involved in technology in a way that is perhaps not mindful, we do have a responsibility to ourselves to monitor that our selves. I don’t think that the gaming environment is so much engineered to be addictive as it is very appealing to a certain mindset that is drawn towards that environment and perhaps is willing to engineer their life around the game that they are playing instead of having the game being engineered towards pulling that person in in an addictive and socially engineered way. So I think that just goes more towards intent and responsibility than it does anything else. I think we certainly see that there are people who spend their lives immersed in technology instead of having a life that is heavily involved in technology which is maybe a little bit of a twitch there but still kind of meaningful. And with the whole data thing, there is a massive amount of data that your computers do give up. And what I tell my friends and my kids is that reads the terms of service, do track the data, do see all of those little add-ons that you install to make the game more fun, see what it’s doing. But at the end of the day, you installed and you need to own it because you took the action to bring it on to your computer you took the action to sometimes run it onto the app. Read the terms of service, read the privacy statement as you say run wire taps, run whatever kind of technology you need to see what those data flows look like, but it’s something we can alldo.

Ryan Calo:

This is actually a different take which is that I tend to agree that it would not be possible for even a person with a lot of training to determine exactly what’s happening with their data just by reading privacy policies and terms of service. In fact there has been some push back in recent for instance by the Federal Trade Commission where a company will technically disclose what it’s doing somewhere in some document but because of the invasive nature of the tracking it will be determined not to be enough disclosure. And so for instance there’s a consent decree with the company Sears last year, or maybe it was two years ago, but recently where Sears was basically paying people money to download a particular kind of software onto their machine and it was doing an incredibly invasive amount of it was looking at everything you were looking at, everything you were downloading, et cetera, etcetera, etcetera. Technically if you were to click through every single link you would see everything it’s doing but the Federal Trade Commission didn’t th9in that was sufficient given just how invasive it was. I think there is a struggle between the tendency of companies, this is my own personal view, to be as broad as possible in their disclosures, we track your internet history to do stuff, that would never allow you as a non-specialist to get it. I do though, share Bethan ’s personal answer, Bethan ’s idea about the fact that you need to take responsibility for how much you use a say, a game. And I don’t know anything about internet addiction or gaming addiction. I don’t know if you looked at at all for purposes of you thing, but I think that for some small set of people it might be an issue. I think you need to take responsibility for entering them into your environment, personally.

Speaker 4:

If I could just clarify. There are certainly companies and applications that exploit. There are absolutely companies and applications that exploit. Sears made a massive mistake with how they handled that in my opinion. Companions have consistently while they’ve been playing catch-up, they’ve made massive mistakes with how they handle data collection. So I’m not saying that all of those people that for instance participated in the Sears study were at fault or were responsible because there is no way that the average consumer can even understand how those data flows work. But when it comes to things that you participate in like Halo, like your e-mail, like social networking, those are conscious decisions that you’re making with regard to how you’re participating in those in those organizations.

Audience 5:

Social psychology shows that really they’re not necessarily conscious decisions, that you are making many actions whose drivers are not conscious. And that’s why there is double blind research in science because scientists will unintentionally influence their research to the results they want without even knowing that they are doing it and I just suggest that there is a lot of possibility for this kind of effect in virtual environments.

Greg Lastowka:

Let me just jump in just a second. I think less than 1%, there is a study of less than 1% of people actually read their terms of service so the extent that that is our guiding governance framework for our online lives it’s a pretty awful governance framework because we’re not actually choosing to opt and they’re written I think defensively by the companies. I think the only thing you can say for them is that they provide an incentive to actually populate and create in this kind of new environment. And to tie it back to Reamde I think there’s a lot of discussion about Richard and the frontier and kind of moving into new environments, colonizing new spaces. And to a certain extent I think this kind of new virtual realm where a lot of things are up in the air and there’s a lot of entrepreneurial activity is a stage that we go through. But then hopefully, at some point, we’ll reach a place where the norms can be solidified and we can actually have a more stable system of expectations and laws around our virtual lives.

Neal Stephenson:

A building code. I just assume that there is somebody like Bethan out there whenever I ignore one of those terms of service things; I assume that Bethan is there and she is going to raise hell if there is any bad stuff in there.

Bethan Cantrell:

I do that on a regular basis.

Neal Stephenson:

Thank you.

Bethan Cantrell:

There is more of us every day. There is more of us all of the time.

