Interview: Cory Doctorow

By Katherine Macdonald

Cory Doctorow

Katherine Macdonald: First off, thank you very much for agreeing to this interview.

Cory Doctorow: My pleasure.

KM: At the moment you seem to be the golden boy of geekdom.

CD: The golden boy of geekdom? I like to think of [myself] as the poet laureate of Slashdot . . . but not really. That would be a really interesting niche if I could figure out how to fill it; certainly there's a large science fiction-centric audience of geeks who don't have a lot of fiction targeted at them.

KM: I'm hearing it in a lot of places: people who would not normally look at science fiction are downloading your book left and right.

CD: Yeah, it seems like it. I mean, Jeff Bezos is a fan.

KM: To get off the bat, if you had to give a mini-bio of yourself (say you're at a panel or something), what would it be?

CD: Well, I'm 31. I was born and raised in Toronto, and I live in San Francisco, a city I've lived in since the very peak of the boom just before the crash, September 2000. I moved out here to open the offices for Opencola, a software company I started, and I left about a year and a half later to work for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is a civil liberties group that works on technology issues. I'm kind of a policy researcher, spokesman, and dogsbody at EFF.

I've been writing most of my life. I knew I wanted to be a science fiction writer when I was twelve, I started submitting fiction for publication when I was sixteen, I made my first semi-pro sale when I was seventeen, and started selling to the pros when I was twenty-six, so there was kind of a ten year slog. [I] graduated from Clarion in '92, and dropped out of four universities without ever graduating from anything else.

I have lived briefly in Costa Rica and Mexico, was raised by sort of quasi-doctrinaire Trotskyist school teachers. . . . Um, lifelong geek, started using computers when I was six, with teletype terminals, you know, printer teletypes that were connected to a VAX mainframe by an acoustic coupler -- and have been involved in the industry in one way or another since I was about nine, when I wrote my first piece of software for public consumption (which was a quiz for a folk festival that ran on an Apple II+).

I coedit this weblog called BoingBoing, which seems to be fairly popular. We're getting maybe half-a-million page views a month, which is pretty impressive for a weblog, and it's really a lot of fun. It's kind of a public commonplace book. I was actually hanging out with Bruce Sterling last fall and he was quite shocked and appalled that I didn't keep a commonplace book, that I didn't have a big notebook filled with writerly doodles and notes -- and BoingBoing is my public commonplace book. Keeping this public commonplace book is really kind of interesting because not only do people read over my shoulder as I write, but they also suggest a whole bunch of things that should probably be on my mind. And while a great number of these suggestions are fairly spurious, a not insignificant fraction of them are in fact very important, and have given me lots of interesting insights that regularly show up in my fiction.

I'm a nethead, I've always been a nethead. I write my books online -- the last book I wrote, I wrote on a mailing list, so I did a page a day and posted it to a mailing list as soon as I finished writing it, to about a hundred to two hundred people. I'm doing that now with the two novels I'm working on.

My first novel is Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, which just came out, and my second novel is Eastern Standard Tribe, which'll be out in November from Tor. And there's a short story collection coming in the middle in September from Four Walls Eight Windows, called A Place So Foreign, and Eight More.

So, that's my bio. Oh! And I won a Campbell Award in 2000.

KM: How'd you feel about winning that? Was it a surprise?

CD: Well . . . yeah! I mean, the process of getting nominated, and buying a tuxedo, and showing up at an award ceremony, and sitting there in the audience, was itself so unbelievably adrenalizing that the actual announcement . . . wasn't a letdown, but I had nowhere to go, right, I was already at 11. But I did glow for about three weeks thereafter. I mean, I was just sort of dancing on air, and I still do occasionally stroke my Campbell Award lovingly.

KM: I remember when I was introduced to you at a [Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Author/Editor Reception]. You were billed, I think it was by Patrick [Nielsen Hayden], as the most wired Canadian in the world--

CD: And given that we spawned Marshall McLuhan, that's no small accomplishment, I guess.

KM: Do you still consider yourself in those terms, or do you say, "No, I'm a San Franciscan now--"

CD: Oh, no, I'm definitely an ex-pat. I mean, I don't think it's possible to be a visa'd immigrant in John Ashcroft's America and be anything but an ex-pat. There's nothing like regular roundups and detainments and deportings -- and suspension of all things resembling civil rights for immigrants -- to remind you that you are not a citizen and not in possession of a full suite of rights and expectations that would be afforded to people who were lucky enough to be born here. So yes, I'm definitely still an ex-pat and not a San Franciscan. I still listen to CBC in the morning on RealAudio, because frankly, it's a lot better than NPR.

KM: I listen to college radio for much the same reasons.

CD: NPR sounds like not-very-good college radio. It really does -- marble-mouthed announcers, and kind of mushy news, and not a lot of foreign reporting -- I mean, the best news on NPR comes from the BBC. And Garrison Keillor can kiss my ass.

KM: I also remember from this first meeting that the business card you handed me was, I think, a Disneyland pass carefully redone-up with pertinent information . . . which I guess is a nice segue to talking about you and Disney, and Disney in general.

