LIVE from the NYPL: Cory Doctorow with Edward Snowden: Dystopia, Apocalypse, and other Sunny Futures
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Arguing against privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don't care about freedom of speech because you have nothing to say. A deeply illiberal concept. I find it to be an irresponsible and unamerican concept. '"`UNIQ--footer-00000000-QINU`"'
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May 3, 2017
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«In Walkaway, Cory Doctorow imagines a world in which people are no longer needed by the super-rich and the clever machines that can print all of life's basic necessities -- food, clothing, shelter. The 99% might be obsolete, but they're not going to take it lying down. They Walkaway, living on the exhaust stream and stolen code of the default world, surviving threats, and, ultimately, war. Doctorow, co-owner of Boing Boing, Activist in Residence at the MIT Media Lab and special consultant for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, will be joined virtually by Edward Snowden to discuss dystopian futures and the struggle between the haves and the have-nots in this special LIVE event.»
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[02:34] Interviewer/Paul: As you know, for the last seven or so years I've asked my guests to give me a biography of themselves in seven words. Seven words that might define them or not. A haiku of sorts or, if you're modern, a tweet. And Cory Doctorow gave me these seven words: "Burning geek. Activist. Boing Boing maker man. Edward Snowden gave me these seven words: Engineer. Activist. Citizen. Stateless, but not voiceless. Here they come.
[03:29] Cory Doctorow: Hi Folks, hi Ed. Thank you all for coming tonight and thank you, Ed. It's a pleasure to see you again. I'm very excited and honored to be on stage with you. So I understand you said you had some questions so if you'd like to start you can start, otherwise I have some for you, as you might imagine.
[03:52] Edward Snowden: Yeah, I do, and people have, you know…
[03:57] Cory Doctorow: Hold for applause. Spontaneous applause are technically challenging whan you've got a high latency link.
[04:10] Edward Snowden: The beauty of technology is, you know people don't realize it because we're so connected, there's such a togetherness. We got this invisible fabric tying us together across the world. I mean I live in exile today, I'm not allowed to return home without facing threat of arrest. But I can be here with you tonight in New York. The only trick to it is, when we're throwing these messages, when you're hearing my voice right now you actually hear me two seconds from the past. It takes that long to travel across the world. When you raise a question or interrupt or make a comment or applaud it takes two seconds to reach me. So this conversation is actually a bit like fencing, we tend to dance a little bit with the exchange. But with that said. Yeah, people who have followed my my public engagement, when it's not on the front page… You see, normally I get asked the question. This is a really exciting opportunity for me to ask some questions. I want to thank Sam. Because I also read and enjoyed Pirate Cinema, and I'm really, really just glad to be here with everybody tonight.
[05:27] I want to start with something simple. You know, this is a very challenging book. It's written in a very, sort of 'casual technical' language. People who are from your tribe, my tribe understand this. But there are actually references to things that are less familiar to many, like memes. A lot of the concepts are all over the place, ranging into things like copyright law, things like immortality, the march of the progress of not just the systems that are around us in a technical sense, but in a political sense. However it covers a broad sweep of time and one of the most interesting things about it is, despite talking about things like immortality, you can't help but wonder, from the author's position, is this an optimistic or a pessimistic book?
[06:30] Cory Doctorow: So that's a question I get asked an awful lot. And as a science fiction writer I am keenly aware that we have no business, as a field, laying claim to being good at predicting the future. I call us 'Texas marksmen'. We're the people who fire the shotgun into the side of the barn and then draw the target around the place where the pellets hit, hoping no one sees all those misses. Because science fiction, although it's made a lot of predictions, is not a particularly faithful predictive literature. And speaking as someone who spends a lot of his time trying to change the world, I'm pretty glad that the future is not predictable. If the future were predictable, then I don't know why I'd bother getting out of bed.
[07:15] So I often say that if I were optimistic and I thought we would look back on this period – where our technology had run ahead of our ability to understand it,[ to come up with good regulatory and policy frameworks for it, and so we had these weird science fictional things where, like, a copyright law from the Clinton era is making it so that John Deere can decide who can fix its tractors and also who can disclose vulnerabilities in pacemakers – I would say 'if that's going to be like this blip in our rear view mirror we should still get up every morning and do everything we can to try and change it, because the stakes are very high'. and if I were pessimistic and I thought that this stuff would come no matter what we did – that we'd be Huxleyd into the full Orwell – I would still get up every morning and do everything I could to fix it because, again, the stakes are so high.
[08:07] So for me, I try not to think about optimism or pessimism. I try to think about hope. Which is the idea that if you run up against a system that is untenable, a situation that is dire – and you don't know how to get from that situation into a good one, but you can find a way to make it incrementally better, that maybe having made it incrementally better you can find another perch that reveals new terrain that may reveal a position that's better still. In computer science we call this 'hill climbing'; that we don't know the path from A to Z, but we know the path from A to B. And we know the vector for Z. And so we just head in that direction.
[08:48] And I can't help but think – to bring this back to your own work – that I'm sure that when you went to Hong Kong you did not have an A to Z path that starts with 'I use wget to crawl Wiki[leaks?] and then I go to Hong Kong and hang out with portraits and Greenwald, tam, tam, tam, tam… Progress!' I'm sure that there are some steps in the middle. But I'm sure you also thought 'if I sit here in Hawaii, looking at this stuff through my terminal every day, things are not going to get better no matter what I do.' There's that quote from Joe Lewis, when they asked him why a civil rights fighter was going to join the US Army and fight World War two, and he said 'well there's plenty wrong with this world, but Hitler's not helping.'
[09:39] Edward Snowden: Yeah, I mean there's… In my own case, and I think this is one of the central struggles that we all face. It's not 'can we save the world? Can we make things better? Can we solve the problem?' but 'can we lay down a brick? A foundation upon which other people can place their brick and together we can build a home, we can build something that will withstand the dangerous forces of an unpredictable world.' For those who aren't familiar – although I presume most people in this particular audience, given the give me applause, probably are – when I worked in Hawaii, at the NSA, I didn't have this grand plan. I signed up for the Iraq war for the US Army in 2004, when everybody else was protesting it. I then went on to work for the CIA undercover overseas. Then I moved over to the NSA in Japan, bounced back to the CIA as a private contractor in the US, then I went to Hawaii for the NSA again. Back and forth, back and forth, different levels, climbing clearance ladder in these secret agencies. And I believed the government. I didn't believe that they would lie, that they would deceive. In a way that mattered. Yeah, sure they would hide this or that operation to catch terrorist. But the idea that they saw journalists as the enemy, that they saw the American people as an adversarial force which things should be hidden from – this is not to say that they want to destroy the American people, but that they want to rearrange the furniture in the political conversation, they want to bound things in a way that they decide what can and can't be said – was something that I was not prepared for.
[11:44] And this is something that I think happens a lot in Walkaway in different ways. Perhaps less concretely for me it was realizing that the NSA actually ran a covert system of mass surveillance which violated the constitution and the state laws on the books in the United States. Mind you that's not me saying it. Now – post 2013 – that's our federal courts saying it. They confirm that even at the appellate level.
[12:14] But to get back to the book here; There's a recurring theme of this sort of, not just governmental bad action, but powerful bad action. It's really about privileged positions in the world. There's this recurring theme of villains taking, stealing or destroying what others have sacrificed to build. And this is frequently happening by those in power. The mechanisms change, sometimes it happens through broken laws or unfair system – something that's all too familiar for Americans in the wake of the financial crisis – but other times it happens via things that are more concrete, more direct – coercion, threats, violence or theft. One reading of Walkaway is not just as a novel, but as sort of a political argument, an attempt to figure out how to respond to a world, or a system, that's gone too far to be reformed through traditional means. How do you see this, and what were you trying to work through?
[13:21] Cory Doctorow: So Walkaway is a novel that is sat at this moment of rupture when an unbearable system becomes untenable and starts to unravel. And you know, I'm a science fiction writer which means I write in the pulp tradition which I'm actually quite proud of. We were talking about William Gibson earlier. In the introduction Gibson gets this interview with the Paris Review where they asked him something like 'What do you say when literary types tell you that science fiction is just greasy kid stuff' and he says 'Whenever I rub up against that I just say to myself 'I am writing in the pulp tradition and that means I can plot goddammit! You know, I got wheels on my tractor!
