The Machine Without the Factory: An Interview with Cory Doctorow

The Machine Without the Factory: An Interview with Cory Doctorow

An interview with Cory Doctorow, author, journalist, and activist, about writing the near future, decentralized innovation, and intellectual property in the Internet era.
Cory Doctorow
Author, Journalist + Activist
January 31, 2020
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Cory Doctorow is a science fiction author, journalist, blogger, and activist who writes about technology, copyright law, creative commons, and other social and/ or economic systems. His fiction examines the near-future implications of existing technology and social organization mechanisms, weaving narratives out of the current realities of these phenomena including the internet and related technologies, idea sharing, creative commons, copyright, and societal power dynamics. His novel, Makers, is a near future dot.com allegory exploring a world where 3D printing technology creates a similar economic bubble. The novel follows Susan, a tech journalist, as well as Perry and Lester, the intrepid ‘makers’ of the story, as they participate in, shape, and handle the aftermath of a decentralized creative revolution. The book focuses on how 3D printing and cheap robotics spur mass decentralized production due to their low-fixed costs, and generative potential, in a similar way to how websites were created in the dot.com era. It also delves into how we live together in public spaces, the nature of tech bubbles, intellectual property and the power of social organizing.

We spoke to Cory Doctorow about his process for examining the near future, decentralized innovation, idea-sharing across networks, intellectual property, and more.

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"...the decision about how much technology we should have is entirely arbitrary, often very aesthetic, and boils down to a...vision of a shire full of smallholders wearing leather aprons, crafting things."

Cory Doctorow

Josh: You’ve written a lot about how science fiction can predict the present and influence the future, drawing on seeds of existing phenomena and the adjacent possible. What’s your process for “predicting the present” in your writing and how much of this analysis and worldbuilding is things you think will happen versus things you think should happen (or that would be interesting to explore the outcomes of)?

Cory: There isn’t much that I’ve put in there that I think will happen. There’s stuff that I put in there that I fear will happen. I have a range of fears and I’m rational enough to know that not all of them are worth worrying about, even if I do worry about them, like plane crashes and so on. Rationally, I know that it’s a very safe mode of travel, however, if there is particularly bad turbulence, it still goes through my mind. There are a lot of things that I that I fear might happen, even if I’m not willing to assign a high probability to them, and some of them end up in my fiction.

Part of that process is trying to listen to very abstract and difficult arguments that people are excited about and coalescing around but that are not crisply articulated nor easy to follow, and trying to find a narrative that can live inside of it. For example, there’s a lot of talk right now about the Green New Deal and it’s Canadian progenitor, the Leap Manifesto. But then there are all these questions about how will we pay for it and what it will look like on the ground. Those ideas actually aren’t necessarily undertheorized, but the theoretical frameworks for them are abstruse. The main theoretical framework for how we mobilize resources for the Green New Deal, which is to say how we pay for it—although it may involve abolishing money or not using money in some ways—is something called modern monetary theory (MMT). It’s an abstract set of ideas and it’s hard to explain to people, but as a lens for understanding how states provision themselves, it has a lot of explanatory power and it can make for a very interesting story. So, I’m trying to write a post-successful Green New Deal novel in which modern monetary theory is the dominant organizing principle for provisioning state activity and trying to take this very abstract idea and stick it into a narrative. 

I’ve been listening to this podcast lately called Srsly Wrong, which has been trying to articulate something they call Library Socialism, which is a lovely term because you can, from first principles, imagine what they mean. And they’re drilling into a bunch of threads from anarchist thought and socialist thought, particularly usufructismThere’s this old idea, I think it dates back to the Enlightenment, that property rights can be decomposed into three sub-rights: the right to use something, the right to enjoy the fruits of the use of something (so the right to use land and to harvest the things that you grow on the land), and then finally the right to destroy something. So usufructism is the idea that that we can have super efficient property allocations if we eliminate destruction rights and we just have a kind of library right, which is the right to borrow and to use and to enjoy the fruits, but not to permanently take out of circulation or destroy. I’m really interested in that as a kind of utopian idea. One of the threads that I’m trying to pull out when I work on this new book is my poorly-articulated differences with the degrowth movement in ecological left-wing thought, which I’m not very fond of at all. I think it’s genocidal. First of all, I think that any degrowth movement creates arbitrary numbers for what they believe the carrying capacity of the planet to be. So they say: this is the amount of technology that I believe we should be allowed to have, and if we had that much technology, then only so many billions of people could live comfortably. Therefore, the carrying capacity of the planet is so many billions.

