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Cory Doctorow wears a number of hats in his day-to-day life: He's the author of two short-story collections, the near-future science-fiction novels Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom and Eastern Standard Tribe, and the weird fantasy Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town. He's a prolific columnist who's contributed intelligent, eminently readable commentaries on technology and society to the likes of The Guardian, Wired, and The New York Times. He's a widely consulted and quoted Internet personality who co-produces the ultra-popular "directory of wonderful things" blog BoingBoing.net. For many people, he's the face of the Creative Commons copyright movement; by making all of his books freely available in electronic form via his website as well as through traditional publishers, he's convinced he finds more fans, who drive more sales, offsetting any profits he might lose by giving his work away, and he's been an outspoken supporter of Creative Commons as a distribution method. He's an activist in other areas, too, writing and speaking about freedom of speech and of the Internet; he spent four years working for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit civil-liberties group dedicated to defending online privacy and free-speech rights.
Most recently, he's spent four weeks on the New York Times Children's Chapterbooks Bestseller list with Little Brother, his new thriller about a technophilic 17-year-old driven to resist America's increasingly fascistic surveillance and internment policies after a terrorist attack in his San Francisco hometown. In spite of its young-adult designation, it's a terrifically compelling all-ages read with immediate relevance for the Patriot Act age, and it serves as a primer on electronic rights and current public policy, while still bringing a gripping story. The A.V. Club recently spent an hour on the phone with Doctorow, talking about the RIAA, the issues Little Brother raises, why movies about technology are so dumb, why oat-bag manufacturers don't have the guaranteed right to exist, why he's afraid of his daughter being Photoshopped, what he'd do in the fourth dimension, and much, much more.
The A.V. Club: What was the process of writing Little Brother like? How did it compare with writing your other novels?
Cory Doctorow: It was really different, for reasons that had nothing to do with the subject matter. This book kind of wanted to batter its way out through my fingertips. I wrote it in eight weeks, from the day I thought of it to the day I wrote the last page of the first draft. I actually finished it at 5 in the morning in a hotel room in Rome where I was supposed to be celebrating our wedding anniversary—I have a very, very patient wife. Literally, there were days when I would type until I couldn't move my hands any more, like 10,000 words in a day. Normally, I work kind of a page or two a day, and it takes me a year to do a book. This was just crazy.
AVC: Did you do any research in the process, or did it come directly out of current events and technologies you were already familiar with?
CD: Actually, the answer is kind of both and neither. Boing Boing and the other stuff I do is actually research for books that I don't actually know I'm writing yet. Boing Boing is where I put everything that is a piece of an article or a story or a book that I don't know what it's going to be yet. I add articles there, and eventually, the book comes along that matches the piece, and it turns out I have already done the research. There are elements of Little Brother that came out of Boing Boing posts. I was looking up my own posts as I was going—they were kind of like my research notes—and some of the posts went back five or six years. So in some ways, I've been researching it for over half a decade.
AVC: Was there any one thing in particular sparked the novel? A specific news story or event?
CD: Well, there were a few things. One was, I did some consulting on a children's touring museum thing called "The Science Of Spying." They asked me to come in and kind of just spitball ideas, and I started talking about "Well, what about a story based on…" and they said, "What about a story about a kid who's a spy?" And I said "I don't think kids are spies, I think kids are spied upon." So we talked a little about that. And about the same time, my wife got pregnant, and we were going to have our first baby, and I started noticing just how much kids are spied upon. Just recently, Scotland Yard here in England proposed that kids as young as 5 who exhibit criminal tendencies should be DNA-logged, so that if they grow up to be criminals, we can pick them up more readily.
Lastly, I was going through a season of summer blockbusters, and as a science-fiction prose writer, I go see a lot of science-fiction movies so I can feel bad about the fact that those movies make much more money than I do. So I would go see these techno-thrillers, and the technology was totally wrong. You wouldn't make a movie about ancient Rome in which people were driving hot rods, unless you're Mel Brooks or something. It just doesn't make any sense, right? If the movie is a historical film about Victorian England, you wouldn't egregiously stick a bunch of televisions in the background. But there are all of these movies that are putatively about the technology we all use. In all those Tom Cruise Mission Impossible movies and so on, there's technology that we all use. And presumably, from the last word of the screenplay being written to the last cut of the edit being made, hundreds and hundreds of people look at this film who use computers every day. And none of them seem to know that computers actually don't emit a soft chime every time you type. It's like they're running Hollywood Operating System. It's not Windows, it's not Mac, it's Hollywood OS, and Hollywood OS not only doesn't exist, it's kind of dumb. And they're doing it to create these artificial moments of plot tension, and you don't need it, because technology is incredibly, inherently exciting. So wouldn't it be great to write a techno-thriller that really just tried to talk about technology as it is, or as it plausibly could be, and still made it thrilling?
AVC: It is strange how no one in Hollywood seems to know that people don't slowly read everything they're typing or receiving out loud under their breath.
CD: Oh yeah, the lady on Alias, her father only uses the caps lock when he IMs people. He's like Shoutyman. The other thing that always inevitably happens is, whenever anything involving computers happens, someone has to hack into a mainframe. So I just saw Iron Man, which contains theoretically the most technologically advanced company in the history of the world, which Mr. Iron Man commands, and yet everything comes down to a mainframe. Now when I hear "a mainframe," I don't think sexy cutting-edge high-quality computer, I think creaking 30-year-old IBM OS360 device managed by an old greybeard who refuses to wear shoes, and who nurses it along so it can run the vestigial accounting software. Right? It's like none of these people know anything about computers, and yet they're purporting to—you know, M*A*S*H at least had the decency to hire doctors to advise them on medical terminology. It's like these guys can't even bother to go out and find a 12-year-old to tell them how computers work.