CD: My folks are schoolteachers, and their parents are little old Jewish people who live in Toronto. Which means that they spend their winters in Fort Lauderdale, because that's what little old middle class Jewish people do if they're from Toronto. So I grew up with Christmas breaks off with my parents in my grandparents' condo in Century Village (which is a franchise of gate-guarded communities throughout Florida. Theirs is in Deerfield Beach, in Fort Lauderdale -- my dad calls it Cemetery Village). It's this kind of shuffleboard paradise, and there's not a whole lot for like a nine-, or a ten-, or an eleven-, or a twelve-year-old to do, and so we'd get in the land yacht and we'd drive to Walt Disney World. We'd always take at least one trip. I had this like incredibly formative group of annual experiences going to Walt Disney World, and they never really left me.

I was raised by technologists. My dad's a programmer -- he was a programmer before there were programmers to speak of. He was writing code for PDP-8s, which are these giant extinct species of dinosauric mainframes that no one in their right mind would consider using (and that had considerably less power than the phone I'm talking to you on). Socialists are by nature techno-utopians -- Marx was a techno-utopian -- and my dad was completely captivated by Disney, which is a techno-utopia and has all these post-monetary visions of the future (albeit filtered through Walt's crazy crypto-fascist boyhood-in-America kind of point of view). So I grew up in this science-fiction-y utopia, with these science-fiction-y utopians, and it left an indelible mark on my psyche.

Now as for the Haunted Mansion: the story goes that when I was six we went to Walt Disney World and we had a book of tickets (because those were in the days when you needed tickets), and we had one "e" ticket left on our last night. It was just before closing, and we had had an amazing couple of days, and I had eaten my body weight in sugar and was in a kind of sugar trough and was feeling kind of saggy, and I lobbied for us using our last "e" ticket to go to the Haunted Mansion (which we had stayed away from because it was felt that it might be too adult for me). And we went to it, and it was just totally incredible. I mean, there was us three and maybe three or four other people, and the cast member who was doing the intake was just terrific. It was obviously her last ride of the night, and she was really hamming it up. She really improv'd the script and said things like, "Kindly step away from each and every wall, dragging your wretched bodies into the dead center of the room," and so on. It just left this amazing impression on me.

When we got off the ride. . . . Before [Disney] closed the gift shop at the Mike Fink Keel Boats and opened Madame Leota's cart, they had this great gift shop that not only had all this great Haunted Mansion schwag (and this was the heyday of theme park schwag), but it also had all these great magic tricks -- and the cast member who was running it demoed a bunch of magic tricks for me, which was very interesting. The magic shops in Disneyland and Walt Disney World have this great tradition, Disneyland in particular, [for being] the home to a lot of great sleight-of-hand artists who got their start working in those shops. Steve Martin got his start in the Disneyland magic shop. So [the cast member] demoed all these great magic tricks, and I took all my pocket money and borrowed against all my future pocket money and just cleaned up on schwag.

We took the ferry back to the ticket and transportation center, and we got in our car, and we started driving back to Fort Lauderdale. I fell asleep in the back seat, and the car broke down. [My parents] called Triple-A, and they sent out another car, and we all transferred into the new car. And we left all my schwag in the backseat of the car. And when we realized this the next morning, [my schwag] was gone. And I never got it back. The next time we went, they'd discontinued all of it! And I have spent my whole life tracking down this Haunted Mansion schwag, and there are still pieces of it that remain elusive and not for sale anywhere.

I'm actually kind of bitter about it. But you know, that which does not kill us can only inspire us to write.

KM: Disney seems to be, among other things, one of the major themes in a lot of your work. I noticed that in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom -- what was it, whuffie? -- the concept of reputation-based economics sounds a lot like the Opencola software, and I understand from other sources that you were kind of basing Opencola on this science fiction novel to see if it would work.

CD: Well, yeah -- I mean, not entirely. There are elements of the novel that are clearly fantastical and involve magical technology that couldn't be implemented. . . . But there were three of us who founded Opencola, and part of that inspiration, the piece that I brought to the idea, was the stuff about reputation economy, and in particular about collaborative filtering.

We have great economic thinkers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century who concern themselves primarily with how to manage valuable resources, on the basis that valuable resources would get consumed and would become scarce over time. So you needed some mechanism for the things that were most popular to be handled, [such] that you never got this tragedy of the commons, where the thing that a rational actor would do would be to run and seize as much of the valuable asset as they could before everyone else got there and took their share. Marx and Keynes both came out with different conclusions about how to manage valuable resources that grew more scarce with consumption, but neither of them questioned the idea that a valuable resource would grow more scarce with consumption.

And really, there was no reason to question it until the age of Napster. In the Napster universe, the act of downloading a file made another copy of it available. And this is an entirely new kind of economics. It's a tragedy of the commons that's reversed, so the sheep shit grass.

We've never really had to cope with non-scarcity, this kind of virtuous circle with non-rivalrous goods, in economic theory before -- and of course we live in what's tritely referred to as the information age, and in a very quantifiable way a significant fraction of our economic activity is concerned with the movement of things that are ideas. They may be instantiated in books or CDs or movies or patents, [but] they are primarily ideas and they can be replicated, and their replication doesn't deprive the owner of possession of the idea. This is the amazing thing about ideas -- and that's not an original idea. Jefferson wrote about this. He's got this great spiel about how ideas are like this amazing thing: they're like a fire. You can light a branch from the fire, and what you end up with is more fire -- which is completely different from eating your carrots, 'cause what you end up with is less carrots. It's a completely different kind of act of consumption. So I wanted to tell a little parable about post-scarcity economics, and I wanted to explore some of what that would mean.

