"What Does it Mean to Keep the Internet Free?" Why? Radio Episode with Guest Cory Doctorow
12:08AM Apr 16, 2020
Jack Russell Weinstein
digital rights management
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Hi, I'm jack Russell Weinstein, host of why philosophical discussions but everyday life on today's episode we will be asking Cory Doctorow what it means to keep the internet free. A long time ago, in 1995, I was fortunate enough to be in Vienna, Austria, and participate in the ninth annual European meeting of cultural magazines. The conference involved a small representative of art and culture publications that were trying to find their way in the new world. The newly created worldwide web had opened to the public two years earlier. And as everyone knows, it shook the publishing industry. Independent niche magazines felt the seismic shift more than anyone else, Vienna As the meeting place of Eastern and Western Europe and the conference represented that cultural divide, the participants had two fundamental differences of opinions. folks from the west were overwhelmed by the internet size, and wondered how creativity would avoid getting lost in the vastness. People from the east were upset about the web's lack of permanence. If you can edit any webpage or delete any file, how could you ensure that history could not be rewritten? All of this was in character, the former Soviet republics were still unsteadily recovering from the union's collapse, and capitalists were taking a victory lap. The East was worried that power would win the Internet, and the West feared that money would no one was confident about what was to come. Just yesterday, I scanned my copy of the limited edition magazine we published to commemorate the event. It's an English, French and German and asks, What would a computerized Europe of the new millennium look like? There's an article about community cohesion and Albanian What about cultural journals in Romania, I wrote an article about the way the web balances individuality and community, someone else talks about how computers made him feel old. What is overwhelming about this artifact? Is that the questions everyone was debating during the birth of the web are the same ones everyone is asking now, is the internet a place of freedom and creative exploration? Or is it a place where power manipulation and illusion went out? Is the ephemeral nature of the web, its greatest asset or its worst quality? Does the fact that anyone can publish a website makes cyberspace democratic and egalitarian? Or does that just create a chaotic anarchy that crushes individuals under the boots of their larger, more affluent competitors? The answer to all of these questions was the same then as it is now. Yes, yes, the internet is free and manipulated. Yes, it's changeability is a gift and a burden. Yes, it is individualistic and corporate. As I wrote in 1995 The web is the latest manifestation of the great tensions of human life. We are not consistent preachers, we are driven by Universal forces that pull us in a myriad of ways. If the media we use to communicate are not as complex as we are, they cannot be useful. They will not last, sophisticated tools bring with them sophisticated problems, but we are not children. We shall not go gentle into that good night.
On today's episode, we're asking what it means to keep the internet free. This itself is an ambiguous question. The term free can have a lot of different meanings like costless or fluid. It can mean welcoming as a commune might be or without boundaries like meditation. Free can imply rule breaking as in free jazz or revealing like an uninhibited conversation. We're so used to freedom being a political watchword that we forget how expansive the concept really is. We tend to talk about the internet only as the literal network that connects Are computers disregarding our thoughts, feelings and behaviors when we interact with it. But the internet can only be as free as its users. It's like when we go to a neighborhood restaurant and always order the same thing off the menu, doesn't matter that the chef offers dozens of delectable options for our dining pleasure for us. That restaurant has no variety. I suppose then, that the most instructive starting point for our conversation is the magazine I scanned yesterday, only 99 were printed. So I'm sure no more than 150 people worldwide even know it exists. But I'm gonna post it on my blog and share the link. I bet it will be read by more people that first day than in the last 25 years. I'm also confident it will find its way to the original contributors all because I happen to have a scanner on my phone, and I was looking for something to talk about to start up the show. The internet is free in the same way that all human creations are. It's unpredictable and it has a life of its own. It can't be directed, but it can be nudged. The web came with risks. But that's okay. Everything else does, too. We've all become so used to our connectivity that we forgotten the internet should be dangerous. It's supposed to be more than we can handle. At least that's how we all felt back in 1995. And that's why we published a magazine. After all, if there wasn't so much at stake, what would we have to write about? And now our guest, Cory Doctorow is a science fiction author, activist and journalist and the CO editor of Boing Boing. One of the internet's biggest blogs, he's written numerous books, including information doesn't want to be free and most recently radicalized. Cory, welcome to why.
Thank you very much. It's my pleasure.
This episode has been pre recorded but if you'd like to comment, tweet us at why radio show post on our Facebook firstname.lastname@example.org slash why radio show or email us at ask email@example.com you can always find a complete archive at wire Radio show.org So, Corey, you're a science fiction writer. You're co editor of a massively influential blog. You've been doing this a long time. Is Your Life on the internet? what you expected is the daily life of Cory Doctorow? like something out of a science fiction novel?
Well, I think those are two very different questions. This is not the future I expected, but it is recognizably out of a certain genre of science fiction novel. You know, I think that when we look at science fiction, we tend to mistake it as a predictive literature. But I think that at best, it's a kind of, maybe like an Oracle, in the sense that science fiction writers have no more insight into the future than anyone else does. But they imagine a lot of different futures. And then collectively as a society, we elevate some of them and and then down rank others based on our own aspirations and fears. And so you know, when you look at things like The the rise of cyberpunk literature just before the internet came along in the mid 80s. Before it before lots of people found their way online. And in fact, you know, it was part of the reason people did find their way online. One of the features of those novels is unchecked corporate power, just vast, unchecked corporate power. And I think that it was a kind of collective unconscious response to the rise of reaganism. And its its correlates around the world here in Canada, where I'm speaking to you from today, we had Mulroney ism and in the UK, they had Thatcherism and in Germany, they had Kol, ism, and so on. And I think that there was the sense that the gloves were coming off for a new kind of robber baron, who would be allowed to do almost anything and who would amass so much power, that the idea of a democratic law would be set aside for a kind of private law, and that we would we would be moving towards a statutory regime that you might call like felony conviction. To a business model, where where we would be increasingly obliged to arrange our affairs to benefit an increasingly small cadre of elite shareholders, and not to our own benefit. And I think that, you know, that science fiction novel is recognizably the internet. Right? I think that we didn't, we underestimated the extent to which the internet could someday become five giant websites filled with screenshots from the other four. And and that that diversity would be squeezed out, and that our ability to communicate would be centralized through through a few gatekeepers, who would be able to arbitrarily and capriciously decide what we said and what we didn't say, and who we could talk to and who we couldn't.
So I often talk about the movie Logan's Run because I feel like it invented Tinder at least there's a whole subplot in the movie about people who put themselves on the system and appear in other people. rooms and they have sex with the people that they find attractive just based on the way they look. And at the same time, Logan's Run is about killing people at a certain age, the lack of diversity, absolute control that allows people to play. Do you think that that tension is being played out? on the internet in the sense that if we look at enough science fiction, are we going to find everything that we see before us now? And we're just sort of cherry picking to call the predictive power accurate? Or do you think that there's something about the collective therapy that that really gets it right even if we don't necessarily know what right is gonna look like in advance?
I'm gonna say neither, you know, we just had the bicentennial of Frankenstein and Frankenstein Vogue has come and gone over the years and and Frankenstein considered As a kind of parable about fears and aspirations, it can have a lot of different balances, right? It can have a lot of different meanings. It can be about hubris, it can be about, you know, the pride of a creator. It can be about what it means to be human. It can be about technology out of control, it can be about more than one of those things. And you see the rise and fall of Frankenstein in different years, based on different social conditions. And so the fact that a story resonates in 1970, whatever when Logan's Run came out, and resonates again in 2019, doesn't necessarily mean that the same phenomenon is making it resonate, like out of gas. I would say that Logan's runs initial popularity, inspiration and resonance had more to do with the aging of the boomers who were finding themselves. First of all, at the tail end of politicization of that generation, right. We're moving from the politicized To the deep politicized in the heading towards the greedy 80s in the meat generation moment, you know Jerry Rubin is becoming a real estate broker and instead of being an, you know, an anarchist activist, it's also a very hedonistic time. It's a time where the, the sexual revolution of the 60s becomes the sexual revolution of the 70s, which has different meanings for different groups. You know, obviously, for gay people, it's the beginning of gay liberation, and you know, the era of Stonewall, but for straight people, it was the transmutation, or the elevation of the elements of the sexual revolution that had always been about a kind of institutionalized misogyny, again with the gloves off, where you go from, you know, the the misogyny of the 50s, which is supposed to be sexless, in which women are supposed to resist men into misogyny, the 60s in which women are supposed to be available to men to the misogyny the 70s, in which women are supposed to stop caring about the political valence To being available to men and not available to men, and still there's still this kind of entrenched sexism in that kind of hedonism. And so you know, when you when you talk about Logan's Run and being a precursor to Tinder, I think it probably has more to do with that kind of dynamic than than what Tinder has to do with today. Although I agree that Logan's Run resonates with with Tinder today, when you see that scene, it feels predictive, but I think it's referring to something else. And and so on and so on. You know, when you think about the, the collapse of, you know, the eugenic elements of Logan's Run where they're, they're sending people off to die when they reach a certain age. And that's pretty clearly about Boomer anxiety right about a generation whose slogan had been don't trust anyone over 30 all turning 30 and you know, feeling that way as as they get there. Today, you know, our surplus population ideas, notwithstanding all the talk about millennial millennials killing this or millennials killing that surplus population is mostly about the anxiety that we're headed towards. an unnecessary it where, you know, some some combination of automation and hoarding of the benefits of automation will make most people irrelevant, regardless of their age. And we're gonna you know that this will create some kind of like social instability. And you know, our social betters will need to figure out some way to quietly sweep us off the map because it will no longer be needed not even as a group of unemployed people whose existence terrorizes the people who are employed into accepting lower wages because they could be fired and replaced with one of us.
