©ontent: Selected Essays on Technology, Creativity, Copyright, and the Future of the Future
He’s been dubbed the “William Gibson of his generation,” but Cory Doctorow is more than a cyberpunk novelist or futurist. He’s an activist, a Creative Commons advocate, tech blogger, and journalist. I don’t come to Doctorow’s non-fiction work by way of his sci-fi novels. In fact, I only know the Doc as a gizmo and copyright guru famous for sites like Boing Boing and essays in Wired and Salon.
A book like ©ontent is an excellent case study in the impermanence of information. In a world where technology can evolve in a day, Doctorow’s work is both informative and outdated. The book begins with multiple essays about the failures of DRM—digital rights management, which is that obnoxious anti-piracy copyright code that makes it impossible to share downloaded files—but anyone who follows headlines about the issue knows that in the past year, the DRM battle has largely been won by laypeople; Apple has ceased selling DRM tracks in iTunes, for example. That isn’t to say Doctorow’s analysis isn’t useful. His now two-year-old essays serve largely as historical information in an era of meteoric technological and ethical shifts.
Doctorow is often too much of a technophile, incompatible with my own neo-Luddite tendencies; but I nevertheless respect his outlook and options. I suspect his work is most accessible to folks already engaged in analysis of copyright and new media. I’m most fond of his love of relaxed copyright regulation—though whether or not I think his theories are plausible is another matter. As a man who gives away his own ebooks, his early distaste of Amazon.com’s Kindle is charming. When he spends four pages defending fan fiction, it is in part because of his own history writing the genre. I love anyone who practices what they preach.
Doctorow also makes one sizable contribution to misinformation that I’d be remiss to not mention. In his essay “Why Is Hollywood Making a Sequel to the Napster Wars?” he mentions in passing that YouTube was founded by “two guys in a garage.” One of the largest myths of tech start-ups, the men in the garage story is not only an overused cliché; in this case, it is categorically untrue. YouTube was founded by three San Francisco PayPal veterans, supposedly at a dinner party, but despite widespread reports to the contrary, the idea grew over time and was not conceived in one evening of eating and drinking with friends. It may seem small, but when it comes to avoiding such blatant fact-checking mistakes, I expect more from an expert like Doctorow.
His largest contribution as a writer—both as a freelancer and a novelist—is his unrepentant championing of free books. ©ontent has been simultaneously released as a free ebook, so while I held a hard copy in my hands because I don’t personally believe tangible books are a dying medium, I respect Doctorow’s commitment to accessible media. I also happen to believe people like him when they say, “Giving away my books has made me a bunch of money.” Making yourself valuable and indispensable, in whatever form, is something for which we can all strive.