March 08, 2004

Potlatch day 2

I went to most of the panels at Potlatch on day two (2/28). Here's what they were. Read on through the cut for absurd amounts of detail about them. If I had the time I'd make it shorter, but I'd rather get it posted than spend months polishing it into jewel-like brevity.

Life After the Singularity

At The Precipice: Assembling Human Space

Waiting for the Electrician

Shock Treatment

Deception Versus Transparency Smackdown

Life After the Singularity

For those not clued-in to the lingo, "singularity" here means a fundamental change in the nature of humanity or society. This panel spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out what that really means. A definitive example would be the point at which computing power becomes sufficient to fully model or simulate the human brain such that a person's "mind" could be reimplemented in hardware.

The problem came in trying to come up with an example in real life. It was generally agreed that while things like the advent of agriculture or the industrial revolution did remake society, they did not result in the kind of wholesale change that SF has proposed. The nearest thing proposed was the ascendence of Homo Sapiens over the Neanderthals (or whoever it was who came before us), but since we don't know too much about how that happened, it's hard to tell whether it really qualifies.

Really, I think the concensus that was emerging was that SFnal singularities are not a real-life scenario. It was pointed out that the events in Brunner's The Shockwave Rider take much of their verisimilitude from the fact that he depicts a future where people have not changed very much at all and the world has changed only incrementally except for a few key areas where more sweeping changes occurred.

Unfortunately, accepting the "singularities don't exist" thesis would have invalidated the panel's subject so discussion continued in a more speculative mode.

Someone wondered what would happen if some subset of humanity made a jump to another level. Something like what happens in Nancy Kress's Beggars books where the necessity of sleep is genetically engineered out of some people. One of the panelists suggested that the next-wave people might not look back on those of us left behind with much compassion. The room was optimistic enough to think this unlikely (and in Kress's books, the sleepless pretty quickly begin work towards uplifting the sleepers to their own level).

At the Precipice: Assembling Human Space

This was the most dynamic panel of the day. I took copious notes even down to trying to record who said what when I could tell. Rather than spend a week trying to synthesize them, I'm presenting them here only lightly edited. My apologies if I misattributed or misheard anyone's comments. Let me know and I'll update this account.

The word "Community" appeared about a thousand times so I took to writing just "C". I think I'll leave that alone here.

I put my comments in square brackets since no one heard them but me ;-)

Opening remarks:


How physical space is organized affects how people interact.

As we plan communities "are we desiging the places and the technology for community in such a way that it helps it or hinders it."


Community has saved my life. Use communitites as support both day to day and in crisis. Three kinds of C built, gay C, SF C, Music C. C is human, not structure. Travelled a lot growing up and think of self as a citizen of the world. Seen C used for political movements instead of family. Trying to bring the human viewpoint to this panel.


Interest in architecture and urban planning. "I know C when I see it." Precipice from Shockwave Rider vision of a village where C is part of the design assembled after a disaster as C project. Not just a single individual's vision. SR changed me because Ghirardeli Valencia Taliesin Port Marion(?) combination. Ledd to book A Pattern Language

Looking ahead, possibilities of this kind of disaster can lead to opportunites to build more environmentally. Move away from "centripital scattering". What happens when you take a bunch of kids from suburbia and put them in a spaceship? They can't relate to the tight social net of the old village model.


Had experience of living in an intentional community (Puget Ridge), one-time president of a cohousing organization.

Build places that are intended to be lived in as if they were a village. Just as one person's erotica is another's pornography, one person's cozy village can be another's hell on earth.

Cohousing is planned with mix of private and common space. Meals for whole C about 3 times a week (somewhat required). People take turns cooking and cleaning. Eco villages with clusters of groups. Or filling in a block.

Different from fandom where infrequent gatherings. Then there's Howard Rheingold's virtual communities. TNH's Making Light where single person acts as gatekeeper (and moderator/disemvoweler).

Who and what are gatekeepers of a C. What allows people to join? What prevents people from joining? Gatekeepers prevent tragedy of the commons if they do their job well. Sometimes whole community is gatekeeper. With cohousing, economics of owner occupancy sets a bar. Mix of people there already. Process of how existing group interacts. Can you have community without a formal process?


C started as need-web: those who provide the services you need, food, construction, entertainment, family ties. As tech has broken the need to address these needs in your locality, social and entertainment functions have been pried off the physical realm. Clothes from china, veggies from south america, may never see your neighbors. "gated communities".

Great Good Place by Ray Oldenburg

Disappearance of coffeeshops, beauty parlors. Third Place. In England, the local pub. For me Fandom is my Local. For a lot of people that is just gone from their lives.

[Nobody mentioned the book (which I haven't read) about this, Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam.]


Any group will form C if forced like in Jail or Military. Think of internet C as being interactive. Don't know neighbors and don't necessarily want to. Holly Park in Seattle closest thing to public housing, people formed a kind of southern porch-sitting community. City trying to engineer a repeat of that that by introducing mom & pop stores etc. T doesn't think it will work because it had to evolve. (Holly Park got mowed down by "urban renewal"... Physical structure influenced ability to make it a community. Had green belt. Mostly ranch duplexes, not tenements.

