Cory Doctorow — father, skull-collector, multiple award-winning author, BoingBoing blog contributor, and revolutionary advocate for humankind's unrestricted internet access — appears in Seattle on Monday, May 15, to discuss his latest science fiction novel, Walkaway, with friend and fellow award-winner Neal Stephenson. But SRoB columnist Nisi Shawl got him to grant a phone interview first. The (lightly edited) transcription below mercifully does not reflect the technical and recording difficulties overcome; rather it allows you to revel in Cory's deep yet fast-paced flow of thought. Let his words carry you through his book's contemporary foundations to a future in which our best, most community-minded selves have opted for open-source abundance. According to Walkaway, we can get there from here.
How are you right now, Cory?
I am good. I am all atremble at the thought that I'm about to hit the road on tour for, effectively, three months. That's going to be crazy. I'm on the road for a month and then I come back and then the festival season starts. So I hit the road once or twice a week for the next two months really, just right until August. But I start a month's leave of absence next Tuesday from EFF. Yeah, it's going to be crazy.
And there's a lot going on at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. I worked for the last three years on this project related to digital rights management in browsers, where the W3C — which is this consortium that has historically been very important in the open web — decided to make a compromise with some of the big entertainment companies and browser vendors and some very large companies based in Seattle, and to make DRM for the web. Which would mean that, because of laws that protect DRM, browsers couldn't be audited by security researchers, and also that people who wanted to improve browsers for people with sensory disabilities could face criminal and civil penalties if they had to break the DRM to do it.
So we organized a coalition of members of the consortium who voted to discontinue work on DRM unless the members who supported DRM agreed that they would sign a binding covenant not to sue people who did legitimate things; that they would only sue when there was copyright infringement and not when someone, for example, disclosed a security vulnerability that could put billions of people at risk. And they refused to negotiate that. They walked away from the table more than a year ago. So it came to a final vote this week, and we led this very large group of people who voted against it. Now they're at this crossroads where they have, for the first time in the organization's decades of history, come to the point where they're about to publish a spec that the members are deeply divided on, and where there's no consensus in sight. I'm about to leave just as that decision is being made. I do have colleagues who will take it in hand, but it has left me somewhat keyed up after a week of very, very, very intense work.
Yeah, yeah I can see that. Holy mackerel. What can you do? I mean, you can do stuff on the road, but not the stuff that needs, necessarily, to be done.
I'm not really going to try and do much of this while I'm traveling. As I say, I have very, very qualified and excellent colleagues who will keep the work going. The decision now is in the hands of Tim Berners-Lee, who created the web and founded W3C. He has signaled before that he would just go ahead and greenlight it regardless of the objections. But that was before this vote, and some very important members came forward in the vote; some of the world's leading accessibility organizations, and big tech companies, multiple browser vendors. So I think that it will be very hard for him to proceed at this point.
Unfortunately, this is one of those things where, if you ask your karate instructor, "What do I do if I'm walking down the road in the middle of the night and there's no one around, and three big guys step out, and my phone is out of battery, and the streetlights are all out, and there's no way for me to get away?" Your karate instructor will say, "Just don't be in the middle of the road at 3:00 in the morning with no phone battery and no streetlights." And so on.
Like, what do you do if you get to the point of no return and there's no consensus in sight? Well, the right thing to do in my view would have been a year ago — when the corporate members walked away from the negotiating table — to have said: "Guys, if you're not going to negotiate, we're not going to keep work going, because we don't think you'll be able to arrive at a consensus unless you continue to talk with people who have real, principled concerns about the work that you're doing. And since the W3C operates on a consensus, there's no point in continuing the technical work unless you also continue the policy work, because you'll just end up with heartbreak."
Having failed to do that, now we're at the heartbreak stage, and I don't know what to do. I really feel for him, because I'm a great admirer of his, but I think that he made a grave miscalculation, and I think, more importantly, the DRM advocates at the W3C made a really terrible miscalculation where they just put themselves in a position where any victory will be very pyrrhic indeed. It never works to walk away, except in my novel.
(laughs) Nice segue. I loved your novel, by the way. I really enjoyed it.
Oh, well that's kind of you. I saw your review. That was really nice of you.
You know, it came up over the weekend. I was at a regional science fiction convention, Norwescon. There was a panel, which I won't get too much into, we talked about dystopias and utopias, and one of my esteemed colleagues was talking about how being in Watts during the middle of this uprising was a dystopia. Because he was white and felt like the target. Eyes rolling, rolling off the table. I did collect myself enough to mention Walkaway as something that, in my opinion, was dystopia and utopia. Can you talk to that a little bit?
