During the pandemic, Cory Doctorow built a bar in the backyard of his Burbank home, northeast of Los Angeles. In addition to a vast collection of liquor bottles, he also keeps some pieces of his hip bone on display – trophies from a recent surgery.
The 50-year-old Toronto-born digital rights activist – who earns his living as a science fiction writer and blogger – recently published a collection of short stories titled Radicalized. The literary works have to do with the inevitable power of technology in our lives.
Doctorow – one of Edward Snowden’s biggest supporters – is deeply concerned about the growing influence of big tech companies and how they collect and sell our personal data. He spoke to EL PAÍS about this and other subjects while sitting on a swing in his bar.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Question. Snowden interviewed you in 2017. He asked if you viewed the future with optimism or pessimism. This was before the pandemic or the invasion of Ukraine… even the climate emergency didn’t appear so imminent.
Answer. Well, let me tell you, in 2017, I was [already] worried about pandemics and war and climate change!
I grew up with radical progressive politics… when I was a child, the unions were strong, they had a lot of influence. But by the time I turned 20, this movement was a shadow of its former self.
In 1999, the anti-globalization movement against the World Trade Organization arrived in Seattle. I think this was the first [anti-globalization] mobilization in the US organized without the support of unions. The road has been slow and painful, but when I lose hope, I remind myself that, over the last 20 years, we’ve been rebuilding the power of the people. Workers are joining unions and strikes are becoming a tactic utilized beyond labor issues – we see this with the young people walking out of school to protest inaction on climate change.
Q. Twenty years ago, we thought the tech moguls would be part of fixing social problems, but now, they seem to be trying to squash workers’ rights. Just look at Elon Musk.
A. What Musk likes to say is that, for him, technology is a transformational tool that increases our individual capacity. It does not seek collective action. What we need to do is embed a human rights framework into technology, otherwise we’ll just end up with a code that enables oppression.
Q. What do you think of Musk’s first days running Twitter?
A. I can’t think of any reason to suspect that Musk is anything other than what he seems: an overconfident buffoon who bought Twitter as a joke thinking that he could get out of it without any consequences, got trapped in his own gag, and now has talked himself into thinking that he has all the answers, and is speedrunning every stupid error ever made by a social media business since Friendster.
Q. What will social media be like in the future?
A. I think the lesson of Musk – and the implosion of Facebook, for that matter – is that concentrating all our online lives under the direction of unaccountable corporations is a bad bargain. We need federated, decentralized social media: small servers run by and for the people who use them, connected to other similar servers, blocked from ones that aren’t socially compatible.
Q. In Radicalized, you write about a kind of corporate extremism that affects people’s health.
A. I wrote the book when I was dealing with my own health issue: chronic pain. I thought about how Americans are capable of shooting someone who cuts them off in traffic, or loiters near their property. But look at the executives of health insurance corporations, who routinely sentence people to death – they never experience any consequences whatsoever.
Now, I should clarify that the last thing I want is any harm to come to these people. I’m just saying, it’s a very weird paradox.
Q. Are you a subversive author?
A. I’m an activist. I want to transcend technical arguments. For example, I’ve spent 20 years fighting against a single law: Article 6 of the European Copyright Act, which states that a digital lock can’t be removed from a piece of intellectual property, even for a legitimate purpose. This means that a company has the right to decide what happens to your work if it was created using one of their products or stored on one of their platforms.
Q. Do you think we care enough about the issue of privacy and the sale of our data?
A. In political science, there’s a concept known as “rational indifference.” This presents itself via privacy and the climate crisis. We’re not worried about being good at recycling: only 9% of the plastic we throw away is recycled. The same goes for privacy. For instance, I take extreme measures so that my online activity isn’t tracked. This morning, I installed an ad-blocker. I use Signal and my hard drive is encrypted. And yet, I’m still being tracked, because I have an electric car that sells my location history. Do I open the hood and take out the SIM? Even if I wanted to, we’re surrounded by surveillance systems that recognize license plate numbers. It’s disheartening to individually fight a systemic problem.
Q. During the pandemic, you published a book titled How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism.
A. It’s meant to be a response to a famous book by Shoshana Zuboff, a professor at Harvard: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. Although she makes a beautiful case for privacy, she gives too much credit to what the tech industry claims it is capable of. She says that we’ve been brainwashed, that we’ve lost our ability to think critically. These corporations certainly would like us to believe this, because it’s how they sell us advertising. But the tech companies lie about everything. They’re just an ordinary monopoly: Facebook isn’t addictive… it simply has no competitors. If you want to reach a lot of people, you have no choice but to depend on a tiny handful of companies.
The way to break this control is to allow new services to connect, thus getting people to leave Facebook without giving up their friendships. This would cause a hemorrhage of users. It’s the kind of regulation that Facebook and Twitter hate and fight against.