The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Cory Doctorow. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim Rutt: Howdy. This is Jim Rutt and this is the Jim Rutt Show.
Jim Rutt: This is the Jim Rutt Show and I’m your host, Jim Rutt. Today’s guest is Cory Doctorow, science fiction writer and social analyst in Prague.
Cory Doctorow: Hi there. It’s great to be here.
Jim Rutt: Great to have you, Cory. I’ve been following your writings for a long time, and actually first in your role as a social and technology analyst and writer, and I remember you wrote a fair amount for under the EFF logo at one point. I was actually involved a bit, more as a cheerleader than a worker in the setting up of the EFF. The EFF actually got organized on The WELL, an ancient online service which still exists.
Cory Doctorow: I still have an account.
Jim Rutt: Do you really? Great.
Cory Doctorow: I was logged in last night.
Jim Rutt: I think I was too. I think I come up to my 30-year mark in December on The WELL. That’s a pretty amazing place and they’ve actually somehow managed not to do a lot of the bad things that we see elsewhere on the internet. On the other hand, they only have a few thousand members, so that’s the way it goes sometimes.
Jim Rutt: In addition to being a prolific science fiction writer, I think I counted 11 or 12 novels plus a graphics novel, Cory remains active writing on social and technology issues, writes regularly on bOING bOING. Is that how you pronounce that? bOING bOING?
Cory Doctorow: Yup. bOING bOING. Yup.
Jim Rutt: I was always curious. Some really interesting essays on the EFF Deeplinks blog, and recently had an essay in The New York Times titled ironically enough, I Shouldn’t Have to Publish This in The New York Times. We’ll come back to tech and social issues later, but let’s start by talking about some recent works of science fiction.
Jim Rutt: First work I’d like to talk about is Radicalized, a set of four novellas. I’ve always had a sweet spot in my heart for novellas. It’s a relatively unusual format that’s a history of making novellas meaningful to me. First was when I was a somewhat nerdy teenager I read the science fiction magazines of the era, Galaxy, Analog, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction I think regularly, not every issue, but regularly posted novellas, and for a kid, this was a great way to get some long-form fiction for free.
Jim Rutt: The second’s actually something quite funny, something my wife and I talk about regularly. Maybe 20 years ago we went on a canoe portage trip from lake to lake up in Ontario and we had all of our gear packed correctly, but my wife had forgotten to pack a book. Oh my goodness. We’re both voracious readers and that would have been quite a tragedy. Fortunately, the book I packed was Stephen King’s Different Seasons, which was four novellas, three of which had movies made of them. And so we literally took a knife and slit the book in half, two novellas for her, two novellas for me, and when we had finished, we swapped them.
Cory Doctorow: That’s terrific. You know that Radicalized was explicitly, the way that we presented the book was explicitly modeled on that King book.
Jim Rutt: That’s interesting. That is to my mind, the best King book ever, right? Of course it may have been partially influenced by the fact that one of my top 10 movies of all time is Stand by Me, which was made out of the novella of The Body.
Cory Doctorow: Absolutely. And of course one of the audio books for Radicalized is read by Wil Wheaton who got his start in the movie Stand by Me.
Jim Rutt: He was a writer, right?
Cory Doctorow: No, no, no. He was a small child at the time.
Jim Rutt: No, he played the kid who grew up to be the writer.
Cory Doctorow: Oh, yes. I beg your pardon. Yes. That’s right. I’m sorry. I was like, no, I think Wil was nine.
Jim Rutt: He was playing a character who was 11, so yeah.
Cory Doctorow: That’s right.
Jim Rutt: Anyway, going back to Radicalized, as I read the four novellas, I took away the sense that this was all about the same world, and it’s a world kind of like ours, a few years further along, but a bit meaner and more dehumanized. The way I looked at it, it was a modest to moderate extrapolation of current trends, negative current trends, and assuming no reversals such as perhaps might happen in the next election. Did I get your world right? And if so, why write about a world of this sort?
Cory Doctorow: It’s not quite right. I do think that there is a thematic connection between these stories and they are about the dystopian proposition of technology being used to master people, and the utopian proposition of technological self-determination as a counter to that force. And I wrote them without a plan. I call them my Trump derangement syndrome stories. It’s been a tough couple of years for many of us, and as a writer, my practice really revolves around keeping track of little fragments of information and trying to make narratives out of them. Every day I take all of the news that seems to have crossed my transom and that people have sent to me and so on, and the stuff that seems like it’s part of a bigger thing that I want to keep track of, I write it up for bOING bOING. I try to summarize what’s salient about it, and the difference between this and keeping a private notebook is that you can’t cheat.
Cory Doctorow: Writers have kept commonplace books forever, but we are all very prone to overestimating our ability to return to our notes later and know what we meant. We think that we can take a lot of shortcuts and move on, but we often return to those notes and find them utterly cryptic.
Cory Doctorow: When you write for third parties, when you write for an audience, it imposes rigor on your note taking. And it also helps you find connections that aren’t otherwise obvious, but the pace at which the news cycle started to hit in the Trump era was so intense that I found myself permanently, and even clinically anxious, that I just couldn’t tell anymore whether the thing that had me worried today was the same thing that had me worried yesterday with a slightly different headline, or the evolution of something that I was already tracking, or whether a million new things were coming up every day. And it was very hard to kind of tease this out.
Cory Doctorow: And so what I started to do was what I do as a writer. I started to make narratives out of these stories, and particularly make narratives about the role that technology plays in them. And so I wrote each of these four novellas individually and separately, and initially my publisher Tor Books was going to bring out the first one, Unauthorized Bread, as a standalone book. They were so excited by it actually when I sent it to them that they decided to launch it as a major title, but with only just a few weeks’ planning.
Cory Doctorow: So I turned it in, I think, in June, and they were going to bring it out in September. And then I showed them the next story, Model Minority, and they were like, “Okay. Well, we’ll do this one in October.” And it proceeded in that way, and by the time they’d seen four of them, they were like, “No, no. We should stitch this together into a big book and treat it like a novel. Put you out on tour with it.” By that time, the TV rights had been sold for Unauthorized Bread to Topic who are the people who make The Intercept, and we had a big audiobook deal and lots of translation deals, and so that’s how it emerged as this big book. And the model for that, as I said, is that Different Seasons book by Stephen King and this idea that thematically connecting up four novellas, which are such a good form. As you say, they’re really fun to write in.
Cory Doctorow: I like to think of as like a short story as being like traveling with just a carryon bag where it’s nothing but essentials, and as a novel, as the kind of thing you do when you move from one continent to another as I’ve done a couple of times where you get a whole shipping container. But a novella, it’s like checking a bag. You can carry a few comfort items you’re not sure you’re going to need, and so you can build up a whole complicated tale, one that has a little room to ruminate and to venture off the trail and show how maybe some of the side branches relate back.
Jim Rutt: Unauthorized Bread, kind of at the base level it’s the story of some refugees coming into the United States and treated in a pretty dehumanized and dehumanizing manner, and then the story switches and becomes a very interesting tale about bread toasters. Bread toasters. Now how does that become interesting? Well, it’s because the bread toasters have been set up to only allow the toasting of authorized versions of bread. How did you come up with that idea, and what relevance does it have?
Cory Doctorow: It began when I was having arguments with people in the early days of the iPhone platform about whether or not walled gardens were suitable and would lead us to a good place. And people had this idea that if you were going to buy a device from Steve Jobs, that you would have to follow Steve Jobs’s rules and if he said that you could only buy software that he had signed off on, whose authors had pledged to give him 30% of the lifetime revenue that you represented to them, then if you didn’t like that, you shouldn’t have bought an iPhone in the first place. In fact, I had a huge debate on Twitter with a Canadian member of Parliament who was ushering in the Canadian version of the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act which makes it a felony to bypass the kind of locks that are used to make sure that you only buy software from the Apple software store.
Cory Doctorow: And so I wrote a sarcastic column about this in The Guardian called If dishwashers were iPhones. And it was a letter from a kind of Steve Jobsian CEO of a new kind of dish-washing experience, high-tech company called Disher. And he was writing in response to notional consumer outrage at the problem that his dishwashers would only wash authorized dishes. And he said, “Well, look people. What do you expect? Food-bourne illness has killed more people than any other cause in the history of the human race. Do you think that we can get your dishes clean enough to eat off of if we let you put Grandma’s china in there? And if you want to have independent dishes for your dishwasher, all you have to do is spend $100 on a Disher software development license or dish development license and we will send you the RFID chips that will allow the dishwasher to recognize and use them. But by no means should you be like bending the tines in your dishwasher so it can load up nonstandard dishes because then we can’t guarantee your experience. And besides that, how do we know you’re not using pirate dishes that have been made by someone who doesn’t want to reward the hardworking designers that we’re taking 30% from, who are selling in our store?”
Cory Doctorow: And the joke signally failed to land. Apple users then as now consider themselves to be an oppressed ethnic minority, and they were outraged that someone would argue that when you buy something that it’s yours and you should have the right to use it as you choose.
