Cory Doctorow Comes to Town

by Alphaville Herald on 01/07/05 at 2:08 pm

“The things that really fascinate me revolve around issues of interest to nerds.”

Cory Doctorow is a busy guy. Between co-editing the popular Weblog Boing Boing and working as the European Affairs Coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, he writes tech-savvy novels that capture the essence of what lies ahead for the wired population. His latest novel, Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (downloadable for free at Cory’s Craphound site), is a fantasy story whose protagonist, Alan, is the son of a mountain and a washing machine. Alan deals with his unique family dynamic while he works on a project to blanket Toronto in free Wi-Fi. Cory graciously agreed to talk to the Herald via phone from his home in London, so we sent reporter Seldon Metropolitan to quiz him on the sexual lives of geographic features and household appliances.

SM: You’re coming to Second Life to talk about your new book. Both of your first two novels seemed to deal with more high-concept futuristic science fiction, and Someone Comes to Town seems more practical, at least from the tech perspective. Was there any particular reason for this?

CD: I don’t think either of them were particularly about the future. I think that they were speculative. I think that the objective of science fiction isn’t really to write about the future, at least not the way I write it. It’s to write about the present, by holding up a kind of a distorted mirror to it. I still think I’m writing about the present in Someone Comes to Town. The things that really fascinate me revolve around issues of interest to nerds, I think. One of the issues of interest to nerds that I talk about a lot in Someone Comes to Town, is what it means to be an outsider, what it means to not have that intuitive grasp that everyone else has of how you should behave if you want to be normal.

SM: You did a book club meeting in Second Life before, for Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Do you notice any major difference between the crowds at, say one of your normal book signings, and the crowd at a more specialized event like this?

CD: Well, a lot of the book talks I give are to specialized communities; I’ve talked at the Bay Area Computer Human Interface SIG and that sort of thing. I already speak to pretty geeky audiences. I don’t think that’s the major difference. The real difference is obviously the communications medium. Most of the signings and things I do tend to start with a reading. It’s not really practical to do a reading in game space.

SM: One topic I’d like to hear your thoughts on is the degree to which sexual expression fuels emerging technology. There seems to be this tendency to discount the people who use virtual worlds like Second Life to express themselves sexually as the edge of society, when it seems like a large portion of the economy and social situations are fueled by these endeavors.

CD:I met a guy at the Second Life cocktail party in San Francisco who apparently makes his living making in-game penises. That was pretty interesting; that was pretty surreal. The sexual economy is really interesting. I think that one of the things that makes it so interesting is that we don’t know enough about it. There’s a tendency to believe that the sexual economy is driven by a small number of very high-volume customers. That seems really odd to me. I guess the question is, has the ease and relative anonymity of purchasing sex goods increased the size of the market, or has it increased the voraciousness of the customers in the market? I think that most people are pretty clear that it has increased the size of the market.

For example, I don’t think that women were major purchasers of sexual goods in the era of the dirty raincoat kind of movie theater. There’s a healthy women-focused market out there now, that’s targeted specifically to them. There’s a sex shop around the corner from my flat here in London that men aren’t allowed in unless they’re accompanied by a woman. I take it that this is all indication of some kind of pent-up demand that wasn’t getting filled in the market. I wonder to what extent, however, the sex industry is built around people who just spend a lot of money on sexual goods and to what extent its use is a lot of people spending a moderate amount of money, because there’s clearly a lot of money there. It would basically mean that everyone’s watching dirty movies, and no one’s admitting it, if that were spread evenly. We have to consider the hypothesis that there’s a kind of a power law curve here, where you have a small number of people who buy hundreds of pornographic movies, and then a long tail of people who occasionally sample them, or that everyone just lies about watching porn. I don’t know what the answer is, but if it’s the latter, then it’s pretty clear to me that it can’t hold forever–people will just admit it eventually.

What has happened here in the UK is that the definition of porn has shifted and shifted again. You see a lot of magazines here that are really the equivalent of Sports Illustrated, except that they have frontal nudity in them. There’s actually a daily newspaper here, called The Sport, that, when I was a kid in the 80s, you would have called porn, [but] you can buy it on the newsstand next to The Guardian and The Times. It’s a tabloid, but still it’s a pornographic newspaper. I think that part of what is happening is that the consumption of sexual goods is becoming a lot more normalized, but the limiting factor on that is whether this is something that everyone does and no one admits, or whether its something that a small band of hobbyists are willing to spend a lot of money on.

Cory waits for The Sport to hit Second Life

In Denmark and most of Scandinavia, they have completely legalized porn. There are no obscenity laws, its very fluid to get, you can show it on television and so on. If you’re watching television in a hotel room, it reaches a certain hour and the TV just flips over from showing you sports and news to showing hardcore pornography. It’s like watching late night TV in America and having it flip over to old movies. Its something that’s cheap to produce, and serves an audience that are looking for wallpaper at one in the morning, and advertisers are will to advertise at a CPM rate that will make that profitable. And the Danes aren’t particularly sex-crazed. There’s probably less sex visible in Copenhagen than there is in Las Vegas.

