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Friday, February 15, 2013

Cory Doctorow guides readers through leading-edge Internet issues

While most people talk at approximately the rate of a dial-up modem, Cory Doctorow speaks at the speed of broadband. The author, blogger and online activist articulates leading-edge ideas at a dizzying rate, while citing examples like Wikipedia on two legs. Even if you don't agree with him, Doctorow keeps so far ahead of the curve on social and technological issues that you ignore him at your own peril.

Doctorow's novels and nonfiction celebrate the freedoms afforded by the Internet while enumerating the countless corporate and government attempts to infringe on human rights online. A founder of Boing Boing, author of more than a dozen books, and a constant blogger and podcaster, Doctorow frequently makes his books available for free download. In his essay "Giving It Away," Doctorow advocates for the practice, saying ""Every writer who's tried giving away e-books to sell books has come away satisfied and ready to do it some more."

I spoke to Doctorow over the phone ahead of his upcoming appearance to sign and discuss his new book, Homeland, at the Decatur Public Library on Sunday, Feb. 17, at 7 p.m.. The book provides a sequel to Doctorow's 2008 bestseller Little Brother, set a few years in the future, but almost identical to contemporary times. Narrator Marcus Yallow describes how he became a 17-year-old hacktivist after being detained and abused by the Department of Homeland Security in the wake of a 9/11-style attack.

While Homeland mirrors the concerns of the Bush era, Doctorow's follow-up reunites the reader with Marcus, and takes on new challenges that reflect the current economic landscape. "The difference between the books is in the nature of the crisis that the character confronts. The first is a crisis that everyone can point to and agree with: There's been a terrorist attack and a massive overreaction from Homeland Security," says Doctorow. "In the second, the crisis comes from the gradual realization that no one has any money anymore, that your parents don't have jobs, that you can't get the job you expected to get after dropping out of the college you couldn't afford. It's a much slower crisis, and a harder crisis to fight, especially when you and your friends can't agree about what you're fighting. It's like the difference between 'This can't be right.' versus 'This is wrong.'"

One of Homeland's subplots involves Marcus working as a webmaster for a crusading politician, so I asked Doctorow if the two books contrasted different means of trying to change the political system, one from without and one from within. "There is that, but it's not quite that," he replied. "He's working on an election campaign, but he's simultaneously making his own version of WikiLeaks, which is not about change from within the system."

Doctorow's YA novels, including the London-set Pirate Cinema, superbly articulate the importance of privacy and the necessity for civil disobedience, as well as the hidden ways the technology in our homes can be used and abused. Doctorow enjoys writing YA fiction partly because young people's lives have so much drama. "They're doing a bunch of stuff for the first time that we adults have done in our lives," he says. "The first time a young person does something, they're in a state of nail-biting terror. They don't know what will happen as a result, or even who they'll be as a result. When we do those things, they're banal, but when young people do them, they're very exciting."

Homeland includes an afterward from Doctorow's longtime friend Aaron Swartz, the Internet activist and Reddit co-founder who committed suicide on Jan. 11 of this year after facing federal charges for violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. While on his tour, Doctorow talks to young people about Swartz, first by outlining the history of tech devices that have betrayed their owners, and how users can abdicate their rights by ignoring the fine print in service agreements. "Then I tell them about Aaron's life, what he'd done, what he'd been fighting for," Doctorow says. "I tell them how Aaron was threatened with 50 years in jail, and what's at stake here. In the future, our devices aren't going to be less important but more important, and if we can't stop them from betraying us, we're going to have a really bad future."

Born in Canada but currently living in London, Doctorow used his adopted hometown as the setting of his novel Pirate Cinema, in which a low-income English family loses Internet access for a year, threatening their jobs and access to health care. Doctorow finds the value of the Internet in contemporary life to be enormous.

"The United Nations has declared Internet access a human right," he says. "Vinton Cerf said 'Internet is not a human right, but a means by which human rights are delivered.' I think that's a distinction without a difference." Doctorow points to a research case comparing two English housing blocks, one given free Internet access and the other not. "After a couple of years, the people living with Internet access had better jobs, higher disposable income, better nutrition, they were more politically engaged - everything we use to measure quality of life was better."

Doctorow is skeptical about some online trends, and has an excellent TED Talk about how social media sites such as Facebook function like a skinner box to reward you for undervaluing your privacy. Even when the threats to online freedoms seem irresistible, Doctorow extols the Web's ability to improve collective action. "The answer to these problems is to solve them with our society. It's the same way we act to limit the power of the state to spy on us. And you can do it through activist groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation or Free Press, which work to make structural changes in society."

As we spend more of our lives online, Doctorow serves as a seemingly tireless guide to better living through interconnectivity.

Cory Doctorow. 7 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 17. Decatur Public Library, 215 Sycamore St. 404-370-8450.

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