There is this futuristic scenario in which we start representing physical goods as intellectual property, as ideas, as collections of bits. In a nano or biotech future, you actually have physical goods and valuable services that are nonrivalrous, although there might be intellectual property laws that engineer market failures to make them rivalrous, and not in a pejorative sense. But in a strict economic sense, a working market is one where the price of goods drops to its marginal costs. A non-working market, a market failure, is one where the good costs more than its marginal costs of production. You get those when you get monopolies, and intellectual property is a monopoly. That's what it's called -- it's the author's monopoly.

In a biotech future, we can imagine things like sexually-transmitted wellness. There was a biotech company that was working on a genengineered microorganism that would displace the fauna that lived in your mouth. It would be identical in most respects to that fauna, except that its waste product would not dissolve enamel. (The reason you get cavities is because the bugs that live in your mouth shit acid, and so this thing just wouldn't shit acid). It would be in all other respects identical, and you can imagine that you wouldn't get cavities anymore. The problem was that if your first customer was Richard Dawson, you'd never sell another version of this thing. You'd never sell another license, because as soon as Richard Dawson starts kissing the guests on Family Feud, he'd be patient zero, and everyone in the world would have it in six months.

And so how do you have an economic system in which the most important goods are non-rivalrous? How do you have an economic system in which the chair that you sit in, the table that you sit at, the car that you drive, the subway you ride on, the fuel that powers your airplane -- [are all] constructed from non-scarce material by nanites and [represent] nothing but the intersection of a set of instructions and raw material and a nanoassembler that can be compiled from another nanoassembler? What does that world look like, and what are the problems of that world?

You know, we tend to think of the end-of-scarcity as a good thing; there are very few instances when we say, "Oh, having a lot of something useful is a crisis" -- except in intellectual property, where the unfettered replication of intellectual property is a crisis because the economic incentive for creation is seen as evaporating in the face of unfettered reproduction.

KM: Which would appear to be complete bunk.

CD: Well, so far. There are two important perspectives on this. One is that if compensation is why writers write, and musicians make music, and film makers make films, then it's pretty clear that we're pretty cheap whores, 'cause Gardner Dozois is not paying a whole lot more than Hugo Gernsback did, only he's paying it in 2003 dollars (or rather, cents), and Hugo Gernsback was paying it in 1928 cents. You know, Roald Dahl sold his first story to the Saturday Evening Post and fed a family of four off of it for a year, and here we are today and a short story sale today to the highest paying market in the business, which I think at this point is SciFi.com, is two and half months rent in San Francisco. To one of the other prestige markets, like Asimov's, it's maybe four really good dinners -- in the four to eight hundred dollar range.

If you live in a major urban center, this is not a really large amount of money. You can't imagine that anyone in publishing is making a whole lot of money, which is why you have people who work in publishing who commute to New York from Philadelphia and Connecticut. Their salaries are geared to rural Mexico, but their place of employment is in the middle of the most expensive city in the western hemisphere.

And it's pretty clear that money isn't the only thing, although it might be that the fantasy of money is the thing that makes us write. I mean, certainly, when you hear that 6.8 million copies of the next Harry Potter book will be printed for North America alone, you think, well, someone's making a shitload of money. But I mean, most writers aren't. I think if you went through the SFWA directory you'd maybe find fifty or a hundred full-time science fiction writers out of all of those members, and the SFWA membership are the elite, they're the people who sold three stories. The number of SFWA writers are a fraction of the number of people engaged in the effort to write science fiction. And the actual number of people earning a living from the arts as a fraction of the number of people who are trying to make a living in the arts is so small as to be statistically insignificant. They're way, way over on the right hand side of that bell curve, and if you chop them off you eliminate hardly any of the people who are attempting to write. So it's clear that the incentive is not just monetary, although I don't discount that there is monetary incentive.

But of course, the other piece of this is that it's not clear that unfettered reproduction today is hurting people who are engaged in creative work. Hollywood just had its best year since 1959. Hollywood has on many occasions predicted its own death -- in 1982, Jack Valenti went to Congress and he said, "The VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston Strangler is to the woman home alone." He said that if the VCR was allowed to be brought to market, it would destroy the American film industry because people could make unlicensed copies of movies. And today, the Hollywood box office is better than it's ever been, and it's grown every year since 1982, but it still represents only 26% of the bottom line, because 40% of their bottom line is coming from prerecorded media. The Boston Strangler has more than doubled their income.

So it's not clear that unfettered reproduction necessarily destroys creativity, although it might change who gets to play. The vaudeville artists sued Marconi in the '30s -- they said he was going to Napsterize vaudeville -- and he certainly did. I mean, there's no question that the radio turned most vaudeville artists into taxi drivers. Groucho Marx and Gracie Allen are statistically insignificant as compared to the total number of vaudeville artists who were working in [vaudeville's heyday], and most of them never made the transition. But I don't think anyone who was alive in 1940 would say that there was less music or that there were less musicians, or that musicians were making less money -- but there were certainly different musicians, and they were making different sums of money. And I'm sure that there were monks who plucked their heads at Mr. Gutenberg's very louche Bible, and wondered how the word of God could ever be read off of something that wasn't hand-illuminated by someone who'd devoted their life to it, on a substrate of fetal calf skin -- and yet there's no question that the Gutenberg Bible is responsible for the Bible persisting today.

