My latest Guardian column looks at the fiction and reality of “Internet Utopianism,” and the effect that a belief in the transformative power of the Internet has had on movements, companies, and norms.
The collection is read by Paul Michael Garcia, who also read Content. As the subtitle (“Further Selected Essays on Productivity, Creativity, Parenting, and Politics in the 21st Century”) implies, it covers some pretty far-ranging ground!
One of the web’s most celebrated high-tech culture mavens returns with this second collection of essays and polemics. Discussing complex topics in an accessible manner, Cory Doctorow’s visions of a future where artists have full freedom of expression is tempered with his understanding that creators need to benefit from their own creations. From extolling the Etsy makerverse to excoriating Apple for dumbing down technology while creating an information monopoly, each unique piece is brief, witty, and at the cutting edge of tech. Now a stay-at-home dad as well as an international activist, Doctorow writes as eloquently about creating real-time Internet theater with his daughter as he does while lambasting the corporations that want to profit from inherent intellectual freedoms.
I’ll be at the NY Academy of Medicine from 1-3PM, explaining why “Information doesn’t want to be free…but people do.” — tell your friends!
Italy’s Multiplayer Edizioni just launched a beautiful new Italian edition of Little Brother with an introduction by Bruce Sterling. It’s the second essay that Bruce has written for one of my books, and it’s my favorite — I was so pleased with it that I asked his permission to reproduce it here, which he’s graciously granted.
Big Brother and His Grandson
This is the second time I have written an introduction to a Cory Doctorow book. However, this is my first effort to explain Cory Doctorow to Italians.
It’s a complicated matter, but maybe not in ways that Italians would expect. Cory Doctorow is highly intelligent and likes elaborate, complex issues, but this book, “Little Brother,” is probably his simplest book. It was written for an audience of high school students. It’s a “young adult” novel: the hero is seventeen.
Our young hero is an idealist and rather unworldly, but he’s intelligent and he does know some unusual things, mostly about technology. He’s eager to explain what he knows. Our valiant student hero spends most of this book either learning or teaching. “Little Brother” is a didactic work of science fiction: it has almost as many well-informed lectures as a Jules Verne novel.
The book is about an American power struggle over electronics. There are two rival groups who both somehow imagine that digital technologies are theirs by right: hackers and the secret police.
Neither hackers nor the secret police have much interest in law, regulation, democracy or public opinion. They are both obsessed with computers and consider civilization to be something old, obsolete and in the way of their destiny. Unfortunately, though they have a lot in common, they despise each other. So, conflict abounds.
In this novel, there is a sabotage incident in San Francisco (near Silicon Valley, the epicenter of American electronics). The police immediately begin using all the electronic power they have covertly accumulated during the War on Terror. Our teenage hero, a hacker, decides to resist with various ingenious acts of electronic civil disobedience.
Of course, no teenager will defeat and abolish federal police services. His real aim is to break the false consciousness of the American population and make them understand that electronic outrages are being perpetrated in their name. Being a hacker, he naturally thinks that normal people will prefer hackers like himself to his enemies the spies. However, as we see in the book, the public is fickle.
This novel has a sequel novel called “Homeland.” When he fled the United States, the NSA informant Edward Snowden took the novel “Homeland” along with him for some leisure reading in exile. This demonstrates that, although this novel is science fiction, it’s concerned with genuine issues.
If you are Italian, you might assume that this book is about American domestic politics, and that Cory Doctorow is an American political partisan. Actually, Cory Doctorow not American: he was born Canadian. He’s also British by marriage. He has a remarkably complicated heritage: his ancestors were Belarusian Jews and his father was born in a refugee camp in Azerbaijan. He’s very well-travelled — even his little seven year old daughter has seen Italy, Japan, Honduras and Iceland.
Cory Doctorow is an electronic activist with global awareness. Most of the incidents in this book have already happened in various parts of the world where hackers have struggled with police repression. His young hero is an American nationalist and patriot, but Cory is not. Cory is an activist and journalist, an acknowledged world expert in electronic network politics, digital economics and free expression.
Most people who are interested in electronic issues want to do something with it that favors their own situation. If they’re business people they want to profit. If they are spies they want to electronically spy. If they are religious they want to spread their gospel. If they’re military they’re interested in cyberwar. Cory Doctorow is well-known as a novelist, but he’s also well-known for abandoning the conventional literary publishing business. I’ve never known any man more at ease with the idea of expressing himself, with a computer, to a global audience, by whatever means are necessary. Cory Doctorow has a universal message, of sorts. Like the Internet, he’s heard and seen everywhere, but doesn’t belong anywhere.
This book is one of Cory’s most successful novels for, I think, a simple reason: it was written in a fit of passion. Cory is a very methodical writer and has severe work discipline. He’s a good researcher, and his fictional work tends to be cool and analytical. He knows how to program computers, and he’s rather good at confronting the glowing screen and arranging his texts in neat blocks.
When writing LITTLE BROTHER, however, Cory had been doing a lot of analytical study — his brain was, if anything, overburdened with the thousand details of electronic civil liberties issues. He had a lot to say, and he suddenly came up with the plot concept of a high-tech city stricken by public emergency.
