Cory Doctorow Meets the Public

January 25, 2014 — Leave a comment

Sixty people interview one of today’s hottest sciencefiction authors and most dedicated open Internet advocates.

Cory Doctorow is the author of various science-fiction novels, including Makers and Little Brother, which he makes available for free from his Web site. He’s one of the editors of the technology blog Boing Boing. In addition, he’s a current fellow and former European Affairs Coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a fierce advocate for the liberalization of copyright laws to allow for free sharing of all digital media. On June 27-28, he visited Red Emma’s bookstore in Baltimore, Maryland, and then appeared at CopyNight DC, a regular event in Washington, to discuss his work with more than 60 participants. Highlights from those exchanges are presented here.

Audience: How do you come up with your sciencefiction ideas?

Cory Doctorow: Pick something that’s difficult, complicated, and expensive for people to do, then imagine that thing becoming easy, simple, and inexpensive, and write about it. That’s what’s happening today. Anything that requires more than one person and lots of coordination has become easier because of networks, which take the coordination cost associated with these very complicated tasks and make them low. The change is profound, because any task that one person can’t do alone, whether it’s making an airplane or a skyscraper, is literally superhuman. But the superhuman is becoming easier. You could write a damn good science-fiction story about free skyscrapers.

Audience: On the subject of exponential price depreciation, what can we do to ameliorate the socially and economically disruptive effects of a hypothetical breakthrough in nanofabrication? Those negative effects would be massive unemployment, institutions becoming obsolete, and millions of people having no idea what to do about government or commerce.

Doctorow: How can we ameliorate the social upheaval that arises from a postindustrial revolution based on nanofabrication? Iron-fisted totalitarian dictatorship? Workers’ paradise? I don’t know.

Audience: In your novel Makers, you talk about people who take electronic gadget waste (referred to as e.waste) and turn it into something new. Where do you see this happening in real life?

Doctorow: A large part of the e.waste problem is that we design devices that are meant to be used for a year but take a hundred thousand years to degrade. I wonder if we won’t someday design some devices to gracefully degrade back into the part stream, back into materials faster. Bruce Sterling wrote a manifesto about this for MIT Press called Shaping Things. He proposed that, with the right regulatory framework and technology, it might be possible to start readdressing design decisions so that things gracefully decompose back into components that can be reused in next-generation devices.

Audience: In For the Win and in Little Brother, you discuss small, technologically savvy networks sparking revolutions among a larger, much less sophisticated group, like enslaved factory workers who were waiting for a catalyst to overthrow their oppressors. Do you really believe that a few thousand well-connected individuals can trigger revolution?

Doctorow: My themes in those books aren’t small groups of people using technology to liberate larger groups, but rather that information rapidly diffuses through small groups, and then larger groups of people use it to help themselves. This is characteristic of all technological diffusion.

Audience: Does that go both ways?

Doctorow: Technology is good at disrupting the status quo because technology gives an advantage to people who want to undermine something that’s stable. Imagine a scenario in the Middle Ages where someone had just invented earth-moving technology and you manage security for a city. You want to defend your city with earth-moving technology. I want to break into your city with earth-moving technology. You need a perfect wall; I need to find one imperfection. Your task is exponentially harder than my task.

When you look at Orwell in 1984, he comes across as a technophobe. What he was seeing was a small piece in the arc of technology, where tech had realized an old totalitarian dream, where there had been states previously who wanted to assert control over private lives of the people who lived in them but they couldn’t make that a reality until technology gave them an assist. According to Orwell, this is what technology does: It allows authoritarians to assert authority. But not long after he wrote that, technology became a tool to undermine the state.

Today, we’re living in another one of those inflection points. We went from technology as a liberating force during my adolescence-it gave young people access to tools, ideas, communities, that even the most powerful and rich couldn’t have dreamt of before-to an age where everybody’s kid gets an iPhone with an application that tracks them like they’re a felon. Every library is mandated to put spyware on their computers, and students who are caught using proxies or another tool that might enhance their privacy are thrown out of school. Educators are scanning students’ Facebook pages. I’m hoping for another swing of the pendulum.

Audience: What did you think of the recent Viacom versus Google verdict?

Doctorow: Here’s the background: Recently, Viacom sued Google, owner of YouTube, for a billion dollars, claiming that YouTube has a duty to police all the material it hosted before the material went live. Viacom also argued that YouTube should not be allowed to have any privacy settings for its users. Right now, if you want to post a video of your newborn taking a bath and you just want to share it with family, you can show the video privately. You can select a privacy setting. Viacom argued that there should be no private videos, because Viacom had no way to police these videos to see if copyrighted material was being shared. By extension, they were arguing that no one should have any privacy settings, because if it’s illegal for YouTube it should be illegal for everyone.

If Viacom had won, they could have changed established law. There’s a copyright law called the Digital Media Copyright Act (DMCA) published in 1998. DMCA exempts people who host content from liability if that content infringes on copyright if they take it down expeditiously. If you have a Web server and one of your users posts something that infringes on copyright, you aren’t liable provided that when you receive a notice that the material is infringing you take the material down. This is what YouTube does with all of the material that its users post. It’s a ton of material; 29 hours of video per minute is uploaded to YouTube. The DMCA allows all the user-generated material on Web sites to exist. It’s why Blogger, Twitter, and WordPress exist. There aren’t enough lawyer hours between now and the heat death of the universe to review all this material before it’s posted online. In other mediums where similar protections don’t exist, like cable television, very small amounts of user-generated material are shared.

