Cory Doctorow, geek culture icon (Q&A)

45 Minutes on IM: The Boing Boing editor, sci-fi author, and all around big-time Net thinker hits on range of topics from gold farming to NAFTA.

"For the Win," the latest young-adult novel by science-fiction author, journalist, and copyright activist Cory Doctorow, hit the shelves Tuesday. The book is about the drama surrounding the unionization of virtual world "gold farmers," and is based on his hit short story, "Anda's Game."

Doctorow, who has held policy positions at both the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Creative Commons, is also an editor of the influential technology culture blog Boing Boing. Add his spot on the Wired magazine masthead and there are probably few, if any, people with more geek culture cred.

For the Win author Cory Doctorow Cory Doctorow

From his home in England, the Canadian-born Doctorow, a Hugo Award nominee, is one of the most prolific writers going, constantly turning out blog posts, magazine articles, novels, and everything in between. And he travels more in a year than most people will in a lifetime.

His Boing Boing posts can cover issues from the fact that there are now at least 13 open-source hardware companies making $1 million or more annually, to anything related to Net neutrality, to the current battle over the U.S. Federal Communications Committee's decision to give Hollywood permission to activate the so-called "Selective Output Control" technologies in consumers' set-top boxes.

Doctorow recently sat down for a "45 Minutes on IM" interview and discussed a range of topics such as a new-style approach to print-on-demand to gold farming, NAFTA, and quite a bit more.

Q: Welcome to the third installment of "45 Minutes on IM." I wanted to start by saying I love how your official bio has a one-sentence version, a one-paragraph version, and a much longer one. How did you decide to break it out like that?
Doctorow: It was based on the requests I got from press and such--my publicist, magazines, Web sites, etc.--they'd all request one of the three. I found myself trimming the long bio to fit the other two lengths over and over again, so I just made a template that included all three. I try to make a template out of any text I type more than once. Though sometimes it takes me three or four reps before I go, 'Duh, make a template stupid!' I have a grand plan to put together a wiki-editable FAQ of all the questions I get asked in e-mail someday.

In the long version of your bio, you talk about the "audacious experiment in print-on-demand publishing" for your next book. What does that mean?
Doctorow: That's "With a Little Help," a big and complicated project to self-publish a collection of (mostly reprint) short stories. In brief: Print-on-demand paperbacks from Lulu with one of four different covers; An audiobook read by friends of mine who are great readers, like Mary Robinette Kowal, Leo Laporte, Wil Wheaton, Neil Gaiman, Spider Robinson; A limited edition of 250 hand-bound hardcovers, each with an SD card containing the audio and the text, each with unique endpapers made from paper ephemera donated by writer pals (report cards, paintings, doodles, cancer diagnosis, etc); And a limited-of-one opportunity to commission a new story for the collection for $10,000, which has already been taken by Mark Shuttleworth.

Each month, I add a new appendix with full financials for the book--sales, costs, donations--and every time a reader spots a typo, I fix it immediately and add a footnote thanking the reader on that page. There's a monthly Publishers Weekly column documenting my progress, too. And all audio and text are Creative Commons licensed, natch.

It's good that an established writer like yourself is trying this out. If it succeeds financially, how do you think the big publishers will react? Or will they react at all?
Doctorow: Well, my editor at Tor loves the idea. I think in general, publishing houses see me as the kind of upper bound on what a Net-savvy, moderately successful bread-and-butter indie writer can accomplish. Discovering how much I can do on my own, what's hard, and where I need help is a kind of road map for the sorts of services publishers can focus on in future.

Shifting gears, we first met in 2003 at the Linden Lab offices, where you were doing an in-world book reading in Second Life. What's your take on the explosion of 2D Flash kids' games that are now all released under the rubric of "virtual worlds?"
Doctorow: Well, virtual worlds are really in churn and fast-paced innovation. It seems like if you're going to sink a bazillion dollars into a AAA World of Warcraft-style game, there's not much chance your money people will let you take big risks. 2D worlds, on the other hand, can be banged together quick and a million things tried out. You double your success rate by tripling your failure rate, so 2D makes sense from that perspective. Also, there's the ineluctable appeal of producing in-browser media. 3D and [dedicated] clients are still hard.

"I think that the DIY movement is turning into a full-fledged ecosystem with organisms that fill every niche, from giant companies to garage start-ups to hobbyists to pirates to innovators to fools and scam-artists. In other words, it's maturing."

But is it satisfying?
Doctorow: Well, I'm kind of a Raph Kosterian about this: the graphics and immersion are only there to get you lured into the game mechanic, which is where the fun kicks in. But "satisfying" is probably the wrong word for games. If games satisfied you, you'd stop playing them. I think that neurologically, games are probably most successful when they fail to satisfy you in a really interesting way. I think the word is "compelling"--with all the valences and nuances that entails--including a certain degree of involuntary compulsion!

