Interview with Cory Doctorow, 1/17/2003

** Unedited transcript **
The edited version of this interview was published on 1/23/2003 by SFGate.

Cory Doctorow: Author of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (Tor Books, 2003)
Interview location: EFF offices, 454 Shotwell St., SF
Interviewer: Dylan Tweney, dylan at
Transcriber: Dylan Tweney

Cory has a brush haircut, and is wearing Drew Carey style "geek" glasses with heavy, dark frames, a black and purple and gray Transformers T-shirt, black baggy cargo pants with a bright yellow cell phone dangling from them. "Haunted Mansion" plans above his head. Big wooden tiki mask leaning against front of desk. Outside his office, an enormous brown dog lounges (not Cory's).

[[begin tape]]

Q: What's your shirt?

CD: Oh, it's a Transformers shirt, from 80s T's dot com.

Q: All right, cool. Um, well, so it's Cory Doctorow, and we're here about your new book, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. It's a great book, actually, I – it's a terrific read and I had a lot of fun. It's the first time I've read an entire novel on screen.

CD: Oh, cool.

Q: Which makes me sound a little bit like I'm behind the times, but—

CD: A few people have written to me to say that. And that actually would make me pretty happy, if this book contributed in some way to the idea that reading books on the screen is good. I know that there's a kind of meme that floats around that says, oh, reading off a screen is hard, and no one wants to do it, and so on – despite all the evidence to the contrary, ie. Most of the people I know read off a screen for 12 hours a day.

Q: You mean email, and …

CD: Yeah. And, there's this kind of, you know, tiresome, retrograde, dreary meme that says we have to wait for screens to get sharper, we need digital ink, you need to be able to carry it around, you need to be able to take it to the bathtub, blah blah blah – And to me it sounds like priests sitting around holding a Gutenberg bible, and saying, How can the word of God possibly leap off one of these louche and dirty pages from Mister Gutenberg's press, you know, that the true word of God can only be carried when it's hand-illuminated on fetal calf skin by a monk who's devoted his life to understanding the word. And you know, I think that it's time for a Protestant Reformation. It's true that you can't take an e-book into the tub, and it doesn't smell nice, and all the rest of it, but on the other hand, you can carry around 40,000 of them on a drive the size of credit card. As someone who owns around 20,000 books and who has put them in boxes and moved them more than once, I can tell you that this is a serious advantage. Right? The other thing is that data is easy to back up. I can back up off site, over night, electronically, to a server in Australia that will survive even if the hemisphere goes, whereas backing up books – I mean, books are printed on substrate that is so fragile that it burns when it comes into contact with oxygen. We actually use that substrate to wipe our asses with. This is not robust, archival material. This is the very definition of ephemeral, that literature is a book written on toilet paper.

Q: Um, your book is released as dead tree media, though.

CD: Actual paper – let me see if I can find it. No-fooling, bits on substrate book. [shows a copy of the book]

Q: Nice. Why didn't you just release it purely electronically?

CD: Well, for a couple of reasons. There's clearly, despite the fact that I think that these memes are foolish, they persist.

Q: You have 20,000 of them, right?

CD: Um, say again?

Q: You have 20,000 hard copy books, you said.

CD: No, no, no, 8500.

Q: Oh, ok, you have 20,000 e-books then?

CD: Well now, I can tell you the exact total is 47,244 from my site. [reading number of downloads of his book, displayed on the iBook on his desk] So god knows how many have been distributed elsewhere. So it's been a week and 12 hours, or a week and 11 hours, since I released it, and it's been downloaded 47,000 times. 47,245 times. So that's pretty cool. There are a lot of people who won't read it off a screen, for some reason or another. There are, you know, we're still sort of at the dawn of that age. And there is, I won't deny that there's a sentimental frisson of good feeling you get when you pick up a physical, paper book, especially one with your name on it. But ...

Q: [examining book] It's beautiful.

