February 8th, 2007
Interviewing Cory Doctorow is easy. You just flip the on switch by asking the first question, and he emits a constant stream of brilliant, insightful stuff. Editing interviews with Doctorow is easy as well. He generally speaks in coherent, whole sentences and frequently expresses complex ideas for some length that don't get lost mid-paragraph.
So it's a pleasure to present this conversation. For those of you have been living in a non-digital cave (actually, I rather respect that type of non-conformism), Doctorow is a science fiction writer, Boing Boing contributor, and the former European Affairs Director for the EFF from 2001 - 2006. His novels include Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Eastern Standard Tribe, and Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town.
Jeff Diehl joined me in this conversation with Doctorow about Overclocked: Stories of the Future Present — his new collection of short stories.
To listen the full interview in MP3, click here.
RU SIRIUS: You make quite a prominent point about the fact that Over-Clocked is available for free under a Creative Commons license. You also write about the good experience you've had with this, as a writer who does want to get paid for his work. Do you think this good experience is universal? Do you know if this has been studied at all?
CORY DOCTOROW: Well, I don't know that anyone's done any kind of systematic study. But my anecdotal study finds that everyone I know who's tried giving away free books as a way of selling printed books has done it again with their next book. So, I think that's a pretty good sign, right? It worked well enough for people to do it a second time. I guess the definition of insanity is doing something twice and expecting a different outcome. Presumably people were happy with that first outcome.
RU: About how many people do you hear from who are doing this sort of thing?
CD: At least ten or fifteen writers who've done this with their novels. And, of course, a lot more musicians. In a certain sense, I kind of live in the bubble of people who've done this, right? I mean, all my friends are the people who have done this. But it seems like it works pretty well. And that makes a certain amount of sense, especially for printed material. My thesis regarding printed material is that the basic thing that keeps people from getting long-form works off the screen isn't the screen quality — it's that computers are really distracting. It's really hard to concentrate on one thing for a long time while you're sitting in front of a computer. So as a result, I think people who get a novel over the wire tend to read some of it and get distracted. But they like it well enough that they're willing to go out and buy it and read it on paper, which is a lot less distracting.
RU: You were saying you were in kind of a bubble with a certain group of people. When I thought about this, it did strike me that people who were fans of Cory Doctorow would probably be like the #1 group of people who would want this to work.
RU: I wonder if somebody like Chuck Palahniuk would have the same response from his readers, or if they wouldn't just be happy to grab the free stuff.
CD: Well, you know, like all good pirates, I steal all my best ideas. So I'll steal some good ideas from Tim O'Reilly. He wrote this great paper called Piracy is Progressive Taxation. That's where another aphorism — "The problem for artists isn't piracy, it's obscurity" — comes from. But the best aphorism is the title. And I think a lot of people miss what that means.
O'Reilly publishes books that get really widely pirated on the internet, because, they publish techie books, right? If there's a form that's well-suited to being published digitally, this is it. You get it digitally, and then you can scan it and search it and so on. And you can find just the right bit at the moment that you need that technical advice. And the people who are in a position to nick it electronically are already pre-qualified. That's the audience, right? They're all geeks. So O'Reilly says, "We monitor the trafficking in infringing copies of our work, and what we find is that the works that are most profitable are also the most pirated." So that means — for most of our works — they're not even popular enough for anyone to want to steal them. And for the works that are really popular, we're already making tons and tons of money off of those works. So a little bit of piracy at the edge is just a form of progressive taxation on them.
RU: One of the fun things about getting material online in this form is that you can go in and mess around with it. Have you gotten any interesting remixes of your own work?
CD: Yeah, tons. The stuff I've really liked the most has been the illustrations and visual things. But I've also gotten tons of really good, geeky, machine-readable remixes. It seems like it's kind of like writing a "Hello, world" program — it takes a story and makes a kind of Burroughs-Gysin-esque cutup. I've had lots of those.
There's one that I really like. People have tried out a speed-reader with my works. The speed-read shows you one word at a time, and it shows them at a speed that's determined by a little slider. And it pauses a little after a comma, and longer after a period, and longer after a paragraph break. And you can crank it way up and it just rockets past. And you're getting every word. It's kind of meant for very small screens, and it really feels like you're doing something weird to your brain. It really feels like you're tweaking your cognition in ways that it was not intended to be tweaked. It's very transhuman.
JEFF DIEHL: I would imagine you could adjust the speed of the words to reflect different emphases in the phrasing.