AVC: Well, is that because the people making the movie don't understand the technology, or because they assume their audiences are stupid and need things spelled out, with familiar words and concepts regardless of the state of the art?
CD: I don't think it's either of those. I think they understand technology, but they just don't understand how exciting technology is. And they think the same of their audience. They really think technology as it exists is really about spreadsheets, and the occasional exotic word-processing document in script form. Or e-mail, or little viral greeting cards. It's not that they don't know about technology—they use technology all day long. They just don't like it very much. They are not like stoned technology junkies the way the kids in this book are, like me, and the way so many people in the audience are. They really just don't care for it, I think.
AVC: With Little Brother, did you worry about readers not getting the technology? Was there anything you left out because people wouldn't get it, or anything you felt you had to simplify for a general audience?
CD: No, you know, just the reverse, actually. Little Brother was the place where I indulged all the technology detail that I wanted to put in, because the point-of-view character is this kind of superheated technology-enthusiast 17-year-old. That character, I know very well, because I was one of those kids. And when you're that kid, you have this conversation that goes "Oh my God, I just saw the most amazing thing!" And you start to explain, and the person you're explaining it to, their eyes go blank. And you go, "Okay, wait a second. You know there's this thing called the Internet, right? On the Internet, there are these things called web pages…" And you go back and back and back until you reach some point where you can communicate it. And you know, if you're talking to a friend or colleague, sometimes they will hear you out, and sometimes they will even catch your excitement. But because it was true to the character in Little Brother, it was possible to have these lengthy discursions into how some of the technology works, and why it's exciting. You know, key-signing parties, and dual-key encryption, and onion routing, and all this stuff that requires a certain amount of exposition to get your head around, actually made sense as a plot element in this story.
AVC: A blogger friend of mine actually just wrote an interesting essay about how he's putting too much time and energy into getting worked up about things that happen online, so he's decided from now on to apply "the grandma rule" to everything. If he's upset or angry about something on the Internet, and he realizes he couldn't explain it to his grandmother because it would involve too much complicated terminology about RSS feeds and modded communities, he's going to declare that it's ephemeral and not worth getting excited about. Pretty much everything that stirs you to advocacy or activism seems to violate the grandma rule.
CD: Well, you know, my grandmother grew up in the Soviet Union, and I think that while she's not a super-duper Internet user, saying to her that the Internet is a tool that can be used to communicate freely and in private, except that the President wants to wiretap every Internet connection and listen in on all of them to find the bad guys, and that an untold number of people have access to every communication that passes through the country… I think my grandmother would understand, and believe it to be of some importance.
AVC: Regarding the government and wiretapping… in a podcast interview circa Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town, you talked about how you write "didactic novels," and how it's very important in didactic novels to consider both sides of any given question, or you're providing a shallow experience. It doesn't really feel like Little Brother does that: The heroes are effectively up against a vicious, evil, controlling dictatorship. Is there another side to the story?
CD: The other side of the equation is people who are desperately scared. I don't mean the authoritarians who are taking advantage, but the people of good will, whom I respect, are people who are terrified. And they're terrified because either they've lost someone, or they've had the experience of vividly imagining losing someone. You know, I've got a little four-month-old daughter, and when I imagine something happening to her, I get this totally atavistic, completely visceral feeling of "I must do something to keep this from happening." And I try to put that into the character of the father in Little Brother, who's a good guy at the end of the day, but who's really scared, because he's had the experience of believing that his son died. And it's a totally transformative experience. It burned out a part of his value system, and left him with this belief that the most important thing is the physical security of his son, which trumps everything.
I was thinking about it this morning. I was reading some golden-age science fiction, and a recurring theme in golden-age science fiction is lifeboat rules. It's nice to be democratic and all, but eventually, you find yourself in a lifeboat, and you're floating in the middle of the ocean, and someone has to be captain. And the person who goes crazy and decides that the lifeboat would be better off if he stabbed it with his penknife, that person needs to be thrown overboard. And you can't give that person a trial—the captain just needs to do it. I was reading a famous science-fiction story about this called "The Cold Equations." [It's a 1954 classic by Tom Godwin. —ed.]
The problem with this is, you end up in the land of 24, where you contrive these scenarios in which something morally unthinkable is required, and once you admit that there are situations in which morally unthinkable deeds are not only permissible but necessary, then it becomes really easy to just start shoveling inconvenient situations into the "desperate" category. In much the same way, we say, "Well, of course, a copper in hot pursuit of a terrorist shouldn't have to stop to get a warrant. We'll make it possible for that man to do his job by giving him a special exception." And it seems okay on its face—obviously, if there's someone chasing a guy who's planning on blowing up the city with a dirty nuke, we wouldn't want a cop to have to go to a judge to get a warrant to find the information. But when we actually give people those powers, they end up using them for totally trivial things. In the UK, here, we have RIPA, the Regulation Investigatory Powers Act, that's supposed to be exactly that, for catching terrorists. And it turns out that the number-one use of RIPA powers is local councils who use it to acquire the video-camera feed from private video cameras, to catch people who let their dogs crap on the sidewalk. So literally the most trivial things you can imagine is what this stuff ends up getting used for, because trivial things happen much more than big consequential momentous things. The thing you do 100 times a day is the thing you look for shortcuts on. I tried to show the sympathy I had for the very, very afraid person, but also to show that it's not a good basis to conduct government on.