[14:05] And pulp has two main story themes depending on how you cleave it; 'Managainst man' and 'man against nature'. And it likes to get a two-for-one and tell a 'man against man against nature' story, where the earthquake knocks your building down and then your neighbors come over and eat you. As they say in Pearl circles [?]; 'now you have two problems'. And that story of man's barbarism – humanity's barbarism – in moments of extremis, it doesn't actually line up well with reality. When you really talk to people who've lived through crises, you hear the stories that spring to mind for them are stories of people rising to the occasion in spectacular ways, that make you have faith in the human condition. It's narratively convenient to have the otherwise nice neighbor turn out to be a total bastard and 99% of the world turn out to be a total bastard. Which is this profoundly statistically illiterate belief, cause if ninety nine point nine percent of the world are total bastards but everyone you know is more or less OK, then somehow you've managed to luck into the world's least representative set of friends, right?
[15:29] And when we are moving fast and breaking things and getting worried and not thinking rationally, we deploy the availability heuristic – things we can imagine vividly we assume are likely to come true. And all those man-against-man stories, they come to mind so easily in crisis. And the kinds of abuse and rupture that you describe in Walkaway, those are things that happen around us, they happen periodically. Disaster happens all the time. Even well organized societies are subject to these exhaustion and shocks of belligerent, jerky neighboring states and rising seas and mutating microbes and whatnot. And if the availability heuristic that you've acquired by reading bad pulp fiction is that you should grab a shotgun and take it over to your neighbor's house instead of a covered dish and taking it over to your neighbor's house, it's much harder to rebuild.
[16:24] And so this is a novel written in the anticipation that the future will be pretty much like the present, in as much as we will have crises and that there will be people in those crises trying to figure out what the other people around them are going to do. And just like Little Brother was a novel about the present, where the computers in Little Brother – the thing that made them different from all the other computers and techno thrillers was not that they acted futuristically, but they just acted like real computers as opposed to imaginary computers that do what the plot demanded – that made that book really evergreen. Here we are, a decade later, Trump's in office and people are like 'you wrote this book that's all about how people will use crypto to defend themselves from cops and how cops will try to put back doors in their crypto.' Well that's an actual techno thriller plot that nobody bothered to tell because nobody bothered to figure out how computers work before 2008 when they're writing techno thrillers. And this is a book about crisis in which the actual lived experience of people who go through crises is the thing the drama spreads from. And it's not that there isn't drama, in fact the drama is way more intense because there are people who fundamentally like each other and disagree which is so much harder than people who hate each other and disagree. You know, it's so much harder to go to bed after an argument with someone you love, that you think you will maybe never be able to heal from, than having an argument with someone you hate. So that I thought was a way that I could pull together a dramatic story, a tense, thriller type science fiction story – a tractor with wheels on it – that was nevertheless something that was realistic and that really referred to things that are likely to happen in the future, and so would feel predictive as the moments rolled around.
[18:14] Edward Snowden: You know there's a sort of theme here that I just want to follow up on because it's so interesting to me. I know this is probably not what people expect from me, but there's a former NSA director out there who would tell you that I'm quite fond of the element of surprise, so that doesn't really bother me. There is a strong theme of economics that underlies this. This isn't really a book about economics, but there's ideas in it. That are fascinating, because they actually recall similar problems that obsessed another famous American author in the last century, Ayn Rand. And she arrived at a similar conclusion in terms of political response, which was this idea of walking away. But for a very different reason, and for a very different result. The idea of walking away, generally right, could be seen as the withholding of labor from a broken and unjust system. But there's a plot point, a significant one, in Walkaway that is typically contrary to Ayn Rand – who, for those who are unfamiliar, famously argued the only objective really moral basis for human cooperation is in exchanging value for value. Charity and altruism that didn't benefit an individual was not just seen as not a good thing but particularly a bad thing, because it was seen as self-sacrificing, led to all these ruinous things.
[19:58] But in Walkaway there's point where, let's say the most valuable invention in history is suddenly achieved, and then immediately given away freely. In fact a running theme in the book is a kind of argument against traditional, capitalist arguments; that this sort of Randian Virtue of Selfishness is what drives progress and distributes resources in, if not the most fair way, then at least the most meritocratic one. Where do you think those arguments – those old Randian arguments – are strongest, and where do they go wrong?
[20:40] Cory Doctorow: So, you're right that in some ways this is the novel about all the people who, when Atlas shrugged, said good riddance. And so it is a response and [??] around people say that Rand is proof that if you only ever read one book you're always going to get into trouble. And yet the thing that is definitely visibly true market capitalism is that it produces, through competition, enormous enormous gains in productivity that are to the great benefit of the long human project of figuring out not how to bring every lower down to live like a peasant but how to elevate every peasant to live like a lord. Which is a thing we can only do if we have lots of stuff that's produced in a way that doesn't exhaust the earth's resources. So consider, here we are in this nineteenth-eighteenth century library which is a beautiful old pile and markedly different from the new towers going up around Manhattan. One of the reasons it's markedly different is that cubic foot for cubic foot it has orders of magnitude more embodied labor, material and energy. That your car, your computer, your phone, your chair, your furniture are all – in terms of their material labor and energy budget – in free fall. Some Bank of Canada economist just did a beautiful little study by looking at Ikea catalogs over time, and they found that the thing that predicts weather a piece of Ikea furniture will stay in the catalog or be dropped is whether the cubic footage of it packed and its overall weight declines over time. So material and production efficiencies are what predict the longevity of a piece of Ikea furniture. And so if you own a Billy book case from today and you have a Billy book case from twenty years ago, that Billy bookcase from twenty years ago is probably twice as heavy as the Billy book case you own today.
[22:42] So we ask 'how will we all sustain a livelihood that will require six earths?' Well we would do it by reducing the material inputs into our life into our lives by five sixths. And that is a thing that market capitalism has done extremely well, and not coincidentally this is a thing that Marx's [or Marxists?] predicted market capitalism would do extremely well. But Marx's also predicted that the efficiency of the engineering craft deployed by market firms would be bounded at the edges of what the firm considered it's self interest, and that anything that could be externalized to the wider world would happen. And this is also visibly true. So Apple has figured out how to make a laptop like the one I'm talking to you on that is orders of magnitude less material energy and labor intensive than the laptops I had ten years or twenty years ago, the last time I was an Apple user. But what they what they have also done is they have arranged their affairs so that the official Apple recycler ensures that there is no secondary market in Apple equipment, by shredding everything that's sent to them. And they have designed their machines so that it is virtually impossible to gracefully degrade them back into the material stream. And they've designed their machines so that none of the components that may be usable in a subsequent device are surface mounted and easily removed.
[24:10] I know you just did a hardware project with Bunny Wang. Bunny is a virtuoso engineer, and one of his design principles is designing for the end of life of that system. Of having surface mounted components, screws not glue. All of those elements are part of his engineering practice because it's good engineering practice. But it's not engineering practice the market selects for. It's engineering practice that you need to – either in the form of a state or in the form of a norm – have some wider belief in your shared destiny with people outside of your firm, outside of its shareholders, in order to arrive at. And Walkaway does the science fictional trick of cleaving a technological system from its economic and social context and imagining – just as Steampunk says 'what would it be like if we had the productivity of the assembly line and the working style of the craftsman, you know if we could love the machine but hate the factory?' – Walkaway says 'what could we do if we expanded the scope in which we engineered beyond the boundary of the firm, into the boundary of the world. Not by gaming it with carbon credits or trying to find a regulator that can run ahead of the corporation, trying to figure out how to get around the rules that it's making with expert employees at the regulator who can't make as much as the people who are trying to get around them, and generally are not as plugged in and switched on as they are. What if we did it instead through a non-market means, through an ethical means. And so that's what Walkaway is about. It's a world that doesn't just work well, it's a world that fails gracefully. You know, the first duty of every engineer; to design systems that fail gracefully.
[26:06] Edward Snowden: So if I can push back on this a little. [Cory: Yeah] Because there's going to be people in the audience who are thinking you know 'that's well and good and it's wonderful' but there's always whenever we start hearing words like 'Marxism' people start going 'um-hmm'. But there's an idea here, and that is sort of the magic underlying the setting of the story. We have this explosion of productive technological capability. For those in the audience, we're talking about things like advanced 3D Printing. Right now we have 3D Printers that are, you know, 50 000 dollars and they print in metal in a factory and they can print something, you know, about you know yea high, couple cubic feet, by depositing little particles of metal and then centering them together with lasers or heat or using plastics and melting them or different kind of things to be able to print physical objects out of lattice work. Eventually this will move on to where you can print a desk. If we can do this with cell cultures you'll be able to print a liver, a heart. Perhaps even bodies, if you can start moving consciousness and really radical sort of far future, imaginary things, that is one of the other explorations in the book Steam[?] right.
