Doctorow’s ‘Content’ book is on the mark on free culture—but too glib and too geek-to-geek

We'd like to see more reviews like Court's---in depth, thoughtfully opinionated, and on books of interest to many TeleBlog readers. E-mail Paul Biba or me. The opinions here are Court's own. - D.R. image I confess: I am not a tech nerd. I sort of wish I was, now that they’ve taken over the world. But I’m just a writer who’s recently been climbing a very steep learning curve about free culture and DRM (digital rights management), getting on board with Creative Commons and the like. So Cory Doctorow's Content, supposedly a primer on the future of the future, should be just the book for me. After all, Doctorow has been on the forefront of this movement since before it was a movement. Unfortunately, he spends most of Content preaching to the geek choir. I didn’t finish Content (available on paper and for free on the Net) ready to rise and defend our free culture. I felt like I hadn’t been invited to the party. But more on that below. imageFundamentally, Doctorow's 28-essay collection hits the mark again and again. Take his foray into the lion’s den: the transcript of a 2004 presentation he gave to Microsoft execs regarding DRM. He points out how an average user might initially be stymied by DRM, but in the end it only takes a search engine to get around any DRM that has or ever will be invented. He shows how Sony, inventor of the Walkman, is dead in the water when it comes to portable music. By insisting on clunky DRM, they got their lunch eaten by Apple and others. No consumers sat around saying “Damn, I wish Sony would devote some expensive engineering effort in order that I may do less with my music”; Sony’s legions of once-devoted customers jumped ship. Doctorow argues that a similar fate awaits Microsoft if it continues down the DRM road. “Tech gives us bigger pies that more artists can get a bite out of. That’s been tacitly acknowledged at every stage of the copyfight since the piano roll.” Microsoft ignores this sage advice at their own peril: its ongoing woes are at least partially the result.

There’s other mighty prescient stuff in Content. The RIAA’s recent shift to stop going after individual downloaders and the Obama administration’s new online openness make Doctorow look like a virtual soothsayer. Meanwhile the content industries have chosen wrong, wrong, and wrong again, staking their futures on business models that were rendered obsolete the minute the first P2P network came online. You can practically feel Doctorow’s delight in bringing these foibles to light.

But his ability to reel off glib mixed metaphors with such fantastic ease is something of a problem. Doctorow’s slick superiority complex just begs the unconvinced to be repelled. Now, Content isn’t an academic tome on the model of Free Culture. I think it’s meant as a free-wheeling, good-timing jaunt through some of the shallower waters of the ongoing struggle for a free culture. A work you can take seriously without being so serious about it.

And you would, if only Doctorow could restrain himself: “Marinas benefit from the information economy when office-slaves decide to skip out on Friday for a weekend’s sailing. Families of migrant workers benefit from the information economy when their sons and daughters wire cash home from a convenience store’s Western Union terminal.” Neither a hapless office hack nor an oppressor of the Third World: the smugness is a little suffocating, frankly. This doesn’t make him wrong. I don’t think he is. I’m on his team. But I’m not sure he wants me there.

* * *

A few years back, I tried to use Classmates.com for an upcoming high school reunion. This dowdy site was undoubtedly shunned by the geekniks in a mouseclick. And rightly so. Not only was it annoyingly user-unfriendly, but you had to pay for information. I swiftly abandoned the attempt and this marked my last foray into social media until Facebook. By the time I got there, Doctorow had long since dismissed Facebook as “having all the social graces of a nose-picking, hyperactive six-year-old.”

But I don’t think I’m alone. A whole generation of us who aren’t old (I’m 33) went on with our lives only marginally aware of the ongoing digital revolution. We used the tools as they trickled down – email, websites, blogs, and now social networks. For those of us who haven’t been on Usenet newsgroups since 1992, Facebook is a revelation equal or greater to the quantum leap of email a decade or so ago.

Doctorow is a cutting edge advocate, developer, and early-adopter of digital technologies. It seems to me that precisely because he is so far ahead of the curve he fails to grasp Facebook’s addictive appeal to the techno-commoner. Facebook is like an effortless life reunion. Profoundly conservative, it’s largely about people going back to their roots: old classmates, work buddies, girlfriends. That and putting up pictures of kids. Everyone puts their kids up for the gawking at (including me). Doctorow predicts that when the junior high bullies catch up with them, people will abandon Facebook. I’m not so sure. My daughter is up there, after all. Why would I abandon her? Wouldn’t it just be easier to unfriend the bully?