Sex is such an odd topic; I really don’t know what the answer is.

SM: One of the big topics in Someone Comes to Town, and peripherally in Eastern Standard Tribe, is the idea of applying the Napster model of trust and cooperation to something physical. Do you think that, with the current pessimistic state of things, it is realistic to expect that kind of free interaction?

CD:Well, it’s not a really hard-to-understand concept economically, that there are some things that are cheaper to give away than to charge money for. Wi-Fi is probably a good example of this. Really effectively locking bad guys out of your network is pretty hard. If you’re even remotely technologically active, and the sort of person who is likely to need to add something new to your network every now and again, having a lot of counter-measures in place on your network to keep the public of it out makes it really hard to add your own devices. I just spent a little time debugging a wireless bridge for an X-Box, and having the wireless restrictions turned on made that a thousand times harder.

In contrast, most of us have a DSL account that is so close to free it makes no-nevermind, in cost per bit, usually there’s no cap or if there is a cap it’s so high that we don’t run into it. Most of capacity sits idle, most of the time your access point sits there, not talking to anyone, not doing anything. It really raises the question, why pay the opportunity cost of locking down your wireless network when it doesn’t actually cost you anything to let other people use it.

Karmically, there’s an amazing advantage of opening up a network, in that if we do that enough there will be lots of other people opening up their networks, and the people who use Wi-Fi at home tend to be people who want to use Wi-Fi on the road. I can’t count the times I’ve had my ass saved by being able to just open up my laptop and hop onto a network. It’s like having a porch light. We don’t begrudge people who steal our photons, standing in the area of our light reading directions to someone else’s house. We don’t get upset by this, because it doesn’t cost us much. We could take counter-measures against others using our light, but for the most part we don’t, and for pretty good reason.

SM: For most accepted things that’s true, but there seems to be this trend with counter-intuitively locking out access to others, all in some attempt to preserve profit. You see it with net access in a lot of places and you also see it with digital media.

I believe a lot in making money. I’m not anti-capitalist. I mean, I’m an entrepreneur. I run a small business ( and, before that, I co-founded a software company that I sold. Just because I work for a non-profit, it doesn’t mean I’m opposed to making money. I don’t think it’s right, however, for people to say that they should earn a profit at the expense of competition.

Consider, for example, that Coca-Cola is able to charge an artificially high sum of money for Coke. They have some state-granted monopolies, they have monopolies over their trademarks and copyrights, and they have good marketing and branding. But mostly, they have physics on their side. Coke costs almost nothing to manufacture, and I speak from knowledge, I started a software company called OpenCola. One of our gimmicks was we made an open-source soft drink. Cola is just not that expensive to make. Even if you want to make it in your kitchen it’s not that expensive, let alone in billions of gallons in giant factories.

The fact that cola is not expensive to make really allows Coca-Cola to do a lot of price discrimination, depending on where the cola is intended to be consumed. You might get a can of Coke for 12 cents in Brazil, and the same can is going to cost you $1.25, roughly 1,000 percent more, in New York. Now, why is it that Coke is able to charge 12 cents in Brazil and a 1.25 in New York? Well, it’s basically because physics intervenes on Coke’s behalf, and it costs a lot more than $1.13 to ship a can of Coke from Brazil to New York.

Now imagine we invent dirigibles, balloons. They become a really cheap and effective way of transporting things and it crashes the cost of cargo shipping. That arbitrage opportunity that Coke has, that market failure that they’re able to insert themselves in, would disappear. Entrepreneurs could lawfully acquire Coke in Brazil and import these goods into New York for pennies per can, instead of dollars per can. They could offer the same product for 13 cents or 15 cents a can.

Now, we can imagine that Coke wouldn’t be very happy about this, but that’s what the market is for. The market has evolved an answer to the failure that allowed Coke to arbitrage two different price points between two different regions. If Coke then went before the legislature, and said, “We demand the regulation or even elimination of the dirigible industry,” most of us would say, “Now, that’s not fair. Your business model wasn’t a God-given right; it was an accidental confluence between technology and physics. The historical moment where you could earn a living as an arbitrager of the differential price of sugar across two continents has come to an end.”

In the same way, the ability of the telegraph companies to arbitrage the scarcity of communication bandwidth came to an end when railroads and other alternative technologies came along and made it possible to ship information very quickly and very cheaply and broke their monopolies. The music industry and other industries have come along and they have business that is based on the technologies that enabled them. Well, those technologies have moved on, been improved on, and been displaced. If they don’t like that, I can understand that they don’t like having their old business models challenged and set aside, but that doesn’t give them the right to demand that those new technologies disappear or come under their regulatory or permissive oversight.

SM: How much progress can we really expect, though, when the entertainment industry, and the recording industry in particular, has the money to influence the government in the way it has recently?

I don’t think it’s about how much money is involved. If you look at the tech sector, its orders of magnitude larger than the entertainment sector. Entertainment in America is about a $60 billion business, consumer electronics and IT are about a $600 billion business, and telecom, inter-networking and so on is a $6 trillion business. Intel is big enough that its gross revenue is larger than the gross revenue of all of the US studios and recording labels put together. So, it’s not about money.