[27:35] But one of the challenges, one of the interesting things is – all right, let's say we have this magical productive capability. The factories, the capital has to come from somewhere. There's an early scene in Walkaway where there's a factory of a place like Ikea. It's been mothballed, shut down. It's not running anything, because they've relocated the factory to another area to get a tax credit. This is something that happens every day. That factory is not doing anything, while it could be serving people in the communities around it. It could be producing things. All they need is what you in the book refer to as 'feedstocks', the raw materials. Which are presumed to be pretty much low value. Basically they're rounding error in the productive cost of this equipment. But at the same time, when we've got all these magical machines, where you put in raw products on some side – recovered fabrics, textiles, plastics, steel, concrete, whatever – and you get your magical outputs on the other side. Most of the people in the walkaway community, these aren't miners, these aren't lumberjacks, they're scavengers. They're finding things that have been abandoned, they're no longer useful, and they're using this to create new things. They're taking the old, the things that has failed, and sort of gracefully creating something new.
[29:02] And this gives rise to the modern technologists dream. There's a lot of people in the technology community who think today we're on the cusp of what's described as a 'post scarcity society'. And this is all of our old economic models are about to be overthrown in some span of decades – we don't know whether it's going to be three decades, we don't know whether it's going to be twenty decades – but they see it coming, and the idea is as long as you can gather up the inputs – robotic automation, advanced artificial intelligence's, the interconnectedness of human design where one person – whether they're in Albuquerque or whether they're in Berlin – can produce a blueprint that can be sent to one of these machines instantly around the world and reproduced by anybody for free. And suddenly anybody can have a Ferrari, let's say, as long as you can get the things. That's the dream, right. But this post scarcity idea, in real life is bound by sort of the tyranny of physics that we have. In a world with a finite number of [??] How would you say a post scarcity society can ever be achieved, is this something that we will get to, or is this more of a goal, something we want to achieve but will never actually reach?
[30:29] Cory Doctorow: So I've been writing about scarcity and abundance since my first novel, Down and out in the Magic Kingdom is often talked about as a post scarcity novel. Makers was a novel about scarcity and post scarcity, 3D Printing and highly automated manufacturing techniques. And I've come to the conclusion that scarcity and abundance, they are a triangle. And up at the apex here there's what we want. So in 1930 Keynes wrote this famous paper where he predicted that by 2015 we would struggle to fill our three day work weeks because we could produce all the material things that humanity could reasonably want. And you know the word 'reasonably' there is the tell, because in the intervening years we've turned out to have a lot of what the economists call 'demand elasticity'. And demand elasticity is not something that occurs in the third person, passive voice: 'demand elasticity has arrived'. People make demand elasticity. It's a manufacturing technique generated through marketing, through storytelling, through lots of the… you know we have demand elasticity where people convince other people that they should have five kids and we have demand elasticity where the people around you convince you that you should have none. We have Mary condo, who started an entire cottage industry out of convincing reasonable people that all they really want is a single smooth river stone that reminds them of their mother, as [??] likes to say. So post scarcity is either here, if we say that we want too much, or it will never arrive if we say we could always want more.
[32:12] And then down in this bottom corner is what you were just talking about, the 3D Printing stuff. So I wrote the 'what we want' novel in 2000, I wrote the 'what we can make' novel, the 3D Printing novel, in 2009 with Makers. And we've been over that. IKEA furniture, massively reduced labor, material inputs. Clearly if we want more one of the ways to solve that is by making what we want better. But over here in the other corner, this is the main event. And it's so ubiquitous that we even miss that it's there. And that's the logistics. So what we want is to get from A to B conveniently, pleasantly. And so the way we do it is by owning cars. And some cars are positional goods, like Ferrari's, where the fact that I have a car and you don't means something. Some cars are valued for their objectness, because they are beautifully made cars and you want to have it to look at when you're not driving around in it because it's a piece of engineering that's very nice.
[33:15] But mostly cars are utility function embodied in a ton and a half of steel. And that utility function we now have lots of super efficient and often horribly exploitative ways of delivering – sometimes that's Uber and sometimes that's Zip Car – but it turns out that we can actually deliver the experience of getting from A to B without necessarily giving everyone a car. And then in fact we can deliver a better experience of getting from A to B without giving everyone a car by making the experience of not owning a car to get from A to B better. That's what we really want. We don't want the car, we want the travel. There were people who said 'how could we ever have cities or long highways of a certain density' – that eventually the horse manure would overwhelm us. And they were underestimating the likelihood that we just wouldn't use horses as the main means of traversing the territory.
[34:12] But there's another really key piece, and this is the Internet-ish piece of the logistics story; which is the fungibility under conditions of abundance of many different kinds of things. So when you go to a theme park – which is another thing I've written a lot about – I don't imagine you go to a lot of theme parks these days, but when you go to a theme park you're there to do fun stuff. And there may be a ride that you have to go on or it's not a day at the theme park, but the people – and I speak as a former Imagineering employee – the people who go to a theme park with a checklist that they have to do in order never have a nice time. And the people who are with them have a terrible day. The people who show up and is like 'I just want good stuff all day long', those people have an awesome day. And if we have networks that tell us where the good thing to do right now is, where the fun, useful, functional thing to do is at any given moment, then we can actually deliver a lot more through the logistics piece. So smelting aluminum is super electricity intensive. We need a certain amount of aluminum smelted. It's pretty easy to get it from A to B wherever we smelt it. There are places where renewable energy is delivering more power than we can use, and more power than you can usefully store. Smelting aluminum is effectively a battery for that. Because we know we're eventually going to have to smelt it – rather than smelting it someplace where energy is scarce in the future we smelt it now where energy is abundant. So this is a logistical way to bank something that is abundant when it's abundant and then get it to where it's needed when it scarce. Google runs a data center in Belgium where two thirds of the time it doesn't need chillers and the rest of the time they switch it off. Because the data doesn't care which metal it's running on, it just cares that there is metal to run on. So in the cloud we put our stuff in Docker and then if our data center turns out to be no good we move the Docker somewhere else, and two seconds later we're up and running again. So that fungibility is another piece.
[36:21] Edward Snowden: So let's say you've got all of these economic things in this model sort of accounted for. There's another thing that's quite interesting, and I think is also reflective of current political dynamics, which are worrying, I think, to every American right now. This is a country that, you know many people forget, is born from an act of treason. We were all rebels willing to risk the rope in order to create something that was less ordered and more free. These people were all fighting for liberty. They were instituting and asserting new rights that hadn't really existed before, such as the Fourth Amendment; Freedom from unreasonable search, or seizure, of your private communications. This is not just going in your house and looking at your things. It's not just reading your emails or your letters as they sort of transit through government hands. But simply collecting them in the first place and saving them even if they don't… [Connection broken]
[37:33] Cory Doctorow: Oh, there is the NSA. [Laughter in the audience] So Ed warned us that this might happen and said that we should just make a joke about the NSA and wait for him to come back. [Laughter] So a little housekeeping stuff while we're waiting. When the talk is over we're going to do some questions and answers. And I like to call alternately on people who identify as women or non-binary and people who identify as male or non-binary, and that way it's not a total sausage fest. So if you can start thinking about how you might ask depending on how you identify, when you might come up, that way it won't be a surprise when it comes to the end. Does someone want to come up and see what we can do about this laptop? We have a 'this site can't be reached' Google error, which suggests that this is actually a network level problem here. Is there anyone who understands computers at the…? [Laughter] Sorry.
[38:45] So let me tell you what I was going to ask Ed. So I was going to ask Ed more or less the same questions he just asked me. I wanted to know whether he thought that coming in out of the cold was an optimistic or a pessimistic act. Because it strikes me, when you see Laura Poitras' documentary, that he didn't know what was going to happen afterwards. And he had seen other people engaged in similar acts who had been not thanked for their trouble, but really horribly, horribly abused for it. People like Bill Binney, who had blown the whistle on what was going on at the NSA. And it struck me that he was really looking at these strategies that other people who had come out of the cold had deployed and he was trying to think about how he might learn from their lessons. So he did a lot of work, I thought, to keep out of the public eye in those early weeks of the leaks. As someone who was both someone who's interested in his political message, but also someone who's really interested in the media strategy and the human story of it, you know someone who writes stories about rebels who take on authority against all odds and sometimes end up broken for their trouble, I wanted to know more about this mysterious guy. And even I, who was hanging on every bit of news that I could find about Ed, I could find out very little about him. And it was a real gamble, I thought, because I thought that that would be an opportunity for the press to smear him horribly in the absence of him being there to say something in his defense. But it would also, I thought, be a gamble that the press would eventually be starved of the story, without anything to write about Ed that they would have to write about what he'd done, that they'd have to write about his leaks. And I thought the gambit paid off beautifully.
