To make science fiction reality, simply imagine

DEAR DIARY

Despite mankind’s technological advances, much of life remains in the 20th Century. Much that we made then is becoming redundant, obsolete, or simply ‘old-fashioned’: The internal combustion engine, fossil fuels, factories and farming. Our politics are certainly arcane, based on unfair electoral systems, political skewing by finance or fake news, and for the most part, disconnected from the electorate, many of whom live in perpetual poverty or ignorance, which aren’t mutually exclusive. We need to evolve, and we have the tools of change to hand…

CyberPunk Hammock
Image: Khang Lee

There is good to be made from what we have, and we only have to look at history to see where we went wrong, or need to change our ways. Everything we need to make big changes, is around us already. The problem for contemporary politics, is it’s all a bit radical. But for radical, see long-game. This one’s mainly about where we live:

Recently I wrote of an idea to levy a new social tax on the collection of personal data, then to use the revenue raised to finance a universal basic income. To cries of ‘It can’t be done!’, I ask, why not? Like all big ideas, it needs a lot of work to implement, but the resources are readily-available. If big companies really do have altruistic humanitarian ideals, even they have to admit that global corporate domination will eventually be limited by the size of a planet and its population. Sustained economic growth (the shareholders’ ideal) on a planet which is not growing, will surely mean an eventual environmental limit is reached (assuming such things remain important, and that sustainable really does mean that: the long-game).

We’re already witnessing a technological shift, with a far greater long-term impact than the industrial revolution. Humans are being made redundant by machines. In factories, robots have replaced many humans, and of the latter who remain, most are robots by proxy of AI monitoring. Artificial intelligence is encroaching on the jobs of the mind too: Doctors, accountants, and even some areas of law. So humans are going to need a longer period of (free) education, to gain the qualifications needed for the remaining jobs, which (for now) are the preserve of humans.

But as humans become more redundant, they have more spare time, and for many this is spent in misery and poverty. The problem was, mankind made robots, at the same time as robots wanted to become humans. In a few years in some of my darker sci-fi stories, that situation could turn on its head (AI is one of the greatest threats to our race, and Stephen Hawking and others agree). Now, we need another shift, before everything settles into something we really wouldn’t want to be, or to live in.

A universal basic income would solve problems of housing and poverty. In all of this utopian thinking, we have to disregard entitlement mentality. At a human level, I believe it’s the basic entitlement of an individual in a civilised society, to have shelter, warmth and food. We also have to hope that the recent rise of the right in politics isn’t something the quieter left has lost sight of. Given the right social and economic foundations, there need not be many dissenting voices in a society.

A new approach might be to start with a concept like public luxury and private sufficiency. It’s a mindset, and a monumental shift in indoctrinated thinking, but like all big ideas, it requires different thinking, and promotes discussion. I’m trying to find ways we can all live together.

Where we are, there isn’t enough physical or environmental space for everyone to enjoy private luxury. Private luxury creates a border, it removes or closes spaces, creating deprivation. Public alternatives are usually poor in comparison, even in the places they’re provided. But nevertheless, public parks, playgrounds, sports centres and swimming pools, galleries, theatres and cinemas, including some very fine examples of each, create space for everyone, at a fraction of the cost.

There is the system of common ownership, where public assets aren’t sold off and managed by a private market, nor the state, with such assets owned instead by communities, in the form of commons (much like we know public ‘commons’ now). In its truest form, a commons is a non-capitalist system, which controls a resource in perpetuity, for the shared and equal benefits of its members. Like many other leftist, centrist and radical (and anarchist) ideas, it’s one which has been operated successfully in other countries, notably the Nordic states.

The gross imbalance in housing could be addressed with the introduction of a tax as radical as the one proposed on personal data, and again this would be a social tax, specifically, a Land Value Taxation. A form of this already exists, with ground rents on leasehold properties, which is open to abuse and used as a cash cow to milk funds from the economy and hide them abroad. If this right to charge rent on ground was returned to sovereign control, or communities, then the rent collected would be retained within whichever system, national or local, to fund public services, or to develop communities further. It’s a politics of belonging, which is the political system I became involved in when I was homeless.

