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An Interview with Pat Cadigan

Pat Cadigan considers herself a Science Fiction Writer interested in the near future; interviewed by Miss M. at the occasion of Virtual Futures 96 Datableed.

PC: Hello World, this Pat Cadigan. I guess I could present myself as a Science Fiction Writer, I think this how I'm bets known. Last year I decided to abdicate being a female SF Writer and just be a SF Writer, for various reasons, because I decided that was too much segregation. I suppose, I like to think of myself as someone interested in the near future in a very substantial way. At first it was just for the sake of the work, I discovered that I liked writing about the near future, more than anything else. What it is with writers is that I think the best writing comes from writing your passion and what you're most interested in. Often I think this sort of semi mis-expressed as writing what you know, but with me it's write what you're interested in and what you want to know. I often choose subjects not because I know so much about them, but because I want to learn about them, my excuse to study up on them. I have done a lot more studying and learning in the past 20 years seriously, than I ever did at school.
Once you start doing something that has a real meaning for you, some abstract: someday this will be important for you, you really open yourself up to the learning process in a much different and I think more profound way.

Miss M: What are the topics you write about and that you find important for the near future?

PC: Mostly, what I'm concerned with, if you were to distill it down into what they call "high-concept" in the States, is the impact of technology on human beings. What kind of culture grows up around it, what kind of beliefs grow up around it, even what kind of superstitions and rituals grow up around it? What sort of unforeseen effects does it have?
One of my favorite examples is people could have probably predicted a road system from the invention of the automobile and you might have been able to predict parking lots and difficulty in finding parking spaces, but you probably would not have necessarily predicted drive-in movie theaters, or making out in the back seat and people becoming parents in the back seat. There's a definite change in the cording patterns of young people with the advent of the automobile as a common piece of commonly used machinery in the United States and elsewhere. This is the thing that really interests me, that sort of unexpected side effects, unexpected uses.
Another of my favorite examples is heroin. At the turn of the century, heroin was packaged like Aspirin and was sold as: "Whatever is wrong with you, this will fix it."
But heroin is not quite what everyone thought, now heroin is a street drug, it's illegal and yet there's a whole industry that's grown up around it. Tobacco is a big issue in America right now, it's to me one of the classic examples of the contradictions of the modern culture that we live in. In that tobacco has been a big industry in America and other countries, but my experience is mostly American, for hundreds of years. It is such an intrinsic part of the economy and the economic foundation of the country that we have the "Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Bureau". It regulates the legal production of alcohol, tobacco and firearms. It is funny that tobacco is in there. The way people look at it now, they'd never make it. One the one hand, we are looking at the tobacco industry employees, responsible for millions and millions of dollars. At the same time the more health conscious forces in the US want to make the country "smoke-free" by the year 2010. People are being discourage from indulging in this, because you can get terrible disease and die. But again on the other hand, this is an industry that must be supported, because if you don't than it's going to be disastrous for this particular company and all the people that it supports.
To me this is an incredibly insane situation, where they are trying to do completely opposite things and the exact same time. And people wonder where I get my sense of irony from....
I find this so absurd, it would probably be unacceptable in the "Theater of the Absurd", because it would be too absurd. If I wrote that into a story, 20 years ago, people would say, O.K. that's enough jabs of American Culture. And yet, here we are with this situation, which is more absurd than anything I could make up.

Miss M: Do you see parallels between the tobacco industry and the communications technologies industry?

PC: Not necessarily, not the tobacco industry per se, but the absurdities that surround it. I was just at the latest Computers Freedom and Privacy Meeting at MIT this year, that was last week in March 1996 and there were people from all over the world there. There was a guy from Den Haag, there was a guy from the White House, a White House Advisor of policy to President Clinton. He was complaining that when he opened his membership envelope someone had put his name tag in there. But instead of writing his name, Michael Nelson, on it, they put "Dr. Clipper", because of the Clipper-Chip. And someone had put a sign for his back, that said "Kick me". That pretty much summed up how people felt about him. This man was saying in his presentation, "you know if we don't have the Clipper-Chip, if we don't have access to decryption of encrypted messages, we'll have a lot more incidents like the World Trade Center Bombing and the Oklahoma City Bombing."

Oklahoma City is not far from where I live and I was listening to this and I thought, this is ridiculous. There where four writers attending, me, Tom Maddox, Vernor Vinge, and Bruce Sterling, and at the end of the conference, we got up and each presented something that was meaningful or important to us.
I talked about Michael Nelson's speech and how he had said that there would be more bombings like the Oklahoma City Bombing and how Tim McVeigh, one of the accused bombers, was arrested, he said: "He couldn't have been to bright, because he was speeding out of town in a vehicle with no license plate."
Since I have lived in that area for 23 years I know this is not really that unusual behavior for people in Oklahoma, I have been there many times. It's a miracle he got caught at all.