So this non-scarcity business is a really interesting one, and it crops up in a lot of places. There's a great movement of people who call themselves Open Spectrum advocates, who say that the Federal Communications Commission's model of spectrum allocation is based on really old technology and doesn't reflect current technical realities. That by building radios that are cooperative and that only put out enough power to reach the next radio (so that their signals can be relayed), that you can essentially end spectrum scarcity. That this model that we've labored under for the last seventy-some years (more than that, eighty -- the FCC's precursor was formed in response to the sinking of the Titanic, so probably about a hundred years now), this model that we've had where only certain privileged people can speak over the airwaves has actually been obviated or made obsolete by modern technology -- and that if we can only reconsider all of our assumptions about radio engineering -- if we could only do that, scarcity would go away, and everyone could speak as much as they wanted over the airwaves. And it's certainly an amazing dream. I don't know if it'll come true, and I don't have the technical chops to evaluate if it's even plausible, but it's certainly an amazing dream.

KM: I'm wondering whether there's any connection with this and your work in the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

CD: Well, I wrote and sold and rewrote Down and Out long before I went to work for EFF -- but certainly I went to work at EFF because of some of the things that concerned me enough to write Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation was founded originally to mostly handle some of the traditional civil liberties stuff -- speech, freedom to assemble, privacy. The first case, the seminal case, was the Steve Jackson Games case, where Steve Jackson (who makes role-playing games and strategy games) had his office seized -- basically, all his files, all of his computers, seized -- because the Secret Service thought that [his company] was [publishing] computer crime manuals, because [one of his staff members] had written a role-playing game about computer crime, called GURPS Cyberpunk. In the process of doing this, they seized the BBS that contained a bunch of email -- and they read all the email on the BBS. The EFF was formed to go to court and say, "Where's your wiretap warrant? Since when do the feds get to eavesdrop on private communications without a wiretap warrant?" And the feds said, "Oh no, email is a different thing" -- and EFF won that case, and they went on to win a lot of related cases.

But some time in the last five or ten years, all of the action has migrated to intellectual property, primarily copyright. Copyright has become this stupendous weapon for abridging privacy and for abridging freedom -- and those freedoms include things like the freedom to speak. One of the ways that copyright is being very badly abused is to silence people who are critics; most recently we had a bunch of media activists who released a fake Dow Chemical press release on the anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, in which they apologized on the behalf of Dow for all those thousands of people who died. And their site was hosted by an ISP, and that ISP was a customer of a larger ISP, and that larger ISP got a takedown notice under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act from Dow Corning -- and they took the whole ISP off line, and all of their customers' websites disappeared.

So in order to silence one critic who was engaged in absolutely legitimate political speech, they silenced dozens and dozens of people who were engaged in the business of publishing. This is dangerous, it's deadly, and this is where all the action seems to be these days. Although with the rise of the USA Patriot Act and the Homeland Security Act there's a swing back to straight-up first amendment search-and-seizure privacy stuff.

But, the copyright stuff is still very important, so there's definitely some EFF stuff that's shaking out into my fiction these days. I'm working on a novel right now that's called usr/bin/god, although that's just a working title -- and there are many problems with this, including that nobody knows how to alphabetize "slash," everyone will spell it u-s-e-r, and technically it should be usr/sbin/god -- so the title will change, but it's all about EFF issues.

KM: Do you feel there's a message that you're trying to bring across in your fiction, or does it just happen to show up there?

CD: I don't think that there's a message -- I think there's an agenda, maybe. A message is something you could spell out in a slogan, and I don't think there's a slogan that would emerge from any of this stuff -- but I think that there's a point of view, and that point of view is that we are moving towards general purpose technology in a way that we've never seen before.

I mean, the fundamental base of computing is the Turing machine, or more properly, Turing's Universal Machine. This is something that was invented by Alan Turing at the end of the second World War (you know, before he was forced into suicide by hormone treatments because he was gay). Turing invented this thing at a time when he was accustomed to building special purpose machines that could only compute one function -- so he had a quadratic machine, and he had a derivative machine, and so on -- and he realized that he could build the Universal Machine, and that he could then use symbolic language software to configure that machine to be some special purpose machine.

Turing's Universal Machine is an incredibly powerful concept; so powerful, in fact, that as a culture we still haven't gotten our heads around it, which is why we now have people calling for the design of computers that can't be used to commit infringement, or can't be used to convey bad speech. . . . The idea that you can build a general purpose computer that can execute all instructions save for ones that are infringing is kind of touchingly naive, but profoundly ignorant of what a general purpose computer is.

By the same token we have this general purpose network too. All networks before the Internet were designed to connect two parties to each other, or specific parties to each other through a central server that would mediate the communication, and so there was a kind of quality of service mechanism; there was a gatekeeper. The Internet is what's properly called an end-to-end network, and in an end-to-end network, any two parties can communicate without any intervention by any third party -- and so we again have all these calls for the design of the Internet such that certain kinds of communication can't take place, file-sharing of certain kinds and so on, or that certain parties shouldn't be allowed to communicate (so Cuba shouldn't be allowed to talk to America, or various kinds of communication shouldn't be able to traverse the Great Firewall of China or what have you). And they're fool's errands, because the network that would be required to enforce those policies would not be the Internet. It's either the Internet or it's not, it's either an end-to-end network or it isn't -- and as soon as you start doing things like quality of service mechanisms and packet-filtering and rules about who can talk to whom, and requiring permission from policy servers to allow two nodes to connect to each other -- it's not the Internet anymore.