AVC: Do you think it's possible to convince governments that data-mining techniques and privacy invasion aren't working, or convince the RIAA of your thesis that open distribution of art creates more markets than fighting piracy? Is it possible to take your messages to large conglomerates, or are you just trying to convince the little people?
CD: You know, again, the answer is kind of neither. Yes, I think it is possible to convince the big institutions, and yes, I think it's possible to convince individuals. I think that the critical thing about the Internet—and this comes out of Clay Shirky's new book Here Comes Everybody—is, it makes it possible for people to create institutions and organizations with less planning, forethought, and resources than ever before. You can get together with friends and do stuff really much more easily than ever before. Which means to a certain extent that we don't need the government to back off on data mining, and we don't need the record industry to back off on its distribution model. All we need is the space in which to easily form groups that subvert both those things. In other words, the space to form groups that make available and distribute cryptographic tools that make data mining irrelevant. The space to build alternative distribution models that make the record industry irrelevant. Here I am with this Creative Commons-licensed book that was released for free when it was released in stores, but that book's gone into its fourth week on the top of the New York Times [children's] bestseller list. It seems to me that provided that we can fight them to a standstill, and keep the Internet open and free so people who are doing things that make them obsolete can find the space to do so, we can win to a larger extent. With government, I think it's a little different, because I do believe we need to elect leaders that represent us. I don't think it's enough to just subvert what governments are trying to do—you also have to have leaders who respect your freedom. But if we can subvert the data mining long enough, we can use that to organize groups of people who will keep an eye on, or ouster, or hold to account, politicians who don't do the right thing.
AVC: That sounds like a really practical, real-world solution rather than an idealistic one, but at the same time, you're setting up a model for this constant fight against the system. And in the book, at least, that mostly leads to an increasingly violent and repressive technological arms race.
CD: Well, all the great systems of government have been dialectical, right? There's a reason why there's a separation of powers in the American government. The idea here is, you do end up with institutions with somewhat—or very—conflicting priorities, and it's their negotiated settlement that results in the least-worst answer. I don't think we will attain a static society in which everything is great all the time, and doesn't require any further intervention. Like we can just set the perpetual-motion machine going, and we can turn our back on it and go back to the things we did before we cared about whether the government is doing. I think you always have to care about what the government is doing. That's not new—you see that recognized in documents as old as the Magna Carta. You do have to keep an eye on government, or the government will keep an eye on you.
That said, I think today we live in an era of greater technological change—there is even more conflict than there has been historically, because the conflict is arising not only out of the natural course of human events, but also the way that the game is changed continuously by disruptive technologies. The way that incumbents of all descriptions, people who've got it good in the status quo, find themselves being displaced by people who don't have it so good in the status quo. There is continuous upheaval, and I do think that technology gives an advantage to people who want to disrupt the status quo. And that's good and bad, right? It's good if you don't like the status quo. It's bad if you attain the status quo, or something that you think is all right. My favorite example of this is the advent of earth-moving machines. In order to be a good defender with an earth-moving machine, you build a wall around your city, and for that wall to be effective, it has to be perfect in every respect; there can't be any flaws in it. In order to be a good attacker, you take the same earth-moving machine and find one imperfect spot on the wall and knock a hole into it, and then your hordes go rushing into the city. It seems to me that technology has always given an advantage to attackers over defenders. There are things I hope we can change about the attackers, or the people who benefit from them, but there are lots of things I would like to defend that are under attack from technology too.
AVC: Like what?
CD: Well, like freedom of speech. A great example of this is that technology gave teenagers the power to destroy a multi-billion-dollar corrupt record industry. Technology also gave the corrupt multi-billion-dollar industry the ability to sue tens of thousands of teenagers automatically. Neither one of them has a conclusive victory.
AVC: So technology isn't the problem, it's how people are using it to change established systems, and how people are reacting to the changing systems with fear and loathing?
CD: I think the problem is that there are some people who legitimately fear that they will be displaced, and of course when technology comes along, there are always people who will be displaced by it. The railroad put all number of people out of business, from the guy who made the oat bags for the horses' noses to the person who swept up the poo behind the horse. They were all threatened by railroads. Not to mention the teamsters of various descriptions and so on. It doesn't mean that we should fight the railroad, but you can't expect the railroad to come into existence without a fight. There are a lot of people whose lunches are being eaten who are afraid. What we need to do is hold regulators and governments into account so they don't say to this year's manufacturers of oat bags, "You have the perpetual right to exist, and we will put to death any technology that threatens your livelihood." In the entertainment industry, this has a long and honorable tradition. In the dawn of the music industry, you had sheet-music publishers, and the reason we called them "the industry" is because they had industrial equipment, they had printing presses.
So as opposed to being artisans, which is what guys who stood onstage were, sheet-music publishers were an industry. And then the artisans, the stage performers, figured out how to get an industry of their own by recording musical compositions. And as a result, they diminished the importance of sheet-music manufacturers, to the point of almost nonexistence. Today, who buys a lot of sheet music? And the sheet-music people called the recording people pirates. Along came the radio, and it did exactly the same thing to the performers that the performers had done to the sheet-music people. And the performers called the radio people pirates. And then along came cable, and it did to broadcasters what the broadcasters had done to the people making records, and the broadcasters called the cable operators pirates. And then the VCR came and did to cable what cable had done to broadcasters, and they called them pirates. This is an ongoing story. The question is not whether the people whose businesses are being disrupted are going to be afraid, because of course they will. And it isn't whether they're going to fight, because of course they will. It's whether governments are going to say, "You have the perpetual right to exist, let's just put our thumb on the scale here to benefit you, and keep these new guys from disrupting you."