So so so let me follow that up with a question about your most recent book. So radicalised is four novellas of stories that are very different from one another. And then the second one, you tell the story of a superhero who is watching the police to make sure that they're not overly brutal. That's a simplistic notion, but but it can be about blacklight matter it can be about powerlessness. But also you spend a fair amount of time talking about the superheroes powers and what he can do and how much he can see. When you write something like that, do you have a sense of the metaphorical powers? I mean, I want to talk to you today about the internet. And so when I'm reading that story, I'm thinking about how the superhero has internet like powers can can has surveillance has the ability to get into places he couldn't get into. But someone else may read this as a metaphor about or a story about wishing there was some overarching authority to protect African Americans from police brutality. Do you as an author have a priority about those themes or do you just put it out there? We'll talk about this later. Like a dance. The line as you as you referred about in one of your books, do you have a sense that you have a message? Or is it just, you're following the thread work goes?
I mean, it's much more of the latter, you know, I have some heuristics for plotting that are about you know, ensuring that the stakes are going up and and, and that there's continuing and rising dramatic tension and that you're trying to make the protagonist The, the, you know, the moving force in their own lives so that they're not too passive so that you can root for them and so on. But the the thematic elements, I mean, there's a certain extent to which they're premeditated, but they always have like, you know, that they always have like minor chords that kind of resonate with them that are not necessarily in the in the melody when you're planning it out. And certainly in that story, that I think if there's an internet metaphor to be taken from that Superman story, it's that our Superman idea is that problems have individual causes and individual solutions. You know, we've had 40 years of being Hold that there is no such thing as society as Margaret Thatcher like to say, and that all of our problems are individual and all and the answer to them as individual, you know, if we have a problem with climate change, it's because of you not being diligent enough in your recycling. And you know, if if you look at your carbon footprint, the most likely major contributor to your carbon footprint is however you get from work to home, and you can't personally build a subway system. You know, our solutions to climate change are all collective. And our problems with climate change are all systemic. And so superheroes are spectacularly unsuited to the 21st century and its problems. And so Superman is kind of a relic of this idea of of individual agency and individual responsibility being the be all and end all of of our of our system. But you know, he always was, if you think of the history of Superman, you know, he's created by have these two Jewish kids in New York, one of them from Toronto, who were watching the unfolding history of horror of Nazi ism across the Atlantic and wishing for a Golem, right wishing for a giant who was unstoppable and immortal and omniscient and and who could just go and punch Nazi ism until Nazi ism stopped. And And clearly, that's not how we stopped Nazi ism. I mean, if we ever did know that I guess that's an open question again. But, you know, to the extent that we stopped Nazis and we did it through what's I think arguably the largest collective action in the history of the human race and you know, conscious planned collective action in the history of the human race. So, you know, I think that where this ties into the internet is that the internet signal virtue and it's great disrupting power sometimes for ill is its ability to allow us to coordinate our work. You know, Ronald Coase won this Nobel Prize in Economics, which I should point out is not really a Nobel Prize prize created it got someone else named Nobel to put their name on it because They were sad that no one took them seriously as a science. But But Coase won the Nobel Prize in Economics for a paper called the theory of the firm, where he asks like, why do we have institutions, right? Like, why do we have the church and companies and the mafia, and sports teams. And he concludes that they all exist to lower the cost of coordinating work, that if the two of us are trying to knit a sweater together, and one of us is unraveling it just as fast as the other one is knitting it up, we're never going to get a sweater. And so we have to spend a certain amount of time coordinating our actions, planning how we're going to collaborate, and that's what firms do, they lower the cost of collaboration. And what the Internet has done is it's drastically lowered the cost of collaboration. You know, if you think about something like Wikipedia, or the GNU Linux operating system, these are things on the same order of complexity as say, like a skyscraper and getting into maybe you know, an aviation program if not a space program, and yet we can do them with The kind of institutional overheads that we used to bring to bear on really ambitious bake sales. Right. And and that is a remarkable thing. And so, you know, the fact that that we are living in a moment in which we still put all of our focus on individual agency and individual culpability and individual solutions, add a moment in which individuals are able to collaborate in ways that that beggar the imagination of any institutional theorist from any point in history, that is a that is a chewy contradiction for us to be in the middle of
so is, is the internet in a certain sense, the victory of saved costs from efficiency. And what I have in mind by that question is all of this collaboration on the internet has to deal with trolls and has to deal with people in attentionally clogging the system yet that has no real monetary cost, it only has psychological cost, will it always be cheaper to deal with. And I mean, cheaper not literally, but will always be easier, better preferable to deal with trolls than to deal with traffic jams on the way to work, or large scale infrastructure costs in a building because trolls don't cost money per se, that the internet's always going to be better at coordination and more efficient, because you only have to deal with the psychological impact.
So I think it's definitely true that trolling is easier when you have the internet because you can collaborate your work and you know, that's the story of 4chan and Reddit, right and so on. But I don't think that's the whole story. I think that to understand how trolls have come to dominate the internet, you also have to understand how the platform's have come to dominate the internet, because because trolls are the parents sights on the platforms trolling on on smaller platforms and trolling has been around for a long time. I remember, there used to be a Usenet newsgroup, which is, you know, before the web, we had these message boards called news groups. And this Usenet newsgroup was called alt syntax tactical. And they would do things they would call them raids. And so they would go and pretend to be cat fanciers and, you know, wreck pets, cats, and then they would just slowly distort the conversation as it got weirder and weirder, about, you know, the sexual proclivities that they're catching. So, but this was, it was retail, right? It was, it was, it was small scale retail. And the disruption was minimal, compared to the kind of disruption that we have now where, you know, trolling, that there's a kind of continuum that starts with trolling goes all the way to, you know, Ranga pogroms and, and, and that's definitely a new phenomenon. So I think to understand why you have to understand that there are massive diseconomies of scale that that merging bunch of companies together. It's only profitable because it benefits financial engineers who do things like cash out through share buybacks and, and who can use the lobbying muscle of the new larger firms to to win tax breaks and and preferential treatment in law. And it's not that they make better services. I mean, the best example you have of this is Yahoo. Right? Yahoo spent 20 years buying every promising internet startup and killing it by accident. And yet it took, you know, 20 years it took decades before their share price finally reflected their their like institutional toxicity, and they got broken up for parts and sold for pennies on the dollar. And in the meantime, the people who engineered those buyouts and euthanized things of those, those promising companies, they all cashed out and walked away. They were they were long gone, with their money stashed offshore in a financial secrecy, secrecy haven. Long before Yahoo ever had to take a day of reckoning. And so Facebook is kind of the poster child for this today, it's pretty obvious that letting Facebook grow by buying all of its competitors was not good policy, like if we had evidence based policy and you said, Is it is it good that 15 million Americans between the ages of 13 and 34 left Facebook last year, I'd have discussed with the management, but the only place they could find to continue to hang out was Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, be pretty obvious that that's like, not a good outcome. And that, you know, the that we should have probably blocked that merger as we would have before the days of Ronald Reagan, it would have been radioactively illegal for Facebook to grow by buying Instagram. But But you know, here we are with Facebook being this one giant platform. And Facebook does two things. The first thing Facebook does is it helps locate people who have hard to find traits, traits that are widely dispersed in society. So if you're an advertiser, that trait might be someone who wants to buy a refrigerator, right? The average person buy something like you know, 1.8 refrigerators in their life. And so that's a really high Market to target to, and Facebook will let you do things like find all the people who searched on refrigerators all the people who have recently bought a house who live near you who thought about Kitchen Remodeling, and you can advertise refrigerators to them. Facebook also lets users find the people they went to high school with, or the people have the same rare diseases them are the people who have the same unorthodox political views, whether that's occupy or carrying tiki torches through Charlottesville, chanting Jews will not replace us, well dressed as Confederate larpers. And and Facebook does this very, very well. So well, that people actually mistake Facebook for having developed a mind control Ray, you know that people say, Oh, well, the way that Facebook influenced the Brexit campaign or the Trump campaign, or Viktor Orban or any of these other fringe phenomena that have become you know, the dominant forces in our world is is because they figured out how to use machine learning to tell you exactly the right thing to make you become a racist.
