Communion Of Dreams

It’s exploitation.

Nine years ago, as I was in the process of closing down my gallery of fine art, I wrote the following in response to a query from a local restaurant owner who was looking to offer our artists the “exposure” of hanging their art on her walls:

Having free art to hang on your walls in order to entice people is a great idea.  It would be the same thing as getting local musicians to come perform during all your hours of operation for no pay, with the excuse that they’re getting “exposure” and can put out a tip jar or maybe schedule paying gigs – and you won’t even ask for a percentage of the cut!  Such a deal!  Or to get it out of the realm of the arts, what would you call an employer who “allowed” workers to slave away for no compensation other than the chance to sell their services to some other potential employer when they were noticed for how well and hard they worked?  And what do you think that would do for the level of wages in the community?

Folks, this is exploitation, nothing more.  It’s using artists for your own personal gain.

I suppose I should have had the prescience to see the coming storm of internships, but back then I wasn’t as cynical as I am now.

Because the truth of the matter is that this sort of thing has almost become routine. Companies hold “competitions” for new logos and other graphic design needs, with the hook that winning such a competition will give the designer “exposure” and a chance to *maybe* do some other actual paid work for the company later. The Huffington Post was built on a model of not paying for content from most of their writers, but rather providing them an outlet for “exposure.” It’s become such a routine practice for online publications to ask for free content that best-selling author John Scalzi posted a bit of a rant back in December about the requests he gets.

Well, two days ago veteran journalist and multiple-award winner Nate Thayer got a query from the Atlantic Magazine to re-purpose a longer article he had published elsewhere. Thayer was open to the query, right up to the point where the Global Editor said that they wouldn’t pay for the piece, but rather it would be good for Thayer because of the “exposure”. Thayer blogged about it, including his email correspondence back and forth with the editor so that the entire horror show unfolds before your eyes. Thayer’s basic reaction is best summed up by this passage:

I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children. I know several people who write for the Atlantic who of course get paid. I appreciate your interest, but, while I respect the Atlantic, and have several friends who write for it, I have bills to pay and cannot expect to do so by giving my work away for free to a for profit company so they can make money off of my efforts.

The whole thing has gotten a fair amount of attention online, and generated a lot of fairly predictable discussion.  Including taking Thayer to task for publishing the emails as well as his audacity at taking umbrage at being asked to provide his work for free.

My reaction to this is best summed up in Scalzi’s two final points in his rant:

9. If this is your cue to complain about how this makes me an asshole, ask me if I care. Go on, ask!

10. But now that you mention it, saying “fuck you, pay me,” to you does not make me (or anyone else from whom you are hoping to extract actual work from without pay) the asshole in this scenario. It makes me the guy responding to the asshole, in a manner befitting the moment.


It’s one thing to be asked to contribute work to some charity. Or to participate in writing for a blog or website which (intentionally) isn’t generating income for the owners. It’s another matter altogether to be asked to give away your work (creative or non) to benefit a for-profit business. That’s called exploitation.

And calling it exploitation doesn’t make you the bad guy.


Jim Downey


“Yeah, but . . . “
March 20, 2011, 5:32 pm
Filed under: BoingBoing, Cory Doctorow, John Scalzi, MetaFilter, Predictions, Publishing

Via BB, this ‘bingo card’ from John Scalzi, on the subject of e-publishing:

Scalzi’s website contains complete information, and you should read it – Scalzi knows what he is talking about, and has been having these arguments for the better part of a decade that I’m aware of (I follow his blog, and see him discussing these issues on other forums, such as MetaFilter).

That said, just because he knows what he is talking about doesn’t mean that he is *always* right, nor that his position is a simple black/white one on the topic. He’s too thoughtful and nuanced for that.

When I voted to go the self-publishing/e-publishing route with our care-giving memoir, I did so fully aware of all the pros and cons (in large part thanks to discussions I’ve seen with Scalzi.) What he says is valid, but I find myself saying “yeah, but . . . ” as pertains to Her Final Year, largely because the care-giving memoir is a niche market, and therefore many of the problems with publishing are more manageable than they are for general or genre fiction.