Whatever the value of this, political or otherwise, I’ve written it in the hope that it might be read and perhaps discussed further by others. But surely there’s something to talk about here, in a nice, lefty way, rather than reactively kick it into the long grass in ignorance. These ideas and others, of my own and many more besides, require big thought, including at a political level. We can make a change, even with what we have now.

But then humans are a species which is dependent on the milk of another, so it could be an evolutionary growth stunt, like when a kid gets to the point where things are so interesting that it takes longer to move on. I’m trying to find answers. I’m trying to solve problems.

I’ve got this brain that I found. And I’m trying to find out what it’s for and what it does.

Fact or fiction, Earth is the organic computer designed by Deep Though to find out why the answer is 42. We’re all part of that. All we need to do, is keep talking.

A book critic recently commented of my sci-fi novel, Cyrus Song: “Who knows—if you’re looking for the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, you might just find it here, or in the ‘Cyrus Song’ of our planet. In the meantime, taking Steve Laker’s and Stephen Hawking’s advice, we all need to ‘keep talking’, and as long as there are books like these—keep reading.”

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Thinking differently, aloud (talking to myself, and hoping telepathy works)

DEAR DIARY

Imagine a world where everyone’s basic human needs are taken care of, a world with no homelessness or poverty. In this same world, people are paid a basic wage, simply for being who they are. Difficult though it may be to imagine, it’s a world which doesn’t have to be too far away. In fact, it’s one we could live in right now, if we think differently. Not as a hive mind, but as a colony.

steampunk_observatory_by_akira_ravenlier-d4mlbeqSteampunk Observatory by Akira-Ravenlier (DeviantArt)

Here’s a radical idea: Imagine if data were taxed. That’s not to say that we – the average internet user – should pay a tax on all the data we access for free. Rather, the companies who make huge profits from mining and selling our personal data, would pay a rate of tax on the volumes of information they use. It’s not an entirely new idea, but it’s still radical and would require a lot of work to come to fruition. But it’s an idea which could work, and which could solve many other problems as a fortunate side-effect. Big ideas need big money though. New ideas need new money. Is there such a thing as social capitalism?

For over a generation now, human kind has had free access to more or less all human knowledge. That’s the internet by design, and the way things should be: sharing and co-operation, mainly for the greater good. The cost of this free access is personal data, which is a fair exchange for most, although there remain those who are ignorant of this: Some people really do think they can have something for nothing. But when we sign up to Facebook, Google and all the rest, we agree to give them our personal data in return for the use of their platform (it’s in the Terms & Conditions, which very few people read). The internet companies then use this data to sell targeted advertising, keeping their sites free to use, and it’s a model which works well for the most part, and to monetise it in any other way (subscription sites aside) would go against the whole ethos of Sir Tim Berners-Lee‘s genius (my insertion of that hyperlink was the basis of Sir Tim’s brainchild: a link to further information, stored elsewhere. Rather poetically in this illustration, that’s the father of the internet himself). And yet, here sits this unimaginably huge thing which we’ve made through co-operation and altruism. Sir Tim’s wish was for it to remain free forever, and so it should. But might there not be a humanitarian way to monetise it?

Because at the same time, we have humanitarian issues to address: causes which require revenue. Close to home, and close to my heart, is homelessness. Cutting through many debates to get to a point, is it not an immoral government which presides over a public, who see a home as more of a luxury than a necessity? Let’s not get into the many debates about individual liberties and how we got here, this is about a new idea which – like all – would need development. For now, I’m trying to keep it on that track. But homelessness is just one of many social issues which could be addressed by the introduction of a Universal Basic Income.

Quite simply, a universal basic income is amount given to everyone, regardless of status. It’s just enough to put a roof over someone’s head, feed and heat them. It’s the means for people to live modestly. What have they done to deserve this? Unfortunately, that’s the most common question. Instead, I’d ask, what have they done that they should be deprived a home? We’re not talking about Acacia avenue semis here, but basic accommodation, a bit like I have.

What I have, is a studio flat: a 12 foot square room, with not even enough room for a bed, once my other stuff is crammed in. I use a futon, which I could write a whole blog post as an ode to, as it’s at least a bed. And it’s mine. I have a small separate kitchen, and I have a toilet and shower room off-suite. As I’ve said before, it’s not an ideal flat, but as a studio which I use as an office, it’s fine. It’s as much as I need.

