Cory 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.”
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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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[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. My name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR podcast. So on today's episode, I have something a little bit different. I'm featuring a science fiction author named Cory Doctorow, and he's got a new book called Walk Away. And a lot of people within the VR community are very familiar with Black Mirror and other dystopian takes of the future. And I think that these dystopian visions of the future are very important as a function to be able to question where we're going. Now, I think that what Cory is doing is a little bit more in the vein of a white mirror, trying to imagine a more utopian future. So Cory is the editor of Boing Boing, and so every day he's looking at visions of the future. And so in this book, he's really creating this world and doing this world building with all of these ideas about what the world could be. And so I wanted to sit down and talk to him because he's talking about these ideas about the gift economy and also privacy is something that still plays a big part of his stories of the future. And Corey says that we're at this state of peak indifference about surveillance, meaning that from this point forward, there's just going to be more and more people who are less indifferent about it as they learn about the risks and costs of data breaches, as well as identity theft and other issues that are coming up when it comes to these companies that are gathering and storing all of this personal data about ourselves. So we're talking about gift economies and privacy and kind of a utopian vision of the future that's based upon open source principles on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. But first, a quick word from our sponsor. Today's episode is brought to you by the Voices of VR Patreon campaign. The Voices of VR is a gift to you and the rest of the VR community. It's part of my superpower to go to all of these different events, to have all the different experiences and talk to all the different people, to capture the latest and greatest innovations that's happening in the VR community and to share it with you so that you can be inspired to build the future that we all want to have with these new immersive technologies. So you can support me on this journey of capturing and sharing all this knowledge by providing your own gift. You can donate today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. So this interview with Corey happened during his book tour of WalkAway that was happening in Portland, Oregon on Sunday, May 14th, 2017. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.
[00:02:33.300] Cory Doctorow: My name's Corey Doctorow. I'm a science fiction novelist, an activist, a journalist, sometimes fake computer scientist. I have an honorary doctorate in computer science from the Open University in the UK, where I'm a visiting professor. I am a research associate at the MIT Media Lab. Unofficially, they call me activist in residence. I work part-time for Electronic Frontier Foundation on a project to kill all the DRM in the world. I'm one of the owners of Boing Boing, and I'm a novelist. And so the novel I'm touring right now is called Walk Away. It's my first novel for adults since my 2009 novel Makers. I've been writing young adult novels more or less. And I call it an optimistic disaster novel. It's a novel about people who abandon a society that has no use for them because they just don't need that many workers to produce all the comforts that the super rich need. and they found a kind of alternate society by repurposing super fun sites and industrial garbage to build super luxury hotels where anyone can live that are owned by no one and if anyone disputes them they just go and build another one or if someone comes along and says that's my plot of garbage you have to leave they just don't put up a fight they just go somewhere else and build another one sort of like forking a wiki
[00:03:46.112] Kent Bye: Yeah, and I'm curious if you could talk a bit about your process of world building because it sounds like you're taking inspiration from a number of different books. One about what happens after a collapse of a society and sort of the gift economies that arise from that, but also debt and capital. So you're kind of looking at new ways of thinking about economies. So I'm just curious how you're able to tie those ideas into your process of world building in the process of writing this book.
