Technology and Politics Are Inseparable: An Interview with Cory Doctorow

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From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

CORY DOCTOROW’S NEW NOVEL, Attack Surface, is inseparable from the zeitgeist — both are riven by insurrection, corruption, misinformation, and inequality — and the near-future it portrays illustrates how technology and politics are inseparable. The story follows a self-taught hacker from San Francisco who helps build the American digital surveillance apparatus out of a genuine sense of patriotism, only to discover that she’s propping up exactly the kind of unjust, predatory system she’d set out to defeat. Computers play a role as important as any other member of the diverse cast, and computing is treated with a rare technical rigor that reveals the extent to which our tools shape our lives and world.

Having established that dystopia is a state of mind and how to fix the internet, Doctorow uses Attack Surface to explore what it means to build a better future. This is a novel about reinventing democracy and imagining new institutions for the internet age. You will cringe. You will grit your teeth. You will keep turning pages late into the night because this is the kind of fiction that creates space for truth to reveal itself.

. . . .

ELIOT PEPER: What’s the origin story behind Attack Surface? How did it go from a nascent idea to the book I’m holding in my hands right now?

CORY DOCTOROW: Neither of the Little Brother sequels were planned. I wrote Homeland five years after Little Brother, propelled in part by the same factors that fueled Little Brother — increasing dismay at the way that the liberatory power of technology was disappearing into the two-headed maws of surveillance-happy states and greedy, indifferent tech monopolies.

Attack Surface arose from similar circumstances. But Homeland and Little Brother addressed themselves to computer users, people who might not understand what was being taken from them and what was theirs to seize. These novels worked — many technologists, cyberlawyers, activists, and others have approached me to say that reading Little Brother and Homeland set them on their way.

Attack Surface, by contrast, dramatizes and enacts the contradiction of the technologists involved in that confiscation of our digital freedoms. The typical journey of a technologist is to start out besotted with technology, transported by the way that a computer can deliver incredible self-determination. If you can express yourself with sufficient precision, a computer will do your bidding perfectly, infinitely. Add a network and you can project your will around the world, delivering that expression to others in the form of computer code, which will run perfectly and infinitely on their computers. Use that network to find your people and you can join a community where others know the words for the nameless things you’ve always felt — you can find the people to collaborate with you on making big, ambitious things happen.

And yet, the end-point of that journey is to devote your life and your skill and every waking hour to writing code that strips them of the same opportunity, that turns the computer that unshackled your mind into a prison for others.

So Attack Surface probes the sore that the friction of this contradiction engenders. I was going to hacker cons, meeting these lovely people who cared about the same issues I do, but who would hand me business cards from companies that were making things worse and worse — and worse and worse.

That’s where the book came from. It had lots of iterations: titles (“Big Sister,” “Crypto Wars”), extra characters (the book lost a boyfriend and 40,000 words), and so on, but that was always the impulse.

Why do you write technothrillers? What role do they play in our culture?

I mostly hate technothrillers. They’re stories that turn on the intricacies of computer technology but are completely indifferent to those technical realities — crypto that can be broken through brute force, idiotic MacGuffins about networks that are totally unrelated to how networks work, and so on.

I wrote Little Brother to prove that technothrillers didn’t have to abandon rigor in order to be exciting.

Computer science, computer engineering, and security research are, in fact, incredibly interesting. Moreover, they’re salient: the more you know about them, the better you understand everything about our contemporary world.

If you want to know how white nationalists planned a failed insurrection in the capitol, or whether police could have known it was coming, or what needs to be done in the aftermath to re-secure the computers in the capitol, you need to know these things.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books

14 thoughts on “Technology and Politics Are Inseparable: An Interview with Cory Doctorow”

  1. Well…
    Technology changes the world daily. It comes from living in a technological society rzther thzn an agrarian or industrial society. And of course, prople interested in power over people instrad of power over the universe will have…issues…with technology’s relentless disruptions of the status quo.
    Makes it hard to control the masses when the rules change regularly.

    Just look at the recent war over stock manipuation in the affair GAMESTOP.
    An entirely new path to stock manipuation has been validated and this time the (initial) victims are the elite stock shorters who have been used to making money via time -traveling stock at the expense of smaller investors and companies and their employees. Only this time they are the deer in the headlights, trying to figure out what hit them in the tender parts. AKA, pocketbooks. To the tune of hundreds of billions.

