Author Cory Doctorow Talks Tech, Trotsky, What He's Reading, and Why He's Giving Away His Books For Free
Courtesy of Cory Doctorow
Cory Doctorow, is a man of many faces. The Canadian-born science fiction author, is also a technology activist, journalist, and blogger. He is the co-founder of an open source peer-to-peer software company called OpenCola, and has worked as an activist and later the director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation before leaving to pursue writing full-time in 2006. Most of all, he is a man you should know about.
Doctorow released his first novel, "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom" (and subsequent novels) under a Creative Commons license, which allows readers to download the book for free.
Cory Doctorow will discuss his work at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe this Sunday, February 10 at 2 p.m. and "Hackers + Activism: Aaron Swartz, Anonymous and the Ethics of Digital Community" at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in downtown Phoenix on Monday, February 11 from 10:30 a.m. to noon.
Doctorow operates at a level that far surpasses ours, but we're sure you'll be able to keep up amidst the scope of literary and technology brain-porn that Doctorow offers. We could have picked his brain on technology, books, and our nation's freedom for hours, but alas he is a New York Times' best-selling author, and doesn't have that much time. So we settled for half an hour.
I read online that you described your parents as "techno-utopians" and "quasi-doctrinaire Trotskyist school teachers." Can you explain what you mean?
My parents are Trotskyists, and my dad is a computer scientist, and both of them are involved in technology and education and I think both of them believe that technology generally makes things better.
And you agree?
I think that there isn't a future without more technology in it, and if the people who care about making things better decide to abandon technology, all that means is that the only people using technology to get an edge are the people who want to make things worse.
What came first, your passion for science or writing?
I think they were both pretty simultaneous, I wrote my first story when I was six and that was around the same time that I was getting interested in science.
You are a big supporter of freedom in technology law as well as copyright laws. What does that mean exactly and why is it important to you?
Well I'm not at all interested in the freedom of information, but I am very interested in how technology makes people freer. For example, I think that when states fund research into science and pay to figure out how the world works that it's in our interest for everyone to be able to read those truths that are determined by our state funding.
I think that your networks are better when they give you the websites that you ask for, and not the websites that are most profitable. If a cable company wants to put high speed internet in, but make it very hard for you to download from services that compete with its video demand service by slowing them down and speeding up its own video demand, or putting a quota on your downloads but not including their video on demand in your quota, then that's not good for you. Because you want the things you click on, not the things that are most profitable for them. It's like bringing up the local corner pizzeria and being told that the phone company's decided not to connect you because Domino's is paying them more. And I think that our devices need to be designed to do what we ask them to.
Are you for the increase in technology and the risks that it brings us along with the perks and perceived advantages?
Well let's start by saying technology is a fact, so even if it's a bad thing we're not getting rid of it. But I think on balance, technology is a good thing and I think it's a good thing not least because it makes it much easier for us to form groups and work together.
When I was an activist in the 1980s, the majority of my work -- 98 percent of my work --was stuffing envelopes, writing addresses and putting stamps on them, and 2 percent was figuring out what to put in the envelopes. And with the internet, you get all the envelopes and the stamps for free, and that leaves you with a lot of time to do everything else. That's a net benefit. The rich and powerful have always had the ability to buy organization. What the internet does is lower the cost of organization so that everyday people can make use of it. The fact that technology also makes it easier for us to be spied upon, isn't an inherent fact of technology, it's how its been designed. And we can demand better designs from it.
Do you think the future of privacy with technology looks pretty bleak, or do you think it will change and people will start demanding more privacy and more protection?
Well, I'm an activist, which means that I have to on the one hand, believe that things will get worse if they don't change, but on the other hand believe that things can change if people demand better. So it's both. If we don't do our job, if the world isn't alarmed to the potential risks, and doesn't demand better, then things will get worse.
You know, privacy and a lot of these other problems, they're like many other public health problems like obesity or smoking, in that the real problem with them is that the action and the consequence are separated by a lot of time and space. It's hard to get to good at things if you don't get immediate feedback. Nobody would smoke if every puff made a tumor sprout, but the fact that the tumors appear 70 years later makes it really hard to learn from your mistakes. Privacy is another one of those. We make privacy disclosures now, and years later they come back and bite us in the butt. Well it's very hard to get better at things when there's that much time and space between them. Imagine trying to get better at baseball, if you swung the bat, but you only find out whether or not you hit say a month after the fact. It doesn't work.
Your first novel, "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom" was published under a Creative Commons license, allowing readers to circulate the e-book version as long as they didn't make money off of it or use it to create their own works. Your subsequent novels have been offered in similar suit, and available for free. What made you decide to do this?
There are three dimensions to it really. The first one is the economic one. I think that so long as more people are enticed to buy the book than get a free book version, then I come out ahead. It's hard to tell whether or not that's the case, there's no controlled experiment that you can do, there's no alternate reality in which I release these books without the CC licenses, whose sales figures we can compare. But ultimately, anyone who wants to get a book for free on the internet can. It takes one or two clicks to download all of the book without having paid for it. Afterall ,people only make copies of books because they love them, and by performing generosity and trust for my readers I hope I channel their energy into helping me.