But they’re palming a card, right? Which is that the decision about how much technology we should have is entirely arbitrary, often very aesthetic, and boils down to a very weirdly Tory vision of a Shire full of smallholders wearing leather aprons, crafting things. And, as a kind of bonafide paid-up, jetpack-socialist, I find that vision repugnant.

"This is an area where science fiction has often had a really good arrow in its quiver, which is to take something that is technically true or at least implied by our technical understanding, but not widely known, and intrinsically fascinating and write stories about it."

Cory Doctorow

Trying to pull on these threads of these abstract ideas and turn them into narratives is part of what I do to make my fiction engaging. And it’s not just political facts, it’s also technical facts. This is an area where science fiction has often had a really good arrow in its quiver, which is to take something that is technically true or at least implied by our technical understanding, but not widely known, and intrinsically fascinating and write stories about it.

Think of the stories about Many Worlds Quantum Theory, (such as) All the Myriad Ways by Larry Niven, how there’s a rich seam to be mined from things that are true but not well understood. For me, the area where I found the most value is digging into the theoretical underpinnings of computer science, particularly Turing completeness and encryption. There has been a strain in science fiction for a long time, that I find quite lazy, to treat these things as metaphors without addressing them as they are. It is a remarkably short-sighted choice because things only work as metaphors when you deny the truth of them; if people don’t gain an increasing familiarity with the thing that makes the metaphor a rupture. It’s one thing to make a metaphor about a Hadron Collider, because most of us will only ever have the foggiest understanding of what a Hadron Collider is. But using the general purpose computer as your MacGuffin and then altering it to drive the story—for example, having it suddenly not capable of running certain programs because it would be convenient to the narrative if Turing Completeness was actually incomplete or having encryption that fails catastrophically after 15 minutes of really hard computer processing. All of those things become more and more absurd and they work less and less as plot elements over time because they deny this relatively stable theoretical understanding that we have of how computers and encryption work. By contrast, if you tell stories in which these stable theoretical understandings are actually the thing that the plot turns on, then the plot becomes long-lived. The plot becomes something that can continue to speak to our circumstances from moment to moment and day to day. Even if the technical particulars start to fall away. My novel, Little Brother, is about kids using computers to fight state oppression and the computers are also a thing used to enact state oppression. All the things that the kids do to resist state oppression are grounded in real things that computers do, like the fact that general-purpose networking protocols allow for arbitrary levels and degrees of wrapping of one protocol inside another. So, if you block the web, you can tunnel the web through email. If you block email, you can tunnel email through the web with the unbreakable nature of encryption and with the completeness of computers. So, a computer only intended to do one thing, like an Xbox, can be jail-broken and turned to any purpose, like being routers for an encrypted, secure, meshing network. All of those things, even though none of them have come true and even though the novel predates things like Twitter, nevertheless chime with new generations of readers.As an allegory, it works well because the technologies aren’t the same but the problems are the same, and the effects are similar and recognizable.

This is that the first thing I do: I try to find these abstract, difficult concepts and mine them for narrative or try to squeeze them for narrative juice. Because these things are, in fact, exciting. The implications of Many Worlds Quantum are super exciting and have profound implications for things like freewill and causality that are at the center of our lived experience in both its most glorious and its most terrible moments every single day. Many worlds is this incredibly important idea, even if it’s grounded in abstract things like the double slit experiment and subatomic spooky action at a distance. The other thing that I try to do that is characteristic of my work is ask, as a thought experiment, what if we had this technological thing but used or produced it under a different social or economic context?

We do get a little bit of that in science fiction. Certainly it is the animating force behind steampunk. Steampunk is like, what if you could have the industrial revolution but enacted by individuals rather than groups of people organized into decomposed industrial processes on assembly lines? That’s the fundamental question of steampunk.

"The network’s ability to find people who share your interests is married with the network's ability to reduce transaction costs and allow more coordinated work with less coordination."

Cory Doctorow

Josh: The Renaissance kept going into the industrial revolution.

Cory: And the industrial revolution for some reason never required that you surrender your individual autonomy to work in a decomposed industrial practice and instead allowed you to maintain this lone heroic character. Magpie Killjoy used to publish Steampunk Magazine and the motto of the magazine was “Love the Machine and Hate the Factory.” So, what if you could have machines without factories? You see it a lot in dystopian fiction. That’s Mad Max:Fury Road: what if you had oil refineries without a civilization to support them?

