Home > Interviews > An Interview with Cory Doctorow, Part 1 of 3
Photo by NK Guy, nkguy.com.tiff

Photo by NK Guy, nkguy.com.tiff

By Geoffrey Cole

Cory Doctorow is an author, activist, blogger, editor, lecturer, journalist, father, husband, and Nerd-General of the Internet. He has written five adult novels, including Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, and the recent Rapture of the Nerds, which he wrote with Charles Strauss. His latest YA novel is Pirate Cinema, which follows the acclaimed YA titles Little Brother and For the Win. He is one of the founding editors of boingboing.net. Cory lives in London with his wife and daughter. He was in Vancouver earlier this year for the 2012 Writers Fest.

Writers are a notoriously starving bunch; were you banking on the arrival of the post-scarcity economy when you moved to London?

I moved to London to be the European Affairs Coordinator of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and I had a modest but okay salary. In 2006, when I quit my day job to write full time, having looked at our finances, we decided I could do it. I’ve been very lucky and I’ve done very well. I work hard for it but I know lots of people who work as hard as I do and haven’t done as well, and I know some amount of it has to be chalked up to luck. It has gone well enough that my wife was able to quit her job to run a start-up this year. We’re okay.

What is the start-up?

She’s running a company called MakieLabs. They do 3D printed toys.

The “Rapture” in Rapture of the Nerds has many meanings. Foremost, it is the ascension of most of biological humanity to a purely digital existence. Do you really think that such a huge percentage of humanity would leave their bodies behind if they could?

Yeah, totally. The question of whether such an option will likely be available to us is something I’m not at all certain about, but in the presence of such an option, I’m very confident that large numbers of people would opt for it. We like get-evolved-quick schemes. If you can sell Thighmasters, you can sell mind uploading.

In the novel, those who are left behind are often Luddites, like the protagonist Huw, while others are religious fundamentalists, like those left behind in the southern states of North America. Right now, about 60% of the world is religious, yet in your future only a small minority of people remain behind because of religion: how do so many of them get over their beliefs and achieve transcendence?

In the same way that people manage to call themselves Jews or Christians without stoning adulterers. I admit that religion is a closed book to me. It seems to me, without intending offence to religious people, to be unfathomably absurd to believe in things that were clearly made up by Bronze Age mystics who wanted to terrify people into following them around. That is so totally apparent to me when you read the Abrahamic books that I am absolutely mystified by it. Nevertheless, I know many clever people, including the Vatican astronomers, who managed to somehow reconcile on the one hand things that were clearly made up by Bronze Age mystics who wanted people to follow them around and, on the other hand, string theory. Most people can do that. Being cosmopolitan is in some sense the ability to hold two beliefs simultaneously, even if they are contradictory; at least to the extent that you can peacefully co-inhabit a space with people who have hugely irreconcilable beliefs and values.

So I think it is absolutely likely that people would be able to, on the one hand, declare firmly that they are religious and believe in the books, and on the other hand have their brains uploaded. In the same way that there are people who deny evolution and use modern antibiotics. In the same way that Texan Young Earth fundamentalists still drill where the oil should be if the Earth was millions of years old and not where the oil would be if God had made the Earth five thousand years ago.

Rapture is also joy. You and Charles seem to delight in paying homage to some of the great books and writers in the science fiction pantheon: Gibson, Adams, Vonnegut, and others, are all referenced throughout the book. Did you intentionally choose those writers as guides when writing this novel?

No. They are inside jokes. The book is filled with inside jokes, not just about science fiction, but also about math and computer science. There’s that line about Hilbert’s Hotel, which is a very funny joke if you’re a math person. Most of the book, I can’t tell who wrote what, but every now and then I find a reference like Hilbert’s Hotel and I realize that was definitely Charlie’s.

The novel is such a great fusion of you and Charles Strauss’ work: much of the world seems like it could be a sequel to Accelerando or I, Rowboat, while the characters could have stepped out of either of your novels. How did the two of you go about synthesizing your voice in this book?

In a very mechanical way. I wrote a bit, he wrote a bit, I wrote a bit, he wrote a bit. And each of us rewrote the last bit before we wrote our bit. Having over-written each other over and over again, we got something that was neither his nor mine, but both of ours, especially given that it then went through one rewrite when we published the first two chapters as standalone stories, and then a second major rewrite when we rewrote it to make it one book.

