Interview on Paul Holdengraber’s “Call from Paul” podcast

From The Cory Doctorow Wiki



December 13, 2015

Website, A call from Paul (Soundcloud)


Go to the Soundcloud link above to download from there.


«I appeared on the current episode of “A Call From Paul”, a podcast created by Paul Holdengraber, who curates the NY Public Library’s amazing interview series. Paul and I talked about London, UK politics, class war, education, and books.»


London, politics creating poverty, standardized testing in schools, distrust of teachers, Canada.


[Introductory banter]

[1:57] Cory Doctorow: In London, it's primarily a city that is hospitable to banks, not human beings. And it's basically become uninhabitable by humans. I just couldn't bear it anymore. My wife's work brought her out here as well. Her startup, MakieLab, was part of Disney's Techstars Accelerator. And so they gave her office space there, and she continues to have office space at Disney's Glendale campus at the Imagineer and campus where I used to work. And so she's operating out of there now for the U.S. office of her company, MakieLab. And for me, being in the U.S. makes a little more sense. I got very tired of flying back and forth across the ocean sometimes as many as four times a month. Now, you know, we live 10 minutes from the Burbank Airport and I can do things like go to San Francisco for a morning and be back in the afternoon. It's quite nice.

[2:50] Paul Holdegraber: When did this feeling about London start?

[2:58] Cory Doctorow: Yeah, I mean, it's been building, I think, really from the crash. I think it started to become much more poignant. Until then, you could kind of pretend that there was still an operating social welfare state and that people that you saw who were in trouble might have a chance of escaping. But very quickly after the crash and particularly after the coalition government and now under the Tory government, it was really obvious that Britain was bifurcating into the kind of people who couldn't understand why all of the living space in the largest city shouldn't be turned into safe deposit boxes for offshore corrupt millionaires and people who couldn't understand why they couldn't keep a roof over their heads anymore. And there's this sense of precarity there, this sense that at any minute you could lose everything and that there will be nothing to catch you that just made it very hard. And even, you know, when you didn't personally feel precarious, you were surrounded by people who were losing everything, who were in deep trouble. You know, just before we left, the Tory government announced a cap to benefits that they've since climbed back on.

But literally, I think 95% of the students in my daughter's state school in Hackney would have had to move, you know, outside of central London, probably outside of the South altogether if the benefit cap had come in. And that would have been really devastating for those people. They were multi-generational working families living in central London and like many poor people, they didn't have a lot of capital, cash capital, but they had a lot of personal capital. They had a lot of relationships with one another that allowed them to get by because one person could fix the other person's car or look after someone else's kids. And by atomizing those social relationships, those poor people would have been deprived of literally the only capital they had. And they would have been poor in a way that's almost impossible to overstate. They would have become internal refugees in the United Kingdom. And I think that, you know, though the Tories have climbed back on that plan, it typifies their view of the nature of humans, which is to say their surplus to requirements. I think in the United Kingdom, the dominant view of the political classes is that the real genuine Britons are multi-national corporations and that human beings are kind of inconvenient gut flora for them. And that where there's too many of them or where they are behaving in a way that isn't hospitable to their host organisms, they need to be purged.

[5:38] PH: Wow. Cory, do you think it's different here?

[5:46] CD: I think it is different. I don't know that it's necessarily better, but it's at least different.

[5:50] PH: Because, you know, one thing that I'm feeling, I mean, I know we both have, you have one child, I have two children, and I'm often wondering whether what I have to offer them is so much less than what I was offered.

[6:10] CD: Yeah. I mean, I think that's right. You know, my family enjoyed enormous benefits from social services when they turned up in Canada after the war. My grandparents were displaced people. They had nothing.

[6:31] PH: From where?

[6:32] CD: Well, from a country that's now Belarus, but was then Poland and from Russia. And they had nothing. And if it weren't for the social safety network, they would have been really, I think, in deep trouble. In the case of my grandmother's second husband, he arrived in Canada with virtually everyone he was related to being dead. So he had no family to fall back on anywhere in the world. And, you know, he benefited as well. And my family went on to be very productive members of society. My grandmother's second husband, my grandfather, he founded a business and employed lots of people and contributed economically, but they also all contributed to their communities and they were an essential part of the Canadian fabric. I think Canada's new government is going to be better on this than the old government, although, you know, this is the party, the Liberal Party in Canada, that refused to allow any Jews into Canada during the Holocaust, where the Liberal Prime Minister at the time, when asked how many Jews Canada would allow in from Europe, he said, none is too many. But I think that they've reformed their ways since then.And I think they will certainly be better than the outgoing Tories. But the kind of social welfare infrastructure we have now compared to the post-war infrastructure is so anemic. And the view of people who participate in social welfare is so vituperative. The hate reserved for the poor, especially in the United Kingdom, is so venomous that it's really kind of hard to understand, except as the kind of hatred that people have for things that they fear more than things that they despise. I think there's this view, maybe, that all of us, rather than being millionaires and waiting, are refugees and waiting. And when we see people who are becoming internal economic refugees, or who are traditional refugees coming from places like Syria, I think we see an uncomfortable future for ourselves.