Corey, I'm sorry, I have to interrupt because we have to take a break. But I want to pull this thread when we get back because I want to talk about the tensions between your new book radicalized and a previous book information doesn't want to be free because the first is about the perspective of a user. And the second is the perspective of the internet itself. But we will be back in a minute you're listening to Cory Doctorow and jack Russell Weinstein on why philosophical discussion but everyday life will return shortly.
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Your back with why philosophical discussions in everyday life. I'm your host jack Russell Weinstein. I'm talking with Cory Doctorow about what it means for the internet to be free and whether it can stay that way. In his most recent book radicalized, the first story, tells the story of a woman who you meet her an apartment, you don't know anything about her, and she's trying to toast bread, and she can't toast bread, because the toaster only uses proprietary bread, and the company has gone bankrupt. And so it's a useless piece of equipment. This is like in the first paragraph, so I'm not giving anything away and the story follows the experience of someone and people who are faced with this notion of having no control over their appliances. In an earlier book, Cory, called information doesn't want to be free. Cory explains the inner workings of the internet, largely by talking about two very basic things. Copyright law, or how copyrights work and the fact that files are actually copied in multiple places. Now, that doesn't sound particularly interesting. But it's a wonderful book. It's easy to understand. It's, it's entertaining, and it's incredibly informative. And the way that I understand the two books is, as I said before the break, radicalized tells the story from the perspective of the user and information doesn't want to be free tells the tells from the perspective of the people who control the internet and the internet itself. So Cory, I want to ask you, when we were last talking before the break, you were talking about Facebook in a way that I've never heard anyone talk about Facebook before. You were talking about Facebook, from the perspective of the people who designed Facebook to do particular tasks that are largely about making money, but that solve very particular problems. Does the internet make more sense? Is there an overarching order to the internet once you take it from that perspective?
So I think that to understand how we got this internet, five giant websites filled with screenshots from the other four, you have to understand that tech and the dismantling of antitrust grew up together. And so a lot of what we think of as phenomena of the internet are really phenomena of Monopoly. You know, there's a kind of technological exceptionalism that says that the reason we have one search engine and it spies on you and the As the largest phone company won't let you decide which software you run on your phone, and and the reason that the only way to talk to your friends is to be spied on and locked into a walled garden, is because of like these nebulously defined ideas like network effects or first mover advantage. And and the thing is that the monopolies that we see in tech are not unique to tech. 30 years ago, there were 20 wrestling leagues now there's one wrestling League, it's worth $3.5 billion. its owner treats every wrestler in the league as a contractor, and doesn't let them get medical insurance through it and they're dropping dead like crazy.
I did not know that.
Yeah, and and we also have, you know, three giant car companies and five giant banks and four giant record labels, and five giant publishers, which will soon before and we had five giant movie studios and now it's for because Disney and Fox just merged and none of that stuff is explained by first mover advantage, and network effects. And and all this other, you know foofa. And when I hear people who are advocates for this, like radical theory of capitalism that Reagan brought in, talk about why it's not dismantling monopoly protections that gave us monopolies. It always reminds me of lifelong smokers explaining why their lung cancer wasn't caused by their cigarettes. You know, it's, it's, it's this kind of exceptionalism, that says the thing that I enjoyed and that I was like, that everyone told me I was wrong about is clearly not why I'm in trouble. I'm in trouble because of, you know, some other force, right, some some nebulously defined force. And so we can talk about the internet's unique characteristics and it has some, right it's the the internet is universal in a way that that very few technologies we've had before is and when I say it's universal, I mean, that the computers that sit at the edges of the internet can run any program that we can express in Symbolic Logic. This is a huge shift from the computers. Before, you know the modern computing when like if you wanted to tabulate the census, you would build an electromechanical computer. And it could do one kind of computation. Now, we just have a computer we load different software on it. And this sounds trivial, but it's it's seismic because it means that every device we have is just becoming a computer. In a fancy case, as you mentioned, an unauthorized bread. toasters become computers and fancy cases. And that may sound fanciful, but today, you know, a voting machine is a computer you put a democracy inside of a pacemaker is a computer you put inside of your body. And, and a 747 is a flying computer and a fancy aluminum case, right and a 737 is a fancy badly designed computer in a in a fancy aluminum case. And so, that universality of the endpoints is then complemented by the universality of the network where product Two internet networking protocols. You we built a different network for every purpose, right? You had a phone network for voice and you had a cable network for television and you had specialized data networks for different data applications, you physically would string new wires around. And now we have one wire, and it's heterogeneous. So parts of it are wire, and parts of it are fiber, and parts of it are satellite. And it carries every kind of information that we can express as digital data. And so voice and video and so on, have just become applications for this one network. So those are unique, right? Those are those are things that have never been on the face of the earth before. But there are other ways in which the internet is absolutely ordinary, right? The internet is is captured by the same forces that have captured all of our other institutions. So the denialism that that makes our bad internet policy so easy, where we insist that things that are obviously wrong, will be fine in the end, that's the same denialism that makes You know, burn burn coal, right? It's just that the the preferences and parochial goals of a small number of rich people get to dominate our policy outcomes even and especially when they fly in the face of our best evidence. And and so in that sense, the internet's totally ordinary.
is, I'm not sure how to ask this question, is everything ordinary? And what I mean by that is, are we just manifestation manifesting human problems, human tendencies, human desires, through whatever tool we use, and we just have developed better, more efficient, more fanciful tools, or is the medium the message in that classic sense in that, how we are going to use something and how we're going to care about something is going to be different based on the kind of tool that we're using.
So again, I'm going to say nine
I think that you figured out the secret to talking to me. Right? Right.