Josh: “The machine without the factory” reminds me of Makers. In the book, you have 3D printers and these small units of people being creating products in almost a steampunk-y way.

Cory: And Walkaway too. I think that that characteristic of networks, in the 21st century sense, is that they are really good at locating people with shared interests. We often mistake that capacity for brainwashing because when suddenly a bunch of people start believing in the flat earth, it can seem like they’ve all been brainwashed. In fact, what happened is that people who are sort of flat earth inclined found each other. It’s a force for good and ill. It’s where Black Lives Matter comes from and it’s how non-binary gender identities have seen this take-off in the last decade of social acceptance. It’s marijuana legalization but it’s also neo-Nazis and eco-fascism. All of those ideas are also coming to prominence because networks allow people with widely dispersed traits to find each other without the traditional means, which would be like joining a club, going to a conference, or moving to a big city where there’s a higher density of people and therefore hard-to-find traits will be more closely cluster than they would be in the wild. The network’s ability to find people who share your interests is married with the network’s ability to reduce transaction costs and allow more coordinated work with less coordination.

Wikipedia is a great example. You don’t have to explicitly set out to collaborate with other Wikipedia writers who come later than you. You can make a contribution and someone else can come along and make a contribution and the two of you don’t need to know each other. It’s like building that little cairn of pebbles on a Jewish tombstone; you don’t have to plan with everyone else. I’ll bring a pebble on Tuesday and you bring it on Wednesday and over time the cairn builds and that loosely coupled labor that nevertheless produces productive outcomes has radically reduced our need for hierarchy and institutions. It’s also radically expanded the scope of work that existing institutions and hierarchies can accomplish. It’s a bit like a corollary to Moore’s Law, where Moore’s Law either gets you twice as many processors for the same cost every 18 months, or it gets you the same number of processors for half the cost every 18 months. Both of those are important and they have their own implications.

"...what would it look like if we could do things like a space program or a civilization or an apartment building or a theme park with the kind of organizational overheads that we currently use to organize free encyclopedias and operating systems?"

Cory Doctorow

So Makers and Walkaway are both asking what would it look like if we could do things like a space program or a civilization or an apartment building or a theme park with the kind of organizational overheads that we currently use to organize free encyclopedias and operating systems? It’s not zero, it’s just radically less. And if the underlying character of those is being reproducible and decomposable into a series of instructions and all of those other things that are characteristic of information, goods could convert into reality and into the physical world. And so you’d have physical objects that were seen by their users and makers as mere temporary embodiments of information goods. And those information goods were pursued with the unique economics of information, which is to say non-rivalrous and non-excludable and all of those other groovy things that you get when things cease to have a marginal cost of reproduction.

Josh: This brings me to the next piece I wanted to focus on which is intellectual property. You write about it a lot, in Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age, and it’s a theme in a number of your books including Makers in which Disney is a kind of antagonist. And you used to work for Disney….

Cory: Yes, my wife’s a Vice President at Disney now. We live five minutes from the studio. I walk there every morning and drop her off.

Josh: Our audience is policymakers who want to hear about how to encourage innovation. And one of the things that struck me in Makers, particularly in the first half, the utopian half. Tjan says, “we’re going to make these things and we’re not going to care about them being copied”. Is that a statement about the ideal state of intellectual property or is it the opposite?

Cory: In Makers in particular, the first half is pretty explicitly an allegory about the dot.com bubble. And I think the dot.com bubble had a unique characteristic that’s different from the bubbles that have come since, like the Bitcoin bubble or the current kind of unicorn bubbles. The dot.com bubble, like all bubbles, absorbed an enormous amount of capital from naive investors and essentially, never gave them any return on that capital. We basically sucked up huge amounts of money out of pension funds and other big institutional investors which were funneled into venture capitalists who are fundamentally just grifters, who threw money at dumb asses, who were cashing in on a on the web bubble. But what was interesting about all of that is that it actually produced a positive externality: it sucked in a ton of humanities majors and convinced them to drop out of university and learn HTML and Perl.

It also produced this massive over supply of fiber, which I think we’re still waiting to see payoff for because it was immediately re-enclosed, it was never made into a commons. So now it’s this fallow asset that has effectively been suppressed by telecom monopolists who don’t want to have to compete with it. We have a lot of dark fiber and I think someday we’re going to wake up and acknowledge that. It’s like all of those single-celled organisms that gave their lives converting sunshine to hydrocarbon and sank to the bottom of the sea. We have this buried treasure under our city streets waiting for us to attach routers to either end of it. And when we do, we’ll have a rebirth of our network culture.