[8:43] PH: My goodness. I nearly feel like I want to go back to what is in those (moving) boxes and what will come out. And if now arriving back in the States feels to you and me in Los Angeles feels to you like a homecoming.

[9:04] CD: Not exactly a homecoming, but the direction of travel, especially when we left, the direction of travel in the United States was more optimistic than the direction of travel in the United Kingdom. Things have changed a bit with the election of Jeremy Corbyn to run the Labor Party and some shifts in the discourse there. But in the United States, when we left, they had just passed the first anti-surveillance law in a generation, and then the subsequent week passed two more amendments. There is a genuine debate about race and poverty and politics here, albeit one that's often very dysfunctional. You have organizations of parents who are getting together to refuse to allow any of their children to take the standardized tests. I think that standardized testing, as someone who is raised by teachers, standardized testing to me is grotesque. It treats education as a kind of business whose product is standardized to productive humans, as opposed to something that does this very idiosyncratic business of learning. And I think standardized testing is part and parcel of the idea that teachers can't be trusted. And that teachers, as people who are on the public payroll, are doing something that is uniquely suspicious and has to be monitored and made accountable, as though finding out whether or not the quantifiable parts of education are performing well tells you anything about how the qualitative parts of education are performing.And so, yeah, I'm very glad that we see parents here resisting standardized testing. Thankfully, my daughter won't come up against it for a few years here. She had her first standardized test in the United Kingdom last year at the age of seven, which was shocking.

I don't know that we even got results. If we did, I put them out of my mind. And you know, my daughter's school was, the teachers and the administrators there were amazing. But they had their hands cuffed by the mandates that came down from above about standardized testing and standardized education. You know, for example, they weren't allowed to grant permission for students to take leaves to do activities with their parents because their funding was based on attendance, as though attendance was a good proxy for learning. And so they were even required to turn down requests where there were really obvious benefits to the kids, you know, chances, for example, for my daughter to go away with her grandmother, my mother, who designed the K-3 curriculum in Ontario and the evaluation process for it, certainly getting one-on-one tutelage while doing things in Canada was good for her. And there was no argument that it wouldn't be. But, you know, they were bound over by their administration to refuse as a first measure all requests like that. It was a nonsense, right? Literally, everybody agreed that it made no sense, and yet nobody could figure out how to solve it.

[12:19] PH: And it seems that what you've just described is a situation we find ourselves often in, namely the problem is real. We see that it's a problem, but we do very little about it.

[12:32] CD: Yeah, and, you know, this is the thing that the theme that I'm interested in, in terms of both technology and science fiction, is the collective action problem, you know, the deadlock. You know, you could call it the Jeremy Corbyn problem, right? The self-sufficient prophecy that he is unelectable, and therefore he can't get nominated, and therefore when he does get nominated, the party establishment turns their back on him and actively seeks to sabotage him. It's the Bernie Sanders problem. It's the Lawrence Lessig problem. You know, this is the problem that you and everybody else need to coordinate your action in order to solve something that all of you are suffering under. And you all agree, but you can't figure out how to coordinate. That is, I think, the wicked problem of our age. And it's one that technology has some really interesting things to say about. You know, this is the whole heart and soul of Kickstarter, that you can use threshold collective action systems, where you say, well, none of us are bound over to take any action until enough of us agree that we'll take action. And then when enough of us show up, we all take action in unison. You could really see how that might work, for example, in politics, where you could have a doorbell ringer who says I am here to represent a third party, and I'm not going to ask you to throw away your vote. Obviously, we all want to get out, you know, the rascal who's currently in power. And if voting for me meant that that person would continue in office, well, that would be a terrible trade-off. All I'm asking is that you register someone who would vote for me if enough people who are in your neighborhood agree that they would also vote for me. And then come Election Day, you know, your whole constituency will be made aware of what's going on. We'll send you texts every time someone fulfills their promise to go to the poll and vote for me. And then you can make an informed decision about whether or not you're throwing away your vote. And this seems like a way to kind of back form a preferential ballot into the first-past-the-post system that paralyzes politics by making you choose from the lesser of two terrible evils.

