Cory Doctorow is the author of various science-fiction novels, including Makers and Little Brother, which he makes available for free from his Web site. He's one of the editors of the technology blog Boing Boing. In addition, he's a current fellow and former European Affairs Coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a fierce advocate for the liberalization of copyright laws to allow for free sharing of all digital media. On June 27-28, he visited Red Emma's bookstore in Baltimore, Maryland, and then appeared at CopyNight DC, a regular event in Washington, to discuss his work with more than 60 participants. Highlights from those exchanges are presented here.
Audience: How do you come up with your science-fiction ideas?
Cory Doctorow: Pick something that's difficult, complicated, and expensive for people to do, then imagine that thing becoming easy, simple, and inexpensive, and write about it. That's what's happening today. Anything that requires more than one person and lots of coordination has become easier because of networks, which take the coordination cost associated with these very complicated tasks and make them low. The change is profound, because any task that one person can't do alone, whether it's making an airplane or a skyscraper, is literally superhuman. But the superhuman is becoming easier. You could write a damn good science-fiction story about free skyscrapers.
Audience: On the subject of exponential price depreciation, what can we do to ameliorate the socially and economically disruptive effects of a hypothetical breakthrough in nanofabrication? Those negative effects would be massive unemployment, institutions becoming obsolete, and millions of people having no idea what to do about government or commerce.
Doctorow: How can we ameliorate the social upheaval that arises from a postindustrial revolution based on nanofabrication? Iron-fisted totalitarian dictatorship? Workers' paradise? I don't know.
Audience: In your novel Makers, you talk about people who take electronic gadget waste (referred to as e-waste) and turn it into something new. Where do you see this happening in real life?
Doctorow: A large part of the e-waste problem is that we design devices that are meant to be used for a year but take a hundred thousand years to degrade. I wonder if we won't someday design some devices to gracefully degrade back into the part stream, back into materials faster. Bruce Sterling wrote a manifesto about this for MIT Press called Shaping Things. He proposed that, with the right regulatory framework and technology, it might be possible to start readdressing design decisions so that things gracefully decompose back into components that can be reused in next-generation devices.
Audience: In For the Win and in Little Brother, you discuss small, technologically savvy networks sparking revolutions among a larger, much less sophisticated group, like enslaved factory workers who were waiting for a catalyst to overthrow their oppressors. Do you really believe that a few thousand well-connected individuals can trigger revolution?
Doctorow: My themes in those books aren't small groups of people using technology to liberate larger groups, but rather that information rapidly diffuses through small groups, and then larger groups of people use it to help themselves. This is characteristic of all technological diffusion.
Audience: Does that go both ways?
Doctorow: Technology is good at disrupting the status quo because technology gives an advantage to people who want to undermine something that's stable. Imagine a scenario in the Middle Ages where someone had just invented earth-moving technology and you manage security for a city. You want to defend your city with earth-moving technology. I want to break into your city with earth-moving technology. You need a perfect wall; I need to find one imperfection. Your task is exponentially harder than my task. …