I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Sunday, July 20, 2014

Prediction Two: Privacy

Orwell was right. We now live in a world where we're constantly watched. It's not just grainy black and white footage captured by security cameras in banks and supermarkets. With a few keystrokes, I can find color photographs of tens of millions of people doing very personal things, like hanging out with friends and family, going on dates, drinking, or just goofing around. I can see wedding photos, birthday photos, and photos of people at science fiction conventions dressed in costumes that do not flatter them.

What Orwell didn't guess was that we'd be the ones recording our own lives in detail and sharing things willingly, even eagerly.

Some people are outraged by the fact that the NSA is collecting data on their phone calls, intercepting emails, and doing other sinister stuff behind your back, like seeing what you're reading on Kindle. But, we think nothing of signing contracts with corporations to gather data on us for commercial exploitation. Google searches through your emails on g-mail for keywords they can use to target you with advertising. Facebook mines your relationships and likes not just for advertising, but to identify larger trends that might prove valuable. Amazon has a pretty good guess about the next album you might purchase. When you shop at a lot of real world stores, you agree to let them keep a data base of your purchases in exchange for discounts and coupons. Instead of being creeped out that there are major corporations who know what underwear you have on, we're glad that we can buy their products at ten percent off.

We have strict laws about what medical information can be shared and who it can be shared with, but every day when I sign onto Facebook I learn that someone or their sister or their best friend has just been diagnosed with cancer. We announce who we're sleeping with by linking that we're in a relationship, and the whole world gets informed when we stop sleeping with them.

We'd never think of going to a job interview in a bathing suit, but fill web pages with photos of ourselves sunning by the pool.

Most people wouldn't like it if they were constantly followed around by police. But, most people with cell phones really appreciate that the phone company can keep track of them as they travel. With my GPS enabled smart phone, I'll sometimes be out hiking and suddenly get a text from Cheryl commenting on the scenery surrounding me, since she can watch the progress of my hike on Endomondo and see via satellite photo where I am. Rather than find this unnerving, I feel an extra sense of security knowing that I can go into remote places and not be in danger of falling and breaking a leg and languishing away where no one can find me.

Judging from the current state of things, it would seem like we didn't value privacy all that much. We'll trade it away for convenience and coupons and credit cards, for free apps and 15 seconds of fame--or 15 words on twitter.

Of course, some people do care about their privacy. They do care about the information that's available about their health, relationships, and finances. It's going to be a tough life for these people, since they will increasingly find themselves locked out of the modern economy. In an age of streaming, you won't even be able to become a TV watching recluse disconnected from the rest of the world. Netflix is going to know 1000 secrets about you by your viewing choices.

All this sharing will come with consequences. Right now, I don't think employers have yet taken full advantage of all the information that's available to them. I imagine we're heading for a day when a comprehensive web search will be routine before you can be hired. I saw a Facebook post the other day where someone reviewed an episode of Game of Thrones as being an experience comparable to anal rape. This is the sort of crazy hyperbole that can be funny between friends. But, say you're hiring for a position in a service industry. Do you want to take a chance on someone who finds rape jokes acceptable in a public forum?

Every day, I see people post strong political commentary. I post strong political commentary. Today, there are numerous examples of prominent people who have lost jobs and/or fans because of political opinions that weren't particularly radical up until the moment that they were. Every opinion we type down is going to be fair game for employers. Some of it will be a wash. If you're conservative, and applying to work in a gun store, you're in luck. A liberal applying for a job at a health food store? Probably not much of a problem. But, increasingly, we'll find that every thing we've ever put onto the internet is going to be available to employers, and I suspect we'll start seeing a new class of unemployable people. Don't like your present job and complain about it online? A potential employer is going to want to avoid working with a griper. Does posting your health woes bring waves to sympathy and support? Yay, but a potential employer might secretly consider whether its worth hiring someone still fighting cancer. It might be illegal to even consider this, but if the information is out there, I suspect not everyone will be strong enough to avoid the temptation of peeking at stuff you've made public.

I predict that as employers begin to make more aggressive use of social media data in hiring decisions, we'll see a return to an almost neo-Victorian era of politeness. We'll be aware that anything we might say online--in a public forum or even an email we assumed to be private--could become a permanent stain on our reputation. We'll recognize that, even if we try to keep our lives offline, there are a thousand people around us will cell phones aimed at us the second we do anything remotely interesting. I could be wrong, of course. It may be that baser human instincts will prevail, and fifty years from now so many people will have embarrassing photos or loudmouthed, poorly punctuated rants floating around that we'll all just shrug and figure that's part of the human condition. No one will be judged for such behavior. But, we might also see a growing machinery of outrage, interest groups ready to pounce on the slightest transgression, so that we'll all be thinking twice about what we say and do. It won't be just big brother watching. Everyone from here to the end of time will be watching.

So, watch out.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Predictions for the future (a series): 1. Climate Catastrophes

I'm heading to a science fiction convention in a few hours and will be on a few panels where I'll probably wind up talking about the future. Tonight, for instance, I have a panel on the future of artificial intelligence. Why does being a science fiction writer qualify me to talk about the future? It doesn't. All I can do is guess like everyone else. Still, the speculation is fun, and, as an author, it's often rich fuel for future stories. So, this will be the first in a series where I make predictions about how the world is going to change in coming years.

