Doctorow has written more than two dozen books, as well as hundreds of essays, blog posts, and articles. His young adult novel Little Brother received several notable awards and was recently acquired by Paramount Pictures for development into a feature film. Its sequel Homeland was likewise well received by critics and the book even made a cameo appearance in Citizenfour, the documentary about Edward Snowden. He is the author most recently of the nonfiction book Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free as well as the co-author of the graphic novel In Real Life. His newest novel, Walk Away, is set for release in 2017.
I spoke with Doctorow after he delivered the keynote address at UC Riverside’s Writers Week Conference this February. The speech was riveting. Doctorow flowed for 45 seamless minutes, addressing privacy, crypto, and surveillance. In our interview, the reflection in his glasses kept me from seeing his eyes. This was equally frustrating, eerie, and fitting, considering the topics we discussed.
JOSHUA RIGSBY: You’ve mentioned — in Boing Boing and other places — your dissatisfaction with the Cameron government and London, which you recently left, and which you see as a playground for the rich and famous, a tough place to raise a family, and a difficult atmosphere for small businesses. Of all the places on earth you could have gone, why did you choose Burbank?
CORY DOCTOROW: A lot contributed to it. I knew I wanted to be on the West Coast. My wife’s start-up was in the Disney Accelerator for the summer, so she had to spend three months somewhere near Glendale. I’ve done a lot of work for Imagineering and will probably do more, so being close to Glendale is nice.
Burbank is its own little village. We’ve got a 2.5-mile-long stretch with no chain stores. I don’t own a car. We walk everywhere. We live five minutes from the airport. It’s very handy and weird and surreal. It’s where they shot the B-footage for ’50s TV shows, so everything feels eerily familiar in a Father Knows Best kind of way.
Burbank has just become our new normal, we’re settled in, we’re about to get our green cards. The bureaucracy is crazy, but it’s a one-time thing and that’s how I maintain my sanity, by saying, I never have to figure out how to get my Canadian long-form birth certificate again. So, I will spend this afternoon trying to figure out the office address of the doctor who delivered me 44 years ago for the Canadian government, but then never again.
You get this question a million times, but you are publishing constantly. What’s your writing regimen like?
Depends on what I’m working on. Right now, I’m not working on a book, just sketching ideas out of my head. For the last book I wrote about a thousand words a day.
You have many roles: sci-fi author, activist, blogger, speaker, and journalist. All of these aspects of your career work in concert, but if you were forced to choose only one, what would you choose?
I used to have to choose only one when I filled out the landing card coming into the UK, before I became a citizen. I would put “writer” in that tiny little box. I think “writer” holds all that other stuff together. I used to have a business card that said, “internet user,” and I liked that. I thought that was pretty accurate.
A few months ago at a conference in Australia, you said: “I went back to work for an activist group after ten years of making up fairy tales to help you pass the long slog from the cradle to the grave because I know of a thing that we can do.” I know this is a huge question, but what is the role fiction plays in the world?
I don’t know that there’s a “the role,” but I think that one of the roles that fiction plays is that it’s entertaining. Fiction is primarily about empathy. It’s about pretending you’re someone else and experiencing their emotions. In the same way that getting a back rub feels nice, because it’s good for your muscles or whatever, I believe that thinking about what it would be like to be someone else is just intrinsically satisfying — at least for people within one or two sigmas of normal cognitive activity. Science fiction can also give us an emotional fly-through of a technology. It can be like an architect’s rendering of what it would feel like to live inside a technological regime, and so science fiction has been very useful in policy fronts in that regard.
It just seems from the quote — and obviously that was said in a specific context with a different audience — that you were skewing toward activism as being more meaningful.
Oh, I don’t know. I would say that they’re both meaningful. I couldn’t do one and not the other. It would make me very unsatisfied.
Especially when you see Edward Snowden in Citizenfour packing up a copy of your YA novel Homeland among his possessions.
Although — I have to come very clean about this. Laura Poitras, the film’s director, brought that book to Snowden for two reasons. The first was that she thought he’d enjoy it. And the other is that if they needed a book code, and it was a book full of terminology about leaks, whistle-blowing, and crypto.
So they used it as a book code? How cool.
Yeah, a book code is when you tell the other person to check a certain page, or line, to create the message they need. She thought the specialist vocabulary necessary to talk to Snowden required a book that has some overlap with “Snowdenian” subject matter. But my understanding is that he enjoys my work. We have corresponded very little.
And you’ve recently released new leaks from Snowden’s trove.
Right, well, that was Laura and not Ed who gave me those leaks.
