#536: “Walkaway” Author Cory Doctorow on Gift Economies & Privacy

cory-doctorowCory Doctorow’s new sci-fi book “Walkaway” is a optimistic disaster novel that imagines what society might look like if people walked away from competitive market-driven laws, norms, and technological infrastructure and into an open-source inspired, collaborative gift economy. He’s a co-founder of Boing Boing, and he uses the daily transom of tech culture and innovation as inspiration for world building fodder for his potential utopian futures. Privacy is also a recurring theme as the cyberpunks of the future have a number of different tactics for going dark and protecting their private data from being exploited.

I had a chance to catch up with Doctorow on his book tour stop in Portland, and we talked about gift economy economic paradigms, theoretical self-provisioning Spime objects that instantiate when you need them and disintegrate into elemental form when complete, the extent to which market forces continue to infiltrate all dimensions of our lives, and how we’re reaching a “peak of indifference about surveillance.”


At his core, Doctorow identifies as a pulp writer who puts zeppelin rail guns battling mech warriors at the forefront of his incredibly well-specified sci-fi worlds. He’s crafted an engaging drama that’s creatively exploring new cooperative economic paradigms. He isn’t trying to present a viable hybrid synthesis of the old and the new worlds, but rather creatively explore building a greenfield world from scratch that’s based upon a post-scarcity mindset and fueled by open-source principles. It’s a world where it’s inhabitants exhibit an enlightened Buddhist level of deattachment to physical objects to the point where concepts of personal property have vanished.

Virtual Reality may prove to an experimental sandbox environment to prototype greenfield environments that could foster this type of post-scarcity gift economies. I’m already starting to see this type of gift economy exchange in virtual worlds that would be much more difficult given the constraints of real reality. You can find examples of cooperative asset sharing in Anyland, Tilt Brush worlds can be remixed, and you can mash-up A-Frame WebVR code with one-liners.

If the technical infrastructure moves to a model of distributed file storage, then this will invert the inverse relationship between supply and demand in that “the more popular something is, then the more available it becomes.” In other words, it’ll be kind of like a Bitorrent peer-to-peer network in that popular files have more seeds and are generally more available and faster to download. In other words, the more valuable an asset is, the easier it is to get ahold of it within these digital peer-to-peer sharing networks.

This is the opposite for how physical reality usually works, and so online virtual worlds will likely be the proving grounds to explore new cooperative models of yin currencies. It will also enable self-provisioning “spime” resources to arrive at the moment of need and then gracefully bow out back into the material stream of “feedstock.” Doctorow calls this the “Zip Car version of fully-automated, luxury communism.”

In this day and age, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to come up with a variety of potential dystopian futures that could be episodes of Black Mirror. What’s harder is to come up with a number of potential utopian White Mirror futures that extrapolate current technological metaphors into the future. Doctorow is one of the most sophisticated and nuanced sci-fi world builders out there today, and he’s constructed an inspiring vision of a potential gift culture paradigm. It may be a while before the full realization is possible to achieve in real reality, but this type of world and cultural norms can start to be prototyped and built in VR today.

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Music: Fatality & Summer Trip