But it did fundamentally change the character of the Internet. It made it a much more pluralistic thing. And the Golden Age of the Web is really when we moved the web from being the sole domain of people who were going through engineering programs or working for military contractors and trained a whole generation of people who were not technological by nature, to make the Web, not just to use the Web. This is unlike subsequent bubbles; the Bitcoin bubble has done nothing of the sort. The Bitcoin bubble hasn’t even taught the foundations of cryptography to a generation. All it’s done is the pure financialization of enthusiasm; it’s just tulip bulbs. And when crypto-currencies crash, we’re not going to have much leftover. If anything, it’s distorted people’s intuition. The solution in search of a problem that is cryptocurrency has convinced a lot of people that things can be solved with distributed ledgers that manifestly can not. The idea that we’re replacing trust with computation, there are some very narrow contexts in which that may work, but not many, and most of them don’t require blockchain. You can do a lot of them with just merkle trees and which are way less energy intensive and wasteful. And the only thing that you don’t get when you switch to merkle trees is you don’t get this gritty finance bubble. The major advantage of blockchain over merkle trees is that blocking is useful for grifting people who think that they’re going to get rich quick.

These other bubbles that we have, they’re not producing this. The housing bubble, for example, did not produce a bunch of fallow and then useful expertise or assets in the economy. The Chinese housing bubbles where they’re literally building empty cities to absorb investment capital and property, to keep the property markets from collapsing because so much of the Chinese wealth is tied up in it. Those cities will decay before they’re occupied in large part. You’ll have the environmental cost of having built the city, the opportunity cost of having wasted the capital on that instead of, say, sustainable energy, and then all you’ll get out of it as an unsafe room. So I think that when you think about overproduction, which will always come whenever there’s exuberance over a new possible way, that it’s useful to divide overproduction into overproduction whose whose externalities are positive versus those that are neutral or negative.

"As an artist, I want rules that are coherent so that my interests can be defended. And as a human being, I want rules that are suited to their purpose so that my child isn't made into a criminal for doing the thing that I did when I was her age."

Cory Doctorow

Josh: So something similar about the Dot.com Bubble and this fictional bubble was that nobody was saying “hey, that’s mine”. There was some sort of creative commons. Is that what made the positive externalities, the fact that there was so much just new crap?

Cory: Well, certainly the self-revealing nature of the Web, which was in its design specification, view source was a really, really powerful motivator. Also, the fact that the early Web had no ready mechanism for producing private websites. And this remains an issue for security, that the Web was not designed to have impermeable membranes between personal spaces and public spaces. The original design specification of the first browser actually had an HTML editor built into it. So, you could clone page, edit it, and post it in one go using the browser. The browser was a maker as well, like a 3D printer that’s also a 3D scanner with a CAD program in the middle. And that was certainly very generative, to use the language of Jonathan Zittrain from Harvard Berkman Center. And there were some things about it that were intrinsically difficult to enclose. And then there was the distinctive nature of information itself, which is that information goods, being non-rivalrous, can benefit from dissemination. The ultimate example of that is Napster, where earlier attempts at content distribution networks had floundered on the difficulty of having centralized provision. Peer-based provision completely inverted the normal economics of distribution, where the more something was in demand, the more copies of it were made and made available. And in retrospect, it’s kind of an obvious thing, that demand for an information good produces more copies of it.

It’s very true to Tim Berners Lee’s original vision (of the Web), that you get a page, you copy the page, you edit the page, you put a copy of the page somewhere where you could reach it and other people could reach it. It reduces the imperative to make high availability, centralized servers. And it’s a dream that people have been chasing ever since and it is very much in tension with intellectual property regimes. I guess the reason I’m having a hard time zeroing in on this for you is that I feel like there’s a submerged premise that I’m not super comfortable with, which is that it was totally natural and understandable to apply copyright to the Web and that this is the unforeseen or maybe foreseeable consequence of this completely logical step that once you had the Web, you would add copyright to it, and use it as the primary regulating framework. And I think that it’s actually part of the problem of Creative Commons, which is that Creative Commons starts from the premise that the Web should be copyrighted, and then says “here’s how you make the copyright more flexible.”