Audience 6:

I want to know what you learned from going to China. I recently moved back from China and I never got the sense that big brother was watching because I wasn’t really sure that they could do anything with the data that they were collecting. I did get the idea that was out there was going to be copied over and over again whether it was a website, or your clothing style, or your name even.

Neal Stephenson:

Well I think it’s clear at least at the level of internet filters, big brother is definitely watching. I mean there are certain things that if you…there was an event, what was the date of Tiananmen 1:31:27It was like June f14 or June 19, but the Shanghai stock exchange closed at sixty-one thousand, nine, something, anyway the string of digits 6-1-9, whatever the date of Tiananmen happened to occur in the closing stock market index and it got automatically censored from the Chinese internet because they assumed , or some bot assumed that any time series of digits occurred, it must be an elicit reference to Tiananmen. There is that and the other aspect I think it’s pretty self-evident in China even if it’s not the centralized big brother it’s just that there’s a lot of eyes on you at all times. If you are a western or if you are anybody who looks the least bit conspicuous, you are being noticed by a lot of people who are out in the street. And some of it is just passers-by just spending the time of day sipping tea and in some cases it’s cops. It’s definitely going on all of the time in my view.

Ryan Calo:

A couple more questions?

Audience 7:

Sometime in the recent pass I saw news about the production of a Snow Crash movie? Can you provide any insider details on that? And what is your attitude? Do you want to get involved in this or do you have any feelings of fear that they will misrepresent the book, distort it in a completely different way?

Neal Stephenson:

Not too much but here is one thought experiment that might be interesting, what if they do? So what? If the book were new, if the book had only come out a few weeks ago, and then a big movie came out that somehow got it all wrong, then that could be a terrible thing for the book. But the book has been out for twenty years, twenty years. A lot of people have read that book. So I think that the game changes the longer a book is out. I think there are cases of books that get sold, the film rights get sold before the book is even in print. And the movie is in production while the book is being read by people and the movie can then become everyone’s idea of what the book is. That’s not the case with Snow Crash. It’s not as though every copy of Snow Crash is going to be rounded up and pulped and expunged from the internet. It’s just a new piece of art that’s inspired by or based on the book.
Having said that, the people that I’ve been working with for almost twenty years on this, there is a reason that I have stuck with them which is that I think that they’re going to do a good job. It would have been very easy to sell the thing to some random person and that’s not what we did. It’s been the Kennedy Marshall company all along. And that’s a company that is run by people I know and trust and it’s a company that has got enough stability in the world that they don’t need to, there’s no reason for them to gout and do some ting dumb. They’ve got the time and the stature to go about it the right way. The person who is hopefully writing it and directing it, Joe Pornish is an Englishman who did a movie called Attack of the Block which I recommend and it’s a movie that’s got funny stuff in it, so Joe has a sense of humor and that’s really crucial. It would be very easy to lose the sense of humor of Snow Crash and just turn it into a bombastic kind of loud violent movie. It may be all of those things, but that’s a very important fact about it. Another important fact is that if the movie had been made in 1994, we would have had to explain the internet to everyone. There is this thing called the internet. Everyone can logon. Then you can sort of interact with other people who are logged on. You have avatars. And there would have been this enormous burden of exposition in which we’d try to explain all of these concepts to people that everyone now just knows. And that burden is now lifted we don’t have to explain any of that. Another interesting fact is that in the mid nineteen-nineties, we could have spent an infinite amount of money on computer graphics and it still would have looked like crap five years later because it’s changed so fast. Now it’s so good that we can simply film all of the metaverse stuff live action and people would actually believe that it was computer generated just because there is very little difference now between CGI and reality. So we don’t have to deal with this burden of knowing that our CGI sequences are going to look ridiculous five years from now, so the time is right in a lot of ways and the people who are doing it are the right people I just think it’s a perfectly reasonable moment to go ahead and do this and see where it goes.

Audience 7:

Thank you for the very detailed answer.

Ryan Calo:

I don’t know if you heard George R.R. Martin on “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” and he was talking about how hard it was to film Game of Thrones because there was a tremendous amount of exposition and people don’t want to sit through a lot of exposition.

Neal Stephenson:

So they came up with a technique.

Ryan Calo:

A technique, that’s right. Can you tell us about the technique?

Neal Stephenson:

Oh, I get to tell the story?

Ryan Calo:

If you want. But basically the technique that they came up with was called sex position which is where if anyone is explaining any back story, they are naked.

Neal Stephenson:

They’re naked and having sex with another naked person.