CD: There is, you know, it's a genuinely nice artifact. But then number of books that I own that are nice artifacts as total of the number of books that I own, as a fraction of that, is very small. One percent of the books that I own are actual artifacts qua artifacts, where someone's given any thought to type design, or the cover looks nice. So on most of them – especially because most of what I read is science fiction, which is designed to be ephemeral, you know, I keep them around because they're the tools of my trade, I want to refer back to books like this, but they're all out of print, because the shelf life of a science fiction novel is about a year or two. But they're awful artifacts. You can literally do a better job at Kinko's of making a nice looking book than most publishers have in the last 50 years. They're mostly dreadful. And in fact, a significant fraction of the ones that are worth keeping as artifacts are worth keeping because they're so dreadful that they've crossed the line into pretty again. You know, these awful pulp covers, and the old Ace doubles or Laser paperbacks with these just grotesque, terrible covers of type design, they're riddled with typos. You know, Damon Knight, who was one of my teachers at the Clarion Workshop, who is really one of the fathers of our genre, he founded the Science Fiction Writers of America, wrote the canonical Twilight Zone episodes, just a fantastic writer, I brought a stack of his books for him to sign when I went to the workshop where he taught. And on like three of them, he crossed the terrible titles out and wrote in the title that he preferred. Because his editors had put these like awful, "The Horror from Beneath the Deeps that Wanted to Have Sex with Human Women," kind of titles and covers on the books. So, really, books are nice, but they're not as nice as we make out. And I think that ultimately the role of books in the world of electronic publishing, some time down the road, will be much like the role of live music in the world of recorded music publishing. I daresay that there is as much live music being performed today as there was in the heyday of vaudeville, but the pie has gotten so much bigger that the slice has gotten very small. There's so much more recorded music available, there's so much more recorded music to listen to than there is live performance, that even though there's still a healthy and thriving live performance it looks thin and sort of anachronistic as compared to this much bigger slice. And the same thing, of course, is happening to recorded music, through electronically distributed music. And I think we'll see the same thing with books. I think we'll still have plenty of paper books, but it will be dwarfed by the enormous size of the electronic book universe. There's just -- And it'll work in different contexts. Try writing an essay about a book that you can search, against a book that you can't, and you'll find that there's at least one context in which a paper book is all but useless. Right? Especially when you want to copy and paste quotes.

Q: One of the central ideas in your book is this concept of Whuffie. Why 'Whuffie'?

CD: Why the word or why the idea?

Q: Well, both.

CD: Well, the word, it's got an embarrasingly banal story to it. It's what we used in high school instead of 'brownie points.' We said 'Whuffie points.' And I didn't know where it came from, in fact, I assumed that it was as universal as brownie points, until a friend of mine pointed out that it almost certainly given the era that I went to high school in, came from the Arsenio Hall show, going "Woof woof woof." I had no idea when I wrote the book, and it was only a year after I finished the book that this occurred, that someone told me this. So, the people have said is it Whit Diffie? Is it a contraction of Whit Diffie's name, or something else? And no, it's just this embarrassing – But I think it's got a nice kind of goofy ring to it. It, you know, 'Whuffie,' it sounds kind of … it certainly sounds better than some of the alternate currencies that have been floated like 'Beenz.'

Q: Right. Or Flooz.

CD: It's a lot more interesting than that.

Q: Can you explain the concept?

CD: The concept is that – you know, currency is a way of keeping score today. Whuffie is how much esteem people hold you in. And currency is a really rough approximation of Whuffie, because ideally you'd want idiosyncratic currency. So in other words I want to know that when you buy something from me, or you and I exchange some service for goods, or favors, or what have you, that your currency trades highly in my personal market because the people that I have a lot of respect for respect you very highly. Or don't. And I express this in the book, I talk about the notion that a loathed dictator will never get a good night's sleep. Certainly you can see both Bush and Saddam spend their lives living in armored fortresses, whereas the poorest but most virtuous will always find someone to take them in and will be carried around on people's shoulders until someone assasinates them, as was the case with Gandhi. But, it's seen as actually the thing that we trade in. You can't really get a job without esteem. You generally can't get a mortgage with no esteem. So we have all these kind of coarse approximations of Whuffie. In the book I have this sort of magical macguffin technology which is something that can automatically find out how you feel about everything that you have an opinion on. And that you can moreover then, to the extent that some of those things are people, right? I've got an opinion about you – someone who has a high opinion about me can ask me without any kind of conscious intervention how I feel about you. If they've never met you, and I have, they can just sort of ask the network how is it that Cory feels about you? And that gives them some idea, a rough approximation of how much time of day they should give you. So you know today we have lots of mechanisms for this. You know, you give me a business card that says New York Times and I'll take you seriously, you give me a business card that says Crazy Joe's Discount House of News Reportage and I'll take you less seriously, and so on. This is more refined.

Q: It sounds – the concept almost makes me a little uncomfortable, because it's like walking around with your, the way it's described in the book, it's like walking around with your reputation on display for anyone to see. Like having your balance floating in a box above your head.

