Cory Doctorow's 'Fully Automated Luxury Communist Civilization'
The author of Little Brother and Walkaway on dystopia, the end of scarcity, and what's going to get him arrested
Cory Doctorow, of BoingBoing and Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) fame, has returned to adult fiction after a long stint in the young adult hinterlands (Little Brother, Homeland). His new novel, Walkaway (Tor), circles back to the theme of his first novel, 2003's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom: the question of what a post-scarcity world might look like. A fascinating cadre of John Galt–style opters-out form the core of the new novel, but the story is concept-driven, not character-driven.
As usual, Doctorow's politics permeate his writing. And, as usual, they're just heterodox enough to provide moments of delightful confirmation bias and squirm-inducing challenge for readers of nearly every ideological stripe.
Doctorow, a civil libertarian who identifies with the political left, has staked out a broad and eccentric territory for his fiction and nonfiction beats, covering topics from privacy to drones to Digital Rights Management (DRM) to open-source software creation.
The Walkaway audiobook is a particular delight, featuring guest appearances from a ramshackle celebrity cast, including Amber Benson, Justine Eyre, Amanda Palmer, and Wil Wheaton. All versions of the novel are free from distribution-restricting DRM protections. The downside is that standard providers like Audible won't carry it.
When Doctorow stopped by Reason's D.C. office in April, he handed out credit card–shaped USB drives loaded with the audiobook on his way out the door. Hardcover review copies also shipped with a similarly sized multitool. These little flourishes bring readers a few inches closer to Doctorow's subversive worldview, where it's always possible, even admirable, to thumb your nose at the rules imposed by governments, tech companies, and just about everyone else.
Reason: Let's talk about the word dystopia. It's a word no one knew 10 years ago and now everyone says all the time about pretty much every novel ever. Is this a dystopia in Walkaway, or a utopia?
Doctorow: I think that we mistake the furniture for the theme. We tend to think of books in which things are in crisis as being dystopian novels. But really it's a very hard job to write a dramatic novel—especially in the kind of pulpy science fiction tradition—in which things aren't going wrong. So for me, the thing that cleaves a utopia from a dystopia is what [essayist and critic] Rebecca Solnit says cleaves a disaster from a catastrophe: It's what we do when things go wrong. Do people pitch in and rise to the occasion? Or do they turn on their neighbors and eat them? That's the dystopian vision. The most dystopian thing you can imagine is that, but for the thin veneer of civilization, it would be a bloodbath.
Is Walkaway a prequel to Down And Out in the Magic Kingdom? It seems like a similar universe. Has the political take-away that you would want people to get out of those two books shifted, either because your views have changed or because facts on the ground have changed?
I think science fiction is not predictive in any meaningful way.
It's certainly not great at it.
We're Texas marksmen: We fire the shotgun into the side of the barn and draw the target around the place where the pellets hit. We just ignore all those stories that never came true.
But I also think that prediction is way overrated. I like what Dante did to the fortune tellers. He put them in a pit of molten shit up to their nipples with their heads twisted around backwards, weeping into their own ass cracks for having pretended that the future was knowable. If the future is knowable then it's inevitable. And if it's inevitable, why are we even bothering? Why get out of bed if the future is going to happen no matter what we do? Except I guess you're foreordained to.
I'm not a fatalist. The reason I'm an activist is because I think that the future, at least in part, is up for grabs. I think that there are great forces that produce some outcomes that are deterministic or semi-deterministic. And there are other elements that are up for grabs.
What science fiction does is not predictive, but it is sometimes diagnostic. Because across all the science fiction that has been written and is being written, and all the stuff that's being greenlit by editors or has been greenlit by editors, and all the stuff that readers can find and raise up or ignore—there's a kind of natural selection at work. The stuff that resonates with our aspirations and fears about technology and our futures, that stuff gets buoyed by market forces, by the marketplace of ideas, and becomes a really excellent tool for knowing what's in the minds of the world.
So the book itself, considered on its own, is a good way to know what's in the mind of the writer. The books that succeed tell you what's in the mind of the world. And if there's a lot of this stuff coming to a prominence at this moment, I think it does say something about the moment that we live in, that there's a certain amount of pessimism. There's a fear that we are being stampeded towards a mutually distrustful, internally divided future where we end up attacking each other rather than pulling together. I think even the most cynical person understands that if civilization collapses and you run for the hills, you aren't going to be a part of rebuilding it. The people who are part of rebuilding are those who run to the middle and get the power plant working again, reopen the hospital, and get the water filtration plant working again.
"That kind of coordination—where at the moment that something is needed, and at the moment where it's cheap to do it, it's done—is characteristic of the efficient-market hypothesis. It's characteristic of planned economy theory. It's the thing that everyone is shooting for."