So as long as the game mechanic is good, then even a 2D Flash virtual world can be compelling. Let me put you on the spot: have you found any such games to be compelling?
Doctorow: Totally and always. The number of times I've been in a stupid 2D casual-game click-trance, defending a stupid tower or whatnot, it's astonishing. I can be a complete crackhead. But at least I don't play Facebook games.

Talking about virtual worlds leads me to "For The Win," and gold farming. Where the idea for the book come from?
Doctorow: It started with my story "Anda's Game," which has a similar plot. I got that idea when two things came together: First, the totally inept response of the United Auto Workers to NAFTA. Auto industry jobs went to Mexico, and the union decided that the best strategy was to use racist anti-Mexican rhetoric, which was a predictable, contemptible failure. I thought, "Why aren't they unionizing Mexican workers? Their forefathers chased the auto industry across the U.S., unionizing factories when they moved from one union town to the next. What candy-asses!" Then I heard about the first gold-farming outfits, in Central America, and a light bulb went on in my head: in a virtual world, all the workers are in the same place. And they could organize under their bosses' noses!

[Virtual world and economies expert] Edward Castronova always said that people who pay money to get a leg up in games break the magic circle. And gold farmers enable that in a massive way. So are gold farmers a necessary evil? A scourge on humanity? Something to be admired? Or...?
Doctorow: Gold farmers are a crunchy, chewy subject because of all that stuff. First of all, the farmers I spoke with and heard from are all serious, hardcore gamers: They don't just grind, they do elite, epic raids. They are some of the best players in the game. And the farming they do is sustained by the buy side, by rich, bored players who don't want to have to grind. The rhetoric around farming is always about how awful the farmers are, and how the poor Asian other is entering our privileged Western world. But it's privileged Westerners who keep them in business.

I wanted to ask about your Boing Boing post on Phil Torrone and Limor Fried's talk about open-source hardware. How important do you think it is that there are now so many companies making real money with open-source hardware?
Doctorow: It's crucial. There are lots of reasons that people do things, but one of the big ones is money. A culture or practice that only includes noncommercial ventures is lopsided and impoverished. I think that the DIY movement is turning into a full-fledged ecosystem with organisms that fill every niche, from giant companies to garage start-ups to hobbyists to pirates to innovators to fools and scam-artists. In other words, it's maturing.

I also wanted to talk about your post on the FCC and the Selective Output Control (SOC) technologies. Clearly, you see this as problematic. So, how do you think this will manifest over time, and why is that a problem from the average consumer's perspective?
Doctorow: The problem is that it's not a problem from the average consumer's perspective, at least not right now. SOC is a way for the MPAA and TV companies to assert control over the features that your devices are allowed to have, and even the design of the components in those devices--things that are used in PCs, like sound-, video- and network-cards. Right now, no one is in charge of what features a vendor can include in a device, and so we're trying all kinds of things and finding unlikely wins (think of personal video recorders).

It's a dumb idea to put anyone in charge of device design across all of consumer electronics and IT, and it's a suicidal idea to put the MPAA and TV companies in charge of this. These guys tried to ban the remote control, the VCR, and the PVR. They are not fans of progress. Over the medium- and long-term, then, these new device czars will be able to stop innovation that disrupts their business--anything that allows users to create, share and customize their experiences in ways that threatens their business.

Is there anything we can do about this?
Doctorow: There's a review-period built into SOC and maybe we can protest it then. But to tell you the truth, I'm feeling pretty bummed about this.

You're a leader in helping alert the public to threats like this, and to creativity, privacy, etc. Despite the sheer volume of your warnings, are you feeling optimistic about any of it?
Doctorow: The thing I'm optimistic about is time being on our side. With every day that passes, more and more people understand that the Net isn't trivial, its not just a way to get free "Police Academy" sequels; that it matters for everything from nutrition to politics to health to family. As more people understand that the Net is the public sphere, more people understand why these political fights matter.

Last question, since time's up, and I've asked it of my other interviewees. I love doing IM interviews because it gives both of us time to be a little more thoughtful and eloquent, and it gives me a perfect transcript. But also, frankly, it gives us a chance to do other things while the other person is typing. So, what else have you been doing while I've been typing?
Doctorow: Heh. Guilty as charged. I cleaned out my in-box, blogged the closure of University of Texas-Austin ACTLab, fixed a typo in "For the Win" and re-uploaded it, and set the alarm for my nap (major jetlag!). I'm a compulsive multitasker.

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