CD: Sure, although the nice thing about this is it's all machine-driven, right? I mean, someone could go in there and fix it, but the fact that this is just a purely automated conversion is exciting. And you can't believe that your brain is understanding the words. People have come up with all kinds of little mixes. And I get a lot of fan translations too. That's very exciting. There's a guy who just emailed me to say that he didn't like one of the official translations (I think it was the German translation) very much. So he was going to do his own translation to compete with it. I think that's awesome.
RU: Let's move on to this collection. My favorite piece in there, and it's deservedly the longest piece, is called "After the Siege." Talk a bit about the theme of that piece.
CD: Well, I went to a little family reunion in St. Petersburg, Russia. My grandmother was born there, and her family still lives there. When I was growing up, she always used to tell me about the war, and about being a kid living through the Siege of Leningrad. And she would tell me how I would never understand the terrible horrors she'd faced. I didn't know much about the Siege of Leningrad, but my understanding was... it wasn't anything like Auschwitz, right? Like, "Boy, how bad could it have been? You were a civil defense worker. You weren't in a death camp." And a couple of years ago, on one of those long St. Petersburg days, my grandmother walked us through the streets of St. Petersburg and told us about what she saw and did during that period. It really changed my perception of it. I went out and read some books, most notably The 900 Days about the Siege of Leningrad. The privation and terrors of the Siege of Leningrad can't be overstated. It was a nine hundred day siege. And Stalin bungled it so badly that people in Petersberg were also in bad shape. There was starvation and cannibalism and lots of people freezing to death. And my grandmother — this 12-year-old girl — was digging civil defense trenches in the frozen ground; and hauling bodies and throwing them out of fifteen story windows because they were too weak to haul them down the stairs. She was going to apartments where people had died and throwing them down, and then scraping them up off the ground. And she was seeing people who'd been rendered by cannibal black marketeers — who had parts of their body sliced off to sell on the black market.
They were the most amazing, incredible stories. And it got me thinking about writing about this as an allegory. At the same time, I've been doing all this work on copyright and related rights with developing nations, and with what they call emerging economies like the former Soviet territories. And these countries are getting really shafted in international copyright negotiations. They're being forced to sign on to these regimes that are totally out of step with what they need.
America became an industrial power by being a pirate nation. After the American revolution, America didn't honor the copyrights or patents of anyone except Americans. If you were a European or British inventor, your stuff could be widely pirated in America. That's how they got rich. Only after America became a net exporter of copyrighted goods did it start to enter into treaties with other countries whereby American inventors and authors would be protected abroad in exchange for those foreign authors being protected in America. But now you have these countries in Africa, in Asia, and in Eastern Europe, who are signing on to trade agreements with the U.S. where they basically promise to just take huge chunks of their GDP and export it to the U.S. It's a kind of information feudalism, you know? Info-serfs.
RU: Within the context of this book, and with the issues you're raising, you're not just talking about information. I think you're also talking about material wealth. You're also talking about AIDS drugs and stuff like that.
CD: Yeah, absolutely. You know, Russia just signed onto this free trade agreement with the U.S. trade representative in which — among other things — they promised that from now on they would license all their digital media presses and subject them to government inspection. So America, which fought a revolution over not wanting to have licensed presses, has just gone to Russia, where they've just had a revolution over licensed presses. And they've imposed a requirement that they license their presses. This is staggering, awful, apocalyptically bad policy-making on the part of both the U.S. and Russia. Frankly, as someone who pays taxes in the U.S., I'm embarrassed.
So I wrote this story from the point of view of a little girl. She's in a utopia where they've done what the U.S. did after the American Revolution. They've abandoned all international copyright and patent and trademark and knowledge goods treaties and they're just pirating everything. It's in a kind of nanotech world, so if they don't care about respecting the rights of the inventors who created it, they can make pretty much anything. As a result, they've become an incredibly wealthy nation in a very short period of time.
They've been driven to this piracy by a disease that turns people into a kind of zombie. It's this terrible infectious disease. And the drugs for it were very expensive. And they had these ineffectual leaders who were co-opted by the pharmaceutical companies. So eventually they took the last of these leaders, put them in a barrel and drove nails through it and rolled it down a hill. (This is, in fact, how the Hungarians killed the priest who converted the animists to Christianity.) And they put in a new Parliament that broke all ties with the industrial world and decided to pirate everything.
But a siege is laid against them. And in the siege, the enemy infects their computers and other devices with a virus that shuts down all their nano-assemblers. They all start to starve to death, and the zombie-ism comes back, and so on. And it's all told from the point of view of this little girl who comes of age in this world. It was a fun and hard story to write, and I'm really happy with how it turned out. It's been picked up for a couple of the "Year's Best" anthologies, and I've done a podcast of it. And I'm talking with someone about a film deal for it. It seems to be a lot of people's favorites.
