Doctorow’s ‘Content’ book is on the mark on free culture—but too glib and too geek-to-geek
February 17, 2009 | 11:46 am
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.
Fundamentally, 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.
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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.