[00:04:10.088] Cory Doctorow: So I don't do a lot of formal world building in the sense of, you know, making a D&D module for my characters to play in. You know, I have this weblog, Boing Boing, that I edit with my friends, and I've done it for 16, 17 years now. And every morning and all day, as interesting things come across my transom, instead of making notes about them and how they might someday fit into a bigger piece, I write up what it is that snagged my interest in them for strangers to read. That means that I can't cheat on the notes. I think when we make notes for ourselves, I certainly tend to make very thin notes that when I go back I can't figure out what I meant half the time. But writing for strangers means you have to write thick, significant notes. And that means that it's available to me to recall. And gradually these little fragments, they start to form a kind of super saturated solution of things that might fit together to make a bigger piece. And eventually a couple of them will stick together and nucleate and sort of crystallize into something bigger. And so, as you mentioned, there's three books that were really influential on me in writing this, but they were filled in around the edges by all of this material that I think both inspired the books that inspired me, same phenomena that those authors are writing about, and that were inspired by those books. And the three books are David Graeber's Debt, The First 5,000 Years, which is a masterful history of the true origin of money. There's no evidence that we ever created money because it was hard to make change for a cow and chickens. It was created, as far as we can tell, for things like kings who wanted to feed their conquering armies. So they taxed the conquered peasants with taxes that could only be paid in coin. Then they paid the soldiery in coin. And in order to get the coin, the peasants had to sell the soldiery the food they were growing. So that kind of imperial and coercive nature of money, which runs contrary to a lot of the stories we tell about money, which tends to be very pastoral. Rebecca Solnit's book, A Paradise Built in Hell, which is about the fundamental kindness of people and how good we are to each other in times of crisis, and how we remember those times, or that we are told that those times are actually times of barbarism, when really they're times of humanity's finest moments. And then finally, Thomas Piketty's book, Capital in the 21st Century, which is this carefully argued, data-driven analysis of capital flows for 300 years, that shows that market economies do not enrich people who make amazing things that enrich the general prosperity, as they are said to do. If that happens, it's incidental to what market economies really do, which is make people who start off rich even richer, and that over time it concentrates money into fewer and fewer hands, until the instability of having just a few people controlling all the wealth and therefore their dumb ideas taking on this huge outsized realm, you know, today that would be things like climate denial or the Saudi denial of a role in civil society for women, where just a few rich weirdos get to make their peccadillos into national policy, that eventually that just results in a collapse, a world war, guillotines being built, something like it, that destroys so much capital that we can have this period of rebuilding. And so those three things, you know, when you start to think about them in the context of everything else that's going on in our world, a future starts to coalesce. Not one that we're necessarily going to, but one that is an interesting one to think about it as a mirror for our own.
[00:07:32.440] Kent Bye: Yeah, the thing that it reminds me of is this concept of yen and yang currencies. Yang currencies promoting competition and individuation, basically what we have now with these debt-based currencies. And then the yen currencies, which are kind of like negative interest rate, where it could be anything from open source, where you want to try to release fast and quickly so that you get kind of the network effects of people participating in that. It's like information, the more that you hoard information, the less valuable it becomes, so you kind of share information. It's also like bread. When you have bread, you want to be able to give away the bread quickly, otherwise it's going to go stale. So it's that sort of idea that you're sharing. And there's threads of the gift economy that you have that are talking about this more yin currency approach. I'm just curious, from your perspective, if you see that in this book showing the extremes of one or the other, but if you see that there's going to be some sort of fusion of both yin and yang, competition and cooperation.
[00:08:27.115] Cory Doctorow: I think there might be a transcendence of them. So, you know, in networks we have this, not a tragedy of the commons, but we sometimes have commons where the sheep shit grass. So, you know, think of the way Napster worked in the old days, where the more demand there was for file, the more widely propagated it became and the easier it was to gain hold of. This isn't bread you have to use up before it goes stale. This is self provisioning resources that are provisioned by the demand. The act of demanding them makes them more widely provisioned. BitTorrent works the same way. So we have like not just this idea that we have economies that encourage a sociability or a fellow feeling or a sense of shared destiny as opposed to zero-sumness or competitiveness, but we actually have this even more weird unprecedented difficult to like metaphor notion of stuff that the more valuable it is the easier it is to get hold of. That is really something we've never really had in the physical world and imagining it in the rest of the world is pretty exciting. You know, Bruce Sterling, the science fiction novelist, he once posited a design object, a theory object called a spime. And a spime is a useful thing that exists as information until the moment that someone needs it. And when they need it, it becomes instantiated by some fabrication process. And it's designed to gather usage data during its duty cycle that's continuously used to improve the design for all other versions that are instantiated afterwards. It's also designed to gracefully decompose back into the material stream when it's done. And this idea of things that aren't just well made, but things that are well distributed, that they arrive at the moment of their need and then they gracefully bow out when they're done, it's a kind of zip car version of fully automated luxury communism. where instead of like saying how on earth will we give everyone a lawnmower maybe we can make the lawnmowers better out of fewer things we say well actually you only need a lawnmower one day out of 14 and the reason that we have a lawnmower in every garage is because the opportunity cost of figuring out where the goddamn lawnmower is is so high that you might as well buy a crappy one and keep in your garage because that's better than having the one good one that you and your neighbors could all pull in for and then try and figure out where it is. But with networks solving our logistics problems, we may be able to reduce the amount of lawnmowers we need by a factor of 14 by having one lawnmower that gets used in rotation, but also having it so beautifully coordinated that it's always there when you need it. And so you get the best of all possible worlds.