So we have these two fantastically protean general purpose tools, the Turing Machine and the end-to-end network -- soon, I believe, to be joined by the universal nano-assembler, which will truly be the general purpose machine -- and that's going to be a completely different world, and we have to stop thinking about these things as these kind of naive, special-purpose boxes. We have this idea, for example, that we should allocate some [portions] of the spectrum to voice, and some to radio, and some to TV, and some to wireless data and some to cellular and so on -- and it's this incredibly bizarre idea if you're an Internet user, because if you're an Internet user, you know that the fundamental unit of communication is a packet, not a voice, and that voice is just an application that runs on top of packet networks, and that what we really should have is all of the spectrum allocated to data, and then people should decide if that data is going to be voice, or going to be video or if it's going to be whatever.

But the idea of having a special-purpose voice network is totally bizarre in a way that is parallel to the idea of having a special-purpose chair that you sit in only to eat breakfast, and then when it's time for lunch, you take your breakfast chairs and you stack them up and you break out the lunch chairs. It doesn't make any sense, you know, you have chairs, and then you decide why you want to sit in them. You would never think of really designing a breakfast chair -- you'd never have a car that you only drove to the bank, and when you wanted to go to the grocery store, you get the grocery car out of the garage.

KM: If you could have any specific audience for your books, what audience would you like to have? Or, what specific person would you like to have?

CD: Well, I think it would be kind of interesting if it found a home in science fiction readers, or writers even, who for the most part, even though they tend to be a technically savvy bunch, have treated computers as kind of a metaphor. I think if you look at cyberpunk fiction, you'll see that computers are primarily a metaphor for lots of other things, and that they're rarely treated mimetically, and so they're never really come to grips with. So we have gods in the machine, we have the Loa of Gibson's [Sprawl trilogy], and we have viruses that are completely technically nonsensical, but are kind of a metaphor for how bad ideas spread and so on. And by treating computers and the Internet as metaphors, I think that we have foreclosed our imagination. I think it would be interesting to find some of the science fiction writers of the generation that came before the generation that I'm part of, to turn their hand to writing rigorously and mimetically about computers, and treating some of the technology that's further out, like nanotech and biotech, metaphorically.

I think that would be a very interesting thing in fact, and obviously there are some writers who are doing this. Charlie Stross is certainly a master of this, and Rudy Rucker and Rudy Rucker Jr. had a story this morning on the Infinite Matrix that is pretty damn mimetic about computers, and Sterling is actually pretty mimetic about computers, but there's still a lot of very, very metaphorical stuff, including the new Gibson novel -- which is brilliant, but treats watermarks in a way that is completely at odds with how watermarks really work. [The novel] uses them as this great and daring metaphor for the unconscious intention of the artist and so on -- but really turned out to be as a work of speculative fiction . . . kind of flat, at least in respect to this watermarking stuff, because it was ill-informed about this. And don't get me wrong, I don't want to give the impression that Pattern Recognition was a bad book or a failure of a book or even a deeply flawed book, but it wasn't the book I would've hoped for, given the elements that Gibson marshaled, which are brilliant. Gibson can still write circles around 99% of the people writing today, so I certainly don't want to give that impression.

KM: Actually, your answer surprises me -- I would think that science fiction readers or writers would not be the audience who in your wildest dreams would read this, but rather, political figures, people who would take the ideas in there, and say, "Oh, well golly, that really makes a lot of sense, perhaps we should change everything."

CD: I don't know about political figures, but certainly I would hope that a very large group of apolitical figures (which are the great hordes of Slashdot, and Fark, and Blogistan) would find something interesting in it.

There are two fundamental political philosophies of geeks: one is nerd determinism, which basically goes, "Our superior technology will trump your silly laws." You often run into this. I had a great briefing today with a very, very good physicist about wireless networks, and how the physics of wireless work. And we started talking about some of the regulatory initiatives around this, and I mentioned that there's a regulatory initiative being fielded by the Hollywood studios (who have a pretty good track record for fielding bad regulatory initiatives) that would require that every analog-to-digital converter -- which is this very fundamental piece of technology, it's the thing that turns analog data into digital data -- it would require every single one of them to have a watermark detector built in. And you know, you've got an analog-to-digital converter in your computer that measures your battery's power, and there's analog-to-digital converters in your thermometer, and in your telescope, and in your seismograph, and in your cellphone and so on, and equipping all of these things with mandatory watermark detectors is a fantastically stupid idea.

When he heard this, he started saying, "Well, they'll never do it, it's a terrible idea, it doesn't make any sense," and I said "Well, but that doesn't matter, it doesn't matter that it doesn't make any sense, that doesn't have any bearing on whether it'll end up being a law." And the problem is that to the extent that geeks are content to say, "The law makes no sense, and therefore we can either ignore it, or once it's enacted, we can just sort of skirt its edges," they actually end up doing real social harm. So I'm not so much concerned about lawmakers and political figures reading [my book] -- I'm more concerned about their teeming horde of constituents who are completely, for the most part, disengaged from the civil polity, reading this stuff and getting involved.

And now the other stripe is nerd fatalism, which is that "Politics are so irredeemably corrupt, especially compared to the elegance of code and logic, that there's no reason for us to get involved in it. There's no reason for us to partake in politics." And again I think this is the wrong approach, for obvious reasons -- if you don't vote, you've got no one to blame but yourself. I think the future of geek political activism is slashdotting the vote; it's getting giant groups of angry nerds mobilized through technical automated tools to contact their lawmakers and give them a piece of their minds; to show up at the polling places in droves.

