Cory Doctorow – Cool Geek of the Week

Andrea Divirgilio / January 27, 2007

Another interview comes to an end and we are here with the interesting Q&A episode of our Cool Geek series with the scholarly BoingBoing editor, Cory Doctotrow.

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1. Matt: We’ve observed a tremendous increase in jailing of online journalists, monitoring of legitimate online activity, and censorship in the recent years. Don’t you think there is an immediate need of a proper Web Conduct Code? How far will it ensure freedom of speech?

Cory: Matt, I confess: this question makes not one shred of sense to me. You seem to be saying, “Repressive regimes are arresting people who are engaged in legitimate free expression. We can stop this if we voluntarily adopt a code whereby we agree not to say anything that will upset repressive rulers.” Not only is this weird, looking-glass logic, but it also *wouldn’t work*, for at least two reasons:

1. Bad actors who are engaged in illegitimate expression (the four horsemen of the infocalypse who are trotted out to justify any form of repression and censorship are child pornographers, mafiosi, pirates and terrorists) are already lawbreakers. A “code of conduct” whereby all of us who aren’t bad actors promise not to do anything that will enrage the religious right, Beijing, Syria or Ted Stevens won’t bind on these people. They’re lawbreakers. That’s what they do.

The range of things that we’d have to adopt in a “Web Conduct Code” if we are to diffuse the repressive urges of the aforementioned guardians of public morality is so sweeping as to be nearly complete. You can’t even talk about the *weather* without upsetting Republican climate-change deniers. These people don’t want to shut down speech because it is illegitimate — they want to shut it down because it hurts them politically to be called out, to have alternative points of view presented, etc.

2. Nick: Cory, I would like to have your views on the legitimacy of the recently introduced Platform Equality and Remedies for Rights Holders in Music or PERFORM Act. Don’t you think it’ll take us to the past, killing the future and the real purpose of technology?

Cory: Indeed I do — couldn’t have said it better. Leaving aside all the small particulars of the bill, there are two gross, fundamental showstoppers in the proposal that constitute a reason for rejecting it:

1. This won’t effect “piracy” — neither the people selling counterfeit CDs on the black market nor the people sharing infringing music without paying for it on P2P. It won’t turn one pirate back into a customer, it won’t incentivize one sale. All it does is put webcasters and broadcasters into lackeys of the record companies — it subjugates the tech industry to the whims, vetos, and astrological prognostications of a pack of coked-up venal record executives who still think that home taping is killing music.

2. This will ban open source/free software. The proposal contains a mandate that all music-receiving technologies have to come with “DRM” — the anti-copying systems that are intended to restrict how you use music. Every single DRM system requires a platform that isn’t “user modifiable” — that means that you, as the owner of the device or software, can’t open it up, understand it, improve it, and tell other people what you’ve done with it.

This process of opening up your property, interrogating it, understanding it, documenting it, improving it, and sharing your improvements IS Free Software/Open Source. It’s how we got GNU/Linux, Firefox, Apache, Sendmail and all the other Free/Open tools that make the Internet (including the record companies’ own systems!) go. It’s more than that — it’s the scientific method, the cornerstone of the Enlightenment, the fundamental basis for knowledge.

A DRM mandate — ANY DRM mandate — requires that vendors of computers, drives, sound cards, software, network interfaces, and all other implicated technologies subject their system to “anti-hacker” measures that freeze out those who would take them apart and improve them. What’s more, DRM systems increasingly come with “renewability” — the ability for an exec at Universal or Sony (who infected 500,000 US computer networks with a rootkit last year, including networks run by military and government operations) to remotely modify the software running on your device, terminating it if it has been “compromised”.

So PERFORM promises no benefit to musicians, and substantial harm to the public. Of course we should reject it.

3. David: Internet is certainly a paradise for writers and we can get the maximum out of it only if each bit of it is made literally free. What do you say? How will the revolution affect the publishing industry?

Cory: The important thing to recognize is that the Internet is a distraction medium, inherently poorly suited to long-form narrative. Just in answering these few questions, I have already flipped away from them to attend to literally two dozen chores. People say all the time that they hate reading on screens, but they often say this while engaged in an
18-hour screen-reading marathon. Of COURSE we like to read on screens — we do it all day long. We just don’t like reading long form narrative on screen.

That’s great news — free ebooks are therefore an enticement to buy paper books. You can read just enough of them off the screen to be tempted into buying the print, before your IM starts bouncing, a new youtube starts playing, etc. and the ebook also compliments the pbook, because it is social, it invites you to paste it into a chat, an email, a sig file, to loan it out without worrying about getting it back, etc.

And the Internet will NEVER BECOME more hospitable to single-task concentration. There’s a stupid wet-dream about an e-Ink reader that is the size and shape of a book. Such a device will have multiple functions (you can try marketing it with just one function, but it will be outsold by the multifunction competition, because something that does 100 things has a larger potential audience than something that only does one thing). It will have a network connection. It will distract you. It will also sit in social contexts where it’s OK to interrupt you — no one complains if you ask her a question while she’s looking at an IM on her phone, but it’s rude to interrupt someone with her nose in a book.

4. Anita: Is your staunch inclination towards science fiction is just because you are a technophile or there is something fantastical about it? Which book you enjoyed writing the most?

Cory: SF is the best medium for writing about the present. I love the present. It’s very futuristic. Sometimes, it’s hard to see that, because we have short attention spans and no one keeps an old refrigerator-sized PDP-11 around to compare with the processor in a digital watch.

SF lets you create fictional worlds in which all the things that are tangential to your statement about the present can be removed. These worlds are like theme-park rides on rails, each bit of scenery chosen to make a one-inch-deep immersion in something that you know isn’t true, but which says true things about the real world.