Sure. Well, my view is that what defines Utopianism is not systems that work well, it's systems that fail gracefully. Working well is cheap. It's easy to make things that work well. If you don't care about the occasional explosion and whether or not the brakes work, I can make you a very fast, fuel-efficient car. Right? If you don't care what happens when the babysitter goes wrong, I can find you a very cheap babysitter anytime, day or night. Right?
So failing gracefully is way more important than working well. It's an age-old principle for mechanical engineering. There's this funny thing where we use these terms "negative feedback loop" and "positive feedback loop," which are terms from engineering, and we use them completely backwards to their sense in engineering contexts. In engineering, a negative feedback loop is a process that senses when things are about to go off the rail and damps them down. And a positive feedback loop is a thing that just accelerates. Positive feedback loops are things that engineers try to keep out of their systems. Right? Engineers root out and destroy positive feedback loops in mechanical engineering systems and replace them with negative feedback loops. Because, left to their own devices, people will figure out ways to grow, to make things bigger, or better, or faster, and so on. That's all for the good. I'm enough of a laissez-faire person to think that that's a natural engine for growth and human progress. And I think that what we really need to do is just attend to the margins, where things are kind of going off the rails, and nudge them back on again.
In general, competitive market capitalism has a lot of great positive feedback loops, in that pitting people against one another produces lots of productivity gains. Right? It produces waste too, but if you look at the automobile today versus the automobile forty years ago, thanks to competitive market capitalism, the labor, material, and energy inputs to a car today are an infinitesimal fraction of what they were when I was a kid, and an unmeasurable fraction of what they were when these technologies were invented. That's mostly because, regardless of whether or not you care about labor, energy, or material, all of those things cost money, and every dollar you spend on inputs to a car is a dollar you deduct from the profits from the car. And since your competitors are also making cars, you're in a race to see who can make all of those things go to the bottom fastest.
And there are shortcuts around them. Maybe you can pollute, or you can outsource your labor to places where you can pay less than a living wage, or you can outsource your labor to places where you don't pay if your workers get killed in the line of duty. But as those things get plugged up, or at the limits of what you can do with those tactics, you still have to engage in efficiency.
The problem is that when we teach people that they don't have a shared destiny, that they only have an individual destiny, then we teach them that when things go wrong, the thing to do is not to turn to the person next to you and figure out how the two of you can dig someone else out of the rubble, it's to grab your bug-out bag and head for the hills before the person next to you comes after you. Right? This flies in the face of the actual reality of disasters. I took my inspiration largely from a wonderful writer I'm sure you're familiar with named Rebecca Solnit, who, in addition to having a legitimate claim to fame for coining the wonderful term "mansplaining," also wrote this brilliant historical book called A Paradise Built in Hell, which researches contemporaneous first-person accounts of people's conduct during great historic disasters — from the 1906 earthquake all the way up to Katrina and the Haiti quake. And traces the way that people survive disaster, which is that, by and large, normal people grab one another and help as much as they can.
And she writes about the way that we remember and report disaster, which is that the rich and the powerful and the distant are all convinced that the poors, the minute the lights go out, turn on each other and eat each other. Any example of it, including wholly fictional ones, gets seized on and amplified. Everything that runs counter to that narrative is discounted or distorted.
We're all familiar with the Katrina "black looter versus white person just trying to get by by getting fresh water from the local shop and leaving a note for the shopkeeper" scenario. That distortion is also front and center in the way Solnit describes these disasters.
But I think that, as human beings, we are prone to the availability heuristic; that things that are easier to imagine are overestimated as outcomes. So when we contemplate the possibility that the lights will go out, we find it easy to imagine The Walking Dead, and hard to imagine Walkaway, right? Hard to imagine that your neighbors will be the source of your salvation, rather than the cause of your problems.
That's very obvious in what you're writing, and I'm glad you brought it out. You see capitalism as an ongoing crisis of catastrophe, basically, and the reaction you have people going through is a very Solnitian one.
Yeah. Well, you know, it's an intervention. Right? I think if things that are easy to imagine are things that we increase the probability of, then giving people a vivid narrative through which they can imagine the mutual aid as the source of their solutions actually will help people come to one another's aid. As much as I like stories (including stories I've written) in which disaster is chased by barbarism — and they're fun stories, right? I like The Road, it's an amazing story — I think that they're also a slur; they’re a libel on humanity.