Cory Doctorow: And really the iPhone represents the kind of apotheosis of what I call the shitty technology adoption curve. And the way that that works is that when you have a terrible idea about technology, you have to work out the kinks in it and you have to normalize it before you can roll it out to everyone. And so first you roll it out to people whose complaints don’t get a lot of hearing in the wider society. Right? You make refugees use it, or kids, or poor people, or people on welfare, or prisoners, or people in mental institutions. And then once it’s kind of normalized, then you can roll it out everywhere else. That’s why 20 years ago if you had a CCTV watching you while you ate your dinner, it was because you were in a supermax prison, and today it’s because you’ve got Apple Home or Google Home or Alexa in your kitchen.
Cory Doctorow: And so this is a story, this story Unauthorized Bread, is a story in which we have entered the full-on, post-private property dystopia in which the ownership of goods in the sense of being able to decide how you use them is really only vested in limited liability companies. And as the user of a product, you’re really only entitled to use it in ways that maximize revenues for the shareholders of the companies that sold it to you. But on the way to making that happen, you have to really beta test it on people who don’t get to complain, and refugees are really the best target for that.
Cory Doctorow: And so the story takes place in a building that represents a kind of unholy alliance between property developers and this kind of technology developer. And today during the housing crisis, it’s very common for property developers to get permission to build beyond what the code allows to add extra stories to a building or what have you if they promise to build some below-market rent apartments. And they do this, but then they also do everything they can to make it clear that they’re not happy about it.
Cory Doctorow: So this started with the advent of things like poor doors and poor lobbies where buildings would have a separate lobby with a separate door so that the people who were paying full-market rent would never ever have to bump into their poor neighbors, and they would have their own elevators. With software, of course, and my story, they don’t have to bother with a different set of elevators, they can just make elevators that refuse to stop for you if you’re not on one of the market-rent floors, if there’s someone from one of the market-rent floors who need to use them. And so you never mix. The only evidence you get if you live in a subsidized floor is the smell of good cologne when you step into the elevator that you share a building with rich people. And the rest of the time you’re just stuck waiting 45 minutes for an elevator in the morning and in the afternoon, or you can take 50 flights of stairs.
Cory Doctorow: And these people live in apartments where every appliance is designed to pick their pocket in every conceivable way to help the property developer maximize their profits from their poorest tenants. And so the dishwasher only washes authorized dishes, the toaster only toasts authorized bread, and the washing machines only launder authorized clothing, which is pretty dystopian, but where it gets really scary is that the moment at which the companies that actually did these deals with the landlord structure themselves through bankruptcy. They’re the kind of financial engineers who dote on debt loading and periodic bankruptcies and restructuring, and when all the servers go down, everything stops working.
Cory Doctorow: And so now you have the only thing worse than these terrible appliances which is no appliances at all. But this ushers in this kind of utopian era in which they start jailbreaking their devices and realize that these appliances are perfectly good. The only thing wrong with them is who has control over them, and when they seize the means of computation, then they have a much better life indeed. But of course that’s when the story gets interesting because then there’s the risk that these companies are going to come back, that they’ll catch people having jailbroken their devices, that they will seek penalties under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and other real laws that are on the books now that felonize this kind of conduct, and that if you get charged with a felony when you’re here as a refugee, you might face deportation to a country that you left in fear of your life, which means that you might end up dead. And so that’s when the stakes get very high indeed.
Jim Rutt: It was quite an amazing story, both the social critique, but also the side of human ingenuity and the ability to overcome hardship, the refugee who first figured out how to do the jailbreaks, and then how she spread this to the other people in the story. So even in a dark story, there’s always a corner of light around humanity.
Cory Doctorow: Well, you know, I’ve often in a morbid way thought about what I would like to have on my tombstone, and I could think of nothing better than, “This will all be so great if we don’t screw it up.” There’s this story about the founding of Electronic Frontier Foundation and about the so-called techno-utopians that were around in that time. And the story goes that people like John Perry Barlow or John Gilmore thought that technology would automatically be amazing. That the reason Mitch Kapor wanted to fund EFF was that he just thought technology would make the world a better place.
Cory Doctorow: And when you talk to them, and those folks are my mentors and I really grew up with them, what you learn is that the reason they were so anxious to start Electronic Frontier Foundation was not because they thought things would automatically be great, but because they feared how terrible things would be if we didn’t make them great, if we didn’t safeguard fundamental liberties, if we didn’t safeguard competition and privacy and free speech online, that what we could end up with is a perfect, airtight bubble around all of us. That our digital nervous system that spans our species and planet would be used not to empower us, but to pick our pockets and disorder our minds and distort our political process.
Cory Doctorow: And I think we are living through the consequences of that fear being realized, and if there’s any real injustice right now apart from the injustice being visited on the people who are trapped in these systems, it’s that we remember these so-called technological-utopians as the naifs who led us into this trap instead of the Cassandras who warned us about them all this time and who we ignored, who we said, “Oh, this is just a distraction. Real politics takes places in the streets, not on the message boards.”
Jim Rutt: Although actually, that was the second turn of the wave. The online world’s actually older than a lot kids today think it is. In fact, I worked for the very first consumer online service, a company called The Source. Then we basically had online… almost everything on the web today, and character mode, only 30 characters a second, $10 an hour more or less. And you go, “God damn. That doesn’t sound like a very good value.” But it was the only thing like it in the world so we quickly had tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of users.
Jim Rutt: I will confess, we were definitely tech-utopians. This was literally ground zero. There were a number of us that were also interested in public policy, social evolution, and we just assumed that this all had to be for the good. And so it seemed for quite a while. And basically the EFF generation was 12 years later in 1991, ’92. And so I would give them a lot of credit for, as you say, not being naïve techno-utopians like we were in 1980, but seeing that there was a conflict in play where the internet could go one of two ways. It could either go to be a great benefit for humanity, or maybe not so good a thing for humanity. And of course the reality is we ended up with quite a bit of both.
Cory Doctorow: Yeah, you know, if you look at the history of publishing on technology and on kind of inter-disciplinary approaches to technology where people who thought about what computers would be for in the world as opposed to just how computers could be better, you get this… the Whole Earth Review, and the Whole Earth Catalogs, and Computer Lib, and the Yippies’ published computer magazine called TAP, and so on. And you get all these people who were simultaneously excited by and in terror of how technology could turn out, and who were determined to try and steer it towards the good.
Jim Rutt: And I think that describes a lot, that EFF generation. Now again, that was still when we were mostly early adopters and then there were later phase changes that happened as the stuff went mass market, probably most distinctively in that year 2008 where Facebook became a thing and when the iPhone became a thing.
Cory Doctorow: This is kind of getting into what we may be talking about at the end of the talk, but both of those represent a turning point not just in what technology was capable of, but in what regulators were willing to tolerate and in how the story that we told ourselves about how markets work had shifted, right? That we went from this idea of markets being a thing that should be competitive and should be constantly dynamic, and where companies were being overturned, and where companies shouldn’t be allowed to use dirty tricks to fight off competitors, that something that really dated back to the trust busting era, to this long project that started under Ronald Reagan to recast antitrust law as something whose only goal was to prevent higher prices. And where everything else was fair game, where we’re buying your biggest competitors, or merging with small competitors that might someday grow to challenge you was fair enough, as was doing things like building walled gardens around your users and telling them that they weren’t allowed to hop those walls even if they thought that it would be in their interest to do so.
Cory Doctorow: It’s ironic that Apple on the one hand got the capital it needed to build the iPhone by launching the Switch campaign and making the iWork suite where they allowed people to take documents created with Microsoft’s proprietary tools and bring them over to a rival platform, but when they then built their next platform, they designed it so that they could invoke the law, they could invoke the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, if anyone ever tried to do that to them. Every pirate wants to be an admiral, but it’s not that often that you see it being played out that vividly and in such close, temporal proximity.
Jim Rutt: The story of Apple is quite an interesting one. The original Apple II was the exact opposite of what everything that Jobs came to stand for later. It was wide open. Wozniak specifically designed this multi-slot bus for… I remember the first peripheral I bought for my first Apple II was a DC Hayes modem, which was another bit of pirate technology, right? At that time it was of arguable legality whether you could actually plug your modem into the wall, but we did it anyway and it worked.
Cory Doctorow: It’s even more than that. So on the one hand, you have this idea that AT&T said that they should alone be able to determine what you could plug into your wall. And you see famous court cases about this like Hush-A-Phone and Carterfone, and so on. But on the other hand, Hayes then got furious that people started making compatible Hayes modems that use the same command set, the AT command set.
Cory Doctorow: So over and over again, you see the people who gained prominence by running roughshod over someone else’s exclusive turf, then declaring the turf that they’ve created to be their own and theirs alone. And this is not new. Like the people who came up with the first sound recordings, the piano rolls, were accused by composers of being pirates. John Philip Sousa said, “If the infernal talking machines are allowed to continue, we will lose our voices as we came down out of the trees.” But then as phonograms gained prominence and broadcasters came along and started playing records without permission, they turned around and they said, “You know when we stole those compositions and put them on records, that was legitimate technological progress, but you playing those records on the radio is just piracy.” And then when the broadcasters confronted the cable operators who were sucking in signals and retransmitting them without permission, they said, “When we stole the records to make broadcast signals, that was legitimate progress, but when you steal the broadcast signals to put them on cable, that’s piracy.” And then the cable operators say the same thing to the VCR makers, and then the VCR maker Sony turned around and said this to Napster. Right?