CD: Well, it's true. Except, you know, we already do this, in some way. As currency is a rough approximation of your Whuffie, the things that currency affords, like your style of dress, your haircut, all the semiotics of your presentation, are descended from Whuffie. You do – it's just that Whuffie's harder to spoof. You can put someone in a good set of clothes and give them a good haircut and send them walking down the street, and they will approximate what an upstanding citizen looks like, even if they're a scumbag child molester. With Whuffie, the scumbag child molesters, it's displayed as you say over your head all the time for all to see. Which means that if you confine yourself to people who think scumbag child molesters are the salt of the earth, you'll do fine, but when you venture out into the kind of greater society you'll get the disapprobation that you see. So in some ways you know—
Q: So it's relative.

CD: It's relative, absolutely. And the Internet has made us very socially deviant, in the sense that social norms are enforced by groups. So because we are all sort of salted together without any kind of uniformity – you've got a city, that is to a greater or lesser extent there are people of all stripes and creeds who live in it, and consequently if you have some incredibly strange idea of you know, wearing underwear on your head, generally speaking there is social disapprobation that keeps that factor in check. But on the Internet you can basically exist in the communication spheres of people who have the same value system as yours, no matter how weird it may be. And so, without making a judgement, the notion of social deviance, which is to say, of social behavior that differs from the norm, social deviance is much easier to live with on the internet, because you don't get that pressure to return to a norm. So, in some ways, Whuffie is a kind of a pressure to push back to that. It's a kind of way to make you more socially normative. It's not necessarily a good thing. Certainly, I embrace social deviance, at least in many of its aspects, but one of the consequences of thinking about this kind of idiosyncratic meritocracy is that you would get more social normative pressure.

Q: It seems like there are some analogies to Whuffie already, on the Internet. On Ebay, there are reputations, Google has PageRank –

CD: And there's karma on Slashdot, and so on. Well the thing about all of those is that they're beauty contests. They only tell you what people on average think. An idiosyncratic Google would be orders of magnitude more useful than Google. Something that told you not what page the average Internet linker thinks is relevant to some keyword, but what the average Internet linker who is somehow correlated with your own personal belief system, who has historically recommended things that you like, thinks is relevant to some keyword – way more relevant. You know, the thing about Google is that it's powerfully socially normative. It averages across everything. And that works really well as compared to the previous technology iteration, which was getting machines to understand documents, which is this kind of hubristic task that only someone with a grant could love. It doesn't work as well as an idiosyncratic system would. Unfortunately idiosyncratic systems are computationally a lot more consumptive. Technically they scale at order N squared. You square the complexity every time you add a new factor. Which means that it would make it really really hard to calculate an idiosyncratic Google. Because the new factors appear as frequently as new users join the Internet or new documents appear on the Internet, and that becomes really really really hard to manage. So it may be a ways off before we see it.

Q: Now you actually started a company that was aimed at doing this kind of thing, correct?

CD: Yeah, OpenCola. They're still going in Toronto. I left about a year ago to come work for EFF, I sort of felt like this was more important than entrepreneurship. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is doing some of the most important work that anyone's doing in technology today, and it's sort of the thing from which all other technology work will spring, because unless technologists are free to develop the kinds of general purpose tools that they've always developed, unless innovation is unfettered by people who have a stake in holding back innovation, then all technology is for naught. It doesn't matter if you can think up a great device and find venture capital for it if in bringing it to market you get sued into a black hole. So, I really feel like the work that EFF is doing is far more important than that sort of thing and when I got a job offer from EFF I jumped at it.

Q: What are you doing for EFF?

CD: I do basically outreach, so I do a lot of talking to press, I talk to companies and other kind of organizations that should be on board in our issues, I do a lot of the stuff that the lawyers used to do that wasn't being a lawyer – policy research, position papers, and all that. You know, basically, kind of being a big mouth on behalf of the organization and the causes.

Q: So you're writing, you've written several novels, …

CD: Yeah, I've written two novels, and I'm working on two more. And I've got a short story collection coming out.

Q: OK. And you work for the EFF, and you've got a popular blog which posts 10 or more posts a day – where do you find the time?

CD: Well, sleep is for the weak. I'll sleep when I'm dead. The thing about it is that… synergy. It's that the work that I do for EFF is … Well, let me start with BoingBoing. The stuff that I do for BoingBoing is basically research that I do in support of EFF, and the writing, and that's how I keep track of it. So this is, and, by doing it in public I get lots of suggestions of research avenues that haven't occurred to me, and I also get a lot of feedback, some of it quite blunt, about the things that I'm thinking about, which helps me refine my own understanding. So BoingBoing I think is a net time-saver. Sometimes people ask me how much time I spend "doing BoingBoing," and separating that out from the research that I do in support of my other work, you're left with the occasional time when you need to change the template, or fix a broken tag, and that amounts to an hour or two a month. It's not time-consuming in the sense that if I were editing a zine about pets, which has nothing to do with anything else I did, would be. It's a net time-saver because I get more research done with less effort, and I keep track of it better than I would if I were just doing it privately, keeping a notebook or a commonplace book or what have you. Electronic Frontier Foundation, well, the research that I do on EFF issues is feeding the fiction really really strongly. I published a story last August on Salon, called Ownzored, about digital rights management and trusted computing. That came straight out of a briefing I got here. Right, like, … The EFF is a [word unclear: font?] of my muse [views?]. Now I'm working on a book about singularity cults, and another book about wireless, I just published a short story about wireless stuff – all that stuff is coming straight out of EFF issues that I'm doing research on anyway. And you know, EFF to a limited extent, because I do so much travel for EFF, it gives me the opportunity to do things like go into bookstores and sign books. So you know, while there's no book tour budget for first-time novelists, there's certainly a DIY book tour that I can do off the travel that I'm doing for work otherwise.