Thanks to this dramatic arrangement, concepts that might seem arcane and tedious become headlong and exciting. It’s almost as crammed with fast drama one of Jules Verne’s most successful novels, “Around the World in Eighty Days.” There’s a lot of telling, well-observed detail, but it reels by at fast speed because the characters are constantly struggling with emergencies.
Verne’s novel is like an eighty-day catalog of every possible crisis that could happen to a tourist. In the novel Little Brother, it’s as if every electronic problem in the whole world is happening to our hacker hero, all at once, in too tight a space, in too short a time.
“Little Brother” is, of course, an homage to George Orwell’s tyrannical spy “Big Brother” in the Orwell novel “1984.” Orwell’s dystopia has a languid, half-starved pace; there are cruel shortages everywhere, the clothes are ugly, the food is bad, the language is primitive and stupefying. “Little Brother” is very much of our own time: the pace is frantic, people grab fast food, there is too much of everything, the clothes are silly costumes, and everything is over-explained in five or ten different ways.
It’s not that one book is correct about the world, and another is not. Orwell’s book and Doctorow’s book share the clever technique of seeming “prophetic” by describing obscure tragedies that have already happened to real people.
To write “1984” George Orwell had to know a lot about the tyrannies of 1948. To write “Little Brother,” Cory Doctorow had to know a lot about the dark political underside of 2008, and Cory Doctorow knew plenty: enough to compile a bibliography and even to create hardware. The two books may not dress alike or talk alike, but one book really is the grandson of the other.
My latest Guardian column, Can anything curb the dominance of the internet’s big guns? points out that everything governments do to tame the online giants has no effect on them — but makes it nearly impossible for new companies to compete with them.
If we’re going to solve the serious, existential risks to the human race – things like environmental apocalypse – we’re going to need social and technical infrastructure that can support evidence-driven, public-spirited institutions that can help steer us to a better place. Alas, we’re in trouble there, too. We’re living in a nearly airtight bubble of corruption and coercion. The only policies that states can reliably be expected to enact are those with business models – laws and actions that make someone incredibly rich, producing the private wealth necessary to lobby state to continue the policy and keep the money flowing.
There’s always been practical limits to how wide the gap between the rich and poor can get – at a certain point, elites end up spending more money guarding their wealth from the ever-enlarging, ever-more-desperate cohort of poor than they’re getting from corrupt policies and self-dealing relationships with the state. But technology changes all that. The automation of surveillance and coercion makes the business of maintaining social order vastly cheaper, and therefore increases the amount of wealth the very richest can keep to themselves rather than doling out dribs and drabs to the rest of us. Thus the miseries of a technologically supported system of feudalism dwarf those of the darkest days of kings and lords. And the ever-dwindling accountability of ruling elites means that evidence-driven policy is harder and harder to enact, and when it is, that policy needn’t be in the common interest.
We need to crack the airtight bubble. We need to find a way to begin unravelling the knotwork of decades of neoliberal corruption. The first step to this is to seize the means of information. We need computers that we do what we tell them to do, and networks that we can trust, in order to carry out a program of popular reform for good governance, fairness, and equity. We can do this, and we will do this. Because this is a policy with a business-model, and policies with business-models are the only policies the modern state can be relied upon to enact.
For Open Education Week, Jonathan Worth convened a conversation about privacy and trust in open education called Speaking Openly in which educators and scholars recorded a series of videos responding to one another’s thoughts on the subject.
My new Guardian column, Go digital by all means, but don’t bring the venture capitalists in to do it, is an open letter to the poor bastards who run public institutions, asking them to hold firm on delivering public value and not falling into the trap of running public services “like a business.”
When you let regulators and politicians bully you into excluding the public from their own institutions, alienating the public that you need on your side to stave off the next round of cuts — and the next.
In the story of market-driven public institutions, it’s we, the public, who are the angel investors. We paid to keep the archives growing, to put a roof over the museum, to amass and catalogue all of our nation’s cultural treasures (and the treasures of many other nations). The internet now makes it possible for those institutions to reach wider audiences than ever before, at lower costs than ever before – once their collections are digitised. When Siemens or another big company comes along to digitise our investments, they are the VCs putting in late-stage capital after we’ve borne all the risks, sometimes for centuries. If our management team – led by David Cameron, the self-styled MD of UK plc – offers these investor-come-latelies the lion’s share of the equity (that is, access to those treasures) for their paltry, late-stage capital, then he is in gross dereliction of his duty to us, the shareholders.
But of course, this is a stupid story. We don’t invest in public service institutions because we want them to be profitable. We invest in them because we want them to be good. Galleries, museums, archives and libraries tell us who we are. Schools and hospitals tend our minds and bodies. They are not businesses. We are not shareholders.
We have private archives, private schools, private healthcare, and private libraries. They cream off the easiest, most profitable, least onerous part of the public service remit. As austerity tightens and market logic crushes our institutions, many have become private/public hybrids, charging for some of their services, or selling off some of their treasures, or forcing the public to fit within the metrics demanded by the zealots of UK plc.
This is suicide. There is no amount of capitulation that will save your institution. If your archive charges the public to access its own memories, who will argue to keep it funded when the next round of cuts comes along? People who can’t afford to pay for your archive won’t stand up for it. People who can afford to pay for archival services already have private firms to serve them – why would they vote for their tax money to support another for-pay service?
(Image: Villa A – the archive, TheGuyCalledDennis, CC-BY)