As much as I like stories (including stories I’ve written) in which disaster is chased by barbarism — and they’re fun stories, right? I like The Road, it’s an amazing story — I think that they’re also a slur; they’re a libel on humanity
There's a kind of profound statistical innumeracy in the idea that, by and large, people are untrustworthy and, given the first opportunity, will attack one another. Because most people who say that also say in the same breath, "And of course I don't mean you, and I don't mean me, and I don't mean my friends, and I don't mean my relatives. I just mean most other people."
And what is the likelihood, in a world in which 99.9% of people are wicked and untrustworthy, that everyone you know happens to fall in that 0.1%? Right? It's a lot less likely than the probability that you actually know a representative sample of people, and that people are good and bad together, and that we have noble nature and ignoble nature that wars within us, and that our executive function is what determines which of those things we act on. That executive function draws on things, like a view of what other people are likely to do, when contemplating its own course of action.
In that regard it's not so different from the executive office. Right? In America we have a bunch of people who historically have not voted for white supremacists, who voted for white supremacists. And we have a lot of argument about whether or not they are or are not white supremacists. I think the right way to understand it is that they have good nature and bad nature, and that our social constraints have loosened to allow this bad nature to come to the fore, and to sideline their nobility. If we are to rescue ourselves from this, we need to reassert the social unacceptability of letting your bad nature come to the fore.
I do think that we have unconscious bias. I do think that we have moments of ignobility. And I don't think that being good is failing to have bad thoughts; it's understanding that they're bad thoughts, and choosing not to act on them. That, in part, is driven by your unconscious automatic calculus of what other people will think of you, and what social consequences will come to bear if you act on those bad instincts.
I’ve come across this sort of thinking before in the writings of Ursula Le Guin, actually, who talks about the falsehood that nature is red in tooth and claw. She says that seeing that as the default is wrong.
Yeah. I had this amazing advisor, she's still around, at the University of Waterloo, before I dropped out; this biologist called Anne Innis Dagg, who wrote us a beautiful, scathing critique of Darwinian psychology, evolutionary psychology, called Love of Shopping Is Not a Gene. Anne, she is quite a noteworthy person. She was the first woman biologist from North America or Europe to go to Africa to study wildlife, macrofauna. She went to South Africa and studied giraffes. And giraffes are gay as hell, right? Male giraffes just screw the shit out of each other all the time. And no biologist had ever reported on this from the field, even though, unequivocally, they all saw this going on. She was the first biologist to come back and describe what was actually going on as opposed to what orthodoxy predicted would happen.
She went on to have this career as a somewhat heterodox, outspoken biologist, and the apotheosis of this, in my view anyways, this wonderful book, Love of Shopping. And she says, "When we characterize behaviors as being natural and evolved, we always do so without any kind of scientific rigor, and in particular, without any kind of disprovable hypothesis." If you say, you know, "Sperm competition existing in spiders proves that men want to fuck around and women only want one mate" — you can't run a controlled experiment to see if that happens. And we have lots of species in which there isn't sperm competition. The selection of this one species as your exemplar of what is our human destiny, or is our natural conduct, it's completely arbitrary. It's not a coincidence.
If you're an anthropologist or a biologist and you're studying these phenomena, you should turn your lens back around on yourself and ask yourself how it is that the only evolutionary psychology theories that are in vogue are the ones that also happen to validate the power inbalances and injustices that benefit the author and their funders. Right? Against that backdrop, there is a falsifiable hypothesis there. Right? The falsifiable hypothesis that Dagg has, is that we fiand evolutionary psychology a comforting way to wave away iniquity that makes us seem like we are beneficiaries of an unfair system instead of the winners of a meritocratic one. And that's a falsifiable hypothesis. You could just look at the advocates of different points of view and see whether it's true. And she makes a pretty compelling case that it is.
Again, to go back to this dual nature, humanity, our political systems, and nature itself exhibit competitive and cooperative components, and we can choose which ones we try to reinforce and which ones we sideline, and it's not an all-or-nothing proposition. We can have competition in some domains, and we can have cooperation in others, and the consequences of which one of those we choose includes a change in our theories of other people; of what other people are likely to do, and how trustworthy and good other people are, which in turn affects our wider social outcomes. Social, by definition, involves lots of other people.
Along those lines, I’m wondering, I know that you moved to the US from outside of the US. Are you regretting that now in light of the presidential election?
I don't think it makes a difference. This is a global phenomenon. Right? It's not like we could have stayed in the UK and enjoyed the land of milk and honey. I'm a Canadian, and people always say, "Well, you could move to Canada. You've got Quebecois Jesus running the country now." And Justin Trudeau...like, if looking good with your shirt off was a qualification for leadership, Putin would be the greatest leader in the world. Right? The fact that JT is willing to announce his support for a bunch of progressive policies is nowhere near as important as the fact that he's not willing to do things to support those policies.
