the sci-fi stance

Yesterday, science fiction author and journalist Cory Doctorow kicked off a week-long residency at Columbia, sponsored by the Brown Institute, with a talk in the Heyman Center. Events Editor Isabel Sepúlveda attended this intimate and wide-ranging conversation, moderated by Columbia English professor Dennis Tenen. Subjects discussed: Doctorow’s belief in Creative Commons, the interplay of science fiction and technology with policy, and (of course) amusement park design.

Though I’ve always considered myself a science-fiction fan, my interactions with Cory Doctorow’s work have mostly consisted of reading a few short stories and stumbling across his novel Little Brother on Wattpad when I was 13. Still, I knew he was relatively well-known in science-fiction circles and when I heard he was coming to Columbia, I was so excited that I accidentally registered for this talk twice.

The rain had driven all but the most die-hard fans away, leaving a group of maybe a dozen people from all walks of life scattered across the Heyman Center’s second floor common room munching on salad and Strokos sandwiches as we waited for the event to begin. The talk began inauspiciously, with Doctorow needing to plug in his phone after having committed the “traveler’s worst sin” by leaving it charging overnight in a non-working outlet but also allowed him to demonstrate the sense of humor he would infuse throughout the conversation.

Luckily, things got back on track sooner or later. After brief introductions, Doctorow began with a concise but incredibly powerful insight on what he saw as the purpose of science fiction writing. Citing Dante’s Inferno (he definitely knew his audience, that’s for sure), he cautioned against seeing sci-fi as a prediction of the future. The reasons it often seems to be so are two-fold: all science-fiction novels are at some level allegorical until the problems they’re discussing can be fixed, and many are diagnostic, meaning a writer builds a world around a single technology that can highlight problems that are otherwise lost in the noise. In short, he reminded us that “Science-fiction is a warning, an inspiration, never a prediction” because there is a way to intervene in the often apocalyptic future these works demonstrate, through the power of human agency.

The human ability to act was a powerful thread throughout the conversation and one that moderator Dennis Tenen skillfully teased out after Doctorow’s opening statement by digging deep into the author’s politics. Doctorow’s writing is unapologetically political but his own ideology is a bit more nebulous; he admitted that while he describes himself as a feminist, he doesn’t quite know where he would otherwise place himself on the ideological Left. This ambivalence manifests itself in themes of that feature prominently throughout his works: collective duty in opposition with individual agency, as well as the “friction of collective action” that arises when a person’s ability to act collectively is hampered by outside forces (for example, the difficulties people of color have organizing freely and safely). It was obvious that he’s not come to any sort of conclusion on either of these issues though he talking about them with some depth. Doctorow also shied away from Tenen’s attempts to explicitly situate issues of race in the conversation, preferring instead to focus on the unequal distribution of expertise and the power of the Internet to bring people with different skill sets together.

This unequal distribution forms the basis of Doctorow’s theories of technological change, which occurs when people are able to access knowledge in a public forum (the Internet) and distribute skills more equally through collaboration in this space (though he never really interrogated how unequal access to this tech might affect his hypothesis). As such, he’s skeptical toward recent calls for platforms like Twitter to change to solve problems of widespread harassment, among other; in his view, the people should be making the tweaks or they risk Twitter making it so no one can modify the platform to suit their needs. Though I couldn’t help but note the immense privilege he had in making that statement as a white man who is much less likely to face harassment online, his arguments were surprisingly persuasive.

And Doctorow puts his money where his mouth is when it comes to open access. He’s been an advocate for these ideas as former European director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and co-founded the UK Open Rights Group. Even more noticeably to us everyday folks, ebook versions of his books are available on his website with a pay-as-you-can donation and he releases them under a Creative Commons license, allowing them to be remixed and shared for non-commercial use. As such, they’ve been read into the record by a Korean opposition party leader during a filibuster in the midst of a corruption scandal that brought the government, translated by teens learning English, and passed around via telegram during Iranian and Burmese elections. He produces his own audiobooks after a boycott of Audible due to restrictive practices lead to him being dropped by his publisher. This paired with his advocacy leaves him tuned into how the Fair Use doctrine in US copyright law (which allows for excerpts of copyright material can be used in certain circumstances) is“withering on the vine due to neglect,” and Tenen commented the role academia can play in strengthening it.

Despite his deep passion for tech, Doctorow ended this discussion with a tempering of his expansive ideas. Technology, he noted, can’t be a magic bullet in the fight against totalitarianism because no matter how secure your software, the government can threaten the password out of you. Instead, he views tech as a way to create a new space in the political realm for advocacy toward a democratic state.

The Q&A broadened the scope of the conversation outside of technology. Doctorow explicitly requested that questions alternate between those who identify as female or non-binary and those who identify as male or non-binary, so as to gain a variety of perspectives, while I gained a small modicum of hope for humanity. When I pressed him on issues of minority representation in the writers of an increasingly diversifying sci-fi genre, he admitted sci-fi often acts as an “incubator” for humanity’s worst impulses. He pegged it to an increasingly aging old guard who grew up in a post-WWII bubble where sci-fi was marketed toward the middle class sentiment. He again seemed more comfortable discussing class and gender divisions in the genre as opposed to race or sexuality, but his genuine excitement about the rise of new, intersectional voices in sci-fi was infectious and unlimited.

His thoughts on the ephemera on privacy included in his novel Little Brother, which he envisioned as a way to introduce the highly technical idea of safe private communication to the public, seemed to me even more evidence of his dedication to the pursuit of democratization of tech. His very strong opinions on theme parks were another highlight of the Q&A and a refreshing way to close out the afternoon. A tl;dr of this final tangent: stop trying to solve overcrowding by building even more “giant cocktail shakers you put humans in.” Instead, give your guests time to breathe between thrills and use (you guessed it) technology to turn every part of the experience, even waiting in line, into something enjoyable.

All in all, Tenen’s balance between concrete and esoteric questions combined with Doctorow’s passion and humor gave us time to process the latter’s more breathtaking thoughts. As I left, I realized every moment I was there was worth trudging across campus in the pouring rain, much like the theme park of his dreams.

You can see Cory Doctorow at two other talks this week: “Huxleyed into the Full Orwell: How Digital Copyright Abuse Has Abetted a Culture of Mass Surveillance and Social Control” from 6 – 8 pm today in Butler 523, and 
“Beyond “I agree”: A democratic technology, without Big TechA lecture and conversation with Jad Abumrad, host of WNYC’s Radiolab” fro 5 – 6:30 pm on Thursday, in Pulitzer Hall. Find more information and registration here!

Photo via Wikipedia Commons