Internet Perspectives Cory Doctorow's Bitchun' World: P2P Gone Wild

by Richard Koman

"When Epcot Center first opened, long, long ago, there'd been an ugly decade or so in ride design. Imagineering found a winning formula for Spaceship Earth, the flagship ride in the big golf ball, and, in their drive to establish thematic continuity, they'd turned the formula into a cookie-cutter, stamping out half a dozen clones for each of the "themed" areas in the Future Showcase. It went like this: first, we were cavemen, then there was ancient Greece, then Rome burned (cue sulfur-odor FX), then there was the Great Depression, and, finally, we reached the modern age. Who knows what the future holds? We do! We'll all have videophones and be living on the ocean floor. Once was cute--compelling and inspirational, even--but six times was embarrassing. Like everyone, once Imagineering got themselves a good hammer, everything started to resemble a nail. Even now, the Epcot ad hocs were repeating the sins of their forebears, closing every ride with a scene of Bitchun utopia."
-- Cory Doctorow, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

What to make of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, the first novel by Cory Doctorow, dot-com survivor, inveterate blogger, and now, outreach coordinator of the Electronic Frontier Foundation? Part organizational-intrigue novel, part post-apocalyptic sci-fi, and part Swiftian satire of the tech mentality, revolutionary impulses, and Disney itself, the book has acquired quite a bit of notice, at least in part for its bold use of the Net.

Published in hard cover by Tor Books and released on the Net under a Creative Commons license (the details: free distribution, attribution required, commerical uses prohibited), Down and Out is also available from Doctorow's web site, not only in ASCII and PDF formats, but also, thanks to an enthusiastic community of Down-and-Outers, formats for Palm, Mobibook, Psion, Rocket eBook, Franklin eBookMan, and Hiebook. It's a testament to what programmers will do for free when you hand them some copyright-friendly content to play with.

Doctorow's reasoning, as an outspoken advocate of open source software and the virtues of peer-to-peer, is that your odds of success go way up if you can put something in people's hands and then figure out how to get paid for it. As he says in his note for the electronic version, "First-time novelists have a tough row to hoe. Our publishers don't have a lot of promotional budget to throw at unknown factors like us. Mostly, we rise and fall based on word of mouth ... and telling people about stuff I like is way, way easier if I can just send it to 'em. Way easier."

Thus, he'd rather have you email your friend a copy of this book than send a link to Amazon, or better yet, put it on a peer-to-peer Net. If this happens a lot, that's success. And maybe, some percentage of folks will choose to own the book. Or maybe not. In any case, some percentage of folks will choose to port it to another text-reading device. And maybe someone will choose to translate it to languages the publisher doesn't plan on.

In the world of Down and Out, there is no material scarcity, and people don't die, because they're just backed up to a hard disk and their personalities are poured into a young, sprightly clone. In a world without scarcity, the intangible things that are scarce become all the more valuable. In the world of the "Bitchun' Society," what's scarce is esteem, called Whuffie. For content, we should already be living in the world of the Bitchun Society--any digital file can be copied endlessly without degradation.

Only it can't, because we have accepted the notion of intellectual property and adopted laws that punish people for the wholesale copying of stuff. Doctorow's Net move is an opening to the Bitchun' world, and it poses plenty of questions. Why will anyone buy the book if they can get it online for free? On the other hand, things that are popular are far more likely to generate income streams than things that are not popular; so won't some number of people buy the book just because they've heard about it? In any case, books don't just get published online, they get criticized and raved about. They get people devoting themselves to them, porting them, creating alternative, animated storylines set in the original universe. Think that happens only for a paperback book?

Tor did a print run of 8,500 copies for Down and Out. In all likelihood, that's the total amount of bound books that will ever be created. There have been 75,000 downloads of the book directly from Doctorow's site, and no one knows how many other copies have been emailed between friends or downloaded from KaZaa. So, point proven: for those of us who believe in the Net to spread information and knowledge, Doctorow gets lots of Whuffie.

Richard Koman: So you have this sort of post-apocalyptic book in which these ad hoc committees have taken over Disney World; it's essentially a corporate intrigue story ...

Cory Doctorow: Except there's no corporation.

Koman: A post-corporate intrigue story, then. But for anyone who's been around the computer industry awhile, it's hard not to see glimmers of a very familiar world.

Doctorow: I had someone write me today and ask me if it was a subtle commentary on rapid application development, and in fact it is. One of my reference materials was the Microsoft Press Rapid Application Development book, as I was exploring the multifarious ways that organizations get into giant fights over how they should be organized, as opposed to what they should be doing.

Koman: So, talk about some of the references and experiences that formed this book.