Cory Doctorow: And what changes is not this impulse to defend the thing that you did as unique, precious, and worthy of defense, and the thing that someone else did with what you made as being piracy and illegitimate. What changed is 40 years of Reaganomics that made the winners of last year’s lotteries into someone who lawmakers and regulators were prepared to accept as the only legitimate lottery winners for all the years to come.
Jim Rutt: And you added to that the fact that the low-friction environments of our network businesses appear to collapse to one or two winners even more so than the traditional businesses of the earlier 20th century. So you combine the two, and we now ended up in a position where it’s hard to see how we get out.
Cory Doctorow: I’m going to quibble with you here. I have heard the arguments about network effects and low friction and global markets and first-mover advantage, and these are all definitely forces that need to be reckoned with in competition policy, but here’s the thing. Until Ronald Reagan gutted antitrust law, companies were not allowed to grow through vertical mergers or mergers to monopoly, horizontal mergers. And they weren’t allowed to… They were bound by things like structural separation where they weren’t allowed to compete with the companies that they enabled, so banks couldn’t own businesses, phone companies couldn’t own data processing services, and so on.
Cory Doctorow: And we took away those protections. And ironically, we took away those protections and the people who were arguing for deregulation at the time said, “Well, deregulation will be fine because we have these other antitrust protections that will protect us from the worst effects of deregulation.” And at the same time, their colleagues were going around and taking away the antitrust protections too. So we lost both. We lost the brake and the emergency brake.
Cory Doctorow: And when you look back on the last 40 years and contemplate how it is that we ended up with duopolies in most telecoms markets, and quadopoly in publishing and in online services and so on, you don’t see that these companies grew because of identifiable benefits of network effects or low friction. You see that they grew by buying all their competitors, and then doing really anti-competitive stuff. Right? Google’s only ever had two products that they made inside. They made Mail and Search. And everything else they do they bought, right? And, you know, Bill Gates just described his greatest regret as not buying Android from Microsoft when it was on the open market.
Cory Doctorow: So these companies did not grow by the ineffable and uncounterable effects of networks, they grew, like Facebook did, they grew by putting spyware on people’s phones. Right? Facebook bought a company called Onavo that made a fake battery monitor. It would monitor your battery, but mostly what it did was monitor your whole phone and send Facebook intimate, detailed prospectuses of how you used your phone. And on that basis, Facebook figured out which companies to buy and how to compete with the ones that they hadn’t bought. And that’s stuff that would have been banned under pre-Reagan theories of antitrust.
Cory Doctorow: So it just seems to me that if have a set of rules that prohibit a set of activities to prevent a certain outcome, and you take away the rules and companies engage in those activities and you get that outcome, then it is not unreasonable to say maybe the rule were working, and maybe it’s not some mystical force to do with low friction that did it. Otherwise how is it that we ended up with one major eyewear company that owns every eyewear brand you’ve ever heard of? And one major pro wrestling company that is the last one standing from where we once had 20? Is it their low friction that enabled that kind of monopolism, or is it exactly the same forces that enabled monopolism in tech?
Jim Rutt: I think there’s two different things here, but it’s an interesting distinction. First, I would argue that the low frequency returns to scale models are what allowed Google Search and Facebook the platform, the first one that actually did this was eBay, to collapse to a single winner. Then, they leveraged the single winner to accrete ancillary products. As you say Google has only built a handful of products, so it hasn’t done a very good job of managing very many of the other ones with a few exceptions, but nonetheless, has thrown enough against the wall and have had a few big winners that stuck suck as YouTube, that they’ve been able to leverage the one true network effect business to take the cashflows from that to build out horizontally and capture market share.
Jim Rutt: Facebook has played so far a somewhat different play, which is, again, once they’ve reached a tipping point vs. the earlier social media companies, there was a very rapid takeoff in the 2007 to 2010 period where Facebook, the platform as opposed to the company, did build a network-effect business that is, I would argue, a classic as an example of Metcalf’s Law, that as more of our friends got on just like the fashion jeans in late ’80s, the more we wanted to get on. And once everybody’s on, relatively difficult for people to back off.
Jim Rutt: Then Facebook did something a little different than Google, which is it started buying other network-effect businesses. It bought Instagram, which was a potential, not exactly competitor, but partial substitute, and then it leaped aways away from its core business to buy WhatsApp which relatively unknown to people in the United States, was building country by country network effects. And so I would say that Facebook is a little different strategy, but both of them had network effects in their core businesses, you say that accreted on to other things. And the two together are particularly dangerous because these network-effect businesses are so outrageously profitable, they can allow very longterm subsidization of other products in a way to make competition essentially impossible. Would you like to try to compete with WhatsApp for instance, with Facebook being behind it? Essentially impossible.
Cory Doctorow: Well, let me take a shot at how you would compete with them. So when Facebook launched, it had exactly the same problem that a potential Facebook competitor would have today, which is that everyone who you’d want to talk to on Facebook was already on Myspace. And the way that Facebook dealt with that network-effect problem was by flipping it on its head using something called adversarial interoperability, which brings us back to this idea of Unauthorized Bread.
Cory Doctorow: And adversarial interoperability is when a new market entrance comes up with a way to plug something into an existing market entrance product without that existing market entrance permissions. So this is like third parties who made terminals and printers for the IBM 360, or third parties who made modems for AT&T’s networks, or in Facebook’s case, they made a tool that would log into Myspace using your credentials, gather the messages waiting for you, let you reply to them on Facebook, and then push those replies back to Myspace so that you could then stay in touch with Myspace without having to use Myspace, and every message you sent back to Myspace was an ad for Facebook.
Cory Doctorow: And so what that did was it turned Myspace’s network effect from an unassailable wall around its business into a kind of corral in which Myspace had conveniently organized all potential Facebook users for Facebook to go and gorge itself on. The idea that you have a company that’s doing double digit growth year-on-year, and that investors treat that company as the so-called kill zone instead of an irresistible opportunity to throw everything at, because if you can peel off even 5% of that business, you can make an ungodly fortune, it tells me everything you need about where we’ve landed, right? We’ve lost our stomach for things like third party ink, and third party engine parts, and third-party services that plug into Facebook.
Cory Doctorow: I would love to compete with WhatsApp. The way I would compete with WhatsApp is by making an interoperable messenger that gives you the benefits of WhatsApp, but without having the creepy Facebook surveillance. Because WhatsApp’s value proposition all along has been we don’t spy on you and we don’t advertise to you, and Facebook has now publicly announced that it’s going to merge WhatsApp’s backend with the Facebook Messenger backend and the Instagram Messenger backend so they can data mine the whole thing. And I would say, “Here’s a tool that lets you stay in touch with all your WhatsApp friends. It interoperates with WhatsApp. It does so without WhatsApp’s permission. We reverse engineer it. We have a whole team, and we reverse engineer it all day long. Every time they make a change we make a change. And we don’t spy on you. And so you just tell your friends every WhatsApp message is going to come from… with a little line at the bottom that says, ‘Sent from the WhatsApp alternative that doesn’t spy on you.'”
Cory Doctorow: And all those users who value that will come to your rival service. And WhatsApp will have organized everybody who cares about privacy and is ready to leave WhatsApp under one roof for you to go and window shop in provided that they can’t avail themselves of new laws and new interpretations of laws that have been introduced since Facebook’s monopoly like the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, Section 1201 of the DMCA, federal trade secrecy laws, tortious interference theories about license agreements, and so on.
Jim Rutt: I’m assuming that those intellectual property and legal terms of service barriers are what keeps people from doing just that right now.
Cory Doctorow: Exactly. A good example would be car engines, right? These days many auto manufacturers use cryptographic handshaking so that when you put a new part in a car engine, it won’t work until an authorized service technician unlocks that part using an unlock code. This is something Apple does with some of its parts for its phones and so on. And they also have this diagnostic tool that reads back these codes. And the cost of goods for that diagnostic tool is like under 100 bucks, and they charge thousands of dollars for it.
Cory Doctorow: And so where you have a tool that costs thousands of dollars to buy, but a couple hundred bucks to make, you would expect the competitors would rush in and lower the cost. And the problem is that because you have to bypass a copyright protection in order to do this, even though car parts themselves are not copyrightable, the software that protects them is, and so you have to bypass the copyright protection on it. You violate Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and so we cut off the cycle, the cycle by which new entrants challenge old entrants using new techniques that gore the old entrants AUX, that take their high-margin business and reduce it to a low-margin business, and find some new high-margin business that comes up to find a new industry that eventually becomes low margin, and that drives innovation and competition.