[00:11:06.631] Kent Bye: Yeah, and where I see the gift economy really being bootstrapped right now is in the open source worlds where there is no real scarcity when it comes to copying bits and sharing the code that may be driving these different applications. But when you think about trying to apply these open source metaphors to resources, they may actually be scarce. I'm just wondering how far you could take that metaphor into a post-scarcity reality when there may be actual limitations for how much natural resources there are.
[00:11:35.068] Cory Doctorow: Well, I mean, there's still bottlenecks in free and open source software, right? There's attention and the janitorial side of free and open source software. So in free and open source software, we have a massive catastrophic shortage of people who want to be software janitors, who go in and clean things up and make sure that they're all working and patch and debug and continuously improve. We have a lot of people who want to be carpenters. And it's got to the point now where we have things like OpenSSL that are critical infrastructure that have 10 and 15 year old showstopper zero day bugs lurking in the code that unleash total havoc on the world. It's actually a wonderful nonprofit called the Internet Engineering Task Force. They identify critical internet infrastructure where the number of committers in the last six months of any significant patching is like three or under. and they refactor that code and find a community of contributors to keep the code running because oftentimes you get things like NTP, which is a timekeeping protocol that has been implicated in horrific, ghastly security problems where denial-of-service reflection attacks took down huge pieces of critical internet infrastructure. And it was being maintained by one guy using an out-of-date program called BitLocker that no one had a license for, and so no one could check the code in and out. And it was on a server that he'd lost the root passwords to 10 years ago, so it had never been patched. And if this guy got hit by a bus, that would be the end of it. And so they figured out how to make a much more secure, robust version with 30% fewer lines of code. So we always do have bottlenecks. Scarcity and abundance are not a factor necessarily of mere material abundance, because without the logistical piece, you can have an enormous supply of photons striking the Sahara Desert, but without the logistics to get the photovoltaic energy generated by them to Alaska in the dead of winter, you're still going to burn a lot of coal. And so that logistical piece is really important. And in the digital world, the logistics keep getting more and more interesting and easy because we have things like Google has this data center in Belgium where it's in a valley that's cool enough that two-thirds of the time they don't need cooling, which is the most expensive part of data processing, and the other third of the time they just switch it off with a switch, like a light, because Google's data is self-healing and doesn't care what metal it gets processed on. And with logistics, with coordination, there are all kinds of ways that we can make those bottlenecks less significant. So for example, everybody needs lots of aluminum. It's a super high utility metal that is used in lots of industrial applications. And aluminum smelting is really energy expensive. In places where we have more renewable than we know what to do with, we can smelt the aluminum there. And if we have logistical coordination, what that means is that no energy is ever used in places where there's a shortage of renewals to smelt aluminum, which takes the base load off of that grid of doing the aluminum smelting. But it requires coordination to do it. And right now we use markets to do that, but we're experiencing a kind of catastrophic breakdown in market-based allocation mechanisms. And so imagining a kind of cooperative, commons-based, peer-driven allocation system that works more like the free and open-source software world than like the agoric system that we at least pretend we have. for allocating our other resources is an exciting science fictional exercise. It's not a prediction. It's not even a road map. It's a sort of provocative way of imagining which vector we might head off on towards to see how much juice we can squeeze out of that particular low-hanging fruit.
[00:15:24.805] Kent Bye: Yeah, the thing that I find really fascinating about that idea is that you're using science fiction as almost an architectural document to be able to paint a possible future. There are some magical technologies that you have in there for sure, but also there's an element of values of people collectively deciding how they're going to interact with each other. And that's something that has to be cultivated either through having collections of people get together, like a situation like Burning Man, where they have a short one-week period of a gift culture and gift economy. And so I'm just curious, for your perspective, like, you know, there's the scalability issue, I think, to be able to scale out that level of gift economy out beyond just one week, but also to the entire world. So I'm just curious to hear other things that you've looked to for inspiration for how to actually manage this issue of the tragedy of the commons.
