Skip to content

Cory Doctorow

Open Culture

I got to feeling like I was someone special — not everyone had a chum as exotic as Keep-A-Movin’ Dan, the legendary missionary who visited the only places left that were closed to the Bitchun Society. I can’t say for sure why he hung around with me. He mentioned once or twice that he’d liked my symphonies, and he’d read my Ergonomics thesis on applying theme-park crowd-control techniques in urban settings, and liked what I had to say there. But I think it came down to us having a good time needling each other.

I’d talk to him about the vast carpet of the future unrolling before us, of the certainty that we would encounter alien intelligences some day, of the unimaginable frontiers open to each of us. He’d tell me that deadheading was a strong indicator that one’s personal reservoir of introspection and creativity was dry; and that without struggle, there is no real victory. . . .

On a fine spring day, I defended my thesis to two embodied humans and one prof whose body was out for an overhaul, whose consciousness was present via speakerphone from the computer where it was resting. They all liked it. I collected my sheepskin and went out hunting for Dan in the sweet, flower-stinking streets.

He’d gone. The Anthro major he’d been torturing with his war-stories said that they’d wrapped up that morning, and he’d headed to the walled city of Tijuana, to take his shot with the descendants of a platoon of US Marines who’d settled there and cut themselves off from the Bitchun Society.

So I went to Disney World. . . .

–from Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, the first novel by blogger, cultural critic, and Electronic Frontier Foundation wonk Cory Doctorow, entered the world January 9, 2003. Wired‘s Mark Frauenfelder calls Down and Out “the most entertaining and exciting science fiction story I’ve read in the last few years,” and Bruce Sterling declares, “Science fiction needs Cory Doctorow!”

Doctorow has published Down and Out under a Creative Commons license.

Creative Commons: Your novel revolves around a power struggle over a Disney World of the distant future, and your promo materials describe you as a Disneyphile. What led you to set the story on Walt’s turf?

Cory Doctorow: I grew up with grandparents who lived in a gated retirement community in Fort Lauderdale. My folks — both teachers — and I stayed with them most Christmas breaks, and we’d always make a pilgrimage to Walt Disney World. Those WDW experiences permanently embedded the Disney Parks — their design, their cultural significance — in my psyche.

Disney’s a sterling example, moreover, of the value of the public domain. People who are naive about the idea of the commons frequently ask whether it’s too much to ask that artists make their own, original works. But Disney showed how plumbing the public domain for familiar stories (Alice, Snow White, Mu-lan, etc.) and reimagining them vividly can create new and culturally significant art.

Walt himself was full of grandiose, hubristic, science-fictional notions. The original plan for Walt Disney World called for a domed city (based loosely on the Progressland Walt built for General Electric at the 1964 World’s Fair) — the original EPCOT (Experiment Prototype City of Tomorrow), in which tens of thousands of employees would live under corporate law whose premises would follow Walt’s nutty and sometimes saccharine ideals for social Utopia.

He was part of a tradition of crypto-fascist Utopian American squillionaires that includes Henry Ford, who required the captive laborers of his doomed “Fordlandia” rubber-plantations-cum-communes to drink Tom Collinses (Ford’s favorite tipple) in favor of the traditional local hooch.

CC: Did legal concerns — say, over referring to Disney by name in the story — ever give you pause while writing or shopping the book?

CD: This is one of the most F of the FAQ about the book. The existence of the rides at Walt Disney World is a public fact — like the existence of the Empire State Building, the Grand Canyon, or the Starbucks on my corner. Copyright and trademark don’t exist to enjoin the public from discussing and speculating on the existence of actual, no-foolin’ things, so no, I wasn’t worried. The legal department at Tor Books (my publisher) put a disclaimer on the printed book that explained that all the places mentioned in the book are either fictional or used in a fictional context. Imagine someone dumb enough not to figure that out for himself. Duh.