Cory Doctorow: Instead what you get is this ability to just sit pat. Right? To make a thing and block other people from entering the market. Which is how you have, for example, insulin going up 1,000% in 10 years, and particularly the Humalog insulin going up 1,000% in 10 years with no reformulations, no R&D, no new patents being filed, just pure anticompetitive measures that stop other people from entering the market that allows for a product to become more expensive, not less, over time.
Jim Rutt: That is an interesting one. Not obvious to me how they accomplish that with respect to insulin because it’s not that hard of a business to enter, and insulin’s clearly in the public domain at this point. I don’t know any of the facts. You happen to know any of the facts how they’ve been able to do this?
Cory Doctorow: Reuters has got a really good piece on this today. There’s a few things. So one is that they actually do have some new patents, but the new patents are on ancillary processes that they use to chase off other potential sellers. One is that they have a history of buying up. So this is mostly Eli Lilly. They have a history of buying up generics manufacturers that might make generic insulin. Or paying generics manufacturers not to make generic insulin. So when you try to enter the market, they just offer you some money not to do it.
Cory Doctorow: They also use lawsuits under exotic legal theories to just scare off potential new entrants to the market. And then they’ve got a whole bunch of delivery systems that are themselves patented. Effectively like… the equivalent of a printer that takes a special printer ink cartridge. And they’ve spent a lot of money marketing to doctors to only prescribe these new delivery systems. And so that allows them to maintain the monopoly over the underlying biological.
Cory Doctorow: Other countries where they have single payer, it’s a tenth of the price and less. And there are caravans now, people with Type 1 Diabetes who go to Canada to buy out all the insulin in the border town pharmacies. There’s a rogue DIY buyer reactor co-op in Oakland that is making opensource hardware to brew your own insulin, which I’m generally excited about, but also think, “Boy, that sounds like something that would be much better left to a big industry player that was more regulated.” If only we had… We do have big industrial players. They’re just not well regulated, right? It would be really nice to have that ingenuity being used to do something more interesting and more useful than allowing people to brew their own insulin.
Jim Rutt: Let’s pop up a layer here to this idea of adversarial interoperability which as you pointed out again, and again, and again has been the mechanism that drove progress and the actual cycle of creative destruction. Now in the world of mostly physical parts, it was relatively obvious how that could be done. Unfortunately, essentially all modern devices are “smart” devices. At that point, become entangled with technology and intellectual property and security systems, etc. Have you given any thought to what we might change with respect to law or regulation that would re-empower people to demand legally the right to have third party ink cartridges, or, you know, I’m a farmer in another life and I tell you, the farmers are really pissed off right now at John Deere because traditionally farmers work on their own stuff. Mostly you can’t work on a new John Deere tractor. Any ideas on how this could be fixed in the world where products are by their nature going to incorporate proprietary intellectual property?
Cory Doctorow: There’s an interesting nuance here, and John Deere is a good example of it. It is actually not hard to fix your own John Deere tractor, it’s just illegal. When you call out a John Deere technician, they read the same error codes out of the engine that you read. They take the same part that you buy from John Deere and they put it in the engine, and the only difference is that they enter an unlock code. And for that, you pay hundreds of dollars and have to wait a day, which you can’t make hay while the sun shines, which I’m reliably informed is a bedrock of good agricultural practice.
Cory Doctorow: And so the change that we need to make here is actually pretty straightforward. There’s been a lot of legislation, so called Right to Repair legislation, that says that John Deere would have to provide these unlock codes. And that’s fair enough and maybe that’s the way to do it, but there are a bunch of even simpler bedrock rules that we could make that would make things simpler. So for example, we could say that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act only prohibits circumvention for the purposes of copyright infringement. So unless you’re infringing copyright, you can break copyright locks. If you are wanting to…
Cory Doctorow: So a good example was we just wanted to watch American Gods. Neil Gaiman is an old fried of mine. His daughter used to babysit my daughter. I love that book. We have a Google Chromecast device hooked up to our big TV in our living room. And so I opened up the Amazon Prime app on my phone because I’m an Amazon customer, and I could not get the Amazon video player to talk to the Chrome because Amazon is trying to lock out people from buying Google home-automation systems. They want them to buy Amazon home-automation systems.
Cory Doctorow: Now jailbreaking my Amazon video player so that I can watch a movie that I’m entitled to watch on a screen that I’m entitled to watch it on just using a network protocol that isn’t approved by the user, that is not a copyright infringement. Right? Watching a movie you’re allowed to watch on a screen that you’re allowed to watch it on is not a copyright infringement even if you have to use a different networking protocol to make it show up. But under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, just breaking the protection on the Amazon player is itself illegal whether or not someone ends up violating copyright laws, the consequence of it.
Cory Doctorow: So we could amend the statute, DMCA 1201, to say, “It is only an infringement to use a circumvention device to infringe copyright, and you can make a device that enables bypassing copyright protection provided it can be used in ways that don’t infringe copyright.” So you’re not under any obligation to ensure that the tool is used lawfully in the same way that people who make hammers and crowbars are not under any obligation to make sure that their tools are used lawfully, and then you would have a market. Because I would have in that moment handily just bought a $3.99 app that unlocked my Amazon video and played it through my Chromecast. Right?
Cory Doctorow: So that’s kind of one step up. We could have some onesie-twosie tweaks to the laws. But the thing that I would actually prefer is an absolute defense against all claims for the purpose of making an interoperable product that does not violate any law in and of itself. So that would be against patent claims, trade secrecy, copyright circumvention, violating terms of service, tortious interference, and so on. That interoperability would be an absolute defense in the same way that say whistle blowing is an absolute defense. And we would make that a federal statute, and we would empower any entrepreneur who wanted to go to a VC and say, “You know what we used to call the kill zone? Those billions of dollars in value that are being returned to the shareholders of the Big Five tech companies? I would like to liberate 10% of those billions for you. All you need to do is give me the money to make a product.”
Cory Doctorow: And it would enable cooperatives, and it would enable individual tinkerers to go beyond what the manufacturer allows and to avail themselves of everything the law allows. It would sunset this grotesque idea we have now that we should have a statute on the books that we might call felony contempt of business model and restore the idea that when you buy something, it’s yours. That in the words of Blackwell, “Private property is sole and despotic dominion over the things that you own to the exclusion of everyone else in the universe, and that the manufacturer’s wishes about how you use their products are immaterial to your obligations in respect of those products.”
Jim Rutt: That would be good for physical products, but how would you apply that to say Facebook? Say MeWe wants to do what Facebook did to its predecessors. Facebook could assert various ownership rights or licensed service-to-service rules about usage, but you would say all such rules become null and void?
Cory Doctorow: If you’re making an interoperable product. Which we’ve actually been through this. There’s a company called Power Ventures that said, “People have too many social telephones to answer. We’re going to make a single tool that does what Facebook did to Myspace. It’ll log into Facebook and take your waiting Facebook messages. It’ll also log into LinkedIn. It’ll log into your dating service. It’ll log into Twitter. And it’ll put all those messages in one dashboard where you can reply to them.” And Facebook sued them and they said, “Our terms of service have the force of law under a Ronald Reagan era law called the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act that Congress rushed into action after the Matthew Broderick movie War Games spooked them about hacker crimes. And they wrote this extremely broad law that makes it a felony to exceed your authorization on a computer that doesn’t belong to you. And what Facebook advanced was this theory that your authorization was defined by terms of service. And so any time you exceeded the terms of service, you committed a potential felony.
Cory Doctorow: Well, every single one of us exceeds the terms of service on every service we use. None of us have even read them. In fact, there’s just a bit of research I think from ProPublica that found, they did computational linguistics analysis on terms of service, and they found that the amount of technical knowledge you need to understand most terms of service exceeds the amount of technical knowledge you need to read a law or medicine textbook. So most people are incapable of understanding them, and even if they are capable of understanding them, no one is actually reading them. It’s a little dirty secret that for the first year of Twitter’s existence, its terms of service repeatedly referred to the service as Flickr because they copied and pasted Twitter’s terms of service, and nobody, not even Twitter, bothered to read it to find out whether or not they’d replaced all the instances of Flickr in the terms of service.
Cory Doctorow: So Facebook made this reasonable argument, but under terms of oligarchy, judges show enormous deference to incumbents, and we ended up with Facebook making new precedent, and we should reverse that and we should do it statutorily. Congress should clarify that violating a click-through agreement does not constitute a felony.
Jim Rutt: Excellent idea. Hope Andrew Yang is listening to this and adds it to his platform.
Jim Rutt: Well, this has been an amazingly interesting digression from Unauthorized Bread, but that’s what this show is for, to dig into interesting ideas and take them wherever they go. Let’s move on to the next novella in Radicalized which is Model Minority, about… a little bit super-heroish. Seems like an unauthorized clone of Superman gets involved with, perhaps late in his career, trying to protect African Americans from police violence. Can you tell us more about that?
Cory Doctorow: Sure. Yeah. I wrote the story after reading the excellent book by Matt Taibbi from Rolling Stone. He wrote this book about the murder of Eric Garner by the NYPD called I Can’t Breathe. And it exists, that murder exists at the intersection of racism and computation because the cops had these key performance indicators where they had to do a certain number of stop-and-frisks every day, and they had to fill in the paperwork that was then databased and used to calculate bonuses and promotions, or demotions and black marks on their record. And of course if you shake down respectable white people who have the ear of city aldermen, then you lose your badge.