[00:16:13.141] Cory Doctorow: Sure. Before I do that, let me just make a quick caveat, which is we're talking about the book in very lofty, abstract terms. And I want to make the point that I'm a pulp writer. I'm a science fiction genre novelist. As Bill Gibson says, by God, I can plot my tractor has wheels on it. And this is, more than anything else, an adventure novel of people in Zeppelins shooting railguns at people in Meccas, right? And all this other stuff is stuff that the Zeppelins and the Meccas are in service to, but the Zeppelins and the Meccars and the railguns and all the other awesome stuff, it's always in the foreground. The question of how far we can scale non-market ways of conducting our lives, it's I think an open one. Markets used to be this fringe activity. It was literally a thing you did once a fortnight, you went to the market. Almost none of our interactions were organized in markets. And as markets became more central to how we organized our lives, they primed our social relationships to be transactional. So there's a kind of feedback loop. Lawrence Lessig talks about the four forces, code, norms, markets, and laws. So the more markets became central to our lives, the more normal it seemed for markets to organize our affairs. The more that happened, the more legislatively it made sense to make markets ascendant over other forces. So now we have things like by glancing in the direction of this license agreement that no one, including the person who wrote it, has ever read, you've agreed to all the terms in it. That makes sense only if you buy the normative side of it that says market organization produces our best outcomes as a philosophical idea. And then you have code, technology, what's technically possible. And so the centrality of markets has built out a technical infrastructure to support market-like activity, but no parallel structure to support non-market-like activities. And so I don't know. And I'm not trying to predict what could get us there. But I'll point out that the most rapacious, Ayn Rand-driven market firm, Uber, is not a market internally. If you get a job at Uber, you don't pick up some Uber chits and use them to put bids and puts on which desk you're going to sit in and what job you're going to do. Uber is a command economy run internally like a Stalinist dystopia. that nevertheless says that the only way to produce an optimal outcome is by abolishing all central authority. And that contradiction tells you that the dominance of markets is nowhere near what we think it is. In fact, every now and again you'll hear stories about neoclassical economists who try to raise their kids through market mechanisms where they'll do things like charge their kids for the services they render to them and give them a budget and that sort of thing and inevitably these people are sociopaths and their children are ruined by it because for your family and friend life to be transactional in that way denies some of the real benefit, the critical social benefit we derive from those relationships without which people go crazy, right, and are rendered totally dysfunctional.
[00:19:41.693] Kent Bye: Yeah, another big theme that I wanted to bring up in the book was just kind of sprinkled throughout is these issues of privacy, whether or not people are going dark or getting information tracked on them or being spied upon. And I'm just curious to hear your view on privacy now. And if you kind of see this as a cautionary tale in terms of the way that people are going to have some level of resilience of all this pressures of capturing all this data on us, and how that kind of fed into your story that you're creating here.
[00:20:09.632] Cory Doctorow: Well, you know, networks and computers, they have this contradictory nature about privacy. So on the one hand, with cryptography, we have the power to make and keep secrets as average individuals beyond the power that anyone ever had in the history of the world. It's a genuinely new thing on the planet for you to be able to have a low cost device in your pocket that you can put a message on that after it's been scrambled, Even if all the hydrogen atoms in the universe were computers and they did nothing until the universe ran down, but try and guess what the passphrase was or what the key was, we would run out of universe before we ran out of possible keys. That is a novel thing in this world. We've never had it before. But at the same time, Because, in part, of some intrinsic elements of the technology, but in much larger part, the extrinsic elements of our social norms, our legal norms, and our commercial norms, these devices gather and weaponize huge amounts of information about our personal lives and use it against our interests. And so within that tension is a contestable future in which maybe we can figure out how to seize more privacy while retaining the services that are so valuable that we get, but that cause us to give up all that privacy. And one of the problems of seizing privacy is that it's a team sport. And so if you are very careful about your end of the communications, but you communicate with people who are less careful, then their sharing or carelessness can make your data exposed. And because it required a very sophisticated technical understanding to understand what the privacy risks were, the tools that were available for people who wanted to be private assumed a very high level of technical sophistication. And there's a kind of reinforcing loop there, where even if you could get an inkling of the idea that privacy was important, the tools were not built for you unless you are already technologically clued in. But we've been here before, you know, desktop publishing software once assumed that everyone who would ever want to set type was a typesetter. And it was really abstract, and it really assumed a huge amount of foreknowledge. And along came desktop publishing, and it turned out 95% of what we tried to do when we set type was something that civilians could do. You didn't have to be a typesetter. Now 5% was totally intractable. But once you stopped assuming foreknowledge, you could actually build a tool that was very accessible. And what's more, the more those tools propagated, the less obscure the knowledge of typesetting fundamentals became. You know, everyone knows the word font now, right, which was not a thing. Like, you literally couldn't say font before and expect that a person using your software would know what you meant. And now we use it without a moment's second thought. So the job gets easier. And we're at this moment now I call peak indifference to surveillance, where definitely the number of people who are being surveilled is still going to go up, and the extent of the surveillance is still going to go up, but the number of people who are worried about it is also only going to go up from here. Because we have gathered and siloed huge quantities of potentially compromising data on billions of people. and it's stored indifferently and recklessly, and all of that data will leak. It's a matter of when, not if. And that data's harm is cumulative. The more of it that's leaked, the worse it gets, because you can merge data sets and piece together things to compromise people. Two years ago, there was a rash of stories around Christmas in the Wall Street Journal in New York and the Financial Times in London, which were two of the overheated property markets. about identity thieves who are piecing together enough pieces from multiple breaches to forge duplicate deeds for people's houses and sell them out from under them for cash. So literally having your house stolen because of a data breach. So there will be, every couple of weeks from now on, millions of people whose lives are turned upside down and destroyed by data breaches. And those people will not be people we need to convince to care about privacy. They'll be people we need to convince that now that they care about privacy, they can do something about it. It totally changes the toolsmith's job. And it makes me think that in a world of contestable futures, we have a path to how we contest. which is to catch these people on the way out of their crisis and say, here's the home phone number and address of the person who made the depraved decision to gather that data on you and store it as though it was worth nothing, and here's the tool you can use to stop all of the people just like that Zuckerbergoid from doing it to you again.