This notion that my gain is your loss and that there's not enough to go around, and there's this big game of musical chairs and the chairs are being removed at speed, is a theme in a lot of the science fiction that's prominent right now.
Walkaway is in some ways a prequel to Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. I certainly reread Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom with a pen and a highlighter and some post-its and made tons of notes before I started work on Walkaway, and I have a whole file of themes that I wanted to pick up.
Some of that is the understanding that I've come to in the 15-plus years since I wrote it. And some of it is wanting to respond back to the people who read Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom as a utopia and who didn't understand that there were dystopic elements.
It was a very mixed future. Reputation economics have the same winner-take-all problem—the Pikettian [problem that says the] rate of growth is always less than the rate of return on capital—and that produces insane runaway wealth disparity and dysfunction with misallocation of resources.
In Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, your ability to run Disney World is based on how much esteem people hold you in. And so literally you can walk in and start handing out tickets. And if the people treat your tickets as though they're the right tickets, then you get to be the Czar of Disney World, which is the premise of the book.
Yet I'm sure you get people coming up and saying to you, "Oh my God, you basically predicted Uber's reputational system!"
You weren't alone in thinking about those reputation mechanisms as a powerful force [in the early '00s]. Charlie Stross has a bunch of great stuff in his books about how that might look, too.
Yes. I stole it from Slashdot's karma [system].
Right. So it feels both normal and dystopian to people simultaneously.
But I think Uber is normal and dystopian for a lot of people, too. All the dysfunctions of Uber's reputation economics, where it's one-sided—I can tank your business by giving you an unfair review. You have this weird, mannered kabuki in some Ubers where people are super obsequious to try and get you to five-star them. And all of that other stuff that's actually characteristic of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. I probably did predict Uber pretty well with what would happen if there are these reputation economies, which is that you would quickly have a have and a have-not. And the haves would be able to, in a very one-sided way, allocate reputation to have-nots or take it away from them, without redress, without rule of law, without the ability to do any of the things we want currency to do. So it's not a store of value, it's not a unit of exchange, it's not a measure of account. Instead this is just a pure system for allowing the powerful to exercise power over the powerless.
Isn't the positive spin on that: Well, yeah, but the way we used to do that allocation was by punching each other in the face?
Well, that's one of the ways we used to. I was really informed by a book by David Graeber called Debt: The First 5,000 Years, where he points out that the anthropological story that we all just used to punch each other in the face all the time doesn't really match the evidence. That there's certainly some places where they punched each other in the face and there's other places where they just kind of got along. Including lots of places where they got along through having long arguments or guilting each other.
I don't know. Kabuki for stars on the Uber app still seems better than the long arguments or the guilt.
That's because you don't drive Uber for a living and you've never had to worry that tomorrow you won't be able to.
Talk about the quasi-anarchic properties of the universe that Walkaway exists in. What exists of the law and who are the people operating outside of it?
The mainstream Walkaway world is called Default, which is a term I stole from Burning Man. The Default world is one in which the rule of law is entirely tilted to the favor of a small cadre of super-wealthy people who have game-rigged the system. And everybody else—the 99 percent—is in this very precarious position, where some of them are needed to make the automated systems go and some of them are needed to make sure that the people who do the work don't get too uppity, because they can always be fired. And then everyone else is kind of surplus to requirements.
And a lot of them walk away. They can [take an] escape hatch into a kind of bohemian demimonde where they move into brownfield sites left behind by toxic post-industrial implosion. They use drones to find the leftovers of the civilization that had once been there. And then they use software from the U.N. High Commission on Refugees to figure out how to recombine that to build a kind of fully automated luxury communist civilization, where you go on a scavenger hunt, you find all the stuff, and you build a huge Dr. Seussian amazing luxury hotel that anyone can stay in and that anyone can be the czar of and that anyone can contribute to. And it's built like a wiki, where people add things and people remove things and you can see who added what and who removed what, and you can decide collectively through deliberation, and sometimes through shitty arguments, and sometimes through very reasonable arguments. One of the things that the walkaway culture aspires to is that kind of rationalist mode of argument, where we're talking things over rigorously.
And it's pretty stable because it turns out the Default doesn't mind having an escape hatch. Bohemians are cute, right? I mean, there's a reason that loads of fast-fashion places and designers go to Burning Man to make notes on what to knock off for the runway next year. Because bohemia is a cool thing to mine. Grunge went from Seattle's seedy underground to Sears in six months. Bohemians are living labs.
But then a group of scientists who've been working in Default, figuring out the secrets of practical immortality for the superrich, decide that they don't really want to be complicit in helping the human race speciate into these infinitely prolonged god-like humans while the rest of us who are just mayflies are receding in their rearview mirror.
So they engage in a Promethean act. They steal the secrets of immortality—which they, after all, discovered—and bring them to the rest of us, and then the superrich realize that they're going to have to spend the rest of eternity with people they think of as being unworthy. And that triggers the Hellfire missiles and all-out war.