Doctorow: It was the confluence of a bunch of technical and social ideas from a bunch of technical and social eras. Walt Disney himself was a technological innovator and very skilled, and an organizational innovator as well. The legend of Disneyland is that he was going to build this theme park, and he went to his brother Roy, who ran the money in the shop, and said "I'd like $17 million to build a theme park," and Roy said, "You can't have it and what's a theme park?" So he went out and raised private capital and hired some engineers to help him build his theme park, and of course, the engineers had never heard of theme parks and they spent a lot of time telling Walt he couldn't do this or that, so he wound up firing them all and going back to the studio and poaching all of the best animators. The animators at Disney studios had spent the 25 years previous, since the creation of the studio, inventing lots of little interesting engineering. So Walt recruited them to come build the park and he called them Imagineers, for lots of reasons: he liked the sound of it and he was always one for coinages, but it was illegal to call them engineers if they weren't really engineers.

The other slice of inspiration was the big technology/Internet boom and the clash of engineering cultures you had there, where there were a lot of people advocating something much like a favor economy, which eventually got formalized into stuff like free software, where you had major, multifarioius, multiuse applications built out of enlightened self-interest.

Koman: Tell us about the lives of the people in the Magic Kingdom in terms of collaborative filtering, being always online, having a data-rich existence. It all sounds a lot like peer-to-peer.

Doctorow: So there's this world I've written about called the Bitchun Society. And in the Bitchun Society there's no more scarcity, there's a kind of Clarke's Law technology that allows them to reproduce anything at zero incremental cost. And what's more, they don't die. You regularly check yourself into a clinic or terminal and make a copy of your brain and if you die they make a new you and pour that back into it. Lucky for me it's science fiction and not science so I don't have to explain the workings of this stuff.

O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference

Cory Doctorow will participate in the panel discussion, DRM in Practice: Rights, Restrictions, and Reality at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference. The panel will draw on the experiences of current developers, reviewers, and users of multimedia technology to explore the practical effect of digital rights management on technological innovation.

I also don't have to explain the working of the neural interface, which in addition to allowing them to do this suck-your-brains-out-and-drop-it-onto-a-hard-drive thing, also is capable of figuring out how you feel about any given thing anywhere in the world that you have any opinion about--without asking you. And as a consequence of this, you can first of all make some guesses about how you're going to feel about something. You don't have to remember whether you've been to this restaurant because the system remembers and tells you what other good restaurants are nearby. But the second-order effect is it will figure out who you hold in high esteem, who has an opinion about some restaurant you've never been to. And this opinion, and this esteem is called Whuffie.

Koman: And there's left-handed Whuffie and right-handed Whuffie.

Doctorow: That's right, well, it's idiosyncratic. Unlike things like Google PageRank, it's not a beauty contest; it doesn't tell you what the average person thinks is right, or beautiful, or worthy of esteem, it tells you what people like you--people who bought this book also bought clean underwear--think about this resource. And because it's not domain-specific, because it spans all these domains, it's got this incredibly rich dataset, so it's like people who are like you on lots of different axes telling you what to think.

Now, everyone sort of runs their lives as a consequence of this because those few resources that are scarce--like esteem itself, attention, locations--are themselves regulated or apportioned according to Whuffie. The way that happens is that someone asserts that they are in a position to control the distribution of that resource. A group of people--an ad hoc--comes along and says this is our restaurant. And if people behave as if it's their restaurant, if people sit at the tables when they're told to sit, if they order food when they're told to order, if they eat the food when it comes on a plate, then in fact, those people are running the restaurant. But they're only running the restaurant for as long as someone else doesn't come in and successfully assert that they are now running the restaurant. And so there's this built-in incentive to always behave in a way that always makes everyone feel good.

Koman: So this is not unlike deciding who's going to run Venezuela.

Doctorow: Or Argentina, for that matter. One of the things I explore in this book is that it's not all sweetness and light, because there's a lot of sweetness and light. I mean, you end up with people who act in a way that winds up being fundamentally saccharine and conflict-avoiding, because no one wants to get in trouble with anyone, and you wind up with power-law distributions, where people who are popular wind up with the most opportunity to do things that make them popular, which makes them more popular, which gives them more opportunties to be more popular, and even though it's not supposed to be a beauty contest, when you get yourself into a good niche, when you end up running Disney World, that opportunity itself creates more opportunities.

Koman: How does this map to our reality?