The thing is, you could have monitored every ones computer communication and clipper-chipped everybody to death and you would not have gotten an inkling of what was going to happen that day in Oklahoma. They are actually quite a few separatist and supremacist groups that are on Bulletin Boards and use computer communications. You could monitor them and tap everyone's phone line all day long and still wouldn't catch the people that bomb. They are so paranoid, they think the government is already listening in on every thing, they stay off the phone. For all I know, they are using carrier pigeons. These are not high-tech people, when they come around to the execution of something as extreme as a bomb.
On the one hand, we have the government saying "we got to have access to this", "we are going to listen in on everything, because if we don't we won't be able to protect you and we can prevent everything, if we can just listen in".
This is a big, fat lie! This is another one of these great big lies, because all of the information for the Oklahoma City bombing, is actually right out in front of all of us in America.

The white supremacist groups and separatist groups are well known. You can find them anywhere. It's not that hard, all you have to do is follow their advertisement. All that type of people do. It doesn't take a whole lot of wiretapping and illegal decryption to find these groups and infiltrate them. If you really want to do that, to find out if they are going to bomb something, if you think they are dangerous. They are not hard to find your way to. And you can see where they are, their rhetoric is up there for anyone to listen to and it's not a matter of having access to everybody's coded transmissions by way of the Clipper-Chip. It's seeing what's already out in front of you and knowing how to interpret it.

Miss M: Do you think that encryption and decryption should be legal? That we should not have a Clipper-Chip?

PC: Oh, absolutely. I wish there weren't the need for encryption. But apparently some people do feel the need for it. I don' t know about Europe, but we in America have a mind set growing that really bothers me, which is: well, if you have nothing to hide, than you shouldn't be afraid of having to show everything you got. That is very slowly starting to creep in as a reasonable point of view. Unfortunately the flip side of this is also: if you hadn't done anything wrong than they probably wouldn't have arrested you. It's the old: where there is smoke there's fire, type of thing. In our country a lot of people have been saved from some very serious and severe and undeserved faiths, by the fact that you are innocent until proven guilty and that the burden of prove is in the accuser not the accused. We are getting to the point where in our country - and I think this is coming from the religious right - they feel that if you weren't doing something wrong, that you wouldn't have attracted the attention of the police and wouldn't have arrested you anyway.
Of course, there are different opinions on what consitutes a crime now, too, and I don't know where any of that is going to end, because on a lot of the loaded issues, like abortion, the sides are becoming so extreme now, that they all frighten me.

Miss M: Could there be something like a liberating momentum in new technologies? That the Internet could "free" some people at least?

PC: I believe that any tool is only as good as the people that use it.
A hammer could be a very liberating instrument, but if the person suing it is too stupid to hold it on the right end, then it won't do anyone much good.
I think there there's a lot of potential for the Internet. A lot of it is being realized, I go to bed, thinking of it and the next morning it's happening. There's a lot of potential there, I I think probably the best hope we have with the Internet is the communication.
Like the real obvious things like distance, physical distance, but there's also a distance imposed by cultural things, religious things, whatever. I see a big potential for leveling the playing field. For instance, I have a writer friend, who lives back in Lawrence, who is paralyzed from the neck down. He is a very active person, he works a lot with young men and he and his wife do a lot of work with troubled kids, he's taught them gaming, as a way to show that you're not limited in your body as long as you have an imagination. Kevin is very, very energetic, when I think of him I think of him as very energetic, lively and outgoing . These are not necessarily adjectives that you would use to describe someone who is permanently confined to a wheelchair. That's unfair really. But fortunately through the Internet and everything you get to know Kevin and become comfortable with him, so when you finally understand what Kevin's physical situation is, it is no longer relevant.

That's certainly one way the Internet helps people. The other way is that I can maintain a lot of very substantial and profound friendships at very long distances by way of email and conferencing. I have got a group of people that I've been conferencing with every Wednesday night on computer for the last 8 years.

Miss M: Have you ever met them in real time and space?

PC: I have met some of them, but not all of them. I don't know what all of them look like, what all of them are like. Except, how I meet them in cyberspace, in conference.
And it has been the same core group, occasionally other people come in and out, but of the core group some of us have met and some haven't. It is a very odd group of people, because if we all had the opportunity to meet each other in person I don't think we'd necessarily gravitate into each other at a party. I like that very much. And also I live in Kansas and my best friend lives in New York, and I talk to her every day, several times on the Internet.

Miss M: The picture you paint in your novel "Synners" is one of people who are completely immersed in cyberspace, who loose their "real" life and merge with data-space.

PC: Well, not all of them. When I was writing "Synners" I realized that I was delineating two different types of people. One type, like Visual Mark, wanted to crawl into Virtual Reality and have the door shut behind him. The other, like Gina, wanted to climb out and pull it all out with her. Display it outside. So there are the inner-directed and the outer-directed. What I wanted to show in "Synners" was that in some cases cyberspace or whatever you choose to call this technology, will bring people together and in other cases it will divide them people, it will isolate people.
Again, it always depends on how it is used. It is only as good as the person or people using it.

