Thursday, April 20, 2006

Interview with Cory Doctorow

Today I am publishing an interview with Cory Doctorow, well-regarded science fiction writer, co-editor of the award-winning blog Boing Boing, and committed and energetic cyber activist.

Doctorow is a Fellow of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and was until recently its European Outreach Coordinator. He is a specialist in copyright and digital rights management (DRM) issues, and will shortly be taking up a Fulbright Visiting Reseach Chair at the University of Southern California's Center on Public Diplomacy
This is number six of The Basement Interviews, the introduction of which I am publishing on my blog. The full article (including introduction) is available as a downloadable PDF file (see below for details). The interview is being published under a Creative Commons licence.

NextGen Cyber Activist

Cory Doctorow, activist, writer, blogger, public speaker, and self-styled "technology person", speaks to Richard Poynder

Cory Doctorow was born in Toronto in 1971, the son of Trotkyist Jewish émigrés from Eastern Europe. His mother was a teacher and organiser in the woman's movement, his father a computer programmer and one-time professional revolutionary, who later retrained as a teacher too.

As a child, Doctorow attended a series of alternative schools including SEED, the oldest free secondary school in Toronto. His education, therefore, was highly self-directed, and assessed by means of earned credits. One of Doctorow's credits was earned extramurally, "writing in a little white house on top of a mountain" in Mexico.

Doctorow developed an interest in computers at an early age, and wrote his first software program when he was nine years old — a quiz on nuclear disarmament. Science fiction writing was another early interest, and he wrote his first sci-fi story when he was twelve, while touring Europe in the back of the family car.

Although he attended four universities, Doctorow never obtained a degree. Finally dropping out from Ontario's University of Waterloo in 1993, he took a job with a New York-based CD-ROM company called Voyager. Shortly afterwards, however, the bottom fell out of the CD-ROM market, and Doctorow drifted through a series of technology jobs before, in 1999, co-founding the peer-to-peer (P2P) company, OpenCola.

After raising $14 million in funding, and developing several well-received products, OpenCola was poised to become yet another success. In December 1999, however, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) sued the popular file-sharing service Napster for copyright infringement, and the world changed for P2P for ever.

As the suit also named Napster's investors — accusing them of contributory infringement and vicarious liability — investor enthusiasm for P2P technology evaporated overnight. What had been viewed as a not-to-be-missed investment opportunity was now a high-risk speculative gamble only for the foolhardy. OpenCola's backers panicked, and took control of the company, eventually selling it to Ontario-based Open Text.

Gradually squeezed out of OpenCola, Doctorow found himself once again looking for a new job. Radicalised by his experience as an entrepreneur, and now located in San Francisco, Doctorow was drawn to cyber rights organisation the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which he joined as a full-time staff member in 2001.

He also began contributing to the blog Boing Boing — which had been founded by the former managing editor of Wired Mark Frauenfelder as a print "zine", but was reinvented as a blog in 2000.

While conceding that his career may appear somewhat haphazard, Doctorow insists that there has always been a common purpose in everything he has done — that of "exploring the social and cultural ramifications of technology." Sometimes, he says, this has been done in a purely theoretical way; sometimes in a practical way.

The theoretical work has primarily been conducted through the medium of science fiction writing: Doctorow sold his first story when he was 17, and published his first novel — a parable about Napster called Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom — when he was 31. A further two novels, and a series of short stories, have followed.

These efforts have been well received by the science fiction community: in 2000, Doctorow won the John W Campbell Award for best new writer; in 2003 Down and Out won the Locus Award for best first novel, and his short story 0wnz0red was nominated for the Nebula Award; and in 2004 his short story collection A Place So Foreign and Eight More won the Sunburst Award for best Canadian science fiction book.

Doctorow's practical work has mainly taken the form of activism. A committed free speech advocate, he believes that the introduction of new laws designed to tame the Internet, combined with the way in which courts are interpreting existing laws in cyberspace, pose a significant threat to civil liberties.

Also convinced that ever more restrictive copyright laws — coupled with increasing use of digital rights management technologies — threaten to erode the public domain, and chill innovation and creativity, Doctorow is a vocal critic of the media companies and politicians driving these developments.

As a writer, Doctorow clearly has a personal stake in these matters. But convinced that there are better ways of encouraging and rewarding creativity in a digital world, he has been keen to experiment with alternative approaches. Consequently, all his works are published under Creative Commons licences, which allow people to download free electronic copies of his works, and to re-distribute and rework them.