Q: Cool, that's a lot of synchronicity. You sort of answered one of my questions, you did answer one of my questions, which is where you get your ideas.

CD: Well that's part of where I get [unclear]….

Q: Well, so, tell me about how you write.

CD: It's really quotidian. I write a page a day, basically. And occasionally I will go off on a writing retreat with friends or take a weekend off and really hammer out several thousand words a day. But like Ownzored, which is 23,000 words, I wrote in three and a half days. In Toronto last summer at a writing retreat with three or four other people where we were on this island in the Toronto harbor at an arts center, in these little monkish cells that we had for [??] it had been a public school. And the classrooms had been divided up into three bedrooms each, and I just sat there and pounded prose for like three days, day and night. It was great. But mostly I write a page a day. Once I get, with novels, once I get the first 20, 25 percent on paper and an outline done, I usually make that semi-public. So I have a list of about 200, 300 first readers, and it's just a private Yahoo Group. And I email them my page, every day, even before I spellcheck it, hot off the word processor. And they keep me really honest. When I miss a day, they email me, and nudge me. And … I've, I had a really successful experience doing that with my second book, Eastern Standard Tribe, where I wrote that between August 1 and December 12 of 2001, 60,000 words in like 5 months, and just nailed a whole, complete book, and actually managed to sell it within a week of my finishing it.

Q: Wow. When's that one coming out?

CD: That'll be next November. Tentatively scheduled. And next September is "A Place So Foreign and Eight More" from Four Walls Eight Windows, which is my short story collection. And I'll be doing an electronic release of the short story collection. I'm not sure if I'm going to do the novel, I haven't talked it over with my publisher yet, but given how well this is working out – you know, 47,289 downloads now – I expect that they will be amenable to it. So that worked out really well, and what happens, that process of writing just a little bit every day means a couple things. One is that you have a lot of time to think about where the story is going. When you do a couple thousand words at a stretch, it's easy to get lost, as compared to doing a page a day. You sit down, you write your page, and then you've got a whole day to think about what it is you're setting up in that page, what it is you should have set up in that page, what it is you should have and asked [[??]] and so on, and you get in the shower, and you think, the protagonist is being awfully passive at this point, and he really needs to take some positive action or it's going to get kind of dull and then you think about where that could go. And the other thing is that it lets you integrate little bits and pieces of cleverness and interestingness that you come across during the day. So someone says something fantastically witty or tells you a great joke or what have you, and you just slide it into the next day. Or those kind of mimetic details – the stuff that I work on generally has a lot of nerd culture, and so you see a really funny geek T-shirt, and the next day you can put a character wearing that T-shirt into the story. And it gives you a great verisimilitude that I don't think you'd have if you tried to sit down and imagine 60,000 words worth of interesting details.

Q: You know, the main character in Down and Out, Julius, is just really a classic, he's very, he's a hacker. He's a little bit socially maladjusted, he has a hard time holding back his opinions. He's really, very classic.

CD: Thank you.

Q: You seem really fascinated, almost obsessed, with Disney.

CD: [points to blueprint above his desk]

Q: Oh, is that Disneyworld?

CD: The Haunted Mansion.

Q: Oh, that's the Haunted Mansion. Wow.

CD: [pointing to objects in office] Those are all Disney employee uniforms pieces, and Davy Crockett pocket knife, Disney World Monopoly, Haunted Mansion Clue, Disneyworld Game of Life, Mickey Mouse Club vintage lunchbox, movie poster, trading cards – that's just the stuff that wouldn't fit in my house that I brought into the office.

Q: Wow. And you've been collecting these things for awhile.

CD: Yeah. [shows his watch]

Q: And a Mickey Mouse watch, of course.

CD: And right behind you, the Mickey belt buckle and picture disk LP for Walt Disney World. Yeah, I'm a little obsessed. Oh, and Disney Land Hotel matchbooks, a monorail poster, … there's gotta be more here somewhere.