[Funny that Tamara who was suggesting that she was the voice for humans being the vital ingredient brought this back to the panel premise that setting plays a large part.]

Someone pointed out that military training builds a C feeling. Ulrika says that this is a result of the training, they have sufficient commonality to be able to interact easily with anyone from the group.

Someone else says that the architecture of Military communities fosters this as well.

Bronx stoop evening conversation too.

Things being tangential to a path allow levels of interaction from meeting eyes to stop and linger to sit and talk for hours.

Puget Ridge had none of the doors directly facing each other. [I'm assuming this was intended to make the decision of whether to interact a voluntary one rather than forcing it by lining things up?]

Someone brought up Kitty Genovese, the woman whose assault many people witnessed and yet no one reported to police. Too many people heard it so everyone assumed that someone else took care of it. If it had been 20, maybe nobody moves. 2 people, both move. It's a "who's in charge?" issue. Training can overcome this.

The action of people in that kind of situation tells you whether you have a C or not. If people take responsibility for others then it's probably C. If they don't, then maybe not.

Sense of ownership/intentionality Commitment leads to Community. (the "plugin society" in Shockwave Rider didn't have that)

Brunner's Precipice is populated by Heinlein characters with multiple jobs can't stand to not be working for the group.

Investment in situation. College is a good example. Prep school where all students were part of the construction process and responsibility for all actions of community. Like Amish barn raising as in Witness where Harrison Ford's character realizes he's more part of the C from participating.

Now specialization/money-based relationship doesn't have the richness of interaction to support C.

Convention committees as example of C.

Note that Brunner missed the possibility of social space within the computer world.

Virtual Cs are different. Social contact is as much a need as food and air. Online Cs quickly spawn physical gatherings very often. Reproduces the evolution of fandom.

Some people who talk well, some who type well.

Online chat is complete social leveller for handicapped.

On the internet nobody can tell you're a dog.

They can only tell if you're a bitch.

Lived in a group of 8 houses in green belt overlooking urban blight. Needed to be a C and was. One person worried about speed on road and just built a speed bump and resulting conflict tore C apart.

We don't know how to build C these days. Endemic isolation is almost a mental illness.

Have to find ways to get along in the space stations or the global community. Fandom has some of the best communicators on the planet. Know people who have no friends. People who don't know how to even connect with one other person.

C built on single interest and can die when that interest dies. On the other hand, the give and take within a larger group gives you churn which is good for the larger C.

Church was a way that it used to happen.

[I thought that "used to" was interesting. And wrong.]

You have to be the thing. Example of woman who invited neighbors over for pancake breakfast. Model it for others. In Fandom can learn how to socialize and can learn how to build C. Active group of participants who model C.

Someone gave example from fandom where they saw impulse towards showing love to others and were hence drawn into the C.

Concept of social capital. Gift economy forces the connections that make a group into a C. Egoboo as motivation towards participation.

And yet Worldcons have started becoming more like spectator events.

There's also the problem of your life choices putting you into a situation where your neighbors form a community that you want nothing to do with. (They're all republicans, say)

Waiting for the Electrician

(means you're in the dark.)

Eileen Gunn wanted to talk about digital publishing, specifically how her site Infinite Matrix could more effectively push fringe short fiction by established writers.

(I wanted to holler out that she should change the name to Last Dangerous Visions, but I restrained myself)

I have total sympathy for this, but Eileen wanted to make the site massively popular and self-sustaining without her having to do any work. Probably not going to happen.

There was an emphasis on the ascendence of the blog format and suggestions that fiction serialized in a blog-like format with an RSS feed might be a win.

The big question that no one had a real answer to was how to make online fiction pay.

Shock Treatment

By this point in the day my laptop batteries were running low and my personal batteries weren't too far behind. This was a wide-ranging discussion of the book of honor, John Brunner's The Shockwave Rider.

I'm sad to say I can't really remember very much of the discussion. The panelists came well-prepared with examples from the book. Someone talked at length about the hits and misses in the predictions made in the book (predictions that presumably are derived from the Tofflers' Future Shock)

Comments were made about the sameness of Brunner novels. Surprise was expressed at the revelation that the government was being run by organized crime (and someone pointed out that the surprise of this revelation can be attributed to the fact that Brunner had written about that possibility in a previous book and probably felt he didn't need to hash out all the buildup again)

Some incredulity was expressed towards the idea that the voting at the end of the book would have any very profound effects. This was explored in much more detail in the Deception vs. Transparency panel.

The concensus seemed to be that it wasn't a very good book except that it had lots of cool ideas and provided a good jumping off point for wide-ranging discussion. What more could a bunch of fen ask for? (besides a better-told story, I mean)

Deception Versus Transparency Smackdown

This one was really interesting and I wish I'd had enough juice left to take detailed notes because I can hardly remember it now :-(

I'm hoping somebody else took notes and will post them somewhere.

Posted by jeffy at March 8, 2004 10:52 PM
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