I’m a Canadian, and people always say, “Well, you could move to Canada. You’ve got Quebecois Jesus running the country now.” And Justin Trudeau...like, if looking good with your shirt off was a qualification for leadership, Putin would be the greatest leader in the world.
Telling refugees they're welcome in Canada is cheap. Changing the laws so the refugees who are rejected at the US border can try their luck in Canada is hard, and that's the part that counts, and that's the part he didn't do. I am pretty skeptical of what's going on there. He just greenlit two more pipelines. He whipped his party in opposition to vote for a surveillance bill that can be most charitably called Patriot Act fan-fic, and promised that when he took office he'd repeal it. But just like Obama, who promised that when he took office he'd repeal immunity for the phone companies that participated in illegal spying, and then failed to do that in any way at all, JT has done exactly nothing to undo the mass surveillance bill that he ushered into law when he was the opposition.
It's like there's not a place we can go to get away from this, because all of this bad leadership stuff is epiphenomenal. It is an outcome of grotesque wealth concentration, and with it, the social and economic phenomena that go with it. The more wealthy the wealthy become, the more meritocracy has to be at the center of our political ideology, because otherwise it's completely unsustainable. Right? What is the argument for allowing a tiny number of people to be richer than everyone else in the world? Well, there's something great about those people that the rest of us lack; that they've won some fair system.
It's divine right, or something.
Well, or, if not divine right, market capitalism accounts for this by saying, you know, the Ayn Rand conception, "those people are the Galts," right? "They have some extraordinary ability that has been recognized by the invisible hand, and the invisible hand has thus elevated them so that that ability can be harnessed to work for the rest of us."
And that's empirically not true, and when you have an empirically untrue thing that is very salient to the social order, a whole bunch of other things have to be rearranged to not show off the emperor's nudity. So all of these other things, these are the cracks in the ground that arise from us holding together this radioactive bullshit fissure of meritocracy that is increasingly untrue, and increasingly damaging. It produces all of these other bad outcomes, right? It allows us to argue that it's okay to give the House of Saud all kinds of crazy weapons, which the Canadian government is doing, because "something, something, something, meritocracy, something, something." Right?
I think that this idea, which, again, surfaces in Walkaway, this idea that a big lie is necessary for the social order to be in any way justified, and therefore stable, is playing out around the world. And that explains a lot of the terrible things that have happened. Take the Egyptian uprising, the election of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the coup afterward. In the lead-up to the Arab Spring, it was obvious to anyone who didn't have a stake in denying it, that the reason that Mubarak was in government was not because he was competent, but because he got lots of money from America by having a politically convenient position on Israel. Like, that's just true. Right? It's not a conspiracy theory or anything.
He was willing to broker a kind of uneasy containment strategy for other Middle Eastern states and the Palestinians, and was a hedge against other problems. But that was not a thing that was within the Overton window in the US. It was not a thing anyone was allowed to say was true without sounding like a nutjob. So there was only one group of people who said this salient thing that everyone knew to be true, and that was the Muslim Brotherhood. As a result, they required a penumbra of credibility that was otherwise undeserved, because most of the things the Muslim Brotherhood believes are bullshit. That one thing that they believed that wasn't bullshit led people to assume that all of the other stuff was probably not bullshit either. And this is how they took office.
And I think that you can see this in Trumpism. Right? I think that when you ask, "how is it that Trump got elected?" — well, in part it's because he went around saying the system was rigged. Well, the system is rigged. Right? The fact that he helps rig it, and benefits from it, and would do nothing to unrig it, was beside the point. Because to vote for anyone apart from Trump, or Sanders, at least during the primaries, would be to deny that the system was rigged. Since everybody knew the system was rigged, and since that was an enormously salient fact of life for millions of people, Trump was able to get votes that he didn't deserve, because he was willing to step outside the Overton window.
I love that analogy of Trump and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Sure. Well, or Erdewan, right? Erdewan is willing to say, and same as Farage, he's willing to say, "The European Union mostly does the bidding of bankers. It doesn't offer a fair shake. Its social liberalism comes with an economic agenda that's corrosive to all but the super rich." The fact that Erdewan is this fantastically corrupt oligarch who is himself part of the super rich, doesn't change any of those facts. Right? They continue to be true. And if he's the only one willing to say them, and if they are fantastically salient to the lives of people in Turkey, they will vote to give him more power. Are you going to give more power to people who deny the truth, or the people who utter the truth, even if those people are materially unfit to rule?
