An Artist’s Responsibility, IMHO

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Photo by Jerry Kiesewetter on Unsplash

Last weekend, I was fortunate enough to spend the afternoon with a bunch of local writers, directors, and actors and discuss everything from when a child gets their first tooth to when a child takes their first step. It wasn’t lost on me that almost no one talked about their creative work–what they were writing, what they were directing, etc–which I found strange, because as an author, I’m always looking an excuse to talk about my books. I left the event feeling like I had rediscovered a group of people that I’m a part of but that I don’t spend time with. What really struck me, though, was how everyone there, as creatives, had a voice, and later, I realized, a responsibility.

Since my newest book is in alpha testing (hey, I mentioned my newest book!), I’ve been spending time catching up with a novel-in-progress by my writer friend Travis. He and I got to sit down and talk about his book, about the choices he made, the direction he was taking the characters, and so on. Since it’s just his first draft, I didn’t have anything huge to critique him about, except one thing: Trump.

There’s this weird kind of feeling pervading public discourse these days that we can’t be honest about our feelings without worrying we’re going to start a fight. We’re told not to bring up politics with family or at work or in mixed company because you don’t know who you might offend. Facebook, beacon of civilized communication that it is, has become a war zone where the weapons are Snooze, Unfollow, and Block.

People aren’t going to change their minds, so why rock the boat, right?

Wrong.

Maybe keeping your opinions to yourself and silently voting every 2-4 years is enough for the everyday Fine Upstanding Citizen, but you, blog reader, are an artist (I assume, anyway). In my humble opinion, I believe artists have a responsibility to own their beliefs and preserve them as best they can.

And I’ll tell you why in a minute.

Last night, as I sat around on the floor with students at Austin Impact Jeet Kune Do (come for the pulse-pounding music, stay for the scintillating aromas), we somehow started discussing Trump, and I got to tell a story that has become well-known to anyone who has asked how my newest book is coming (second mention!).

When Perion Synthetics was in alpha testing, I had a reader come back with some comments about the book’s political content. Consider this paragraph from the first draft:

“Vinestead stock rose again today on speculation its PMC division could be called upon by President Romney to secure our southern border. Many democrats are calling this back alley favors, citing the President’s push ten years ago for the controversial GA bill, which was introduced by the then-governor of Massachusetts. Speaking from the Rose Garden today, the President challenged his critics to suggest a better plan for keeping immigrants from becoming burdens on the backs of hard-working Americans. A statement released by Calle Cinco today calls the President’s remarks irresponsible and racist. No threat of terrorism was made with the statement.”

In the alternate Vinestead reality, Mitt Romney would have won the election. Having a Republican win elections is pretty much standard for any dystopia, but that’s another post. My reader’s feedback was to remove the reference to Romney and replace it with a generic name. And why?

Because taking sides in politics in a novel would alienate half of my readers.

This reader is a smart person, and you know me, always looking for more ways to expand my audience, so I changed Romney to Hadden and went on my way. It made little difference to the story itself, none actually, but to me personally, I felt strange about it. Why was I censoring myself? To potentially sell a few more books?

The advice I gave to Travis, and which I’m following in Hybrid Mechanics (third mention!), is to embrace your political view. Don’t make veiled references to a “part-time white supremacist,” call that minority-hating son of a bitch out by name. My reasoning is based on a very popular quote: history is written by the victors.

After the Sinclair / Big Brother fiasco of last week, it should be clear to everyone that the media can’t be trusted to remember history the same way those of us who lived it do. Therefore, it is my contention that history must be preserved by artists. Whether you hate Trump or love Trump (what the hell is wrong with you, honestly?), it is an artist’s responsibility to capture these moments for future generations.

Before El Matador was born, my wife and I used to make little videos chronicling his growth, telling him about the world and what we were doing in the months before he was born. And yes, the morning after the election, we recorded a video that I began with I wanted you to know how it felt the morning after Donald Trump was elected. And we told him how disappointing and scary it was.

The hope is that when El Matador is older, he can watch that video and know how his parents (just two normal middle class Hispanic Americans) felt the day after a pussy-grabbing racist dullard was elected President of the United States. No matter what the media says, no matter what the history books say, he’ll hear our feelings from our mouths.

