JANUARY 30, 2021
CORY DOCTOROW’S NEW NOVEL, Attack Surface, is inseparable from the zeitgeist — both are riven by insurrection, corruption, misinformation, and inequality — and the near-future it portrays illustrates how technology and politics are inseparable. The story follows a self-taught hacker from San Francisco who helps build the American digital surveillance apparatus out of a genuine sense of patriotism, only to discover that she’s propping up exactly the kind of unjust, predatory system she’d set out to defeat. Computers play a role as important as any other member of the diverse cast, and computing is treated with a rare technical rigor that reveals the extent to which our tools shape our lives and world.
Having established that dystopia is a state of mind and how to fix the internet, Doctorow uses Attack Surface to explore what it means to build a better future. This is a novel about reinventing democracy and imagining new institutions for the internet age. You will cringe. You will grit your teeth. You will keep turning pages late into the night because this is the kind of fiction that creates space for truth to reveal itself.
In the following conversation, we discuss why cryptography is a crucial political tool, what tech workers can do to take responsibility for the systems they build, and how the manner in which Attack Surface was published evinces the precise themes the story grapples with.
ELIOT PEPER: What’s the origin story behind Attack Surface? How did it go from a nascent idea to the book I’m holding in my hands right now?
CORY DOCTOROW: Neither of the Little Brother sequels were planned. I wrote Homeland five years after Little Brother, propelled in part by the same factors that fueled Little Brother — increasing dismay at the way that the liberatory power of technology was disappearing into the two-headed maws of surveillance-happy states and greedy, indifferent tech monopolies.
Attack Surface arose from similar circumstances. But Homeland and Little Brother addressed themselves to computer users, people who might not understand what was being taken from them and what was theirs to seize. These novels worked — many technologists, cyberlawyers, activists, and others have approached me to say that reading Little Brother and Homeland set them on their way.
Attack Surface, by contrast, dramatizes and enacts the contradiction of the technologists involved in that confiscation of our digital freedoms. The typical journey of a technologist is to start out besotted with technology, transported by the way that a computer can deliver incredible self-determination. If you can express yourself with sufficient precision, a computer will do your bidding perfectly, infinitely. Add a network and you can project your will around the world, delivering that expression to others in the form of computer code, which will run perfectly and infinitely on their computers. Use that network to find your people and you can join a community where others know the words for the nameless things you’ve always felt — you can find the people to collaborate with you on making big, ambitious things happen.
And yet, the end-point of that journey is to devote your life and your skill and every waking hour to writing code that strips them of the same opportunity, that turns the computer that unshackled your mind into a prison for others.
So Attack Surface probes the sore that the friction of this contradiction engenders. I was going to hacker cons, meeting these lovely people who cared about the same issues I do, but who would hand me business cards from companies that were making things worse and worse — and worse and worse.
That’s where the book came from. It had lots of iterations: titles (“Big Sister,” “Crypto Wars”), extra characters (the book lost a boyfriend and 40,000 words), and so on, but that was always the impulse.
Why do you write technothrillers? What role do they play in our culture?
I mostly hate technothrillers. They’re stories that turn on the intricacies of computer technology but are completely indifferent to those technical realities — crypto that can be broken through brute force, idiotic MacGuffins about networks that are totally unrelated to how networks work, and so on.
I wrote Little Brother to prove that technothrillers didn’t have to abandon rigor in order to be exciting.
Computer science, computer engineering, and security research are, in fact, incredibly interesting. Moreover, they’re salient: the more you know about them, the better you understand everything about our contemporary world.
If you want to know how white nationalists planned a failed insurrection in the capitol, or whether police could have known it was coming, or what needs to be done in the aftermath to re-secure the computers in the capitol, you need to know these things.
Attack Surface explores how technology is not the solution to social problems, but a morally neutral accelerant to political action, and that ultimately only politics can solve social problems. How did you learn this lesson? How did it change your worldview? What does it mean for someone who wants to contribute to building a better future?
I started in politics — my parents are activists who started taking me to protests when I was in a stroller. But in 1977, when I was six, we got our first computer (a teletype terminal and acoustic coupler that let me connect to a DEC minicomputer at the university my dad was studying at). I never thought that computers on their own could solve our political problems — but I always thought that computers would play an important role in social and political struggles.
Technology and politics are inseparable. There’s a kind of nerd determinism that denies politics (“Our superior technology makes your inferior laws irrelevant”). But just as pernicious is the inverse, the politicos who insist that technology is irrelevant to struggle, sneering about “clicktivism” and “solutionism.” I have logged innumerable hours wheatpasting posters for demonstrations to telephone poles. I can’t believe that anyone who claims networked computers don’t change how politics work has ever wheatpasted a single handbill.
