Manifesto for a virtual revolution: Cyber-activist Cory Doctorow's new novel imagines a revolt of online slaves
Doctorow stands in the front line of campaigns to challenge hi-tech corporate power. Tom Chatfield questions a digital guerrilla
Friday 21 May 2010
Cory Doctorow's latest novel, For the Win, is about video games. Fittingly enough, we're discussing it across the internet. It's 8am in his time zone – America's Pacific coast, where the latest leg of a continent-spanning book tour has taken him - but he's alert and only too happy to explain himself. And this means explaining first of all what it means to be a genuine advocate of technology, rather than merely dazzled by it.
"Someone who just accepts every technology he comes across is not being especially technophilic, because this doesn't require any reflection or choice," he argues. "It's like saying, I'm a gourmet, I'll eat anything you put in front of me. To be a gourmet of technology is to make choices: about what you're going to use, and how you're going to use it."
If the increasingly sprawling mass of Doctorow's work - six science-fiction novels, plus innumerable essays, speeches, short stories, blog entries and articles, all available to read for free online under a creative commons licence via his website (craphound.com) - has a unifying theme, this is it: helping people to make better choices.
Doctorow, 38, may be a gourmand of digital culture, but he's no aesthete. Born in Canada to an immigrant Jewish family deeply involved in protest politics, he has lived in London for much of the last decade (his wife is British), but maintains a global following and perspective. Talking to Doctorow feels a lot like reading one of his books, and even more like reading Boing Boing, the cult blog and "directory of wonderful things" he has now been co-editing for a decade.
His crusading mix of technophile wonder and polemical pressure rarely lets up. "Writing For the Win wasn't about games so much as it was about economics," he explains. "As soon as you're talking about economics, you are talking about games: the economy is the economy game, really. It's got tokens that we pretend have value, it has rules, referees, it's a congenially entered negotiation, there are different ways of playing."
And, of course, it has winners and losers - something that For the Win (HarperVoyager, £14.99) translates into the entwined stories of gamers from both the developing and developed worlds, flipping between lives, locations and potted lectures with the instant ease that only art or technology can manage.
Extrapolating from the relatively benign present of massively multi-player online creations like World of Warcraft, the novel imagines a future of exponentially more sophisticated games where three of the world's 20 largest economies are virtual play environments controlled by the Coca-Cola corporation. Within these, vast Third-World labour forces serve the illegal but lucrative market of Western clients willing to pay hard currency for someone else to undertake the grinding labour of winning in-game gold and possessions; a shadowy profession that has come to be known as "gold-farming".
While this may sound like dystopian fantasy, the passages on gold farming come pretty close to reportage. As writers like American author Julian Dibbell, whom Doctorow cites, have witnessed, digital sweatshops really do exist in China and elsewhere. Labourers work long shifts for a pittance, sleeping in dormitories and returning in their spare time to play the very games that are their jobs.
Doctorow's interest is in where all this leads: what the grand lessons, consequences and, above all, actions to be taken are. "The thing that got me starting thinking about this was when American auto jobs started to move to Mexico. The United Auto Workers responded to that with basically racism: those dirty Mexicans have stolen our jobs. Now, the forbears of the auto workers movement saw industrial jobs move from town to town across America as trade unionists took hold, and also move from ethnic group to ethnic group, and their response wasn't to demonise other workers, but to unionise them, to say we all have common cause. It is undeniably hard to go and organize a trade union in Mexico if you are an American. But once you get into videogame labour contexts, everyone is playing in the same virtual world. And they are playing in a world their bosses rarely venture into and have less proficiency in. This, I thought, is a really interesting turn of events."
Where this leads, in the novel, is solidarity, won in the teeth of brutal oppression by an alliance of gamers that spans the Pacific: a disaffected American teenager, Chinese, Indian and Singaporean workers who are literally earning their way out of the slums. Solidarity, here, gains a critical mass when the tightly-knit groups of players begin to realise their collective power, and use it to force the hands of the companies running the actual games by calculatedly wrecking their massively profitable virtual economies.