Doctorow: I think cash is a rough approximation of Whuffie. Cash is supposed to reflect how much esteem you're held in. Although in a Whuffie society, there's no such thing as a rich a--hole, because "rich" and "a--hole" are the opposite of each other. But I think that in our real world we are plagued with positive returns to scale and power-law distributions. We see this in cash societies, where the rich get richer and have more opportunities to get rich. Certainly that was a characterstic of the technology bubble, where the people who had opportunities to buy in before IPO were the people who didn't need it, essentially. It's a characteristic in publishing, where the authors who get the publicity budget are the authors who are already famous. And it's certainly the case in Google, where being found when you're searched for increases the probability that someone will make a link to you, which increases the probability that you'll be found when you're searched for. That problem, although probably not intractable, is found in both cash and reputation societies. There needs to be some kind of antitrust law or garbage collector that periodically comes along and randomizes Whuffie if you're going to get anything like a merit-based distribution.

Koman: There's a scene in the book, where they ask the Imagineers, "How long to build?" And the guy says, "Five years." And they say, "No, without reviews, and approvals, and sign-offs." And the answer is eight weeks. You've had this experience of pulling together some entrepreneurial programmers but being completely stymied in being able to release your code ...

Doctorow: Well, both points of view are correct. One of the things that happens is they say, "Oh, by all means, go do whatever you want, just deliver in eight weeks, and what they find is that without all this planning and oversight, the engineers just wind up ratholing. They take these tiny little parts of the project that are interesting and they don't wind up delivering the actual project. On the other hand, command and control systems are prone to creating these enormous delays where you get sign-off and sign-off and sign-off, and then the CEO says, "Does it have to be gray, can't it be blue?" There's a happy medium somewhere in there.

I think that the thing about venture capital is that despite its risk-taking, it's inherently conservative. One of the best pieces of advice an entrepreneur can get is "retain control of your company." You want to be sure that the oversight from the VCs is board-level oversight, not operational oversight. You want the VCs to sit down and say, "Given that you're spending our money we want to make sure you're doing x." Not, "Why does that guy have two monitors, couldn't he just use one?"

One of the things that has happened in the Bitchun Society is that something that is inherently entrepreneurial has calcified into something quite bureaucratic, hide-bound, slow to change, run by committee, very risk-averse. That's a characteristic of revolutions, too. There's a speech by Abraham Lincoln that's reproduced in the Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln exhibit at Disneyland: "... if destruction be our lot, then we ourselves must be its author and its finisher. It cannot come from abroad; it will spring up from among us." Basically, the only thing that will destroy America is America. The only thing that will destroy the Bitchun Society is the Bitchun Society. And the only thing that will destroy an entrepreneurial company is to stop being entrepreneurial.

Koman: What's the backstory of the book? What happened to the Disney Corporation? How did the ad hoc groups come to rule?

Doctorow: That's never really made explicit, because I want the book to be fundamentally optimistic. But one of the things about the revolution is that you have to break some eggs to make the omelet. I have little bits and pieces of it ... there's the nonviolent revolution, where you have TAs ousting their professors and offering courses that are credited in different ways. But the violent parts would be the complete collapse of the stock market, and massive poverty and economic and political destabilization, and public corporations just withering way, and thousands of people turning out on the streets and looting and arson. Because this is a massively disruptive technological change that they undergo. It is what happened to the recording industry happening to all of us. And the recording industry certainly went berserk when it happened to them, and behaved in a way that was completely nonlinear, not in their best interests, ungovernable, and so on. I have no reason to believe the general public would behave in a way that's anymore laudable. So I think what happened to the Disney Corporation is that money became massively deflationary, and it died, the same way that even worthy Argentinian corporations died when the Argentinian currency went wildly inflationary.

Koman: You speak of the recording industry as though it's already dead, or at least it will never get back to the way it was.

Doctorow: Well, sure, even the recording industry understands it will never get back to the way it was. I don't think it's dead. I think it is fundamentally changed and I think they're slowly coming to grips with that, although not as fast as we would like them to. But the recording industry has a story of, "We do two really important roles. One is to make music available and the other is to compensate artists." But one of the things we know is that 80 percent of all of the music ever released isn't for sale anywhere in the world. And another thing we know is that 97 percent of the artists signed to a recording contract earn less than $600 per year off of it. So Napster doesn't have a better track record at compensating artists, but it sure as shit had a better track record of making music available.

Napster filled a niche that the music industry was actually incapable of filling for legal and organizational reasons. I've had very earnest conversations with recording industry executives who told me it took forever to get the clearances to put 100 tracks online. Napster put 100 tracks online in the first eight seconds of its existence. So whatever happens, I can't believe that the hundreds of millions of people around the world currently enjoying filesharing--not just filesharers, but the people who get CDs from filesharers--those people aren't going to willingly say, "Yes, let's take the lion's share of our shared musical heritage and throw it away again, put it back in the vault for another 30 years until we can figure out how to make it available--minus whatever disappears between now and then because all known copies of it are destroyed." That isn't a possible outcome to the current struggle. There are lots of other possible outcomes, like serious damage to the rights to build general-purpose tools and so on, which I'm very concerned about. But I'm not concerned that the solution to this will involve throwing that music back in the vault.