Did you have set and fast rules on how to do that? Was everything fair game for revision?

Yes. I’m much less of a talky person when it comes to writing. I don’t like to talk about it; I’d rather do it, where Charlie likes to think things through. But every now and then one or the other of us would say, “I have no idea what you’re doing here, either you need to write more so I know where to take it up from, or I’m going to cut everything you just wrote and add some more of mine.” That happened two or three times.

Did you do it all through correspondence?

There was one meeting we were supposed to have just before we started the third novella, but there was a snowpocalypse in Edinburgh and Charlie’s plane wasn’t taking off, so we had a Skype meeting. We’ve met before, we talked before. We know each other in the physical world, but the first two novellas were written before we’d ever met. The third one was written without any explicit meeting.

I want to talk about Creative Commons a little bit. For the readers who may not be familiar with it, could you please give a little explanation of what it is and why you advocate it?

Sure. You know those long blobs of meaningless bullshit legalese that you see whenever you want to do anything on the Internet, that say things like “by having the gall to buy something from me, you agree that I’m allowed to come over to your house and punch you in the mouth and hit on your grandmother, clean out your fridge, and wear your underwear, and make some long distance calls”? Creative Commons licences are the opposite of that. They give you a bunch of other things that copyright doesn’t give. There are half a dozen different licences and they mix and match combinations of commercial or non-commercial use. Some allow derivative works, other don’t allow derivative works. You can adapt a book for a play or you can’t. The third one is share alike or not share alike, which is whether the terms that I apply to you apply to any works that you make from this one.

The Creative Commons Licences on the one hand sound a bit trivial—it’s just a collection of six permission blobs—but on the other hand legally they are very complex, especially given that there are equivalent Creative Commons licences for about 80 legal systems. What that means is that a Creative Commons licence in America means the same things as a licence in Israel or France or Cambodia. So you can take pieces of works from all those places that are compatibly licenced and fit them together to create new works and know that your work will survive scrutiny in all those legal systems, which is actually kind of a big deal because right now it is such a hodgepodge that the cost of sorting out the legal right for even a trivial work, that may use one or two other works, would cost in the hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars.

I advocate Creative Commons licences for a number of reasons. The first is that it is the 21st century, and copying is not going to get harder. The single characteristic in the 21st century is that no one can prevent copying of things that people love. Anything that people love will be copied widely. Creative Commons licences accommodate that fact and they tell people that something we all recognize as a good, universal access to all human knowledge, is not bad simply because it gores my particular ox. By admitting that, you begin the process of performing generosity and performing trust, by asking people to pay you if they like the work. Because we can’t coerce a payment in an era in which anyone can copy something if they choose to, we can only convince a payment. This is part of that convincing process. It’s bringing them inside the tent instead of forcing them out.

There are other reasons to do it. One is that the totally fruitless and failed program of reducing copying has resulted in an Internet with monotonically increasing levels of surveillance and censorship, and in devices that have more and more control mechanisms built into them so that they take orders from other people, instead of their owners. In science fiction ,we know about the program that swims up out of the depths and says, “I can’t let you do that, Dave.” We know that that program is a problem. And yet our iPads and iPods and iPhones and even Android devices and set-top boxes are all designed such that at certain times, if their owners ask them to do certain things that they are technically capable of, the say “policy prohibits this.” The only way they can do that, since any owner or use of the device would remove that facility if they knew where it was, is to hide that facility in the guts of the device. We are increasingly designing our devices with this facility, devices that aren’t just computers and laptops, devices like our phones, that we bring into our bedrooms and our bathrooms, devices that know who your friends are and everywhere you go, but also hearing things like hearing aids and pacemakers. Three days ago a researcher in Australia published research at a conference that showed that he could remotely deactivate pacemakers at thirty feet, or he could reprogram them to scan for other pacemakers, reprogram them, and the reprogrammed pacemakers could all be programmed to deliver lethal shocks at a chosen time. He could turn you into patient zero and as you moved around, everybody that you met that had a compatible pacemaker would also become a vector for this virus, and then at a pre-programmed date or at random intervals, these pacemakers would deliver lethal shocks and everyone would keel over. Designing devices so that their owners don’t know what they are doing is a bad idea.

In Part Two on Wednesday: Digital Rights Management, Big Media, and Pirate Cinema.

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