CC: Down and Out‘s protagonist, Julius, has a soft spot for old-fashioned technology, like Disneyland’s various steel-and-concrete attractions and rides — “rube goldbergs,” as he memorably calls them. A central struggle in the book, in fact, involves Julius’s efforts to save the Park’s 20th-century “monuments” from being replaced by newfangled technological attractions. It’s a highly dramatic, even violent, struggle. Is there a little Luddite battling the technophile in you?

CD: There are at least two reasons that the fight to keep the highly individuated, hard-to-replicate rides is central to the book.

1. I genuinely dislike the articulated simulators (Star Tours, Body Wars) that Disney’s built. They strike me as really crummy art as compared to all the ride-tech that proceeded them. The problem with that kind of sim-ride is that they all have the same plot: we are going somewhere, we run into trouble, we turn around, we come home. The problem is that if we actually made it to our nominal destination, Disney’d have to build, e.g., a scale-model Forest Moon of Endor at the other end.

2. It’s a kind of parable about the inevitibility of crappy-but-more-democratic media (i.e., Gutenberg Bibles) over really excellent, but harder-to-reproduce artifacts (illuminated Bibles).

CC: Why did you choose to publish Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom under a Creative Commons license?

CD: That’s the most F of all the FAQs I get about this project. I’ve got a response that I agonized over for some while, and it’s as good as I’m going to get.

Why am I doing this thing? Well, it’s a long story, but to shorten it up: first-time novelists have a tough row to hoe. Our publishers don’t have a lot of promotional budget to throw at unknown factors like us. Mostly, we rise and fall based on word-of-mouth. I’m not bad at word-of-mouth. I have a blog, Boing Boing, where I do a lot of word-of-mouthing. I compulsively tell friends and strangers about things that I like.

And telling people about stuff I like is way, way easier if I can just send it to ’em. Way easier.

What’s more, P2P nets kick all kinds of ass. Most of the books, music and movies ever released are not available for sale anywhere in the world. In the brief time that P2P nets have flourished, the ad-hoc masses of the Internet have managed to put just about *everything* online. What’s more, they’ve done it for cheaper than any other archiving/revival effort ever. I’m a stone infovore and this kinda Internet mishegas gives me a serious frisson of futurosity.

Yeah, there are legal problems. Yeah, it’s hard to figure out how people are gonna make money doing it. Yeah, there is a lot of social upheaval and a serious threat to innovation, freedom, business, and whatnot. It’s your basic end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it scenario, and as a science fiction writer, end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it scenaria are my stock-in-trade.

I’m especially grateful to my publisher, Tor Books and my editor, Patrick Nielsen Hayden for being hep enough to let me try out this experiment.

All that said, here’s the deal: I’m releasing this book under a license developed by the Creative Commons project. This is a project that lets people like me roll our own license agreements for the distribution of our creative work under terms similar to those employed by the Free/Open Source Software movement. It’s a great project, and I’m proud to be a part of it.

CC: How did Tor Books respond to your decision to use one of our licenses?

CD: Tor is the largest English-language science fiction publisher in the world, and they’ve led the field in innovative practices, especially in ebooks. So I’m privileged to have a very forward-looking, progressive publisher behind me. What’s more, I have a fantastic editor, Patrick Nielsen Hayden. Patrick is an old Usenet hand (search on to get an idea of how much of Patrick’s life has been spent on Usenet!), a Linux hobbyist, a blogger, and a hell of an all-round technophile. When I pitched the idea of posting the book online to him, we had a surprisingly brief and excited conversation of how goddamned cool it would be. I’m guessing that Patrick had to do some internal selling at Tor to convince the publisher, Tom Dougherty, that this would be a good idea, but I wasn’t privy to that negotiation.

CC: Your job is to think about the future. Where do you think copyright law is headed? What do you think the law as regards to information will look like 100 years from now? What is copyright’s place in the Magic Kingdom and the Bitchun Society — a world that seems to revolve around pop culture and technology?