This is an analogy to open-source software development. And the phrase open source is one that people use widely to just mean "vaguely collaborative."
Spooks use it to mean just "stuff in the newspaper."
I know you're a part of the open-source community. How much of this book, or your work generally, is a metaphor for that?
I'm actually working on the thing that underpins screen open-source software, which I think is like Coasian coordination.
Abundance is this triangle.
"Bohemians are cute, right?…Bohemia is a cool thing to mine. Grunge went from Seattle's seedy underground to Sears in six months. Bohemians are living labs."
Up here is what we want. [Economist John Maynard] Keynes wrote in 1930 that our grandchildren will struggle to fill their three-day work weeks because they will be able to produce all the things that humanity could reasonably want. And he grossly underestimated the elasticity of our demand. Now you have people like Marie Kondo making a cottage industry out of convincing us that really all we want is, like, a single smooth river rock that reminds us of our mother.
So how much you want is obviously elastic. It can go up and it can go down. And so that's one of the parameters on abundance that we have to think about.
And then over here is how much we can make. So 3D printing, automation, all that stuff. And both of those have seen significant changes in the last couple of decades. Marketing, A/B splitting, new additive manufacturing tools, automated milling, robotics. All of those have been profound changes in our world.
But all of the real action is over in this other corner, which is logistics. And that's getting the stuff that people want to the people who want it after you've made it. And figuring out how to remake it. And figuring out what happens to it when we're done with it.
Bruce Sterling wrote this very influential essay in the mid-2000s called Shaping Things, published by MIT Press, where he posits an object called a spime. And a spime is a good that is immaterial. It exists as information until someone needs it and then it's manufactured. But it's designed in a way to be gracefully decomposed back into the material stream when its duty cycle is over. And its use generates data about its efficacy and ways that it can be improved, so that every time it's made anew, it's better.
Spimes are a really provocative answer to the question of how we can realize the Promethean project of both the heterodox right and the heterodox left: letting every peasant live like a lord. As opposed to insisting either, on the left, that every lord should be made to look like a peasant, or on the right, that lords and peasants are an inevitable fact of the world, and there will always be lords and always be peasants, and maybe we incentivize people by having that difference.
The way that we get every peasant to live like a lord on a planet that only has one planet's worth of material is that we find better ways to connect the material that people need with the people who have it and where it is at any given moment. So rather than everybody having to own a car, we have cars that are services. But we also have completely negotiable moment-to-moment things that you might need a car for. And so when there aren't cars available, the things that you can do instead of being in a car are brought to the fore.
Google runs this data center in Belgium in a place where two-thirds of the time it's so cool that they don't need the air conditioning, and the other third of the time they just turn [the data center] off. And their file system is so good at migrating data away from places that are shutting down and into places that are running that it doesn't really matter.
A lot of places that do aluminum smelting, because it's so energy intensive, they use aluminum smelting as a kind of battery. They say: We need to smelt so many tons of this this year, and when we have lots of solar or lots of wind or lots of tidal power, and we don't have anything to use it for, we smelt the aluminum then, and not at the moment when other people are trying to turn on their lights or run their air conditioning or run their Google data centers.
That kind of coordination—where at the moment that something is needed, and at the moment where it's cheap to do it, it's done—is characteristic of the efficient-market hypothesis. It's characteristic of planned economy theory. It's the thing that everyone is shooting for.
The thing that free and open-source software has given us is the ability to coordinate ourselves very efficiently without having to put up with a lot of hierarchy. To be able to take things that we've done together, where we've reached a breaking point, and split them in two and have each of us pursue it in our own direction, without having to pay too high a cost or even have a lot of acrimony.
That's the free software world I'm trying to imagine. What would it be like to build skyscrapers the way we make encyclopedias in the 21st century?
So you're over here imagining the logistics part of the future. But we're currently culturally perseverating over there in the manufacturing corner.
Conservatives are doubling down on the value in work—that's the conservative version of the panic about the robots taking our jobs. Then there's a liberal version, which is: How will people make a living when all the jobs are automated? But why is that the thing we're panicking about now?
Well, because I think that we tend to worry a lot about the first-order effects. And the second- and third-order effects tend to come a little too late. [Science fiction author and editor] Gardner Dozois very famously said that the job of a science fiction writer shouldn't be to just think of the car in the movie theater and invent the drive-in, but also to infer the sexual revolution.
But I say to Gardner: Once you've inferred the sexual revolution, maybe you could spare a moment to think that the sexual revolution happening in cars meant that, for the first time, people had a reason to carry a government-issued ID. Which was to get laid, right? The shibboleth of "papers, please," which historically has been a marker of the descent into totalitarian misery, became an everyday thing.