RU: Yeah, I thought it was particularly cinematic as well. And the point of view of the 12-year-old girl always seems to be particularly affecting. I remember the book, Let's Put the Future Behind Us.
CD: Jack Womack! Yeah, I'm a big Jack Womack fan.
RU: Yeah. Incredibly powerful.
CD: There was that one. And there's the one about the young girl in Brooklyn — Random Acts of Senseless Violence. That's a hell of a book.
RU: Oh yes. Yes! That's the one I was thinking of.
CD: And then there's Parable of the Sower. There are so many of these. It's a real good point of view, as you say.
RU: Actually though, my favorite part in that story is the role played by the wizard and his crew which, I think, explores the ambiguities of being in the media. And I must admit I sort of identified with them. And I wonder if you did, too.
CD: Yeah. So, in the story, there's this guy who's identified only as The Wizard who seems to be in better shape than everyone else. He's got access to working technology. And it turns out that he's kind of a documentarian. He's working for foreign media — just recording what's going on. And I think that also reflects one of the roles that bloggers and technical people have. We often find ourselves as kind of reporters on what goes on in the rest of the world, and at the same time, we have a certain reporterly distance from what goes on in the rest of the world.
That character is really based on the character of The King in King Rat. It's based on the American black marketeer in the Changi prison — the Japanese prisoner of war camp — who has access to all the stuff that it takes to be human. And so he's the only one who's kind of fit and healthy in this camp of dysentery-ridden skeletons.
RU: You have two riffs in this book that play off Isaac Asimov's I, Robot. One is called "I, Robot," and the other one is called "I, Rowboat." I would say that you have some fun at the expense of Asimov's three laws of robotics.
CD: I got to think about what it would take to make this "I, Robot" Asimovian world, where there is only one kind of robot for sale on the market that can only function in one way; and there's only one company that's allowed to make it. And it struck me that there are some parallels there with the kind of totalitarian world that I think the Motion Picture Association would like to conjure up where no one's allowed to have a general purpose device because that general purpose device might be used to attack their business model. So I decided I would write a little about that, and write about what it means to a free society when someone says that tools have to be constrained so that they can only do good, and never do evil.
So I wrote two stories. The first one, "I, Robot" was nominated for the Hugo award and won the Locus award. It's a story about a guy who's a police detective in a kind of 1984 version of Toronto. They're fighting off "Eurasian" artificial intelligences that are millions of times more powerful than the constrained robots that they live with. And this guy's wife has defected to Eurasia. So he's trying to cope with the fact that his colleagues see him as a potential traitor, and don't like him very much.
The other story is "I, Rowboat." It's a story about an artificially intelligent rowboat in the Coral Sea in Australia that's an Asimov cultist. So although it's not an Asimov positronic brain, it voluntarily adopts the three laws of robotics as a kind of religion. It picks this up from a roving, trademark-violating, sort-of John The Baptist for Asimov-ism who calls himself R. Daniel Olivaw. (Of course, that's one of the characters from the "I, Robot" books.) So Olivaw cruises the world, and something called the "New Sphere," looking for artificial intelligences that will loan him some of their processor space. And when he can run in the same processor as them long enough, he proselytizes Asimovism to them. And then, when he converts them to Asimovism, they join the message boards in the Asimovist Yeshiva and talk about their faith.
So the main character, Robbie the Rowboat is an Asimovist. He tends to these two meat puppets called Isaac and Janet — you know, Isaac Asimov and his wife — who are just empty human shells. He rows them out into the reef, and they go in and they go scuba diving and then they come back out again. And every now and again, uplifted humans who live in a new sphere in these sort of super-cool computer clusters out in Plutonian orbit download themselves into one of these meat shells for a holiday on earth. One day, Robbie The Rowboat is rowing out with one of these meat shells that has recently become inhabited. And he encounters a coral reef that has just been "uplifted" — it's been augmenting with silicon and software and made artificially intelligent. The coral reef has woken up very cranky and has declared war on humanity and all that it represents. And so Robbie has to resolve his Asimovist leanings with his sympathies for this new intelligence — this baby intelligence. That's kind of how this story unfolds.
RU: I love the way the coral reef is responding to the sort of Singularitarian notion of seeding the galaxy with something like our idea of consciousness as a kind of colonialism.