AVC: You've been on the forefront of a new distribution-model experiment, as the first person to release a novel through Creative Commons. Has any part of that experiment not worked out for you?
CD: Nothing catastrophic, but if you follow my Creative Commons releases closely, you can see that I've done different things with each one. And that's really about exploring the problem space of Creative Commons distribution. So for example—and some of this has to do with collaborations with my publishers, so the people who put up my short-story collections, both of the publishers who did that, were smaller and more conservative about Creative Commons releases.
It's funny, because the received wisdom is that the great big giant publisher Tor—which is a division of Macmillan, a division of Holtzbrinck, one of the largest publishing empires in the world—those guys are going to be the big faceless corporate machine that will never see reason. But it turns out that the tiny nimble independent presses are actually more scared, because an individual book for them is a bigger deal than for Tor, and Tor has more room to explore. With the first short-story collection, they said, "Let's only do seven of the nine stories as free downloads," and I think it would have been better if we'd released all nine of them. And the second time, we released the nine stories as nine separate files, instead of in one single file. I think it actually made things more complicated, made it harder for people to figure out what to download. It just wasn't as good. If I had it to do over again, I would have made those single files.
I don't think it was a major catastrophe, though—both books sold out their print runs, both of them won major awards. Of the nine stories of the second collection, I think six of them have been nominated for major awards, or been reprinted in the year's-best anthologies, or both. The first one actually won the Canadian Science Fiction Award for best book of the year. So it's not like it was a disaster for those books, and doomed them to obscurity, but I think it wasn't as good. One of the things I hadn't done until Little Brother came out was come up with a strategy for people who downloaded the book, liked it, and didn't want to buy it, but did want to compensate me. And I think that was a gaping hole in the online distribution strategy, because it left all these people going, "Why don't you want my $2?" You know, the answer is kind of like, "What am I going to do with your $2? Am I going to bookkeep it and declare taxes on it? Are you going to write to me next year and want to know what I used the $2 for if I write a different book?"
There's a reason why journalists don't collect money from readers directly, or from advertisers directly. There's a circulation department, a marketing department, an editorial department that keep separate walls between them, because when your editor shows up and says, "Procter & Gamble aren't happy about what we've been writing about them," it stops being journalism. So it doesn't matter if the circulation department hates it—what matters is if your editor hates it. So long as your editors don't let what circulation or advertising are worried about worry them, then you're still doing journalism. And I kind of felt like I didn't want direct donations, so I came up with this thing, which is donating books to libraries and schools that want copies of it. I've always said to people, "If you don't want to buy a copy for yourself, you could always buy one and donate it to a homeless shelter, or school, or a library." But I realized that most people, including me, don't actually know how you do that. Do you, like, go up to your local elementary school or high school, knock on the door, hand it to the librarian, say "Here you go, I brought this for you," and walk back out again? I mean, that's just weird, right? So I figured out what I could do is reach out to librarians and people who worked in schools, and in halfway houses and homeless shelters, and ask them to put their names forward if they wanted copies of the book. Then I could do matchmaking with would-be donors. In the end, I'm actually paying someone to do this, and it's probably going to cost me more than what I make in royalties on it. But I'm in this for the long haul, and if it works, it might spark someone to do an automated system for it, or it might be worth my paying someone to make an automated system for it, in which case it will be a one-time cost, but it will work from then on.
AVC: Speaking of the reason for having barriers between yourself and the readers in terms of having an editorial and marketing department to give you some distance, what about self-promotion? Some people have really gotten on your case recently about how often you post to Boing Boing about Little Brother, or even how often you post to your own website about it. Is there a cost to self-promotion either on a personal or professional level?
CD: The moderator on Boing Boing's message boards tells me that almost all the complaints are coming from the same one or two people with multiple identities, which is a standard pathology of Internet crazy people. I have a friend who is a Wikipedia editor, and I asked her, "How do you handle all these crazy big nasty fights you get involved with?" And she said, "Well, first thing is, don't let these assholes take up space in your head. Don't let the crazy person dictate your behavior, and don't let your behavior be curtailed by what you think crazy people might do." Obviously, there are limits to that, right? Like, I'm concerned about crazy people doing bad things with my daughter. Not like kidnapping her, but if there were a lot of photos of her on the Internet, I'd be worried about really ugly horrible Photoshops appearing of her, because I have friends to whom that's occurred. So I post very, very, very few photos of my daughter in a public place. So to that extent, I do let crazy people control my agenda a little, mostly because it's not just me, it's my daughter, too. Until she is old enough to have a say in how her image gets used, I think it's respectful to her to kind of keep it to one side.
