Cory Doctorow (craphound.com) is a science fiction author, activist, journalist, and blogger—the co-editor of Boing Boing (boingboing.net) and the author of Tor Teen novels For The Win and the bestselling Little Brother. He is the former European director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and co-founded the UK Open Rights Group. Born in Toronto, Canada, he now lives in London.
This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the hosts discuss various geeky topics.
What do you think of Disney acquiring Lucasfilm?
I’m kind of bummed about it. It just seems to me that we’ve entered this winner-take-all world where things that are a little bit successful become very successful, and then become mega-successes, and then merge with all the other mega-successes. I don’t know. It feels like the finance industry or something to me, and it seems like it’s somehow intimately related to it—this seems like a finance-driven decision rather than an artistic-driven decision or a creative decision.
One of the things that freaks me out is that any publicly-traded corporation that acquires an asset for $4 billion is going to be as risk-averse as possible about that asset. Not to say that Lucas was a real risk-taker, but I think that Disney has always been at its best when it took risks, and that one of the downsides to the increasingly high stakes associated with each individual project—you know, the businesses may have always been high-stakes businesses, but now every project is a high-stakes project—is that they’re super risk-averse.
They always end up acting like dicks. That seems like a universal outcome of having billions of dollars at stake, is that anytime anyone suggests doing anything that might have a bad outcome, your risk-management people and your lawyers come along and say, “No, you’re absolutely obliged to act like a total asshole to these people, just in case it turns out that they might cost you money down the road, because there’s so much at stake here.” It just feels like something that is just going to be about making sequels to sequels to sequels to adaptations to sequels, as opposed to inventing new cool stuff.
So now one company—Disney—owns Star Wars, Pixar, and Marvel, in addition to all the Disney characters—basically the collective happy childhood memories of several generations.
Yeah, I’m less worried about that. I’m actually totally non-precious about that. I mean, your memories are your memories, and I’m totally unsympathetic to people who say that having seen the crappy prequels to Star Wars reduced their enjoyment of the first three. To me, the thing that actually reduced my enjoyment of Star Wars and the two sequels was just watching them as an adult instead of a kid, and I realized a lot of the things that I thought of as really interesting and great were either clichés, or that they had a superficial appeal but the more you thought about them the dumber they got.
I’m more bothered about the fact that if you look at Disney’s pattern of acquisitions, they’re acting like Procter & Gamble, they’re acting like a packaged goods company. In fact, less innovative than a packaged goods company. Basically their whole business plan is about amassing huge amounts of capital, putting it into brands—that is to say, things that have already-understood audiences and understood profiles—and then doing as little as possible to upset the apple cart. In fact, I think they’re more likely to try to keep all of those things intact and to not ever upset or worry the people who grew up on them, because basically their whole approach is to maximize the amount of revenue they can get from you by continuing to spin out infinite variations on the theme of whatever it was you liked last time.
It seems like going back to Down And Out in the Magic Kingdom, you’ve had sort of a love/hate relationship with Disney. Is any of that love still there?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I always say with Disney that I love the sin and I hate the sinner. They produce some amazing media that I really love, as you might have gathered if you’ve read the two novels and the novella I wrote that are really about Disney parks—Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Makers, and “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow.” The thing that they do that I love is their dark rides. I actually think immersive automated environments are an art form. I don’t think many people take them very seriously, and I think Disney at its best has taken them more seriously then anyone in the history of the world, and that when they are taking it seriously they do an incredible job with it. I just think that the rest of their media is a lot less interesting. I continue to be totally blown away by their immersive environments—both the rides and the parks that the rides are in—but I also continue to be absolutely distressed by their legislative agenda and by other elements of their corporate culture.
You recently participated in the Humble eBook Bundle. You want to tell us about that?
Sure. It comes out of something called the Humble Indie Bundle, which was for videogames. When they started in 2010, there was a group of independent videogame developers who thought, if we get some of our friends together and we put together a bundle of about six videogames without any DRM, and we say to people, “You come and you name your own price, and you can also use a slider to designate some or all of the money that you give to charity,” and then we’ll add some game-like mechanics to the way that the pricing model works. For example, we’ll have a leaderboard of the top spenders. We’ll show you how people are spending by operating system. We’ll break that down in real-time, so you can really see, for example, how Team Mac is performing against Team Linux, and maybe feel some team fellowship there and bid up your team, which I think worked pretty well.