[00:25:00.599] Kent Bye: I'm just curious to hear your thoughts of whether or not there's going to be a couple of vectors of counteracting some of this privacy. On one side, you have adding an identity with the blockchain. You have concepts like self-sovereign identity to be able to have your identity not necessarily centralized or federated, but have it under your own control. Also, if there's going to be a cultural shift in terms of the companies, if the business models, as we move from the information age to the experiential age, if people are going to demand not to be surveilled, but to kind of pay up front for services or experiences that they have.
[00:25:34.325] Cory Doctorow: So I don't think it actually, there's that old saw, if you're not paying for the product, you're the product. Even if you're paying for the product, you're the product. All of these commercial products that you pay to use are still products that gather as much data on you as possible. So companies are externalizing entities, so they try to push their costs out onto the rest of the world, and they're profit-maximizing entities, so they try to make as much profit as they can. And so, if I can make money by selling you a product and then make more money by spying on you, I will. And since you have no negotiating power, and because we have these adhesion contracts that say by being dumb enough to use this product, you agree to all these terms of service that you won't read and no one else will ever read, then we can readily gather all that data and monetize it as well. So I think if firms are going to limit their rapaciousness about our private data and their cavalier attitude towards it, there needs to be some other means of disciplining them. And I've thought of a whole bunch, like class action lawyers are probably a good way of doing it. I think once the reinsurers get wind of the potential liability for all of the data that's been warehoused, that they might go to firms and say, like, you can gather and store as much data as you want. Here's what your premium is going to look like. Now, there's a counteracting element of that, which is that Binding arbitration through an adhesion contract is becoming more and more common. So by using this product you agree to waive your right to sue us. if we breach, that's a real problem. And that's an area where we might see legislation that says binding arbitration can only come through a negotiated contract and not through an adhesion contract. So it has to be a contract that two equals negotiate. Or it might say there are limits on binding arbitration, or binding arbitration might not cover certain kinds of harms. And so that would give us market-based solutions. I think that this is one of the things markets are actually pretty good at. As a class-action lawyer, you don't have to care about privacy to understand that if the biggest, richest companies in the world have amassed potential billions in liabilities to people who you just need to gather under one roof in order to get a piece of those liabilities, and that for every hour that you and your firm spend, you can charge $500 an hour to that firm once you're given your costs, then I think that will very quickly discipline these firms in the market. I think that a lot of the benefits that we derive from technology that spies on us can be also derived from technology that doesn't spy on us. I mean, for one thing, firms aren't obliged to store the data that is exhausted by our use of their technology. You know, I'm old enough to remember when log files were like the pubic lice of the internet. We just couldn't get rid of them. You'd forget to rotate them and your server would crash because the hard drive would fill up. And it was years before someone said, there's gold in them, their logs, and started mining them. No one came down off a mountain with two stone tablets and said, thou shalt minutely and verbosely log all of your users' activities and then retain them indefinitely and try to draw inferences from them. And so that might be a thing that we change in our product design. I'm really interested in the context of VR and AR, the idea of people being treated as sensors instead of things to be sensed. The idea that your device knows what your preferences are and your device knows what services are being advertised by the virtual worlds around you. and your device marries those for you without ever telling the services what you're doing. And so, you know, you go to Disney World and instead of wearing a prisoner tracking cuff, which is the current state of the art, your device is fed a continuous stream of all of the bathrooms with short lines, churro wagons, rides, parades, and whatnot, and your device knows when the last time you peed was and how hungry you might be and all the rest of it. And that data never leaves your device, but your device is doing things like maybe transmitting to a SpideySense anklet where you've got little haptic motors all around the anklet and it buzzes in the direction of something that might be interesting to you. So that even at a subliminal level, you just find yourself lagging it out to the parts of the park where the most interesting things are happening for you without you ever giving any data to the park management about what you're doing. we can imagine really amazing experiences built in that pattern instead of in the, we just spy on everything you do and then try and figure out who you are and what you need.