    The entire game of shorting and pump-and-dump has changed.
    So naturally, the elites went running to the IdiotPoliticians™.
    Still playing out but its not going to end well.

    Lots of other examples of tech wars going on.
    Like over in Texas where government agencies are stsrting to look for ways to stop the development in the next generation SPACEX transportation system that’s already left Boeing, ULA, ARIANE, and Roscosmos in the dust. If you can’t compete, shine to the politicians.

    • Gamestop and Space X are excellent examples. And yet another reason I don’t think space colonization will work as David Weber expected it to.

      All the same, it’s been very entertaining to watch Gamestop unfold. If nothing else, I finally saw the movie “Trading Places.” Which has changed my head canon for the identity of the bums, Randolph and Mortimer, sleeping on the park bench in “Coming to America.” (I had made up a storyline).

      But in more seriousness, the Great Unmasking continues: Janet Yellen’s refusal to recuse herself, the insistence that a normal business transaction must be “looked into,” and as well, the role the media plays in these matters. How many people were blissfully unaware until now that the “establishment” traders plant stories in the press to ensure the companies they shortsell end up with falling stocks?

      Now we see ordinary people tarred as Nazis for doing exactly what your average trader does. Everyone can see how Robinhood and TD Ameritrade and other houses collude together to ensure that things work out for the establishment at the expense of “the little people.” I’m seeing a lot of online chatter from vlogs that normally cover other matters talking about what’s going on with Gamestop: “Hold the Line” is the party line.

      It’ll be interesting to see if politicians allow the hedge funds to be Randolph and Mortimer … or if they’ll find a way to put Winthrope and Valentine on that park bench instead.

      • TRADING PLACES is a classic that should never be remade.
        And I’m leering about COMING TO AMERICA’s sequel. It doesn’t need it; it is perfect as is.
        (Makes me think of DUNE 2.)
        Presumably you’ve seen a FISH CALLED WANDA, right? The third masterpiece of the era.
        They literally don’t do comedy like that.

        As for SPACEX, the FAA and the activists pressuring the EPA to freeze his work (presumably at the behest of the roadkill) have Musk looking at moving STARSHIP operations to Indonesia. The FAA now want proof that the last launch didn’t go a foot above 41,000 before they’ll let him launch the next prototype. As he said, the FAA rules are meant for twice a year orbital launches from a government facility near population centers, not prototypes launching weekly (soon daily or even multiple times daily) from a depopulated coastal area (soon to be two offshore rigs).

        Curiously, the FAA didn’t have an issue with his spaceship factory until January 21st…

        Smells a lot like servicing a political contributor.
        (Wouldn’t be the first time it happens. The murder of constellation, for one.)
        Or the Chinese.

        So yeah, politics and high tech are inextricably linked (usually as antagonists.

        • Agreed on the movies. I haven’t seen “A Fish Called Wanda,” so I checked the trailer for it: the people who made comedies in the 80s need to be brought out of storage, or wherever they are. Then again, they might be laying low for fear of cancel culture.

          January 21st as the date of Musk’s recent troubles sounds about right. I am surprised that Indonesia is on his radar, but I’ll have to read up on it. True Indonesia is on the equator, but I thought Australia already had space launch sites, which would be convenient and safer. As far as I know, he’d have to build sites for Indonesia. But obviously I’ll have to read up on it.

          • Oh, my.
            Have you been in a bunker since tbe 60’s? 😉
            (Brendan Fraser’s BLAST FROM THE PAST. Also pretty good.)
            Keep an eye on Michael Palin’s Ken Pile. He must’ve had great fun with that role.

            As for Starship launch sites, they’re going to be sea platforms.
            (He can have them towed anywhere the bureaucrats don’t get in his way.)

            Superheavy is going to be too loud to launch anywhere on land (except the middle of the Sahara) because it needs something like a 25M noise abatement zone. And with plans for, say three launches a *day* and plans to catch the booster with the launch tower (saves weight and maximizes payload) an oceanic space port makes sense. Mind you, Texas makes more sense than Indonesia but not if the federal bureaucrats keep annoying him. He already abandoned CA to escape *that* breed and if FAA is determined to stop him there aren’t many places left. And Australia has its own political troubles, much like Europe, with bureaucrats and politicians bought and paid for by China.

            Not a place to go if you can’t safely operate in the Texas boondocks.