Q: So this is not just a passing fancy.

CD: No. You know, I was raised by teachers and my folks, by schoolteachers, and my grandparents were snowbirds. So every winter they would fly south to Fort Lauderdale to a gate guarded seniors only community called Century Village that my dad likes to call Cemetery Village. So we take Christmas breaks in Lauderdale, and it was just about as dull as you can imagine for an eight or nine year old. So we would get in the big, gas-guzzling land yacht that my grandfather drove, and would drive to Orlando and we would go to Disney World for a couple of days. So, weekend Christmases every year, during my whole adolescence, were spent at Disney World, and I just became completely obsessed with it. It's very, you know, there's so much to love and so much to hate about Disney World and about the Disney Corporation that it's the perfect obsessive material for someone who wants to mine the cultural space. There's, you know, Walt had this dream for Disney World, it was originally not called Walt Disney World, it was just called Disney World. He had this dream that Roy hated, which was to build this domed city, called Epcot – the Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow – not Epcot Center as we know it today, in which the 20,000 some Disney employees which he envisioned having would live under contractual corporate law, in a kind of utopian vision that he had for himself. And it was like a direct descendant of all these entrepreneur utopian yahoos, like Henry Ford built these plantations, these rubber plantations in Brazil, called Fordlandia, and he among other things he banned the local hootch, the local sugar cane liquor, in favor of Tom Collins, which he thought was the ultimate civilized drink. So it was the only liquor allowed in Fordlandia. And Walt was every bit as weird as that. They actually demo'd Epcot at the 1964 World's Fair, at the General Electric pavilion that they built. They had this miniature domed city called Progress Land, with a voiceover narration that at one point, one of the narrators turns to the other and says, 'To our right is our most welcome neighbor, our GE nuclear power plant.' And Disney actually secured, when he got the land for the Florida park, secured a kind of temporary autonomous zone, a permanent autonomous zone, for Disney World, called the Reed Creek[?] Improvement District, that's extra-legal. It's outside the state lawmaking power. And consequently they can do things like build a nuclear reactor on the property without talking to anyone except for the federal level. There's no state approval, no state oversight. They are not held to state building codes and so on – they're completely autonomous to the state, so that they can do this. Now of course Walt died in 68 and the park opened in 71 and in the three intervening years Roy, who was first and foremost about maximizing ROI…

Q: This is Roy … ?

CD: It's his brother. Roy Disney. Roy and Walt, their dynamic was, Walt would say, I want to do this amazing incredible technological fanciful thing, that will cost us everything we have but will double our income, and Roy would say, Can we find some way of doing this without betting the farm? And Walt would say No, you're being an idiot. And Roy would say, You're being irresponsible. And once the company went public, once it became a publicly traded company, the balance of power shifted very much in Roy's favor. Walt was only able to build Disneyland with private money. He didn't build it with Disney money. He raised 17 million dollars by doing things like opening the vaults of the Disney studios to NBC, which had just spent a fortune upgrading its apparatus to color television at a time when there were no color sets in America. The FCC had forced them to do this. And the studios had a sort of organized boycott of television – they thought it would Napsterize the movie theaters. And so Walt broke the omerta and actually opened the vaults and for 7 million dollars exchanged the contents of the vaults plus a promise to make the Wonderful World of Color, which you have to realize was broadcast at a time when everything was in black and white. And the Wonderful World of Color was like a half hour commercial for Disneyland where he'd walk around the property and show you the steam shovels basically. And the other half hour would be things like the leaves changing in New England, where he would show you, there would be this sort of breathless voiceover narration, of someone describing how beautiful the colors were, to a nation of black and white set holders. And Walt made the color TV transition happen, and he did this for 7 million. He cashed in his life insurance, he raised all kinds of private capital, and basically sold it back to Disney when it became a success. So, that dynamic, when he died, really shifted in Roy's favor. And the park, that's basically why, five or six years after the park opened, Disney Corporation was raided and almost got broken up, because they had this notion that they would just sort of recycle the same old ideas and that made it really easy for their competition to sneak up on them and kick the hell out of them because they could do it cheaper. Walt's genius was that he would come up with incredibly novel, innovative things, that would only be imitatable after a couple of years and he would have this very healthy margin on these things that no one could imitate while his competition figured out what he was doing and started beating him at his own game and drove the price down to a competitive level. And he would do the next thing. And when Walt died they just stopped doing that. They just started doing the same thing. They just basically built a twin of Disneyland in Disneyworld, but bigger. They eventually, under the Eisner leadership – there's lots you can say about Eisner that isn't very flattering, but the one thing you can say is that under Eisner's leadership there has been a definite focus on innovation, at least in Florida. At Disneyland, unfortunately, they brought in these idiot McKinsey consultants who advised them to basically run it the way Roy would have run it, where they stopped spending any money on R&D, and they bought all these off-the-shelf rides – they bought all these midway rides, with ferris wheels, in the California Adventure, they built this incredibly dreary, boring, banal theme park that is like an extremely clean but less 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.