My rent is covered by the housing benefit I receive from the local authority, and it’s paid to a social landlord. I’m a social tenant, because I’m recognised as a vulnerable individual with a disability. Mine is invisible, but I’m no less deserving after the years of work it took to get to this place in my life. As well as housing benefit, I receive benefits commensurate with my needs, as I’m mentally unwell and unable to work in the conventional sense (for anyone else). With my basic needs taken care of, I can concentrate on being the best at something which I enjoy. From that, I gain satisfaction, and I hope that others gain from what I do too.

I’m perhaps not the best example, but I’m an example nonetheless, of someone who has been given their basic needs, so that they are free to do something worthwhile. For many others, this might be finding work with a company, or forming their own. For some, they may wish to study, then enter employment later with higher qualifications. And there will be some, to whom the basic income is enough, because they want for no more. Even so, the problems of poverty and homelessness could be solved with a universal basic income. As an ex-tramp myself, I know that all a human needs is a secure base from which to build the rest, whatever that may be. As the benefactor of that rare modern phenomenon, the social landlord, I know how that works. The greater debate about the way things came to be like this eventually becomes moot, as people realise what happens when everyone is given their basic human needs, in order to live as a human being. For the most part, it’s a positive thing.

Society as a whole needs to adopt a wider view, and just like those given a home to sort themselves out, so everything that’s left behind will get cleared up too, because people will be free and available to address those things.

Many countries already operate a Guaranteed Minimum Income system: Canada, Ireland, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, The Netherlands, and many of the United States of America. Other countries are advocates, including many in the EU (including the UK, while still a member). And the founders and CEOs of those online giants are supporters too, because they see the long-term advantages of happy people and nations. It’s those people who hold the keys.

While the rest of the world lags without a universal income, such a societal change requires not only a different mindset, it requires capital. In the UK at least, we are not of a sufficiently evolved mindset (as a nation) to accept a simple tax-the-rich policy, but this overall point I’m striving to make ought to transcend current politics. Because I believe there is a way to effectively make the necessary money appear, as if by magic. And all it is, is a radical idea. At the moment, it’s a case of throwing it out there and seeing what happens.

It’s no secret that the internet giants pay very little tax. That’s another debate which can be left aside for the purposes of this, because there is another way. It’s a far-reaching vision, but many of the founders and CEOs of those online behemoths are true visionaries themselves, thinking long-term of future worlds, not necessarily run by their companies.

Elon Musk made his money from PayPal. Ask the average person in the street what PayPal does, and they’ll have an idea, but most wouldn’t be able to tell you how the model works, and how that fortune came to be. And yet the idea is a very simple one. Essentially, PayPal is a means of exchanging money, which is simple and free. I myself have a PayPal account, which I use to receive some freelance payments, then make small online purchases with. For me, it’s a micro account which I run completely independently, and for many people, that’s the simple solution it represents. Others use it in more sophisticated ways, but in total, there are tens of millions of PayPal users with sums of money sitting in the limbo which is PayPal, a holding house between merchant and buyer. Many of those accounts lie dormant most of the time, and all contain funds. To a business, this is a cash asset, and it has liquidity. All of those millions of currency can be used, to invest, to speculate, and to grow. PayPal exists on the money made from what are effectively stock market cash trades. Give a good investor your funds, and that investor will grow them for you. And that’s what Elon Musk did very successfully, while providing a free service for many others. Now we have the Tesla electric car and all of that company’s research into producing power which can be transmitted, just as Nikola Tesla himself envisioned. Musk is also one of the pioneers of commercial space travel and exploration. His long-term vision is to change the world and humanity. Elon Musk made his initial capital so that he could pursue this greater goal.

Jeff Bezos, Founder and CEO of Amazon, envisions a future world where his company’s infrastructure exists in ‘cloud cities’, manufacturing and distribution facilities constructed above the earth’s surface. His vision is to return much of the planet to nature, while some of mankind moves into these vast cloud cities. The sci-fi writer can be a pessimist in seeing a two-tier dystopia in that, or a natural utopia. In any case, it’s long-term vision. And it’s that of the internet entrepreneur most likely to be labelled a capitalist, because Amazon sells tangible goods.