Human beings are mixed bags, right? We clearly there's there's nobility and venality in all of us. And the the forces that bring the good or the bad to the surface, they're determined by a lot of other things in the world, right. So one of the things we know is that if you tell people that the world is a game of musical chairs, and that, you know, while we might have had abundance before, those days are behind us, and things will get more and more scarce. And if you haven't figured out how to fill up your 401k by the time you hit a certain age, then then it's not just that you're going to be eating dog food, you might become dog food, that people become raspier and meaner, and less generous. Whereas if you tell people that we have a shared destiny, and if you show them that their generosity is reciprocated, then they become more generous, right and so the you know, like The conditions for our world are determined by like the incentives that we set up in our society. And, and I think that, uh, you know, in the case of of whether everything is normal, and whether we're just living through human nature being expressed, I don't think that's true. And I think that you can see that it's not true if you look at the way we behave, depending on how our wealth is distributed. Right after the two world wars, America and the world were more equal than at any time, I think, at least since manumission. Right that because most of the American national wealth had been represented in in slave bodies. The menu mission meant that most of the wealth was wiped off the books at the stroke of a pen and America became one of the most equal nations in the world. And it also became a nation in which Suddenly, a lot of policy reflected evidence right, you know, maybe maybe we were wrong about what the best thing to do was, but we weren't wrong because someone had subordination. process we were wrong because the process was not sophisticated enough to get at the truth. But you know, we follow the truth as best as we could understand it using using the most objective methods we had. The same is true after the two wars right after the two wars, there'd been so much capital destruction that America was super, super equal, as was the rest of the world, the French call those next 30 years, like punk Laurie is right the 30 glorious years, and around the world, you have unparalleled prosperity, and pluralism and mobility. And people who had been historically viewed through a kind of crypto eugenics as being poor because they were lesser and lesser because they were poor suddenly ascending through the ranks and showing themselves to have meaningful things to contribute to all of our collective well being. And the thing that happens after 30 years is that the share of wealth controlled by the top decile has accumulated into a small enough number of hands and it's become well has become significant enough in terms of the overall wealth all over the world. Old that rich people start to be able to make their preferences into log and as they had been able to do for 500 years before that in Europe and for, you know, 70 years before that in America, as the wealth concentration reemerged after manumission. And and we lost our ability to make good policy. And so in that sense, we are the internet is just like everything else but not because it's human nature. But because when policy when we you live in a in a, an aristocracy, it is rotten, right aristocrats are form of rot, because their individual fanciful notions, their prejudices, their biases, and their parochial priorities, to feather their own nests, Trumps all evidence based policy. So you know, we have bad policy about the internet, but like, there was just a hearing in West Virginia, over whether or not the state levels of allowable chemical effluent in drinking water should be lowered below the national levels. And Dow Chemical is the largest employer in the chemical industry in West Virginia. The chemical industry is the largest industry in West Virginia. And their lobbyists submitted comments that said, Well, of course, West Virginians can tolerate higher levels of toxic waste and their water because they have a higher BMI than the average American. And those those national levels were set based on the BMI of the average American. And since West Virginians are so much fatter. They're the poison will be more dilute in their tissues. And besides that, they just don't drink as much water as other Americans. That is the kind of answer that you that you put into a regulatory proceeding. When you have run out of any kind of sense that you care what people think of you, when you know that your parochial priorities will become law, provided that you can that you can fill in even the most, you know, meaningless ridiculous justification for making the law
It sounds like everything you said applies to the question of net neutrality and net neutrality in my oversimplified articulation is that regardless of the players, regardless of how much money they spend, regardless of preferences, the rule of net neutrality has to be everyone's data has to be treated the same at the same speed. But there are people corporations in particular, that don't want that. So the question I think I'm trying to get at is, given the fact that your articulation was about money power in class, is there any way to talk about net neutrality that isn't ultimately just a question about people on the top that are just trying to take more and make more?
I don't think so. I think net neutrality is one of those issues where it's only complicated because if you if you laid it out, simply It would be obvious what the right answer is. Right? It's complicated for the same reason there are a ton of lines on the craps table, because it makes it impossible to calculate the odds. Right. And if you just said, this is craps, it is a 75% expectation game. That means every dollar that you put in, you get 75 cents back and you will lose 25 cents. craps would be a lot simpler, you wouldn't even need a bunch of lines, right? You could just have like a four sided dice. And if it came up a one, you lost, you lost your money. And the other times you got your money back. And and you would have exactly the same expectation, right. So So the way to understand that neutrality, you know, there are all these arguments that complexify you know, people say, well, when you go to Google, Google gets to decide what goes on the front page. How come when you get your internet, the internet service provider doesn't get to decide which search engine you use. Isn't that just the same thing? And the right answer there is that if you live in a city with a regulated taxi and And I know that's increasingly an anachronism. And when you call a cab, and you say please take me to Macy's, and they say, I'm sorry, Macy's has not paid for premium carriage. We are going to take you to you can go straight away to Sears, again, an anachronism. Or we can circle the block for 10 minutes. And then I'll take you to Macy's. The fact that Macy's store designers get to decide what's right next to you, when you walk through the door doesn't change the fact that the taxi driver has no business deciding which destination you want to go to. Right. Markets are supposed to be mechanisms for revealing consumer preferences. That's that's the whole idea of markets. That's why we like markets instead of planned economies, we say you can never know all the preferences that consumers have. The only way to know them is to see how much they're willing to pay and where they want to go and what they want to buy. Well, there's no more clearly articulated consumer preference than the link you clicked. What did you want to see the The thing that you click the link for What didn't you want to see the thing that maximizes shareholder benefit? That's, you know, there's it's an in arguable proposition. And the idea that we have ISP s, who, after all, only exists because they get giant public subsidies, because, you know, if you're Verizon, and you're going to operate in New York, and you don't have a public subsidy, then you have to go around the city and pay people to dig up their basements in their streets, and you have to pay what could be trillions of dollars to dig up the whole city to wire it with your, you know, going gold, iron Rand pure market network, you will never recoup because they are creatures of public regulation. And they because they they take giant amounts of public subsidy in the form of these rights of way. They should have an obligation to deliver the things that we click on, not the things they wish we've clicked on. And and it's just that simple. And the fact that we're having this argument in America is hilarious, not least because 87% of Americans Both know what network neutrality is and want it. And so we don't even have a split over whether or not network neutrality is the right or the wrong policy. You know, we talk a lot about America as though we're polarized. And we say, well, there's people who want universal health care and people who don't, and people want net neutrality and people who don't. The reality is that most of those policies enjoy clear bipartisan majorities. And America's polarized not between the left and the right, but between a tiny elite of nest feathers in Washington, DC, and the entire rest of the country.
Alright, so I want to take a step back because the conversation has been complex in certain sense and fast in a certain sense, and that in other ways, it's following a very, very clear path. And so I want to I want to orient our our listeners for a second. I started the conversation by wanting to talk about technology and actually talking about science fiction. And Korea's response was, you can't talk about any of that stuff. Unless you talk about the economic context, unless you talk about the political context, and in fact, all explanations that you're going to have, you're going to ask for whether technological or literary are still bound by these larger questions. They're not human nature questions. They're circumstance questions. They're economic questions, their political questions. So I want to ask what's going to seem like a far afield question. Follow up on this, but in part, it perplexes question I wanted to ask a long time ago, but I think but I think that it leads to, to more of this, which is the question that I thought I was going to end up starting the conversation with was as follows. How is a blog different than a magazine? And what I wanted to sort of juxtapose in the conversation was on I wanted to ask first, you You commented and something you wrote that you post about 10 posts a day on point point. And those posts are usually discrete. They don't necessarily have anything to do with each other. There's not necessarily a coherent narrative their responses to things, you find pictures of the other websites, but also tech stuff and science fiction stuff and your opinions and things like that. When you look at a blog, like boiling point, is it just a stream of consciousness experience of what happens to go in front of the poster? when when when the poster decides to put something online? Or is there an overarching logic that then we can analyze by all of these other things? is a blog just a piecemeal experience based on the vicissitudes of life? What happens to go in In front of someone's face, or is a blog much more coherent in a way that appears invisible to a lot of the readers?