But when it comes to just me, I don't really worry too much about what people say. At the end of the day, the actual amount of what you could call self-promotional posts on Boing Boing is vanishingly small, a percent or two of all the posts made. And even then, there's a number of times there's some relevance to the Boing Boing community that doesn't just happen to be the group of people that's having sour grapes about it. So for example, one area that tends to draw a lot of criticism is when I post that some of my work is now available in translation into another language. Little Brother has been translated into Hebrew by someone under the Creative Commons license, and put online. Well, there are a lot of people that go " Oh well, that's just rotten stinky self promotion—you're a jerk." But there are a lot of people who write to me who say "My first language is Hebrew or German or Brazilian Portuguese, and I never get to read anything like this in my own first language. I have to puzzle through your English-language posts, thank you very much for making that stuff available." And I'm way more interested in the people who are underserved by Boing Boing than by a couple of spoiled people who feel like the free ice cream is the wrong flavor today, and feel that gives them the right to complain endlessly. So I try not to let them get to me.
AVC: Sometimes it feels like there's an awful lot of that entitlement on the Internet, because it's an infinite source of entertainment, and people get so much instant personal gratification that any barriers make them impatient and frustrated. And it seems like all the free entertainment online is warping the expectations of younger people in particular. It seems like people on message boards are saying more and more frequently, "I'm going to download that book or album or whatever for free, because I'm only 15, and I don't have any money, but why should that restrict what I can have?" Does your Creative Commons distribution system ever curdle a little under that "Cough up the free ice cream, buster, I deserve it!" attitude?
CD: I don't think so. I think that young kids have rarely been people who have disposable income and spend it well. As a writer, I had the good fortune to work in a bookstore that sold new and used books, so I got a real cradle-to-grave view on what happens to creative work, and how audiences mature. So you'd see people coming in who are very young, who had a little pocket money, and would just buy used books. And sometimes they would say, "If someone brings in this new book as a used book, please give me a call. I'd like to be the first person in line to buy it." And we would actually have someone on staff whose job it was to take the used books that came in, and look them up in the computer to see if anyone was waiting for them, and if they were, to call them up and tell them there was a copy for $2 waiting. As those people cultivated the habit of reading, and more money became available to them, they would spend more freely in the store. Really, what changed wasn't their willingness to pay, it was their ability to pay, and maybe in our own minds, we conflate those two. In general, when you reach a certain point in your life cycle as a buyer, the cost of a book is not something you generally notice.
It's kind of like the buyer who walks into a store and is thinking about buying a candy bar, and one of them is priced at $.99 and the other is priced at $1.10. For a little kid, that might make a difference. For adults on their way out of the store with $75 worth of groceries, it makes no difference at all. They'll pick the candy bar they want, not the one that's $.11 cheaper. So there's a certain price sensitivity that evaporates when you get older. And then when you get older still, when you become someone on a fixed income, it reappears. And you see that whole lifecycle of people when you work in a used bookstore, and I kind of feel like what I want to be sure of is not that every time someone reads my book, I get paid for it. I'm more interested in making sure that every time someone decides to make what I call a macro payment, to spend a bunch of money on an entertainment decision, that I'm really close to the top of their wish list of what they want to spend it on. And I think you see this with things like the Nine Inch Nails release, or the Radiohead release, where really, what they were trying to do is say to the people who are cash-poor and time-rich, "Just take this and go around and promote the hell out of it. Go and act as breezes to loft my seeds to every corner of the globe." Because if you do that widely enough, if you cast those seeds widely enough, some of them will germinate in really fertile soil, some of them will land in the pocket of a guy who's got a ton of disposable income, who's sort of 18-34, single, working his first job, his first major professional job at a college, with lots of money jingling in his pocket, who might think, "Holy crap! $300 limited-edition Nine Inch Nails box set, yeah, I'll take one of those!"
I'm way more interested in, instead of trying to turn the 15-year-old upside down and shake an extra couple of quarters out of his pockets, in how I can use his natural loquaciousness, his natural enthusiasm, to help get the message out about really high-ticket items, like a $20 hardcover, into the ears of people who routinely buy $20 hardcovers without even blinking.
AVC: Was the Creative Commons release strategy a hard sell with Tor that first time out?
CD: No, it was totally trivial, in fact. I lucked out in two respects. My editor at Tor, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, is super-geeky. We met on a BBS in the '80s, and he runs his own Linux boxes; it just made a lot of sense for him. Furthermore, he's also the senior editor at Tor, he runs the science-fiction and fantasy line at Tor, so he kind of doesn't have to ask anyone when he wants to do this stuff. I mean, he has to talk to the publisher, Tom Doherty, but Tom Doherty has got enough perspective to say, "We're going to take this novel, with this tiny little advance, and we're going to try something different with it, and see what happens." And Tom Doherty's not gonna go, "Oh my God, what if the book tanks? We'd be out possibly four figures! What will we do? We'll have to close our lease on the entire Flatiron Building if we don't get that extra couple of grand in this year, because of Cory Doctorow's new novel!"
Tom Doherty and Patrick both looked at this and said, "You know, electronic books represent the worst ratio of hours spent in meetings to dollars generated in income of anything we've ever tried at this press. Here's something that's relatively free—all we need to do is give it away, and we can see what people want to do with it. And if it works, great. And if it doesn't work, well, we've learned. And if it's inconclusive, we can try more, because we're a big press, we've got lots and lots of books, and we can try lots of different things." And if it's going to work for anyone, it's going to work for me, because I've got such a good online presence. And you can see that they're now trying this with writers who have a less prominent online presence, and they're finding that by and large, it's working pretty well for them.