Cory Doctorow: So what they did was they just picked a relatively small cohort of racialized people and just shook them down over, and over, and over, and over again. Eric Garner himself had been targeted so many times by this one group of cops, who themselves had no data being gathered on them, they turn out subsequently to be the cops who statistically who were most likely to commit human rights violations that would cost the New York City coffers millions for having done things that led up to the murder of Eric Garner. And so he got so sick of it that that day he refused to comply, and that’s the day they murdered him in cold blood in plain sight and faced no meaningful consequences.
Cory Doctorow: And listening to this story… I swim every day for my bad back and I listen to audiobooks in the pool on a little underwater MP3 player. And listening to the story, I found myself just getting furious and having this very atavistic reaction that I think is very common, which is that I wished that somebody would just go interpose their flesh between the cops and their victims. I wish that there was like an unstoppable golem that could go and prevent this bad act from taking place, this injustice from taking place.
Cory Doctorow: And that’s Superman’s origin story. Superman was created by a couple of Jewish kids, one of them from Toronto where I’m from. My parents used to live on Joe Shuster Way in Toronto. It’s named after him. Daily Planet was named after the Daily Star, and so on. And these Jewish kids were watching the horror of Nazism unfolding across the ocean, and they imagined this omnipotent golem, Superman, who would go and single-handedly, through force of individual agency, save Europe and the world from Nazism. And that is an atavistic and satisfying fantasy. It was very far from reality. In particular it’s very far from the reality of how we beat Nazism.
Cory Doctorow: Nazism was a collective action problem, right? It was not an individual problem. There was no individual action that you could take to stop Nazism. It took the largest collective project in the history of our species to defeat Nazism in World War II.
Cory Doctorow: And today we have this story, to go back to Ronald Reagan, this story that we’ve been telling for 40 years, that there is no such thing as society. That there is no such thing as a social problem. And that there are no such things as social solutions. That everything comes down to the individual. That if you want to fix climate change, you need to recycle better. And never mind the fact that your biggest contribution to climate change is probably your car, and no matter what Elon Musk thinks, you can’t dig your own subway.
Cory Doctorow: And I wanted to write a story in which Superman himself experienced those limits. In which Superman decided rather than solving the system that he has been a willing enabler of for all these years, that he would instead individually interpose himself between racist police violence and its victims. And what he discovers is that he is not the protagonist of his story. That the protagonist of the stories are the survivors of police violence who are engaged in a collective project to assert their collective rights. And that when you show up and say, “All right. I’m here. I’m your ally,” that it is reasonable to expect that the people who you’re allying yourself with might ask you what took you so long, and might make you account for yourself in all the years when you weren’t standing up and being an ally. That’s the story I wanted to tell.
Jim Rutt: That was the most touching thing to me, almost brought a tear to my eye when Mr. Robinson said, “Where were you when Sheriff Bull Connor sicced the dogs on the children in Alabama? Where were you when this happened and that happened?” I go, “Whoa.” That was some heavy things, right? And it was clear it impacted the American Eagle quite a bit.
Cory Doctorow: And we’re going to have this discussion in 15 years when we have our truth and reconciliation. We’re going to say, “Where were you when America locked children in concentration camps?” And like Vichy, I think we’ll hear is that everyone will show up to say, “Oh, I was on the side of the angels then. I wasn’t defending the concentration camps. Right from the start, I was working to end them. I just did it quietly from the inside.” And this is where things like the Twitter record are going to matter.
Jim Rutt: And of course there will also be a significant dose, “I was just following orders.” Right?
Cory Doctorow: I think we’ll get some of that too. And this is the argument that the police give. And do you know, it’s not entirely wrong. It is not entirely wrong to look to the circumstances under which people find themselves following orders. This is Hannah Arendt’s point that the conditions for authoritarianism are themselves social and not individual. And while we can celebrate the bravery of the people who didn’t follow orders, the Schindlers and so on, we also have to remember that relying on people not to follow orders when it’s a matter of life or death, or when they live under authoritarian circumstances, is an aspiration and not a plan. That if you get to the point where you have to rely on people not following orders, it’s already past the point at which you should have been taking action. That the fact that the orders were given is the thing that we should be worrying about as much as the fact that they’re being followed.
Jim Rutt: Truthfully, we probably can’t stop people from following orders. I presume you’re familiar with the Milgram Experiment?
Cory Doctorow: Yeah. Although that’s not a well replicated experiment. That’s part of the whole replication crisis in psychology research. A lot of those gold standard, widely cited experiments didn’t replicate.
Jim Rutt: But then other ones, the Stanford Prison Experiment, etc.
Cory Doctorow: Also has massive problems replicating. Zimbardo and Milgram have both been swept up in the replication crisis, unfortunately.
Jim Rutt: Interesting. One of our later shows is going to be with Brain Nosek on the replication crisis, so I will withdraw those statements. I know Brain. He’s an interesting guy, and he’s been driving the psychology replication crisis project for some time. So let me withdraw those.
Jim Rutt: Let’s move on to our third story, the title novella, Radicalized, about what happens when predatory insurance companies get even more predatory than they are today, which is plenty, and people start to go off. Take it away.
Cory Doctorow: Sure. As someone who has lived in lots of different places over the years, I’m keenly aware that every country has its own blind spots. I lived in London for 13 years, and to this day, I struggle to explain how it is that a country that managed to create a globe-spanning empire is so bad at plumbing. And how it is that British people accept that it is perfectly normal that when you want to run the shower on the second floor, that you go into the closet and flip the switch on the electric auxiliary pump to get the water pressure up so that you can have a shower on the second floor. And as blind spots go, that’s relatively benign. That’s inconvenient, but not terrible.
Cory Doctorow: Amica has its own blind spots, and the blind spots that America has that are most glaring to me as a Canadian who’s then lived in the United Kingdom, are guns and healthcare. And the fact that America can’t figure out how to do what every other country in the world has done, which is to shield their population from routine gun violence, and to bring healthcare costs under control by socializing their medicine, is an endless source of remarkable fascination to me. And the impulse for this story Radicalized came when I heard an interview with the woman who coined the term incel, which is… it’s become a terrorist movement, a misogynist terrorist movement, the involuntary celibates who’ve committed several murder sprees aimed both at women and men by young men who have been radicalized to believe that because of weird pseudoscientific theories of evolution, that they will never have sex with women.
Cory Doctorow: But the origin of this, the origin of the term, comes from this queer Canadian woman who was struggling like many of us to find romance and physical love, and who considered herself to be involuntary celibate. And that is a hardship, right? It is a hardship to be lonely. It is one of the great hardships to be lonely and to feel unlovable as well as unloved. And she started a message board as so many of us have done, to discuss this. And what she realized over time was that most support groups, their culture is defined by the people who got better, who stick around to help the people who are just coming in.
Cory Doctorow: So if you’re in a message board for ex-drunks or ex-junkies, the elder statespeople of that message board are people who are clean and dry. And when you fall off the wagon, they’re there to say, “Listen, it gets better. No one gets this right the first time. Here’s what you need to do. Here’s how you need to patch up those problems with the people you love.” But on an incel message board, the only people left behind are the people who can’t figure it out. The people who find love, they leave. And she realized she was the only one who wasn’t so pathological that she was incapable of ever finding love, and that the only other people who stuck around were the people who were that pathological, that broken. And that instead of telling people it gets better, they were there to tell people it gets worse, and that it was a form of self-fulfilling prophecy.
Cory Doctorow: And when I heard this interview, it reminded me of a study I’ve read by a Boston University psych professor who was investigating suicide bombers, case histories of suicide bombers in the occupied territory in the West Bank. And he found that the biggest predictor of someone being a suicide bomber was not their commitment to radical ideology, but suicidal depression. That being suicidal made you commit suicide bombings. And more to the point, being suicidal made you someone who someone could come and whisper in your ear and say, “If you’re going to do it anyway, don’t let it go to waste.” And that really, the origin of suicide bombing attacks was not ideology, but trauma, the trauma that made people vulnerable to ideologues.
Cory Doctorow: And so when I put these things together, I said to myself, “What would happen if respectable, middle-class white dudes, rather than murdering their intimate partners when they got frustrated, or going and shooting up brown people at mosques, started to kill healthcare executives who doom the people that they love to slow, painful deaths because they denied them coverage?” Which is not a thing for the near future. That is a thing from today. People in America who are insured die slow, painful deaths because they’re denied coverage by the insurers that they’ve been paying all along. And what would happen in our body politic if suddenly the suicide bombers who were blowing up the wealthiest people in the country, senators, lobbyists, healthcare executives, were not people who embraced Islam or people who had brown skin, but instead were white people who were respectable and middle class and male, how long would it take us before we started calling hem terrorists, and what would their lives be like?