Yeah. I think that's how we get there, and it's a long way to go, to say, "This is why I don't think it matters where you are." Right? I don't think it matters whether you're in Turkey, or Canada, or the UK, or the US, or Australia, or New Zealand, or Japan, or Hungary.
Wait, what about California? What if there is some kind of withdrawal movement or succession? People have seriously talked about it.
Well, yeah. No one serious has seriously talked about it, though. It's not going to happen. I mean, that's, at best, a science fiction plot, in the most pejorative sense. It is not a serious thing.
First of all, California may have the world's sixth-largest economy, but it has that in part because it has a tariff-free easy route to the Gulf of Mexico, the Arctic Circle, and the Atlantic Ocean. The idea that a separate California would face no economic penalties is just wrong. Also, because it has free movement of labor from all of those territories. The fact that it's a net donor on a cash basis to the rest of the country doesn't mean that it doesn't have a net benefit from being federated with the rest of the country. It's posturing at best.
Hah! I have more things I wanted to bring up. One thing I noticed, probably as a craft-y question, I was really moved in Walkaway, and in For the Win and Little Brother, with your very realistic depictions of state violence. And I wonder what you based that on. Did that happen to you?
Well, you know, I grew up in the protest movement. I got arrested with my dad when I was a kid at a sit-in over nuclear guidance systems. We were detained by the cops, and then let go, but it sure made an impression on me. Then later on I was arrested as a teenager at an arms festival as well, which caused no end of headache for me when I became a US permanent resident, because I had these arrest records.
I grew up in the protest movement. I've seen a lot of it firsthand. I've been there when there was tear gas. I've been there when people were getting beaten up. I've watched it happen. As a journalist, I've covered it. Watching the color revolutions, watching Gezi Park, that was very much in my mind, when this was going on, when I was writing Walkaway.
The pictures of the people in Burger Kings with their eyes red from tear gas hiding out from the cops who were chasing them ... little children. It really made an impression on me. We live in a world where state violence is there for anyone to see. And, of course not least, Ferguson, Black Lives Matter, and so on, that has all been a big piece of it. I grew up in the protest movement, and the delegitimization of street protest, and the kind of pants-wetting terror with which street protest is greeted, where the cops act as though people walking down the street, or even people busting a few windows, constitutes a kind of existential threat to civilization itself, has been something I've watched with enormous dismay.
I, like so many people, was very, very upset with the Trump election. I talked to my mom about it, because I was really in a bad place, and she said, "Well, have you been out to any of the protests?" And I said, "Well no. I'm an immigrant. I'm on a green card. If I got arrested we could lose our home and my wife would lose her job. It could be really bad for my career. We'd be deported. My daughter would be out of school. It would be catastrophic for us as immigrants; we're very vulnerable.”
My mom told me that I needed to get out to the protests, that I needed to see the resistance, and feel it, and hear it, and be a part of it. Because, you know, sitting here in my office with my skull collection, it's cute and all, but it makes it hard to understand in your guts what exactly is going on in the world.
My mom told me that I needed to get out to the protests, that I needed to see the resistance, and feel it, and hear it, and be a part of it. Because, you know, sitting here in my office with my skull collection, it’s cute and all, but it makes it hard to understand in your guts what exactly is going on in the world.
So we went to that Tax March here in LA, and I took my daughter, the way my parents took me when I was a kid. We all had two different civil rights lawyers' numbers written on our arms in magic marker. We were there and ready to go. It was great. It was so worth it.
Oh good. Yeah, some of my earliest memories are also of picketing and going to protests, so I know what you're talking about. I remember when I was here in Seattle, just in the beginning, when there was the first WTO protest, and I remember being just flabbergasted at the idea that there was a so-called “free speech zone,” which I thought was at least, you know, the whole country. So why was it be suddenly, like, two blocks as a “free-speech zone”?
Well, to get back to the book and to Piketty, who was a great inspiration for this, Thomas Piketty, and his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century — Piketty traces the history of equitable redistribution, or equitable distribution of wealth to a series of great historic cataclysms. So he says in the so-called new world, "Wealth didn't accumulate very much except through slavery." Because it was an agrarian society that was sparsely populated, by the simple rules of supply and demand, labor had the upper hand, and it was very hard for landowners to become wealthy, because to extract rents from lands, you need competition for labor.
Because they just couldn't get people across the border fast enough, they brutalized people and forced them to work for free. That was what made slavery sustainable. But as a consequence, manumission reset the clock on wealth accumulation in America, since the majority ... And he does this sort of numerically. Right? If you look at the clearing prices for enslaved people in the period of American slavery, a huge, huge piece of the alleged wealth of America was in the form of enslaved human beings. So manumission leveled out an enormous amount of the American wealth imbalance. Then, just as the amount of wealth was starting to accumulate into a few hands again, you had the two World Wars, which again reset the clock.