Ryan Calo:

And probably having sex with another person and the more exposition you have to do the nakeder and the more um…
We have time for a couple more questions here and then we are going to wrap it up.

Audience 8:

I am not sure I can follow the sex position. So I am a technology person. I was a computer science grad student here. Now I’m a post-doc. And I’ve worked with Yoshi on security stuff. The discussion earlier in the start of the panel about how general constraints in this book kind of had a lot to do with the plot in a lot of different ways but were also important to you, I think you said this, at least, that it was important to you to get them right because so many people don’t. I wanted to ask both you and the panel a bit of the flip side of this which is things like in television at least at some point, maybe a year ago most popular show on TV was NCIS which was a crime drama takes place in DC. What strikes me about those shows as a proud EFF member and privacy person is that the plot of those shows is pretty much every episode the cops have to violate everyone’s civil rights all the time or else everyone in the country is going to die. And to me I think this is not only dishonest and poor writing, I also thinks this is actually harmful to society because we’re sort of training people that this is the way that cops operate. This is the way that cops will have to operate forever. So I wanted to ask both you and the panel whether you think that is true in any sense and also you as an author but also everyone else obviously has opinions about what we can do about this? How we can as artists fight back against that way of…

Neal Stephenson:

You are asking the wrong guy at the wrong time because just last night I watched episode 9 or 10 of the third season of Breaking Bad where the two meth cookers are trapped in their RV which is a rolling meth lab and the DEA agent is literally trying to pry the door open with a crow bar and it’s in the middle of a junk yard and the junk yard comes up and he looks like this skanky old junk yard owner and he immediately begins to lay out this finely detailed legal analysis of what the cop was doing. And he says, this is private property and what you are doing right now, clearly that door is locked, so you’re doing breaking and entering, so do you have a warrant, but the cop says no but I have probable cause and the junk yard guy says normally that would apply to a moving vehicle, this is not that. And the cop says you see these four round rubber things here those are wheels this is a vehicle. And the junkyard guy is like well it looks like a domicile to me. And the people inside the van start shouting yes this is my domicile get away from my domicile. And it happens that the door because of something that happened in the pilot episode, the door of this RV has bullet holes in it which had been covered up with duct tape. The cop starts peeling the duct tape and says oh look bullet holes, probable cause. And then the people in the RV are like well until you peeled off the duct tape you couldn’t see the bullet holes and so you’ve violated my fourth amendment rights by peeling the duct tape off it had to be obvious without…And so it turns into this big finely divided legal argument and it eventually succeeds in driving the DEA agent back he has to go back to his car and call a judge to get a warrant because he knows that none of what he is doing is going to stand up in court. This leads to the cookers eventually escaping, sorry for the spoiler, a very long winded answer. But the answer is as artists the way that we combat this is by writing scenes like that where the random skanky junk yard guy happens to know his rights and asserts them confidently.

Audience 8:

But that only works because we have loveable criminals, right?

Neal Stephenson:

Well they are not actually that loveable, have you seen Breaking Bad. They are highly ambiguous criminals but I’m just saying that it’s a complicated kind of marketplace of ideas and some shows are going to espouse the position that you have described in the case of NCIS and people who watch those shows may get the wrong idea but there is a conflict going on and I don’t think conflict is too strong a word between the people who write that show and the people who write Breaking Bad.

Ryan Calo:

I think we have time for one more question here.

Audience 9:

My question is about games Reamde has T’rain. You talked about Dungeons and Dragons earlier and you said something about the perfect game not having been invented. You also in your book, you talk about Go. I was wondering if you play Go. And as you researched this book or otherwise if you play any MMO’s and if you in fact do play Dungeons and Dragons or used to?

Neal Stephenson:

I used to play D and D.I don’t play Go. Every time I hear it mentioned my face goes hot with shame because in Diamond Age I made a terrible Go error. I confused it with a different game where you flip the pieces over,

Audience 9:

Othello?

Neal Stephenson:

I’m still getting polite but disappointed e-mails, or actually I think I fixed that.

Audience 9:

MMO’s?

Neal Stephenson:

I played Warcraft for a while when I was working on the book and then I stopped when I realized at level 72 I was doing exactly the same thing which I had been doing at level 1.

Audience 9:

What was your character and class?

Neal Stephenson:

A dwarf warrior.

Audience 9:

Thank you, that answers my question.

Ryan Calo:

Thank you very much.

Last updated 10/26/2012