[14:39] PH: What is Lessig up to now? He's running for office?

[14:57] CD: He was, and then the Democratic Party establishment changed the rules about participation in the debate in a way that would have made it impossible for him to be in the debate. And he gave up, basically. And as far as I know, he's very unhappy.

He's been posting some fairly melancholy and angry things to his media accounts. And I feel bad about it. And I think that Larry wanted to do something that, whatever you think of a plausibility of it, that was really significant. Making the debate and the election a referendum on whether or not we want politics to be dominated by a tiny number of super-rich people. Until we answer that question, all the other questions are never going to be answered to anyone's satisfaction. We won't get an answer on climate change. We won't get an answer on telecoms policy. We won't get an answer on the criminal justice reform until we have an answer that we can all agree on about who should be in charge of our politics, which people, or the broad polity.

[16:02] PH: And who should be in touch regarding our security and our privacy.

[16:12] CD: I mean, all of those questions, you know, privacy and security, I have a thesis about why privacy has become so difficult to assert in the 21st century. And I think that it has a lot to do with wealth disparity. I gave a talk at West Point a little while ago, and I met people there, people of goodwill who care about information security, who said, I worry about my privacy, but I worry about it in respect of Facebook and Google. I don't really worry about the government. They already know everything about me. I work for them. And then, you know, when I go to other circles, I hear from people who say, well, I don't really worry about the private sector. I feel like I can make commercial decisions that impact how my data relates to the private sector, but I really worry about the state gathering data on me. And I think that they're confused about the nature of surveillance. You know, if you're worried about private surveillance, but not public surveillance, you have to understand that the reason the state is able to affect such massive surveillance, the reason that we went from the Stasi having to hire one snitch for every 60 people in the GDR, to the NSA hiring one person for every 10,000 people they're watching in the world, is because the private sector is doing the surveillance for them, right? The way that the state spies on us is by using the tracking infrastructure that we are paying for in the form of Facebook and Google and all these other private sector innovations. The NSA was literally using Google's tracking cookies to figure out that a phone that it was surveilling was the same person as a laptop that it was surveilling. And so, if you expect that the public sector is going to someday regulate private surveillance, you have to first get to a place where the public sector doesn't depend on the private sector to affect its surveillance for it. They have a divided loyalty between evidence-based policy that says that gathering lots of information is corrosive to our politics and to our daily lives. And their commitment to spying on everybody and the terrifying line that they're fed by the security services who, you know, can go into politicians' offices and say, do you really want to be the politician who dismantled our spying capability the next time some terrorist attack happens and we start pointing our finger at you and saying, don't blame us for that failure in intelligence. Blame Senator Bumblefuck, he's the one who said we weren't allowed to spy anymore. And in the same way, if you don't worry about private surveillance, but you worry about state surveillance, the same thing is true, right? That they are connected in this intimate way.

And I think it raises the question, why are they spying in the first place? Like, why take advantage of all of the surveillance? And I think that the answer is that historically, wealth disparity creates social instability. Thomas Piketty in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, he forever returns to France on the eve of the French Revolution. Whenever he's discussing what a critical level of wealth disparity is, he returns to the eve of the French Revolution. And his subtext, which I think Americans might miss because the French Revolution doesn't loom large in the American imagination, is that when wealth disparity reaches a certain point, poor people start building guillotines for rich people. And social instability is something that we historically address through a combination of guns and butter, right? We either do social redistribution as a means of legitimizing the system and diffusing the sense that the system needs to be torn down, or we use enforcement against people who want to dismantle the status quo. We hire guard labor, we do surveillance, we do all of the things that are part of enforcing against the subversive elements. And there's a kind of curve where it's no longer economically efficient to hire cops, and it becomes more economically efficient to build roads, hospitals, and schools, because it's just cheaper, right? You get more bang for your buck. Policing has diminishing returns. But when the private sector picks up your surveillance for you and affects a two-and-a-half order of magnitude improvement in the efficiency of surveillance, then surveillance starts to make sense, right? And wealth disparity can go a lot further before it becomes economically sensible to start redistributing, before it becomes rational in the kind of neoclassical economic sense to do redistribution. And so I think that these are connected, that our information security, our privacy, and wealth disparity are all really intimately connected and can't be readily disentangled.

[21:12] PH: You were talking about the births of the novel and ways in which, when it appeared, it might have made some people worried that they were becoming weaker. Now I know that you're in the middle of writing a novel yourself, which I think you told me the title is Walk Away. Can you tell me something about it? I'm so curious and eager to hear.

[Outro talking about Cory's book Walkaway]