Piketty's argument is that a more equitable wealth distribution makes it harder to enact policy goals that favor the wealthy; that when the wealthy don't have as much money, it's harder for them to enact policies that give them more money. But the corollary of this is that when the wealthy become wealthy enough that they can start affecting policy outcomes, then it's like, back to positive feedback loops, the foot goes on the accelerator and the wealthy get wealthier much faster. He traces this moment empirically when he looks at capital flows, he traces it to the late 70s. That's the moment at which Mulroney is elected in Canada, Thatcher is elected in Britain, and Reagan is elected in America.
Anyway, that's the moment I grew up in. I came of political age in the early 80s. The first political memory I have was the election of Ronald Reagan being in the newspapers. As a political activist in the antinuclear proliferation and pro-choice movements, which were the two big movements in Canada when I was a kid, as well as the anti-apartheid movement, and movements against American intervention in South and Central America.
We relied on the trade union movement as the foundation on which everything else we did was built. From the people who had the envelopes and the stamps and the photocopiers, to the people who had the office space and the meeting halls.
When you look at Reagan, Thatcher, Pinochet, Mulroney, this is the moment at which the trade union movement started to fall apart. Although we were building good structures as activists — we were doing correct activist stuff — the base we were building it on was falling apart underneath us, and we didn't even realize it.
I think that the Battle in Seattle marks the turning point at which we stopped using the trade union movement — which also had its flaws, including a kind of intrinsic establishment focus, right? Where the kind of anti-establishment stuff that happened at the Battle in Seattle, the throwing off of the rules and respectability politics; the Black Bloc tactics and so on ... This is the moment at which we just said, "All right. In the absence of anyone to, on the one hand, be our base, and on the other hand, act as adult supervision, we're going to do something new."
This is the turning point. Everything since then has been the creation of a new politics; an intrinsically networked politics, a politics built around the internet, a politics that can afford to be less doctrinaire in many ways, because I think one of the reasons that doctrinaire politics flourishes is that, when the cost of making a group is expensive, the benefits of group-forming with people you know you're not going to be able to sustain an agreement with, are outweighed by the costs of making that group. Right? Then when the cost of making the group goes down, the kinds of coalitions you can build, the temporary nature of those coalitions, becomes more viable. So we have groups with less articulated politics, because we don't need to know that we all stand for all the same things, so long as we know we stand for some of the same things.
An apotheosis of this might be Occupy, but you see it even with Black Lives Matter, which has these internal divisions. You have this one faction of BLM that is advancing black capitalism as a way of ... and there's this Black Lives Matter-branded credit card now. Then you have other factions within BLM who are saying, "The problem isn't who's benefiting from an unfair system. The problem is the unfair system itself, and it doesn't matter if we can get a few Herman Cains, and Ben Carsons at the margin, or even Oprahs — that's not going to solve the profound racial injustice."
But the reason that those people are able to find coalition and work together is in part because it's cheaper for them to work together than it's ever been, because of networks, because finding people, mobilizing people, even arguing with people, is something that we can do much more cheaply than we ever could before.
This is like what Walkaway is about. When people used to ask me about futurism in science fiction, I would always say that "what the technology has given us is coordination more than anything else." People sometimes characterized Walkaway in the early reviews as a 3D-printing novel. It's not. It's a coordination novel.
We now can build encyclopedias the way that we used to organize bake sales. If you want to imagine the future that arises from this, imagine us building a space program or a skyscraper the way that we make Wikipedia today. It will be contentious. There will be arguments. It won't be pie in the sky. But we'll do it with the kind of hierarchy that we used to reserve for very lightweight projects, and we'll use it to build extremely heavyweight projects. That to me is the promise of a networked political future that we're headed towards since the Battle in Seattle.
So is that also part of why I notice so many arguments between characters in Walkaway? I was seeing it as a reflection of your experience in talking with people and disagreeing with them. But you see it as a way forward?
I love Hamilton, but I always take note of the fact that Hamilton does a lot of reification and glorification of writing, which is pretty funny. I'm always skeptical when writers tell me how glorious writing is. It seems a bit self-serving to locate Hamilton's great achievements as being with his pen. But that said, it is a Utopian idea to settle our disagreements by arguing with each other, even saying incredibly hurtful things to one another. Because historically, the way that we've done it is by killing each other, or at least that's one of the ways we've done it.