But we’ll see. I’ll be asking for your help to beat the odds.

Jim Downey


When I went away to college in 1976, I took with me the small black & white television I had received for my eighth birthday. Mostly my roommates and I would watch The Muppet Show before going off to dinner. Otherwise, I really didn’t have the time for television – there was studying to do, drugs and alcohol to abuse, sex to have.

Post college I had a massive old console color TV I had inherited. But given that I lived in Montezuma Iowa, reception was dismal. I found other things to do with my time, mostly SCA-related activities and gaming. I took that console set with me to graduate school in Iowa City, but it never really worked right, and besides I was still busy with SCA stuff and again with schoolwork.

For most of the ’90s I did watch some TV as it was being broadcast, but even then my wife and I preferred to time-shift using a VCR, skipping commercials and seeing the things we were interested in at times when it was convenient for us.

This century, living here and caring for someone with Alzheimer’s, we had to be somewhat more careful about selecting shows that wouldn’t contribute to Martha Sr’s confusion and agitation. Meaning mostly stuff we rented or movies/series we liked well enough to buy on DVD. I would now and then flip on the cable and skip around a bit after we got Martha Sr. to bed, see if there was anything interesting, but for the most part I relied on friends recommending stuff. And besides, I was busy working on Communion of Dreams, or blogging here or there, or writing a newspaper column or whatever.

Now-a-days we don’t even have cable. There’s just no reason to pay for it. I’d much rather get my news and information online. So, basically, I have missed most every television show and special event in the last thirty years. There are vast swaths of cultural reference I only know by inference, television shows that “define” American values I’ve never seen. I don’t miss it.

And you know what? You are becoming like me, more and more all the time.

* * * * * * *

Via Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing, this very interesting piece by

Gin, Television, and Social Surplus

* * *

If I had to pick the critical technology for the 20th century, the bit of social lubricant without which the wheels would’ve come off the whole enterprise, I’d say it was the sitcom. Starting with the Second World War a whole series of things happened–rising GDP per capita, rising educational attainment, rising life expectancy and, critically, a rising number of people who were working five-day work weeks. For the first time, society forced onto an enormous number of its citizens the requirement to manage something they had never had to manage before–free time.

And what did we do with that free time? Well, mostly we spent it watching TV.

We did that for decades. We watched I Love Lucy. We watched Gilligan’s Island. We watch Malcolm in the Middle. We watch Desperate Housewives. Desperate Housewives essentially functioned as a kind of cognitive heat sink, dissipating thinking that might otherwise have built up and caused society to overheat.

And it’s only now, as we’re waking up from that collective bender, that we’re starting to see the cognitive surplus as an asset rather than as a crisis. We’re seeing things being designed to take advantage of that surplus, to deploy it in ways more engaging than just having a TV in everybody’s basement.

OK, I try and be very careful about “fair use” of other people’s work, limiting myself to just a couple of paragraphs from a given article or blog post in order to make a point. But while I say that you should go read his whole post, I’m going to use another passage from Shirky here:

Did you ever see that episode of Gilligan’s Island where they almost get off the island and then Gilligan messes up and then they don’t? I saw that one. I saw that one a lot when I was growing up. And every half-hour that I watched that was a half an hour I wasn’t posting at my blog or editing Wikipedia or contributing to a mailing list. Now I had an ironclad excuse for not doing those things, which is none of those things existed then. I was forced into the channel of media the way it was because it was the only option. Now it’s not, and that’s the big surprise. However lousy it is to sit in your basement and pretend to be an elf, I can tell you from personal experience it’s worse to sit in your basement and try to figure if Ginger or Mary Ann is cuter.

And I’m willing to raise that to a general principle. It’s better to do something than to do nothing. Even lolcats, even cute pictures of kittens made even cuter with the addition of cute captions, hold out an invitation to participation. When you see a lolcat, one of the things it says to the viewer is, “If you have some fancy sans-serif fonts on your computer, you can play this game, too.” And that message–I can do that, too–is a big change.