So I think that what to to answer with an answer that might start a little far afield and come in, I think the internet exposes that a lot of things that we think of as being clearly defined categories are actually much broader than we assumed, you know, book being a good example. Right? I mean, we used to have, you know, maybe we would have the philosophical conundrum like, is the IKEA catalog a book? And if so, how is it a book like the Bible is a book or like my, you know, mine comp is a book, and are they books like the phone book is a book, but now we have things like is Wikipedia, a book, you know? And and is a Kindle book that's in the Kindle unlimited program that was put together by a grifter hoping to goose their stats to get more money from from Amazon by doing keyword stuffing. That's only 100 words long is that Book a like so now we have this this much you know the thing that we thought of as a unitary Catterick category becomes much larger, you see it happening in lots of different areas, right? Like when when Google had a policy that said everyone had to use their real name on Google Plus, it sparked, you know, a lot of anger about what a real name was. And there's a great article called things programmers believe about names that are wrong, and include things like everyone has a name, everyone has one name, everyone's name can be written, everyone's name is written left to right, everyone's name is read, top to bottom, and, and so on. And, you know, there are examples of people who don't fit into any of those categories and and, you know, eventually the exception start to swallow the rule. And so blog is one of these things where where it seems unitary, but the closer you look at it, the more diffuse and harder it is to find that the the border where something stops being a blog and starts being something else is but the one characteristic, I think you could say that that at least blog shared in there. Yours is that they were not capital intensive. And so they were experimental. Right after a blogger came along, which eventually became part of Google, you could create a blog in a few seconds for free. And that meant that there were lots of different things that became blogs that were created for different reasons by different people. And the category very quickly became as varied as the category of book. So there are blogs that are as different from each other as the IKEA catalog, mine comp, the phone book and my most recent novel, or even though they're all recognizably blogs, because they have the same content management system and they're in reverse chronological order and, and they permanent links on every post and all those things that were like formal characteristics of blogs when they started. So for me, my my contributions to boing boing which are different from everyone else's contributions to boring one because it's a collective effort. There's half a dozen of us and one of the things that you see blogs doing is low And coordination costs. So we can have half a dozen of us who are all working on the blog for different reasons to post different things that have different priorities. And yet it's still recognizably one blog. For me, the blog is my commonplace book. And writers have always kept these right. They make notes in a book, or in a notebook about the things that cross their transom that seemed like they're relevant that seemed like they might be synthesized later into something longer and more complex. But the problem with making notes for yourself is that you cheat, right? When when you don't have to explain what you mean to a notional third party, and just explain what you mean to yourself. You are powerfully tempted to say, Oh, I'm sure I'll know what i mean later, I can just jot down a few words. And I don't know about you, but I usually am wrong about how much detail I'm going to need right to recall what I meant later. And I have notebooks full of cryptic notes that I've no idea what they mean. But when you write for an audience You have to apply rigor. And so that's why these posts stand alone is because they try to, they try to tell the who, what, where, when, why, how story of the fragment. And that itself becomes powerfully mnemonic, it helps you remember it, it turns your subconscious into a kind of supersaturated solution have fragmentary ideas that can belong together in nucleate, and crystallize into bigger, more synthetic pieces. But it also creates not just the ability to bring it to mind more easily in your memory, but it creates a database that's searchable, and that self annotates because readers who share your interest, come along and tell you how you're wrong and tell you how you're right and tell you what you missed. And so this is like a magical commonplace book for me. And it's become so integral to everything else I do that it is extremely idiosyncratic and specific, but they're, I would, I would hazard a guess that the majority of people who identify as bloggers, which is obviously a very small number of people today relative to its heyday A few years ago, a decade ago, that very few of them share that my view of what a blog is good for.
You, you've touched upon a problem that I was thinking about when you're talking about the philosophical conundrum of of what a book is, because a book means one thing, but the major difference between the book that we hold in our hand and the Kindle is that the book that we hold in our hand is, is is a Codex. Right? It's, it's, it's this book structured with with papers and, and, and, and a binding. And what people don't realize about the Kindle is that ultimately, it's a scroll. And that it goes back to the older style of writing. And one of the advantages of Codex is it's easy to search, it's easy to find things. And one of the disadvantages of a scroll is it's incredibly difficult to search and incredibly difficult to find things. So Kindle has a search function that is supposed to make it seem easier to find things but it's actually fairly difficult you have to type things in, you have to get the word right, right with a Codex, you can sort of flip through pages and find your notes. I think a blog suffers from a potentially similar problem, which is when you have all of these posts, it's incredibly hard to find things. But you then have tags and you have keywords and you have people's comments. So is a this isn't really what I said. That's when I start the question. But is a blog more like a Codex, in the sense that that, because it's a commonplace book, because you're trying to remember things? It's actually easy to scroll through things and find, or is the fundamental retrieval problem of a blog the same, which is that it deposits information, but it's incredibly hard to recall information?
I want to beg to differ about whether Kindles are better or worse at searching and finding and that I think is also the answer to your blog question which That Kindles are worse at searching in the way that we search books and better at searching in the way that we search data. And books are better at searching in the way we search books and worse at searching in the way that we search data, so Kindles for me, you know, I am I Well, I don't I don't own a Kindle because the digital rights management stuff but but electronic books, I will often read a book as a book. And then when I want to review it, I will download the book and search it to find the quotes that I want to reference in my review. And And that for me that synthesis, you know that that that benefit of having both right the best of both worlds. That for me is what I'm after. And I think blogs are really good at being searched like blogs and really bad at being searched like commonplace books. But you know, I'm 3000 miles from home right now. My commonplace books which had been in a storage locker in Wales for five years until two weeks ago. You are on a bookshelf in my garage in Burbank, California, and I'm in Toronto. So those commonplace books are not available to me. Whereas my blog is available to me. And anywhere I am, where there's data. And, you know, By the same token, it's true that if there was network censorship, or if there was something catastrophic in terms of our ability to continue to use technology, that I might lose access to that blog data. But it's also true that that blog data has been backed up by the Internet Archive, and that I can make a backup of it and store it on site or off site in the cloud or on an encrypted hard drive, which would allow me to not only have a copy of it that I could access from anywhere in the world, but also access and be sure that no one else could access it because if you use encryption, well, it is extremely robust and reliable. And so it's, it's, you know, it's technology given technology taketh away here, there isn't there isn't a There isn't a better or worse, there's a better or worse based on the application, right better for some things worse for others. And, you know, if my garage burns down, I lose those commonplace books.
We didn't say.
But you know, we would need to have a, like a global catastrophic event like a cataclysm for me to lose my blog data.
Right. So let's, let's talk about the stuff that you said in passing the DRM, the digital rights management, and let's talk about trying to control the information so so one of the things that happens with with your blog and of course, your activism in fighting copyrights and sensor walls and things like that is all the stuff that you have is out there, right, and anyone can use it the way they see fit, and anyone can make a certain amount of money off of it in a certain way. There are people who are respond by saying this is exactly why you need DRM why you need digital rights management because this is our intellectual property, and we need to make money off of it and we don't want unauthorized people to earn a living off of our hard work. We're entitled to it. You're not. You argue a that, that it's probably immoral, but be it's completely ineffective. So what's wrong with digital rights management? And how does that show that our sense of both of copyright and its relationship to intellectual property is just completely outdated?
I was with you, right, until you said completely outdated? Because I I actually don't think that the problem with copyright is that it's outdated. I think that it's that we've evolved a new theory of copyright. That's terrible.
Okay, fair enough, fair and willing to accept that.
It's a modern and radical interpretation. So copyright historic It was just the regulation framework for the entertainment industry. And you know, I'm a participant in that industry, but most people aren't. And you couldn't violate copyright no matter how hard you tried for most of human history, right, unless you had a printing press, or a film lab. And so the rules, you know, they're crafted around the priorities and and and needs of the of the entertainment industry. And the way that we test it to see whether you were in the entertainment industry is whether you were making and handling copies. And since that's the way the internet works, for some reason, we decided, well, we're going to regulate the internet, which is the single wire that we use to do free speech and free press and freedom of assembly and access to civic and political engagement and romance and family life and employment and education. We're going to treat that as though the best regulatory framework for it is the one that we use to make sure that Walt Disney has made whole on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. And you know, it's just it's it's incoherent it's bonkers and and it fails. Very, very badly. The thing about digital rights management, as you say is that not only does it work badly, but it also fails badly as well. So so it works badly in the sense that the laws that we have that back digital rights management in the US, that's section 12, one of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998. Here in Canada, it's Bill C 31 of 2011. In Europe, it's article six of the 2001 copyright directive, and so on, that these laws, make it a crime, to remove digital rights management or tamper with it, even if you're not violating copyright. And so these are not laws that protect copyright. These are laws that protect the commercial desires of copyright proprietors. So copyright proprietors have always had limits on what they could do. You know, you may have seen paperbacks that say, you know, this book must not be sold or Lent, but that's like, that's a preference. That's not a lof you can obviously sell and lend your books, right. I used to work in the US bookstore, we bought books that said that on the frontispiece all the time didn't matter. You know, the commercial preferences, the publisher have no bearing on what the law says they don't get to write the law. If they want a law that says you can't buyer or seller lend books, they got to get Parliament or Congress to make that law. They don't get to just write it and make it the law. And what DRM does is it says that things that are illegal things that no parliament has ever banned, can be made illegal through the addition of digital rights management. And this has been true since the first application for digital rights management, which was to prevent people from importing DVDs from territories where they cost less so region coding with DVDs. Now obviously walking into a store in