[40:4] And the question I wanted to ask him was 'Was he optimistic then?' – and I think there is a certain optimism in what he did, or at least hopefulness as I define it – 'but how do he feel now?' You know we do have an ongoing debate about privacy and liberty that is alive and well around the world. But that debate cooled down a lot after 2014, 2015 rolled by, there is a shield of boringness to so much of the surveillance, that it's hard to remain really engaged with that debate, you know. How many of you know that there's this section 702 bill coming up for renewal in the Foreign Intelligence Amendment Act? Which is this gobbledygook of numbers and official sounding, ridiculous terms that means 'can the government continue to intercept all of our phone calls and e-mails forever?' And trying to keep track of which program is which, because so many of the programs do the same thing and overlap, and trying to figure out which program is up for renewal and when, it's such a tedious job and so hard to keep on the front page, let alone the front of your mind, that over time – especially when you have flamboyant people promising to do things that are less likely, but arguably more harmful, like repealing the First Amendment to make it easier to sue journalists, which is a grotesque thing to say, but also a terrible bit of plotting that has very little plausibility that none of us should really be suspending our disbelief for – that it's very hard to keep that alive in your mind.
[42:15] And so I wonder now whether Ed feels like in retrospect he could do something different. And the reason I ask that is because I want to know what he would tell someone else who's thinking about doing this. We just saw the Vault 7 leaks come out of the CIA, which revealed that the CIA was paying people to discover vulnerabilities in computers that we rely on for our safety, our privacy, our integrity, and that rather than remediating those vulnerabilities so that we couldn't be attacked by them, they hoarded them and weaponized them so that they could attack their adversaries. And when those leaked Stanford did work on them and found that about 20% of those vulnerabilities that the CIA identifies and doesn't tell the rest of us about, 20% of those are independently rediscovered and weaponized by petty criminals and other governments and used to attack us every year. And so 'what would you say, Ed, to the next Vault 7 whistleblower, how can we address those people?' And the reason I wanted to ask him that is it's a question I sometimes get asked – sometimes in backwards ways. so I went to West Point last year to speak at the cyber Institute, which is an excellent institution full of people who believe in good things and who want very badly to keep the world safe, who have the same kind of thoughts in their mind that Ed had when he signed up for the special forces and broke both of his legs and ended up with a career in intelligence instead of on the front lines. And afterwards there was a signing and all of these cadets who'd been assigned to read my book came up and had my book signed by me, and this one kid hung back until the very end. And West Point's a really interesting institution because it's like an Ivy League or a Big Ten, but it's like an Ivy or a Big Ten of meritocracy wasn't a joke told by rich people to convince themselves that they deserve their money. Because it's full of brown people and poor people who are able to get a really first rate education provided that they're willing to also lay down their lives.
[44:14] And this kid hung back till the very end and he came up and he said 'I heard what you said during your lecture' – I talked about the grave risks that we arrive at thanks to the problems of cyber security being used in an offensive way by our intelligence agencies instead of to defend us – 'and I think you're absolutely right and no one in my family knows the first thing about computers and they're horribly exposed, their finances, their personal lives, they have cameras in their homes attached to their phones, attached to their laptops. They can be attacked in every single conceivable way, and so that's why I'm joining the NSA. What do you think about that?' And I looked at this kid and I said 'well, you know about Ed Snowden right?' It wasn't entirely sarcastic, if you have security clearance you're not supposed to read the Snowden leaks. Even when they're on the front page of The New York Times you're not supposed to read the Snowden leaks, because they might go above your security clearance. It's this incredibly specialized, esoteric definition of secret that is the thing that everyone except you knows. And he said 'I'm familiar with them' and I said 'so when you read the Snowden leaks and you see that the US government was breaking its own rules and launching into this program of mass surveillance that beggars all imagination, what makes you think that you'll be able to do something about it?' and he said 'well, I don't know, but I do know that if nobody gets into the stuff except people who are OK with that – if I don't get into it, if people of goodwill and principle never get involved with this stuff, then this situation will never ever get better. So now what do you say?' and I said 'Well, so the thing about Snowden, and this is stuff you can discover by reading the Vanity Fair profile where there's nothing that would get you in trouble with your security clearance, the thing about Snowden is he was like you – he was gung ho, multigenerational military family, about as different from my background as you could get. Joined the special forces, broke both of his legs, went to the CIA, was the best and the brightest. And he tried everything. He notoriously walked around with a copy of the Bill of Rights in his back pocket, and when he was asked to do things he thought fell afoul of it he would pull it out and say 'Show me where in the Bill of Rights it says I'm allowed to do this' right, and they would show him executive orders, and he would send the executive orders to the council for his department, and he would say 'explain to me how this executive order is in any way consistent with this constitution I carry around in my back pocket.' He tried going through the Ombudsman, he tried going through channels, and in the end he risked a firing squad because he was so desperate that he thought there was no way you could possibly get get out of it.'
[47:19] And I realized that I was describing, in some ways, a situation familiar to another kind of Q and A that I do from time to time. Because oftentimes when I give a talk I'll have someone come up to me and say 'I've been trying to send my books to publishers for years, none of them want to publish them, I'm going to publish my own books, what do you think about that?' And what I always say is 'there are people who've done remarkably successful things by self publishing, but do you know how they did it? Do you have a theory that matches some observed reality that you can deploy in order to figure out whether or not publishing your own book will cause anyone to read your book?' And usually the answer is 'No.' And I say 'that's where you need to start. You're asking me for advice on how to publish your own book. The advice I have for you is to figure out why you think people buy books like yours and try and see if you can figure out a way to get them to buy your book.' And I said to this kid 'Do you have a theory about what you can do that Ed didn't try that would end in a result that's better than you facing a firing squad or being complicit in the kind of thing you said you wanted to end?' and I saw that hit home and he walked off looking very pensive. And it's a conversation I've returned to a lot, and it is something I really wish I could have asked Ed about tonight.
[48:44] Are you having any luck getting him back on? Oh. Yeah, go ahead Paul. We like to improv here at the NYPL. It's characteristic of the Internet age that we have this fluid, improvisational style.
[49:05] Paul: What keeps you up at night?
[49:06] [CD] What keeps me up at night? So I mentioned earlier that fights between people who agree with each other are always a lot harder than fights between people who disagree. And the open Internet is on the ropes.
[49:23] Paul: But in a way you can argue best with people you agree with.
[49:28] Cory Doctorow: Yes, that's true, you share a lot of premises. But it's also hard to convince them that it's nothing personal. So the open Internet is on the ropes. Organizations that have stood steadfast for the open web are facing a declining relevance, declining finances, and they've started to make bad compromises. So for example there's an organization I hold in very high esteem called the World Wide Web Consortium, that Tim Berners Lee, who invented the web, also founded. And they decided that they would standardize digital logs for the web – to make it easier for companies like Netflix to control your computer while you were watching it – and that they would do so in a way that would not make members of the consortium promise not to sue people who discovered security vulnerabilities in this that might expose people who use browsers to problems.
[50:23] Ed, welcome back. It's nice to see you again! I was vamping.
[50:29] [Lots of technical problems with the video conference system]
[51:48] Cory Doctorow: So back to the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) So this is turned out to be a really hard fight and it's turned out to be a hard fight because mostly we end up disagreeing with each other in a way that is very hard not to make it sound like 'I am better at defending the open web than you are, you are doing something wrong' it's more by way of saying 'I think you've misjudged the situation' and we all misjudge our situations and that's when we need to hear from our friends the most. And it has been the most acrimonious fight of my life and one that gives me enormous sorrow when I think about it, because these people who I respect so dearly are so very angry that they're in this position.
[52:41] [Question] So how does one change someone's mind?
[52:46] Cory Doctorow: You know. One of the things that I love about Ed, and that shows up in Walkaway – and that is a piece of both the left and the right at the kind of libertarian fringe, maybe or the anarchist fringe – is this idea that argument is something that you take very seriously. You know when I started out in technology I was a great believer in copy protection. I thought that it could enable all kinds of cool things if only we could get it to work. And I got on an airplane with a lawyer called Fred Von Lohmann from San Francisco to Hong Kong, and we argued about it for fifteen hours. And fifteen hours later I'd changed my mind.