"Prediction is way overrated. I like what Dante did to the fortune tellers. He put them in a pit of molten shit…weeping into their own ass cracks for having pretended that the future was knowable."
The database nation is the progeny of that strange moment where technology and social mores came together, thanks to movie theaters and cars and the sexual revolution, and gave us all driver's licenses. Science fiction writers like to think past the first-order effect of what would it mean if there weren't a lot of truck-driving jobs.
Is it fair to say that science fiction writers are doing the same thing as a good economist or a good political economist in thinking about unintended consequences?
It's not just unintended consequences, because I think making all truck drivers into desperate xenophobic populists who vote for strongman leaders was not the intended consequence of the self-driving car project, right? And yet that's the fear that our political moment reflects.
It's more like the job of a science fiction writer is not to map the territory, but to point out that there's territory to be mapped. There is a game we play when we argue about policy or tell stories, and the game is What's in the Frame?
There's this famous science fiction story [by Tom Godwin] called "The Cold Equations." It's taught in engineering schools. It's about a spaceship pilot who's piloting a small craft full of vaccine to a planet where there is a potentially world-killing plague. If he doesn't get the vaccine there, everybody on the planet will die. And there is a young girl who stowed away on his ship and when he discovers her, he is aghast. Because he knows that the ship doesn't have any extra fuel. It has no autopilot. It can only land if he pilots it. If there's any excess weight it will crash, and everyone on the planet will die. And that's why he has to shove that girl out the airlock.
And they spend 15 pages trying to figure out why they don't have to shove her out the airlock. And then he shoves her out the airlock.
What's out of the frame is that the author set up the rules of this thought experiment. And the author decided that autopilots weren't a thing. That reserve fuel wasn't a thing. That sending colonists with a supply of vaccine wasn't a thing. All that stuff is out of frame.
Science fiction is about pointing out that there are things that are out of the frame [in real life] that don't properly belong out of the frame, whose ruling out is arbitrary—or customary, which is another way of saying the same thing.
Last question: When you go to jail, what will it be for?
What will the charge be, or why will they arrest me?
You may answer either way.
I have lots of different kinds of privilege that I think have kept me reasonably out of harm's way. Not just being, like, a white middle-class articulate dude with half a million Twitter followers. But also working at a civil liberties law firm filled with lawyers whose numbers I write on my arm before I cross borders.
You know what I worry about a lot? I'm a dirty foreigner. I'm a Canadian on a green card. And as we heard in the Supreme Court [in an April hearing about the case of a Serbian woman named Divna Maslenjak who is accused of misleading authorities on her application for asylum in the United States], it is virtually impossible to not have some way in which you are technically violating immigration rules when you are on a green card crossing borders.
The justices at the Supreme Court asked about listing known aliases: If I forget a childhood nickname, does that mean that I can be deported or jailed for immigration fraud? And the state's position was yes; regardless of whether or not the omission is material, the act of omission itself violates the statute and qualifies you.
Given the highly arbitrary nature of borders, and the very deep antipathy towards the people who cross them from many of the people whose job it is to inspect those people who cross them, that's the place where I have the most worry.
I don't know what I would do if I were required [by immigration officials] to decrypt my devices. I have a certain amount of purging I do before I cross borders so I'm able to decrypt my devices if I'm made to. But then there's this whole unknown area: What about making you log into your cloud services? And if you don't have the password, what about calling the people who have the password and saying, "Mr. Doctorow doesn't get out of immigration detention until you give us the password to his thing that he's left with you for safekeeping"?
Those are unknown unknowns. It's a complete black hole. I think by design the government has not pursued cases where those questions have come up, where it looks like the courts would find that they were acting unconstitutionally, because they want to see that ambiguity flourishing. Because they have so much leverage over you when you're at the border that that ambiguity really works in [their] favor.
After the Muslim ban, one of the things that immediately emerged when people said, "What should you do if…?" was, nobody even knows for sure.
So now I do ridiculous things. There's a form—I think it's called the G-28. Border guards have discretion as to whether to allow your counsel to see you when you're in border detention. That discretion goes away and becomes an obligation if this form has been signed and left with your lawyer before you cross the border. But it has to be on green paper.
So I have signed many copies of this and left it in our paralegal's filing cabinet at EFF. And I always let a lawyer know before I cross, and I always let them know when I'm on the other side. And I hope that they check their phone.
If they see that many hours have gone by and they haven't heard from me, they try to call me. And if they don't hear from me again, they go and they get one of these green forms and they bring it down to the border to see if that's where I am.
Maybe that's advice for all of our readers: Get a lawyer on retainer and a lot of green paper.
Yeah. A ream of green paper. I have some leftovers. My kid drew on a lot of it but I still have some leftovers.
This interview has been edited for length, clarity, and style. For a video version, visit reason.com.