I loved writing my last book, an untitled young adult novel about hacker kids in San Francisco who declare war on the Department of Homeland Security. I wrote all 100,000 words in eight weeks, from the day I got the idea to the day I finished it. Tor will publish it next winter or spring.

5. Jenna: How would you define “Boing Boing“, it’s much more then an online cyberpunk magazine of wonderful things, isn’t it?

Cory: I suspect it’s different for each of us four co-editors. For me, it’s my running notebook of everything I happen upon that I’m interested in, that I care about or want to understand better or remember. Writing a blog post about something is a great way to fix it in your memory, and to get to know it better. You can’t communicate something until you yourself understand it.

6. Jimmy: Cory, we would like to have your views on the role played by WIPO? WIPO too has evolved with the technological advancement and the changes in how we perceive copyright and patent issues related to all types of media today; do you still want to create your own separate front?

Cory: WIPO has the same relationship to bad copyright laws that Mordor has to evil — it is their bottomless wellspring.

There is probably no treaty-making body more captured by an industry group in the world (except, possibly, the WTO). WIPO’s every move is calculated to enrich a handful of companies, at the expense of authors, inventors, developing nations and the public.

It can make no credible claim to being any sort of humanitarian entity — despite being chartered by the UN under that pretense. Nor can it claim any kind of fairness or due process.

Take, for example, the extraordinary process-cooking from Jukka Liedes, the chairman of the Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights. Liedes keeps making up new rules under which WIPO operates, inventing whatever process will get him the treaty language that the US has declared it wants to see, despite the howls of protest from the national delegations and NGOs.

When the civil society NGOs started going to WIPO, it changed its policy on photocopying the position papers and information that NGOs broughtfor the delegations. Until we got there, WIPO played private secretary to the MPAA, PHARMA, IFPI, and other rich companies. Once we got there, they declared that everyone had to bring their own copies.

That was frustrating, but what was really enraging was that when our papers were stolen and dumped behind plants and in the toilets, Rita Hayes, the Secretariat, blamed us and threatened to prohibit anyone bringing any literature to WIPO — but refused to review the CCTV footage from the camera over the literature table to see who had done it.

7. Neil: YouTube certainly changed the way we interact with the Internet. In today’s scenario, do audio podcasting and audio books have any future or are they dead?

Cory: I think that YouTube has nothing to do with audiobooks — audiobooks and
podcasts are things that you take with you as wallpaper while you’re doing other things (driving, riding transit, working out, cleaning house, working out).

8. Vikas I just read on your blog- “the value is not in production of the material, it’s in delivering it”, so what exactly Cory, the master crafter, is involved in nowadays and how he wants to deliver it to make the desired ‘Doctorow Impact’?

Cory: Well, it’s all pretty much there for anyone to see. I write books, blog posts, articles. I make podcasts, give speeches. Shoot photos. I put ‘em online. I let anyone do pretty much anything with them. The money comes in.

9. Judie Hughes: Hi Cory, It’s obvious that you have a lot going on. Do you have any secrets you would care to share regarding how you effectively manage such a busy schedule – balancing between the sites you contribute to, projects you are working on, your friends, family – while still managing to find time for yourself?

Cory: I’m a devotee of David Allen’s “GETTING THINGS DONE,” an excellent productivity book that advocates using a system of lists to stay abreast of everything you want to stay abreast of and discard the rest. I’m also pretty vigorous about saying no, and I’m getting better at it. Finally, I have systems — like the Boing Boing suggest-a-link form — that are the official, sanctioned, and only way to communicate certain kinds of requests to me. IOW, if you send mean email suggesting something for Boing Boing, it just gets deleted, unanswered, unread. I only every consider suggestions when they come in via the form. Since the form’s output is very easy and fast for conversion to a blog-post, I can get through a LOT more material that way.

10. Naveen: Why do you feel it is important to track the next big thing? Do you discover your articles from other blogs most of the time or do you truly hunt for cool things?

Cory: I’ve never in my life looked for the next big thing. I cast a wide net looking for things of interest, reading blogs, travelling, getting suggestions, tracking RSS… All I want to ever do is keep a tally of stuff that’s interesting to me. It needn’t be new, it needn’t be the next big thing — only something that tickles me.

11. Amit Agarwal: Hi Cory, wanted to know your views on “linking to copyrigted files” – some companies like FOX are asking bloggers not to link to Youtube clips that are unauthorized?

Cory: They’re full of shit. A link is a link, not an endorsement. If I say, “There’s a neighborhood in LA called Santee Alley where you can buy pirate DVDs,” that’s not the same as distributing pirate DVDs. All a link is is a statement to the effect of, “There is a page over here with some stuff on it.” It’s a statement of fact. If I bear liability for the things I link to, then Google is doomed — it links to practically everything on the net, including all the pirated things.

12. Mike Elgan: Hi, Cory. Are physical Libraries obsolete? Are cursive writing and “penmanship” obsolete? Are k-12 schools obsolete (for learning, not socialization and daycare) obsolete? Are time zones obsolete?

Cory: The future composts the past. It’s a rare thing that’s obsolete. Physical libraries have great, irreplaceable resources — librarians. They have social contexts for learning and research — people gathered together, sharing. Penmanship — I wish mine was better. In an era of tablet PCs, this might be more important than ever. K-12 — not hardly. Learning to get along with others is more important than learning to solve a quadratic. Time zones — no way — if time zones were obsolete, I wouldn’t have gotten up at 4 this morning, fresh back on the West Coast from a weekend in NYC.

13. Nandini: Finally, we would like to have your views on BornRich & newly-launched Instablogs Community?

Cory: Seems like you’re having a lot of fun!

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