I’ve written about this before, that industrial regulation is good or necessary. We should should have industrial regulation. And that when we try to evaluate the quality of an industrial regulation, we focus in on its contours, which is natural i.e., what does the law say? But what’s actually far more important than the contours of industrial regulation is who we apply it to and who we characterize as being within the remit of the rules. So, imagine financial regulation, clearly something we need. You can just look at the finance bubbles of our lifetime and see that finance markets without regulation produce catastrophic outcomes with real world implications.

But even if we agree on what a good financial regulation is, no one proposes that every transaction that involves money should be subject to financial regulation. Giving your kid five bucks for allowance does not make you a bank. And so now we need a way to cleave banks from not-banks, finance from not-finance. We tend to have a kind of bright-line rule. E.g., A million-dollar transaction is financial, a sub million-dollar transaction is not financial. Those rules are not perfect. You have problems with things like structuring payments. For example, there’s a reporting requirement in the U.S. for transactions of $10,000 or more. And then there’s a crime called structuring, which is when you break a $100,000 transaction into a series of ninety-nine thousand nine hundred ninety-nine dollar transactions with a little leftover at the end to avoid the reporting requirement. So, there are some problems with these bright-line rules and not every million-dollar transaction is going to be financial. But for the most part, we can say that we’re largely capturing things that we want to capture within the scope of the regulation. Well, copyright is the regulation framework for the entertainment industry and the tests that we used for assessing “are you in the entertainment industry?” was are you making or handling copies of creative works? That made a lot of sense when you needed specialized industrial apparatus to make and handle copies; when every book had a printing press in its immediate history and films had film labs and records had record presses. That’s not true anymore and it’s certainly not true of the Web. Every click you make makes dozens of copies.

I once was impersonated by someone on a dating site. I went and looked at this website, saw the profile, saw that this person was setting up dates with people and became worried and called the dating site and they said, “well, the only framework we have for you is you can claim a copyright of the photo that they used of you,” because they used a publicity photo of mine.” The idea that we would make recourse to entertainment law to regulate potential stalkers on dating sites rather than having a sui generis regime that takes account of the distinctive contours of being impersonated on dating sites that are completely unrelated to whether or not you get to make a Batman sequel,  is so foundationally incoherent. So, information is valuable, but it’s very much unlike property. And we have lots of things in our world that are valuable and not like property and we devised sui generis rules for them. The most obvious one is humans, right? If you steal my daughter, it’s not theft of kid. Rape is not theft of sex. Murder is not tortious interference. Smacking someone is not trespass. Not because people aren’t as important as property, but because people are important in a way totally distinct from the way that property is important. Information is likewise very important, it needs rules, and those rules should be sui generis, they should be accommodated to information. And I say this not just to someone who cares about human thriving and human rights, which obviously I do, but also as an artist who relies on copyright.

Because if we’re going to say that the framework for the industry that I rely on to regulate my industrial relations with (my agent, my publisher, my editor, the booksellers and so on) is going to be rules so simple that when a kid writes Harry Potter fanfic, she doesn’t fall afoul of it then we make that rule so simple that it could never be suited for my use. When Universal built the Harry Potter ride, the lawyer at Universal and the lawyer at Warner had a long conversation about what the copyright and other licensing deals would be. And then they formalized that in a contract that regulates that ride. The idea that a kid who lives on my block, also within walking distance of Warner and Universal, could use that same framework to make sure that she doesn’t violate the law when she writes Harry Potter fanfic is ridiculous, right? If we make it simple enough for her to understand, it will be of no utility to the lawyers at Universal and Warner. If we don’t, we make presumptive criminals out of every 12-year-old who writes Harry Potter fanfic. My first story, the first story I ever wrote, the one that set me on the path to being a writer, began when I went to see Star Wars in 1977 at the Universal Theatre at Bloor and Bay. I went home, I took a bunch of 8.5 x 11 scrap paper, stapled it up the middle, folded in half into booklets, and wrote that story out over and over again like a kid practicing scales on the piano. And if I had been doing that 20 years later, it would have been on the Web. As an artist, I want rules that are coherent so that my interests can be defended. And as a human being, I want rules that are suited to their purpose so that my child isn’t made into a criminal for doing the thing that I did when I was her age.

"...if I allow the normal hand-to-hand sharing that is typical of all readers and has been since the earliest days of readership and fandom, especially if I allow that to be prohibited in the name of a licensing agreement, then I would be complicit in whatever criminalization or sanction my readers suffered."

Cory Doctorow

Josh: And you tend to release your books for free. So what are the interests, as an artist and an author, that you think these laws should do for you?