And with each new book Doctorow has tended to adopt ever more liberal licensing terms. His third novel — Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town — for instance, was released under a Creative Commons license that also allows people in developing countries to reuse them for commercial purposes

His readers have responded positively: Down and Out has been widely adapted, translated and remixed by third parties. Tim Bennett, for instance, has done a text remix of the book; Mark Forman has serialised it as an audio podcast, adding backing music licensed under Creative Commons; and John Sanchez has translated the novel into Opish, "a children's language comparable to Pig Latin".

More importantly, Doctorow has discovered that liberal licensing can make good business sense. Despite Down and Out being available as a free download, he boasts, "that sucker has blown through five print editions, so I'm not worried that giving away books is hurting my sales."

In other words, Doctorow has demonstrated that providing free electronic copies of creative works is an excellent publicity strategy, and can lead to higher print sales. He also publishes audio extracts of his works as podcasts, which he describes as "a regular feed in which I read from one of my stories for a few minutes at least once a week, from whatever friend's house, airport, hotel, conference, treaty negotiation or what-have-you that I'm currently at."

The point, says Doctorow, is that he is not some "patchouli-scented, fuzzy-headed, 'information wants to be free' info-hippie", but an entrepreneur seeking new business models.

"I believe that we live in an era where anything that can be expressed as bits will be. I believe that bits exist to be copied. Therefore, I believe that any business-model that depends on your bits not being copied is just dumb, and that lawmakers who try to prop these up are like governments that sink fortunes into protecting people who insist on living on the sides of active volcanoes. Me, I'm looking to find ways to use copying to make more money and it's working: enlisting my readers as evangelists for my work and giving them free eBooks to distribute sells more books."

His approach is also informed by a firm belief that the settled world of print will eventually fade away. By experimenting with liberal licences, he says, he hopes to obtain the necessary market intelligence to assist him become "the first writer to figure out what the next writerly business model is."

In short, rather than clinging to industrial-age business models in the way the movie and music industries are so tenaciously doing, Doctorow wants to find the new information-age models that will be needed when people stop buying print books.

And by continuing to contribute to Boing Boing — which he now co-edits with Frauenfelder and California digerati David Pescovitz and Xeni Jardin — he can not only better promote his books, but also support his activism. Today, Boing Boing boasts around 1.7 million unique readers a day, and is the most linked-to blog on the Web.

To further raise his public profile Doctorow also gives constant speeches and talks. He was also recently invited to be a judge for the inaugural Blooker prize — "the world's first literary prize devoted to 'blooks': books based on blogs or websites."

In 2004 Doctorow relocated to London to become EFF's European Outreach Coordinator. When he discovered that his new base was just yards away from London's Speakers Corner — an area in the north-east corner of Hyde Park hallowed by activists of free speech since the middle of the 19th Century — he immediately founded the London Copyfighters' Drunken Brunch and Talking Shop and, with like-minded "copyfighters", took to standing on a traditional soapbox to harangue the British public — and curious tourists — about the threat posed by today's increasingly onerous copyright laws.

Other regular speakers — generally a motley crew of religious zealots, pro-hunting fanatics, and anarchists — were undoubtedly puzzled to be told that the foe is no longer the devil, the red fox, or indeed the state, but powerful corporate interest groups with inscrutable acronyms like MPAA and RIAA, along with their faceless international co-conspirators WIPO and the WTO.

That Speakers Corner — where in the past such luminaries of social and political revolution as Karl Marx, Lenin, and George Orwell have addressed the world — should have become a venue for tirades against copyright is proof indeed that we have truly entered the information age. Class struggle, and disputes over the ownership of the means of production, are giving way to battles over the ownership of intangible things like ideas, information and creative endeavour.

Today, the debate is increasingly being framed not as a problem of toilers of the factory and the field having their labour stolen from them by exploitative capitalists, but one in which knowledge workers are having their ideas and creativity appropriated by rapacious multinational corporations, who then use the copyright system to lock them away for longer and longer periods.

And for consumers the threat is that instead of being able to buy a physical product — like a book or a CD — that they own in perpetuity, they will increasingly be asked to pay each time they want to access it.

In January, Doctorow quit his day job with the EFF to become a full-time writer. As he explained on Boing Boing: "It's something I've dreamed of since I was 12 years old, and now it's a reality."

He remains an EFF Fellow, however, and in April announced that he has accepted a Fulbright Visiting Research Chair at the University of Southern California's Center on Public Diplomacy. Starting September, he will spend a year at USC, teaching classes on DRM, and researching a non-fiction book on the topic — to be called Set Top Cop: Hollywood's Secret War on America's Living Rooms.

He also plans to transplant the Copyfighters' Drunken Brunch and Talking Shop to Venice Beach, "substituting Bible-bashers for roller blades."