And we’ll also reserve some of the videogames for people who give more than the average, which of course will continually drive the average up. And the first one of those, in 2010, did $1.25 million in the first week—they were two-week-long promotions—and closed a little over a $1.5 million. By the time they hit Humble Indie Bundle 6 in 2012—the most recent one—they did $4.5 million in the first week and closed at nearly $5 million. And that’s pretty amazing. I mean, that’s just unheard of for games that fundamentally . . . you know, a decade ago we’d have called them shareware games. And to pull in 5 million bucks for half a dozen shareware games in a couple of weeks? Unheard of and just amazing. And they trade on a bunch of things. One is the bundle’s reputation for excellence. Part of it is the charitable dimension—people do like raising money for charity. And some of it is this game-like mechanic for pricing.
So they came to me because one of their nominated charities was one that I had been very closely associated with and that I used to, in fact, work for, a group called the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is a civil rights group. They’re kind of like the ACLU of the internet. And EFF had been the beneficiary of a lot of donations from Humble Bundle, so much so that one of EFF’s employees actually left to go work for Humble, and he happened to be one of my former students, Richard Esguerra. He went to Humble, and they started talking about ebooks and he got in touch with me and said, “Would you be interested in helping us do an ebook one?” And I said, “Of course.”
So I volunteered for them, and I put them together with a bunch of authors and agents, and we filled out a really amazing bundle. And actually, one of the things that I find sad but hopeful is that some of the best works that we had chosen for the bundle and that authors and agents had agreed to, the publishers vetoed. Because of all the big six publishers, only Tor would allow us to put their books in the bundle. Everyone else said without DRM they couldn’t let us do it. And that meant that we had authors who were multiple New York Times #1 Best Sellers whose books we couldn’t use even though they wanted them in there.
I’ve since heard from some of those writers that they’ve gone back to their publishers and said, “No more book contracts with you until you let me get a piece of the millions of dollars that are sitting out there waiting for me if only I’m willing to sell my books in the way that my audience wants to read them, without DRM.” And since DRM doesn’t stop piracy—because all DRM is easily broken—it doesn’t make any sense to me. It seems like this is a purely ideological decision, and yet this ideology is anything but harmless. It’s costing authors potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars. And so I think that the subsequent bundles are going to be even better. We ended up raising just about $1.25 million, which is a little less but not bad relative to the first of the Humble Indie Bundles. And I really hope that we’ll follow in their trajectory, and that we’ll head up towards those same dizzying $5 million heights within a couple of years. And certainly I’d be happy to continue to curate these bundles for the gang. I had a great time doing it.
Do you see that model as the future of content distribution?
There’s an aspect of the Indie Bundle that’s part of the de facto reality of all digital content distribution today, which is that everybody is already naming their own price for digital media, in that it takes the same number of clicks to pirate media as it does to buy it. It’s a recurring motif among people who want to buy things that the buying process is very cumbersome. For example, for audiobooks you either have to have an account with Audible or you need to download OverDrive. No one will just shut up and take your money. Like, “Give me your credit card number, I’ll give you an MP3.”
So everybody is already naming their price, except the only two prices they are now allowed to name are “full retail” and “zero.” Nobody’s allowed to name a price in between. And so I think one of the insights of the Humble Bundle is that there actually is a pool of people who would like to name a price somewhere in between. I also think that, in a world where all payments are in some sense voluntary—in the sense that people could get it without paying for it, and the likelihood of them being caught is so small as to be indistinguishable from zero—that the strategy that we use to get money from audiences has to revolve around convincing people instead of coercing them, because we can’t coerce them. They can always choose to just opt out of the system.
All the strategies we use for convincing are pretty much the opposite of the strategies we use for coercing. Coercing only works—you only get efficiency—if you coerce people in bulk by making examples of a few transgressors. In other words, you coerce people by putting a couple of offenders’ heads on pikes and convincing people that you’re such a big, bad troll that unless they opt into the system that their heads will be up on pikes too. So that’s the opposite way that you convince them that you’re the kind of person who they should voluntarily give money to. You convince them that if they don’t give you money that you’re going to come after them tooth and nail, and that’s not acting like the kind of person that other people want to voluntarily pay.
And so whatever it is that people do in the future, it won’t necessarily be Humble Bundle or even recognizable as Humble Bundle, but some of the principles that inform the design of Humble Bundle will carry over, and those principles will include performing generosity and performing trust in a way that creates reciprocal arrangements with audiences, that creates a kind of reciprocating social contract with audiences that causes them to treat you in the way that you’ve shown them you’d like to be treated and that you’re prepared to treat them.
