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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Aaron Swartz’s Bubble City

Aaron Swartz is currently writing what might become a novel called Bubble City, publishing chapter by chapter on his blog. [Please note spoilers follow.] The story follows developer Jason, who moves to a semi-corrupt, tech-bubble-ish San Francisco for his new job at news aggregator website Newsflip. Google is also playing a part in the story as a company trying to bribe video bloggers into promoting views helpful to their platform.

Soon the story picks up some heat as Jason stumbles on a conspiracy of sorts when he finds out that one of the online news industry’s standard modules used on Newsflip, Google News and elsewhere – the “NNA”, or News Notation Analysis system – includes a secret backdoor introduced by a US government agency. With this backdoor, Jason suspects the government can influence which kinds of stories will end up prominently featured in news aggregators... which turn out to be trivialities (like Tom Cruise’s marriage) instead of important world news.

The novel is off to an interesting, well-written start, mixing elements of social criticism and technophobia with a lot of web references. There’s also a good share of general paranoia towards the government, which I noticed pop up more and more in US fiction... including in mainstream Hollywood productions like Live Free or Die Hard or Transformers.

It’s not the first time writer and programmer Aaron touches this topic. He mentioned American activist Noam Chomsky – author of the highly interesting Failed States – as one of his valued sources (one of Noam’s main points is that mainstream media’s mission is to help keep up established elite power structures). Also, in a previous blog post in 2006 he said that he considers following the news “a waste of time.” Aaron seems to consider the web a potential source for both abuse, as well as empowerment; in an interview here some months back he argued, “We have a powerful, widely-deployed, largely uncontrolled communication network. It’s up to us to decide where to go next.”

Now, the online medium isn’t perfect for longer stories – partly because of the hardware which can be strainful to the eyes, but partly also just because we’re very used to “short fixes” and constant interruptions when we’re online which make it harder to just sit down and read something longer – so maybe Bubble City will be the kind of story that makes it into print one of these days.

[Photo by Jacob Appelbaum, CC-licensed.]


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