Q: What you're saying is interesting, because Julius, in your book, is fighting really hard against the forces of innovation at Disney World. He really wants to preserve, maybe not cast in stone, the Haunted Mansion, but he really wants to preserve the original flavor of the Haunted Mansion. And he's going against these people who have radical idea of flash-baking experiences into people's brains.

CD: Yeah. But not all innovation is created equal. So the innovation that they want to do is not true to the nature of the park, which is to say that it's something that could be accomplished just as easily in your living room as in a theme park. Some of the innovation that the Disney Parks did was around this idea of building these experimental mechanical systems for every ride, that you, they had this people mover system that was like a magnetic propulsion system. They had the omnipod, or whatever it was called, the thing that the Haunted Mansion cars are made out of, the Doom Buggies. And the old Journey Through Inner Space had the same vehicles. And they would always experiment with this stuff that was inherently location-based. That really was built around the idea of going somewhere and having a physical experience. And it wasn't until much later that they started doing things like building simulator rides, like Star Tours and Body [??] Wars. The problem with those is that you can have the same Star Tours experience in a shopping mall. In fact, you can go to most big shopping malls today and get in a simulator, and have that ride. Vegas, the Strip is lined with simulators. Every casino has a simulator ride. And you can stack them up like cordwood, and there isn't that kind of physicality to it. Although, you're right, Julius is essentially a reactionary in the story. But it's not necessarily true that the people he's fighting aren't also reactionaries. They're Whuffie pimps. They're trying to build their Whuffie on the back of sacrificing that very expensive, hard-to-maintain, one-off mentality.

Q: That's interesting. I wonder if, has there been any kind of general, I'm thinking, you know, research into space technology has created dividends in terms of the space program produced things that we now use in everyday life. What you're describing makes me wonder if Disney stuff, if there's a Disney dividend –

CD: Certainly monorails. Disney really pioneered the monorail. There had been monorails in operation before Disney, but Disney was the first one to do it like, as an [entrepreneurial?] affair. That wasn't inherently temporary, where they actually used a monorail as a system of mass transit for fourteen hours a day. And that certainly changed the design of monorails. And now we see them everywhere. The Scarborough Rapid Transit in Toronto is basically a descendant of Disney monorails. And certainly if you go to Atlanta and get on the little moving cars to take you from one place to another, that's based on Peoplemover technology. So there's been a lot of licensing out of some of the innovations that the engineering innovations that came out of this stuff.

Q: This is long after Disney was dead, but Disney does in fact now have a town that they own…

CD: Celebration. They don't really own it. What they did was they designed it, it's like a traditional Florida condo, almost a grift. They designed it with these developers and then they sold it to the condo association. So, they got, they pocketed a healthy profit. They put their name on it, but it's really primarily actually owned by the homeowners who bought into it through their condo association. And Celebration has not been the failure that it has been characterized as, but it's certainly not, it's neither the ambitious, utopian, goofy futuristic thing that Walt envisioned, nor is it the kind of new urbanist utopia that it was heralded as when it was first built. But as compared to other Florida gate-guarded communities, it's a utopia.

Q: I think I remember reading that there was somebody living in Celebration who had volunteered to be one of the first people to be microchipped, which I thought was ironic.

CD: In some ways they were victims of their own sort of forward lookingness, because they bought into all this snake oil, and did stuff like wired ISDN to all the homes.

Q: Woo hoo!

CD: And Wankel rotary engines for everyone! [laughs] A Delorean in every garage! So I think they've been somewhat victims of their own success – victims of their own futurism.

Q: Let's get back to your book. Was there something that you were trying to accomplish? What was your goal in writing the book?

CD: You know, it's the same goal that I think everyone who writes a novel has, which is to write and entertaining and thought-provoking story. I wanted to clarify my own thinking and pass along to other people about things like what a non-scarce economics looks like. Certainly, Keynes and Marx and the great economic thinkers that preceded them and postdated them are all concerned with the management of resources that the more valuable they are, the more scarce they become.

Q: Or vice versa.