KM: Like what's happening in Britain with the faxing?

CD: Yeah, FaxYourMP is certainly a signal success here. FaxYourMP is like three people, only one of whom is anything like full-time, and a four-year-old PC and a DSL line in the living room of someone's flat, and it has this amazing track record of defeating bad, clueless, anti-freedom British legislation. 70% of the people who use it have never contacted their lawmakers before. It's a success on all these axes. It costs nothing to run. At one point it went down because the ceiling collapsed in the flat where it was. Someone had to go in his hatchback, and drive to this flat, and load the spirit of British democracy into his trunk and drive it to a different flat, and plug it into the router there, onto the DSL line. In fact, my favorite part of the story is that I stayed in the flat where FaxYourMP ended up, and I set up the router, which makes me very, very proud. I set up the router that is the critical piece of British democracy today.

The idea that this tiny group of committed individuals could with minimal expense create giant changes in British lawmaking is so inspiring that it suggests that there's a future for this for other people. And there's other examples of this: in the Philippines (Howard Rheingold writes about this in his Smart Mobs book), there was a televised corruption trial of the President and it was going very badly for the government, and so they ordered the televised hearings to be shut down. Within 15 minutes of the television sets going dark, twenty thousand people had mobilized to the presidential palace to demand that the broadcasts be opened up again, so that they could watch justice being done, so they could see to it that the corrupt government got what it deserved. And the way that those people mobilized was with text messages on cell phones.

The way that it happened was that someone sent someone else a message that said, "Be in front of the presidential palace in fifteen minutes, wear black, send this to everyone you know" -- and that person sent it to everyone in their address book, who sent it to everyone in their address book, who sent it to everyone in their address book. Fifteen minutes later, there are 20,000 people in front of the presidential palace. The military was shitting bricks. They went to the people who were in the front of the crowd, who weren't the leaders, because there were no leaders, and they said, "What can we do?" And these people said, "We don't know what you can do, but there's twenty thousand of us now, there'll be half a million of us in an hour -- I think you better turn the broadcast back on." And they did.

Now the afterword to that is as important as the story itself, which is that the crowd dispersed, the government toppled, and a government that was just as bad was instated immediately afterwards, because these mobs don't have a long attention span. They are ad hoc -- they form and they dissolve almost immediately. Without a kind of vigilance, the mobs are only good at advancing destructive agendas ("this must go"), and not constructive agendas, [in which the mobs can] be replaced by something better.

So one of the things that I hope emerges from this kind of movement -- one of the things that I hope that geeks come to as they build the tools that help them organize -- is constructive agendas, a means whereby there's follow-through, so that bad ideas aren't just torn down, but replaced by good ones.

KM: I know that you gave two political philosophies for geekdom, and you consider both of them to be a bad idea, and slashdotting is where you think things will fall -- do you ever think, if this is so successful in Britain, and at least partially in the Philippines, why hasn't America done this?

CD: Well, we have, a little. Whether or not you believe the theory that bloggers ousted Trent Lott, there's certainly no question that the media's attention span was a lot longer in the case of Trent Lott than it typically is in scandals, and that the Trent Lott phenomenon was buoyed up by word of mouth as much as it was by the mass media -- the mass media was kept honest. The battle of Seattle is another good example of this, where you had all these people who were involved in this political action, and the word from network headquarters for all the major news networks was: "This isn't news, don't show it on the local newscasts," and there was no video distributed to the local newscasts. But what happened was the activists who were actually a part of this had camcorders, and they were shooting video, and were finding public 802.11 access points or ethernet drops and uploading the video to the Internet, and it was being watched in rural places all over America, and cities all over America, and people were calling up their local news stations and saying, "Here's the URL for the footage, why isn't it on your newscasts -- there's this incredible demonstration going on American soil, where's the news coverage?"

The affiliates started airing this stuff all on their own, and that pushed back to the centralized decision makers in the networks, who then sent camera crews and started sending out professional quality video. . . . So there have been sort of proto-examples of this stuff. At EFF, we have a letter writing center, at action.eff.org, where you enter your zip code and it'll tell you who your law makers are and where they stand on the issues of the day, and we give you a letter that has the positions we think you should take, although you can edit it to your heart's content, and you can click submit, and with one click send it off to your lawmaker (this is really important because you can't really send lawmakers mail anymore, because it's held in anthrax quarantine for a month before it reaches their office, and a lot of it gets lost en route, and their fax machines are typically busy or out of toner or what have you, so email is really the only way to get in touch with them).

This action center does a really good job. We sent at last count 27,000 letters in support of Representative Boucher's DMCRA, which is the bill that would reform the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and make it legal to engage in technology sales and research that has a legal end. Right now, it's illegal to make a device that circumvents copy restriction technology, even if it's legal to do so. So, for example, it's legal to watch a Japanese DVD in America, but because all the DVD players are regionalized, it's technically impossible without using a circumvention device, and selling that circumvention device is illegal.

[The letter-writing is] buoying it forward. I mean, it hasn't passed yet, but certainly the Total Information Awareness funding was stalled on the basis of grassroots letter-writing campaigns that were organized by groups like the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and others. So we have proto-examples of it, but the country is a lot bigger, it's a lot more diverse, it's a lot more dispersed, and a lot harder to mobilize -- but I think that we're getting there.