Mexico or India or China and buying a licensed DVD that's that's to say, not a pirate one from the from a storekeeper at the price set by the creator of that movie, and then watching it on your television. That's the literal opposite of piracy, right? That's obeying copyright law. But because DVD players were designed to reject DVDs that hadn't been sold in the same country as the DVD player to use these region codes, they could take this commercial preference that people would pay the local price for the DVD and not buy DVDs from abroad. And they could turn it into law. And that has now expanded into things like Johnson and Johnson, using digital rights management in their artificial pancreas to make sure that you only use the insulin that they have made available for that pancreas and not a third party cheaper insulin and insulin prices are up 1,000% over the last 10 years, and Johnson and Johnson's insulin cost more than that. And so this is a way to bootstrap copyright law into forcing you to arrange your affairs to benefit a manufacturer or shareholders even when it comes to your internal organs. And so that on the one hand is is as a like a matter of simple justice and economics. Completely terrible. And I will put the moral case For people being allowed to use their property in lawful ways that benefit them, even if it harms the manufacturer of the product, even if it's dis preferred by the manufacturer, I will put that as being the more moral of making sure that manufacturers always make as much money as possible even when the manufacturer or the commercial operator is is an artist whose work I care about. I think that that your right to earn money off of your work stops when you sell it to me, provided I don't break the law, that your preferences have no bearing on on what my behavior should be. And if you don't like it, you need to go to Congress. And you know, it's not like artist having tried, john Philip Sousa went to Congress in 1908 and tried to get the record player banned. He said if these infernal talking machines are allowed to continue, we will lose our voice boxes as we lost our tails when we came down out of the trees, many points for being an early advocate of the still controversial theory of evolution through natural selection, but he totally you know, was wrong, right and we're I'm glad john Philip Sousa has ambitions were frustrated, and that we still got records and we got sound record. hoardings, which he was Foursquare against. And so I think that the moral case is easy. But the technical cases even easier, because as I said before, we're living in an age of universal computers, computers that can run every program that anyone can express symbolically. And that means that we don't have a computer that can run all the programs except for the ones that the artists would prefer you not run the one that makes it elicit copy, or that allows you to watch out of Region DVD. What we have are computers that can run every program, including those disk preferred programs, but which are designed to disobey their owners to hide how they operate from their owners. And to when the owners ask them to do something the manufacturer would prefer, they not do to refuse to do it. And in order to accomplish this, as a technical matter, you have to make the machine obscure to the user, the user can't know how it works, or they would reconfigure it to work for them. And you have to have programs that run on the computer that the user can't know about and can't stop. And what we see over and over again, is that designing can be pewters that run programs that their users don't want, and that hide from their users is an invitation to all kinds of mischief. It invites manufacturers to do wicked things to users right to, to stop them from doing legitimate things. But it invites criminals and spies to figure out how to hijack that facility to run programs that by design in the system, the user can neither know about nor prevent. And that in a world that is made of computers, where your organs and your car, and your skyscraper are all just computers and fancy cases, that is a piece of technological policy. That is, in my professional opinion as a dystopian science fiction writer, a dystopian idea.
So okay, so so I want to get to the meat of the matter here both because the title of this episode is what does it mean to keep the internet free but also because of your work with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of the arguments is going to be that at least in In terms of health and the medical care that people have a right to live right to medicine or right to health care although that of course is controversial in a way that could shouldn't be in any stretch
of the world is part of the book two part right and as part of it, right and as part of
the book about this Yeah. Um, but uh, but, uh we don't have a human right to the internet, we don't have a human right to access computers. How do you how do you respond to that and what does it mean to have free access to these things?
Well, you know, Stuart brand he coined this term information wants to be free. It was at the first hackers conference and he was on stage with Steve Wozniak who created the first Apple computers. And he you know, brand is a very smart fellow, a really interesting character. And he said, you know, information has this contradictory dual nature because on the one hand information wants to be free. And on the other hand, information wants to be expensive. And as as interesting and chewy as that is as a kind of Zen Cohen, about the nature of information. I think that it over the years has ended up creating more obscuring more than it illuminated because it shifted our focus from humans to information. We live in an information society, which is to say that every device that we have is fundamentally a computer in a fancy case. And when I say that, I mean like, if you take the computer out of a car, the car stops working, right? If you take the computer out of a building, right, remove the computerized age back, you know, if you're, if you're, for example, in the prairies, you freeze to death, right. And then after one summer, your house fills with black mold and has to be scraped down to the foundation slab so that
you really do know what you're talking about. I grew up in the
northeast know exactly what I'm talking about. Yeah. And and you know that that in that world, like the most salient fact about these things is their information processing capacity. And that only becomes more true as years go by and will only be true for the foreseeable future. And so in an information society, people want to be free just as they wanted to be free all along. And the way you make them free, is with free fair and open Information Infrastructure. And and you had a great kind of riff on all the different meanings of freedom. And I think that we could spend a whole program on each of them. But I think that there's like a, there's there's a dimension of freedom that we can talk about in pretty short order. That is, in fact, not particularly novel. It's ancient. And that applies to information and information processing. That should be considered the kind of minimum viable freedom for an information society in which people Free. And it's the freedom to study, understand, modify and discuss technology. And and that freedom, it goes by another name. And that name is the scientific method. And the scientific method is approximately synonymous with progress. Right? We had 500 years of stagnation in what what we now call science in which we then called natural philosophy. And it wasn't because the people who were investigating scientific questions the causal relationships in the universe were stupider than they are today. It was because they lacked a rigorous method, because they were alchemists, and alchemists never told anyone what they thought they'd learned, unless it was someone they trusted to keep it a secret and not discuss it with other people, which meant that their findings were only ever criticized by by people who were friendly to them. And those people tend to go easy on us. And so between you and your friends You were unlikely to discover the dumb mistakes you've made. And this is why alchemists for 500 years discovered for themselves in the hardest way possible that you really shouldn't drink mercury. Right? We call that 500 year period, the Dark Ages. And we call the moment at which they began to subject their findings to scrutiny and critique by all comers everywhere in the world, including people who didn't like them and wish them harm. We call that moment the enlightenment. And the most radical thing about the moment we're living in now is we are surrounded by systems whose inner workings we're not allowed to know nor investigate, nor discuss, and that freedom there, there are plenty things that we can do wrong with those freedoms. But there's very little we can do right without them. You know, as Joe Lewis said, when they asked him why are you going to to Europe to fight for Uncle Sam when you've been fighting Uncle Sam at home in the Civil Rights fight? He said, Well, there's plenty wrong with the robot Hitler's not helping. Right, we can get lots of things wrong with free, fair and open computing. infrastructure. But we can't start getting the right until we have that.
You know it. Your comments echo actually our last episode, which was called How does misinformation spread, and it was about the social networks of knowledge. And when you open up the social networks to different ideas, and I don't mean, computer social networks, that the social epistemology when you open that up, you open, you become more aware of error in a variety of ways. You also use the word technology. And that's a word that people often don't think enough about. Because when we talk about technology, we think about cars and electronics. But of course, the pencil is technology. putting two rocks together is technology language is technology. In the midst of your discussion about free information in the book information doesn't want to be free. My favorite part, and I think that the most moving part in the most persuasive part, talks about this in a very, very different way. I'm actually I don't do this very often, but I'm gonna read something from the book. It's on page 107. You're talking about people being spread out around the world, and you say, but today's diaspora remains tightly bound together, able to route around high long distance tariffs with voice over IP calling. And they enjoy services that could exist only with the internet, including video calling, and video and photo sharing. And then you talk about the fact that the studies show that that the more connected people are, the healthier and happier they are in their whole lives. We are in a world where people aren't mobile and where people are far away from their families. And this technology coheres the family unit and often cultural and ethnic units as well and friends in a way that was never before possible. And it seems to me that while I don't know that you intended it at this point, that's also an argument for The rights to the human right to the internet because we do have a human right to family and to friends and to community. And if this helps that, then how can we ever morally justify stopping access to it? So make sense?
Yeah, I mean, I'm I'm inclined to agree with you, which is unsurprising given that you've quoted me.
I'm pleased to find that I don't even I didn't remember that passage. I've handled that when you read it. I of course, it came to mind. But yeah, you know, my father was a displaced person. So his, as were his parents so that his parents were Red Army deserters, who came to Canada, and my grandmother lost track of her mother for 15 years after they came to Canada. She had been a child soldier in the siege of Leningrad who was evacuated in the third year and then inducted into the Red Army. And my dad tells the story that, you know, makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up about being in Toronto 15 years later, and the phone ringing, and my grandmother answering it and saying Mama, Mama, and you know, hearing, sorry, I just choked up. It's crazy. I'm hearing to mother's voice for the first time in 15 years not having known as she was dead or alive. We're living in a moment of enormous displacement. But that story of just losing your people. That's not the story that we have anymore, right? Like people don't live that anymore. They live smaller, shorter versions of it. But, you know, today we have different problems, you know, and the internet gives us different problems. But we don't have that problem. And that is a great ill that has been in many ways cured and the other problems are equally bizarre and terrible. I have a friend who told me about about going to see Doug Copeland speak after the Columbine shooting, and he got everyone in the audience to to make their phone ring at the same moment. And he said, that's what it sounded like in the gym during Columbia, Columbine. Because all of the parents who knew that their kids were being shot at in the school called their kids. That's a completely different problem. That information gives us but and we'll have to reckon with it. But it's interesting to pose it against silence and not just a little silence but decades of silence about the people you love after they've been in peril.
