“A Chip On Her Shoulder”, a novel by Susan L. Gerhart
We’re nearing 2020 with tremendous forces converging on our technological environments. Boosted by Moore’s Law, computer theories and implementations now empower great advances in data sciences and algorithms. 9/11 unleashed “Total Information Assurance” for citizen protection, then advertising. clasped onto packets of data representing people. $billions swirled into the streams of surveillance capitalism. WWW users trusted “free” social media to reorganize their personal and news communication. Then that mythological-like “Great Trickster” showed up to bedevil us to balance these forces, if we can.
Let’s assume a transition from algorithmically empowered surveillance capitalism into a more regulated and benevolent entity. The novel’s CumuLinker Trust now manages those inter-related packets of data representing people. Social media founding fathers offered reparations that free them to reboot their lives toward other world-saving missions.
Believing that malignant social discord can be repaired, CumuLinker takes one more step forward. A device called a Whisperer interjects itself through the CumuLinker cloud to invite better inter-personal communication. The Whisperer also supports an individual’s personal data as “Memories Reviewed” internal narratives plus external displayed “Life Replayed”. The physical Whisper is a textile ornament that invites wearers to design animated ‘Life Patch’ scenes.
Can CumuLinker now work together with a maturing computing profession to re-balance their contributions to a world in turmoil?
“A Chip On Her Shoulder” takes readers through eras of computing history, near- future threats, and just-in-time thinking about ethics. Its characters relive professional regrets, , disability adjustments, productive aging, social media makeovers, and financial temptations. Revived romance, new acquaintances, inter-generational openness, , and web design mockery bring them fun and personal growth.
The novel is set in a southwestern city, DellVille, with excursions to Rolling Hills Ohio, Washington DC, and Los Alamos. Silicon Valley lies off the map as it deals with its troubled culture and business model.
The novel recognizes generations that overlap and interact based on the observation that “soon there will be nobody who remembers life before the Internet”. History revolves around the “Dawn of Web Time”, circa the early 1990s. Conversation animates history: Ada Lovelace and Universality; Vannevar Bush and Memex; Reagan star wars physical/computing debates; Usenet social media and Netizen-ship; Internet commercialization; Japanese Fifth Generation industrial experiments; “wicket problem” theory; hypertext that values links; and more stories from the Risks Digest.
Our characters span generations. Three are semi-retired: a reserved environmentalist snowbird Gavin; a feisty theoretician accessibility activist Sally;and a troubled protagonist Casey. Casey has a recurring battle with TIRex, her name for “Total Information Recall exchange”, that surveillance capitalism, privacy-gobbling monster.
Casey’s colleague, Sally, revives her family relationship with forty-something niece Marilyn, who is re-entering the technical work force while unbinding from her spirited college-bound son Bob. Casey and Sally pick up an entrepreneurial millennial Matt, who is re-directing his career plans toward study at the London School of Informatics.
A local cyber cop, Gordon, and a “little syster” Brittany expand Casey’s DellVille world beyond daily parades of backyard quail. Gavin and Casey have resumed a commuting relationship disrupted during their mid-life careers in the days of the “Massachusetts Miracle”.
Casey, Sally, Marilyn, Bob, and Matt form a short-term project, Team 3Gen, to study ongoing nasty skirmishes among hacktavists. Called the Pink Page Rampage, this war of websites reveals vulnerabilities of a WWW badly needing revitalization. The movement gains insights from low vision Sally whose assistive technologies over-ride visual defacing to separate information from decoration. Can Casey lead Team 3Gen to erase TIRex through unraveling the Pink Page Rampage?
Scenes depict speculative matters for the modern Web. “Algorithmic cruelty” invades a college reunion, reminding Casey how academia ignored ethics in research and course-work. Casey is a budding “threat caster” who consults with city police about “vocal terrorism” then lives through an afternoon of a real local Internet collapse. Sally and Casey help Marilyn through a “social media makeover” to clear up her professional image. Marilyn launches a pod cast to practice journalistic interviewing with her Team 3Gen comrades plus one attacker from the Pink Page Rampage. Sally and Casey help each other overcome their lifelong angers at grad school, professional, and “Great Trickster” mental messes. Gavin and Casey walk each other through the life reviews that revitalize their remaining years. One character has a life-ending accident due to ignored warnings about a mundane business practice. The TIRex monster lives on, well, maybe.
Readers of any generation should appreciate some factors of older and younger citizens, as the window of mortality slides over the “Dawn of Web Time”. Shaken faith in the computing industry and profession requires rapid response ethics and threat awareness. Now would be the moment to collect more stories about those too-soon-forgotten eras of technological fallibility and contemporary “weapons of math destruction”.
Note:Thanks to Michael Harris and Cathy O’Neil for their pithy insights about “End of Absence” and “Weapons of Math Destruction”. Appendices will credit the literature of social media and computing history, also separating reality from speculation.
Questions for students of computing cultures:
- Protagonist Casey regrets never teaching ethics at Dellville PolyTech as an adjunct covering software engineering and databases. Has anything changed?
- Draw an architecture diagram for CumuLinker and the Whisperer. What are the components and their interactions?
- Is there a viable business case for the Whisperer? Consider illusions, threats, and benefits.
- “Algorithmic cruelty” kicks off a theme of forewarned, but ignored, threats. List similar threats and real incidents in the news, Risks Digest, your experience, and collected stories.
- Is “vocal terrorism” a real threat yet? How could it be controlled?
- The DellVille city suffers an afternoon of full-scale interruption, similar to reports in February 2015… Are such incidents frequent? How long before such an outage becomes a catastrophe? Consider wildfires and other environmental emergencies.
- “Sally-land”depicts a minority world exploiting technology to overcome disabling environments. Read the accessibility instructions for a smart phone, or laptop. Then turn off the screen and live for a day without visual cues. How well did that go? Talk to a person with low vision about their assistive technologies.
- The novel’s characters are from different generations but seem able to communicate. Are their interactions realistic? What distinguishes differences from ages 15 to 75? Ask your relatives how they view their generation’s technology practices, and also yours.
- What are your reference points for historical eras of computing? What are the lessons from an earlier era to now, e.g. “Godwin’s law”, nuclear missile defense reliability, privacy, …
- The WWW is often termed “hypertext”, permitting unstructured, “loose” links. Read up on hypertext of the 1980s and re-design some web pages to exploit the power of structured linking.
- 20xx programming languages are platforms for objects, data, and processes. The 1980s offered a paradigm the novel calls “Consequential Computing”, based on a language akin to Prolog. Could a language model real world questioning or predict social faux pas such as “algorithmic cruelty” or biases from “weapons of math destruction” or threats for fictional scenarios?
- When did software engineering acquire a curriculum? How did military computing needs influence the field? Who invented the name Ada for the competitive language designed by US and international teams?
- How did Google, then Facebook, slip into the era of “if you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product”? When did journalists, among other authors, start asking questions about the practice that became “surveillance capitalism”? What’s wrong with that model, and what’s better?
- The novel imagines politics controlled as in trickster myths, except that the “Great Trickster” broadcasts antics and disruptions using technology. What do folk tales foretell about the outcomes of a trickster visitation?
- What does “a chip on his/her shoulder mean”? Does everybody have one? Does social media influence the syndrome?