Miss M: Are there ways of teaching people the skills of how to communicate?
We are living in a society where people are already frightened by TV, saying that TV isolates people, that it is evil, and makes them prone to violence, because that is what they see all the time?
Don't you think that with the commercialization of the Internet people might be isolated from each other?

PC: For one thing there are always going to be people who are saying, oh, this is wrong, this is evil, this isolates people. It's like reading and thinking too much, used to wear your brain out, so that it ran out of you ears... People used to believe that if yuo read too much you'd go blind. I mean, anyone who read too much would go blind. And if we didn't have TV as our villain, we'd have books. And if we didn't have old books, we'd have what ever books there were available to use as a scapegoat. I'm not one of those people who believes that TV isolates children. I think the type of society that we have for our children, is more a faugh, than any inanimate object, like a television.

But to get back to your question, is there a way to teach people about the Internet. There probably is, if people are wanting to listen. Whenever some raises this question with me, I'm reminded of Bill Gibson's incredibly wise statement, that the street finds it's own uses for things.
Regardless of what we might decide to try to teach people to do with the Internet, they'll do whatever they can find to do with it. That was one of the things I put in "Synners", we do what we do and we do it because we can. I think that's very true, we do things because we can do them and we'll do them until somebody stops us. Or until we get tired, but then someone else will do it.

Miss M: Considering recent developments, where do you see the potential in Virtual Reality technologies?

PC: I think at this point it is a little too early to tell exactly, what the negatives would be. A lot of people can come up with instant negatives like: oh, people just get immersed in it and that won't be very good. Or you get Virtual Reality sickness when you take your helmet off or throw up, or you get motion sick, or car sick or you will get a headache, whatever. I don't really find any good reason why we shouldn't explore something like that. I don't think there's ever a good reason, not to explore something.

Miss M: But what about for example the atom bomb?

PC: Well, on the one hand, the atom bomb ruined a lot of people's lives - to understate it completely - on the other hand we also have radiation treatments for cancer. We were supposed to have a nice, clean, cheap way of producing energy, unfortunately, we have plutonium and mutations and waste we can't get rid off and store, don't know what to do with. That's a real problem.
I can't say that the atom bomb was good. If you were to ask me, if we should not pursue that kind of research, because we might get a bomb out of it, I can't say "no". There's always the potential of getting the atom bomb or the equivalent out of science and technology, but I don't think it's a good enough reason to say "oh, no, we shouldn't explore this."

For one thing I don't thing you can stop human curiosity and for another thing, if you are not ready to handle the bad stuff, you are probably not ready to handle the good stuff. And the good stuff must outweigh the bad stuff eventually. We haven't used an atom bomb since, and I hope that no country ever does.
I was one of the kids in America, who grew up wondering when America and Russia were going to go to nuclear war. When I was growing up, there were bomb shelters in various buildings and they were posted so that you'd know where to go, when the sirens started blaring. But even by then, when I was a kid, everybody knew , in government and science, that there wasn't any way to survive a nuclear war. Not the two antagonists and not anyone caught in-between, which would be the entire world.
When I grew older I realized there wasn't going to be a nuclear war between Russia and America or anyone else, there's no percentage in it, there's no way to win. It would have been a suicide thing an neither Russia nor America were that type of culture. However, I begin to get nervous about a religious fanatic with a suitcase of plutonium. And that still makes me nervous.
Should we not explore nuclear science, because there is the possibility that some idiot, some religious fanatic, if he can't save the world, he must destroy it, will get a suitcase full of plutonium. It's all in responsibility. I wish I could say we are a mature civilization, and we can handle all of the responsibility. But we are not. But I wouldn't try to put the brakes on some research.

Miss M: So you believe in the notion of progress and advance?

PC: Yes, I have to say that I do. My point of view is that of someone who doesn't go to bed hungry, who doesn't worry where she's going to sleep. Who doesn't worry where the food is going to come from tomorrow. Mine is a very privileged viewpoint. I'm not by any means wealthy, but there are an awful lot of people all around the world, particularly in America, that are not being taken care off. I am so ashamed that I've heard Americans say about the homeless in our country: well, some people choose to be homeless.
I am ashamed that I share the planet with anyone who'd say something like that. And yet it is so easy to believe that, it is so easy to believe that there are people who want to beg on the streets, who want to go hungry to bed, it is so easy to believe that there are people who are evil, because of television. It doesn't of course have anything to do, with the fact that they were abused or neglected, they are just bad. People want to believe those easy things, because having to face the real answers, or take responsibility for something is so much harder. I wish that when people think about advances and they get opposition from people that they would try to understand where that opposition comes from.
If I had to worry about how to feed my son, if I were homeless, I don't think I would give a damn about advances. Once again, it comes down to being a very individual thing.
I believe in progress and advances, but I also believe in the soul and I believe that, besides technology being only as good as the people that use it, the culture that springs up around it, can only be as good to the people that comprise it, as those people are to themselves.

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