Although it sells more books, Doctorow's tireless self-promotion has attracted some criticism. Joey Nelson, a 23-year-old denizen of Los Angeles, for instance, has responded by creating the Corysucks web site. This, he jokes, includes a "Cory Sucks Index” — based on an algorithm that measures Doctorow’s self-referential utterances.

"I've read Boing Boing for a long time and only recently realised that I wasn’t really interested in it at all," he explains. "And Cory’s posts are the worst. It seems like everything he writes is either about his DRM crusade, his book signings or Disney. I figured I could write a simple algorithm to quantify how much each post sucked, so I did it."

Self-promotion aside, however, is Doctorow a good novelist? Personally I struggle with his writing, not least because — like most modern science fiction writers — he makes high demands of his readers, expecting them to come to his books with considerable pre-existing knowledge, both of the technology and the tropes of science fiction.

As one reader of Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town complained on, "This book is mainly comprised of lots and lots of technobabble, with very little substance. Is that what 'next generation SF' really is? Isn't that kind of pretentious?"

There is, however, no doubt that Doctorow has a considerable facility with language. He has also earned the admiration and respect of the science fiction community. As fellow author Bruce Sterling puts it: "He sparkles! He fizzes! He does backflips and breaks the furniture! Science fiction needs Cory Doctorow!"

More importantly, Doctorow is a talented, highly effective and hugely energetic activist for the free knowledge movement. For that reason, perhaps, we all need Cory Doctorow!


I visited Doctorow one sunny May afternoon while he was still working as an EFF staffer in London.

It turned out that there was no EFF office as such: rather Doctorow had acquired squatters' rights in the Stanhope Centre, the London offices of the Freedom Forum.

A spacious, rambling, and shabby Georgian building, the Centre had by the time of my visit been as good as abandoned by the Freedom Forum, and shortly afterwards the lease on the building expired — providing Doctorow with the final stimulus to become a full-time writer perhaps.

In any case, it was clear that Doctorow spent much of his time in London rattling around in a warren of deserted and dilapidated rooms containing little bar a collection of ancient office equipment and broken furniture.

He arrived ten minutes late, having been delayed on the London Underground. "Everybody else hates the underground," he says. "I love the underground."

With thick horn-rimmed glasses and a buzz cut haircut, Doctorow looks — appropriately enough — an amalgam of nerd, sci-fi writer and EFF wonk. While dressed in the regulation nerd uniform of T-shirt and jeans, for instance, his designer stubble transmits a slightly different message. And when the interview starts it is instantly apparent that Doctorow is considerably more articulate than the average coder, and has a far greater interest in, and understanding of, "state-of-the-nation" issues than any hacker I have ever encountered.

He shows me into a large room with a row of computers along the front wall and a meeting table in the middle. Inviting me to sit down, he immediately turns his back to me, and spends the first five minutes of the interview copying data from his laptop to a grubby-looking PC.

Backing up, it seems, is a Doctorow obsession. As he explained in an interview with SF Gate in 2003, he is "pretty paranoid" about losing data. So he backs up whenever he can, and uses at least two backup computers. Once a month he also encrypts everything, and copies it across to a remote server in Toronto. In addition, he backs up his e-mail on an iPod at the end of every day.

As he busies himself with his task I glance around the room. The soulless urban decay and creaking technology seem ready made as a backdrop for a cyberpunk novel, conveying just the right amount of futuristic gloom.

Judging by the noise, all the dust in the room has over time been sucked into the fans of the serried ranks of ancient computers, which groan irritably. In one corner lie the remnants of what Doctorow humorously refers to as "the dead chair" — its legs snapped off; its back broken beyond repair.

In the opposite corner a dying yucca reaches half-heartedly towards the pale light filtering through the dirty window. The listlessness of its desiccated and yellowing leaves suggest that even were some sympathetic visitor to break open the window and thrust its dying corpse into the sunshine the consequent flood of oxygen would only put it out of its misery all the sooner. The row of dead flies on the windowsill, feet pointed skywards, clearly gave up all hope long ago.

Backup finished, Doctorow turns towards me. As we talk, we sip mineral water from soiled glasses, layered with the fingerprints of previous visitors. Doctorow makes slow semaphore signals with his hands to punctuate his sentences. Occasionally he hunches over and, with a few deft movements of his fingers, conjures up carefully designed paper cranes — a habit acquired, he explains, when he gave up smoking.

On the PC behind him a succession of screensavers come and go: a picture of a wrecked London telephone box is replaced by one of the Statue of Liberty; President Bush appears briefly as a vampire, before giving way to a picture of a pizza; in its turn the pizza disappears, pushed aside by a slogan reading "Jews for Jesus." The telephone box returns, and the cycle repeats.