[53:33] This is a remarkable thing. There's a subreddit devoted – because Reddit has lots of subreddits, and some of them are terrible – but there's a subreddit called Change My View that's devoted to people who are honestly interested in having their minds changed. And they deploy a lot of the strategies of the so-called rationalist movement, which is to do things like try systematically to identify and avoid logical fallacies, and to before you begin your discussion you have to know your interlocutors arguments so well that you can present it to them and they have to assert that you have presented it accurately. It's called Iron maning, it's the opposite of straw manning. And that goodwill and willingness to spend the time is a way that minds genuinely change.
[54:20] And I've seen it work. It's hard work, and it's the difference between a relationship where you say 'our ideal relationship is one in which we never have a fight' and a relationship where you say 'our relationship is one in which all of our fights end with some mutual understanding'
[54:39] Paul: You know it remind me of a quotation of Robert Frost who said that the liberal is someone who can never take his own side in an argument.
[54:46] Cory Doctorow: I've heard that. You know, I think that if you can genuinely understand your adversary's argument, that you are a long way along to finding some common ground. The most frustrating thing in an argument is to have the person you're talking to seem to just not only disagree with you, but disagree with something you're not saying. That's really the hardest possible argument to have. And it's funny, because in impact litigation – which is an area where I do some work – where we try and sue the US government or get sued by the US government in ways that's likely to invalidate laws that we think are bad instead of convincing a plurality of Congress to do what we want. We are often about trying to get them to ask the question we want heard and not the question that they would prefer to ask, and so while it's a useful tactic in sort of parliamentary systems, it's not a good way to come to agreement. It is an honored activist tradition, you know. We remember Rosa Parks as a seamstress who grew tired and sat on the bus, but the reality is that she was an incredibly shrewd, canny, committed, lifelong activist, who worked with her colleagues to figure out how to get the US government to ask the question she wanted to ask; which is not 'do private bus companies have the right to decide who sits where?', which is a very hard question but instead 'is racial discrimination enforced by the state lawful and consistent with the Constitution?'
[56:21] Paul: Did you hear that Rosa Park's house has been dismantled and rebuilt in Berlin?
[56:27] Cory Doctorow: Yeah, I did hear that. Well, I'm getting back to this theme of abundance in Walkaway. One of the things that Walkaway dances with is the idea that you have on the one hand this interchangeability of many things, but on the other hand that some things acquire this penumbra of uniqueness, of this sentimental penumbra based on who's touched them and who's owned them – and that there's still this this rivalrousness, this element where my possession of an original Shakespeare folio is you not having it, and it's that irreducible element of uniqueness that stems from this sentimental component. It's a really hard thing to imagine how we'd overcome.
[57:11] Paul: Should one?
[57:12] Cory Doctorow: Well, so in Down and out in the Magic Kingdom I said we'll resolve it just by letting the people who everyone likes the most have access to it, which I intended as a somewhat dystopian caricature and which many people took as utopian. Which is always a funny thing when you write it dystopia and people assume that you are describing the kind of society we should all want to live in.
[57:32] Paul: You are now on what is called a book tour, and…
[57:38] Cory Doctorow: Sometimes called a press tour because it's like being pressed between two boards.
[57:42] Paul: Do enjoy it actually?
[57:43] Cory Doctorow: I do. It's an endurance event, you know. You get up at four in the morning and you go to the airport at five in the morning and then you get off the plane and you do bookstore visits and press all day and then you do an event till ten pm and then you get up at four in the morning again and do it again. You do that for four weeks in a row. And it's a bit like doing the sun dance, where you puncture your skin with fish hooks and hang in the sun until you start hallucinating, only there's a lot more TSA checkpoints involved.
[58:14] I: So far on the book tour, have you been surprised by some of the reactions?
[58:19] Cory Doctorow: Yeah… So, in general the critical reaction to the book has been very positive, but as you just heard with Ed there's this focus on what I think of as the garnish around the technology, which is the 3D printing stuff, and not nearly so much on, like… There's a tribe in the book called 'The bumblers', and they're the survivors of this economic bubble that lures all these millennial types who have aspirations to work for social enterprise in. And the bubbles enterprise is buildings zeppelins. And there's this gigantic dot com style investment bubble that teaches them all to build airships and to pilot air ships and to repair air ships, and then of course it implodes like all investment bubbles, because it's just a pyramid scheme to suck in money from insurance companies and pension funds and redistribute it to investors. And in the wake of this they do that thing that Ed was describing where they break into the old factories and they put the Zeppelins in the sky. But lacking any fuel to impel them, and having this global network of everyone that worked on the bumblers to begin with, they just go where the wind blows them. Because they know that wherever the wind takes them there'll be someone that they can have an enjoyable time with. And that's really why they're in the sky. There's no where they need to go, just somewhere that they can be. And that seems to have been an element of the technology, this idea that we can use networks to arrange it so that no matter where you are something great is there, that's a piece that just sailed over a lot of people's heads it seems, because the zeppelins and the meccas and the 3D printers have so much flashiness, whereas this is the invisible magic.
[1:00:01] Paul: The technology worry you. Here we are in a library and. People may not be reading in the same way that they used to. Do you sometimes worry about the place that technology has taken in our lives?
[1:00:18] So what I worry… I don't think technology's uses is inevitable. We invented the telescope and had a norm that it was creepy to point it in people's bedroom windows. It's not to say that people didn't sometimes point them through bedroom windows, but it's not a mainstream activity and people who do it…
[1:00:38] Rear Window…
[1:00:40] Cory Doctorow: Yeah, that's right. It's unusual enough that we make movies about disordered people doing it.
[Talk about the technical issues with the Snowden call]
[1:02:07] Paul: Changing people's mind is something that interests me greatly because I think it's extremely hard to do. We currently have an administration and political party in power…
[1:02:23] So there are two possible theories about what just happened in 2016. One is that secretly tens of millions of people were absolute bastards waiting for an opportunity to vote for an absolute bastard so that absolute bastardry could reign. The other one is that people have complicated natures that include good and bad things and that we self regulate to keep the things that are socially unacceptable, that we know, that our executive function knows is bad, that when we think about it hard doesn't seem right, that we that dual nature. And that nature comes to the fore individually, sometimes you see drunk people who get disinhibited and say things that they wouldn't say. It comes to the fore socially where we have moments where people lose their executive function. And the two can act in a feedback loop, where the normalizeation of saying and doing rotten things that you wouldn't do if you were able to sit down and think it through, that normalization seeps into your individual conduct. So that's a way of changing people's mind, you're not changing what's in their mind you're changing what they do about it. You're changing whether when they lose their temper they take a deep breath or punch the guy in the nose. When they feel that the system is unfair they blame their neighbor or they tell themselves that it can't be their neighbors fault, it's a wider problem.
[1:03:52] Paul: But to come back to what happened in 2016, if you do want to change people's mind you would want to talk to people whose mind is so different from yours…
[1:04:03] Cory Doctorow: Well you know I think that 2016 is the wrong time to have that conversation. This is a project that needs a lot of run up. What happened in 2016 in America was the extrusion into the American politics, the American political sphere… These two tentacles had started to extrude in many other places around the world. My Hungarian friends and my Polish friends and my Turkish friends for years have been telling me not to be smug about what's going on in the U.K. or the U.S. because these are global phenomena. And the time to have started intervening in that was when it started to extrude into the rest of our world, when it started to seem…
[1:04:52] Paul: You left London and you left London for particular reasons…
[1:04:56] Cory Doctorow: Well I left London for many reasons. I thought five years of Tory rule would be unimaginably ghastly. I think I called out one well. I thought that the U.K. had become a country and London had become a city that was primarily habitable by financial institutions [inaudible]. And I thought that at the very least the US had a progressive groundswell in it that might be able to do something good, whereas in the U.K. the progressive groundswell was being poisoned by its own and was unlikely to gain much traction. Which again seems to be a thing I called right. And then I landed in time for Trump and I realized that I couldn't outrun it anywhere and that I would have to stand and fight, and that one of the best places to stand and fight is – I believe – America. And that's not because of the American spirit, but because of the way that the American legal system works, the potential to do impact litigation, to change bad laws that were created by shortsighted or grandstanding politicians, or bad politicians, by convincing a few judges that those laws don't pass muster against some constitution, rather than trying to convince Congress.