CD: Well, in some ways, this novel is a parable about Napster, and about the reputation economies that projects like Ringo, Firefly, Epinions and Amazon hint at. In a world where information is nonscarce, the problem isn’t finding generic information — it’s finding useful information. There’s an old chestnut in online science fiction fandom that the Internet “makes us all into slushreaders.” (“Slush” is the unsolicited prose that arrives at publishers’ offices — a “slushreader” wades through thousands of these paste-gems looking for the genuine article). This has always struck me as a pretty reactionary position.

Nearly every piece of information online has a human progenitor — a person who thought it was useful or important or interesting enough to post. Those people have friends whom they trust, and those friends have trusted friends, and so on. Theoretically, if you use your social network to explore the Web, you can make educated guesses about the relative interestingness of every bit of info online to you. In practice, this kind of social exploration is very labor-intensive and even computationally intensive, but there’s a lot of technology on the horizon that hints at this.

The Bitchun Society of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is a world where all goods are as nonscarce as information is on the net. (It’s imaginable that nanofabrication could make such a world possible — “goods” and “information” would be different states of the same thing, as “source code” and “applications” are today.) In that world, managing the glut of everything — especially people — is a matter of exploring social networks to guess at the degree to which you should treat some resource with respect and attention. [In the story,] I call this measure “Whuffie.”

Scarcity is, objectively, worse than plenty. When you’ve got lots of some useful object, you’re richer than when you have less of it. When there’s more than enough to go around, the economic value tends to plummet, but the utility is just as high. Think of oxygen: on the Earth’s surface, we’re well-supplied with breathable atmosphere. Aside from a few egregiously West-coast “oxygen bars,” it’s hard to imagine paying money for O2. But in Heinlein’s sf novels set on the moon, there’s a thriving trade in oxygen. In both situations, air is highly useful, but dirtsiders are richer in air than their loonie cousins.

It’s a quirk of our economy — and a failure of our collective imagination — that we view the de-scarce-ification of information as a disaster. Our technological history — literacy, the press, telegraphy, radio, TV, xerography, computers — is a steady march towards making information more liquid and less scarce. Towards richness.

At each turn, the mounting plenty has made the information industries larger and larger, employing more people, feeding more artists, bringing more ideas to more people.

I’ve got a large, personal stake in earning a living from my writing, but as I look around at a field in which the word-rates for fiction have stalled at their 1935 levels (not adjusted for inflation), I find it hard to imagine that the old economics of publishing will sustain me in the manner to which I’d like to become accustomed. There’s a new world a-borning, a world of information in infinite plenty, and I know that there are new opportunities out there. I don’t know what they are, but I’m certain that diving in with both feet first is a better way of discovering them than screaming imprecations at the rising tide and chicken-littling about the “thieves” and “pirates” of the Internet. I prefer to think of them as “readers.”

CC: Who and what — writers, artists, trends — have been particularly strong influences on your writing?

CD: Well, anyone familiar with science fiction who reads this book will discover that I’ve blatantly ripped off the best ideas of Heinlein and Varley. (Varley ripped off a lot of his ideas from Heinlein, of course — “amateurs plagiarize, artists steal.”)

More than that, I got a lot of my ideas from Walt Disney, Marc Davis, and the other original Imagineers who designed Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Walt was a weird and sometimes rather nasty old coot. (And Tolstoy ripped off his family to feed his gambling habit — being a great artist is not inconsitent with being a evil jerk.) But he (Walt) was also a magnificent entrepreneur, inventor, dreamer, and technophile. He and his crew broke a lot of rules to build Disneyland. He fired the engineers he’d hired to make Disneyland a reality and poached away his best animators from the Studios to make the Park a reality. (The engineers would only tell him what he couldn’t do, not what he could). They built some exceedingly cool art. They invented an entire genre. They bucked the bean-counters at The Disney Company who told them it wouldn’t ever work.

CC: What effects do you think communications technology — from instant messaging to weblogs to hypertext — have had and will have on the English language? On literature?