During the interview I find myself contrasting Doctorow's views with those I heard in my earlier meetings with Michael Hart, Richard Stallman and Lawrence Lessig: the same picture of corporate greed, legal shenanigans, and diminishing public good — set against a backdrop of rapid technological change and cyber activism — only serves to reinforce my sense of having somehow stumbled into a scene in a sci-fi story.

What is different this time, however, is the international perspective Doctorow brings to the debate, along with his more astute political understanding of the situation. His views on how wealthy corporate suits and irresponsible politicians are conspiring with organisations like WIPO and the WTO to engineer at an international level legislative change that would be unacceptable on the national stage are particularly illuminating.

His more sophisticated perspective is surely a consequence of the highly politicised home he was brought up in. No doubt he has also benefited from the acquired wisdom of being a second-generation activist, having learned from the mistakes of his elders — many of whom remain politically naïve, and apparently incapable of understanding the international context in which their activism needs to be rooted.

As a staffer with the EFF, Doctorow has also developed a keen sense of the complex free speech issues raised by cyberspace. As he talks I struggle at times to follow his reasoning. For while we Europeans claim to value and protect free speech we are not generally accustomed to thinking the issues through in any depth.

It is only when I ask Doctorow about open spectrum that the picture begins to clear. If governments were to deregulate the wireless spectrum, he says, we could end up in a world where "the incremental cost of sending a packet [of information] from anywhere to anywhere else is zero. If that happens we end up with a lot more free speech — which is great."

I realise that what he is saying is that the more people are able to communicate with one another (the more "speech" there is), the greater the number and variety of viewpoints available. Not only is this inherently more democratic, but the more viewpoints we have access to, the greater our understanding of an issue becomes.

I recall that this is a point made nearly 150 years ago by the English philosopher John Stuart Mill, who asserted that "the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind."

The implication of this, of course, is that true understanding is as likely to come from the babble of voices rising from the crowd, as it is from the lone voice of the wise man. The implication of what Doctorow says, therefore, is that the more people who contribute to this babble, the deeper our comprehension of a topic is likely to be. Re-phrased, it could be Eric Raymond saying, "given enough tongues, all misunderstandings are shallow."

Moreover, like Lessig, Doctorow believes that this same principle applies to creativity and innovation — which does not generally take place in a vacuum, but develops in direct proportion to the richness and variety of pre-existing ideas and creativity. As such, creativity is a process that Lessig likes to describe as “rip, mix and burn”; or as Doctorow prefers to put it, "mining the culture."

So while the Internet has undoubtedly become a conduit for a growing tide of empty-headed noise and scurrilous chatter, it is also a near frictionless channel for the free flow of creative ideas. As such, it holds out the promise of a blossoming of new ideas, new opinions and creative expression. The more oysters there are, the greater the number of pearls.

For Doctorow, as for Lessig, therefore, the danger is that if we allow censorship, over-restrictive copyright, and DRM-imposed access restrictions to obstruct the flow of creativity this enables, we risk impoverishing both human understanding and expression.

The key point, perhaps, is not that information on the Internet wants to be free (as in free speech), but that it now can be free, and in ways not previously possible. Advocates of the free knowledge movement, therefore, are surely right to insist that those seeking to impose unnecessary restrictions on the Web must not prevail.

Indeed, to hobble the Internet is not just to pass up the opportunity of a huge new flowering of knowledge and creativity but — due to the collateral damage that over-regulation can cause — we risk plunging ourselves into a new dark age, where innovation, ingenuity and artistic expression dry up.

Suddenly Doctorow's phone bursts into noisy and garish life: a medley of flashing lights illuminates the screen, the phone vibrates on the desk and — in place of a regular ring tone — the voice of a disembodied Walt Disney character fills the room: "Oh, what a cute little pink bunny."

Doctorow hits the busy button. A few minutes later, however, the phone again bursts into intemperate life. It's his girlfriend trying to track him down, Doctorow tells me, adding, as if in explanation, "She's Welsh".

It's clearly time for me to go, so I say my farewells and depart.


If you wish to read this interview in its entirety please click on the link below. I am publishing it under a Creative Commons licence, so you are free to copy and distribute it as you wish, so long as you credit me as the author, do not alter or transform the text, and do not use it for any commercial purpose.

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I would like to acknowledge the help of the Open Society Institute, which provided a small upfront grant to enable me to get started on The Basement Interviews project. Further information about The Basement Interviews can be found at the Open and Shut? site.

To read the interview in its entirety (as a PDF file) click here.

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