[1:06:29] This is a secret weapon. In 1992 the NSA classed strong cryptography as a munition and they denied civilian access to it. And many people tried to make arguments to lawmakers that this was a bad idea. The finance industry, the all powerful finance industry, went to Congress and said 'we need to be able to defend the finance industry with strong cryptography otherwise everyone's money will be stolen.' And they said 'well, the NSA says that's not true and who are we going to believe, you or the NSA?' And then people who worked in other domains, people who worked in computer science, said 'this is an impractical thing,' and they said 'well the NSA says that's not true, who are we going to believe, you or the NSA?' John Gilmore built a computer called the Desk cracker, that for a quarter million dollars could brute force the cipher the NSA said would defend the entirety of the American financial system, all American political secrets, everything that you and I exchanged with each other forever… And John built a machine that for a quarter million dollars could break through it in two hours. And he said 'this is America's bulwark, and the courts and lawmakers said 'well that's what you say, the NSA tells a different story. They say that there's some technical nuance that you've missed.'
[1:07:44] And then we represented a computer scientist named Daniel Bernstein who was a grad student at UC Berkeley then. And we brought him to the Ninth Circuit, and we said 'the First Amendment protects Daniel Bernstein's right to publish computer code on the Internet' – that code is a form of expression of speech protected under the First Amendment, it's how programmers talk to each other just like other forms of language, or how people engage in other enterprises talk to each other. Poetry is not very useful for telling someone how to assemble a piece of Ikea furniture, it is still expressive speech. And code is not necessarily very useful for writing poetry – although people do that too – that does not disqualify it from being expressive speech. And the Ninth Circuit believed it, and the Ninth Circuit appellate division upheld it. And today the reason the FBI can't force Apple to write backdoors for its code is because that is the ruling law of the land. We never had to convince Congress to go up against the NSA, we just had to convince some judges in the appellate division in the Ninth Circuit that our legal theory was correct.
[1:08:53] Paul: So what are you fighting now?
[1:08:55] Cory Doctorow: Well, I'm working on a bunch of different projects. But the thing that I am personally focused on through EFF is this law from the Clinton years, this law called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. It was passed in 1998, and it has the section, 1201, that says if you have a lock that protects a copyright, it's a felony to tamper with or remove or weaken that lock. Which includes, in the interpretations brought forward by the courts and the interpretations brought forward by its advocates, revealing defects in products that have cryptography that protect a copyrighted work. And so the copyright office in 2015 they heard that people who discover vulnerabilities in hearing aids, in pacemakers, in voting machines, in tractors and in cars – things that could kill us, things that could compromise us in terrible ways – that they are routinely told that they may not tell the rest of us about this because it would violate an anti piracy law from 1998.
[1:09:54] So with Electronic Frontier Foundation we found two clients – one is a security researcher at John Hopkins named Matthew Green and one is a hardware hacker who is working with Ed, called Andrew Wang – and we brought a case from them arguing that this is unconstitutional, that the code that does this is speech, as the Ninth circuit found. And we think that we're going to invalidate Section 1201 of the DMCA and we're going to make it legal for people to reconfigure the computers around them to do what they want, and for people who discover defects in them to tell us about them.
[1:11:42] Ed: So first off, everyone, thank you the patience. It is amazing that a technical problem which never seems to happen mysteriously pops up as soon as we start talking about the sensitive political things, being borne from treason [?] And this really brings us to the central point that we get to when it's passed three in the morning in Moscow. The things that [inaudible] wants you to talk about. And this is that the fundamental of liberty upon which every free society is built, what liberty really means if you think about it.
[1:12:27] You know people ask 'what does it mean to be free? What is liberty?', and everybody have an answer. The fundamental concept, to act, without permission. Freedom from permission for as wide of a potential range of activities as possible. [inaudible] want the freedom to kill somebody without permission, right? But that's because these things infringe on other very clear rights, like the right to life, the freedom from interference from other people. People fought a revolution to secure these rights. Not just for themselves but for all of the generations in perpetuity. [Inaudible] happens the theoretical goal of every revolution. But we seem to lose that. As we move [inaudible] it the passes from generation to generation, we get comfortable, we become complacent. The generation that did sacrifice so much to win these things [inaudible]. we kind of lose […] that frontier spirit. And want to ask you, Cory, in the context of everything we've discussed tonight: This frontier spirit traditionally, of binding that fundamental core liberty, those unregulated spaces [inaudible] right, things that were considered heresies. Rebellion against the orthodoxy, whether you were struggling to [inaudible] astronomy, or whether you had unpopular religious opinions, lived lifestyles that was unpopular… If you [happened to be a woman who[?]] wanted to vote. [Inaudible] structures, authoritarian structures these things didn't exist, people had to create them, they had to carve them out, they had to rebel. And these things fundamentally started out unlawful. [Inaudible] lost those undiscovered spaces, the true frontier space. [Inaudible] part of our planet. And people try to find that. But it's not undiscovered spaces, but unregulated spaces. When they start do things that are disruptive, when start to do things that jeopardize the interests of the richest people in society…
[1:15:08] In this book the sort of MacGuffin we're talking about here is the idea of immortality. The sacred cow that all the [rich] people want. They fought for so long to secure this privileged place, with all the resources they can do what they want. [Inaudible] And names that we recognize today, people who live these kind of lifestyles. But how do they make this? Something [inaudible] a post-scarcely world, not in terms of resources but in terms of days to live. Now we see the beginnings of this today, where we've got billionaires, people like Peter Thiel out there, who are sort of desperately sucking on the veins of the world's teenagers, like a kind of up-market Dracula, in a bid to live a few days more. When we have no unexplored spaces today, is our frontier spirit more about invention and ideas than it is about the physical location that we occupy? What would you say is the frontier today?
[1:17:02] Cory Doctorow: So where is the frontier spirit in the 21st century?
[1:17:08] You know, I think it's hard to talk about frontiers without talking about the power relationships that they always embody. That there was never a Terra nullius. Terra nullius is the original sin of colonialism, the idea that before we got there it was a frontier for us to discover as opposed to a place where where people were. And so I don't know that I want to recapture that frontier spirit, because it always involves an act of eraser. I think that if there is a place where people think that not everything has to be either mandatory or prohibited today it is around the periphery of technology. We still have this idea of federation of networks, where you don't need to agree on everything in order to cross connect, you only need to agree on a very small minimal set. And then across the little boundary of the things that you agree on you can do radically different things. This is why when people ask me how I feel about the digital monopolists, you know Facebook and Google and Apple, why Google seems to bother me less than the rest of them. And the reason is that Google is not any less creepy than the rest of them in terms of wanting to spy on us and monetize our fears. But Google does at least believe that the Internet is better for them when anyone can connect anything to it and when the things that Google makes can be sucked into the things that other people makes and tangled up in them. And that federalist view, for me, is something that I find very utopian. The idea that you and I can disagree about almost everything but have two separate, parallel experiments, where you do things your way and I do things my way, and the people who like it better my way can come over to me and the people who like it your way can go over to you. And for me that's the thing that distinguishes them from companies like like Facebook and Apple, this formal characteristic, because they want to run walled gardens.
[1:19:29] The immortality, as you say, in the book is a MacGuffin. It's just a metaphor for something that people really want. You know the term "MacGuffin" I think was originally coined to describe the Maltese Falcon. And the Maltese Falcon is a perfect MacGuffin, because it's a thing that we know very little about when the movie is over. We're not really sure why it's valuable. None of us particularly want to Maltese Falcon when the movie is over. But the Maltese Falcon sure did set everybody in motion around and around it in a way that we certainly enjoyed while it while it was going on. And the immortality in this, you know I hand wave a lot around the technology and what it gives people and what it's practical limits are. You know I think that anyone who claims that they can create immortality is making predictions about things that are going to happen thousands of years in the future that are fundamentally unknowable. Like how do you know it will last forever? Have you waited forever to see if that worked?
[1:20:27] And so the immortality is the MacGuffin around the idea that whenever there is a positional good, a thing that people like because other people don't have it, and that positional good becomes widespread, some people interpret that abundance as a bug and not a feature.
[1:21:01] Edward Snowden: The final idea, the thing that I'd like to close with… There's this roiling debate that I've been a big part of, unfortunately, trough lived experience. [Inaudible] …attacks from history against dual and collective right. We talk about privacy. We hear a lot about that, particularly from governments [inaudible] implicated[?]by these unconstitutional programs of surveillance of people who aren't suspected of any wrongdoing. Whether we're talking about domestic surveillance, where it's affecting Americans, or the other 95% of the world's population that lives beyond the borders of the United States. And these people do have rights too, even if they're not Americans. And to justify this when people ask 'Why did you do this?' Can it be that you say 'all right we had a terrorist attack, now we're going to monitor the communications of every man, woman and child not just in the United States but around the world' and they go [?] what is literally a piece of Nazi propaganda from Joseph Goebbels; 'if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear.'