Douglas Coupland is one of the most influential writers in my life and it never occurred to me to try to get him on the show. But I think it's good to do that. And and what what strikes me about this last turn of conversation is that It helps reveal a nuance about the earlier parts of conversation that that I didn't really detect, which is by making the debate about technology and by making the debate about the sort of obscure copyright laws and and the nature of the computers and things like that. We take it away from the human realm and by taking it away from the human realm. Echoing something you said earlier, obvious conclusions, especially obvious moral and policy conclusions suddenly seem more complicated and less obvious. And I think that if you tell the stories, the two stories that you just told, all of a sudden, the technological problems are tertiary, because it's always going to be the human problems that take precedent for us, certainly for moral philosophers and policy is supposed to be a branch of moral philosophy in that sense. All of this was designed to obscure the humaneness of it. And I think part of what you were trying to do when you were talking about the economics and the politics was to remind us that while it takes a little while to walk down that path, ultimately, these are human issues. And we have to deal with them from the human side in order to understand how we have to deal with them on the technological side.
So I think that's true. But I think that there are elements in which the specifics of the technology really matter in making policy. So a good example would be working cryptography. So I mentioned before that if you use cryptography well, that it will give you secrets that you can keep in a very robust way. And when I say that, I mean like, if you take a picture with your phone, and your phone has disk encryption turned on, which most of them do Now by default, you just if you bought a phone recently it does. Then that data is encrypted so thoroughly, automatically in the background in the blink of an eye, that if every hundred An atom in the universe were turned into a computer. And they did nothing until the end of the universe. But try and guess what key was necessary to de scramble that photo, you run out of universe before you run out of keys. Right? So we have working crypto, and it's pretty amazing. And it's what allows us to do things like validate the software update for your pacemaker, or your car, or your h vac system, or your banking software, or the software that controls the fighter jet flying over you. Right and, and it's what stops criminals from being able to read your email or break into your systems. And so it's really, really important. It also means that if criminals use it well, that the police can spy on them. And not just a little but a lot, right that if you recover a criminals phone, and you can't somehow compel the criminal to give you the keys necessary to unlock the phone, and perhaps they're dead. Then you You may never be able to get at that data. And since the Clinton years, cops and authoritarians and governments and spies have been agitating to ban working cryptography, because they said that it is more important to make sure that we can always fight criminals than that criminals are hamstrung in their ability to attack us. And in fact, they've insisted all along, including Rosenstein, who just resigned, had insisted all along, that somewhere out there was a kind of cryptography that worked perfectly when it was protecting good guys from bad guys, but failed catastrophic Lee the incident the instant it was protecting bad guys from good guys. And, you know, a year and a half ago, Malcolm Turnbull, then Prime Minister of Australia gave a speech about this, where he said the mathematicians tell me that the laws of mathematics say that we can't design a system that protects good guys but doesn't protect bad guys. And I say to them, The laws of mathematics are all very well and good. But I assure you that in Australia, the laws of Australia are the laws of Australia. And you know, the championship for the stupidest thing anyone's ever said about technology. It's a highly contested one. And now Australia has banned working cryptography. And so the human costs of banding work in cryptography are really substantial. I mean, really, really substantial. Right? It it puts us all at risk in ways that beggar the imagination, but it does so because of a nuanced technical point. And understanding that nuance technical point is hard. But unless we unless we combine our Moral Sentiments, with an understanding of the world as it is, and as it may be, right, what is in the realm of what we think of as possible based on all the things we know and what we think of is impossible based on all the things we know Then we just build castles in the sky, we talk about what we would do if we could make a cryptography that worked, except when we needed it to fail, not what we should do because that cryptography will never exist
is a free internet radically different than a free world. And what I mean by that is what what a universal right is what a human right is applies to the bad guys as well as the good guys. And even if that division itself may be problematic, is a free internet, just free for everybody and you're gonna have to we're gonna have to find different solutions to the problem of child porn different solutions to the problem of revenge porn of trolling of compromised credit cards. That it's not it's not an infrastructural solution. It has to be good old fashioned police work for lack of a better term. Is that just that what a free internet looks like? Because free is free for everybody?
So I think you're asking more than one question there.
I always usually am. Yeah.
So, to start with a free internet is not the same as a free world, but it's the necessary but insufficient precondition for a free world. Okay, in the same way that like a transparent democracy is not necessarily a well governed one. But it is the precondition for good governance, right? You have to know what people are doing and be able to criticize it and and check them when they when they're lying and so on. Otherwise, you things will always go awry. Not even because people are bad, but because they're fallible, and if no one is, if you know, if you're just living in your own little bubble, and no one gets to criticize you, then you will make dumb mistakes, you'll drink mercury. So That's the first part. The second part is a free internet, one in which we can't address things like revenge porn, which is not a term I like very much there that you know, non consensual nudity, or the, you know, images of the sexual abuse of children where they have to be fought with police work. I mean, I think those are two very different questions, because the nude image of a consenting adult that is then shared without their consent, does not have an underlying crime. Right. In other words, taking a picture of yourself naked and sharing it with someone you love, is it's it's not a crime. The thing that's the crime is is that person or a third party getting hold of it and sharing it without your consent, whereas images of the sexual abuse of children start with a crime, right? They start with an illegal act. And I would argue that if all we managed Is to snuff out the sharing of the images without snuffing out the abuse, that we have not gone far enough speaking both as a human being and as a father. And so therefore, of course, it has to involve police work. Because if if your full response to finding images that depict the sexual abuse of minors, is to remove those images from the internet without doing police work, then the miners continue to be victimized. And there is some sense in which you've reduced their victimization assuming that they're no they're shot of that situation and the images of their the crimes committed against them are no longer in circulation. But in terms of our social priorities. I think it's a very easy reach to say that our social priority should be to stop ongoing and future abuse of children ahead of although not necessarily exclusive of the circulation of the evidence of that, that if we had to choose between those too, but it's an easy choice.
Right? And isn't isn't there a case to be made that that if we spend all of our time trying to stop the circulation of the evidence, then it actually becomes harder to find people because they're on the dark web. They're encrypting their conversations. And at least if it's a little more out there, and I'm not advocating, of course, sharing of child pornography, but if it's out there, it might be easier to trace people and then get the the stop of the actual abuse as opposed to the evidence, can there be a Kate camp can a case be made for the fact that that the more open and free people are, the easier it is to stop that sort of thing?