Returning to Google and Facebook, they make the majority of their money from our personal data, which they sell to advertisers. In return, we receive free and unlimited use of their platforms. It’s a simple business transaction of an intangible product. But what if we suddenly said, “Hold on. I realise I’m receiving something in return for giving you my data, and that it’s in the terms and conditions of our contract. But I think my data is worth more than that.”

Naturally, there would be objections and much debate. In an ideal world, we, the serfs, would say to our governing classes, “Hey, we’d like you to tax those companies for mining our information. We accept that they use it for their own gain and to improve their business and our lives, and we accept that they are very tax efficient with their business affairs. We also see that you don’t have sufficient means through tax collected, to use that as a government should: to benefit the tax-payer. So we wonder if perhaps we might make a suggestion: could you could place a ring-fenced social tax on our data please?”

Once the mechanisms are calculated and agreed, the revenue raised from placing a tax on personal data could be sufficient to finance a universal basic income sustainably. Like I said, it’s a very simple but radical idea, but one which governments and the internet giants subscribe to. Unfortunately, the machinations of government (especially in the UK) are painfully slow. Politics can be radical, if the elected politicians think differently, or if someone just thinks differently, perhaps by listening. There is a rumour of Mark Zuckerberg running for US president. For my part, I’ve tried to write all of this in such a way that it’s accessible, and I hope it’ll be shared.

It’s power to the people. It’s about addressing the balance of power and returning that to the people. That’s anarchy. But could human kind use what it has created, to evolve as a race? I just wrote a late night diary entry. 

But I’m just part of Earth 2.0, the organic supercomputer designed by Deep Thought in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, to work out why the answer is 42. The computer only works if all of the component parts co-operate to the greater good of the machine.

steampunk_goggles_11_1_by_ambassadormann

For an alternative answer to the greatest question – that of life, the universe and everything – I wrote a ‘Sci-fi Rom Com’ (it’s now been called): Cyrus Song. It’s about what happened when three humans were able to talk to the other people they share this planet with: The animals.

The Unfinished Literary Agency in fiction, and in fact…

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Unfinished

The Unfinished Literary Agency is a fictional entity which I’ve used in a few of my own stories. It’s based above Hotblack Desiato’s property agency in Islington, which actually exists, by virtue of the owner being a Douglas Adams fan. I can almost forgive the guy being a property agent because of that alone. I like to imagine he gets the irony of being one of the professions loaded onto the B Ark when the Golgafrinchans rid themselves of an entire useless third of their population in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

My fictional agency exists to tell the stories of those who are unable to tell them. As Paul Auster once said, “Stories only happen to those who are able to tell them.” So the Unfinished Literary Agency employs writers to tell the stories of others, which is pretty much what writers do anyway.

So I wondered if such a place might exist online. Surely, there would be lots of people who have stories, and many writers grateful of ideas? Well, that’s why there are ghostwriters, of which I am one. But my motivation for writing is more than money, of which there is very little. For me, it’s the reward of having someone tell me how much they enjoyed something I wrote.

An example in the public domain, is my award-winning children’s story, A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie. It was written when I was lodging with a family while I was homeless, and the family dog died. As someone who sees animals as people, I saw Jake’s passing as that of a family member, not a pet. I remembered losing many animal people of my own and not being able to find a coping mechanism. Eventually, that came in the form of Goodbye, Dear Friend: Coming to Terms with the Death of a Pet, by Virginia Ironside. Like me, she saw the loss of an animal person, rather than a replaceable pet. But those most affected by the loss of a family member are invariably children, who might be unable to express or understand their grief. I remembered again, not being able to find anything when I was a kid. So that’s how the children’s book came about, and it’s been variously praised for how it deals with life’s losses and changes, through the eyes of a girl and her talking dog. Anyway, if your animal friend dies, there’s a book for that.

One of the stories in The Perpetuity of Memory is called String Theory: It was written for (and therefore, by) a young lady I met via her mum, again, when I was homeless. The young girl was at a transitory stage in life, where she was about to move to secondary school, with all of the internal changes which someone of that age will also have to deal with. She was a little bit lost, so I (she) wrote String Theory, which is about a puppet girl on strings, who learns to fly.