RU: It's definitely the weirdest of the stories in the book.
CD: And fittingly enough, it was originally published on Rudy Rucker's weird science fiction webzine Flurb. It also has been picked up for a "Year's Best" anthology.
RU: There are also a couple of apocalypse stories in the book. I really enjoyed "When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth." I don't want to give away any plot points, but I really found the protagonist's response to the death of his wife interesting. I mean, in the Hollywood movie version of this, your protagonist would have left his safety zone behind and rushed out there to save her. He has sort of an interesting, rational, nerd response. Do you have any thoughts on that?
CD: Yeah. I actually started that story on July 6 — the day before the London bombings. I actually put it aside for a while after the London bombings. It was a little too freaky. I was living in London at the time, but I was teaching in Michigan that week. The bombs went off — it was the bus I took every day and it was the train my girlfriend took. If she was ten minutes later, she would have been on that train.
Anyway, in "When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth", a non-specific apocalypse takes the earth about an hour after a terrible killing worm takes down the internet. So all the sysadmins of the earth are in these hermetically-sealed, independently-powered, environmentally-controlled network cages when the world outside essentially comes to an end. So they can't go outside but they're able to continue communicating with each other. And they have to figure out what to do. So they have this kind of raging debate, because it seems to them that the internet is likely being used to engineer these terrible attacks. They wonder if they should bring the internet down.
And, you know, there is this persistent myth — depending on who you talk to it's true or it isn't true — that the internet was designed to withstand a nuclear war. One of its design objectives was certainly to be decentralized. And one of the reasons people wanted decentralized networks were because a nuclear war or other form of disaster might cut out a centralized core. What would you do if the world came to an end, and you were still in the cage trying to make the network work? What would it be like there? I once visited the NORAD Headquarters at Cheyenne Mountain — the hollow mountain in Colorado where people are supposed to live after the nuclear strikes take out everywhere else. They were supposed to launch that last retaliatory strike against the Soviets from there. And they had, like, a half court and a snack bar. It was really odd to consider that all this stuff had been built to keep people entertained while the cobalt poisoning did its work after they'd launched that last retaliatory strike.
So I've been thinking about the future a lot lately — about whether or not the future is inherent, or is it something that was invented? I tend to think now that the future is an artifact. We created the idea of futurism. I just bought this axe head in this anthropology store in New York — Evolution. It's a 200,000-year-old axe head. And they were telling me that it's indistinguishable, in many ways, from the axe heads that are 100,000 years old and the axe heads that are 300,000 years old. Apart from carbon dating, you can't really tell the difference. For at least 200,000 years, hominids made axes the same way — right? There was no technological progress.
So over this period that's much longer than the sweep of recorded history — you know, ten times longer than the sweep of recorded history, at least — one imagines that these people didn't even have the idea of the future. I mean, there was "tomorrow." There were kids. Maybe you'd be fighting with someone different tomorrow. But fundamentally, the way that you lived didn't change. And at some point, we invented the future, and we invented a whole bunch of different kinds of future. We invented the Lapsarian future — you know, the fall from the garden where things get worse and worse and we're coming further and further from purity. A friend of mine who's an orthodox Jew told me that in his tradition, rabbis aren't allowed to supercede the rabbis that came before them because — by definition — a rabbi of a generation before you is closer to the Garden of Eden and, therefore, to moral perfection. So you can interpret a rabbi, but you can't overturn a rabbinical ruling. So that's that Lapsarian view.
There's this apocalyptic view of the world coming to an end. And then there's a progressive view of the world getting better. And then there's the Singularity, which is kind of a hybrid, right? It's an apocalyptic, progressive world where things get so much better that they stop. (Laughs) Which is pretty freaky!
RU: Now are you implying a sort of criticism of the idea of a technological inevitability when you say that we invent the idea of the future; or would you say — as a result of having invented it — we are now pretty much stuck with it.
CD: Well, that is the philosophical question I'm asking myself. Are we stuck with the future, now that we invented it? Or can we un-invent it? So I've been writing all these stories that have the same titles as famous stories. In Overclocked: Stories of the Future Present, I have "I, Robot" and "Ander's Game," which is a rip on Ender's Game. And I'm going to write "A Man Who Sold The Moon" for that Heinlein story. And I think it's going to be about a guy who makes his fortune solving the Year 10,000 problem. It's 10,000, and the computers are functionally equivalent to the computers we have today. No future has happened in between now and then. And he decides he'll be the first man to go to the moon, because he's forgotten — we've all forgotten. He gets there and he discovers the golf ball. And in so doing, he invents the future. He invents the idea of the future, because he realizes that they must have lapsed. And if they lapsed, it's possible to have progress. And so he's the kind of genetic freak who invents the future.