Cory Doctorow: And so that’s how that story came about. It was very wrenching to write. I have lost loved ones to cancer. It is a wrenching read. When I went out on tour with the book, tried reading from that story, and I found I couldn’t do it. It was just too much.
Jim Rutt: It was extraordinarily powerful. You got some of the testimony from the people on that board who was just, as you said, is as wrenching as it can get. But you also explored as you described, the concept of what happens in certain kinds of echo chambers and filter bubbles. Now this is an extreme case, and as you say, particularly because of the filter dynamics, the most radicalized become the community leaders. Were you also trying to say anything more general about intense echo chambers and filter bubbles?
Cory Doctorow: Well, really what I wanted to do was counter the contagion theory of radicalization and replace it with the trauma theory of radicalization. So I think that we are very confused about the causal relationship in toxic online activity today, whether that’s conspiracy theories or radicalization. That we have these, you might call them idealistic explanations, what do people believe in anti-vax? Well, because the ideas have rubbed up against them and they got the ideas. They were contaminated by them. They got the contagion of bad ideas. But you know, anti-vax has been around for a really, really long time. You can see the same anti-vax arguments that are made today being made in the ’20s, being made about the Salk vaccine.
Cory Doctorow: And an ideological account of the rise of anti-vax somehow would have to say that the arguments being made by today’s anti-vaxxers are better, more convincing, than the arguments that were made by their predecessors when anti-vax was a fringe phenomenon. And instead, I think that the rise of anti-vax is about the trauma of not being able to trust the regulatory process anymore. I think that it’s not an accident, for example, that anti-vax gained currency at the same time as the opioid epidemic was taking off. Because the opioid epidemic is what the anti-vax conspiracy theory says is going on. The opioid epidemic is concentrated pharma companies that seek profit over the health of their customers, who fake the research, and suborn their regulators in order to commit what is now ultimately millions of murders worldwide and hundreds of thousands of murders in America. And they do so with impunity because the regulators who are supposed to be watching them are instead asleep at the switch, or even worse, they’re enabling them because they expect to have jobs in those industries when their term in government service is over.
Cory Doctorow: And in the same way, when we talk about other forms of radicalization and filter bubbles, we have this idea of contagion that leads people to believe in all kinds of bad things, but we don’t investigate material circumstances. We don’t give weight to the idea that the material circumstances are what caused the contagion. And I just don’t think like… So Alex Jones was around forever. Right? You can go and watch videos of Alex Jones from 15 years ago. He is not more convincing than he was in the wake of Sandy Hook. He was saying exactly the same kind of crazy, non-credible, loony stuff in the wake of other tragedies before Sandy Hook. Alex Jones didn’t change. The material circumstances of people who listen to Alex Jones changed. And those material circumstances I think relate to inequality, unfairness, and a fundamental untrustworthiness of the civic society that is the best hedge that we have against this kind of activity. And ultimately, spoiler alert in the story, the thing that stops the suicide bombing is healthcare. It’s not convincing people that the price of a free market is watching your loved ones die.
Cory Doctorow: And so long as our model of radicalization revolves around contagion rather than trauma, then we’re left with this response that acts like the bad apology, which was the apology that really dominated our world, especially before the Me Too movement, and the bad apology goes like this. “I’m sorry you’re angry at me. Try being less angry. Because I’m not going to change whatever behavior made you angry.” And in the same way, when we respond to radicalization, our response is often, “We’re sorry you’re traumatized. Try being less traumatized. Because we’re not going to remove the thing that gave you the trauma in first place.”
Jim Rutt: That’s an interesting theory on trauma, and essentially narrowly drawn. I would also suggest however that there may be a broader systemic, which some people call information nihilism or others refer to as the epistemological crisis where there’s just so much bad information flying around, and now a lot of it finely tuned to be mimetically contagious for money-raising, money-making purposes, that people’s trust in all information, not just in narrow areas like regulation of healthcare products, has become undermined. How do you respond to that?
Cory Doctorow: Well, I do think we have an epistemological crisis. I don’t know if you heard that from Danah Boyd. I think she got it from me, so this might be my own talking point coming all the way around. And I think the epistemological crisis is a crisis not in what we believe to be true, but in how we adjudicate truth claims. Right? How we know something is a fair or not-fair process to arrive at beliefs.
Cory Doctorow: The thing is that evaluating truth claims in a high-tech society is too intensive for each person to do on their own. So take anti-vax for example. To assess anti-vax and to understand why anti-vax is wrong but opioid denial is right, the belief that opioids aren’t safe is correct, which you could have called opioid denial 10 years ago when the dominant scientific consensus was that it was fine. In order to distinguish those two cases, you first need the media literacy to understand which journals are trustworthy and which parts of journals are trustworthy.
Cory Doctorow: So for example, the opioid crisis was spread by elevating a single letter to the New England Journal of Medicine, a five-sentence letter, from a doctor reporting that in his hospital, he was seeing a lower incidence of opioid addiction then the literature predicted, and by creating a web of citations to this one letter, and then by creating a web of citations to the articles that cited this letter, Purdue Pharma was able to produce an impressive-seeming body of literature that made it sound like opioids were safe. It was this huge edifice hung off of this one very janky little 10-penny nail that they’d hammered into the wall. And so you need the media literacy to assess the journal.
Cory Doctorow: And then you need the statistical literacy to assess the methodology, and say, “Well, does this hold up? Is this any good?” And then you need the domain expertise, right? You need to understand cell biology, epidemiology, virology, and so on, to assess the actual substance of the paper. So you can become medial literate. Maybe you can become statistically literate. I think that would be great if we did. We need much more statistical literacy in our world. But even if you’re media literate and you are statistically literate, the domain literacy to assess a truth claim about vaccines, even if you manage to acquire that, does not carry over to assessing truth claims about whether your car’s antilock braking systems are safe, or whether the reinforced steel joists that hold your ceiling up have been adequately reinforced. Right?
Cory Doctorow: And so ultimately you have to defer your trust to truth-seeking exercise. And historically that’s been impartial expert agencies that hear from a variety of experts and arrive at a conclusion based on best evidence. And revise that conclusion whenever new evidence comes to light, even if that means that products that are very profitable need to be reformulated or withdrawn from the market all together.
Cory Doctorow: And under conditions of inequality for 40 years, those truth-seeking exercises have become available to the highest bidder to the point now where we exist in a literally terrifying vacuum where we have no way to know whether a truth claim that we hear from our expert regulators is like the truth claim about vaccines and true, or the truth claim about opioids and lethally, epidemiologically false. Genocidally false. And in that world where you don’t know whether your next meal will kill you, whether your car will kill you, whether your kids are learning things that are going to help them or hold them back, we are in conditions of constant trauma. Whenever we think about the world around us, we are left with nothing but the traumatic conclusion that the ceiling may fall down on us any minute, that our steak dinner might kill us before breakfast, and in that world, I think it does create credibility for conspiracy theories, that if you want to eliminate conspiracy theories, that you would do well to eliminate conspiracies.
Jim Rutt: Although I did see something interesting this morning actually in this week’s Economist. My point is something a little different. They did an analysis on vax vs. anti-vaxxer sentiment around the world, and somewhat surprising… I guess I didn’t have an opinion, so I shouldn’t say surprising. But I thought it interesting that the highest level of anti-vaxxer sentiment in the world is in Western Europe. The lowest anti-vaxxer sentiment is in South Asia. And we think about who is living under the most trauma in their everyday life, it would seem to me pretty clear that people who live in South Asia are confronting trauma on a daily basis at a level those of us who live in the rich West couldn’t even imagine. While if there’s a place where that’s the least true, it’s probably in Western Europe. And isn’t that interesting?
Cory Doctorow: I’d love to know the ethnography of it. I can make up stories about why it’s true, but they’re untested. But like for example, I know that in Europe the anti-vax cause was very closely associated with the Green Movement for a long time, and it represented a wider skepticism about firms’ profit motives and whether or not our regulators were or weren’t honest. But that was the standard account of anti-vax in Europe and continues to be. Although it should be noted that the Green Party has officially purged itself of anti-vax elements, that they were really close to it. And it’s related also to ideas about homeopathy and so on. All this mistrust in medicine grows out of a mistrust in regulators, which is itself grounded in evidence from lax regulation and polluting industries and in the looming climate crisis.
Cory Doctorow: And I would say that India, obviously India is a super low-trust society, but one of the things that India values as a culture is Western processes as being less corruptible than the Indian state. And so it may be that the view is that vaccine is viewed as coming out of a Western tradition that is intrinsically less liable to corruption, although I think that there’s probably too much confidence that that’s the case. But the idea that if it’s coming out of the West, it’s probably not as easily suborned as domestic processes which are, especially in the time of Modi, extremely susceptible to corruption from moneyed interests.
Jim Rutt: I would suggest it’s at least worth considering that the network topology of information flow may also have something to do with it. That the Western Europeans and North Americans are living in a… sort of fully on, a multi-dimensional, multi-vector, no clearinghouses for information, at least those are all online, might be some of it too. So that would be an interesting place to look.