I had to conclude that there is no real or virtual online place which does what The Unfinished Literary Agency does, to tell the stories of others. If such a place were to exist, there must be so many untold stories to feed it: Children and adults alike, facing challenging situations, which fiction might help them to see and understand in a different way; the terminally ill could be given immortality, people could become known and remembered. But such an agency would need a staff of purely altruistic writers like me. And there are many who ghostwrite like me. The unfortunate truth is, something like The Unfinished Literary Agency couldn’t be monetised, so it would have to operate on charity alone.

People have asked me how things might have been different if I’d started writing earlier. If I’d gained a degree in literature, then gone straight into writing as a professional. The simple answer is, well it didn’t fucking happen like that, did it? In fact, the main catalyst for me becoming a writer, was when I was homeless, without possessions and with nothing else to do. It turned out I’m pretty good at it by all accounts. And by living a life before I came out as a writer, I gained experience. I lived the stories which I can now tell, and I met the characters which I can now inhabit, while developing my own. I’ve been complimented on the depth of some of my characters. That’s because, like most writers, my stories have a part of me in them. And I’ve put other people I know into stories too, with The Unfinished Literary Agency, and The Human Lending Library, from Reflections of yesterday.

In yet more stories of mine, there are protagonists and narrators who are writers themselves. In some of these, the fictional writer’s actions make the story more real: Writing is art, after all, and the beauty of an individual piece is often to be found in the unique marks left by the human artist. One such story is the title track from The Perpetuity of Memory. Another, The difference engine, will be published in early July.

I’m already a ghostwriter, for stories I write for other people and which are published without bearing my name. With stories like A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie, and String Theory, the arrangement was symbiotic: I told someone else’s story, by writing a story of my own. As a writer, I was given an idea and turned it into a publishable story, which the person I was writing for was then able to see in print. In a couple of cases, that person bought a copy of the book containing their story, then arranged privately with me to send it to me, to sign and return. Others have asked for this, even though they’re not in any of the stories. While I’m still on the literary fringes, this is something I have time to do and it’s something I enjoy. Because it’s another thing which is more than money: It’s a personal touch, which people appreciate.

So far, I’ve avoided politics. But in making another prediction (and I’ve been pretty much spot on previously), I’m predicting a Universal Basic Income to be part of Labour’s manifesto for a second parliamentary term. If so, something like The Unfinished Literary Agency could become real, with writers more able to work for a greater good with a reliable minimum income in place. Until then, it will remain a purely fictional place.

So for now, The Unfinished Literary Agency has but one writer in residence. But as I’m not driven by money, I will accept commissions. I’ll write the stories of others, free of charge, and both parties gain a little warm feeling, through helping someone else.

And for as long as I’m writing, I’ll always be happy to sign copies of my books.

The Perpetuity of Memory; A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie; and The Paradoxicon (my original, semi-autobiographical novel) are available now. My next sci-fi book, Cyrus Song, is due for publication around October.

A writer in a residence

THE WRITER’S LIFE

writer-in-residence
Writer not in residence

Without wishing to tempt fate, or count the eggs which the horse laid before it bolted and I found out where the stable door was, I may have cause to relax just a little bit. All the clues point to my landlady giving me a rolling tenancy, without actually telling me.

Apparently this is par for the course, according to the other two benefits tenants who live in this little hut perched atop a coffee shop. Like me, they came here on an initial one year tenancy and it was never renewed. Which may not seem like great comfort but it’s the most secure I’ve been in a long time.

Three years of varying degrees of homelessness meant that I became quite knowledgeable in a few areas, including squatters’ rights and latterly, those of tenants. We squatted only in abandoned commercial premises and never forced entry. Since then, I’ve had a tenancy agreement and the limited rights which one of those represents. Even without a tenancy agreement, a sitting tenant is entitled to two months’ notice to vacate a property, under the terms of a Section 21 eviction notice, and the latter is a legal requirement of the property owner.

