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Friday, February 09, 2007

Internet comes to town, internet leaves town

On the subject of open-source literature, which Alice discussed in yesterday's post about, among other things, Jonathan Lethem's release of many stories for adaptation into plays and films:

Sci-fi writer, former Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Europe chief and fecund blogger Cory Doctorow has posted most of his fiction online, and continues to sell his print books briskly (though I wonder sometimes how he'd do if he didn't have the exposure of his blog's hundreds of thousands of readers). He has opened most of his writing for free adaptation, and even allows the unrecompensated printing and sale of his books to anyone in a third world country.

I recommend his novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom and his story A Place So Foreign (both are free online). He writes lots of stories that reenvision or take off from other people's work in creative ways: Return to Pleasure Island (the island bad boys go to in Pinnochio) is one, and I, Robot (purposely given the same title as an Isaac Asimov/Harlan Ellison screenplay in response to Ray Bradbury's silly legal threats against Fahrenheit 911 for its satire of his title Fahrenheit 451) is another. He also has stories loosely based on Flowers for Algernon and Ender's Game.

Doctorow's writing has problems: his plots often fall flat in the end, and his characters somehow sound tinny and lifeless. But that is easy to ignore in light of his ability, as a writer of "speculative fiction", to conjure up alternate worlds. He is a prescient writer on science--not of high technology like space travel but of the changes in lifestyle created by the casual availability of new technology. Many of his near-future ideas have already come true.

In his unconventional (and free online) 2005 novel Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, the protagonist is both an independent public wi-fi guerilla and the son of a washing machine. At the time, the approach he described to blanketing a city with wireless internet access was seen as infeasible. But last week, a recent NY Times article by Randall Stross discussed a novel solution to the problem of spotty and expensive municipal wi-fi internet: sell people cheap repeater boxes to use in their homes, which chain together wirelessly right out of the box to share a distant high-speed DSL lines. (It seems Google's San Francicso/Mountain View free wi-fi experiment is having mixed results.)

I love this kind of solution, the kind that Errol Morris studied in Fast, Cheap and Out of Control. It's also at work in the fabled $100 laptop project, now called the "Children's Machine", which will perform just the same sort of seamless and effortless networking described above and also run mostly open-source software.

The government of Georgia, which I worked for in 2006, is very interested in the $100 laptop project. In the meantime, Georgia is hard at work on a Georgian localization of Linux and a nation-wide project to set up computers in classrooms and train teachers in how to use them. It gives me a thrill to think that the day is not far off when the one-room schoolhouses in Georgia's mountain towns will be filled with buzzing little hackers.

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Blogger Ben on Fri Feb 09, 09:06:00 PM:
I should clarify that Google's experiment is different from the "cheap repeater boxes" idea. Google has mounted wireless base stations periodically on telephone poles, but people have found they need either to live right next to the wireless pole or have their computer in its line of sight--through the window--in order to get reliable service.