It's a scenario that Doctorow makes painfully real, skimping on none of the details of slum living in Mumbai, of Chinese factory conditions, or of gang brutality and the potentially lethal consequences of protest. Not for him a digital era that dissolves human relations into a swamp of relativism and unreality. Perhaps the novel's key insight, and its great advantage over so many other tales of cyber-derring-do, is its insistence on the intransigent social and moral realities that lie behind the networks.
These characters are neither post-modern nor post-anything much else; they are not bored, disengaged, ignorant, amoral. They are young people caught up in a global struggle for justice in a manner impossible even two decades ago, thanks to the new transnational space they inhabit.
It's an arena whose unintended effect is to offer its players a crash course in the game-like nature of the political and economic battles waged around them – as well as providing a context within which friendships can grow irrespective of race, nationality, wealth, age, gender or creed. Doctorow's American teenager teaches himself Mandarin in his spare time, the better to play alongside his guild buddies, even while his parents bemoan the uselessness of his gaming habit.
While For the Win doesn't ignore the gulf between a virtual battle and real-life incarceration in the filth of a Chinese jail, it does insist that this divide can be crossed, and that the real people meeting each other and training themselves within virtual arenas can take these skills into other parts of their lives. There's an element of fantasy, of course; but Doctorow insists that there's more than wishful thinking to it. "I think that the physical action is not a rare or an extremely high hurdle to cross. Physical action happens a lot. People do stuff to change their world a lot. Perhaps partly because I grew up in protest politics, it has never seemed odd to me that someone might go out and join a march."
The core audience for Doctorow's fiction is young adults, and his didactic intentions are entirely of a piece with both the kind of book he's writing and the people he's writing it for. "I think that I'm doing explicitly what many writers have been doing implicitly for some time. I am not predicting, I am reflecting. Science fiction is a great activist literature: it has this tradition, expectation, even requirement that your fiction be a social actor."
When it comes to the activism he has to offer, Doctorow believes that today's young people are more in need of it than most. "Kids aren't stopping playing outdoors because of video games. Kids are playing video games because they are being prohibited from public spaces. We have taken most of our public spaces away from young people, turned them into malls where you no longer have civil liberties; instead, there's a user agreement over the door that says management has the right to deny entry at any time."
This is a peculiarly contemporary battle where social, economic and technological factors intermingle. Both Doctorow's writing and his direct activism – among other things, he has been European director of the civil-liberties group the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and was co-founder of the UK Open Rights Group – are vehemently opposed to the reduction of digital freedoms. "One of the things that gives me the creeping horrors," he explains, is the proliferation of "walled gardens" in the digital world – from file formats that can only be played via specific software in specific countries, to corporations insisting on absolute control of anything released on their hardware.
"It's like, we have one final retreat from places in which adults and powerful individuals and corporations dictate how we interact – and that retreat is being taken from us in the name of stopping the four horsemen of the apocalypse: terrorists, pornographers, pirates, and the mafia."
Isn't he getting a bit carried away, given that nobody is actually forcing consumers to buy this stuff? He may not want an iPad – Apple's recent corporate strategy is one of Doctorow's most prominent targets – but he's free not to get one. He offers two points in response. First, "I think one of the ways that people make good choices is by there being a discourse." Second, more importantly, "the problem with privacy and digital-rights management is that the consequences of your actions as a user are distant in time and space from the decisions themselves. It's very hard to learn from experiences whose outcomes have a wide gap from the initial action."
Moreover, because these are cultural goods and communicative technologies, the significance of these battles is far more profound than for mere consumer products. For example, the kind of restrictions built into many modern digital readers are, Doctorow suggests, akin to "a bookcase where the manufacturer gets to tell you what to read – tells you what books to buy, whose books to read, what you're allowed to do once you're done with them, who you can share them with." It's enough to make you shiver – and then swing by his website, download a few volumes, and start reading one of the founding oeuvres of the digital century.
Tom Chatfield is the author of 'Fun Inc.' (Virgin) and a senior editor at 'Prospect'
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