Jim Rutt: All right, let’s move on to the next novella in Radicalized, which is The Masque of the Red Death. This is a world where the bad trends in the earlier novellas may have gotten worse, but in any case, the big break occurred, social collapse occurs, and we follow the adventures, if we want to call them that, of some hard core survivalists. And this one really rang home for me because I’ll confess, I’ve had survivalist tendencies on and off, probably originally in about 1989 when I happened, my wife and I bought a rural property three hours from DC, a country farm basically. And I said… We bought it mostly for a recreation place to get away, a little bit closer to the land, etc., than life in suburbia. And I said, “Would this also have utility as a survivalist refuge?” And at the time I said, “How seriously should I take that?”
Jim Rutt: And I came up with through a pseudoscientific process a 2% chance that I would see a serious social collapse in my lifetime. At the time I was in my late 30’s, and so I have a fairly long life expectancy. I figured 2% chance. I reran those numbers not too many years ago, a couple years ago, and came up with 20% chance with a much shorter life expectancy. So one might say I think part of that is I’ve learned more about what could cause a social collapse.
Jim Rutt: For instance, there’s the famous Carrington Effect, solar storm, that fortunately hit right before the age of electricity. Solar storm of 1859. And then of course our society seems like it’s got more unstable the last 30 years, and hence, I give a non-trivial chance. 20% in the next 20 years call it that we could have a collapse.
Jim Rutt: My second personal reaction is as you’ll tell us when you tell us about the story, your scenario is basically the bunker version of survivalism where people go to a bunker and hope they have enough supplies and goodies to make it. I will say, I never have taken that very seriously personally, and have thought that if one does want to think about survivalism, you’re much better to take a community-based approach. Find a place that has an intact community of people who have old-timey skills, where the population density is low, where there’s plenty of water, where the climate is tolerable, and be a good citizen in those communities and make your bet that those communities will survive, rather than some guys in a bunker with some guns are likely to survive.
Jim Rutt: So anyway, that’s my personal reaction to thinking about this story. Tell us some more.
Cory Doctorow: This was really a response to that kind of thinking, and in particular, to the rise and rise of super-wealthy people who are making plans for the end times. You know, you have this spree of buying property in New Zealand for bunkers and so on. And it was the idea that technologically complicated societies are not the kind of thing where you can roll back easily to a lower-tech version.
Cory Doctorow: We hear a lot of rhetoric about whether or not the Earth has exceeded its carrying capacity, but what we know is that the extent to which the Earth is capable of sustaining the life that’s on it today is an intensely technological question. That everything from water purification, to modern medicine and sanitation, to energy consumption and development, and the efficiencies that you gain by having people in close proximity to each other, and so on, that all of those are things that we need in order to sustain the population that we have. And anything that we can imagine that would drastically reduce that population would on the one hand be extremely indiscriminate, right? So if you have a superbug or whatever that kills half of the planet. And on the other hand, would leave behind an even bigger and harder to manage logistical challenge for the people who survive because we do have a shared microbial destiny, and if you get rid of half the people on Earth, the other half of the people had better start digging graves pretty quickly or we are all going to die of the cholera that festers on the remains of our former loved ones.
Cory Doctorow: And so really the only solution that we have to a breakdown is not to go backwards, but to go up and through. It’s to get the machine running again. I think of the Titanic has a good parable about the problems and possibilities of hope and optimism and pessimism, and the limits thereof.
Cory Doctorow: So optimism is a kind of fatalism, right? Optimism is the idea that things will get better no matter what we do, and that we can just kind of put our faith in things working out well. And so optimism is what caused the people who built the Titanic not to put enough life jackets and lifeboats on board.
Cory Doctorow: Hope is why the people who ended up in the water treaded water. And pessimism is why some of they stopped. Treading water is a necessary but insufficient precondition for survival, but the survival of the people who had hope was dependent on rescue. It was dependent not on making treading water, or even being in a lifeboat, a permanent condition, but by using that as a transitional step to get back on a boat of the same scale as the Titanic.
Cory Doctorow: And when our systems break down, which they will because the Law of Entropy is a law, it is not pessimistic to think that that will happen, but it is pessimistic to think that we can’t get the systems running again. It’s kind of a belief in a fallen civilization, that we have already become members of a fallen civilization. That our ancestors knew how to build the kind of technologically advanced society that we live in, but that we have fallen so far from grace that if that machine were to stop, that we would have no idea how to start it again. We’re like the crew of an old pulp science fiction novel who are on a generation ship who’ve forgotten that it’s a ship at all, and who think that it’s the whole world, and who find the control room and realize that they have no idea how to steer the ship. Right?
Cory Doctorow: And I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think we’re a fallen civilization. I think that we are a civilization that is just as capable as the people who came before us, of both building and maintaining the machines around us. And that survival is ultimately about that. And that if you go to a bunker when the lights go out and hide out and wet the bed while everyone else figures out how to get the lights turned on again, and then you emerge with your thumb drives full of bitcoin and your automatic weapons hoping that you will get to live the Frazetta painting future where your heavy armaments allows you to assemble a harem and a whole farm full of chattel slaves to keep you going, that you are going to be sorely disappointed because we do have a shared destiny at the microbial level, at the technological level, and at the species level.
Jim Rutt: I thought you were bang on there in debunking the bunker theory because you are right that surviving some short period of time during the worst of the fluctuation is just the beginning of the game. We have to come back. We have to build some basis for society.
Jim Rutt: But it’s also true, and again this is… If one thinks about survivalism statistically, one has to acknowledge that some scenarios are not survivable. People say, “What would do about the 10-km asteroid?” And I go, “Put your head between your legs and kill your ass goodbye. Nothing we’re going to do about that. We’re all going to die. Most of us will die within a day or two. A few of us might make it a few months. But we’re eventually all going to be dead.” Someone has to think about what scenarios and for what period of a dip are you planning for, and at what level can you bring society back to relatively quickly.
Jim Rutt: And I am of the view that under a strong enough cataclysm, whether it’s a biological terror, or a solar storm, or EMP related nuclear war, we could get a pretty broken-back society that falls a long way and billions of people could die, and it would be horrendously ugly. The question is can that collapse be stopped and brought back to a sustainable level? And we have not forgotten all we know. We’re not people in a science fiction story who have just been coasting on inertia for a thousand years. Mostly we know what we know. On the other hand, our technology stacks are extremely deep. For instance, microprocessors require a layer of about 15 different very advanced technologies, many of which have very deep material sciences requirements, that it’s kind of hard to think about how you’d reboot.
Jim Rutt: On the other hand, if you look… some of the folks I’ve chatted with, have looked at a period that, 1925 or thereabouts, where we had internal combustion engines, we had the beginnings of the industrial world, etc. There’s relatively little magic involved in the technology of 1925. Vacuum tubes are kind of right at the cutting edge, and maybe we live without vacuum tubes, so we make it 1919. But we could probably get back to 1919, 1925 by the skills that you would find in distributed rural areas. Then the question would be, can we solidify a society at the 1925 level? And then from there, we build relatively quickly, probably less than clock time, to get back to 2020.
Cory Doctorow: Well, if we’re really serious about recovering from catastrophe, our emphasis should be on resilience. And so it’s true that we have lost a world where there’s a certain degree of legibility where you can take a part on an internal combustion engine and with a certain amount of foreknowledge, you could reconstruct the process that’s going on in it. That’s a lot harder to do with very large-scale integrated circuits.
Cory Doctorow: On the other hand, we also have a wider diffusion of expertise and knowledge than we’ve ever had before. And while it’s true that there’s some intrinsic fragility in our digital systems, there’s also an intrinsic robustness in our digital systems. When the Library of Alexandria burned, that was the only copy of many of those scrolls. If you take down a server these days, the chances are that it’s going to be mirrored in hundreds of copies around the world. In fact, we increasingly have a problem not with saving data, but with making sure that it’s gone. And while it’s true that old storage media is very difficult to recover, that it’s difficult to read old floppy disks or what have you, that contemporary storage actually doesn’t have these problems. Contemporary storage has its own microcontrollers that sits there and monitors the health of every sector in every drive, and rewrites data preemptively to sectors when other ones start failing. And then at the system level you have drives sacrificing themselves and switching themselves off, and moving their data onto other drives when you have functional problems. And then you have that also happening at the data-center level.
Cory Doctorow: And if we are going to make data robust, the most historically resilient way of doing that is by having lots of copies of it. Not by making enduring copies, but by making redundant copies. And that’s something digital allows us to do to a very high degree, and importantly, that information that is more robust at least in some ways than it’s ever been, is also the information we need to keep the systems running. And so, I think you play the ball where it lies.
Cory Doctorow: And this is the world that we’re living in, right? We’re living in a world where our strengths are redundancy and widely diffused skills, and our weaknesses are certain digital fragility and a path dependence. And you can try and roll back to a pre-digital world, or you can try to make the digital more robust and resilient by diffusing the information more widely, by diffusing the expertise more widely, by making sure that things are as legible as possible, for example, by demanding source code along with the products that we have so that it can be maintained by third parties to work increasingly with opensource hardware and interoperable systems, and so on. And what these do is they maximize the possibility that people can render legible the difficult technical systems that we work with and depend on today, even if they are not primarily trained in them.