[1:22:32] But if we evaluate this argument, this is one of those famous thought terminating clichés. Something that kinda sounds right and you stop thinking about it because you nod your head and go 'OK, well I'm a good person, I don't have anything to hide.' [inaudible] the nature of rights, I think in a fundamental way, which is first [inaudible] you don't need to justify your rights. Rights aren't just for you, they're not just for the average person, they're for the most vulnerable amongst us. They are for the people who need rights. [Inaudible] right to property, right to your own opinion, right to freedom of speech, any of these things are not truly necessary things, right? If you are Mark Zuckerberg, If you are a general, [inaudible] of industry, if you have access to [inaudible], if you have access to resources, if you have access to power. [inaudible] you can even change and shape the laws.
[1:23:44] But for people who don't have much, people who are a little bit different, for people who do have radical ideas, for people who have different ideas, for people who stand out… These are the people for whom rights matter the most, and who have the least capability to defend them, to assert them. These are the people who we all stand together to protect, because these are the people who make our society great, these are the people who make the world move forward. Because the status quo does not drive progress, it never has. When we look back throughout history the greatest abuses of human rights where not unlawful activities, they weren't unconstitutional activities. They were entirely legal. And [at the time] they were also popular.
[1:24:42] So a small, committed core group of people who tirelessly worked often, against the law. They didn't have rights like speech, like privacy to coordinate, to plot, to think, to design their ideas. [Inaudible] progressed from these harmful additional historical paradigms that we have. I think the point that I want to make here is when you hear these arguments, that are sort of relentlessly parroted, whether you hear them at the dinner table, whether you hear them in the office, whether you hear them on TV… [Resist] them. Because that's where we draw our power from. Not just collective as a society, but this is where our moral power derives from.
[1:25:30] First we [need to] remember [inaudible] is very distinct from the morality of it. These are separate concepts and when it comes to this argument 'don't worry about your privacy if you have nothing to hide', it's not really about that. Privacy isn't about something to hide. [inaudible] It's about a structure of society, it's about a right to the self. To have a space for you, for your family, for your friends, for your community, for your ideas. To try and test without haunting you if they happen to be bad, if they happen to be wrong or offensive. You try them in a space with people that you trust to challenge them, to shape them, to [own] them. And if they work, if they're something that you can be proud of, if they're something that you think you should promote, to share with the world, you can. And perhaps they light that match that changes everything for the better. Perhaps they lite the torch that leads the way into a better place.
[1:26:33] Arguing [against] privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don't care about freedom of speech because you have nothing to say. A deeply illiberal concept. I find it to be an irresponsible and unamerican concept, and I think it is something that we all [inaudible] to walk away from as a society. And if I could just sort of bring it back, I think it's back to that core mechanic; Whether people subscribe to that Randian view of a single individual standing up and saying 'I'm [not?] going to do this and I'm going to trade my value for [smelters?] value', the sort of harsh, capitalistic thing – or this new, sort of modern, argument that you look at the same sort of mechanism of going 'look, this system should be different, it should be improved upon in a radical way, without asking for permission. There's a better world to be had, build it!'
[1:27:42] How do you see this? And do you think that modern politics in the current context that we have [inaudible] whether it's campaign contributions or whatever. What is the route for reform?
[1:28:10] Cory Doctorow: Thanks Ed.
So I think that the motif of technology in the twenty first century is this ability to form groups and work together. I think that's an area where you and I would agree. That we have historically formed groups in order to allow us to combine our labor, to do things that transcend what one individual could do, to do things like start a family or start a business or build a building or build a library or maintain a library or start a country. And that coordinating that labor has required a certain amount of subjugation of your individual will. To make sure that you're all marching at the same speed some people have to slow down and some people have to speed up. And then what the Internet has done has given us what i joked about before, when I was vamping when we couldn't hear you, is giving us this fluid, improvisational style. The ability to throw stuff into a framework, like a wiki, and then have other people come along and get rid of some of it and take other parts and repurpose it. And to – with the kind of hierarchy that we used to bring to a particularly ambitious bake sale – build an encyclopedia, or an operating system.
[1:29:30] And that the problem of forming groups has always been especially hard for opposition groups, because opposition groups pay a very high institutional cost. They have to not only find people like them, but keep the existence of their group something like a secret. If not from the government itself, then maybe from people who they don't want to disclose their political affiliations or their heterodox views to. So in order to affect the project of gay liberation you needed to be in the closet and find other people in the closet. But then you had to figure out a way to work together to argue that you should all be able to come out of the closet without necessarily coming out of the closet. That was a really hard project. The ability for us to find people like us, people who share our goals, very cheaply online, especially heterodox views, is playing out around us in ways that run as an absolute counter to the increased oppressive surveillance, the increased oppressive control and hierarchy that we're seeing at the state level. For better or for worse. People who have heterodox nutty ideas about vaccination are able to find each other and bring measles back. And people who have heterodox views about the leadership of the Democratic Party nearly did something pretty incredible in the last election cycle too. And so we are finding all kinds of new ways to shift the political discussion. And I think that where that tends to go into areas that makes us fearful for the future is when the two rub up against each other.
[1:31:20] One of the things about heterodox groups is that they are willing to say things that are outside the political sphere that many people suspect to be true. Before the Arab Spring nobody was really allowed to say, without sounding like a raving nutter, that Hosni Mubarak was not actually a very competent leader, but he got lots of guns and treasure because he had a politically expedient position on Israel. But this was a thing that – to some approximation – everybody understood to be true. And there was one group who where willing to say this, and it was the Muslim Brotherhood – the rest of whose political ideology is kind of a mess. But after the government toppled and they held elections there was only one group who had consistently for the duration said the one thing that was most salient to what was wrong with everyones lives all the time and no one else was willing to say. And they acquired an unearned credibility for the entire program. Like Douglas Adams saying 'you bring the towel along and people will assume you have a tooth brush and everything else', right? By saying the one true thing, by being willing to stand up and say 'the whole system is rigged', Donald Trump stood out from a field of Republican opponents. Despite the fact that he was manifestly intending to continue to rig it, that he helped rig it, that he wanted nothing more than to rig it more, he acquired this honor and credibility.
[1:32:46] And so these heterodox groups that are finding each other and growing up in this new political world, where we can find each other cheaply, are rubbing up against the traditional politics of power, where people who are willing to go outside the Overton Window get the credibility that they don't deserve. And it's producing weird outcomes. And the future is always chewy weirder than we imagine. You know it's not enough that the the car and the movie theater create the drive in and then the sexual revolution, it's also that the sexual revolution taking place in cars means that Americans start carrying government ID for the first time and we get a database nation. That Chewy weirdnesses the thing that makes science fiction fun, it's what I try to bring out in Walkaway. And it is the thing that I think none of us expected when we said 'well now fringe groups are going to be able to find each other', was that they would interact with mainstream politics to elect people who feel like they came out of the kind of science fiction novel that you reject out of hand for its lack of credibility.
[1:33:53] [Paul talks about taking questions]
Questions and answers[edit | edit source]
[1:34:32] Cory Doctorow: So the second chair here, Ed – you can't see it, but there's an empty chair here for you – and it's in honor of PEN. And what PEN does, the writer's freedom group, they always have an empty chair for the imprisoned writer on their stage.
[1:34:58] Question: Thank you both so much for your time today. I wanted to ask about impact litigation, related to some of the points that Ed just made about the infringement on freedom to speech as a result of where we're going with surveillance in the US And I wanted to ask if there were any plans, or what was in the works with impact litigation to potentially roll back some of those legal infringements?
[1:35:35] Edward Snowden: I would say, for me personally, given my politically controversial personality, unfortunate though that maybe, it's wisest for me not to staple my face on any bills, because you don't want to give your proponents a cheap shot. [inaudible] rather than talking about the content. This has been sort of an [intentional?] strategy [inaudible]. since 2013, to be the face of any political conversation. Because right or wrong, it doesn't matter how well I make an argument. [Inaudible] distracting from the focus. I will say I have been tremendously [inaudible] sort of work behind the scenes with groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Freedom of the press foundation, I am now in the unexpected position of being president of. These groups, particularly the ACLU and EFF, work tirelessly to challenge these issues in the courts, in ways that they could not be tested before because the government would do things like assert the state's secrets privilege.