Cryptography cannot create a stable demimonde that is impregnable to oppressive, illegitimate states — over time, you and your co-dissidents will make a mistake, and the protection of math will vanish. But the fact that it’s not impregnable doesn’t disqualify cryptography from being significant to political struggle. Nothing is impregnable. Crypto is a tool — not a tool for obviating politics, but a tool for doing politics.
Moreover, the existence of crypto — the fact that everyday people can have secrets that can’t be read without their consent — changes the equilibrium in oppressive states. The privilege of the powerful — secrecy — has spread to the general public, which means that leaders who are tempted to take oppressive action have to take account of the possibility that the people they oppress will be able to plan their downfall in ways that they will struggle to detect.
What did writing Attack Surface teach you? What surprised you most? How are you different for having written it?
The biggest change for me was in craft. The first draft of Attack Surface came in longer than I wanted — 170,000-plus words! — and I really wanted to cut it. I’ve always struggled to cut my fiction, and I’ve been working on it for the past couple novels. With Walkaway, I cut about 20 percent of the initial word count, mostly with line edits.
The lessons of the Walkaway cuts carried over to the drafting of Attack Surface — the writing tics that created the excess in sentences that let me cut one in five words just by reworking the phrasing disappeared. So Attack Surface didn’t have those sentence-by-sentence easy cuts.
Instead, I worked with an outside editor, Juliet Ulman, who came up with a plan to merge two characters, one a love interest, the other a protégé. That merger got rid of more than 40,000 words.
Now I’m working on a new novel, The Lost Cause, and it’s coming in much shorter than Attack Surface (about 110,000, I think) and I attribute that brevity to the lessons I internalized while rewriting Attack Surface.
Tor published the ebook and print editions of Attack Surface, but you independently produced and published the audiobook with the support of more than six thousand Kickstarter backers who pledged $267,613. Why did you choose this publishing path? How is publishing changing, and how is your participation in and relationship to publishing changing? What did you learn from the process? How will you be publishing your next book?
I won’t allow my work to be published with DRM on it, for many reasons — economic, political, technological. It’s bad stuff. Thankfully, all the ebook stores allow authors and their publishers to choose whether their books will or won’t have DRM.
However, the largest audiobook distributor — Audible, part of Amazon, with 90 percent of the market — will not give rightsholders the choice. If you publish audio on Audible, they will mandatorily apply DRM to it, locking it eternally to Amazon’s technology and platform. Every time I (the author) sell you (the reader) a $25 audiobook on Audible, that’s $25 you would have to give up to follow me to a rival platform. That’s powerful bargaining leverage for Amazon and the entirely foreseeable endgame is for Amazon to squeeze suppliers (like me).
Publishers know this, but Amazon has 90 percent of the market, so they’re stuck with it. They keep selling books that are locked to Amazon’s platform, making their positions even more precarious.
My publishers — Macmillan — are great, but they don’t want to pay good money for audiobooks they’re not allowed to sell on the platform where 90 percent of the sales take place. So they made me an offer: “We’ll make an audiobook but we won’t give you any extra money for it … or you can retain the audio rights and try to sell an indie audiobook.” I took the latter.
I produced the audio with Skyboat Media, a leading studio here in Los Angeles, and Amber Benson (who played Tara on Buffy, and has written several excellent novels) narrated. My longtime editor John Taylor Williams mastered the audio.
The Kickstarter did really well, obviously, and the audio continues to sell briskly — from my site, and from every audiobook store except Amazon and Apple Books (both of which have mandatory DRM and thus do not carry my work).
The Kickstarter campaign was about showing that well-known writers who directly appeal to readers and explain the risks of growing tech monopolies can make as much money (or more) than they would if they allowed Amazon to use their works to entrap readers. It did that. My hope is that other best-selling writers will take inspiration from this and try it themselves — if a substantial proportion of best sellers are available everywhere except Audible, it will nudge heavy audiobook listeners to trying Audible rivals like Libro.fm and Downpour, which offer virtually the same titles, at the same prices, as Audible. Losing subscribers to these rivals will hit Amazon where it hurts — and maybe push them into offering fairer terms for writers and our readers.
My agent is negotiating the next book deal right now; I’m hoping Macmillan will partner with me on another crowdfunded audiobook for the next round, and help with the marketing, production, etc. — but even if they don’t, another quarter-million-dollar-plus payout will certainly serve as a great consolation prize.
Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels that explore the intersection of technology and culture, including Bandwidth, Cumulus, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a monthly newsletter documenting his journey as a reader and writer, publishes a blog, and tweets more than he probably should.
Photo by Jonathan Worth, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0