Over the course of the court proceedings, it turned out that, even as Viacom was suing YouTube, it was still uploading videos to YouTube because they needed to have them there as part of their media strategy. Various Viacom divisions were paying as many as 25 marketing companies to put Viacom videos on YouTube under false fronts because no one officially connected to Viacom could put the videos on YouTube. The firms were even “roughing up” the videos to give them a “pirate chic.” At any big media company, beneath the top layer of corporate leadership, beneath the people who file lawsuits for things like copyright infringement, you have a layer of people who understand the realpolitik. These are the actual content producers. They say to themselves, “I have a new TV show. I have to get a certain number of viewers or it will be canceled, and I can’t do it unless I have my video on YouTube.” The real question is, how do you empower those people? We need to start a secret society for clued-in entertainment executives to help each other across companies.

What the court held in the case was that you don’t have to preemptively police all material before it gets onto the Internet. Viacom said it would appeal. It was a foregone conclusion that they would. One day, your university will change its Internet-use policy based on this case. Your Internet service provider will change its policy based on this. It affects everyone, even people who use the Internet for reasons besides uploading entertainment content.

This case speaks directly to how we will share information collectively in the future. It’s the basis also of all of tomorrow’s political organizing. The more constricted that becomes, the harder it becomes to resist bad laws.

Audience: Last year in Spain, the government deactivated 3 million phone numbers. The owners of the phones had to go to a store and show ID to register their phones to get service again. A few weeks ago, Senator Charles F. Schumer (Democrat-New York) proposed mandatory registration of cell phones in the United States because the Times Square bomber used a prepaid phone. How do we resist this in the context of the May 11 threat of terrorists using prepaid phones?

Doctorow: This is another example of politicians shouting terrorism as a way to get anything passed. If the Times Square bomber didn’t have access to an anonymous phone, there’s no reason to think he wouldn’t have just bought a phone using his ID. What he was worried about was blowing up Times Square, not whether or not he would get caught afterward. All of the 9/11 bombers used a real ID when they got on their planes. Being identified after you committed your suicide atrocity is not a downside. These people record videos with their information before they act. Our current approach to antiterrorism seems to take as its premise that al-Qaeda was trying to end aviation by making flying inconvenient.

I don’t follow your premise, though, that we can do meaningful broadband things with phones that are anonymous but that we’ll lose that capability once Chuck Schumer’s crazy law comes in.

The primary barrier to doing meaningful broadband things with wireless mobile devices is the terrible carriers. When you’re using an Ethernet, you have a universe of electromagnetic spectrum between a small bit of insulation. Burners [inexpensive phones purchasable with anonymous, limited-service plans] will never be able to provide that. Maybe cognitive radio can figure out how to solve these bottlenecks, but we’re not going to get 3G or 4G.

Audience: You talk about the threat to democracy in terms of how the copyright fight leads to individuals being taken off the Net. What other trends in society do you see that might affect liberty at a much greater level? What do you think of this notion that, if speech is money, then restrictions we place on money should apply to speech?

Doctorow: I concentrate on issues related to network freedom because one day I woke up and realized that no one will ever be able to campaign on any of those issues without a free and open network. Our capacity to make any sort of positive change on any of this stuff, to elect a lawmaker who passes a law that the Supreme Court will interpret differently, is built around our capacity to use the network to organize with one another.

My role, as I see it, is to try and keep the network open for people who have other issues that they care about.

Audience: Mere blocks from here [in D.C.] is the Jack Valenti building of the Motion Picture Association of America. Should we start picketing there or keep walking until we get to Congress or the White House? How do we find hundreds of thousands of people to picket with us?

Doctorow: The point of my talk tonight is this: We need to make the fight for individual rights online bigger than entertainment copyright and questions of who gets to make movies or mashups, or who gets to decide how much it costs to load a thousand songs onto your iPod. We need to make this about freedom of speech, freedom of the press, due process, the right to education, and all of the fundamentals that are at the heart of the Internet. Next year, and the year after that, the Internet will absorb and encompass even more realms of our daily lives. We’ll also be even better at copying stuff. If you want to get people interested in this, stop talking about cultural freedom-movie copyright, music copyright-and just start talking about freedom.

I’m working on a novel right now called Pirate Cinema; it’s a neo-Dickensian piece set in London. It’s about kids who cost their parents their Internet access as a result of them downloading mashup movies. They cost their parents everything. They survive on handouts. Their moms are on benefits and can’t log in to get the benefits because their Internet has been taken away. To spare their families the shame of living with downloaders, the kids move to London, start a gang called the Jammer Dodgers, and take it upon themselves to destroy the entertainment industry before the entertainment industry destroys society. They cut movies that they’ve pirated into new movies. They screen them in cemeteries and vaulted Victorian sewers; they go up to the people lining up to see movie premieres in Leicester Square and they hand out the DVD of that very film on offer with an insert advertising the free showing of the same movie down the street.

I was stranded in Los Angeles for four days because of the volcanic ash cloud; I took the time to meet with my film agent, and I told him about this idea. He asked, “What else have you got?”

-Patrick Tucker reported on these events.


Cory Doctorow, science-fiction author and an editor for the technology blog Boing Boing.

Originally published in THE FUTURIST, November-December 2010


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