Cory: I should point out that my publisher no longer allows me to do this; I haven’t done it for the last two books and I probably won’t be allowed to do it for the next one. I’m not thrilled about that. They are also the only publisher that allows me to go DRM-free. Ultimately, there are a bunch of reasons for my having made the choice to release my books for free, and I stand by it. Now, I was pretty sure that the majority of people who fail to buy a book from me do so not because someone gave them a free copy, but because they have never heard of it. I also think that if I allow the normal hand-to-hand sharing that is typical of all readers and has been since the earliest days of readership and fandom, especially if I allow that to be prohibited in the name of a licensing agreement (no printed book you ever bought came with a license agreement; it’s only e-books that are worse than their printed counterparts) if I allow that to happen, then I would be complicit in whatever criminalization or sanction my readers suffered. And finally, I don’t think it’s practical to stop them from reading it for free. My last two books were not released under Creative Commons licenses. You can still read them for free, pirated and in all the usual places. And so, if I want to apply moral suasion to convince people to buy it instead of taking it for free or having gotten it for free, to pay for it, which is the other thing that I was doing, then I have to perform being a moral actor in the world. There’s two mutually exclusive strategies for getting people to pay for things that they don’t have to pay for. One is to terrorize them and convince them I’m coming for your house, I’m coming for your kid’s college fund, I catch you stealing for me, I will end you. And that’s going to work for some people. But the other one is it’s the right thing to do because I’m a moral actor in the world. It is very hard to square “it’s the right thing to do” with “I’m going to come and take your kids house away if I catch you reading my book the wrong way.”

I still believe it’s the right tactic and I wish it were one that I could practice more widely. And obviously the majority of the work I do is not novels, because I emit a novel every year or two, and I put up 20 blog posts every day. And that stuff’s all C.C. licensed and freely reproducible.

"...this allowed for the software as a service enclosure, through which software freedom has been irrigated almost entirely to Big Tech companies. We can all see their source, you can download Docker and play with it, but you don't get to change how Amazon Web Services (AWS) parks your Docker container."

Cory Doctorow

Josh: What do you think—speaking of Harry Potter fanfics—of copyleft which was a big deal for the software industry? I’ve always wondered about it’s application in the literary or the music industry.

Cory: I think the problem with it is that an enclosure is always the risk to commons. We see that now with software. Software as a service (SaaS) has created enclosures of formerly free software. Benjamin Mako Hill gave a really good talk at LibrePlanet last year, a keynote about how the transition from free software, which was grounded in the ethical framework of freedom, to open source, which was grounded in the instrumental benefits of openly auditable and improvable code, lacked any kind of ethical framework that explained why we cared whether code was good or not. It was just that we wanted code to be good, as opposed to, we wanted code to be good so that people could be free. That this allowed for the software as a service enclosure, through which software freedom has been irrigated almost entirely to Big Tech companies. We can all see their source, you can download Docker and play with it, but you don’t get to change how Amazon Web Services (AWS) parks your Docker container. You don’t get to reach into AWS and have software freedom in the back end of AWS. Only Amazon has that software freedom; they can use the openness of Docker to do anything they want with their backend.

And some of that has been laid at the feet of the Free Software Foundation for being focused on TiVoization as the risk of enclosure as opposed to cloud. But enclosure is the big risk with commons-based movements and with traditional creative work, photos being a really good example. Enclosure is really simple. Say we have a rule that you can only use my photo with a share-alike license. Any modifications that you make, you have to allow others to use. So, you take a photo that would otherwise be very newsworthy and that a newspaper might have to pay you for, and I, as the commercial newspaper operator, put your photo alongside my story and make no modifications for it. I license the story as a traditional copyright, all-rights-reserved story but I note under the photo that the photo is some-rights-reserved, freely redistributive. Well, now I can enclose the value that I’m getting from your photo as a way to bring people to my story without my story entering the commons.

That foundational copyleftish thing that makes that makes copyleft work, which is that it’s viral. That, as Microsoft used to say in the Free Software Wars and the Linux wars, it’s a viral license. That once it gets into your production chain, it starts to move more and more of your production code into this realm of freedom. That within the absence of something like a non-commercial clause, freedom in traditional creative works can be very easily irrigated only to commercial actors that are already established at the expense of both the creators and other potential actors.

"One area where you're seeing widespread innovation, that Silicon Valley is actually actively trying to shut down, is third-party repair. In terms of innovation: it’s a thing that was considered impossible and now there's a method for doing it and other people can do it too, and it benefits the people who make use of it."