            Musk must be feeling his mortality because he is getting more anxious by the minute to escape the panet. I suspect he is determined not to end like D.D. Harriman. Or he knows more about China than is in the open, which is already bad enough. I hope he has good bodyguards because between Starlink and Starship he is upsetting a lot of comfy businesses. I hope not, but I wouldn’t be shocked to hear he is assasinated before the year is out.
            (He even has his own “Rearden Metal”.)

            The world is getting nastier by the minute.

            • I mostly understood that reference (somehow, I only saw the end of “Blast from the Past) 🙂 But I was a kid when most of those 80s movies came out, so it may be that I saw some without remembering that I saw them. Or they went over my head, etc.

              I do feel like I was in a bunker were Musk is concerned, because I didn’t realize he was using platforms. Apparently land is NOT as necessary in this scenario as I thought. I need to file this away for my next project. While I also hope he is protected, “feeling one’s mortality” is the ultimate deadline, and if he’s like me, he thrives with deadlines. I wish him every success … we may all need it.

              • The best place to track the goings-on at Boca Chica is youtube. There’s something lije a dozen reliable channels from all over the world featuring everything from 24 hour video feeds to regular overflights to analysis and speculation. Seversl of tbose guys even get Musk to abswer their tweat questions. There is something to watch in byte sized chunks almost daily. I keep an eye on five: one from Australia, another from Germany, two from tbe US. One from dunno.
                High qulity renders and animations galore.
                This one talks about the oil rigs getting reworked:


                There are also several recent videos about a Single Launch Space Station (SLSS) derivative of Starship thst would offer twice the volume of the ISS for a whole *lot* less.

                If you’re looking into story fodder for near term SF or technothrillers give’em a look: SpaceXcentric, Marcus House, Engineering Today, Scott Manley channels are also worth a look. The look great on a big TV.

      • Everyone can see how Robinhood and TD Ameritrade and other houses collude together to ensure that things work out for the establishment at the expense of “the little people.”

        Well, I can’t see it. Not sure about everyone else. What I do see is that Robinhood couldn’t meet the margin requirements of the clearing house they used. In simple, incomplete, and not perfectly accurate terms, the clearing house gets the stock to the buyer, and the money to the seller. Robin used Depository Trust.

        The clearing house demands that users like Robin maintain a deposit balance with them that is sufficient to cover defaults by buyers or sellers. This guarantees the trades for the counter party. As volume increases, that risk increases, and the clearing house demands more money from the brokerage.

        Robinhood didn’t have enough money to make the margin call for the increased deposit. That shuts down the system for Robin. That then shut down Robin trading in the subject stocks. Note Robin raised 3.5 billion. That lets them turn the trading back on and cover the margin call from the clearing house. I can’t say if they will or to what extent.

        Might something else have happened? Sure. I’ve been there, but I’m not there now. If I could have done all the things that everybody told me I could do, I’d be sitting on a 200ft yacht in Monte Carlo. I’m not there either. But it’s sure not clear to everyone.

        *Is this s simplistic explanation? Yes?

        • And most likely a correct one. Regardless of what redditors say, Gamestop is at best a $20 a share stock. Their lunch is being eaten by digital downloads. Sooner or later the bulls will wake up in bed with a hangover and roll over to an unsavory surprise. YOLO is not a reason to buy a stock.

          • You’re generous.
            Even with Microsoft throwing them a bone they’llbe lucky to last three years. By tgen the next generation of consoles will be in full production and everywhere both online and B&M. And game streaming services will be taking off.

            It’s a pump and dump bubble.
            The guys who started the snowball rollinghave almost certainly left the building literally laughing all the way to the bank.

            • And the guys who started the shorting? “WTF? How in God’s name could a bunch of keyboard nerds have done this to us?”

              Note silver is now a replay of 1980. The longs following the Hunt brothers ran it up to $53 (I think) and the exchange then increased the margins to the point where the longs couldn’t hold their positions.

              In any of these things always look at the margin requirements and who has control of them.

              • The way the day traders squeezed the shorters is repeatable unless the rules change to end shorting. Today they’re doing it in the open on Reddit; tomorrow they’ll go underground or even get their own PARLER style app.

                Another Djinn is out of the bottle.
                And the 21st century rolls on.

                • One of the things we haven’t seen too much about is the other hedge funds that gleefully jumped on the long side to squeeze the short funds.

                  They sold at a profit, likely to a short fund that was being hit by the very same kind of margin calls that caused Robin to halt trading.

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