It is a huge change. It is the difference between passively standing/sitting by and watching, and doing the same thing yourself. Whether it is sports, or sex, or politics, or art – doing it yourself means making better use of the limited time you have in this life.

* * * * * * *

And now, the next component of my little puzzle this morning.

Via MeFi, this NYT essay about the explosion of authorship:

You’re an Author? Me Too!

It’s well established that Americans are reading fewer books than they used to. A recent report by the National Endowment for the Arts found that 53 percent of Americans surveyed hadn’t read a book in the previous year — a state of affairs that has prompted much soul-searching by anyone with an affection for (or business interest in) turning pages. But even as more people choose the phantasmagoria of the screen over the contemplative pleasures of the page, there’s a parallel phenomenon sweeping the country: collective graphomania.

In 2007, a whopping 400,000 books were published or distributed in the United States, up from 300,000 in 2006, according to the industry tracker Bowker, which attributed the sharp rise to the number of print-on-demand books and reprints of out-of-print titles. University writing programs are thriving, while writers’ conferences abound, offering aspiring authors a chance to network and “workshop” their work. The blog tracker Technorati estimates that 175,000 new blogs are created worldwide each day (with a lucky few bloggers getting book deals). And the same N.E.A. study found that 7 percent of adults polled, or 15 million people, did creative writing, mostly “for personal fulfillment.”

* * *

Mark McGurl, an associate professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of a forthcoming book on the impact of creative writing programs on postwar American literature, agrees that writing programs have helped expand the literary universe. “American literature has never been deeper and stronger and more various than it is now,” McGurl said in an e-mail message. Still, he added, “one could put that more pessimistically: given the manifold distractions of modern life, we now have more great writers working in the United States than anyone has the time or inclination to read.”

An interesting discussion about this happens in that thread at Meta Filter. John Scalzi, no stranger at all to the world of blogging and online publishing, says this there:

I see nothing but upside in people writing and self-publishing, especially now that companies like Lulu make it easy for them to do so without falling prey to avaricious vanity presses. People who self-publish are in love with the idea of writing, and in love with the idea of books. Both are good for me personally, and good for the idea of a literate society moving forward.

Indeed. And it is pretty clearly a manifestation of what Shirky is talking about above.

I’ve written only briefly about my thoughts on the so-called Singularity – that moment when our technological abilities converge to create a new transcendent artificial intelligence which encompasses humanity in a collective awareness. As envisioned by the Singularity Institute and a number of Science Fiction authors, I think that it is too simple – too utopian. Life is more complex than that. Society develops and copes with change in odd and unpredictable ways, with good and bad and a whole lot in the middle.

For years, people have bemoaned how the developing culture of the internet is changing for the worse aspects of life. Newspapers are struggling. There’s the whole “Cult of the Amateur” nonsense. Just this morning on NPR there was a comment from a listener about how “blogs are just gossip”, in reaction to the new Sunday Soapbox political blog WESun has launched. And there is a certain truth to the complaints and hand-wringing. Maybe we just need to see this in context, though – that the internet is just one aspect of our changing culture, something which is shifting us away from being purely observers of the complex and confusing world around us, to being participants to a greater degree.

Sure, a lot of what passes for participation is fairly pointless, time-consuming crap in its own right. I am reminded of this brilliant xkcd strip. The activity itself is little better than just watching reruns of Gilligan’s Island or Seinfeld or whatever. But the *act* of participating is empowering, and instructive, and just plain good exercise – preparing the participant for being more involved, more in control of their own life and world.

We learn by doing. And if, by doing, we escape the numbing effects of being force-fed pablum from the television set for even a little while, that’s good. What if our Singularity is not a technological one, but a social one? What if, as people become more active, less passive, we actually learn to tap into the collective intelligence of humankind – not as a hive mind, but as something akin to an ideal Jeffersonian Democracy, updated to reflect the reality of modern culture?

I think we could do worse.

Jim Downey

The “Page 69” test.
December 13, 2007, 2:27 pm
Filed under: John Scalzi, MetaFilter, Science Fiction, Titan, Writing stuff

An interesting idea, via MeFi:

The Page 69 Test –inspired by Marshall McLuhan’s suggestion to readers for choosing a novel, a new blog, inviting authors to describe what’s on page 69. One says: Not the best, but not the worst. If my pages were presidents, I’d put page 69 somewhere in the James K. Polk range.