CD: As I said upstream, the trend in communications since the dawn of history has been increasing fluidity for information, increasing democratization. We’re in a giant, never-ending permanent Protestant Reformation. Whenever we — as a culture — have had a choice between some medium that makes interesting artifacts and another medium that makes less interesting artifacts that are more fluid, we’ve chosen the louche and lowbrow over the pretty and scarce. Illuminated Bibles begat Gutenberg Bibles begat cheap, mass produced Bibles begat Project Gutenberg Bibles.

You often hear people decrying reading off a screen. They say that the text isn’t sharp enough, the artifacts less sentimental than paper volumes, the infrastructure (computers and Internet connections) too complex and expensive. These detractors conveniently ignore the fact that literate people, by and large, spend six or more hours reading text off a screen. They remind me of the music-industry execs that spent the early days of the file-sharing revolution who dismissed MP3 as not being good-sounding-enough and too lacking in liner notes to be an effective replacement for CDs. They sound like Gutenberg-era priests pooh-poohing Mr. Gutenberg’s cheap and nasty Bibles: “How can the Word of God possibly be represented in one of those tetchy books? Proper Bibles are hand-painted on foetal lambskin by Trappist Monks who devote their lives to illuminating the Precious Word.”

CC: You help run Boing Boing, a leading tech-and-culture weblog. Has your experience as a blog publisher affected your writing?

CD: In truth, it’s spoiled me. With a blog, it goes like this: I get an idea, write about the idea, post it, and five minutes later, get some feedback. With fiction, it’s this: I have an idea, write about the idea, send it to a publisher, argue about the idea, rewrite the idea, argue some more, wait a couple years, argue some more, do another rewrite, wait a couple years, and then, some day, a physical dead-tree book arrives. I’m not a patient person, and the wait just kills me.

CC: How has your work at the Electronic Frontier Foundation influenced your work?

CD: I wrote Down and Out before I came to work at the EFF, along with my second novel (which Tor will publish next fall), Eastern Standard Tribe. But now I’m working on a new novel, whose (admittedly sucky) working title is “/usr/bin/god.” It’s about Singularity mysticism and nerd culture, which is full of issues from my work with the EFF. It’s a sort of expansion of “0wnz0red,” a parable about “Trusted Computing” that I wrote and which Salon published last August.

CC: In Magic Kingdom, technology has made it possible for people to live forever. Several characters “die” repeatedly, only to be re-booted from back-up memory, like machines. Did the instant-resurrection prevalent in computer and video games influence this aspect of the story? If not, what led you to it?

CD: Actually, it was more about backup-and-restore. I started out as a sysadmin, and I was just as paranoid about the data of my users as I was about my own. I’ve managed to preserve just about all my mail, all my writing, just about everything that I’ve ever created with a computer since I got my first Apple ][+ in the summer of 1979. I back up all that data to an off-site storage every day, and back up my important stuff — like fiction and financials — to a remote server 3000 miles away (just in case) in a big, encrypted blob, once a month. All this gives me a nice, warm feeling — especially when a machine is stolen, smashed, flooded, or HERFed and I do that wondrous restore and get all my data back.

CC: It sounds as if there’s almost an element of salvation in the literal saving. . . .

CD: I guess. I think it’s more about the end of infocalyptic events like the burning of Alexandria. I just finished Bruce Sterling’s brilliant new book of futurism, “Tomorrow Now,” which is mind-blowing and provocative as hell. I think the world of Sterling, but I also disagree with a number of his theses about infotech. In TN, he does this dead media schtick about all the info that’s been lost along with the platforms that supported it. As I read it, I itched to give Bruce a tutorial on the frankly amazing work that’s been done on emulators. A little-appreciated consequence of Moore’s Law is the fact that a modern computer has enough power to handily simulate several deprecated machines from bygone days — simultaneously. Practically, that means that I can trivially fire up the Logo programs I wrote when I was nine, even though — because! — I’m using a computer that makes my ][+ look like a flint arrowhead. Every computer I’ve bought since the advent of harddrives has had more storage than all the computers I owned before, put together. When I look at the incredible new archiving projects being built on commodity hardware — like — I can’t help but conclude that the days of information perishing are gone forever.

Posted 01 August 2005