Speaking of going after people tooth and nail, that brings us to your new novel, Pirate Cinema. What’s that about?
Pirate Cinema was inspired by a legislative event in the United Kingdom, where I live. In 2009, they introduced legislation called the Digital Economy Act, which includes something called “three strikes,” which says that if you’re accused—without proof—of three acts of copyright infringement, you and your family get disconnected from the internet.
This legislation was introduced right around the same time we had a report from our champion for digital inclusion, a woman named Martha Lane Fox, whose government posting is to make sure that everybody in the country has access to the internet. She commissioned a Price Waterhouse Cooper study into a follow-up of a trial program where people who lived in government housing—in very vulnerable populations in the north, where the local economy and industry have collapsed—they followed it up to see what happened when those people were given internet access and compared them to their neighbors who hadn’t been given internet access, so they had a naturally occurring control population experiment that they could use to analyze the impact of internet access.
They found that for these people who had been given internet access, everything we use to measure the quality of life went up for them. Their kids not only got better grades, but they were more likely to go on to post-secondary education and to be socially mobile. The parents got better jobs and had more disposable income, and so there was better nutrition, and their health outcomes were better. They were less socially isolated, they were more civically engaged, and more politically engaged. Really the whole raft of human experience improves when you give people internet access, so it follows that when you take away people’s internet access, you confiscate those benefits too.
It’s bad enough to say, “If you watch TV the wrong way we’re going to take away your access to civic engagement, education, employment, and health.” But it’s even worse to say, “If you live in the same house as someone who is the named subscriber for a DSL modem that has been accused—without proof—of being involved in someone—possibly not even someone who lives in your house—watching TV the wrong way, we’re going to take away all these benefits.” This was just wildly disproportionate and really just evil.
It passed without debate because they snuck it into the final session of Parliament, just before they dissolved the Parliament for the election. And it had passed in other countries in the same way. In New Zealand, the way that they passed it was as a rider to the Christchurch earthquake bailout, the bill that was passed to free up resources to help save the people dying in the rubble of Christchurch. They snuck it in there.
This made me so furious that I decided I would write a book about it. So I wrote this novel called Pirate Cinema, and it’s about a kid who lives in one of these northern towns, these rust belt towns, a town called Bradford that was once the center of the textiles industry. His name is Trent, but he calls himself “Cecil B. DeVil” after Cecil B. DeMille, the movie producer, because he makes movies. But he doesn’t make movies the way they did in Spielberg’s era, where they had Super 8 cameras, like that Spielberg movie. He doesn’t make them the way they did in my boyhood, with VHS cameras. He makes them the way that you can if you’re a kid in the 21st century, namely by downloading other people’s movies and recutting them, and making new movies out of them.
And he’s very good at it, and it totally consumes him, and people love what he does and it’s very popular, and like many consumed, passionate adolescents, he gets careless, and he forgets to use the proxy that hides his internet identity from the snoopers that are used to catch pirates and disconnect them. And so his family gets disconnected, and his dad loses his job, and his mom loses her disability benefits, and his sister can no longer get the grades that she was getting and probably won’t make it into university, and so he’s really effectively destroyed his family.
And he runs away to London, the way the hero of so many British novels do, and he joins a gang—a kind of “ha ha only serious” youth gang of anarchist freegan squatters—who make their own movies and show them in underground movie theaters, not just “underground” in the sense that they are all on the down low, and you have to know who to ask, and it’s all with a wink and a nudge, but “underground” in the sense that they break into beautiful vaulted brick Victorian sewers and turn them into cinemas—pirate cinemas—and these screenings become a citywide and then a nationwide phenomenon—everyone’s doing them, everyone’s making their own movies.
But even though they think that they can no longer engage with the law, that they can just ignore the law, what they discover is that just because they’re not interested in the law doesn’t mean that the law won’t take an interest in them, and very soon the law’s gotten much worse, to the point where people are going to jail just for downloading. When I wrote that, that was science fiction, but two or three weeks ago, Japan passed legislation which says that if you download copyright-infringing material, you can go to jail for two years. Which effectively means that if you click the wrong link on Youtube, you go to prison. Japan also provides for ten years in prison if you upload copyright-infringing material.