[00:30:02.897] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, I'm just curious to hear some of your takeaways of the process of writing this book, things that you're either really proud of from the ideas of projecting yourself into the future of these possible futures, or if it's a tying it together with the stories and the characters that you have going through walk away.
[00:30:20.705] Cory Doctorow: I actually have to say that the thing that made me most pleased is the reaction it's getting from the public. Very early on when I started sending it out for blurbs, I heard back from people who I really rate, who I really admire and respect, who had nice things to say about it. So Jochai Benckler who wrote Wealth of Networks and is really the leading theorist of free and open source software called it, you know, was very enthusiastic and gave me a blurb. But then Ed Snowden also gave me a blurb and talked about how It was a book that made us ask what kind of world we wanted to make. William Gibson and Kim Stanley Robinson, Neil Stevenson, they all said really nice things. And since then, that's been the pattern. I don't think there's been, well, there was one pretty negative review in Publishers Weekly, and everything else has been super positive, from readers who've been with me for a long time to people coming to it for the first time. Even the Wall Street Journal liked it.
[00:31:13.193] Kent Bye: Great. Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say?
[00:31:16.665] Cory Doctorow: I'll mention that I did something economically experimental with this. I'm running my own e-book store where I retail on behalf of my publishers. It's Tor McMillan in the US, Head of Zeus in the UK, and I'm the Amazon in that picture. You come to my website, craphound.com, and you buy the book from me. I take 30%, which is Amazon's share. I give the 70% that remains to the publisher, who take 25% and send it back to me as a royalty. So I double my royalty, and then you get the book with no DRM. You get it anywhere in the world, so I don't say, well, you're shopping at the US Amazon, but you have a UK credit card. You have to go somewhere else to buy it. And you get it without any license agreement. The only terms that ride with it are, don't violate the copyright law. Same deal that you get with books. So it's pretty exciting. I'm going to open source it, let other people play with it. And if you're a podcast listener, you might be interested to know that there's an amazing audiobook edition with Will Wheaton and Amber Benson from Buffy, and Amanda Palmer, Myram Willis, Lisa Renee Pitts, Justine Nair, and Gabrielle D'Acquire. It's a really beautiful production and unfortunately it's not available on Audible because they only carry books with DRM, so they refuse to carry my books. But you can get it everywhere else, Downpour, my own website, your local library. And I hope you'll give it a listen. The production is amazing.
[00:32:36.112] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for joining me today, Corey.
[00:32:38.475] Cory Doctorow: Well, thank you. It's been my pleasure.