You know, when I talk about Slashdot, I sometimes feel like Winston Smith desperately scribbling, "If there is any hope, it lies in the proles." But I really believe it. I believe there's a mass movement out there waiting to be mobilized.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom cover

KM: Speaking of the mass movement, what do you think that has to do with the current mad downloading of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom?

CD: Yeah, it's a good parable for it, a good parallel to it. Tor increased my print run on the strength of advance notice to 8500 copies -- so this means that the average first novel from Tor gets fewer than 8500 copies, and I believe that there's probably a good reason for that, which is that I think first novels probably sell fewer than 8500 copies in hardcover. This says that the audience for science fiction in book form is dwindling, or is in some ways so small as to not be an enormous political or social factor anymore.

There was a time, I think, when first science fiction novels, or all science fiction novels, had a larger audience; certainly this is true of the magazines, which have been in a sad and steady decline for a long time. I don't know if you've seen the latest Locus yet, but it's got the round-up of all the magazines, and their circulation is plummeting -- it looks like the dotcom bust in slow motion. Increasingly, people are getting their information online, and increasingly people are turning to other forms of entertainment. You see this in WorldCon attendance and everywhere else. The thing that is amazingly interesting about the download experiment is that 75,000 people have downloaded this book, and I don't think it's a stretch to say that the final total will be in excess of 100,000 people; in fact, I'll think it'll probably be larger than that, so the number of people who will download the book exceeds the number of people who could be reasonably expected to read it by more than an order of magnitude -- and that's read it in hardcover, and that's a pretty stunning statistic.

Patrick [Nielsen Hayden], my editor, when I told him how many people had downloaded it, which at the time I think it was 30,000, said, "Jesus Christ, do you realize that you now have an audience of 30,000 people for your next novel?" It was like, yeah, shit yeah, that's totally killer.

So there's this giant mob out there that's sort of waiting to be fed something that it wants. There's a demand signal (in economic terms), and there hasn't yet been much of a supply response. It's that market failure thing again, when there is an absence of monopoly . . . if this were widgets and not books, and people were demanding to get their widgets online, some entrepreneur would put their widgets online. But because intellectual property involves a limited monopoly, you get these market failures where you have these tremendous demand signals.

At the time that Napster was shut down, there were fifty-seven million American Napster users, and that was one month after fifty million George Bush voters elected the President; so there were more Napster users than Bush voters. There's this incredible demand signal, and the supply response is so anemic and pathetic. . . . I don't know if you've been to Pressplay or any of these other label-sponsored download sites--

KM: I have been to some, and they're just not up to snuff.

CD: They're pathetic. So the traditional logic or social reason given for the preservation of the music industry, or indeed of the entertainment industry, is that it compensates artists and it makes material available; it makes creative works available. But the reality, and it's quite sad, in music at least, and I'm sure that this is parallel with books and everything else, is that 80% of the music ever recorded isn't for sale anywhere in the world, and 97% of the artists who've ever signed a recording deal are earning less than $600 a year off of it. Napster admittedly did a rotten job of seeing to it that artists got compensated, but it at least solved one of these problems the music industry failed to solve, which is that it made enormous amounts of material that were unavailable in any other form, available again. It rescued our cultural heritage; it served a critical social role that we believe that the recording industry deserves to live for. And the services that the recording industry has put in place to replace Napster are dreadful in that they fail utterly to make the volume and variety of material available that was available in the Napster days. They can't in some ways legally do it because they can't get clearances for stuff that they don't own the rights to, where the rights have reverted, and in other cases, they just don't have the wherewithal or the will to do it. So we saw a working market for downloadable music and that was that everything was available.

What does the public want: it wants everything. What DRM [Digital Rights Management] does it want: none.

The response from the music industry has been this thin anemic slice of what Napster offered, wrapped up in these terrible, anti-user anti-freedom DRM systems that make a mockery of fair use, and the net result is dreadful, and a failure. There are tumbleweeds blowing through the websites of Pressplay and the rest of them.

KM: And really, programs that build off of what Napster had, but are trying to be more grassroots, are not successful in the same way. I'm not sure why Napster-like programs have not had the same sort of success as Napster, except in that they don't want to be as horribly caught.

CD: Well, I think that in the case of the true peer-to-peer networks, the Gnutella based networks and the Kazaa network and so on. . . . I think that the reason that you see them as being less useful than Napster is because their primary design consideration is attack-resistance, not usability, because they saw what happened to Napster, and to Scour and -- who are the ones that Universal sued out of business? MP3.com. . . .

The fate of the peer-to-peer networks is quite telling, because the music industry sued them into bankruptcy and then bought them at pennies on the dollar, and then ran them into the ground. If you were of a mind to see conspiracies, you would think that the recording industry was doing this to be anti-competitive and not to protect artists' rights -- but that would only be if you were inclined to be conspiracy minded. . . .

KM: Do you think that you're going to make other books available like you have Down and Out?

CD: I hope so. I mean, this is in large part the decision of my publisher, and not mine, but, thus far, to the extent that anyone has statistics for the sales of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom -- they're good. Those numbers are incredibly preliminary (they're things like BookScan ratings, which no one takes seriously yet, and so on, or Amazon sales ranks, which are sort of pale shadows of the Nielsen ratings), it'll be another year before we have a real accounting of how the book sold -- but that said, the early signs are very, very good, and I'm optimistic that if I approach Tor about doing this with Eastern Standard Tribe, that they'll be willing to go for it.