I’ve been at my studio for almost a year now and a Section 21 notice to evict me at the end of my current one year tenancy would therefore have been required almost two months ago. There wasn’t one, and I’ve received a notice from the council about ongoing housing benefit payments being made directly to my landlady. So apart from an actual tenancy agreement, I feel quite secure. In law, I retain the right to two months’ notice, and a tenancy agreement doesn’t give any extra rights. But the key was in speaking to my neighbours, neither of whom have a paper contract but who have both been here for several years on rolling tenancies. Given that the council have confirmed they’ll continue to pay my rent, I have to assume that I have a rolling contract too.

Renting is never secure, as it will always lack the permanence I crave, but this is the next best thing: A rolling tenancy with a council landlady.

The studio is small: It’s a living room barely twelve feet square, with a small kitchen. The toilet and shower are off-suite but for my exclusive use. As I’ve said before, as a flat, it’s not the best; As an office, it’s fantastic. And seeing as writing is my life, I treat the studio as an office which I also relax and sleep in. I’m unlikely to ever make a living from my writing and I’m too ill to work, but writing gives me purpose and it’s therapy. I call it my job, because it’s what gives me and others satisfaction. Whatever it is, when anyone asks me what I do, I am qualified to answer that I’m a writer. It took a long time to be able to say that with confidence. My landlady simply squeezed an extra flat in where others might not; The kind of place which might only be taken by the needy and unfussy. Well, there was a place with a me-shaped hole in it.

And despite its shortcomings, I love my little studio. The flat and the strange little building it’s in with three others is quirky. The end wall on the outside is apparently a rare example of a mill wall, where sacks of flour made from corn were thrown from a first floor door, opening onto thin air, so that they could be dropped into waiting horse carts in the yard below. The door is still there, fifteen feet up, and the wall itself is Grade I listed. The flats sit on top of a coffee shop in the village high street, which is quite a poetic thing for a writer. It’s quiet. It’s very quiet around here, in the studio, in the mews, which is in the yard, tucked behind the village centre. It’s ideal for me. It’s small, but I don’t need any more. I’m paid a basic state income on account of my depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder, OCD and many times PTSD. That security has allowed me to improve myself and give something back.

Of course, that’s part of the whole Universal Basic Income (UBI) model, now being trialled in Finland, Ireland, Scotland, Canada and the Netherlands, among others. While it may be some way off in the UK as a whole, it’s something being studied and which I’m a great advocate of, not just because it would suit me, but many others and much more as well. The argument for a UBI is gaining traction, thanks in part to such visionary advocates as Elon Musk, and the author, Rutger Bregman, whose latest book was the subject of a feature in this weekend’s Observer:

As liberal democracy seems to be crumbling under the weight of widespread despondency, some hardline opinions are in danger of becoming received wisdoms. In the global market, we are told, we must work harder and improve productivity. The welfare state has become too large and we need to cut back on benefits. Immigration is out of control and borders need to be strengthened.

The choice seems to be either to accept this new paradigm or risk the likes of Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders gaining power. The centre ground is being dragged to the left and right, and collapsing down the middle. Meanwhile progressive politics has returned to its comfort zone, busily opposing everything and offering almost nothing. Where is the vision, the ambition, the belief?

Yet into this bleak picture drops a book and an author bristling with hope, optimism and answers. Rutger Bregman is a 28-year-old Dutchman whose book, Utopia for Realists, has taken Holland by storm and could yet revitalise progressive thought around the globe…

“I’ve heard for years that my ideas are unrealistic. You want to stick to the status quo? How’s that working out?”
Rutger Bregman

The full article is here.

It’s a facsimile of this model which has allowed me to publish three books, which are now being enjoyed by others, because they’ve told me so. And although I lack some written proof regarding my tenancy, other correspondence and all of the available evidence allows me to conclude that in this instance, no news really is good news. I’m a writer in residence, with the current residence being the most secure that someone in my situation can expect, and the most security I’ve had for the last six years, following that knifepoint robbery in Lewisham which triggered everything which lay beneath, prompting my fall into the gutter and subsequent recovery.

With three books published, I’m now able to relax and concentrate on the next ones: a sci-fi space opera, and a second volume of short stories. I’ve already finished the first for the latter, and I’ve gone back to my slush pile, which contains many unfinished works.

The bubble could burst at any moment. This won’t cure my anxiety, but tonight, I may allow myself a small celebration, with a pizza. Because it was a man from Iceland who used to say, “I’ve started so I’ll finish.”