These things are classified and because the plaintiffs, these would be civil liberties organizations that are going [inaudible]. And the government goes, 'We might not, you can't prove it'. So the courts don't have a role in this. [Inaudible] agreed all too often, and until we get the facts on the front page of the newspaper, courts went along with this charade of what's called a legal fiction. Where the government says 'because you can't prove it's happening the courts must assume that it's not happening.' It was.
[1:37:32] That's changed, but it's not enough. Now when we talk about the actual litigation in the courts [there's a] political factor. We've had this tripartite model of government where we've got the executive, that sort of decides how these laws are going to be enforced – [how the laws] of the United States are going to be applied. And they've done this in fairly suspicious ways, ways that the public would not support had they been asked in advance. And they know this, so they just don't ask, unfortunately. [inaudible] to shield themselves from [inaudible]
[1:38:11] [Inaudible] simply passes whatever the executive asks for as long as it's under the context of terrorism, because nobody wants to be seen as soft on terrorism. Right or wrong [inaudible] voted in ways that are contrary to the previous stated or held positions. [Inaudible] be on the other side of a bad campaign ad. And everyone can understand that. Even if they don't agree with that, even they think it's politically problematic, we understand why that happens. The courts are the apolitical branch. [Inaudible] branch that has been perhaps [inaudible] restrained in these controversies. [inaudible] Look, we can't be a part of this until ten years, twenty years thirty years after it causing systemic damages to society. Even after we got the facts, not just on mass surveillance, but on many, many other controversies.
[1:39:13] Whether we're talking about the right of one person to love another without the government involved, you deciding what you want to smoke or how, whether you can march, whether you can speak, whether you can write in certain ways. In almost every moment of modern American history there is some organization here that is forcing courts to confront these issues. If we didn't have them we would be in a very dark place today. So I would say these issues are important. [Inaudible] credited for any of the work they're doing. But I'm really proud of the small role that all of us have, and that I've been able to enjoy, and at least being witness to.
[1:40:04] Cory Doctorow: Thank you, Ed. Can we have the next question, please?
[1:40:07] [Question] Hi, I'm Delsini[?] and I'm involved with Privacy port dot N.Y.C[?] I had the pleasure of seeing you both at the Hope conference. Our Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus Vance, is running for reelection and yesterday, in a candidate's forum, he name dropped Edward Snowden's name. And he really is gung ho on forcing cell phone manufacturers to install back doors to aid in law enforcement. Right now, of course, he's not listening to his voters. What advice do you have to politicians like Cyrus Vance who want to do stuff like that and expose our privacy to everybody in the world?
[1:40:56] Cory Doctorow: So this species of denial – where we insist that we know how to make a phone that will only run programs that keep secrets from the police don't need to see them, but when the police do need to see them, then they stop keeping secrets – it has no correspondence in computer science theory. It is a bad piece of technology thrillerism, as opposed to a piece of serious policy intervention. I think that if we want to make that argument on the one hand we have to tell them about the technological reality. We also have to surface the potential costs of making it illegal to embody, to sell, to give a way, to describe ciphers that can be better than they're willing to have in our phones. And those costs are very high. The way that you know that your thermostat isn't receiving bad firmware that causes your house to burn down is because we have working crypto. The way we know your car isn't receiving bad firmware that allows hackers to drive it off the road, like 1.4 million Jeeps that were recalled two summers ago is because have good crypto. And so insisting that we not use good crypto has this wider, catastrophic problem. And I think maybe the right answer to say is; 'district attorney, would be Congressman, why don't you want our cars to be safe? Why don't you want us to be able to lock down the cameras that we have in our bedrooms? Which computer scientists do you know that tell you that you can do this?'
Let's move on to the next question.
[1:42:38] [Question] Well just to bring it back to your book, Walkaway. As you touched on arguably we already live in a world of abundance, with some distribution problems. We already have the ability to share information and create things together instantly, across the world. So I wonder if you could talk about what you think really stops us from walking away today, right now?
[1:43:07] Cory Doctorow: I think the thing that stops us walking away is the high cost of doing so. That if we were to walk away we would lose access to so many of the things that we value, especially other people. I think maybe I'll turn this over to Ed to talk about what happens when you walk away and can't come back. Ed, do you have anything pithy to add on that subject?
[1:43:32] Edward Snowden: This is a complicated subject but the bottom line is [inaudible] something that is fundamentally threatening to people who hold sway over extraordinary amounts of influence, power, the status quo, really. They're going to retaliate. We hear all these words in modern society; National security, homeland security… [inaudible] Talking about things like we just did, like backdoors to telephones [aren't] actually making Americans any more safe, these are actually making us less safe. We are living today [trough?] the greatest crisis in computer security that we have ever seen. Just within the last three months the Central Intelligence Agency [inaudible] in the United States really. They have caveats and clearances and things, [inaudible] I can say this first hand, I worked at CIA. [Inaudible] anything NSA touches.
[1:44:46] And despite this, all of this secrecy, all these clearances, all these polygraphs – their most top secret weapons cache, their sort of [inaudible] tools found its way onto the Internet. And it is being used today, it is being used by foreign adversaries today, it is being used by 14 year olds today. And all of these computers that had vulnerabilities.
[Note: In this part Snowden falls out too much for me to be able to transcribe. If you want to give it a shot, please do: They knew about the CIA knew about. The clues they did not work with engineers they did not work with academics they did not vendors to close the holes in the security of American products of the miracle infrastructure is now coming back to haunt us right. These are outcomes. Which could have been avoided had we been thinking about national security and safety. But that's not what national security mean. Means what you used to call in sort of less polished days state security. Right this means the perpetuation of the status quo and maybe this is a good thing right maybe we say it doesn't matter if American hospitals get hacked it doesn't matter finance could open the door for traffic like it turned off. So long as we do this to our adversaries we want to maintain often cicada ability even to the detriment of our defense of people even though we're most connected nation earth even though we have to lose maybe that's a political conversation they want to have. Nobody talks about. And when you are the type of person who stands up and goes well I know I'm going to get in trouble for this but that is not so maybe we say there's another way maybe we should say and secret nobody knows about it or maybe just saying there is a better way to live. With with you know my friends start a new community. In the ology and that. You are very likely to feel the heat very quickly. But that doesn't mean it's not worth doing]
[1:47:20] [Question:] You talked a little bit about reaching the limits of physical scarcity. Can you speak at all on the scarcity of intangibles, like attention, emotion, deep knowledge, deep understanding, in the presence of technologies and platforms that sort of amplify, intensify, gameify and distract?
[Some more technical issues and Ed says thanks and good night]
[1:48:52] Cory Doctorow: One of the great themes running through Walkaway is whether games that pit us against us, which can be used using blind, hill climbing software machine learning to make us do more – whether those produce a better outcome than the other kinds of systems we have; The systems where we agree, for example, not to pass judgment on one another, not to take too much notice when someone else is screwing up. There's actually a whole sequence where they argue about whether or not it's better to have a leader board to see who's doing the most work and who makes the most mistakes, or whether it's better to just have the software notice when someone's having a little bit of trouble and have someone else turn up and without explicitly saying 'hey, I see you're having some trouble' say 'it looks like the software screwed that up, maybe I can help you figure it out?' They call it 'network social disattention', or the 'how did that get there' effect.
[1:49:50] We have spent a lot of time blindly hill climbing towards ways to get people to do things without much reference to what it makes them feel like when they're doing it. We have figured out how to maximize engagement without any recourse to pleasure. We talk totally to the limbic system without talking to the hedonic system. So you can play Angry Birds for 17 hours and feel like you've just wasted your life and you want to do it for another 17 hours. And I think that the great practitioners of this stuff, the Jane McGonigals of the world, are very mindful of this, are very mindful of the idea that if you are going to get people to spend their attention by engaging these faculties that seems somewhat involuntary that you should do so in a way that tries to make them happy and not just makes them busy.
[1:50:44] That mindful practice is something that firms don't seem to be very good at doing, and is maybe the kind of thing that we need non-market action for. And to say again what I said before; if science fiction can teach us something it's that the tools that we make and the things that we use them for are not necessarily inseparable from the systems that made them, and we can imagine a better world where we don't have to imagine throwing away the parts of this world that we like. And I am not a member of the degrowth, looking backwards world, that says will solve our problems by living in a shire, simply in leather aprons. I'm a member of the Promethean futurist project that says if we will live better we'll do so by seizing the means of information and building a world that beggars our imagination.
[1:51:35] Thank you all for coming tonight.