Q&A: Cory Doctorow

San Francisco, California, USA –Cory Doctorow is a true believer in the power of technology.

His first novel, “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom,” is one of the first works tobe published under the Creative Commons license — anagreement that lets people copy and redistribute the book freely so long as theycredit the author. That move puts Doctorow at the forefront of a growingdigital rights movement.

Doctorow’s novel is like a love letter to Napster, Google and Walt DisneyWorld. It’s a rollicking, fast-paced story and is entertainingly inventivewithout bogging down in the impressive array of future technologies it imagines.”Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom” (also published in hardcover this month by TorBooks) is set in a future where death has been eliminated, energy and rawmaterials are freely available in limitless quantities (much like MP3 files onKaZaA today) and people’s nervous systems are wired directly into the Internet.The protagonist, Julius, works at Disney World, and the novel chronicles hisstruggles to protect the theme park’s Haunted Mansion from being shut down by anad hoc group of designers who have developed a technology for “flash baking”theme-park experiences directly into parkgoers’ brains.

In his day job, Doctorow is outreach coordinator for the Electronic FrontierFoundation (EFF). He’s also one of the primary contributors to thepopular techie weblog BoingBoing, he co-founded a dot-com,OpenCola, and he has another science-fiction novel and a short-story collection due out later this year.

Like his character Julius, Doctorow is an archetypal geek, from his nerdy DrewCarey-style glasses to the bright yellow cell phone dangling from his cargopants. I caught up with the prolific (and apparently highly caffeinated) Torontonative in his office at the EFF, where a blueprint of the Haunted Mansion hangs overhis desk.

This will make me sound like I’m behind the times, but this is actually thefirst time I’ve read an entire novel on screen.

It would make me pretty happy if this book contributed in some wayto the idea that reading books on the screen is good. I know that there’s a memethat floats around that says, oh, reading off a screen is hard, and no one wantsto do it and so on — despite all the evidence to the contrary. Most of thepeople I know read off a screen for 12 hours a day.

I won’t deny that there’s a sentimental frisson of good feeling you get when youpick up a physical, paper book, especially one with your name on it. Books arenice, but they’re not as nice as we make out.

I think that, ultimately, the role of books in the world of electronic publishingwill be much like the role of live music in the world of recorded-musicpublishing. We’ll still have plenty of paper books, but that will be dwarfed by theenormous size of the electronic-book universe.

You’ve written several novels, you’re at work on two more, you work for theEFF and you’ve got a popular blog where you post 10 or more items a day. Wheredo you find the time?

Well, sleep is for the weak. I’ll sleep when I’m dead.

The thing about it is that there is synergy. The stuff that I do for BoingBoingis basically research in support of EFF and the writing, and the blog is how Ikeep track of it. By doing it in public, I get lots of suggestions, and I also geta lot of feedback. BoingBoing is a net time saver because I get more researchdone with less effort, and I keep track of it better than I would if I were doingit privately.

The research that I do on EFF issues is also feeding the fiction. I published astory last August on Salon called “0wnz0red,” about digital rights managementand trusted computing. That came straight out of a briefing I got here.

In your book, you have a sort of alternate currency called Whuffie. Thecharacters are constantly checking one another’s Whuffie scores and looking forways to earn more Whuffie. Can you explain the idea?

Well, currency is a way of keeping score today. Whuffie is howmuch esteem people hold you in. Currency is a really rough approximation ofWhuffie. You can’t really get a job without esteem. You generally can’t get amortgage with no esteem.

In the book, I have this sort of magical McGuffin technology, which is somethingthat can automatically find out how you feel about everything that you have anopinion on. Then, someone who has a high opinion about me can ask me — withoutany kind of conscious intervention — how I feel about you. They can just ask thenetwork, “How is it that Cory feels about you?” And that gives them some idea ofhow much time of day they should give you.

It sounds a little like walking around with your bank balance displayed in abox above your head at all times.

Well, it’s true. Except, you know, we already do this, in some way. As currencyis a rough approximation of your Whuffie, the things that currency affords, likeyour style of dress, your haircut, all the semiotics of your presentation, aredescended from Whuffie. It’s just that Whuffie’s harder to [fake].

The Internet has made us very socially deviant, in the sense that social normsare enforced by groups. If you have some incredibly strange idea of, forinstance, wearing underwear on your head, generally speaking, there is socialdisapprobation that keeps that factor in check. But on the Internet, you canbasically exist in the communication spheres of people who have the same valuesystem as yours, no matter how weird it may be. On the Internet, you don’t getthat pressure to return to a norm. In some ways, Whuffie is a way to make youmore socially normative. It’s not necessarily a good thing.

Why did you call it “Whuffie”?

The word is what we used in high school instead of “brownie points.” A friendof mine pointed out, given the era that I went to high school in, that it almostcertainly came from “The Arsenio Hall Show”: “Woof, woof, woof.”

Most of the book takes place at Disney World, and the plot centers aroundvarious factions’ attempts to control the Haunted Mansion there. You seem alittle fascinated — almost obsessed — with Disney.

(points out a large collection of Disney paraphernalia in his office) Yeah,I’m a little obsessed. There’s so much to love and so much to hate about DisneyWorld and about the Disney corporation that it’s the perfect obsessive materialfor someone who wants to mine the cultural space.