According to Doctorow, “adding more users to a social network increases the probability that it will put you in an awkward social circumstance.” In his tech-obsession, he has lost sight of a fundamental fact: Facebook is not a social situation. It’s on a computer. A machine most of us can still turn off, like a TV or a car. Real class reunions feature excruciating minutes of chitchat. On Facebook, you simply click away. His predicting that Facebook will join “Sixdegrees, Friendster, and their pals on the scrapheap of Net.history” seems like hyperbole at best. Facebook could yet go the way of Geocities. But it sure doesn’t look that way yet.

Other examples bound to repulse the non-technorati: he can’t resist telling us that Jeff Bezos is a friend of his. He is positive that science fiction is the only literature people care enough about to steal on the internet. (Tell that to the Russians who put the entire Nabokov oeuvre online.) He informs us he picks up a new Apple PowerBook every ten months. Etcetera. Taken in disparate chunks over a longish period of time, you might not notice the grandstanding. Read as a whole, it’s downright exasperating.

More to the point, it’s counterproductive. Standing on constant guard against an onslaught of geeky snarkcasm leaves you less than open to Doctorow’s many salient points. Which is a shame considering how many he makes in Content. But for the free culture and creative commons movement (what James Boyle calls cultural environmentalism) to spread to the people, I’m afraid a homelier, humbler spokesperson is required.

Related: TeleRead last covered Content here.

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7 Comments on Doctorow’s ‘Content’ book is on the mark on free culture—but too glib and too geek-to-geek

  1. Nice review.

    A handy reminder that it’s worthwhile to be a little bit humble–even if you think you know everything.

    Maybe the information economy does make it easy for office workers to take off Fridays to go sailing, but I wonder when Cory is going to give us free sailboats to do the sailing on.

    Free is great–I love free. But most free models I’ve seen ultimately involve someone paying for something.

    Rob Preece
    Publisher, http://www.BooksForABuck.com

  2. Um, I hate to come to CD’s defense, but . . .

    ‘According to Doctorow, “adding more users to a social network increases the probability that it will put you in an awkward social circumstance.” In his tech-obsession, he has lost sight of a fundamental fact: Facebook is not a social situation. It’s on a computer.’

    Have you noticed at all the person-of-the-week getting fired over a Facebook update because they think it’s ‘not a social situation. It’s on a computer’? I love Facebook, but I think Cory is spot on with his criticism there.

    Facebook gives you the illusion of friendly intimacy, but it is a very public space and our ways of thinking about such spaces are lagging severely.

  3. I haven’t read ‘Content’, so maybe Cory D is trying to go mainstream with his argument here, but on the whole I think his role is to speak ‘up’ rather than down: which is to say he works best as an irritating reminder in a CEO’s ear that there are just basic logical flaws in their DRM. He does a good job at that.

    As for stirring up the masses to rebel against DRM, I hope no-one is trying to spend their life doing that. The fact of the matter is that currently DRM is only an issue in fairly luxury items like music, movies etc. and that most people have much less complicated media consumption lifestyles than alpha geeks do: they aren’t constantly shuffling ‘content’ between multiple ‘devices’ bought in multiple ‘regions’ with multiple ‘OSes’. They use windows, they have an ipod, they steal some music when they want, they buy some when they want and they are more or less all right. (I am more at the alpha-geek end of the spectrum, and the one time I bought music from the iTunes store I have ’suffered’ quite a bit of DRM friction, so I was one of the people who stopped shopping there and went to Amazon instead. So thanks Cory for looking out for me!)

    Where you have to applaud Cory is the work he has done to popularize the notion of the commons as a way of enriching culture. And though he is starting to suffer a bit of a backlash at his occasional proposal that writers make their money via their rock star public appearances and not royalties, I think that the emergence of alternative writing distribution models is/will be a beautiful thing.

