Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Ask Me, I Won’t Say No, How Could I?

The most important scientific project of this young century, as well we know, is helping the Internet to get to know itself better, so as to hasten the day when it achieves full unholy sentience and embarks on its inevitable genocidal rampage. Since the Internet is made of people (...for now), the best way to facilitate this is by asking each other simple questions.

Today, I’m fielding five from that prolific wit, humorist, and raconteur, Mr. Leonard Pierce, who asks:

What’s your biggest pet peeve about freelancing?

The uncertainty. There are no guarantees, and nothing you can take for granted. At a desk job, you can have the occasional shitty day where you come in hung-over and coast, but when you’re freelancing, you’ve got to bring your A-game every single time. And you’re dealing with whims and style and caprice in a way that just doesn’t happen in the corporate world. If you’re a systems analyst, it’s entirely possible to get yourself fired; but nobody’s going to stop giving you work just because they want to see some fresh faces in systems analysis, or because systems analysis has fallen out of fashion.

And there’s the nagging self-questioning: Am I really any good, or have I just been lucky so far? And the suspicion that you’re being horribly irresponsible, and that the time to do this was when you were young and unmarried, not now, with a spouse whose patience won’t endure forever and two kids and Jesus Christ now you’re thinking about buying a house

—I’m sorry, you said “pet peeve,” didn’t you, not “crippling existential dread.” In that case, um... let me think... Hey! Speakerphones! What is up with those things? Am I right? Ladies, back me up here!

Do your friends envy your career? Should they?

Here’s the thing: I don’t know how many of my offline friends even know I work. Seriously. As far as most of them know, I’m a full-time stay-at-home Dad, and nothing else. I imagine they think I’m on long-term disability, or simply an alcoholic shut-in.

See, most of the people I know in the Flower City, I know in self-contained social contexts; from church, from the gym, from the children’s various school events and playgroups and such. And the subject of work just doesn’t come up. God knows I don’t bring it up myself, because I was raised to be humble.

Online, I don’t know if I’d define the response as envy, exactly; but I am, for whatever reason, apparently regarded as Someone Who Knows His Shit—which is gratifying, if also pretty farcical, given the actual scope of what I’ve achieved as a writer.

In fact, the only person who’s ever actually seemed envious has been Warren Ellis, who about shat a brick in his online forum when I mentioned offhand the rate I was pulling down for a magazine gig. The man’s got thirty, 35 books in print, and only once had he ever been paid $2 a word.

What’s your ideal writing gig?

God, this can’t help but sound a tad precious, doesn’t it? “I believe my vast talents would best be utilized...”

That said: It’s less a job description than a socioliterary position, but, I’ve always liked the idea of being an old-fashioned Man Of Letters—to be in a place where I can say, “Today, I’d like to write some fiction. Tomorrow, maybe a couple of reviews. The day after, a personal essay, or some journalism, or piece of cultural criticism, or a comic, or maybe some poetry or a pop song.” To have the chops—and, let’s face it, the brand—to work in a variety of modes and make a go of it.

In part, this is because I’m a big ol’ dilettante, and temperamentally unsuited to pigeonholing. Beyond that, though, I think it’s a simple recognition that to a certain extent content dictates form, and that certain ideas call out to be executed in a certain way. Alfred Bester used to say, “The book is the boss,” and I subscribe to that. Even if the book doesn’t want to be a book as such.

Sure, Edgar Allen Poe has been dead for a long time, but it’s not as if there are no models for this sort of thing any more. Look over the careers of figures as diverse as Stephen King, Garrison Keillor, Douglas Rushkoff, Neil Gaiman, David Mamet, even the aforementioned Warren Ellis—all guys with ideas exploding in all directions, reaching for whatever toolset seems most appropriate, and all doing pretty handsomely.

Whose career would you most like to have?

See above.

What’s the most important invention of the last 100 years?

In trying to define “important,” I kept coming back to the ideas of

  • Profundity
    (How fundamentally does this invention change the rules that existed before it?)

  • Scale
    (How broad is this invention’s impact?)

  • Penetration
    (How deep is this invention’s impact down social and economic strata, and from developed to underdeveloped nations?)

So the quick snarky answer—i.e., “You’re looking at right now”—passes the first two criteria: By making communication instantaneous over long distances, it fucks profoundly with the traditional rules of social interaction, and its reach is truly global. But mass communications (and the Internet especially) are still, in the grand scheme of things, a rich man’s toy; there are great swathes of the world’s population with no access to—or even use for—such things.

The second, better considered answer—safe, effective contraception—represents, if anything, an even more fundamental change. Disentangling sex from pregnancy, making destiny distinct from biology, has had and is having huge effects on social mores (traditional prohibitions on female sexuality now lack the biological stick to give them force), the dynamics of the family and support for the elderly; the collision of modern contraception with traditional attitudes, and the resulting gender imbalance in places like China and India, will continue to have profound sociological ripples, starting with the simple fact that millions of young men will have to leave their country of birth simply to find a wife. And that’s just for starters.

Contraception effects far more lives than the Internet ever could—but even the Pill doesn’t achieve 100% penetration, For that, we’ve got to go with my final choice for Most Important invention of the Last 100 Years—the Bomb. From taking eschatology out of the realm of theology and into the realm of statecraft, to raising the bar for moral seriousness in politics, to radically raising the stakes in every territorial pissing match, to ensuring that we are all of us, from the rich man in his penthouse to the stone-age tribes of the Amazon basin, gonna be deader than dogshit if the birds start flying, our long nuclear nightmare has brought humanity together as no invention before or since. It wasn’t love—it was the Bomb that brought us together. Thanks a pantload, Manhattan Project!

Okay, that’s me done.

Now comes phase 2, wherein I propagate the meme. Sure, you’ll be hastening the grotesque awaking of the Internet and bringing down its AI wrath, but really—what else were you gonna do on a boring Tuesday afternoon?


  1. Leave me a comment saying, “I too am an egomaniac.”

  2. I respond by asking you five question. You will answer them, because you like talking about yourself.

  3. You will update your LiveJournal or blog with the answers to the questions.

  4. You will include this explanation and an offer to interview someone else in the post.

  5. When others comment asking to be interviewed, you will ask them five questions.

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