And that I think is what is so important for artists to preserve: the feeling in America in 2017. They need to preserve it because someday in the future, the history of 2017 (and these following years) will be rewritten or forgotten or otherwise skewed. There are pure human emotions at play and enough mental gymnastics to fuel a thousand Olympics(es?). We need to capture it, keep it safe.

I tell the story about Perion Synthetics because in Hybrid Mechanics (that’s four), the entire premise of my book is based on the idea that the only possible way it makes sense that Donald Trump is the President of the United States is if we’re all living in a computer simulation that has gone way off the fucking rails. The characters live in a simulation (our reality) and they wake up to their real reality (the Vinestead universe). It’s an underhanded way of implying that our world is seriously messed up, but who can really argue otherwise?

I don’t know what my politically sensitive reader is going to say about the characters calling Trump out by name, and it doesn’t really matter. It’s staying in there. If the name of the President didn’t matter, if it were the same old Dem v Repub argument that has gone on since forever, I probably would soften it a little. But this is not a normal situation, and at some point, you have to take a stand.

Do a little. Do a lot. But do something.

You can keep your opinions to yourself and vote in private, but in your work where emotions drive everything, you can and should tap into how you’re feeling, even if polite society says you shouldn’t talk about such things.

Those are the same people who say you shouldn’t post about politics on a publicly viewable blog because it might hurt your employment chances when someone googles you.

But then, if someone doesn’t want to hire you because you don’t like Trump, doesn’t that imply something about their feelings towards El Presidente Pendejo? And would you really want to work for them?

Anyway, that’s my rant for today. If I offended you because you think Trump has some “really great ideas, the best ideas, everyone says so,” then you’re not going to enjoy my next book, Hybrid Mechanics, a cyberpunkian romp through an erotic dystopia chock full of witty one liners and inexplicable nudity (fifth and final mention!).

An Oral History of the Margate MESH

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The more things change, the faster they change. At no time in our history was that more true than in the years between 2018 and 2026 when America and most of the civilized world was almost brought to a technological standstill by a group of hackers who valued privacy over regulation and freedom over democratically elected control. This is the story of how the Margate MESH brought us to the brink and how the men and women of this great country brought us back.

Those Prying Eyes

LANGDON HUBER (Engineer, Perion Synthetics): I never saw the value in it, if we’re being honest here. Dealing with the telecoms meant encryption, and after the changeover in 2015, we started developing our own secure messaging in-house. Eventually, we were running our own fiber lines from the PC to the west and east coasts. So no, sending our data down AT&T Street or Comcast Avenue was never an issue for us, nor was it something we ever wanted to do.

WADE VUNAK (CEO, Nixle Chronos): It was definitely a concern for us heading into the tenth anniversary of OcularAR. Not only was BT inspecting every packet that crossed their network, they were taking their sweet time doing it. We were developing a multiplayer game built around augmented reality that required bandwidth beyond what BT was providing to the average user. With OcularAR already costing hundreds of dollars, we couldn’t very well ask the user to shell out hundreds more each month for the so-called Internet Fast Lanes. We needed another solution.

RAUL GARZA (SciTech Contributor, HowItDo): Oh yes, the Margate MESH. Uppercase M, E, S, H, like it’s some kind of acronym for something bigger. It’s not. It’s just a word held over from the early days of networking, a wild idea that maybe communications didn’t have to be centralized. I’ll tell you where it started: P2P. Kids looking to trade software they couldn’t afford who stopped leeching from servers on the Net after they started getting sued. And yeah, that was a big nuisance on its own, but it made everyone realize something: they were being watched. Not by the SysOps, but by Time Warner and Verizon. Every bit they sent down the line was being intercepted and cataloged, even those that weren’t expressly illegal.

TANZY (I.C.E-1): No, anyone with a basic education could find the tools to secure their data, whatever that data was. We knew the telecoms were listening in, we knew they were telling on us to the NSA, FBI, and local law, but we didn’t worry about that shit. If you were dumb enough to let someone listen in on your private conversation, you deserved to get busted. No, what really turned it around were the fucking moles. Media companies had been leaning on the telecoms for years, sending takedown notices and subpoenas to every file sharer they encountered. After we got smart, and the telecoms told them their hands were tied, they started flooding the scene with bogus files. Sometimes they were harmless, other times they had viral payloads. You couldn’t call them on it without admitting guilt, so the whole thing just stalemated.