Cory Doctorow

Josh: In one of my favourite parts of Makers, it was just a sentence or a paragraph, Susan realizes that innovation is happening everywhere but Silicon Valley. Do you think this is true in the real world and what are some exciting innovations you’ve been seeing in smaller, decentralized innovation pockets.

Cory: One area where you’re seeing widespread innovation, that Silicon Valley is actually actively trying to shut down, is third-party repair. In terms of innovation: it’s a thing that was considered impossible and now there’s a method for doing it and other people can do it too, and it benefits the people who make use of it. That kind of innovation is so present in small repair shops where they’re literally inventing techniques to effect repairs that the original manufacturers consider to be impossible. Where (large firms) would say that that component-level repair is not possible and that you have to replace the larger sub-component that it sits on or even a whole board or whole device. But devices are repairable and you get individual innovators who know techniques for doing things like desoldering electronic components or de-capping a trusted platform module and then fuzzing it and figuring out how to subvert it and allowing for repair to a device where the trusted platform module is actually sitting between the repair and the use. Apple led a coalition of highly-concentrated manufacturers from every industry last year that killed 20 state-level right-to-repair bills. So that’s Silicon Valley being as anti-innovation as possible. The thing about innovation right now is that it’s mostly relegated to large firms and the innovation is cabined-off to things that don’t grow their own oxygen. It’s a highly-monopolized market, where we cease to enforce the traditional contours of antitrust which historically forbade firms from merging with large competitors (i.e., “merger to monopoly”), or buying nascent competitors in order to head off a potential future challenge or to become vertically integrated. Railways used to be prohibited from running freight companies because they’d be competing with their own customers and could basically bring them to their knees and force them to sell out to you and corner both freight and shipping.

"(in acqui-hire) The purchase price of the company is a hiring bonus and the portion that's returned to your financiers is a finder's fee."

Cory Doctorow

Once we stopped enforcing that, challenging the big firms has become increasingly hard. And what it’s done is, rather than moving innovation around, it’s more or less snuffed it out because you have companies like Facebook that are earning tens of billions of dollars and experiencing year-on-year double-digit growth. But if you tell an investor that you want to compete with Facebook, they will tell you that you are entering what they call the ‘kill zone’, which is the realm of companies that cannot be contemplated as a new market entrant because they would be immediately snuffed out by anti-competitive action from Facebook. Instead, if you want to enter one of those sectors, you shoot for an acqui-hire. You get some venture backing, produce a product that is not really intended to have an independent life in the market and then one of the big platforms buys the product, notionally really to acquire your team, having experienced the proof that your team can develop a product. It’s a kind of final-stage hiring interview. The purchase price of the company is a hiring bonus and the portion that’s returned to your financiers is a finder’s fee.

That’s a recipe for snuffing out any possible innovation, instead of getting the Facebook-style innovation where someone observes MySpace, observes its failings and produces an alternative. Ironically, Facebook’s main value proposition as an alternative to MySpace was that it was private Not everyone could join and only your friends could see your stuff and you had to have a college, a dot.edu email address to join it initially. So that kind of innovation, “what if MySpace but more private and arranged in these ways?”, is no longer possible. You do see SME’s doing innovative things. But what you also see is that innovative apps that threaten the firms that run the app stores are destroyed. And thanks to monopolization of the app market, there’s nowhere else for them to go. Once you’re shut out of Apple’s app store, there isn’t a third-party app store where you can market to IOS users.

"'There is no alternative' the most anti-science fictional idea you can say; it’s a demand disguised as a normative statement. When you say there is no alternative, what you mean is stop trying to think of an alternative"

Cory Doctorow

Josh: One of the narratives I really loved in Makers is the exploration of the necessity and challenges of living together. My favourite thing Lester and Perry invent is the idea of digitally cataloging everything in your place. You place a tag in every physical object, then just query it on you computer to get information about what it is and where it is. There is also these shanty-towns which are DIY-technology towns and governments. Do you think such technology and such arrangements are going to become more important for our future? Do you think we’ll be living together more or less? Where does thinking about living together come from for you?

Cory: I think that the trajectory of any system of abundance is to move from individual responsibility and foreign possession of goods, to a kind of probabilistic access to goods. If you’ve ever been backpacking somewhere where people are desperately poor, you probably carry around your own grubby roll of toilet paper. Even though it guarantees access on an as-needed basis to an essential item, it is the opposite of abundance because if it were truly abundant, then the guarantee would just be provided by everyone making it available and not worrying about who is using their toilet paper.