There’s an understood phenomenon among economists regarding lobbying. Very competitive industries don’t lobby, because they tend to be so competitive, that if you take time off from struggling against your competitors to send somebody to Washington to plead for some special privilege for your industry, you tend to get your lunch eaten by your competitors. Once your industry has grown old and stagnant, like the recording industry, you can come to a kind of gentlemanopolist’s agreement regarding your lobbying efforts. You can all get together, form an industry association, go to the hill, and start asking for new laws, start asking for the consumer broadband digital television promotion act, the Hollings bill that would have made it illegal to build a computer unless you got permission from the entertainment companies. That’s the kind of thing you get when your industry is stagnant; it’s what you do instead of competing—you lobby.

Another part of it is that the tech industry has had its lobbying muscles stunted because of its military history. The military don’t really have to lobby, they just appropriate budgets, and the budgets themselves are often secret and not very accountable. If your industry was partially funded through the military, as semiconductors and software were for decades, there’s not really any kind of evolutionary pressure to develop systems within companies and industries that make them effective lobbyists. That’s been a major factor in why the entertainment companies have made so many advances. I think the real thing to take notice of here is not that they have won a couple court battles here and there, or that they get a bill introduced on the floor occasionally, it’s how much entrepreneurial activity is aimed at frustrating their will, how many different devices, how many different networks services there are that undermine the monopolies of the entertainment industry, and how many different players there are working on that. Even some of the DRM technology, which I loathe, can be seen as an effort to break their monopoly and put someone else in charge.

Microsoft is so anxious to ship DRM, and it’s not because they believe it will work, because they understand that it won’t. And I don’t think it’s because they have a great, burning need to help the entertainment industry, because I don’t think that the entertainment industry is their largest market segment. I think what Microsoft hopes, is that if all the studios start to package their media in Microsoft’s proprietary format, then Microsoft will effectively become the studio, and they will become suppliers of entertainment content of which Microsoft becomes the publisher.

I don’t think the cartel is winning, but I think the cartel is losing in a way that is committing a slow spectacular suicide. The cartel is totally clueless of the collateral damage they cause the general public. The fact that most university campuses now wiretap their networks to find and stop what appears to be copyright infringement–I mean, imagine if during the Communist witch hunts of the fifties, that Senator McCarthy had insisted that every university should wiretap all of its phone networks and read all of its mail to stop Communist activity. It’s pretty unlikely that we would have sat still for it.

The record industry has won a victory over free speech and free expression that one of our most odious historic bullies was unable to come near. It’s really quite an accomplishment. I think that that’s the thing to worry about. It’s not really that they’re going to shut down P2P. I wrote an editorial for Popular Science yesterday where I mention that there are university students who write P2P applications in 11 lines of perl. The idea that they’ll shut down P2P is pretty unlikely. What they’ll do is undermine competition in the marketplace, and they’ll undermine speech, and they’ll undermine free expression and privacy, which they’ve done.

SM: One final question. Despite all the karmic good it will bring, the decision to release your new book under a Creative Commons license that will actually allow people in developing nations to profit from it seems almost ridiculous in today’s age. What prompted this decision?

Well, it seemed like the right thing to do. I’m doing all this work for Electronic Freedom Foundation on developing nations, and on copyright trademark and patents at the World Intellectual Property Organization, and pushing the development agenda at WIPO, [in] an effort to make WIPO live up to its promise. WIPO is the UN agency that sets the treaties for copyrights, patents, and trademarks. They used to just be a trade body, an industrial consortium, and they were admitted into the UN on the grounds that they would make humanitarian copyright, trademark and patent treaties, and they have yet to do anything humanitarian. So we’re trying to hold them to their promise. I’m involved with this development agenda at WIPO, and looking at it and saying, “How is it that we can turn copyrights, trademarks and patents into an engine for development?” And I thought, “Well, I’m a copyright holder, and there’s a good reason to do this. There are good economic reasons to let people in developing nations play with my stuff.”

There’s a lot of long-term potential in the developing nations for future markets for my goods. I can lay the ground there. There were a lot of science fiction writers who were widely pirated throughout Eastern Europe that are now seeing some royalties. Now, they are developing a publishing industry there. There were a lot of Philip K. Dick editions being produced in the former Soviet states. It just seemed like a good idea all around, like good karma and good business sense. It’s rare that you get an opportunity to do the right thing and to do the good economic thing, and so it seemed natural when that fell into my lap.

Cory Doctorow’s new book, Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, is available now from Tor Books. Cory will be holding a discussion about his book in Second Life on July 24.

2 Responses to “Cory Doctorow Comes to Town”

  1. Urizenus

    Jul 1st, 2005

    wow Seldon, that interview is beyond fantastic. Great stuff.

  2. seldon metropolitan

    Jul 1st, 2005

    thanks! Cory was alot of fun to talk to. All you have to do is get him started on something he’s passionate about and he rants like no other.

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