And so as these laws get worse, Trent and his friends decide that what they’re going to do is actually prevent new laws from being passed, and that the way that they’re going to do that is by bankrupting the entertainment industry with systematic piracy. So rather than just pirating things in a slapdash way, they’re going to pirate the things that cost the movie industry as much money as possible. So when new movies open, they’re walking up and down the ticket line in Leicester Square—which is kind of our answer to Times Square—and walking up to people in line to buy the ticket to the premiere screening, and they are handing them SD cards with copies of the movie on it, and a note that says, “If you buy a ticket, they’re just going to use the money to screw up our country. Here’s a copy of the movie, go watch it at home, make your own mixes, and come show them at one of our showings.” And, you know, jailarity ensues, because clearly the entertainment industry isn’t going to take that lying down, and that’s when the novel really starts to kick off.
And I understand that these underground showings are an actual phenomenon, and you attended some of them?
Yeah, there are underground showings, the pirate cinema movement is real, and I was in a pirate cinema in a squatted pub in East London, much like Zeroday, the pub that Trent and his friends live in. One of the people who lived there, Jamie King—who founded a novel distribution company called Vodo that distributes science fiction movies online—he actually was a great source for information on the ins and outs of squatting in London, and some of the stories of what happens to these squatters were taken right from his life story.
So this is a book that could be seen as glorifying teenage runaways, premarital sex, trespassing, recreational drug use, and computer crimes. Did you get any pushback on that, or have any misgivings about including any of that?
I certainly haven’t had any pushback. This is a book about a kid who lives in an unjust society and who tries a variety of strategies to deal with it—some of them smart, some of them not smart—and in some cases doing the not-smart thing ends up getting him into a lot of trouble, which I think is true to life, and in the spirit of a lot of good Young Adult literature. So I’m not at all bothered about it. Some of it is presented as romantic, but none of the stuff that I think of as a bad idea is presented as a good idea. It’s just presented as the kind of thing that a 17-year-old who is really upset might do.
Do you ever get letters from kids who have been inspired by your books to become hacker anarchists?
Yeah, all the time—at least to become hackers, and political activists. My first Young Adult novel Little Brother had an afterword with a bibliography for kids who want to get involved in learning how security works, learning how computers work, learning how to program them, learning how to take them apart, learning how to solve their problems with technology as well as with politics. And the number of kids who have written to me and said that they became programmers after reading that, I couldn’t even count them. I’ve had similar responses to my second Young Adult novel, For the Win, and I’ve also heard from kids who’ve read Pirate Cinema. In fact, we published an editorial by one of them on Boing Boing—an anonymous reader who makes her own movies out of Japanese anime, and who talked about what drives her and how the book resonated with her.
Do any of those fans have websites?
For Little Brother, if you go to craphound.com/littlebrother and just click on the remixes tab, there’s a whole ton of these that I’ve collected over the years.
So in Pirate Cinema, the protagonist Trent writes, “I realized that the press always asks the same questions, so I’d just plop down on the sofa with my laptop and my headset and take the call while Jem fed me so much jet fuel it was a race to see whether I could finish the interview before I attained lift off and sailed into gabbling, babbling coffee orbit.” Is that how you actually do interviews?
[laughs] A little bit. I mean, my friend Steve Gould, who wrote the novel Jumper, which became the not-very-good movie Jumper, went on a press tour when the movie came out, and he’s said the reason it’s called a “press” tour is because it’s like being pressed between two boards. And it is true that most of the questions are the same, but I don’t mind answering them because I find that talking about the stuff helps me think it through. It’s a productive task for me.
I do actually really dislike writing out the same answers over and over again. For some reason, typing the same block of text twice feels remarkably wasteful in a way that saying the same thing twice doesn’t. Maybe because if you say it a lot it gets better, because you can inflect it better, and you can practice it. Whereas if you type the same thing over and over again, I don’t think you get better at it. I mean, maybe you get better at typing, but you don’t get better at expressing the underlying ideas.
So I’ve often thought that what I might do for the so-called email interviews—which I just hate, I hate the kind of “Well, I’ve just got a few quick questions for you,” and the quick questions are questions that are quick to type but not quick to respond to, like “What is art?” or “What is virtue?” or “How should the world be governed?” I mean, that is a very quick question, but not necessarily a quick question to answer—I’ve often thought that what I might do is take all the questions I’ve been asked before in writing and just post them on a public page, and whenever anyone asks to email interview me, say, “You may ask me two questions that aren’t in this list. You can use this list as much as you like, and you can ask me two more, but with the understanding that as soon as I answer them for you, I’m going to add them to that page.” Because it just seems to me that a lot of email interviews, the real underlying pitch is, “Will you write me five short essays that I can publish under my byline?”