I think the most compelling, intuitively true study that I've seen on online distribution… Rufus Pollack from Cambridge University, who's a Ph.D. candidate in economics there, conducted it. What he concluded was, for the bottom 75 percent of music, piracy represents a small-to-midsize increase in sales, so it generates more sales than it displaces. For the next 20 percent or so, in the 75 to 98 percent range, it's a wash. You lose some copies, you get some free publicity, you more or less break even. And then for the tiny minority that would be at the top, that 2 percent, it represents a small loss. And those are the people who can kind of afford it. If Stephen King loses a couple hundred bucks to piracy on his latest book, it's not going to break his bank. Tim O'Reilly says piracy is progressive taxation—the people who can afford it most are the people who suffer it most. And the people who need it the most are the ones who benefit the most. That was a pretty intuitively true study, and it seems like it's holding true. I'm still in the bottom 75 percentile of art, of published works, and I think I'm getting a lift from Creative Commons, and I think I'm going to hit a point where it'll make just as much as it loses, just because I'll be well-known enough. And then I might level up to the point where I'm making tons and tons of money just from royalties, and I might lose a couple hundred bucks here and there just because of infringement from piracy. But at that point, piracy will have gotten me to the place where I can afford to lose some, so I'm not going to cry down my shirt.
AVC: Just as a thought experiment, if someone came along and proved that the Creative Commons model was costing you 50 percent of the money you'd be making without it, but it was putting your books in twice as many hands, which way would you go?
CD: That's a really interesting question. I don't know. I think if that was the case, I would become self-published. Because I suspect that I would want the book in more people's hands, and my publisher would say that between taking a financial loss every time one of my books comes out, and increasing my notoriety, they would prefer not to take the loss. But for me, it's to my advantage to increase my notoriety. I don't mean to say that books are a loss-leader, they aren't, but there is some advantage to being better known as well.
AVC: Do you hear from other authors who want to use the Creative Commons distribution model, but can't get their publishers on board?
CD: Yeah, all the time. They all want to know "Where's the quantitative proof that Creative Commons sells books?", because they all want to take that to their publishers. And I just don't have answers for them on the quantitative-proof question. I have a lot of qualitative metrics, like everyone I know who's tried it has then continued to use Creative Commons. And if this were any other market activity, you would say these people who may not have quantitative metrics, but have a good qualitative sense of how the whole thing works, those people seem pretty conclusive on it. We should probably listen to them. That would be the normal conclusion, after seeing everyone in a marketplace doing something and then repeating it.
I think there's a lot of frustration on the part of writers who want to get their publishers to do more. I know for sure that writers who write about Creative Commons-like subjects, like Jonathan Zittrain and Lawrence Lessig and so on, they've all had to fight tooth and nail to get their publishers to let them use their work as free downloads. Which is kind of ironic.
AVC: You mentioned your online presence—I just interviewed Harlan Ellison last week, and one of the things we talked about was the problem of having a public personality that can overwhelm your writing. Do you ever find it a problem that you're a publicly known figure? Do you ever feel like you're more visible than your work?
CD: Yeah. Partly, I think that's because I broadly construe the job of a science-fiction writer. I don't think of it as just writing entertaining yarns, although that's certainly part of it.
I think the real vocation of science-fiction writers since the earliest days has been to identify how technology is changing society, and to write parables that try to illustrate this. And some writers have done that without being aware of that—your Asimovs and so on, who may think they're projecting the future—but in hindsight, you can see that they're really just writing about their fears about the present. And then there's a slightly more intense strain of that, which is not only to try and figure out how technology is influencing society, but to try to influence that, to steer it. So as someone who really feels like science fiction is part of a toolkit for trying to understand technology and influence society, I don't really worry that my non-fiction, or my other work, overshadows that. I feel like they're part and parcel of the same thing.
AVC: When you see reactions to yourself, reflections of your own reputation online, do you recognize yourself in them? Do you see yourself in the XKCD strips about you, for example?
CD: I'm very flattered by the way Randall [Munroe]'s portrayed me in XKCD. My wife actually got him to send me that original strip, so I've got it hanging up in my living room right now. Which is how much I like it.
AVC: Which one?
CD: The one with the hot-air balloon. I do find it flattering. I guess I do recognize myself somewhat. Obviously, the way you project yourself in public is not your whole life. It's not like it's untrue, it's just incomplete. There's lots more to me than just the bits I put on Boing Boing. For one thing, I don't often put purely frivolous things on Boing Boing, the kind of thing you might say six hours into a long car trip. Looking out the window, you might turn to your neighbor and say, "Why isn't there bacon-flavored soda?" I don't tend to put that up on Boing Boing very often.
The other day, I took a red-eye home from New York with my wife and my four-month-old daughter, and didn't get a whole ton of sleep, and was pretty jet-lagged and punchy. And I had this idea in flight that it would be really cool if in addition to the vegan menu, if there was a freegan menu. So after everyone else was finished eating, you could just go to the galley and pick your way through the food. I think it would be hilarious. I think Virgin Atlantic could get away with doing that. Some days, you'd just get a bag of soggy carrots, and some days, it would be all the leftover filet mignon from first class. I think it'd be awesome, actually. So I posted this on Boing Boing, "Why isn't there a freegan option in-flight?" And I thought it was just me being silly, but about three-quarters of the comments were like "You fool, don't you understand the legal liability of serving used food?" Like, this in-depth discussion about whether you'd get botulism from eating used food on an airplane. Where for me, it was just kind of a funny, "Hey, did you ever think?" kind of Andy Rooney moment. That side of me, I don't really put online very often. So people who know me only through the blog don't really know that part of me.