Most people tend to agree. Some others disagree, such as John Scalzi, who said:

I’m not a big fan of the page 69 test. My page 69s are perfectly good, so I’m not worried about someone opening randomly to those pages, but I think it’s a far better thing to read how the author treats you on page one. How the author draws you into the story (or doesn’t) gives you some idea of how she’s planning to treat you the rest of the way through the book.

Page 69s are random; page ones are intentional. Page 69 could be about anything, and may or may not be essential to plot, or character or even understanding what’s going on. Page one is the about the reader, and the story, and the author putting the two together.

If an author has a not great page 69 (or page 48, or page 207) it doesn’t mean much to me because I know as an author that sometimes you have a page where you’re just pushing through to something else. If an author has a bad page one, I don’t buy the book.

Good point, but I think that there is still something to be gained by glancing randomly into a book and seeing how it reads. I’ve always done this, when I was just browsing (whether in a bookstore, at a library, or through a friend’s bookshelves). Just for giggles I decided to pull up page 69 of Communion of Dreams and see how it read. Here it is (spoilers and all):

“Which implies intelligence, curiosity, and the ability to manipulate matter,” said Bailey.

“But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves again. Start with the simple, move to the complex.” Jon smiled. “Right. So, what else does this message tell us?”

“Something about size? The artifact is about a meter tall, does that give us some idea of relative size?” Klee looked around. “I mean, it’s not microscopic, and it’s not the size of Titan Prime. Doesn’t that tell us something?”

Bailey bit his lip. “Maybe. Maybe not. I think that it would be hard to draw any conclusions just based on size. I wish we had a better image of it to work from.”

For the first time Ng spoke. “I can help with that.”

“How?” asked Jon. “The reports indicate that they couldn’t get an image of the artifact, either photographic or holographic.”

Ng gave a slight smile. “We have the first mock-up to start with. And there are the initial reports, with their descriptions and what measurements they contain. I’ll talk to the people who did the original holo sketch, get impressions from some of the others who have seen the artifact. Give me a day.”

Bailey nodded. “Could be helpful.”

“I concur,” said Jon. “So, we’ll pick this up tomorrow. I’ll talk with the captain about reserving the recreation room for a couple of hours. There’s a fair-sized holo projector in there.”

“I’ve checked it out. It’s not great, but it’ll do,” said Ng.

“Sounds good,” said Jon. “So, before we break for the day, I want to remind you that tonight is the roll-over for deceleration. You might want to stow away loose items.”

* * *

He was standing at the top of a stone staircase, outdoors. Though the sun was bright, it had none of the harshness from Judith’s description of the desert scene. The stairs led down to a quiet riverside glen, filled with fruit trees in the solid green of June. A path led from the foot of the stairs to a nearby structure. It was the church from one of his other dreams, stonework with high glass windows all along the side, the blue rose in the window at the end. The church gleamed in the sun, beckoning. But he knew that he wasn’t to go to the church. Turning to see what was behind him, he saw that he stood at the start of a pedestrian bridge over a small river that was running quietly beneath him. There were no other people in sight, though some ducks swam lazily in the river along the near shore. The far shore was shrouded in a low-lying fog that seemed to hang close to the other side.

The bridge was perhaps three meters wide, and arched slowly up in front of him, so that he couldn’t see the other end. It had walls of stone about a meter high, and periodically along those walls he could see small sculpted stone vases in which grew roses. Blue roses. He went over and peered into one of the buds, could see it slowly opening, a clean blue light almost like a gas flame being revealed as the petals spread, until the flower was completely open, the heart of it glinting like blue diamond in the sun.


Not bad. That’s almost to the end of chapter five, by the way, while the research team is en route to Titan and trying to come to grips with what little they know about the alien artifact which has been found there. The section after * * * is part of a dream sequence which the main character has fallen into – these interludes occur at various junctures in the book.


Jim Downey