We talk to Cory Doctorow about geek revolutions, Disney lawsuits and his next novel

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Dec 14, 2012, 4:09 PM EST

Although Cory Doctorow's much-awaited new SF novel, Makers, is set in the near future, it symbolizes, and is very much in continuity with, the economic experience of recent years.

"Funnily enough", Doctorow says, "it's actually a book about the past inasmuch as it was written as a parable about the dotcom crash, and specifically about the way that the webheads in San Francisco and elsewhere kept on making even after the carpetbaggers and the big money people had left the room, and how that gave rise to the Web 2.0 bubble, which, once again, is likely to crash."

Doctorow's protagonists, Lester and Perry, are "geeks" whose startup business, relying on already available and often discarded technology, is revolutionary in part because it requires very little cash investment to get it going. Doctorow observes, "I think the real core of the economic story in Makers is the advent of businesses that are too cheap to capitalize; that is, businesses with little or no startup costs, businesses that draw on existing infrastructure and mostly reconfigure existing tools and technologies to create innovative new products.

"There's a narrow view of innovation and creativity that says you're not really doing something new unless it's entirely new—presumably, these people think that reinventing the wheel is a virtue, not a vice.

"(As a successful serial entrepreneur, I'm here to tell you that I'd fire any employee who decided that rather than using the best tools out there to do the thing we're in business to do, he plans on reinventing the entire toolset from scratch and will be able to really start work in a year or two.)

"The crisis of cheap-to-start businesses is that it leaves a lot of capital sloshing around, especially in a cheap-money era fueled by low interest rates and irresponsible regulation of the finance sector. When finance is dealing in sums with 12 zeroes at the end, and innovators are creating businesses that only need four zeroes' worth of money, the financiers either pass on the best and most interesting startups in favor of cash-burning behemoths (what Bill Gates memorably once called, in another context, 'The race to build the world's heaviest airplane') or force gigantic sums—and outrageous valuationson startups, who are then handicapped by having to 'succeed' by attaining liquidity at levels that justifies these gigantic investments."

At the center of the new distributed economy postulated is Makers is the 3D printer, which will allow rapid reproduction of a wide array of items, some potentially very dangerous, some on the face of it benign. "3D printers already exist, in the funky, prototype, semi-productized state that characterized the first days of the PC; and just as in those early PC days, most of our predictions about fabbers center around ways that they'll disrupt the world by accelerating existing trends ('rapid prototyping', '3D piracy'). And, like the PC, it's my view that 3D printers will disrupt in ways that are VASTLY weirder than that—starting with fabbed AK47s, a rise of distributed artisanal workshops, a second tchotchke boom to rival the post-WTO China boom, wherein shipping containers filled with plastic crap crashed the value of Happy Meal toys and conference-bag giveaways, turning them into landfill liabilities instead of desiderata."

In Makers, big courtroom battles between the Disney Corporation and the freelance inventors of low-cost self-modifying theme park rides typify the clash of old big and new small business. "My fictional lawsuit was actually inspired by a spokesperson for the British Phonographic Institute—the UK equivalent of the RIAA—who gave a talk about how the advent of 3D printers would spell the doom of all patent- and trademark-reliant businesses. He clearly thought this was very futuristic thinking, but I was aghast. This guy has thought through 3D printers and the most dire consequence he can imagine is trademark infringement? Not AK47s? Not homebrew superbugs? I mean, sure, 3D printers will disrupt trademarks, but that's like predicting that the railroad will do great violence to the oat-bag industry, because we won't ride as many horses. Yes, horses and oat-bags declined after the railroad appeared, but characterizing this as the major impact of the railroad is so parochial, blinkered and just bloody stupid that anyone who said it would be laughed out of the room.

"There, in a nutshell, is the problem with the entertainment industry. They are blind men who've accidentally plunged their arms up the elephant's anus, and declared that the whole Internet is sh-t."

A frequent charge against novels like Makers is that they cater only to a so-called "geek readership". Doctorow responds, "No, Makers is primarily aimed at readers in the 21st century: people who are inhabiting a world wherein the decisions of geeks have wrought enormous, wrenching changes for good and ill. Some of those people will be geeks, and some will be civilians, but they're all residents of the world that geeks made."

Makers is definitely a book for internet-savvy and intellectually engaged readers, but this is a category Doctorow suggests is pretty much universal these days. "Is there anyone who doesn't look stuff up online as they read books anymore? Science fiction's always been half-a-puzzle, in that the best novels threw in terms like 'cyberspace deck' or 'slidewalk' and then described people using those devices, and expected the reader to work out for herself what this new device really was. Now we can write books that are chock full of Easter eggs that reward attentive and curious readers who want to use them as a jumping-off point for discovering interesting truths about the world, or fascinating new hobbies, or even cool new careers."

And Doctorow will continue to write in this cutting edge, provocative near-future vein. "My next novel is another Young Adult book to follow up on Little Brother (2008), due out next April. It's called For the Win, and is an expansion of my short story 'Anda's Game', and deals with a global union drive that uses video-games to evade restrictions on labor organizing in special economic zones in poor countries. Like Little Brother, For the Win is discursive, using video games and gold-farming to explore subjects like macroeconomics and labor politics in a way that's accessible to adolescents."