Jim Rutt: That is very true, and for small fluctuations, I think it’s definitely true. When we clearly have many, many copies of most interesting things, but it all stand or falls around electricity. Our grid is an amazingly fragile device and very difficult to keep up. In fact, it’s been proven mathematically that it’s inherently unstable and we should expect blackouts of arbitrary size. We just saw a brutally big one in South America with no apparent cause. They’ll probably find there’s some small root cause that cascaded. And one can imagine scenarios where either the grid itself is directly impacted like through solar flares, or the grid is substantially destroyed during a period of civil unrest. And I think there’s a set of scenarios where the grid comes back within a year, and scenarios where it doesn’t. And one of the areas we have as a society have been remarkably negligent is trying to increase the robustness of the grid such that it can come back in a year.
Jim Rutt: There’s a surprising political figure who’s at the forefront of this, which is Newt Gingrich, surprisingly. He’s identified it. He’s co-written books on it. He talks about it regularly. And he points out that for a relatively small amount of money, maybe a couple of tens of billions of dollars, we could replicate and put in safe storage some of the heavy duty transformers. We could also buy some cold-start electrical generators. One of the little known things about how the grid works is the really big plants, the coal-fired plants, the nuclear plants, even most of the gas-powered plants, cannot start unless there’s power in the grid because they need the power in the grid to magnetize their electromagnets. And so we do keep a certain amount of diesel generation around, at least historically we have, to be able to do incremental reboot of the major generating elements. But for economic reasons, and as we know, everybody’s under economic pressure, the amount of diesel generation has been declining while the other asset classes have gone up of generation. And so again, it would make a lot of sense to subsidize at the cost of a billion or two a year electrical companies to keep X% diesel capacity to essentially be able to warm boot the grid.
Cory Doctorow: That sounds very plausible to me. My experience around the periphery of this, for example, was things like in Florida the local power authority got a rule that prohibited people from drawing power directly from their local solar generation, and requiring them to push it to the grid. And what this meant was that during times of blackouts after climate crises, that people who are actually generating power couldn’t draw on that power. And I’ve just arranged to have solar installed here on my roof in Southern California, and we are laboring under a similar condition, although we are allowed to have a battery that charges first before we have to sell into the grid. But we can’t run our house off of our roof. We have to run our house off the grid and we have to sell our power into the grid, and then bring it back. And I can’t help but think that there’s an extent to which this is driven not by complexity, but by a desire to retain centralized control in the hands of the people who invest in power generation.
Jim Rutt: You’re absolutely right about that. I’ve looked into this quite a bit in Virginia. Fortunately Virginia allows either, but what they have done on the screw-you side, Virginia politics is remarkably dominated by our big energy company, Dominion Power, pretty much everybody in the legislature has been bought off by them. Virginia has extraordinarily bad laws that corporations can donate to the legislature in their own corporate name, not even using workarounds like in the federal system, and in unlimited amounts. And so the wholesale price paid to producers by Dominion and the other Virginia power companies is ridiculously low. Insultingly low.
Jim Rutt: However, being a quasi-libertarian state, you are allowed to run your power directly. And I would also point out because I have thought about this for the case where you’re mandated to sell back to the grid and then take it back. Yes, you are mandated to do so, but it’s relatively simple engineering to do it the other way too. So you just have a Frankenstein switch scenario set up. Post-catastrophe we throw the switch, oh duh, we’re violating the law. Oh well. Right?
Cory Doctorow: You just have to hope you don’t get it inspected between now and Armageddon.
Jim Rutt: Well, as long as you don’t have the switches thrown, right? Because having the capability to do so after throwing two Frankenstein switches is almost certainly not a violation, though one could imagine a future legal regime where it might be.
Cory Doctorow: Having just been through a power inspection that involved a very close inspection of my transformers and breaker panel, I would not be surprised to learn that things that enable for trivial circumvention would be judged by the inspectors, who do have a lot of leeway, to not be within code.
Jim Rutt: That’s worth some research. Again, it fits into your adversarial interoperability actually, that if you own it, why the hell should they be able to tell you what you can and can’t do with your own solar panels, right?
Cory Doctorow: Yeah. And honestly, if there is a problem with the grid where it is… the complexity added by peripheral generation makes it very difficult to have this kind of robustness, I think the correct answer is not a prohibition on a more robust arrangement, but the technological change and upgrades needed to make our grid more powerful. But unfortunately, that’s not a thing, at least here in Burbank, that seems to be in the cards.
Cory Doctorow: We live in California and under Prop 13, cities are perennially cash strapped because they’re not allowed to raise property taxes. And in Southern California, one of the ways that that’s historically been managed is by sneakily raising power prices, which is technically illegal. Those city power utilities are supposed to run at a breakeven basis, and using that to fund general treasury because the alternative was just shutting off the lights. Not maintaining the roads, not having schools, and so on.
Cory Doctorow: And what happened was a predatory law firm started finding cranky libertarians to sue their cities over illegally raising energy prices to circumvent the intention of Proposition 13. And when this came to Burbank, Burbank settled with the law firm, paid them a quarter million dollars to go away, and dropped our power prices which were already pretty cheap, but knocked a $12 billion hole in the city’s $14 million budget, and left the city effectively broke. And we’ve now got a sales tax which is the ultimate in regressive taxes, and tax is the thing we want people to do, which is buying things locally, and as opposed to taxing the things we wanted people to do less of like using water in a drought zone or using extra electricity and being inefficient in their electricity usage. And now we are basically in permanent hiatus for that kind of big infrastructure project here in Burbank because we’ve lost that source of revenue.
Jim Rutt: And you were hinting at, and I think I’ll go a little further, which is that the longer-term answer to develop robustness is not just duplicating these core, big components like transformers and restart capacity, but moving towards a more decentralized grid. There’s no reason that we couldn’t have a regulatory regime, and if we had non-corrupt state legislatures, we could have some tax incentives on the grounds that we’re increasing social robustness and resilience by encouraging decentralized, which might well not be at the household level. It’s arguable whether household level photovoltaic actually makes sense. But at the community level, you know, 50 houses, 100 houses, there ought to be a national security incentive for people to build production centers at that level, which can be operated as islands when necessary. It can also be operated as part of the grid in the normal course of events.
Cory Doctorow: And so to bring this back around to Masque of the Red Death here, this is a story about people who’ve thought of everything except for the fact that maybe the rest of the world doesn’t think the way that they do, and who were really trapped in a prison of their belief that everyone else is as much of a bastard as they are.
Cory Doctorow: And it’s kind of the inverse of my last novel Walkaway, which was a novel about people fundamentally behaving good to one another during a time of crisis, and of the wealthy and powerful and therefore sociopathic elements of society being unable to believe that everyone out there was actually getting along and being so kind and good to one another, and being certain that somewhere out there must be cannibalism, raping, and Mad Max LARPing.
Cory Doctorow: And this is grounded in research as well. Rebecca Solnit wrote this wonderful book called A Paradise Built in Hell where she compares first person accounts, contemporaneous accounts of life after crises and disasters with the way that we remember them. And what she finds is that the isolated incidents in which people were barbaric and did turn on one another are the parts that we remember, and the ground truth of them which is that when the disaster strikes, that’s when the background refrigerator hum of petty grievance stops and leaves behind the ringing silence where you realize that you got more in common with your neighbors than you have against them, and where people pitch in. And that part we just erase from our histories. And so Walkaway was about the other side of that, living through the people who are getting on with things.
Cory Doctorow: And Masque of the Red Death is the people who can’t believe that there are people getting on with things. That there’s two kinds of people. There’s people who believe that the two kinds of people are good people and bad people. And then there’s the people who believe that most people are good, except that some people are polluted by the belief that some people are bad.
Jim Rutt: That’s well said. In fact, Masque of the Red Death, your bunker people died horrible deaths, but the nearby community of low-tech agriculturalists seem to be surviving and probably prospering.
Cory Doctorow: Well, and then ultimately the people who are coming back from Phoenix are coming back and reporting on a world in which despite the problems of high population density, the advantages of high population density, which are the advantages of cities all over which is that you have a whole bunch of different skills and ideas all rubbing up against each other, make it the place where civilization is coming back. Power generation, antibiotic production, and so on.
Cory Doctorow: You know, London during the plague years would periodically be depopulated by massive, massive fractions. You know, 25, 30%, even more. And then people would just come back to London despite the epidemiological problems of close quarters because the advantages of close quarters, the vibrancy, the mixing together ideas, and the speed of progress overweighed the costs, and ultimately were the answer to the costs. It took a John Snow to create modern epidemiology, but John Snow was in London because London was the kind of place you went to if you were a person like John Snow.
Jim Rutt: That’s a useful and hopeful way to look at it. I’ve really enjoyed this. It’s been just what I was hoping it would be, a really interesting back-and-forth with somebody who has clearly thought a hell of a lot about these things.
Jim Rutt: Production services and audio editing by Staunton Media Lab. Music by Tom Muller at modernspacemusic.com.