Cory Doctorow (Toronto, 50 years old) gives this interview (updated this week by email) sitting on a swing. During the pandemic, he built himself a bar halfway between a tiki bar and a beach bar in the backyard of his Burbank home, northeast of Los Angeles. Among the bottles of alcohol, this renowned digital rights activist and science fiction author keeps as trophy the pieces of his hip that were removed in a recent surgery. This fall he has published radicalized (Captain Swing), four stories about the inevitable power of technology in our lives. She sold her first science fiction story to a magazine at age 17. Decades later, she has thousands of followers and his works are required reading in Canadian schools. He is one of the leading authors of Edward Snowden and other activists concerned about the growing influence of big tech corporations and the surveillance system that sells our personal data.
Ask. Snowden interviewed him in 2017 and asked him if he viewed the future with optimism or pessimism. There was no pandemic then, no war in Ukraine, and no climate emergency seemed so imminent.
Response. Also then I was concerned about these matters. I was educated in radical progressive politics. When I was a child there was a very strong union base. His influence was palpable. By the time I turned 20, this movement was a shadow of its former self. We did not understand why we suddenly lost fights. In 1999 came the anti globalization movement against the World Trade Organization, in Seattle. I think it was the first mobilization in the US organized without the unions. The road has been slow and painful. When I lose hope, I have to remind myself that this is a much quicker union process than the first, which took place at the end of the 19th century. In the last 20 years we have been rebuilding the power of the people. Workers are joining unions and strikes are becoming a tactic beyond labor issues. Now there are payments, people who refuse to settle their debts. They are collective forces.
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Q. We’ve seen people we thought 20 years ago would be part of the solution, like tech mogul Elon Musk, seem today to be trying to squash these efforts.
R. What Musk likes to say is that for him technology is a transformational tool that increases our individual capacity. He does not seek collective action. Within the technological liberation movement there was always a group that understood that technology was a necessary but insufficient condition for a better future. It was not only necessary to understand its operation. Also fit it into a human rights framework. Otherwise all we end up getting is the best code to hit. It is what we have now.
Q. What do you think of the Musk’s start at Twitter?
R. I have no reason to believe that Musk is not what he seems: an overconfident buffoon who bought Twitter believing he wouldn’t suffer the negative consequences. The operation has gotten out of hand and now he has convinced himself that he has all the answers. He’s making, full speed, all the silly mistakes social media has made since Friendster.
Q. Social networks, what will they be like in the future?
R. The lesson to be drawn from the Musk case or the Facebook implosion is that concentrating our entire digital lives under the direction of irresponsible corporations is bad business. We need decentralized social networks with reduced servers and controlled by their users.
Q.You write science fiction, but the story that gives its name to radicalized He speaks of a form of extremism that falls on the health system.
In the last 20 years we have been rebuilding the power of the people. Workers are joining unions and strikes are becoming a tactic beyond labor issues
R.I wrote it when I was dealing with my own health problems, with chronic pain. Then he would ponder the fact that angry Americans shoot anyone who cuts them off in traffic or sees a suspect loitering near their home. But let’s look at the executives of health insurance corporations, who routinely sentence people who are heavily armed to death. There are never shootings in health centers or in the insurers themselves. I would like to clarify that it is the last thing I want, but one question I was asking myself is what would happen if these types of people started killing very rich white people? How long would it take to classify them as terrorists?
Q.Are you a subversive author?
R.I am an activist. I want to transcend technical arguments. I have spent 20 years fighting against the law on which one of the stories in my last book in Spanish is based, unauthorized bread. Article 6 of the European Copyright Directive says that if you have a product with a digital lock, you can’t take it away even for a legitimate purpose. This means that a company has the right to decide how you can use its products and services. What would happen if our toothbrush only accepted authorized toothpaste? What if our toaster only accepted authorized bread?
We are not worried about being good at recycling: only 9% of the plastic we throw away is recycled: only 9% of the plastic we throw away is recycled.
Q.Do you think we care enough about the issue of privacy and the sale of our data?
R.In political science there is a concept called “rational indifference.” It is present both in terms of privacy and in the climate crisis. We are not worried about being good at recycling: only 9% of the plastic we throw away is recycled: only 9% of the plastic we throw away is recycled. The same goes for privacy. I do extreme things not to be tracked. This morning I installed a device that makes my computer unable to communicate with an ad server and my browsing is 30% faster. I use Signal and have my hard drive encrypted. I use Firefox and Brave. And yet I’m super tracked. I have an electric car that sells my location history. Do I open the hood and boot the SIM? Even if I wanted to, we are surrounded by an automatic system that recognizes license plates, this information is sold to companies. It is disheartening to individually fight a systemic problem.
Q.His latest book, which he offers free in English on the internet, is How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism.
R.It is a response to the famous book by Harvard professor emeritus Shoshana Zuboff —The age of surveillance capitalism, paidós— Although she makes a beautiful case for privacy, she gives too much credit to what the tech industry claims it is capable of. She says that we have been brainwashed, ignoring our critical thinking. These corporations would like us to believe this because it is how they sell us advertising. But the tech companies lie about everything. It would be amazing if they would only state the truth when bragging about their products. They are a monopoly. Facebook is not addictive, what it does is block interoperability. If you want to talk to your environment, you all have to use Facebook. He’s locked us all up, we’re just our own jailers. The way to break this is to allow new services to connect, thus getting people to leave Facebook without giving up their friendships. That would cause a hemorrhage of users. It’s the kind of regulation that Facebook hates and fights against.
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Cory Doctorow, activist: “Musk is an overconfident buffoon”