When you look at the history of revolutionary movements, the bloodshed has been, in many ways, the easy part. The hard part — and this is the part where I think Lin-Manuel Miranda fucking nails it with Hamilton — the hard part was after the bloodshed was over, figuring out how to get all these people that you nominally agreed with to do the same thing, and to believe to the same thing, and to find a compromise.
And to relate this back to where we started this conversation with the W3C, words carry weight on the internet. And this has been a theme in science fiction of all stripes. You know? This is a thing Scott Card, regardless of his warts and all, he completely nailed with Ender's Game. The war of words, of ideas, played out on a global stage, is not terminal, but it's influential in a way that has been missing from our politics in lots of ways historically; that we can have a more nuanced discussion. We can also have a discussion that consists entirely of 140-character slogans. But we can do both. Right? I would love to tilt the balance towards more nuance, as much as I love snappy rhetoric. I won't pretend that a fun slogan doesn't make me happy.
Or memes! Memes, with the illustrations.
Yeah. Yeah, sure. Although, I'm not a super visual dude, so I like the words. But yeah, memes too. There's that great Star Trek: The Next Generation episode where they encounter a species that speaks entirely in literary references, which is, again, writers talking about how awesome writers are. But there are some pretty cool moves that science fiction has done in its history that have invaded our politics, and one of them is the word "Orwellian": that we could take this super-abstract debate about whether and how we should deploy our technology to watch people around us to catch the bad guys in the act. And we were able to import a narrative that included an emotional non-abstract dimension that cut against the emotional appeal to stopping bad guys. And that kept much of the surveillance state at bay for decades.
I love the idea of a literary reference as a tool for invading our policy debates, and making those policy debates richer. You know, one of the reasons the 140-character tweet works, and memes too, is that so many of them reference deeper, wider stories.
I was just thinking about this because someone got really upset with me for using a colorful literary reference. And I was thinking about how colorful literary references are so useful. When the broadcast flag negotiation was under way, the movie studios were arguing that the FCC should have approval over all computers, because otherwise digital video piracy of high-definition videos would come, and that would destroy their industry.
And we at EFF, we kept pointing out that there was no appreciable piracy of high-definition video, and even if there was, there was no indication that it was harming their bottom line. And they kept saying, "Well, but yeah, it'll happen in the future, so that's why we want to take aim at it now." And we always used to say, "You don't eat your seatmate before the plane takes off on the off-chance that it's going to crash!" And this is a great [snaps fingers] snappy line. You know? It's great! It's a great way to import a whole bunch of other stuff into our discussions. It imparts a richness to it. I don't think it's unfair. I think it's enriching of our debate to import literary references, and that this is why and how literature can act on the world, is by giving us these emotional fly-throughs; these architectural renderings of the lived experience of different kinds of technologies and the ways that they could be deployed. It's fly-throughs. You know?
In the same way that, if you commission a building today, the architects will give you a 3D rendering that you can mouse through. A writer can give you a 3D emotional version of some future edifice that we're constructing out of technology and politics. And let us decide whether or not we want to sleepwalk into that future, or whether we want to intervene in it.
Getting back to Walkaway, I wanted to tell a story about a society that failed gracefully, that when a small band of greedy, deluded, meritocratic fools took control, that other people were able to cooperate their way out of it instead of reverting to the barbarism that the super-elite believed was their true nature.
And I loved it. Brilliant.
Aww, well thank you. But it's a political statement. Right? It's a thing that acts in the world.
Well, I hope it meets all sorts of success, and I really am looking forward to talking about it with more people as more people get to read it. Along those lines, I have just two more things I wanted to get to in our time. One is that since the election I've been invited to a bunch of resistance-themed anthologies, and I’m wondering if the same thing has happened to you?
Sure, although, my answer has been, "I'm sorry, I'm disappearing for three months worth of literary publicity and I'm keeping up all of my other stuff, so I'm trying to cram 12 months of work into nine months of worktime. So my answer to everything is no." And that's been my answer to everything, unfortunately. The resistance needs self-care, and self-care involves knowing your limits.
Yes, I had to say no to one of the four that I was invited to, so I totally understand.
Right. Although, that said, I am doing a resistance-themed panel at the Bay Area Book Festival with [John] Scalzi, and Charlie Jane [Anders], and Annalee [Newitz], and I forget who else; it might just be the four of us.
This is a thing Tor has been setting up, so I'm in the mode of looking at it and saying, "That all sounds kosher, go ahead." But not actually taking active note of it and writing it down or anything. They'll keep track of that for me.
The other thing I'm I'm involved in that I was wondering if you were is Red May — have you heard of that?