Well, and what you just described is what Trent does in the novel.
Yeah, well, if it’s a good idea in real life, it’s a good idea to beta test in fiction.
So you just wrapped up your book tour. Do you have any funny stories from the tour that you want to share?
I’m trying to think of any particularly funny stories. I mean, I’ve had funny road stories before. I got interviewed once when I was on tour with For the Win. I was in San Francisco, and I had an interview scheduled at 5 a.m. with a British newspaper. My friend Aleks Krotoski was writing for the Independent in London—and obviously 5 a.m. on the West Coast is a reasonable hour in London. I’d had room service bring up breakfast, and I had to get dressed while I was talking to her, because I had to get out of the hotel right after we were done and go to the airport, and so I answered her Skype call sitting down at my desk—still not dressed—and she said, “You’re naked.” And I went, “Shit! The camera is on.”
I was at the desk, so you just saw sort of halfway up my chest and up. It wasn’t anything that you wouldn’t see on a beach, certainly, and it wasn’t anything particularly embarrassing, except that I’d answered the video phone naked, essentially. And so I went and turned the camera off. And I kept walking around the room, and getting dressed, and eating my breakfast, and answering her questions, and carrying the laptop around as I did.
And then I was finally dressed, and I’d eaten my breakfast and was finishing up the interview, and I sat down again and put the laptop down again and looked, and the camera light was still on. And I said, “Aleks, has the camera been on the whole time?” And she said, “Yeah, I didn’t want to embarrass you.” And I’m like, “You could have just told me.” [laughs] And again, she’s a very good friend. She’s a good friend of my wife’s. She stayed over at our place. She’s seen me get out of the bathroom with a towel around my waist, and I’m sure she didn’t see anything much ruder than that. But it was a bit embarrassing.
And then the other one was, I did a signing in Austin. And I think it was also on a For the Win tour. And a guy came up, and I said, “So what can I write in your book?” And he said, “Drama hobbit.” And I said, “Drama hobbit?” And he said, “Yeah, drama hobbit.” And I was like, “Really?” And he was like, “Drama hobbit.” And so I drew this “drama hobbit,” a hobbit that was very dramatic—a little guy with a pointy hat and pointy ears and furry feet and a kind of knife, and he had drama lines coming out of him, which in hindsight probably looked a bit like stink lines.
And I handed the book to him and he said, “What’s that?” and I said, “It’s a drama hobbit.” And he said, “No, no, no. Draw Mohammed.” It was “Draw Mohammed Week,” and it was during the Danish cartoon thing. But so I’ve always wanted to do a “Drama Hobbit Week” where everybody draws the most dramatic hobbits they can, but I’ve yet to convince anyone else that it would be a good idea.
You have a new nonfiction book coming out called Information Doesn’t Want to be Free. You want to tell us about that?
Sure. I mean, my agent has just started to get offers on it—because he just started shopping it—and I haven’t heard much from him because he lives in New Jersey and has no power or water or heat, and has been talking about barbequing his cats, but as far as I know the sales process is in the offing and the book will be out at some point. It’s a short business book about copyright, and it’s meant to be three sensible things that you can take into your understanding of copyright as you structure your business around the digital age.
The first thing is that if you let someone else put a lock on your file, and if that person doesn’t give you the key, that lock can’t be there for your benefit. That lock will eventually be used against you. And so, for example, Apple and Audible won’t allow you to sell audiobooks without their DRM on it—without their digital lock on it. And because it’s illegal to remove a digital lock, what that’s really doing is tying all of your customers, as someone who makes audiobooks, to their platform.
And so if later on someone has a better platform, what you are doing is guessing or hoping or betting that all the people who have ever bought your audiobooks in the old platform follow you to the new one, even though it means maintaining two separate library management tools, or else throwing away all their old audiobooks, including the ones you sold them. So as someone who invests in making this media, if you’re a publisher or studio or a newspaper or a record label, you really need to focus on making sure that you’re not handing control over your business to a company who doesn’t really contribute to the business, they just put locks on it.