I was raised by schoolteachers, and my grandparents were snowbirds. Every winterthey would fly south to Fort Lauderdale to a gate-guarded, seniors-only communitycalled Century Village that my dad likes to call “Cemetery Village.” We tookChristmas breaks in Lauderdale, and it was just about as dull as you can imaginefor an eight- or nine-year-old. So we would get in the big, gas-guzzling landyacht that my grandfather drove, and we would go to Disney World for a couple ofdays. Christmas weekends every year, during my whole adolescence, were spent atDisney World, and I just became completely obsessed with it.

Walt’s genius was that he would come up with incredibly novel, innovative thingsthat could only be imitated after a couple of years. Meanwhile, he wouldhave this very healthy margin until his competition figured out what he was doingand drove the price down to a competitive level. Then he would do the next thing.But when Walt died [in 1966], they just stopped doing that. They just starteddoing the same thing. They basically built a twin of Disneyland in Disney World,but bigger.

There’s lots you can say about [Disney chairman and CEO Michael] Eisner thatisn’t very flattering, but the one thing you can say is that under Eisner’sleadership, there has been a definite focus on innovation, at least in Florida. AtDisneyland, unfortunately, they brought in these idiot McKinsey consultants, theystopped spending any money on R&D and they bought all these off-the-shelf midwayrides, with Ferris wheels, for the California Adventure. They built thisincredibly dreary, boring, banal theme park that is like an extremely clean butless fun version of the Santa Monica pier, and, unsurprisingly, it’s a ghost town.You could fire a cannon down the main drag without hitting a tourist.

In the world of “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom,” there’s no death, there areunlimited resources, nanotechnology can create any object you desire (including aclone of yourself) and energy is free. What were you trying to accomplish bysetting the story in that kind of world?

I wanted to clarify my own thinking about what a non-scarce economics lookslike. Keynes and Marx and the great economic thinkers are all concerned with themanagement of resources that are scarce. If it’s valuable, it needs to bemanaged, because the supply of it will dwindle. You need to avert the tragedy ofthe commons [the notion that self-interested individuals, such as sheepherders,will always use as much of a common resource as possible, such as a grassypasture, until that resource is totally depleted].

Today, with things that can be represented digitally, we have the opposite. Inthe Napster universe, everyone who downloads a file makes a copy of it available.This isn’t a tragedy of the commons, this is a commons where the sheep s***grass — where the more you graze, the more commons you get. So I took the idea ofnanotechnology as the means whereby any good can be reproduced infinitely, atzero marginal cost, and tried to use that as a metaphor for the online world weactually live in.

The other side of it is this notion that you never really run out of scarcity.There are always limits on your time and attention, there are only so many people whocan fit in a restaurant, only so many people who can converse at once. When youare beset on all sides by entertainment, figuring out which bits are worthwhilerequires a level of attention that quickly burns all your idle cycles. Wheneveryone watched Jackie Gleason on Thursdays at 9:30, it was a lot easier– television watching required a lot less effort than whipping out your TiVo andfiguring out which shows you want to prerecord.

What’s your approach to writing?

It’s really quotidian. I write a page a day, basically. With novels, once Iget the first 20 or 25 percent on paper and an outline done, I usually make thatsemipublic. I have a list of about 200 or 300 first readers, and I e-mail them mypage, every day, even before I spell-check it, hot off the word processor. Theykeep me really honest. When I miss a day, they e-mail me and nudge me.

I had a really successful experience doing that with my second book, “EasternStandard Tribe” [due out in November 2003]. I wrote that between Aug. 1 andDec. 12 of 2001, 60,000 words in five months, and actually managed to sell itwithin a week of my finishing it.

You’ve lived in San Francisco a while now. How do you like it here?

I’ve lived here since September of 2000. Right at the height of the boom.

I really miss Toronto. San Francisco’s a really dysfunctional place. It has a lotof the downsides of living in a small town and a lot of the downsides of livingin a big city, and it misses a lot of the upsides of both of those places. It’svery hard to get from one place to another. The mass transit is so-so. Going fromthe Mission to downtown on foot feels about 10 times as long as it actually is.It’s a Jane Jacobs nightmare of freeway overpasses and single-use neighborhoods.

The weather’s OK, although it would be nice if the buildings were insulated,because when it’s 40 degrees at night and you don’t have insulation or centralheating, damn, it’s cold.

The thing about San Francisco that keeps me here is the people, the technology.This is ground zero for technologists. This is geek mecca, it’s nirvana. But Iheartily miss the Northeast. You can see the bones of a great city in SanFrancisco, and there are pockets of it that are like nothing else on Earth, buttaken as a whole, it’s really dysfunctional.

Also, I can’t get my head around the private-medicine thing. I think thisexplains a lot about the various geek cultures of the U.K., Canada and the U.S. Inthe U.S., there are tons of venture capital, so everyone went out and started acompany. In Canada, there are tons of socialized medicine, so everyone became afreelancer. If you’re a freelancer [in the U.S.], and you’re in poor health, andyou can’t get insured, you are embarking on a kind of slow suicide. And then, inthe U.K., they had tons of arts grants, so all the geeks became Net artists, andthat’s why there’s all this kind of strange, situationist, British Net art.

I’m told that Canada spends less money per capita giving away health care thanthe U.S. spends regulating it. So you’re spending more money keeping the HMOshonest than it would cost you to give it away. That’s a big difference betweenthe American and Canadian mind-sets.

How many downloads of your book have there been so far?

There have been 47,334 from my site. Ninety downloads since we started talking. I hope tobreak 50,000 today.

That’s just moving right along.

Hell, yeah!

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Q&A: Cory Doctorow