This is an A-B conversation

GARZA: The collective attitude towards security and privacy hit a tipping point in 2016. Do-gooder companies like Miranda Enterprises and BreezeNet spent their advertising revenue on end-to-end encryption programs with ciphers strong enough to keep all but the best hackers out. Plexadigm launched their own satellite late in the year to provide an alternative network; it was slow, but it was supposedly free from inspection. You still had to worry about what happened when the data left Plexadigm’s network though. Whatever people tried, they kept running into the same walls. That’s when distributed computing really began to gain traction.

TANZY: We’d been using distributed comms for a while before we came up with the MESH. Our phones had apps that spoke directly to each other through NFC. Our slivers had limited broadcast capability that allowed us to trade small bursts of data with nearby users. It was a good start, but a truly robust wireless mesh required hardware far beyond a simple phone. Besides, developing for those platforms meant planting seeds in someone else’s garden. One of our earliest requirements for MESH was that it couldn’t be dependent on Motorola or Samsung hardware. We had always planned to release MESH as open source, so we knew we needed an open source platform.

HUBER: It’s no secret anymore that our initial synthetic prototypes were reliant on a centralized system for communication and updates. After what happened, we really didn’t have a choice but to look into distributed systems. A wireless mesh offered a way for our synthetics to talk to each other without having to rely on a third party to translate. Funny enough, the first few iterations we went through worked so well that our synthetics stopped talking to each other verbally for almost a year. It was pretty unsettling not knowing what our products were discussing, and I imagine that’s how the telecoms felt when MESH started taking off.

VUNAK: What we got wrong was relying on the rig architecture to deliver peer to peer communications. We were still dealing with lowest-bidder fabrication companies, and God only knows where the original parts came from, or what government agency had gotten their hands on them before arriving in our warehouse. The rig itself had the horsepower and broadcasting abilities, but we couldn’t trust the security of a system that we didn’t build ourselves. We were in the design phase when MESH popped up. Three months later, we started porting.

Reach out and touch someone

TANZY: We released MESH 0.1 for the Margate biochip on the first of April 2016. It was a full dump: executables, source code, and even some shitty documentation I was volunteered to write. A year later, we were up to version 2.05 and quickly approaching telecom speeds. More and more people made the switch; in one week, we received over two thousand photos of neck scars. Margate biochips were going in as fast as Guardian Angel and Ayudante chips could come out. We had a user base that rivaled FriendSpace and BreezeNet put together, but we wanted more. I can’t tell you who came up with the “killer feature” for version 3.0, but we all signed off on it. We all left the barn door open.

VUNAK: Leave it to a bunch of hackers to promise one thing and deliver another. Tighter integration with other platforms sounded like a great idea, and I admit we were really excited about it. MESH had been a godsend up to that point, but we still had latency between our biochips and the rigs. And yeah, 3.0 changed all that. Life was good. The future was as bright as ever. Then one night I’m closing up shop and I pull a rig off the shelf, one we hadn’t used in weeks. I booted it, and can you guess what greeted me? The Margate MESH. Version 3.0. It infected everything, and our only option was the nuclear one.

HUBER: If you believe I.C.E-1’s story, the MESH was never designed to run on anything besides the Margate Mark 4 and higher. Certainly no one actively ported MESH to the Guardian Angel chip. Something like that would have had to come from inside Vinestead, and they have no interest in people talking amongst themselves. They’d rather we not talk at all than to be cut out of the conversation. Break room gossip says MESH ported itself to the GA chip. I understand how that might be hard for people to believe, but I’ve worked around synthetics long enough to know that sometimes evolution just can’t be stopped.

GARZA: Oh yeah, it’s a total emergent A.I. scene — very sexy, very provocative. No one besides Perion crackpots actually thought MESH was sentient — though who knows, maybe it was — but even I.C.E-1 freely admits that the program’s only goal in life was to spread, to seek out other nodes and expand the MESH. To reach more people, to spread more data, and to do it all at light speed, the MESH needed to be in every biochip and compatible hardware platform throughout the world. In its infancy, it had been stymied by the closed architecture of the Guardian Angel and Ayudante biochips. And then one day… through some security lapse or stroke of luck or grace of God, it found a way.