Last week I saw Cory Doctorow, for my second time, at Powell’s City of Books. The first time was just about a month or two after moving to Oregon, not quite three years ago. (I write a bit about it in the blogpost Best Week Evar! On that tour, he was promoting his non-fiction work Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free.) This time, he’s touring his new adult fiction novel Walkaway. It’s a … well, he accepts that it’s a “utopian” novel. (And that sentence should prompt paragraphs of discussion because of everything “utopian novel” implied and leaves out. And I swear to god I wish I’d taken Professor Burling’s class on distopian/utopian fiction. In other classes I recall him discussing utopian fiction is usually ironic or is in opposition to the implied dis- or anti-utopian world that the work either is a reaction to or implies.)
I’ve not yet read far into Walkaway, but from what I gather at the talk, the book features a culture of people who have, in the near-future, walked away from the postmodern capitalist world. Have, instead of fought against the hegemony and the cultural logic, done the most efficient and effective thing and disengaged from it entirely to create a society that uses gift economy.
Well, let me back up. The talk at Powell’s was Cory essentially being interviewed by some podcast host I didn’t get the name of, followed by some audience Q & A and book signing. (To fast-forward, Cory again did what he usually does, and when taking questions, alternated between female-identifying and non-binary and male-identifying and non-binary audience members equally. He’s the only speaker I’ve experienced so far who has intentionally done this.)
I started listening, just to listen and enjoy. But very quickly I realized I had to take notes! Sadly, all I had was my phone so my note-taking was poor at best. But I would like to try to summarize and synthesize some of what he said, here. I’ve been a fan of Cory’s since his first novel 15 years ago, and have in those years probably watched and listened to him in interviews and speeches and podcasts and panels maybe a hundred times, and he never fails to fascinate me! Teach me something new, rile me into desire to be active. Back in my old blog, I used to try to summarizes some of his videos and podcast appearances, and I know I always came off as babbling, because the man is a guru and speaks as eloquently as anyone I’ve ever encountered, and my ability to relate what he says comes off as blather . . . and I already can tell this time will be no different. But, here goes.
Cory spent a lot of time talking about the key to post-capitalism, as being about better logistics. He emphasized that he’s not anti-stuff . . . he has stuff and he likes having stuff! (I’ve seen pics of his personal library/office when he was living in London… oh my god I want!) But the problem is the capitalist necessity for us to all keep buying more and more stuff, in endless duplication and redundancy. If we had a better way of getting, sharing, using things, we could bypass capitalism’s need to be constant consumers of unnecessary and redundant crap.
A good example he uses is how we all have a lawnmower parked in our sheds, even though we use it for a couple hours every couple weeks for only a few months a year. But our perceived cost (in effort) in trying to find and use the “communal lawnmower” is onerous and so we each buy 7th-rate lawnmowers.
What there needs to be a a “Clippy” (remember, from old MS Word?) for things! “I see you are needing to mow the lawn! Can I assist you in that?” (On a personal note, I absolutely love that Portland has a tool library! You can go in and borrow what you need, everything from a rototiller to a pole driver to gloves, and bring it back when you’re done!)
His other main point, and what is focused on in the novel, is in presenting a “working utopia” that works not because there is no crisis, but because people are better prepared for crisis. Expecting no crisis is not utopian, it’s foolish. Utopia is not crisis-less, but rather, prepared to fail safe. (First time I’d heard the term like that. Fail safe. Kind of makes it have more meaning and make more sense that way. “Failsafe” almost sounds like a meaningless term. But to describe a system as failing safely, fail safe, that makes sense.)
His example, is humanity has always encountered crisis, disasters. And we’ve always recovered. If we weren’t able to, we wouldn’t be here, we’d all be poking at cans with pointed sticks. From natural disasters to socio-political-economic disasters, we learn to recover. But there’s currently a problem in that capitalism turns us into consuming individual silos, apart from everyone else. And distopian fiction reinforces that as inevitability. That when the worst happens, the zombies attack, we hole up in our houses with our stuff and stop other from taking our stuff. And what happens is individuals die as individuals. But if we expect and plan and prepare to handle crisis as cooperatives, and as groups, as collectives, as we always previously have, we will not just fail safe when crisis happens, but find efficiency and surplus in non-crisis as well. If we cultivate a culture, an attitude, of fixing and building. (I am so butchering Cory’s words and ideas.)