Today we have versions of that for things like backyards. Backyards are actually a pretty good example because most people who have a nice backyard don’t use it all the time. And it’s not as nice as the backyard they could have if they pooled with their neighbors. I grew up in a little cul de sac in North York and Willowdale, where each townhouse had a little tiny back patio, but it opened out onto a giant common backyard.

That’s not less than you would get if you were carrying around your toilet paper; that’s more than you would get. Because the maintenance enjoys economies of scale. So the idea that we could use systems to solve some of the problems that arise when property is held in common, like a system to help you know where someone else put something down, to help you track the maintenance or replacement requirements for things that are held in common, to locate things that you need only rarely, or to plan or reserve future access. It’s very library socialism. It’s a very cool way of thinking about how we might enjoy more than we can afford individually and also devote fewer of our scarce resources to maintaining the things that we can’t afford so that we can use that time for leisure or for our own pursuits. It’s a rational and consistent way to think about how we’re going to solve some of our allocation problems.

It’s also a rational way of thinking about how we resolve the climate crisis without austerity. Leigh Philips talks about austerity-ecology, this story about ecology that says that, to save the planet, we are all going to have to enjoy fewer things in life. I think that we might just enjoy things differently. It’s true that to save the whales we had to stop burning whale oil in our lamps but it didn’t mean we had to give up light. That vision of technologically-enabled communal property and coordinated resources is for me the natural extension of what we already do with much dumber networks, like networks of transactions, purchases, and sales, the so-called invisible hand that puts a roll of toilet paper in every bathroom that you might have cause to use as you’re out and about in the world. And we replace that with a much more explicit, deterministic, smarter, better system. One thing I want to make sure we get in here is that the antithesis of this kind of thinking is Margaret Thatcher’s war cry, which is “there is no alternative”. There is no alternative is like articles of surrender for a better future. It’s the most anti-science fictional idea you can say; it’s a demand disguised as a normative statement. When you say there is no alternative, what you mean is stop trying to think of an alternative. And imagining an alternative, imagining that we could have all the abundance that we enjoy now, and that it could be universalized, and that rather than taking the penalty of having to share it, we got the benefit of having to share it. We got more as a result of having to share it.

Josh: I totally agree. And that brings us back to what the role of sci-fi should be. Should it be, hey this is the end, this how it is going to work, or should it ask us to think about these scenarios that are happening?

Cory: Yes, and back to science fiction’s ability to divorce technology from its economic and social context. Imagine the cloud, but not owned by rapacious monopolists? Any programmer, or network administrator, or ops person who had to provision their own servers knows why the cloud is awesome. The cloud is objectively super-cool; and I say that as a former systems administrator. I would rather have all my stuff in an AWS data center, I just don’t want it owned by Jeff Bezos.

Josh: That’s a great place to end the meat of the interview, but one question we decided we should ask at the end of these sessions was: which books or movies changed how you thought about socio-economic systems and structures?

Cory: So, I mentioned Leigh Phillips? He wrote this book called Austerity, Ecology, and the Collapse-Porn Addicts and another one called The People’s Republic of Walmart. I found those really profoundly life-changing, very crisp in their articulation of a solution to the conundrum of how I feel about technology and how the people who tend to agree with me politically think about technology. And it was a way to bridge those and to explain to those people why I thought that it was possible to have my cake and eat it too. In terms of science fiction novels, the work of Bruce Sterling generally, the novel Distraction particularly, which is where I got that apartment-finder thing, that object-finder thing. And also, Bruce Sterling’s book, Shaping Things, which is where he introduces the concept of the spine, which is a really key element of this library socialist vision.

Karl Schroeder’s Stealing Worlds, his latest book is the closest I’ve come to not thinking blockchain is complete bullshit, so that was interesting. And I met Karl through the Merril collection. Judy Merrill, when she was writer-in-residence there, introduced us both because we’d been bringing manuscripts to her. And she said, you guys should be in a workshop. I was like 16 and Karl was like 20 and he was the first person who ever said the word “fractal” to me and “Internet” and “Web”. He is always ten steps ahead.

This interview has been edited and shortened for publication.

Through the Policymaker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, Brookfield Institute’s team interviews leading science fiction authors, both Canadian, and international. Join us as we examine the future of work and the economy, on Earth and in space!

For media enquiries, please contact Lianne George, Director of Strategic Communications at the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship.

Cory Doctorow
Author, Journalist + Activist
January 31, 2020
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