[00:32:40.717] Kent Bye: So that was Cory Doctorow. He is the science fiction author of Walk Away. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that, first of all, in going to these different VR festivals for films such as VRLA or Tribeca or Sundance, I'm starting to see a lot of films about the future. And most of them tend to be on that black mirror type of genre where you're really envisioning a dystopian vision of the future. But I think the real power of virtual reality is that you can start to create these environments and build these worlds that give an actual positive vision of what is even possible with a completely new paradigm. And I think that's why I think Corey's walk away is so important because it's starting to really paint this utopian vision. So a couple of things that I think are really just juicy and fascinating to think about. He talks about this idea of the spine. That's the combination of the word space and time. It's this idea of an object that exists as information, but as soon as you need it, it gets instantiated as a real object and it's there for you to use. Now, as we start to talk about scarcity and post-scarcity, when you talk about the physical world, there's natural and physical resources that you need, and there's the limitations for how easy it is to get access to that. But when you're talking about a virtual world or something that's happening on the internet, the resources, that sort of boundary starts to go away. Corey is talking about this thing that we don't have a good metaphoric sense about, unless you understand how the peer-to-peer networks of say Napster or BitTorrent works. The idea is that the data is stored on everybody's computer. So the more that people are storing that data, the easier it is for you to get that data in a peer-to-peer network. So it's kind of opposite to what we have with the. real world, which is that the most valuable things are scarce. But in the digital world, the things that are most valuable tend to be the most abundant, so it's actually easier and faster to get a hold of them. So if you start to think about architecting a future virtual world where a lot of the data and files are distributed amongst everybody's computer, then you start to bring in that natural yen currency of surfacing to the top the things that are the most valuable and important, and because they're going to be shared amongst the most people. So if you have a distributed file system, then you start to get this phenomena of self-provisioning resources that are provisioned by the demand. This is kind of the essence of what Corey is talking about. Now in his sci-fi book he's talking a lot about the physical world with 3d objects and you're able to take objects when you don't need them you put them back into feedstock so you can then regenerate all these materials and basically using all these open source metaphors to be able to create this future that there's no property nothing is being owned by anybody you can kind of take anything at any moment and if someone takes it or they disagree with you you can walk away and just rebuild your own version of it Now, I think that there's actually a lot of limitations to this idea. And if you think about our existing capitalistic system as a thesis, I think what Corey is putting forth here is an antithesis. It's not necessarily like a viable stepping stone to be able to get to where he's talking about. What he's saying is that we're on this trajectory of living in a society that is totally being dominated in all different dimensions by the market, and that in order to get to this other realm where you're starting to get into this more gift economy types of ideas, it's almost like a complete green field, like you're abandoning your existing system, you're walking away, and you're creating something entirely new. So in information technology, there's this idea of greenfield and brownfield. The brownfield is where you have all these systems, they're legacy systems, and you have to maintain them, and so you get kind of like this compromised improvement where you have to still support the thing that's existing and then build something new. Well, with virtual reality, it's totally greenfield. You can just build a completely new world from scratch. You don't have any legacy systems to have to maintain. You can just build something and say, here, there's something completely new. We are at a time in our culture right now where a lot of our institutions are just crumbling, they're disintegrating, they're failing. It's a slow burn, but over the next nine years, I expect a lot of these institutions are going to stop really functioning for most of the people. So we have this opportunity right now with virtual reality to start to rapidly prototype and innovate and to build the cultures and ideas that Corey is starting to talk about in this book because you're not limited by a lot of these resource constraints. I'm already starting to see that in some of the experiences that are out there. A couple of examples. One is Anylands where it's like this virtual world where you can start to share objects and much like a gift economy where you can create something and then share it with other people for them to be able to use it and you can permission it for people to be able to do that. Also I'm starting to see things like with Tilt Brush starting to be able to remix other people's drawings. So it's a little bit of like this remix culture where you're putting out digital assets you'll be able to take those and start to add and then contribute back into the comments as it were. So I think eventually we're going to still be living into the physical world. We're still going to have market economies, but I think that we could start to have a combination of this, both yang and yin currencies. So things that are very competitive and use the things that markets are very good for, which is dealing with resources that are constrained. But there's also cultural problems, I think, with the market in terms of how it's operating to be able to maximize their profits. Now, I think that within the context of these market-based economies, we can start to develop these different types of gift economies. And we already have that today with open source, with the internet, a lot of information that is being able to be shared freely. We have this sense of cooperative nature that is happening. Look at Wikipedia, for example. That's a great example of something that's a commons-based resource that everybody's participating and contributing and weeding. It's like a garden that is continually maintained. Now, Wikipedia is not without its faults, but it's probably one of the best examples of a knowledge capture that is collaboratively generated. That is the potential of this kind of yen currency that the internet is really enabling. I really love what Corey is talking about, citing Lawrence Lessig. He's talking about these different dimensions of our critical infrastructure of both our culture and our society that are composed of code, norms, markets, and law. So we have the technological infrastructure that's being driven by the code. We have our cultural norms. That's basically our collective decisions that we're making as a society. We have our commercial markets that are really driving the capital flows, as well as how we're