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Imagining the Future: An Interview with Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow’s first novel for adults in over eight years is a noodle-bender of the first order. Walkaway, publishing from Tor on April 25th, envisions a future just around the corner where humans have screwed up the environment and the ultra-rich (called “Zottas” by the plebian majority) continue to screw over everyone else—sound familiar?

But then something new happens. In a world populated by drones, makers, 3d-printed food and other mundane miracles, society enters a new phase, which the author coins “post-scarcity.” If you didn’t have to work, what would you do? For the characters caught up in Doctorow’s fascinating sci-fi epic, they choose to walk away, creating their own societies in the ashes of the old world. In an early review, Kirkus Reviews calls it, “A truly visionary techno-thriller that not only depicts how we might live tomorrow, but asks why we don’t already.”

Doctorow, of course, is no stranger to the advantages and perils of technology. In addition to his primary career as the author of bestsellers like Little Brother, Pirate Cinema and Rapture of the Nerds (with Charles Stross), the author continues to co-edit the website Boing Boing (a Digital Trends partner), promote the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and generally startle his legions of fans with his ever-spiraling thoughts on futurism. This latest novel had very contemporary inspirations; Doctorow’s latest brainstorm was inspired by Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell, which focuses on the emergence of altruism in the face of disaster.

We caught up with Doctorow at his home base in Los Angeles to see why he thinks the future isn’t dystopia, but utopia.

“Well, I enjoy a disaster story where everyone turns into a cannibalistic extra from Mad Max as soon as the electricity falls as the next guy, but those stories have also kind of been a guilty pleasure,” Doctorow told Digital Trends. “The attraction of those stories—from The Road to Escape From New York—is always that there’s a core of good people who are facing down the selfish, the mean, the violent—and they’re also usually very class and race-based in their good guy/bad guy splits. As Mr. Rogers told us, when thinks go wrong, you ‘look for the helpers.’ Rebecca Solnit made it all click for me: pretty much everyone is a ‘helper,’ but we’re so worried that the other people lack our virtue that we have this huge trust deficit.”

Technology in times of disaster

The book is also unique in that it uses real technology, ranging from drone applications to advances in bio-hacking, to imagine a world in which refugees from traditional societies employ advanced tech to make a better world—not just for themselves, but for everyone.

Today, you only ‘rent beer,’ but in the future, beer might be ‘free as in beer.’

“I wanted to write a story about how technology can be used in times of disaster to let us work together,” Doctorow explains. “The Internet has given us a lot of high-profile flame wars and trolling and such, but the Internet is primarily used by most of us to be kind to other people, strangers and loved ones alike. Writing a story about how we might consciously craft technology to give society a graceful failure mode where we use it as connective tissue to tie together our collective rebuilding seems to me to be a way to counter the kind of weaponized narrative about humanity’s fundamental evilness that carried the last presidential election.”

Changing pee into beer?

Sure, the drones and mechs and bio-identification tools in the book might seem like something out of Blade Runner or Minority Report but the book’s technological flourishes are often subtle, like the beer the walkaways make daily from ditch water. It might not be water into wine but it’s awfully close, not to mention absolutely possible. Doctorow explains his thinking.

“I’ve been interested in the CRISPR / synth bio revolution,” he says. “Hacking single-celled organisms has been job one since we invented beer and started saving the best starter cultures, and then up through the antibiotic revolution. Since life self-reproduces, synth bio has had to contend with two nightmare scenarios: out-of-control, pathogenic reproduction of a transgenic organism that is hostile to life, and out-of-control, useful production of a proprietary organism that threatens the profits of the firm that makes it. These twin risks make synthetic life into something deeply subversive and full of rich story potential. So I posited that in the future, some fun-loving CRISPR commie could Napsterize beer by including a transgenic yeast that survived the mash, passing out of your body alive and ready to reproduce if you gave it a ‘Jesus microbe’ precursor that brought it back to life. Today, you only ‘rent beer,’ but in the future, beer might be ‘free as in beer.’ Just save your pee, add the precursor, and drink up. This also has a nice spin on the traditional apocalyptic fear-scenario of a world where we’re so desperate we might drink our own urine.”

Rethinking refugee technology

In the wake of the recent Executive Orders impacting refugees, Doctorow’s sci-fi novel is also disturbingly prescient in its portrayal of refugees caught up in an unprovoked war with society’s so-called elite.

“I’m very interested in ‘refugee tech,’ because it’s a strange market with tens of millions of ‘customers,’ often with a lot of time on their hands, who are continuously refining and tweaking designs,” says Doctorow. “It helps that refugees come from every background from medical professionals to teachers to hoteliers, etc., creating these ghastly interdisciplinary labs that combine the traditional ingenuity of prisoners with a kind of idiosyncratic, open-ended access to materials that is partly governed by capricious multi-stakeholder agencies and police forces.”

In a world populated by drones, makers, 3d-printed food and other mundane miracles, society enters a new phase, which the author coins “post-scarcity.”

Essentially, the author is arguing that the kinds of sub-cultures portrayed in Walkaway exist today; they just don’t have access to the kind of organizational aptitude or technologies to help make their lives better. Doctorow has just extended the argument.

“Integrating refugee tech into a utopian society of economic refuseniks who become a kind of voluntary refugee population let me think about how the RVs in Wal-Mart parking lots, the semi-permanent homeless camps, makerspaces, co-working spaces, and refugee camps are all coming at the same problem from different angles,” he explains. “It let me consider the peacetime uses of these technologies, to create beautiful, luxurious, cooperative spaces that serve as home, restaurant and political hubs.”

How to see the future

Like contemporaries such as Warren Ellis and Neal Stephenson, Doctorow is often portrayed as a visionary who is one step ahead of the rest of us, but the author says it often has more to do with timing than precognition.

“I’ve always written science fiction where some of the technology is stuff that is just finding its way up the Gartner hype cycle—if you’re watching that nascent stuff, you can write about it as though you made it up, and posit a thought-experiment in which it’s a big deal,” he says. “Since the hype cycle includes the peak of inflated expectations where a technology is suddenly everywhere, you often get praised for your ‘prophecy’ when the tech peaks later.”

The world of Walkaway is a fascinating  scenario, and one that has a lot of interesting things to say about a post-scarcity world.

“Post-scarcity is a funny thing,” Doctorow admits. “ Keynes thought we’d all be working three-hour days by now, and yet we work longer hours than ever. The Internet gave us a way to have all the creations of the human intellect at our fingertips, and we sued the hell out of it. First it was the record companies and then the pornographers and then the legit movie studios, and these days, it’s the scientific publishers. So the problems of ‘post-scarcity’ are all around us and they’re real and terrifying and wonderful. Writing about it is a great way to get to grips with the contemporary reality that is unfolding around us.”