There are lots of elements of who I am that I don't put online. I don't talk about my family very much, for example. I have a big but fairly close-knit Eastern European Jewish refugee family, with a long, weird history of adventures and funny feuds and noble deeds and weird misunderstandings, and all the rest of it. And I don't really post that, but it's a big part of who I am. So I do recognize myself online, but I don't make the mistake of thinking that it's my whole self, and I would hope that the majority of people out there who are involved in reflecting it back understand that as well. Most of us, when we get a little maturity, come to understand that the side of people we see when we only see them in a public forum is not the whole story.
AVC: You get asked a lot how you stay so productive, given how involved you are with the Internet, and how distracting it can be. And you've done a bunch of newspaper and magazine columns with little tips on managing your e-mail and making lists. But those seem like really small solutions for dealing with essentially an infinite amount of data. Is there a mental state or an attitude that's necessary as well to keep you from getting information overload?
CD: Those small solutions are, I think, the secret. I think the secret is coming up with small steps that are very quick and are in little disjointed pieces, so it's not a huge process you have to go through every time. It's tiny little strategies you can apply to different kinds of problems, that's fast enough and nimble enough that whenever a problem arises, you can apply the solution really quickly. And then just having the discipline to do it. There's a line in Little Brother about someone who's blogging like a short-order cook. They get the order in, they deal with it, they put it out again. A lot of how I deal with information is really about taking everything that can be handled in a minute or two or less, and doing it the very second it arises. And then putting everything else on a list so they don't fall off again. And then when I have a longer block of time, doing those things in longer, more considered ways. It really does come down to having the discipline to just do it every time and not let it get on top of you.
AVC: Do you ever get information overload?
CD: Sometimes. Mostly when I've been traveling and I've been offline for a while, and I have a huge amount of e-mail. That can be a little stressful. And then there are a few things that I just absolutely hate doing, that I kind of have to do every now and again, and see as huge chores, and they come in over the transom, and I get a bunch of them—like e-mail interviews I despise e-mail interviews.
CD: Well, writing an essay is basically a chore. Writing an essay that someone else has set the topic for is a bigger chore. Writing seven short essays that someone else has set the topic for is an even bigger chore. Writing seven short essays that someone else has set the topic for and where you've already written that essay in some variation 50 times before is the biggest chore of all! It doesn't approximate an interview. Because an interview is what we're doing, right? You ask me a question, I give you an answer, you think of another question that has some nexus with the answer I just gave you. Every now and again, we'll change the subject, but it's a conversation. Every now and again I have to do them, and I hate them. So there's that.
And then the other thing that makes me feel overloaded is when stuff comes in where the people who are sending it to me are ignoring the systems that they know exist, as a means of trying to overwhelm whatever filters I have in place. The big one is people who send me Boing Boing suggestions by e-mail. There's nothing I hate more than getting a Boing Boing suggestion by e-mail, especially if it's from a friend, or someone whom I have a professional or collegial relationship with. Because the subtext of that is, "I know you would like to have the discretion to see these in a list and make the decision on your own, based on what's good for Boing Boing, but I'm calling in a favor. I just want you to write about this, I expect you to write about this." It feels really invasive and intrusive, and it blows my ability to manage my own queue. And that's the other thing that makes me feel overwhelmed. Anything that requires real-time interaction, like IM, makes me feel incredibly overwhelmed, and I won't use it. I need to be able to manage my own queue, and real-time communication is really inefficient. So for phone interviews, it's fine, but just keeping my IM open all day so that if anyone has a thought and wants to interrupt me with it, they can? I don't know how anyone does that.
My wife hates this, because she loves IM. She somehow manages to do it. But she's the kind of person who will send you an IM that says "Hey, have you got a second? I've got a really important question for you," in IM, then will go to lunch for an hour. I try to explain to her that when she does this, I literally cannot think for an entire hour. I cannot think of anything except that important question—and I'll call her up, and she'll be like, "I'm having lunch!" [Adopts childish, whiny voice.] "I know you're having lunch, but you said you had an important question for me! How can you do this?" But she and her friends are handily capable of doing it. I don't know how. But that makes me feel really overloaded.
AVC: You talk in columns and e-mail interviews about how much you multitask; you joke about the fact that you've stopped writing in order to check your e-mail or RSS feeds. What about when you're writing a book? You said Little Brother was a very different experience because it just came pouring out of you, but with your other books, did you juggle other projects while writing?
CD: No, but what I'll do is write the book in little chunks. So I'll write a page or two a day, or a page or two per session. I'll give it a lot of thought during the day beforehand, a kind of refractory period between sessions, and then I'll sit down and bang out the page in 15 or 20 minutes. And that's the long-form writing time on the book for the day. And then that gives me a whole day to think about what that page is going to be. That works really well.
AVC: Do you do a lot of rewriting or editing?
CD: Mostly, I rewrite to editorial suggestion. Although one really good way to find the little infelicities in language is to read a book aloud, so I do a lot of podcasting of my work. Mostly short stories. And hearing the book aloud, or reading the book aloud, is a great way to find a lot of the little bugs and glitches in the prose. Bruce Sterling, a friend of mine who is a science-fiction writer, he told me for—I think it was his latest book, he had just finished it—he was moving from Texas to Los Angeles, so he had a car full of stuff he was driving across the country. And he strapped his laptop in on the passenger seat, and had the laptop just speak the text of his new book to him. And listening to it across all those miles, he found lots of things he wanted to fix in it.
AVC: He fixed them on the road?
CD: I think he pulled over sometimes, yeah, for things like typos.