able to basically make a living and survive on this planet. And then we have the laws that are being able to come up with the collective agreements that we're having as a society in order to have a functioning society. Now, these are kind of like the primary fundamental operating system of our society. And most of these are being driven by the market. The market is buying off the people who are making the laws. So the people who are having most access to capital by lobbyists, they buy out the Congress, the Congress writes the laws to be able to benefit those people who are still in power. The norms are also slowly being infiltrated by this market-based type of thinking. So, for example, when we have these Ahegian contracts, when we glance at the terms of service, that basically binds us to all these different agreements that are these market-based relationships. such that when you have things on Facebook, you're essentially becoming a productized entity, and all of your relationships are also being productized to a certain extent, where they're using your emotional connection to your friends to be able to surveil all of us and collect all this data on us. So what Corey is saying is that we basically have this whole technological infrastructure that is supporting these market-based economies, but we don't have very much technological infrastructure that is supporting these other types of gift economies or economies that are not based upon the market. And again, I think this is where virtual reality has the potential to play a role, either by creating stories and worlds that show us what might be possible in this type of world, much like what Corey's doing in Walk Away, but also actually building it. I think High Fidelity and what they're doing with a lot of their ideas about self-sovereign identity, as well as with the distributed web, I think Mozilla of what they're doing with A-Frame as well as with WebVR. I think there's a lot of the technological infrastructure that's slowly being developed such that we could start to have this type of gift economy that we're going to start to see. Just as an example, I've already started to see where you could start to bring an A-frame entire scene by having a single line of code. So you can start to remix A-frame scenes just by adding a single line and all of a sudden you have this environment that's been created out there. And so this remix type of culture I think we're going to start to see in things like WebVR. We're already starting to see it. And finally, this whole discussion about privacy, I've been covering this on the Voices of VR podcast, and I really love the fact that we may be at the peak of indifference around surveillance. Like this may be the height and the climax of how indifferent everybody feels and that the more that we move forward, people are going to only become more and more concerned about what's been happening with all these companies, especially as we have these things with these malware and these weaponized worms to be able to have data breaches, we have all this data that's being stored and you know with the critical infrastructure and having this world where it's never really possible to fully secure this information that's being stored there's a certain mindset you can say well just don't store it and you'll be safe but that's not the reality we live in we have all this information that's being stored on us so what Corey is saying is that it's pretty much an inevitability that at some point some of this data is going to get out and it's going to leak and then the more of those leaks coming out it's kind of a cumulative effect so that there's more and more personalized information that people are able to get a hold of on either the dark web or information that's out there. They start to combine all this information and like Corey was saying people are starting to like falsify the deeds they have on your house and be able to essentially steal the house out from underneath you. Now, I think that the idea of self-sovereign identity, combining identity with the blockchain, such that it's going to be more and more difficult to have identity theft and for other people to steal our identity, but for us to be more in control of our identity and what information is stored upon us, I think we're quite a ways away from that. In the meantime, I think there's going to be a number of different things that are going to have to happen in order for these companies to start to adapt and change to a new way of being that is moving away from this surveillance capitalism. I think there's going to have to be new business models that are coming up. And I think that as we shift from the information age to the experiential age, we do have that opportunity to start to say, OK, well, maybe we move to more of a subscription-based model where you're subscribing to different sites and services, where you're participating in the services. But like Corey said, all these subscription services are still gathering all this data on us. And so even though we're participating in these subscriptions, we're still being surveilled to a certain extent. So, you know, what Corey is saying is that there could be class action lawsuits and lawyers that are coming in to basically have these liability lawsuits whenever there's these data breaches such that we can have these class action lawsuits. Maybe that's going to be the market based solution that's going to be able to rein in some of these privacy concerns. I don't necessarily think that regulation is going to be able to come in and the government's going to be able to stop this train that's already kind of left. But also, as consumers, we each have the decision to decide who we're going to participate and to honor with our services. And I think that as we get more people learning about the privacy implications, that has some influence, but honestly, it's not much of a drop in the bucket right now. There's a small fraction of people that are rebelling from this surveillance-based capitalism. So I think, again, you know, you look at Corey's walk away and he starts to talk about all of how privacy starts to evolve into the future. And, you know, it's definitely still on that dystopian front where they haven't necessarily figured it out, but there's all these practices and protocols that people have to follow in order to maintain their privacy to a certain extent. So that's all that I have for today. I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And, you know, as we're talking about the gift economies, I think that, you know, if you're a listener to the Voices of VR podcast, you're having a direct experience of what a gift economy is like, because I am totally trying to imbue all that I'm doing here on the Voices of VR with this idea of giving this information to you as a gift. And the more that I share information, the more that I actually receive information. And so it's got a great feedback loop in that way, but yet I can't use information to be able to live. And so I need your support to continue to do this podcast. So if you want to provide me a financial gift, then become a donor. Just a few dollars a month makes a huge difference and helps to continue the work that I'm doing here at the Voices of VR podcast. So donate today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.