Geek Speaks: Q&A With Cory Doctorow


{Header photo by  Dan Taylor, via Wikimedia Commons, and used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.}

Note: this article was also published on Neon Tommy.

Cory Doctorow spoke as part of a panel convened by the Annenberg Innovation Lab on science fiction. The panel was entitled, “Geek Speaks: The Uses (and Abuses) of Science Fiction”. Click here for a full recap.

Following the panel, Cory Doctorow sat down with Neon Tommy for a conversation about science fiction and the future of online content.

How do you define science fiction?

I actually think science fiction is best understood as a marketing category. In general, science fiction concerns itself with the way that technology changes society and vice versa, but the defining boundary around science fiction is generally things that are sold as science fiction. In the pre-Internet era, if you wanted to shelve a book in two parts of the store, you needed two copies of the book. That’s no longer the case: we no longer have categories, we have tags.

So science fiction’s definition is becoming increasingly fluid. Although there’s a culture that’s associated with science fiction and although there’s a canon that’s associated with science fiction and there are conventions associated with it, they have diffused in lots of ways: now online, a book can be shelved in every category, and the way that you find it is as likely to be by a software-generated recommendation or recommendation from a friend or a ranking a list of search results by number of reviews or by price or whatever as it is by going to a certain section in a store or clicking on the science fiction link of the online bookstore and perusing it that way. So in some important way, the definition of science fiction, it’s significance is in decline.

Photo by Joi Ito, via Flickr, and used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.

What about science fiction as a genre: what about the subgenres such as fantasy and horror that are inevitably shelved with it?

 There’s a reason, right? And that’s because they share a lot of similarities, they share a lot of conventions. For all the science fiction and science in its name, most science fiction has the same relationship to science that romance has to love. You wouldn’t really want to become a scientist only by reading science fiction. I think what science fiction can do is give you a sense of the possibility space of invention and technology, but not necessarily a very good practicum on how to implement it.

You are a fierce proponent of ending DRM (digital rights management) on content and “freedom in content”. How do you see the future of content and getting people to get money for it? How do people get paid?

So there’s a thing that behavioral economists scientists call survivorship bias. Here’s a great example: if I came up to you on the street and said, ‘I am psychic and I can tell you who’s gonna win the big football game tonight. And if I get it right, here’s my number. Call me up and I’ll tell you who’s gonna win the next one, the next one, the next one.’ And so, I’m right. The next week, you call me up and I give you another prediction, and I’m right again. And you call me again, and I’m right again. And after five of them, I say, ‘Tell you what. This time, I want $50,000, ’cause you can go to the bookie – you know it’s good. At that point, from your perspective, it looks good because you’ve only seen the successes. But the way that I did that trick is I started with 512 people. And at each stage, half of them I’ve gotten it wrong with.

So, the survivorship bias is that when you only see the successes, you overestimate the likelihood of success or the significance of success. The actual significance of the success of the con artist who runs that con is nil, right?  His role in society is not particularly significant, and there’s a good reason to believe that, for example, stock brokers are entirely a phenomenon of survivorship bias: there are a lot of people making stock picks, and some of them statistically will get their stock picks right. Doesn’t mean they know anything special about it, and yet we think of stock brokers as having, you know, incredible acumen.

In the arts, almost everybody who tries to earn money in the arts fails. And that’s a pre-Internet phenomenon. So, in the arts, nearly everybody who’s ever tried to do anything in the arts has not only failed to make money, but has lost money, right? When we say it’s really important that the Internet go on paying artists, it’s what, what we’re actually saying is that it’s really important that a nearly random selection of an infinitesimal fraction of the people who’d like to make art would make money. Now, given that I’m one of those people who’s in that infinitesimal fraction, I’m not, you know, opposed to that idea. But I question its global importance. Almost all the art ever made was made without any rational expectation of return, and almost all the art ever made didn’t have a return, and significant portions of the art that we think of as very good and successful had never return.

Photo courtesy Flickr user gruntzooki.

So, leaving aside the fact that we’ll probably have lots of art and it will probably be good art, even if we never pay an artist, speaking as a working artist, how do we make sure artists get paid? We need to reform the way that digital rights management law works. So, digital rights management law today says that, like I’m Amazon and you want to sell the book through me, if I put the lock on your book, you can’t authorize the person who buys the lock from me to unlock it. And what that means is that every time you sell a book, I’m locking people into the Kindle. The more books you sell, the less market control you have over your own destiny and the more I get to boss you around as someone who’s utterly dependent on me as part of the way that you extract revenue. The only way that you can move to someone else’s platform is if you count on your readers, who I found, who bought the book from me, throwing all the way the books, all of your books, and buying them again for the Nook or for the Kobo. Whatever else we do about the arts, that is guaranteed to turn artists into sharecroppers.

If we limit the number of people who can collect money on behalf of artists like payment processors, what we will do is radically reduce the number of places that an artist can go to collect money for their works, to distribute their works, to tell people about their works. Again, you create a sharecropper situation where instead of having a whole bunch of entities who are fighting for an artist, the right to be the intermediary for the artist, you are instead creating a situation where the intermediaries call the tune and the artists have to dance.

The number of people who can write a great book and the number of people who can create a payment processing system to collect money for that book, that Venn diagram doesn’t so much have an overlap as it has a tiny little sphincter , right? And by saying the only artists who get to control their economic density/destiny are the ones who fit right in the middle there? You are effectively guaranteeing that even successful artists will be impoverished. So, I don’t know how you make artists rich, because almost every artist has failed to do it, but I know how you make sure that even the artists who succeed get poor, and that’s to have the policies we have today.

We can try and spread out the money, we can advocate for arts programs that fund art, we can ensure that artists who do come up with a commercially successful idea, and we minimize the chance that they’ll be taken advantage of by unscrupulous businesses that sit between them and their audiences, but that’s really all you can do. I mean, there is no policy that will create a living for people who want to be artists apart from if you call yourself an artist, we’ll give you $40,000 a year until you stop, right? Everything else will do nothing to enrich almost everyone who wants to make art.

For more information on Cory Doctorow, visit his personal website or Boing Boing.