Cory Doctorow was six, growing up in Toronto, when he got his first taste of the future – the world's and his own. It was 1977 and his father brought home, from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, a compelling contraption.
It was "a teletype terminal, which was a printer with a daisy wheel and an acoustic coupler, which was this pair of suction cups that you put your black Bell phone into after dialling with the modem, and then we'd get these rolls of bathroom paper towel from public schools and we'd feed it through the computer so you get 1,000 feet of computing and then you turn it around and get the 1,000 feet on the back," recalls Doctorow. "And that was my first network computing experience."
Doctorow, now 43, grew up to become one of the most important voices about our tech-infused digital world, as a prolific sci-fi and YA author, blogger and columnist, and co-editor/co-owner of Boing Boing.
He's also passionate tech thinker who advocates for updated copyright laws, abhors the idea of digital rights management, and believes that intermediary liability (in which the onus to police content rests with the platform, say, Google or Facebook) is very problematic. Doctorow deals with these issues – and much more – in his anti-copyright, pro-creativity manifesto Information Doesn't Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age, to be published in November.
Now based in London, England, Doctorow was back in Canada for the Vancouver Writers Festival to talk about that book, as well as his new graphic novel In Real Life (illustrated by Jen Wang) about a young female gamer who learns about the global complexities of the Internet – and real life – when she joins an all-girls guild in a role-playing game.
The Globe sat down with Doctorow on the morning of the shootings on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Here is a sampling of his thoughts on a number of pressing tech and cultural issues:
On the evolution of news coverage that allows for immediate online reportage of an event such as the Ottawa shooting:
It's pretty clear that whatever has happened to the news as the result of the Internet, it didn't replace a golden era in which we had sober, excellent information that came after a lot of reflection and was responsibly reported. … So, while Twitter is alive with rumours and falsity and even provocateurs … it's also alive with first-hand accounts, lively debate and substantive material that would otherwise not be available. For every person who is right now filling Twitter with ill-informed speculation about jihadists declaring war on Ottawa … there were people keeping the Ferguson [Missouri police shooting] story alive when none of what we call the mainstream media was reporting it. And we've had stories that were made stories because of the way that this media works. There's a temptation to view technology as a problem instead of as a fact. So if technology is making bad things available then we condemn technology. There is no way to counter the bad information on the Internet without using the Internet.
On the Gamergate campaign against feminism in gaming, which has seen female game developers and journalists harassed and threatened:
The fact that [this issue is now] in the mainstream is hopeful. People have said, "What a happy, strange coincidence for you that there's this news peg about misogyny and games at the same time as your book about women and games and gender came out." But there's no time in the last 10 years where there wasn't a news hook about gender and games. Games are a legitimate art form, and legitimate art forms should be subject to critical scrutiny, and that critical scrutiny can include questions about representation and gender. I have never heard anyone on the representation-in-gender side call for censorship; I've heard them call for an expansion in the way that gender is presented in games and I think that all of the talk about how feminists are trying to censor video games is rubbish. I've never heard a feminist call for censorship of games. The only censorship I've seen is the censorship that goes when terrifying threats are used to silence critics. As a man who has spoken out about Gamergate, I get a few angry tweets – women who speak out about Gamergate are chased out of their homes.
On the battle between the CRTC and Netflix, which is not subject to Canadian-content regulations other broadcasters must adhere to:
We decided, I think for not-great reasons, that rather than giving direct subsidies to the arts we would give this indirect subsidy in the form of a Canadian content quota. Partly that was a broadcast policy because broadcast spectrum was scarce and we wanted to make sure a minimum fraction of it was Canadianified. … [But] we've seen Cancon get gamed over and over again for decades. It will continue to be gamed even if we make Netflix do it. If what we really want to do is support the Canadian arts scene – which is something I'm totally in favour of, I absolutely believe in state funding of the arts – we should give money to artists. If you want to help homeless people get houses, you should put them in houses, right? This is not rocket science.
His prescription for the CBC in challenging times:
It's the same prescription I've had for them for a long time, which is to open their archives. Clear the rights to them where necessary; where not necessary, just release it. That material belongs to Canadians. The dividends from selling material to Canadians, which they already own, to reinvest in new material is as nothing compared with the dividends that we would get by having a rich treasury of freely available Canadian material – not least because then it could be offered to other public service broadcasters on a quid pro quo basis. So we could start looking at the Norwegian public broadcaster and the Australian public broadcaster and public broadcasters around the world, to take this public media – produced at public expense for public benefit – and put it in the public's hands.
This interview has been edited and condensed.