AVC: Overall, are you the kind of writer who waits for inspiration to strike, or do you keep more of a strict writing schedule?
CD: Definitely the latter, and I tell my writing students this, too. It's not that you can't be a great writer who only writes when inspiration calls, but you'll never be a happy writer if you only write when inspiration calls. Inspiration is unpredictable. And if writing is the thing that makes you happy and sane—or it's one of the things that makes you happy and sane—but you can only do it when this unpredictable lightning strike happens, then you're not going to be happy and sane. You're going to spend a lot of your time moping around, waiting for lightning to hit you. One of the things I've noticed about writing every day is that there are days when writing that page feels like flying. Like the hand of God reached down and touched my keyboard, and every word is just pure gold. And then there are days that I feel I'm writing absolute, totally forgettable junk that shouldn't have been committed to phosphors, let alone saved to disc. The thing is, a month later, you can't tell the difference. The difference between a day when it feels like you're writing brilliantly and a day when it feels like you're writing terribly is entirely in your head, it's not in the prose.
AVC: Little Brother is being promoted as a young-adult novel. Did you set out to write a "young adult" novel? Did you think about making the writing style different from your other books in ways that would make it a young-adult novel?
CD: Well, I had been looking for a young-adult book idea. I had friends who had switched from writing adult fiction to young-adult fiction for some books, or lots of books. And I really liked what they'd done, and I really liked the way they described the process. And I asked a lot of these writers, "What do you think makes young-adult fiction work, what's your top tip about young-adult fiction?" One of them, a guy named Garth Nix, whom I saw in Australia at the National Australian Science Fiction Convention in Brisbane, said "The state of adolescence is the state of jumping off a cliff over and over again, and trusting that you're going to land safely." Doing all these things where you don't and can't know what the outcome is going to be. One day, you're someone who's never told a lie of consequence, and then you're someone who has. One day, you're someone who's never done something noble for a friend, and then you're someone who has. And it's irrevocable, and it's unknowable when you do it. This makes for great drama, obviously, because everything is so consequential all the time. But it also defines the core of what makes young-adult fiction work. So for me, the thing that made this book young adult when I was writing it, more than anything else, was I kept in mind that the protagonist throughout was going through a series of one-way transformations where he couldn't predict the outcome, and kind of knew it. Knew that he was surfing the crest of a wave of personal change that he couldn't control, entirely, and that he was always on the verge of wiping out. More than the language choices, and more than the subject matter, more than anything else, that for me is what defined the young adultness of this book.
AVC: What's your next writing project?
CD: The next book I have coming out, I've finished, but it's too long—it's 180,000 words. With my editors' help, I'm going to cut it down to 125,000 words and come up with a better title. That'll be out in the second half of 2009 from Tor.
AVC: Is that usr/bin/god?
CD: No, usr/bin/god is kind of on the shelf more or less permanently, although it might be resurrected at some point. The main conceit of that book, Charlie Stross just e-mailed me and said "Do you mind if I use it?" and I said "No, by all means." So he might write it before I do. The next book after that, the one that I'm working on right now, is a young-adult novel called For The Win, and it's kind of a novelization of my short story "Anda's Game." It's a book about trade unionists who use video games to organize people in the developing world, to work in special economic zones where labor organizers aren't allowed to go in. And the way that they do that is by signing up people who work in gold farms, which are virtual sweatshops where people perform repetitive virtual tasks, or videogame tasks, to amass videogame wealth that's then sold to rich players. It's set about 10 to 15 years in the future, in the midst of a huge kind of hedge-fund bubble based on virtual goals. And these Industrial Workers of the World Wide Web, or the Webblies, set out to sign up and organize all these people. The book revolves around special economic zones in India, and in the coastal cities in China, and also in Orange County in Southern California.
AVC: Just a last, completely blue-sky question: Is there any one particular technological development you'd like to see in the future, more than any others?
CD: On the scale of time travel, or on the scale of a mobile phone that doesn't suck?
AVC: Which would you like to see more?
CD: Realistically speaking, I would love to see a mobile phone that doesn't suck. A mobile phone that's as generative and as open as a PC. And I think we'll probably see that pretty soon. In terms of what I have recurring daydreams about, it's the ability to travel in four spatial dimensions. I have recurring, incredibly vivid daydreams about being able to travel in four dimensions—when I can't sleep at night, I just think about all the things I would do if I could travel in four dimensions.
AVC: Like what?
CD: Well, I wouldn't have to go through customs. And when my daughter had colic, I could just fix it. I just love the idea, somehow, of being able to move in four spatial dimensions. Did you see the Wii game Paper Mario? It's all in two dimensions, but then you can flip into three and everyone turns into edge-on paper-thin objects, and you can sort of run around them, and they can't see you because you're on a different physical axis from them, at right angles to them. Holy moly, did that excite me! I would love to be at right angles to three-dimensional objects. I know it's really strange. There's a great Rudy Rucker book called Spaceland that's all about being in four dimensions, kind of a re-telling of Flatland. I would be that character in Rudy's book. I would do things like go into the four-dimensional space, rotate on the fourth-dimensional axis, and move back into three-dimensional space, so that I was now left-handed instead of right-handed, and all the proteins in my body were left-handed instead of right-handed. I would eat huge, sumptuous desserts, which would be biologically, or nutritively inert for me, and would have no calories, because all the proteins would be mirror images of my digestive system's enzymes. And then I would go back and flip around again, and the food would just pass harmlessly through me without having any calories. How awesome would that be? It would be completely awesome!