CD: Yeah. With the idea that when you have some good, that it's valuable, that it needs to be managed because the supply of it will dwindle. And to sort of avert the tragedy of the commons, the prisoner's dilemma, and all of the other bits and pieces that we know about. Today we have, with things that can be represented digitally, the opposite. In the 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 shit grass. Where the more you graze, the more commons you get. So it's, that kind of, the preindustrial versus postindustrial economics are as different or should be as different as the industrial and postindustrial economics are, or information economics are. So I try to use the idea of nanotechnology being the means whereby any good can be reproduced infinitely, at zero marginal cost, as a kind of metaphor for the online world where we actually live in. And virtually that's the situation, where there is no tragedy of the commons anymore. And explore one of the ways that it could work.

Q: So this is a way of thinking about what's going on in the Internet.

CD: Mm hmm. [agrees]

Q: It certainly succeeded in making me think about things differently, it really crystallized that idea of what it would be like to live with no real barriers between me and my computer. It's very – it's intriguing to think about the kind of fluidity, of what might happen in that kind of context.

CD: And it's the same kind of challenge that writing a story about Superman has. You know, Superman, dramatic tension only arises when there's danger.

Q: And if nobody can die…

CD: Right, yeah. Where's the tension? So that was an interesting dramatic challenge for me – finding a way to tell a story that had dramatic tension even though there was no scarcity and there was no death and so on. That's why all the good Superman stories revolve around Lois Lane. Because the only thing that a baddie can do to Superman is off his girlfriend. Everything else, you know, bullets just spang off his chest, right? And so, one of the other things about it is, this notion that you never really run out of scarcity because there's always something, there's always your time, there's always your attention, there's always only so many people in a restaurant, only so many people can converse at once. Things to keep you amused or entertained, all of that stuff never ends up being non-scarce. In some ways, the more you have of it, the more scarce it becomes, because when you are beset on all sides by entertainment, figuring out which bits are worthwhile requires a level of attention that quickly burns all your idle cycles.

Q: It's sometimes easier to just sit down in front of the television and watch whatever comes on.

CD: When everyone watched Jackie Gleason on Thursdays at nine thirty, it was a lot easier, television watching required a lot less effort than whipping out your Tivo and figuring out which shows you want to pre-record and which keywords match programming descriptions that you're likely to be interested in.

Q: Who are your influences?

CD: There are lots of them. Clearly, I think anyone who reads this book and is familiar with the genre will see Heinlein's fingers running through it, and John Varley and Bruce Sterling and Neal Stephenson. And I try to make explicit nods to them. There's a bit in the book where there's a parade that goes past the Snow Crash extravaganza. Clearly this was influenced by all of those people. I'm trying to think of who else influenced me in this … you know, Shawn Fanning. And some of the people who wrote and spoke about peer-to-peer networking certainly influenced me in this. Google influenced me, and the white paper on PageRank. Pattie Maes and Upendra [Shardanand] from MIT Media Lab, who started Ringo and then Firefly. The anonymous coder who wrote the Amazon thing where people who bought this also bought that. All of those things influenced me. And Walt Disney.

Q: And Walt Disney, of course. Well, I guess one last question for the hometown crowd. You've lived in San Francisco for …

CD: A couple years.

Q: A couple years now?

CD: Two and a half.

Q: I guess you haven't updated your web site recently.

CD: Since September of 2000. Right at the height of the boom.

Q: So how's it been? Do you miss Toronto?

CD: I really miss Toronto. San Francisco's a really dysfunctional place. It has a lot of the downsides of living in a small town and a lot of the downsides of living in a big city and it misses a lot of the upsides of both of those places. For a place that's only seven miles square, it's actually really geographically dispersed. It's very hard to get from one place to another. The transit as compared to Boston, New York, or Toronto, or any of these northeastern cities, is so-so. Walking – miles and miles of freeway underpasses, blank building faces, sides of buildings that don't have any ground-level stores or commerce or anything interesting to see is really, it's painful when you're out of the downtown area or out of the Mission. Going from the Mission to downtown on foot feels about ten 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 forty degrees at night and you don't have insulation or central heating, damn, it's cold. [laughter] The thing about San Francisco that keeps me here is the people, the technology. This is ground zero for technologists. Howard Rheingold tells this story about deciding to write an article about some of the origins of GUI computing, and thinking, and seeing the Doug Engelbart demo video from 1968, where the first GUI appeard, the first – and realizing that he lived within ten miles of everyone who presented that demo. Or within an hour's drive. There is that. There is the fact that, despite the fact that I've got to ship my computer to Texas to get it fixed, the engineers who built my broken computer are working half an hour's drive south of me. There's a Fry's every 20 minutes or so. This is geek mecca, it's nirvana. But I heartily miss the Northeast. You can't get a decent slice of pizza west of the Mississippi for my money. And I'm not an outdoor sportsperson, I'm stress-feeding [?] chiphead, so…

Q: Not a big hiker.