The next piece of advice is that although fame won’t make you rich, you can’t get rich in the arts without fame. On the one hand there are lots of people whose works have been widely downloaded and who didn’t make any money from it, but all the people who made money in the arts made money by being widely known to their audiences. And the internet allows us to have all kinds of paths to have our work discovered and shared among audiences, and promoted within those audiences. It’s still up to us to figure out how to turn that into money, but without the fame you don’t even have the opportunity to do that.
And the copyright laws that the entertainment industry has been agitating for—particularly the ones that make it more expensive to operate any of these services like Blogger or Google or Facebook or Youtube, because they require that you pay unimaginable armies of lawyers to make sure that nothing uploaded infringes on copyright—that what those end up doing is putting independent distribution and independent audience discovery outside of the reach of individual artists, such that you always have to sign up with a label or a studio or a publisher to get a decent deal, or to reach an audience at all, and that when they control all of the distribution channels and all the audience discovery and audience interaction channels, that they can basically command incredibly abusive terms from the artists that they deal with. And so it’s really in artists’ interests that the intermediaries—the people who sit between us and our audiences—have low barriers to entry, so that they’re continuously being disrupted and there are lots of new businesses entering all the time and vying for our business.
And then the third one is that information doesn’t want to be free but people do, and that when we focus on the question of “information” when we make internet policy, instead of recognizing—as you see in Pirate Cinema—that the internet is really fundamentally about everything that we do in the 21st century—not just how we entertain ourselves—that we end up putting everyone at risk. That designing devices, for example, to prevent copying involves designing devices that hide things from their users. You can’t design a device that when you say, “Copy the file please, HAL,” it says, “I can’t let you do that, Dave,”—you can’t design that device in a way that’s effective if there’s a program called “HAL 9000” on the desktop that you can just drag into the trash. So it has to be able to hide programs and processes from users.
And once you start doing that, once you start designing devices so that they hide things from their owners, you get into really serious trouble, because the devices that we use, we use them for everything. They’re not just our entertainment tools, they’re how we live our whole lives, and they know lots of things about us. They know where we are, and who we talk to, and where we’ve been. They know all the secrets of our lives, and so we really want to be sure that they’re honest servants and that they’re not hiding things from us and that they’re not disobeying us when we tell them to do things.
I saw that Amanda Palmer wrote an introduction to the book.
Yeah, and so did Neil Gaiman.
And recently there was this big brouhaha online about the way that Amanda handled her Kickstarter campaign. What was your take on that?
Yeah, I was on tour when that happened. I have to say that I didn’t really understand the brouhaha, particularly. It seems to me that what she wanted was to allow people in different cities who had bands and who loved her music to come and perform with her, in the same way that sometimes authors who are coming to town will say to their publicist, “You know, there’s this other author who’s not as well known as me but whose work I really admire. Maybe that author would like to interview me on stage?” I’ve done a ton of those gigs, and I’ve done them in the other direction too. And it’s often the case that when an author is brought to town they’re paid for it—or at the very least they’re selling a book—and the author who’s the kind of junior partner in that, they do it not for money, they do it because for them it’s an opportunity to I guess ride on the other author’s coattails a bit, and also it’s a mutual aid situation—“I’ll help you a little and you help me a little.”
I don’t doubt that Amanda could have paid for musicians to go around with her, or could have arranged things so that she didn’t need as many musicians, but I think that what she did, she did from a fairly generous impulse. The people who complained about how she was organizing that part of her business weren’t the people who she was nominally exploiting. It wasn’t like there were people who showed up to perform with Amanda Palmer, went backstage afterwards, saw her lying in a bathtub full of hundred-dollar bills, and went, “Oh my god, I’ve been robbed.” They were instead people who, when Amanda announced, “I would like to get some local performers to come up on stage with me so I can promote these people to the audiences that come out to my gigs and so that we can all perform together, we can play together,” those people jumped at the opportunity. They even queued up to audition for that opportunity, competed for the chance to be on stage at an Amanda Palmer gig and to be within the penumbra of her performance.
The thing that’s confusing about the arts is that it’s both a business and a cultural activity, and there are lots of things that we do in the arts that are not economically rational. I have neglected my own work—rather a lot, in fact—to do things like read young writers’ books so that I could write reviews and blurbs for them, sometimes dropping everything to get a blurb in on time for an author that I really believed in. I didn’t have any rational expectation of making money from that, and the author who asked me was going to make money directly as a result—or at least believed that they would make money directly as a result—of my writing the blurb.