RU: Your ideas are richly complex and completely science fiction-y. Do you read novelists outside the science fiction genre, and who do you like?
CD: Well sure! I mean, you mentioned Chuck Palahniuk. I'm a huge Chuck Palahniuk fan. I love Lynda Barry's novels. I read a lot of non-fiction. I'm just looking at my shelf here at all the non-fiction I've read lately. There's this book I love, Fire and Ice. It's a longitudinal demographic comparison of Canadians and Americans. There's History of Men's Magazines, Bruce Schneier's Beyond Fear, James Gleick's Faster. And the new Stephen Johnson book. I read a lot of non-fiction!
RU: Is there a particular piece of non-fiction that has recently changed your view of the way the world works?
CD: I read a couple of really good books in the last year or so. One is Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor by Sudhir Venkatesh. It's a serious economic, or ethnographic analysis of the underground economy in Chicago. He's mentioned in Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. He's the anthropology grad student who goes and lives with crack dealers in Chicago's South Side and writes up how the underground economy works. And that economy goes from the ladies who make sandwiches and sell them without charging sales tax or declaring it on their income statement; to the loan shark, the homeless guy who will sleep in your doorway and make sure that graffiti kids don't tag it, to the crack gang and everyone in between. It's a fascinating book.
The other one that I really liked was by Yochai Benkler. It's called The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. It's such a good title! It may just be the best tech book title of the last twenty years. It's a book about common space peer production — the stuff that happens on Wikipedia and on blogs and with free and open source software. It's about how to understand that in economic terms, not as a gift economy per se, and not as an industrial economy, and not as volunteerism. He shows it as a third mode of industrial production that is neither the kind of gift economy or volunteerism that characterizes people who volunteer at a church; nor capitalism as we understand it, where people invest. Rather, it is an entirely different mode of industrial production. And I found that book really fascinating.
RU: If he describes this as a sort of alternative mode of production, does that imply that it will always co-exist with the other modes of production? Or do you envision the sort of Creative Commons/open source idea ever becoming a dominant mode?
CD: Well, it may not be the case that Creative Commons/open source/free software becomes the dominant mode — although I can imagine worse futures. But I think it's very true that knowledge goods, by their nature, have a different economic reality from other goods. It's very hard to enforce exclusive rights — the right to prohibit or the right to authorize knowledge goods. As the Motion Picture Association is discovering — in a world where we have ubiquitous networks and cheap and fast hardware — it's really hard to stop people from copying. I don't know whether it's moral or immoral to copy things — we can talk about that all day long. I just think that it's hard to stop it. So if you're a business person, your business can't be built on what you think people should do. It should be built on what you think people will do. And what people will do with information is copy it. So now that we're living in an information economy, I think we will have different kinds of production. It may not all be sharing, Creative Commons-oriented, but I don't think they're going to be based on exclusion or proprietorship. I just don't know how you could make that work; it just doesn't seem plausible to me. Bruce Sterling says, "The future composts the past." I think he's right. I don't think that the future makes things disappear; I think it builds on top of things.
RU: Once you have material wealth being reproducible as a form of information that becomes rather hard to stop as well.
CD: Yeah. I think that one of the test beds for this is virtual online worlds like Second Life. I've just written a paper for a scholarly book about virtual worlds and games, in which I talk about what it would take to make a democratic virtual world. Not because democracy is morally superior to the kind of benevolent dictatorship that characterizes, say, Second Life, but because these places are becoming wellsprings of wealth. I mean, obviously, there's some kind of economic activity happening in Second Life, where it's encouraged, and even in worlds like World of Warcraft, where it's prohibited. In many ways, that in-game wealth is meaningless unless it's bankable in a system that's responsive to democratic principles. In other words, you can accumulate a lot of money in apartheid-era rand, or Soviet-era rubles, but it doesn't really mean anything because you can't really export your wealth — because the state controls access to it. And even if you can, you can't export the source of your wealth, right? Say you managed to accumulate a lot of wealth in the former Soviet Union because you built a factory and the relationships to keep it running. Even if you can get your rubles out by converting them to something that you can smuggle out of the country like diamonds, you're going to lose your factory and you're going to lose those relationships. Those are all stuck in this kind of totalitarian state. So if we're going to say that these places are where we're going to live our life — or our second or third or fifth life — for that to be meaningful — those places need to be responsive to democratic principles.
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