I have approached Four Walls Eight Windows about doing this with the short story collection, and they're willing at least to let me release six of the nine stories through a Creative Commons license, so I'm looking forward to that. I think that it'll be very good. Short stories -- it's heartbreaking -- you work your lungs out on short stories and they appear in these magazines that are on the stands for fourteen seconds, and then vanish forever, and if you're lucky it gets reprinted in an anthology that stays on the stand for a minute and a half, and then vanishes forever. Short stories are not only a lot of work, they're good work, short stories are good, they're real art -- and most of the short stories printed are today unavailable in any form. As a writer who relies on the work of the people who've come before me to learn from, that's tragic, that all that work has perished, and disappeared into oblivion. And you have these very good efforts to bring back all of the short stories of Theodore Sturgeon or George Zebrowski, or what have you -- and they're remarkable as much for their existence, as they are for the fact that they need to exist, the fact that you can't get access to all of the short stories of George Zebrowski, or all of the short stories of Avram Davidson, or all the short stories of any of the short story writers who have dominated our field.

KM: You're writing mostly novels now -- do you think you're going to go back to short stories? Or does it just seem sort of futile?

CD: I'm still writing short stories, just not as many, 'cause I have about a career and a half too many. It's very hard to find time. But I wrote "Jury Service" with Charlie Stross, and we've got another story for Mike Resnick, called "Flowers from Alice," and we have a sort of nebulous plan, as soon as both of us catch our breath, to write some more short shorts. I've got a similar plan to write a story with Sterling, and I promised Patrick that I would write him a story for his next anthology -- and you know, I just had this story with Salon, "Liberation Spectrum." . . . I'm still writing short fiction -- not as much as I'd like to. But three or four stories a year, mostly novellas. I think that that's a reasonable and healthy output for someone who's also writing a novel a year.

KM: Speaking of novels, can you tell me anything about Eastern Standard Tribe?

CD: Eastern Standard Tribe is based on my observation that -- God, how to put it. It's still early in this book's life cycle, so I don't have a good high-concept line for it. I might ramble a little on this--

So Eastern Standard Tribe is based on this idea that before the Internet and universal end-to-end communication came along, you were pretty much stuck with being friends with the people who lived near you, or if you could find some place where people who were more like you lived, you could pick up stakes and you could move there. But with the advent of the Internet, you can be friends with people who think like you, even if they don't live near you. In fact, you can form these kind of virtual communities of intent, and one of the results of this is that people who are different from the people in their immediate physical region end up sleeping on really weird schedules, because if you are working with or you're involved with people on New York time and you live in India, you will rise and sleep at a schedule that's completely distinct and disjoint from all of the people who live near you. And in fact, you will have virtually no social contact with those people by virtue of your bizarre sleep schedule, and all of your social interaction will take place online, or the great majority of it.

(And I know people today who live that life. I mean, I have a friend who was a systems administrator for a company in San Francisco but living in Manchester, who would get up at one in the afternoon and go to bed at one in the morning, and whose only social contact was with stoned friends coming home from raves or the guys who worked at the all-night gas station with the sandwich machine where he bought his dinner -- and there are people who work tech-support lines in the Philippines who keep much the same schedule, and there are hardcore gamers in Singapore who keep much the same schedule. . . .)

One of the things that we know about communities of intent, or indeed communities in general, is that they look out for each others' interests, and when you're geographically disparate, I think the way that you end up looking out for each others' interest is by essentially forming favor-trading networks, like the Masons, like the Rotarians, like the Kiwanis. You can land in a strange town and the Kiwanis will help you get a job and an apartment if you're a member.

[The characters in the novel] are members of quasi-Masonic societies, secret societies, who work to get each other jobs, and who also work to sabotage the jobs of other people, other tribes. They mostly work as management consultants, so they work for McKinsey and so on -- and they go to other time zones and they sabotage them. They make bad recommendations to governments and businesses that make their companies and government less efficient, so that they can be steamrolled by the economic stability of some other region.

So the novel is a suspense-thriller about a secret agent in London, who is truly a member of the Eastern Standard Tribe, and is working to sabotage the efforts of the merged Virgin/Deutsche Telekom, to knock them out of the bidding for a peer-to-peer file sharing network toll collection system on the Massachusetts turnpike. And he's betrayed, and there's intrigue and violence and all sorts of interesting things, and it's highly caffeinated, and a good portion of it's told in flashback from the roof of a mental asylum where he has ended up as a consequence of all this meshugass. It's a lot of fun. Patrick called it Nick Hornby meets Neal Stephenson. I like that.

KM: Is there anything you'd like to tell the readers of Strange Horizons?

CD: Um. . . . Jeez. . . . You know, the work, I think, speaks for itself -- it's pretty straightforward to figure out where I stand on stuff, and what I'm doing, 'cause I keep this blog, and I do a lot of public speaking and a lot of what I do is on the record and a lot of stuff is published, so generally I think I'm a pretty transparent person; if you want to know what's up in my life, you can generally figure it out with ten minutes on Google. So I'm pretty content with the interview speaking for itself.

KM: Thank you very much.

 

Copyright © 2003 Katherine Macdonald

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Katherine Macdonald has been doing ongoing freelance work for both Tor Books and Baen Books since 1998. She is currently attending Bryn Mawr College. Visit her website for more about her.