Okay, so when I heard that you were going to be here talking to Neal Stephenson, I more-or-less assumed, incorrectly, that your talk was be part of the Red May events. It's a monthlong thing with panels on, I think one of the two panels I'm on is about luxury communism.
Wow! That is so up my street! I tell you what!
I don't think you'll be here yet, though. That will be May 5th.
That does sound up my street, though. I am doing a thing in Cambridge, Mass., with Joey Edo on May Day, and we're talking about wearing red.
Yeah, "fully automated luxury communism." That's the term.
Yeah, that is my number one jam; fully automated luxury communism. I call — for people who know the term, I use that term to describe Walkaway all the time.
Okay, well we'll be talking about Walkway then, no doubt. Because I'll be there.
What is the thing with Neal Stephenson? How can I find our more about that?
I'm doing a bunch of events with other people, sort of these "in conversations." Neal was kind enough to read and blurb the book. My assumption was that we would sit on the stage, and he would ask me questions, and we'd talk about the book. I also took the precaution of reading Neal's amazing next book, which is the D.O.D.O. book, which is terrific.
It's a book he co-wrote with one of his Mongoliad co-authors, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., it's called. It's sort of Three Men in a Boat meets The Time Travelers. It's about a super-bureaucratic government agency that kind of muscles its way into practical time travel technology, but then has all of these super-recondite adventures.
At one point, the bureaucracy decides they have to be self-funding, so they're like, "Well how can we make time travel self-funding? I know! We will go back in time and we'll find this — " And they can't bring physical things through time. So they're like, "We'll go back in time, we'll steal some clothes, we'll go to this printer's office where they're printing the first book ever published in New England, which is now worth tens of millions of dollars, we'll have a cooper wrap it in oiled leather and then put it in an airtight barrel, and then we'll bury it in this field and we'll dig it up in the future." But it turns out that you can't just change the past. The past has lots of timelines. So you have to go back and change the past over and over and over again until enough timelines have this propagated through it that you can dig it up.
So then they're going back and doing it again, and then they show up one day and the place where they want to bury it now has a brewery there. They're like, "Oh shit! Who invested in this brewery? Oh, it's this guy in London. Okay, now we have to go back to London 20 years before and convince this guy to put his money in the Dutch East India Company." Then there's this whole other side &mdsah; They're like, "Oh my God! There's this swordfighter who protects this guy. Okay, we're going to have to learn swordfighting so we can beat this guy's bodyguard, so we can convince this guy to invest in the Dutch East India Company, so we can keep him from building the brewery, so we can go back and get the book, so we can have it sealed in a barrel, so we can stick it in this place where we can dig it up later, so that we can satisfy the bureaucratic requirement that we be self-funding."
It just kind of goes around and around in that way. It's very funny. It's very, for-the-want-of-a-nail-the-shoe-was-lost stuff.
He's super funny. He's so great.
I think the most recent thing I read of his was Seveneves.
Yeah, I love that.
People really don't give him credit for knowing when stuff is funny. Which he does.
Yeah, indeed. I mean, I think that his comic work is some of his best work. His first novel,The Big U, was a purely comic novel. Then he went on to write Zodiac, which is also a very comic novel. What's funny about him is that historically he's either written ambitious novels or comic novels, but not both. His ambitious System of the World books, and Anathem, and so on, they have moments of comedy, but they're not zany. They're very recondite. Right? I think that D.O.D.O. is a best of both worlds. It's a real Goldilocks in that it's super-duper ambitious, got lots of moving parts, tons and tons of characters, but it's also unbelievably funny; like screamingly funny in places. It's weird, because he's such a lifer freelancer. Right? It's been so long since he was in hardhat, and yet he's got the bureaucracy so tightly nailed. Some of that is probably his co-author, but he's been nailing bureaucracy for a long time. The sequence with the feds in Snow Crash is so good.
Is there something more you want to say? About other people's work, about your upcoming work, about the EFF, the stuff that you’re leaving in the middle of? Anything else?
No, I think we covered it. I mean, you know, I am in that point where the rocket is on the launchpad. We are past the point of no return. It is going to take off no matter what happens. I am just hoping that it all works out all right. You know? It's a very nail bite-ish moment. Right? I'd be lying if I didn't say that this was a moment of great nervousness for me, as well as a moment of great hope. I stand here before you, a man on the brink of a life-changing thing, as these tours always are, hoping that all goes well, and looking forward to seeing you and everyone else who reads this interview and reads your article; to seeing them on the tour.
Well, thank you, Cory.
Yeah. You too. Thank you for all the kind attention to the book. I mean, it means a lot. I'm a great admirer of your work, so when people you like like your books, it means a lot.