Big Echo

Critical SF

Interview Fragment with Cory Doctorow

At noon Pacific on September 19, 2017 Big Echo interviewed Cory Doctorow as a taxi drove him somewhere. He ranged with easy enthusiasm from cathedrals and skyscrapers, to nineteenth century techno-utopianism, to the culture of Marxist émigrés in midcentury southern Ontario, to the punkrockish do-it-yourself ethos of the first dot-com bubble.

Great interview.

Fantastic, really.

But the app cacked and we salvaged only the last third.

For what it is worth the lost two-thirds inspired Big Echo to pursue the questions Doctorow raised for us about the relationship of Capital to science fiction with another half dozen people. Here is the fragment:

Doctorow: …eye contact with, shaken hands with, and with whom you ritually honor birth, death, and marriages, and take care of one another’s kids, and occasional good work in the community, that all of that, forms these kind of weak ties that can be strengthened at the moment that they’re needed, the person that notices things look bad for you at the checkout line at the grocers and checks in on you, and I’ve been e-mailing back and forth with Patrick since we talked about this, and had a discussion about it a couple of weeks ago at Burning Man, he wrote this essay, which was put in the temple of Burning Man which is burned every year, as a memorial to all the years dead, and I posited, and this is the Marxist connection, that religion is the personal trainer of the elite, that in the same way that if your rich, you can eat a lot more shitty food because you can hire a personal trainer, you can also get yourself into way worse trouble because you can buy in services that keep you from hitting bottom and therefor doing something about your unhealthy behavior, this is the celebrity version of this, the macrocosmic version of this approaches infinity, celebrities get to take heroin until they die instead of until they run out of money, or cocaine or race fast cars, or whatever, right? That religion allows rich people to effectively, methodically substitute more and more faith for solidarity, and that this is why we have this rampant strain of greed in Judeo-Christian or Abrahamic faiths that are notionally grounded in selflessness and solidarity you have things like wealth gospels, that preach hate and greed and selfishness as virtues, and it’s because it allows you to have your cake and eat it too, to be a rich dude who goes to church, who gets your social connections and never gets told that its easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than it is for you to get into heaven.

Big Echo: So, uh, ideology, in science fiction. I was wondering about the role of technocrats and technology, and how not just in your work, but in an awful lot of science fiction, revolutionary change tends to depend on technocratic groups, with potentially esoteric knowledge, and it often seems as if the larger mass of people is sort of suffering from, um, false consciousness, or what have you. So the religion thing just reminded me of that, of that classic take on religion as false consciousness.

Doctorow: Well. So I think that a lot of the critique of technocratic revolution starts from a shear in the beliefs about who can be a technocrat, who has useful technical knowledge. If you believe that the only people with a role in building systems that automate labor and its coordination are people who possess a narrow band of skills historically associated with engineering and historically practiced by white dudes who come from wealthy backgrounds then it’s easy to make the leap from there to revolution only comes with the assistance of rich white dudes who throw off their class identity and throw their lot in with poor brown people who can’t otherwise save themselves, but if you look at things like Afro-futurism and the maker movement and technological feminism and inclusion movement in technology, there rhetoric includes the idea that technology designed without diverse input, without diverse points of view, is a technology that will never be fit for broad consumption, that it suffers from the blind-spots of its creators, and you know this is the sesquicentennial of Capital but it is also the bicentennial of Frankenstein, which is, as you know heralded as the first science fiction novel and the first feminist science fiction novel, and it is, among many other things, a novel about how narrowness in the perspective of a technological creator can put them and everyone around them in terrible jeopardy, and you think about Shelley and the moves she made in that novel, like having Frankenstein run into a small female child as a way of moderating his conduct, of getting a perspective that he couldn’t get from his monomaniacal, white, literally titled noble creator, who went through traditional technocratic training, now if you do believe that a technology isn’t complete until it has been given inputs from everyone, that that’s not just a diversity tick-box but actually a way that we bring in tacit knowledge, the stuff  that Hayek and Mises were so concerned with, the tacit knowledge that is otherwise unavailable to the creators of these technologies, that they will never preform to the potential that they could have, and that I think is a much more inclusive future, and you see it in the more feminized areas of contemporary technology development, particularly user experience, where user experience, which is often the domain of women, a much more feminized domain than other forms, full stack engineer or whatever, user experience is all about empathizing with users so that you can solve their problems better, and that empathy and that solution comes through co-development with those users. And you know, the generation of nerds that I come from, the first dot-com bubble of nerds, is a group of people who made the leap into computer science and technology development at a time that is coincident with a massive lowering of the technological knowledge necessary to make developments, the first graphical user interfaces for software development, not just for software use but for software development, HyperCard, other SDKs that were interactive, that allowed people much closer to the coalface to solve their problems, you know FileMaker, and other things like it, where instead of someone in a lab coat going to, say, a librarian, and asking what software the library needed, and then going off and presenting it to them six months later, instead, librarians picked up tools and started making library software, and if there is a technocratic strain through people of my vintage, that is the nature and origin of that technocratic strain, it’s not the belief that people in lab coats will save us all, it’s the belief that any of us can don a lab coat at the moment in which we need to solve a problem.