So there's a group of German survivors of sexual abuse, who are adults who were sexually abused as children, who formed a movement to oppose the use of a national firewall to block websites in which the This was being discussed. or whatever, because they said that that out of sight out of mind. And I kind of feel like this is an area where I want to defer to survivors that that, as someone who you know, touchwood, not a survivor of that kind of abuse, never had to suffer through that kind of abuse. I want to take my lead from people who've lived through it. And so that's the organized group I know about and that's their view. I think, as you point out that there's that there's, you know, that it's, it's not it's not one, there's no clear and easy answer to the best way to manage it. And you know, we could use something slightly less emotionally charged, although not not much less emotionally charged, like the atrocities committed against the hang up, or the is Ed. So the is Ed shared on social media, huge amounts of images of themselves being tormented. By jihad, ease of human rights abuses visited on them by the Jihad ease as a way of galvanizing public opinion to support themselves. And the same algorithms and moderators, human moderators who were charged with removing jihadi propaganda, which often in featured the same images began to take down their images to. And the CD I think correctly understood that their only chance for justice would be to build constituencies around the world of people who understood what they were going through. And, and so I think that it's a If nothing else, an area that's very hard to do well, and it's hard to do at scale. And it's very hard to distinguish between the people who want to tell their stories as a way of galvanizing people to action or healing themselves and people who want to glorify the abuse. And it's certainly something that's very hard to do when you're a giant company, right? It's very hard for for something the size of Facebook to do Because they they find it hard to understand the context. There's so much of it that they're they're always going to catch some dolphins in their tuna net. And I think it's a pretty good argument for decentralizing communications, right. If we had more decentralized communications, it might be harder to find the bad speech. But it would also mean that people of goodwill who were running services, would it that knowing all the speech and its context in that service would be more tractable for them. And it's, I think, an argument for a more decentralized internet overall, in terms of the non consensual sharing, of nudity of a people who, who made the pictures consensually, but then found them that shared non consensually again, I think that like there is there are two dimensions here. One is the prevention of the victimization of that person by having their images shared. And in general I it's an area where I think, you know, the the notice and takedown regime is not a terrible one right where Like, prior to the internet, if there was something published that you believed was bad speech, have some kind of infringe copyright and infringe some other rights that you had. You would have to get a court order to get it removed. You know, when I worked in a bookstore, if you thought one of the books we sold infringed your copyright or defamed you, you didn't get to just march into the store grabbed me from behind the cash register walked me over to the bookshelf and demand that I removed the book, right, you would have to produce a court order before the book would disappear on the internet. If you feel like you have been, you know, you've been maligned or your rights have been trampled. Under things like the communications decency act in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, you can use takedown notices to make things removed, arguably so easily that it invites abuse. You know, we've seen for example, police departments whose body cam footage of them committing violent acts illegal violent acts have used false copyright claims to make things disappear from the public eye at least for time, often at critical junctures when when it's a matter of public debate. But I think That takedown is a good system for it for
addressing some of that victimization harm, but as with the sharing of images of the sexual abuse of children, I think that the criminal pursuit of people who intentionally share non consensual nude images or images that are that are being shared non consensual, even if the images were consensual, that pursuing those people is actually the more important thing. You know, it's like asking, do we need blinds to stop people from peering through our windows with telescopes? Or do we need social norms with backed up by legal regimes that make it both unacceptable and illegal to stare through your window with a telescope, and I would say that blinds are great, but ultimately, the thing that protects us from people looking through our Windows is the norm in the law. I
We're running out of time. But I want to go back a second to the thing that you mentioned about people using images of victims sometimes for advocacy and sometimes for prurient interest. And there's and there's two sort of internet pop culture notions that this makes me think of the first is called rule 34, which is if it exists, there's porn of it. And the second is Poe's law which says that it that it's impossible to tell the difference between sat if something is extreme enough, it's impossible to tell the difference between something that is meant seriously and something that is satire. Are these the same sort of problems? Are these all epistemological problems, problems of knowledge problems of interpreting people's intentions? Does this permeate the internet? I know it's very hard to express sarcasm through email and sarcasm through tech right? is is is there a fundamental And perhaps even unique, epistemological problem for the internet that it makes it harder to understand people's intentionality? Or is that again, sort of just a manifestation of the larger problem that we as human beings have of paying attention to interpret and interpreting other people?
So I think that there's at least two things going on. So one thing about the internet is that it exposes you know, cultural interchange to people who weren't privy to the initial context, right. So any one of us can be, you know, an anthropologist hiding in the bushes watching two people do something that we don't understand. You know, there's this famous essay by Cliff gear, it's about how anthropologists who see you know, one person wink at another person can't know whether that like it's flirting or it's a sign of aggression and or what are the one of them just got grit in their eye, and you have to, you know, come down out of your perch and go and ask them Why they why they winked. And they may not tell you the truth or they may not know the truth, but you'll be more illuminated than you would if you just sit there watching them. And so the internet definitely exposes us to a lot of material whose context we're not privy to that we can't know. I think of queer friends of mine who use words like fag in conversation with one another, but then who have that taken out of context and who are accused of being homophobes themselves. And and how that is, you know, clearly like that the removal of context is being used sometimes in bad faith to arrive at an incorrect impression of what the nature of the of their interchange with their colleagues was. But then the other thing that happens is that there is a doctrine among the bigger platforms, that militates against keeping different contexts for different communications. You know, Mark Zuckerberg very famously, he said, If you act in one way with one person and another way with another person, then you're two faced, and that Facebook doesn't want you to have two identities that you show to two different people, because it's dishonest. Well, like, I would hate to be that guy's mom, because clearly he talks to her the same way he talks to his boss and his wife and his daughter, right? If that's the, if that's your if that's if that's your view, right, that you should talk to everyone the same way. And you should only have one context. But you know, what Zuckerberg really means is it's just self serving. If you only have one context, it's easier to figure out how to target you with ads. And, and everything else is just, you know, philosophical window dressing or, you know, back form rationalization. But to the extent that we have these, you know, malignant context collapses, where it's hard to figure out what people mean, and it leads us astray. And it puts us in conflict with each other. At least part of that is a deliberate choice, right? Someone said, well, that'll probably happen and it will be For the people involved, but we'll certainly make more money if we engineer it. So it does not because we want them to be in conflict with each other, but because it makes it easier for us to spy on them. And that's their pet misery is a price we're willing to pay. I think it's a conscious choice. No one came down off a mountain with two stone tablets, saying, you know, thou shalt stop rotating dialog files from nine web server and instead mine them for actionable market intelligence. These are choices that people made, and they could have made different ones.
I think we have to stop it. I don't want to stop here. I would like to talk for another two, three hours, our engineers will kill us our audience will I don't think we'd lose the audience. But we need to take we need to put a period somewhere in the paragraph. All right, Cory, I this conversation was so interesting and so challenging and was so nuanced in ways that I didn't expect. I'm thrilled and I'm pleased and I know I'm going to be thinking about this for a very long time. Thank you so much for joining us on why.
Well, thank you. I really enjoyed it too. It was absolutely My pleasure. I'm honored to have been put on your show.
You've been listening to Cory Doctorow and jack Russell Weinstein on why philosophical discussion with everyday life. I recommend Coreys. The two books that I'm familiar with information doesn't want to be free and his new book radicalized, which is four novellas in one. And when you read it, I would like you to tell me if my theory is correct that the two main characters Well, the main character and the new character in the first novella on authorized bread are in love because I think they are anyway, you've been listening to why philosophical discussion in everyday life. We'll be back right after this.
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You're back with wide philosophical discussions of everyday life. I'm your host jack Russell Weinstein, we were talking with Cory Doctorow about the internet, and about how to keep it free and what that might mean in the first place. I think a lot of the listeners will have the same experience of this episode that I did. We started out thinking we're gonna have a technical conversation had a little conversation about science fiction, and then BAM fracked political theory economics, a fair amount of cynicism. It was pretty intense. Now this is philosophers pay dirt. I live for this kind of stuff, but it can be a little overwhelming. But here's the thing. That's what the internet is in our life. We think of it as a tool. But when we take back, take a step back, sorry. We think of it as a tool. And when we take a step back, we realize it has permeated every aspect of every part of our day. And how do you talk about something like that without just exploding all of your ideas all over the place? Now, that's not a criticism of Cory. I think his comments were tremendously brilliant. It was more about me and my sense of how to move from a narrow conversation to an expansive conversation very quickly. These are the best conversations. These are the conversations that stick with us. These are the conversations that you listen to over and over again, and you think, Oh, I missed that. Oh, I thought that, oh, this leads to that. Let me connect the dots. And the thing about the internet is that whatever it means in our life, it overlaps. So many different aspects, that there's no way to really talk about just one part of it. I learned a lot from Corey today, most particularly, I learned that, to have the conversation about technology, you really have to have it in the political and ethical and historical context. But in order to have the discussion about the context, you also have to have the discussion about the technology. You can't do one without the other. Now, I'm a reasonably technical guy. I understand the electronics to a certain extent, I can fix a lot of my computer's but the wide expanse of how the internet works is beyond me. And now I realized I have to know a lot more about it. I realized that in order to understand the philosophy behind the internet, I have to understand the infrastructure and the mechanisms as well. That's a daunting task, but it's a wonderful title. Because it's going to put me in contact with a lot of new people and a lot of new ideas. And in the end, I think it'll be rich ground for future philosophical discussions that I will need a lifetime to explore. And that's the best gift of all. You've been listening to jack Russell Weinstein on why philosophical discussions with everyday life. Thanks for listening as always, it's an honor to be with you.
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