Koman: Which goes to the question the Supreme Court wrestled with in Eldred, or the question they should have wrestled with anyway, which is, "What is the best way to ensure the dissemination of creative work?"

Doctorow: Or even more broadly, what is the best way to ensure continuity of our cultural heritage; what is the best way to ensure that things don't vanish? It really is an important question and it was in our side's brief, and unfortunately, it seems to me the Court didn't really address it at all. They said, "Well, Disney's stewardship of Mickey Mouse is above reproach, and therefore Disney deserves to continue holding the rights to the Mickey Mouse cartoons, which would enter the public domain if it weren't for the Sonny Bono act. And why do we want Mickey Mouse back in the public domain? It's not as if there's any absence of creative work being created with his likeness on it." And what they missed is that this has nothing to do with Mickey Mouse. The problem is that in order to keep Mickey Mouse in Disney's hands we are keeping everything that was made contemporaneous with Mickey Mouse out of the public's hands, and in many cases, those works are abandoned, very few copies survive, no one knows who the rights holders are, and before they go into the public domain, if indeed they ever do, all known copies will have vanished forever.

Koman: There's this ideal: univeral access to all human knowledge. The Internet is supposed to be the medium for that. It seems that Napster was doing that for music; peer-to-peer systems in general could enable the dissemination of all public domain stuff on the Net. And yet, probably no one has the chutzpah to suggest that anymore because they're likely to be prosecuted ...

Doctorow: Our common cultural heritage is basically distributed across attics across the world. The one thing that a centralized system could never do--I mean, eBay has shown this--is catalogue the contents of everyone's attics. What eBay demonstrated is that the only way to get the contents of everyone's attic catalogued is to ask everyone to catalogue their own attic. This is also true of cultural information. All the information that has ever been digitized is on someone's hard drive somewhere and the solution to making this all available isn't putting it all in one place; with apologies to Brewster, the solution is in keeping it in situ and finding ways for us to exchange it, and ensuring that whenever we exchange it, we increase its availablility, so we have nonrivalrous use of the information.

Koman: So what is your emotional relationship with Disney? You seem to have quite a warm spot in your heart for Walt ...

Doctorow: Yeah, everyone loves that crazy old Nazi corpsicle.

Koman: And yet in your day job, you see Disney as doing a lot of harm to the culture.

Doctorow: Well, it's possible to love the sin and hate the sinner. Yeah, I'm a tremendous fan of both Walt Disney and the Disney Corporation in a lot of spheres, not universally, but in a lot of valances. It's the only (publicly traded) company I've ever owned stock in. I grew up going to Disney parks in Florida. It really was one of the formative experiences of my childhood, these annual trips to Disney World to see this kind of techno-utopic autonomous zone. The Florida property especially exists in this kind of extralegal framework where it's not subject to state law--it can do things like build its own nuclear reactor without getting permission from the state government, it doesn't have to pay taxes ... Walt pulled off this amazing coup when he got this special economic zone incorporated, straddling two counties but not a part of either, and built Disney World in the middle of it. That kind of techno-utopic thing is very influential in the way I grew up.

The Disney Corporation, when it's not being terrible, is wonderful. It's one of the most enlightened employers in terms of equal rights and gay rights. It's the largest gay employer in the Southland. It has amazing benefits packages, it's a great company to work for if you have kids.

In addition to this, I think that their art and technology kicks ass. But one thing you discover in the technology world, especially in free software, is that being a good programmer and being a good person are not necessarily correlated, or at least being a good programmer and being a person with whom other people want to spend a lot of time, who has good hygiene and good social skills, are not correlated.

Koman: Agree with you on hygiene, but what do you mean by being a "good person?"

Doctorow: There are people who have written great code who are d--ks.

Koman: Is that a greater number of d--ks than the random distribution of d--ks in the larger population?

Doctorow: Maybe not, but I'm not arguing that they're correlated. I'm arguing that eschewing someone's code because the person who wrote it is a d--k is a losing strategy. So there's a corollary in Disney in that they have built undeniably fantastic technology; they have built really interesting and innovative organizations around that technology; they continue to innovate all the time, as art and as science; it's good stuff. And the company does some stuff I'm really angry about in employment law, and in pollution, and in trade practices abroad, and in copyright law, and in technology. There's a lot of things about this company I'm very upset about as a shareholder and as a citizen of the world.

Richard Koman is a freelancer writer and editor based in Sonoma County, California. He works on SiliconValleyWatcher, ZDNet blogs, and is a regular contributor to the O'Reilly Network.

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