He spoke a bit about how markets have become almost totemically, religiously, all-important to our capitalism. But markets, besides being abstract and arbitrary, are not what are important to the majority of us. The most important relationships we have are “non-transactional.” Have always been. Markets have not always been as important to us as they are now, and they don’t have to be still. Cory’s is often mystified by how obsessed we are with markets, but also, the growing obsession with mechanized workforce. Robot labor. Sure, robots take some jobs, but robots require a capital cost. The goal of capitalism is to drive labor down so cheap that human labor is cheaper than the capital cost of robots, and it works. First in “developing countries,” then in the developed countries where the jobs move out of, the workers accept less and less compensation for their labor so to compete with the poverty compensation elsewhere, and the jobs come back, etc etc.
Someone fighting against losing jobs to mechanization is like a pack-a-day smoker becoming a vegetarian for their health. Sure, that might help, but you’re ultimately killing yourself with the greater threat you’re ignoring. In this case, it’s not the symptom of capitalism that’s job mechanization, but the foundation of consumptive capitalism that lowers labor cost regardless of whether robots or poverty wages.
He heavily recommended reading Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty.
In that book, it’s explained how the method of making money in postmodern capitalism is not by making things, inventing things, but by having money and moving money around. For example, Bill Gates is an exception and a very rare example of someone who started with a moderate amount (he was not ever poor or had nothing, by the way), and made something and got rich. Yet during that same period of time he was building Microsoft, there was a capitalist heiress (I forgot the name or the company she started) who did nothing except move money around, created nothing, and actually increased her wealth far greater in ratio than Gates did. And in fact, after Gates retired from Microsoft and became a financier and investor and focused on moving money around, that was when the greatest portion of his wealth was created.
Based on a question from the audience, he talked a bit about why we have such trouble with empathy regarding homeless people, they tend to be invisible not just to us, but in fiction. (Cory has used homeless people as protagonists, and one of my all-time favorite authors, William Gibson, also has used “homeless” people — squatters and societies of people living outside the constraints that capitalism demands, in between the spaces, as protagonists.) And Cory talks about how the apparent impossibility of dealing with an issue so large, that is literally impossible to change on an individual level, forces us to turn the empathy dial down. Otherwise, if we acknowledge each homeless person, if we try to feel like we need to do something individually, we go crazy from it. It’s easier and better for our sanity to subconsciously tune it out. Just as we know that no amount of individual recycling will fix the ecology, will change climate change, no individual can fix homelessness. It’s a systemic issue, and those require systemic solutions.
I can’t remember the segue, but he spoke about how capitalism has taken the 2nd level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, shelter, and turned it into a consumable asset. That shelter is something we’re forced to consume as a commodity instead of being a right. And it’s telling of how endemic the cancer of capitalism (my term) is when the “solution” to homelessness is to create shelters that are themselves assets, lots and buildings that have to be purchased and commodified.
I wish I could remember what lead to the final comment he made, but it had something to do with the cycle of crisis and recovery: the rich always get richer until they go to the guillotine.
A couple side notes, Amy (Sterling), Bruce Sterling’s daughter was there. (Bruce is a good writer in his own right, but his greatest claim to fame was not creating cyberpunk in the late 70s/early 80s, but allowing it to happen. He was a champion of William Gibson when he was starting out, and was a bulldog for getting Gibson’s work published. I remember reading articles by Sterling in OMNI Magazine when I was a kid. (Yeah, I was that much a dork.) And I believe Gibson’s first story collection, Burning Chrome, was edited by Sterling. Sterling has since tried to bulldog for the postcyberpunk genre of slipstream, but that’s only had marginal success. You just can’t force a literary movement.)
Anyway, Amy Sterling (?) asked Cory about what’s changed in his writing since having a kid, and Cory spoke about how “kid in peril” plots have been revealed to be manipulative and crass since having a kid. He can’t stand them anymore. But also, he’s re-joined the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) as an (unpaid) employee again since having a kid. I’m generally not someone who speaks out or makes any noise in public, but I think I may have impulsively clapped when he said that. It was his involvement in the EFF back in the early 2000s that made me aware of that organization, and I’ve been a hardcore fan since. I used to be a regular donator to it back when I could — it’s a hugely important organization for protecting our rights and privacy in everything from computer security to copyright reform.
At some point Cory also mentioned Star Trek and questioned what the heck was Starfleet fighting for?? They had post-scarcity replicators, they could digitize and beam people, they could move across the galaxy faster than light, there was an limitless supply of habitable planets . . . the only explanation for Starfleet was they were space navy LARPers (live-action role-play)! (He didn’t mention it, but I recall Cory wrote a short story some years ago that played off exactly that idea.)