In some of your stories like “I, Rowboat,” there are inanimate objects as characters, post-singularity [when artificial intelligence reaches a certain threshold], who are uploading their consciousness to the internet. These characters seem to become depressed fairly quickly. Is this an homage to Douglas Adams, or are you saying something about the nature of existence?
No, I wouldn’t say it’s an homage to Marvin the robot. Introspection necessarily includes existential worry. Right? If you can think about yourself, then you will eventually think about why you are thinking about yourself. What are you doing here? Those kinds of questions. So, once you make things introspective, they kind of necessarily become fraught. We have an abundance of humanlike cognition on earth right now and a shortage of nonhuman cognition. We have a shortage of people doing shitty jobs well, and not feeling put out by it.
Will that introspection necessarily lead to sadness or depression?
Well, I wouldn’t call it depression. I’d call it existentialism. I think depression is, medically, a sense of inadequacy or helplessness that doesn’t match up to reality. It is pathological, not because you feel sad, but because you can’t take action to make yourself feel better. That’s clinical depression. Depression is not just feeling sad. Feeling sad when sad things happen is normal.
Have you had a brush with clinical depression?
Sure, yeah, I think everyone has. I’ve been very low. I lost a start-up I’d started at the same time that a very long-term relationship broke up. The two were very closely related. Yeah, it’s an awful, helpless feeling for sure.
Switching gears a little. You’ve committed yourself to fighting the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which you’ve explained elsewhere is a federal law that makes it a felony to break a digital lock on a piece of software, regardless of whether it’s in your car or in your insulin pump, thus leaving people vulnerable both to capricious companies and malicious hackers. What’s the current status of that fight?
It’s all kind of gestating right now. I’ve got 20 little subprojects under way that I give a little nudge to every day to keep them moving. One that’s visible is the World Wide Web Consortium. They’ve decided to standardize digital locks for web browsers. We’ve asked them to adopt a covenant so that the members of the body that help make digital lock standards will not do so under the DMCA. That has been a very exciting fight.
How have your goals as an artist and an activist changed over time?
I don’t know about goals. I would say that my analysis has changed somewhat. In part because of the growth of Facebook. I always believed that the majority of the adversaries that we would have in tech policy would be companies that, like Google, benefited when the internet got bigger, but that wanted to do something naughty in respect to it, privacy-invasive or whatever. Whereas Facebook wants to get rid of the internet and replace it with Facebook. Tactically that requires a whole different approach.
Thomas Piketty has influenced how I think about the economy. There’s been a gradual assertion of capital that went through a big bubble in the two World Wars, and the interwar period, and which created a moment in which we could have social programs. Now that moment is over, and we have to do something if we want to get it back again. The amount of wealth concentration chokes out all the oxygen from any modern political discussion of progressive social policy. I used to think it was just a pendulum swing. I no longer think that’s the case.
What’s next for Cory Doctorow?
I’m doing lots of stuff this year. I’m working with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Paramount’s got a writer for the Little Brother movie, and I’m helping them out a little. There may be a Little Brother 3, but not any time soon.
I’m also getting ready to launch Walk Away, my first adult novel since 2009, and it’s a big book. It’s going to be Tor’s lead title, and they’re going to do a bunch of stuff to market it, and I will spend most of next year on the road promoting it. So, I’m getting all my ducks in the row about that. CAA is repping it to movie studios, so I’m doing some work with them.
Can you tell me more about Walk Away?
Walk Away was inspired by the historian and activist Rebecca Solnit, who wrote the book A Paradise Built In Hell, about the gap between how people who live through disasters experience them, how they are reported, and how political and economic elites react to them. She starts with the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, and she shows this recurring pattering called “elite panic,” where rich people are convinced that when things break down the poor people are going to come and eat them, basically. So the rich preemptively attack the poor. Like General Funston keeping people out of the mission as it burned during the 1906 earthquake. He actually sent out detonation squads that didn’t know how to set fire breaks. They burned down a quarter of San Francisco, and didn’t let anyone go back and fight the fires in their homes. Or in Haiti — the ironclad belief that there would be food riots led to the creation of food distribution centers that were pretty much custom-built to create riots. Or in New Orleans, where there were no verified accounts of looting (as we understand it), besides people taking supplies and leaving IOU notes with the intention of settling up once the owners returned. Nevertheless there were Blackwater mercenaries and rich white neighborhood associations who were shooting to kill because they were convinced that there would be looting. There is this gap between how people behave and how elites believe people will behave.
Walk Away is a utopian disaster novel. It’s a novel about a disaster where people behave well.
Joshua Rigsby is a Los Angeles–based writer and tea drinker.