I'm not really concerned with being sure that everybody who reads my books pays for them, I'm much more concerned with making sure that everybody who's willing to pay gets a chance to read them. There are other dimensions to this. One is artistic. As I said before, it's the 21st century and copying is never going to get harder, so if you're making art that's contemporary you have to assume that people are going to copy it. Otherwise it's not really contemporary art, it's kind of an anachronistic art. And anachronistic art is fine, if you want to be the blacksmith at pioneer village, or reenact the Civil War that's cool, but science fiction writers are supposed to be at the very least contemporary if not futuristic. So I get all this artistic satisfaction from allowing people to copy my books.
And the last dimension is the moral dimension because there are ever increasingly Draconian measures being enacted and proposed to defend copyright in the internet era, to somehow figure out how to make it harder to copy things. And they're not having any success at making it harder to copy things. More people copy more things now than they ever did, but they are monotonically increasing the amount of surveillance and censorship on the internet. And as an artist, I think that it's my duty not to have my works form part of the rationale for increasing censorship and control and surveillance on this amazing information medium that we all use for everything.
So what's the answer?
My only prescription is whatever you do, don't do things that lead you to demand censorship, control and surveillance on the internet. You can pursue any kind of marketing strategy that you want. Most works of art that are made don't generate any economic activity, and most books and films and music that's made end up losing money no matter what strategy people do. I'm all for people trying lots of different things, but among those possibilities, I don't think censorship or surveillance should be in the realm of acceptable strategies for earning a living.
"Homeland" is the sequel to "Little Brother." LB's premise centers on four teens who survive a terrorist attack in San Francisco and defend themselves against the Department of Homeland Security's attack on the Bill of Rights. What inspired you to write a book about this?
There were a lot of different things, I've been the European director and before that a local activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is like the ACLU, but focused on the internet. And my work with EFF really alarmed me to the erosion of civil liberties in America and the fact that technology was at the nexus of that. But also I wanted to write a techno-thriller, where the technology worked.
I was tired of going to movies that were nominally thrillers about technology but where all the technology acted like magic. I felt like people who wrote techno-thriller didn't really like technology very much, they just liked the thriller part. And all my life I've been thrilled by computers, and I thought: these are pretty thrilling devices, someone should really write a book where the computers are as thrilling as I know that they can be. And so, I kind of combined those two thoughts and out came "Little Brother."
Why did you choose to target young adults with the topic?
I think writing young adult fiction is very exciting, because being a young adult is very exciting. Young adulthood is a period in which you do a bunch of things that later become mundane, but because you're doing them for the first time they're incredibly exciting, because the first time you do these things they change you forever. So the first time you tell a lie of consequence, you'll never be the same person again.
And what's more, going into it, you have no way at all to predict what it's going to be like. You're jumping off a cliff, with wings that you've made out of wax and feathers, and you're just hoping that they catch the wind before you've crashed on the rocks below. So it's a pretty exciting existence, the existence of a young adult, and making them the center of a work of fiction means that the work of fiction's more exciting too.
Do you have plans for making it a trilogy?
No I didn't even have plans to make a sequel, so of course anything is possible. But one of the things I realized when they gave me the publication date for "Homeland," a little bell rang in my head and I thought, "wait a second, that's exactly ten years and two days after my first novel came out.
"And that got me thinking about a sequel, so I've been sketching ideas for a sequel to "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom." Maybe it's the season in my life for sequels.
As a writer, what was the best advice you ever received?
Write every day. And it's advice that took me about 10 or 15 years to actually pay attention to. I thought it was one of those unrealistic things like get an hour of aerobic exercise and eat five servings of vegetables and drink 8 glasses of water every day, the kind of thing you would do if you had a personal trainer and a life of leisure. But it turns out that if you write every single day, writing becomes a habit, and habits are things that you get for free. Once you get past where you feel like some days you aren't inspired and when you actually write every single day, you find that even on days when you aren't inspired you produce good work.
What are you currently reading?
Sleights of Mind by Stephen Macknick and Susana Martinez-Conde with Sandra Blakeslee
What was the last book you read?
The book I just finished is a yet-to-be-self-published manuscript for a book called: "3500: An Autistic's Boy Ten-Year Romance With Snow White," by a writer named Ron Miles. And it's a memoir about a father whose autistic son only really came out of his shell when he was on the Snow White ride, at Disney World. They actually moved the family to Orlando so that the kid could be near it. Disney was very involved with the kid and they ended up throwing little parties for him when he crossed 1,000, and 2,000 and 3,000 rides. It's a memoir about the family and about parenthood and about growing up as an autistic kid and how sometimes, Disney can actually be magic. It was a terrific book, if it doesn't reduce you to tears in at least one or two points you've got a heart of stone.
Is there a book next on your list?
I could not tell you the last time that I went into a bookstore and bought a book and read it for pleasure. I unfortunately no longer am in a position to get to pick which books I'm going to read. I get so many books to review, about a hundred times more than I could possible read, and there are so many of them that look good and I want to give a kind of boost to on BoingBoing, that I pretty much only read the stuff that I get sent. And I only read a tiny fraction of that. The one thing that all the books that I read have in common is that they are bound and I can hold them in one hand, cause I do most of my reading while walking down the street after dropping my daughter off at school. So the loose-leaf manuscripts unfortunately just go in a recycling pile.
For more information on Cory, see his website.
This story has been edited to correct the author's name of the book "3500: An Autistic Boy's Ten-Year Romance with Snow White" to Ron Miles. We regret the error.
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