The reason I did that was not a commercial reason. The reason I did it was a cultural reason. It’s because the arts consist of a cultural conversation as well as a series of economic transactions, and those can’t be interrogated according to the same criteria. That’s not to say that you can’t do the wrong thing in a cultural context, but something that might seem wrong or exploitative in an economic context in many cases I think looks great and right in a cultural context.
Another new book you have that came out recently is Rapture of the Nerds, which is an adult SF novel you wrote with Charles Stross.
Yeah, Charlie and I took about seven years writing that one. It started as a pair of novellas, the first one published in SCI FICTION and the second one published in Infinite Matrix, and also in Lou Anders’ short-lived novella zine Argosy. The first one was called “Jury Service” and the second “Appeals Court,” and they’re books about the Singularity, but they’re books about what happens to the people left behind after the Singularity.
They’re kind of the inverse of the Left Behind novels about the Rapture—there are these fundamentalist Christian religious adventure novels called the Left Behind series that are tremendous bestsellers, and they’re about the lives of the sinners who are left behind on earth after the final trumpet blows and all the godly people are sucked up to heaven, leaving nothing behind but the godless. Except in our story, all of the people who are rational and godless and secular and technophilic get sucked up into “the Cloud.” Their brains get uploaded to a giant computer literally in the sky—the bones of the solar system have been taken apart and reassembled into a huge Dyson sphere around the sun, with only one hole in it that tracks the earth like a lighthouse beam.
And the people who are left behind are people who, because of religious conviction or because of suspicion of technology, refuse to send their brains up to the Cloud. It’s a kind of comic adventure about one of those people, a guy named Huw, who’s a Welsh potter and technology hater, who is delighted to find himself chosen for jury service to evaluate a new technology that’s been sent down from the Cloud—from the posthuman intelligence, the Cloud—to earth, and that some people have actually assembled, and he gets to help choose whether or not that technology will be allowed.
And from there things get very funny and very weird and very madcap. He’s a kind of Rincewind figure who runs all around the world and gets entangled in all these conspiracies. So the first two novellas were really well received, and Tor asked us if we would be interested in adapting them to a novel. So we wrote a third novella that’s longer than the first two put together, and then did a complete rewrite of all of them to make them fit into one book. And that’s Rapture of the Nerds. It came out in September, and did very well, I think.
I’ve heard you say that this book kind of charts your change in perspective from being very optimistic about the Singularity to being more skeptical. What’s happened that’s made you change your mind about that?
I guess it has to do with my feelings about where my identity is—who I am and whether or not I would still be me if I were inside a computer. Those feelings have changed over time as, for example, I’ve grown older and had to ask questions like, “Am I still me now? Am I still the me that I was ten years ago?”, and also as I’ve watched my daughter grow up. All of those experiences have changed my sense of the extent to which the lived experience of a conscious human being can be successfully simulated in silicon, and whether or not, having been transitioned to silicon, you would still be recognizable as you, or whether something important will have been lost—not a soul, but rather some element that informs your cognition or your sense of self that is in some way inherently embodied.
You also have a story that you’re doing for Neal Stephenson’s Hieroglyph project.
Yeah, I really need to get working on that one. I’m working on a story about “burners”—people who go to Burning Man—who experiment with a 3D printer that they can leave on the playa—on the gypsum desert—that harvests gypsum dust and turns it into a yurt over the couple of months that it takes for Burning Man to start, using solar energy. And so this autonomous, habitat-building, 3D printer robot gives them the idea of building one that can print out using lunar regolith—moon dust. And they land a lunar printer on the moon using private space exploration vehicles, and they direct its operations from a ground-based wiki that can bounce new messages to it—new firmware to it or new instructions to it—using ham radios that bounce signals off the moon. And over the course of a generation they direct its operations to build a lunar habitat that their grandchildren can move into.
Are there any other new or upcoming projects you’d like to mention?
Well, Homeland is the sequel to Little Brother, and that’ll be out in February. I’ll be on tour with that as well, for three to four weeks, I think, and mostly on the West Coast, in the Southwest, and the South. Those who have followed my tour this time around will know that I’ve stuck to the Northeast a lot. I actually got the last plane out of Boston before the hurricane hit, and my publicist and publisher have said, “We’re going to try to keep you in warm places that are unlikely to have extreme weather events during the next tour.” Because the last thing you want to do when you’re on these tightly scheduled tours is get snowed in. So if you live in the South, or the Southwest, or the West Coast, keep watching this space.
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