CD: Yeah. I mean, I've been to Muir Woods a couple of times, and boy that's nice and peaceful, and profound and moving, and now I want a movie theater on every corner instead of the two that we have within half an hour of here. So, that's – I try not to get too down on San Francisco, I know a lot of people get really touchy about it, it's certainly a polarizing issue. You can see the bones of a great city in San Francisco, and there are pockets of it that are like nothing else on earth, but taken as a whole, it's really dysfunctional. Certainly the incredibly visible poverty and the Brazil-ification between the rich and the poor is really distressing for someone from a nice liberal social democracy. Where, at least when I was there – Toronto's gotten a lot harsher too, we've had a very bad swing to the right – but when I was living there, the only people who were on the streets for any length of time were hard-core rummies who didn't want to get off, because if you wanted to get off, there was emergency welfare, there were social workers, they were crawling the streets, they would get you indoors. And Toronto has much the same problem as San Francisco, in that other jurisdictions send their homeless people to Toronto, it's net importer of the homeless, and the mentally ill, and drug addicts and so on. But Toronto was willing to spend the money on the infrastructure in a way that there seems to not be that willingness here. I found out the other day that homeless agencies here are, at least some of them are giving out shopping carts and tents. Which to me is not a, that's not a plan for getting homeless people off the streets, that's disaster relief. That's the kind of thing that you do after the hurricane smashes your city flat. And the idea that we are in a state of permanent emergency in respect of the poor in this city is really, really disheartening. Also I can't get my head around the private medicine thing. This is, I think this explains a lot about the various geek cultures of the UK, Canada, and the US. So in the US, there's tons of venture capital, so everyone went out and started a company. In Canada, there's tons of socialized medicine, so everyone became a freelancer. You know, being a freelancer doesn't carry that same penalty. You know, if you're a freelancer, and you're in poor health, and you can't get insured, and you have a family for example, you are embarking on a kind of slow suicide. You will bankrupt yourself someday. George Alec Effinger, a very good science fiction writer who died last year, was chronically ill, and ended up $70,000 in the hole to the Sisters of Mercy Hospital in New Orleans, who, when he went bankrupt, sued for the rights to his characters. The whole of science fiction fandom and pro-dom, every fundraiser, every charitable event we had went to pay George's medical bills. There was the George Alec Effinger Medical Fund, because he owed so much money to them. And that was not the case in Toronto, or with Canadian writers generally. Basically, medical care is like air. And then in the UK, what they had were tons of arts grants, so all the geeks became net artists, and that's why there's all this kind of strange, situationist, British, net art that you don't get so much in Canada or the US. I really think that there are economic pressures that explain these sort of variances in geek culture. And boy, I never really thought much about socialized medicine until I got here, and the fact that it is so much less efficient to deal with a private medical system right now as compared to the socialized medicine system. I'm told that Canada spends less money per capita giving away health care than the US spends regulating it. So you're spending more money keeping the HMOs honest than it would cost you to give it away. That's a big difference between the American and the Canadian mindset. I think that there's an instinctive American revulsion of free riders. I think that there's a general willingness in the US to spend more than it would cost you to give free riders their fair share than to keep them from getting it. Better to, if it would cost you $100 a month to track down welfare cheats, and you're giving them $75 a month, I think most Americans would sign up, or at least a good fraction of them would sign up to spend that hundred bucks, and take a net hit of twenty five. And I think in Canada there's a general understanding that free riders are generally cheaper to leave in situ than to root out and most people aren't free riders. And the social consequences of that kind of harsh checking hits people who have a legitimate need for a service. So, I think that really does explain a lot about the different cultures of the two places.

Q: Do you back up every day?

CD: I do. [pats external hard drive]

Q: What is that?

CD: A sixty gig drive. And I have another one back in my apartment. I stagger them. If my apartment burns down, this is still here. Once a month I encrypt all my writing, all of my financials, and I used to do email, but it's way too big now, and I CP them, send them off to a server in Toronto that I have some space on, in case there's a quake. What else do I do? I back up my mail to my iPod, so my mail spool's all copied, so if it crashes, I've got my backup. And when I'm on the road, that's my backup, so I always back up at least that every day. So yeah, I'm pretty paranoid. Belt and suspenders.

Q: All right, thanks a lot.

CD: Thank you.

Q: How many downloads now?

CD: Um, 47,334. I hope to break 50,000 today.

Q: That's just moving right along.

CD: Hell, yeah!

[[end of tape]]

copyright (c) 2003 d. f. tweney / tweney media