    One more thing: I don’t know if I would agree with Cory Doctorow that ONLY Sci-Fi fiction will get stolen [assuming he said that…], but I agree that it will be the canary in the coal mine. Cult/Genre fiction has the kind of people who will do manual labor to free it and evangelize it. That’s why comic book piracy affects practically 100% of content published today and within the last 60 years in America. After the canary, the first miner to die seems like it would be a Nabokov type of writer who inspires fanatics to read and obsess over their entire oeuvre. But once there are enough ebooks around that they can get cracked without any labor, then it’ll be like music today where you have people uploading music they don’t even like just because why not.

  4. Sorry, everyone, for the slow response time. Technical issues again …

    Rob, thanks. As for paying for things, I have no doubt CD is making out alright, net-famous as he is. People are doing like he said, and buying his books. Not sure how if the wealth spreads to the more obscure, though.

    Brian, good point. Certainly there is a social element to Facebook, as you indicate. But not in quite the way CD seems to think in Content . At least not for those of us in the non-technorati. But you are right, that our view of ‘social’ should and probably will evolve. At this point, though, I don’t consider Facebook as social as an actual class reunion.

    Marc, CD certainly relishes his role as gadfly to the corporate monolith; but I’m not sure how effective he has been – the content industries, with Microsoft as a prime example, have continued until very recently unabated with more and more DRM despite his bleating in their ears. Seems to me they only begin to listen when a critical mass of their customers begin to shift their behavior. Even then they are slow to respond, and I doubt very much they are thinking of CD at all.

    That’s why I respect his attempt to take the anti-DRM fight ‘to the people’, as it were; I just don’t think he’s done a very good job of it. As for alternative revenue streams, I’m all for them, and I hope CD and others dream up a lot of good ones. But as I mentioned to Rob above, it remains to be seen whether someone not already net-famous can rise to prosperity (not merely fame) on the back of giveaways. I’m confident it’s possible, but I don’t know of any examples just yet. Does anyone else?

    As for science fiction being the only stealable, CD did indeed say precisely that – it’s the title of one of the essays. As for fiction being like music in terms of up/downloads, I’d say that’s going to require the spread of an iPod-like device (iPhone, anyone?) that is ubiquitous enough and easy enough to use that it won’t require any more technical knowledge than downloading music requires today. I’ve speculated on that possibility and I, for one, would surely welcome it. As I bet CD would.

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments.

  5. “Marc, CD certainly relishes his role as gadfly to the corporate monolith; but I’m not sure how effective he has been – the content industries, with Microsoft as a prime example, have continued until very recently unabated with more and more DRM despite his bleating in their ears. Seems to me they only begin to listen when a critical mass of their customers begin to shift their behavior. Even then they are slow to respond, and I doubt very much they are thinking of CD at all.”

    Obviously, you can’t credit CD alone with this, but I certainly think the anti-DRM activism in general clearly impacted the decision for music companies to abandon DRM.

    “But as I mentioned to Rob above, it remains to be seen whether someone not already net-famous can rise to prosperity (not merely fame) on the back of giveaways. I’m confident it’s possible, but I don’t know of any examples just yet. Does anyone else?”

    David Wellington went from being a nobody (at least not a net celeb) to successful horror author by giving it away (like CD, his books are free online and in print, but I don’t think they’re CCed).

    I think this formula will absolutely work for genre authors. First time I heard of John Scalzi was the free version of that alien agent book he made available. In fact, most of the books I’ve read lately were written by folks I first heard of through free online offerings.

    But outside genre authors…not likely.

  6. Brian, oh I am definitely all for anti-DRM activism. It certainly has played a role in galvanizing the content industries, and CD in particular is to be commended for his long championing of the cause. I wouldn’t like to split that hair, so thanks for calling me out on it.

    Thanks for the link to Wellington.

    “But outside genre authors…not likely.” Why? (I ask very much out of personal interest.)

  7. This idea that Scifi is the “canary in the coalmine” is nonsense. Most of the media being pirated isn’t books. People don’t even like to read books on a computer. Cory is essentially sitting back and profiting from his web-celebrity knowing that his particular type of media is somewhat protected from piracy, while advocating that everyone creating digital content suffer.

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