First up: Climate Change!

I admit to being on the fence as to whether or not burning fossil fuels is a significant source of warming. I am not on the fence as to whether or not humans can alter the environment unintentionally, usually with negative consequences. We've helped create deserts with careless farming and grazing practices. Our water management practices have erased countless miles of shoreline, flooded millions of square miles of previously dry land, and turned previously wet places into dry hell holes. (Google the Aral and Salton seas for examples.) Our industrial monoculture farming has destroyed native prairies, and our promiscuous use of fertilizers have created giant dead zones in the ocean where no fish can survive. Where our fertilizers haven't wiped out fish, we've helped mess up the ecosystem by overfishing, and, whether or not the carbon dioxide we put in the atmosphere warms it or not, it is definitely turning the oceans more acidic. Our consumer culture wipes out old growth forests and our fills our oceans with ever growing continents of plastic. To fuel it all, we bulldoze mountains flat, dig up tracts of land large enough to be seen from space, and accept the risk of contamination that goes along with drilling at sea.

I consider myself an environmentalist, and, despite my libertarian leanings, am mostly in favor of governmental practices that protect the environment, like limits on dangerous chemicals going out of smokestacks and tail pipes or tough laws against contaminating ground water.

That said, I'm not in a panic about carbon dioxide even if it does lead to significant global warming. I support things like higher fuel standards and transitioning our power grid away from coal, but for other reasons than fear of runaway warming. Do I think global warming might lead to catastrophes like powerful storms, widespread drought, and rising sea levels? Absolutely.

So what?

If you look at history, catastrophes don't seem all that apocalyptic. Consider how many major cities have been wiped by earthquakes, fires, storms, and war. If catastrophes were any real barrier to humans, there wouldn't be a Chicago or a New Orleans, there wouldn't be a San Francisco or an Atlanta. For that matter, people wouldn't live in Europe, since, statistically, it was pretty much depopulated by the plague a few centuries ago.

Of course, people do live in Europe. They also live in Charleston, SC, a city flattened multiple times by a massive earthquake, by hurricanes, and by the Civil War.

What about fears of widespread drought? I suspect there will be long term shifts in weather that will render some areas unsuitable for farming. It certainly happened in the Sahara, for instance. It may be happening in the American southwest even now. West Texas is about as bone dry as it's ever been. Yet, we aren't reading stories about the massive starvation occurring in Texas. Drought doesn't equate to death in a global economy. If food doesn't grow one place, it grows another. If you look at the IPCC maps on projected rainfall due to global warming, you'll find that for every place that is expected to see a decline in rainfalls, there are other areas projected to see an increase. Heat doesn't equal drought. Very hot places are often quite fruitful agriculturally. Buy any produce from Florida lately?

Of course, you won't be buying produce from Florida if the state's underwater thanks to rising seas. And, yes, there's a real possibility of that happening, almost overnight on a geological timescale.

Fortunately, humans don't live on geological timescales. Let's take a wildly unlikely scenario where sea levels rise ten feet in a century. That's going to suck for a lot of people who lose property. But, as a practical level, a century is plenty of time to get out of the way. Rising sea levels likely won't result in any significant loss of life, at least not measured as a percentage of the total population. Humans are pretty experienced with dealing with rising sea levels. Since the end of the last ice age, sea levels have risen by roughly 400 feet. 400 feet! Yet, somehow, humans have managed to survive this massive global flooding. It's true that, in recent centuries, sea levels have been relatively stable and many large cities have grown on our coastlines. Many currently standing buildings may be wiped out. All the evidence shows that we'll shrug, move back, and build again.

What gets rebuilt will likely be stronger and better. It used to be that hurricanes would devastate coastal cities on a frequent basis. As a resident of North Carolina, I can testify that this is a state that regularly gets walloped by big storms. It used to be that a big storm would mean massive property loss and widespread death. But, death tolls have fallen dramatically thanks to improved accuracy of storm tracking. People have learned to get out of the way of killer storms. When storms do wipe out buildings, zoning codes require the structures that replace them to have more secure foundations, better roofs, better protected utilities, etc. If global warming does bring an uptick in powerful storms, it will also bring an uptick in better constructed buildings along coastlines.

Or not. Because one reason we have so many buildings along coastlines is that governments step in to insure buildings that private companies won't. This means tax dollars subsidize construction in environmentally risky areas. The best thing the government could do to keep people from building in the areas where they are most likely to be hit by high winds and storm surges is absolutely nothing. Just stop subsidizing the insurance. Without the insurance, banks aren't going to lend money to build on coastlines. We'll have to move inland, and give our crowded coastlines a bit of breathing space.

Do I believe the world is warming? There is a tremendous amount of data showing that it is. The people who argue there hasn't been any warming in the last fifteen years are kind of missing the big picture. On the flip side, the people who get panicked by the prospect of warming are also missing the big picture. The world will change.  It would be impossible to lock our global thermostat on what it is today. The world is probably going to get hotter. It will lead to widespread flooding, widespread drought, widespread population movements.

In other words, more of the same stuff we've been putting up with since we climbed down from the trees and lit our first fire. My prediction: We'll muddle through.