Cory Doctorow on dystopia as a state of mind

It feels like we’re barreling into dystopia. We elect demagogues who seek to destroy the very institutions they nominally lead. We acquiesce to mass surveillance. We dismiss corruption as “the way things work.” We condemn our grandchildren to suffer accelerating climate change because we can’t get our own act together. We rationalize economic inequality as meritocratic and inevitable. We grow jaded to yet another shooting, yet another act of police brutality, yet another humanitarian crisis. We search desperately for meaning in a world that feels bereft of it. Sometimes, we just want to drop everything and walk away…

Cory Doctorow believes we’re missing the point. Doctorow is a prolific science fiction author, activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and co-editor of Boing Boing. One of his previous novels, Little Brother, is a personal favorite of Edward Snowden. Doctorow contributes to the Guardian, Wired, Locus, and Slate, and is a Research Affiliate at the MIT Media Lab. Few living humans can match the extreme density of ideas that he navigates with apparent ease.

Doctorow’s novel, Walkaway, takes place in a future ravaged by corporate greed, broken systems, and the effects of global warming. Eccentric billionaires cheat each other and everyone else, only to revel in post hoc self justification. Young dropouts struggle to get by on the fringes of society. Scientists work to dramatically extend lifespan for the ultra wealthy, even as hackers begin to upload human minds. Social unrest and brutal authoritarian crackdowns syncopate like a depressing political rhythm section.

All in all, it feels somewhat familiar.

Walkaway is so densely packed with weird and provocative concepts that it’s hard to keep track of them all. But perhaps the most illuminating is that dystopia is not a place, but a state of mind. When the next earthquake hits and the power goes out, do we reach for the shotgun and start looting? Or do we light a candle, dig the cookies out of the cupboard, and share them with the neighbor’s children? The beautiful thing about Doctorow’s novel is that so many characters demonstrate difficult but profound compassion in the worst of circumstances.

Reading Walkaway reminded me of my oma. Against her protestant family’s wishes, she married my Jewish opa in late 1930’s Holland. When World War II started, Opa built a coffin-sized cabinet above the wardrobe. Their neighbor, a wallpaper man, helped disguise it to look like a part of the apartment’s structure. During raids, Opa would hide in the cabinet, holding his breath, as Nazis searched the building. Meanwhile, Oma, protected by her protestant credentials, joined the Dutch Resistance and smuggled people, food, and information even as she raised three children during wartime. In the midst of the Holocaust, she risked everything to help strangers in need.

After the Allies’ bloody victory, Opa was one of the only survivors of his entire extended family and later hand-carved the lenses used to photograph the dark side of the moon. Oma was a awarded a medal by the Dutch Queen and later by the State of Israel. They rarely talked about their experiences, but their fierce, pragmatic kindness kindled hope in a dark world. Dystopia is assuming the worst of strangers. The best way to fight a culture of fear is with a thousand small acts of generosity.

We can walk away, and many do. Sometimes it all feels like too much. But the most interesting aspect of Walkaway is how the protagonists step up and face hard, ugly problems with clear eyes and open hearts. There’s a lesson in there for all of us.

In the following conversation, we discuss humanity’s most pernicious assumptions, how we need to update our world views and institutions to accommodate technological change, and the biggest questions we will face in the coming decades.


Walkaway is full of both visceral physicality and hotly-debated philosophy. What are the core philosophical questions that will shape the next few decades?

People throw around the terms “positive feedback loop” and “negative feedback loop” so much that they’ve lost their original sense from engineering. In engineering, “negative feedback” is the damping system: well-designed negative feedback engages whenever a process threatens to run away into some chaotic/catastrophic realm (the term “negative” gives it an unfortunate connotation). “Negative feedback” is the idea that lets us harness our ingenuity without being consumed by it. It’s how we can spin up a turbine without having it spin free of its moorings and kill everyone in the room!

In theory, markets have lots of damping mechanisms—loan defaults provide negative feedback to reckless lenders, falling profits provide negative feedback to managers with bad ideas—but accumulated wealth allows for an awful lot of overrides to these mechanisms. CEOs can cook their books to keep shareholders happy, too-big-to-fail financiers can lobby governments for bailouts, expensive climate denial can muddy the waters about the true costs of carbon-intensive industry.

It’s hard to distinguish between “healthy” growth—growth we can control—and cancerous, out-of-control growth whose true costs are shuffled around and disguised.

Much of the green left has decided that the answer to this is “de-growth”—reducing the world’s population so that we can be less technologically intensive and, perhaps, more tractable.

But the “promethean left” says that growth is the only way out. There’s no graceful way to reduce the world’s population to 3 billion (or whatever) and the alternative is to use technologically intensive methods to feed and shelter us all without the brutal, deadly and chaotic consequences of a system that has many accelerators but no brakes.

How is technology changing our relationship with our own bodies?

For people who find satisfying and validating lives online—people who find their best subculture, or are able to overcome some cognitive, physical, or temperamental limitation through online discourse—there’s an amazingly seductive idea that we are just meatsuits that serve as support systems for the “real” us, the part that lives between our ears.

At the same time, networked technology gives us the power to work and live in highly idiosyncratic ways, from customized UIs to customized views of the daily news to customized physical objects that also have the smarts to customize their action from moment to moment based on our sentiments.

This lets us get a lot more mileage out of our bodies! We can timeshift our conversations with potential collaborators, rather than forcing everyone to converge on common waking hours; our clothes and tools can be fashioned to suit the oddities of our anatomy and mentality, turning once-problematic quirks into potential superpowers.

Then there’s the metaphorical colonization of our conception of ourselves; as previous eras have conceptualized their physical beings as analogous to agriculture, or clockwork, or engines, we are today tempted by metaphors of software and hardware.

As the saying goes, “all models are wrong but some models are useful.” There are ways in which our minds and bodies are analogous to computers, but many ways in which they are not. Ironically, the fact that computer metaphors sometimes pay dividends in the form of better physical and psychological outcomes encourages us to trust them beyond the point of usefulness, to think of “consciousness” as something “uploadable” and so on.

Your characters wrestle with how their personal beliefs and worldviews aggregate into systems with unintended (often nasty) consequences. What popular assumptions do we hold dear today that are inaccurate and/or self-defeating?

The big one is the belief that, when the chips are down, strangers are barbaric and selfish and untrustworthy. This view is profoundly innumerate: it starts from the proposition that while you, your family, and the people you know are generally kind, honorable, and generous, you are in a tiny minority—and that somehow this tiny minority managed to all find each other, out of a planet of billions of cruel, vicious, and bad people.

It’s far likelier that the people you know are representative of the world: generally good, sometimes careless or selfish, and, on the whole, wanting to make things better for everyone.

How is technological abundance already undermining historical institutions and empowering new ones? What does it mean to be a walkaway today?

The copyright wars of the past 20 years are a good example of the ways in which abundance disorders our minds. We created copyrights and other limited monopolies to “promote the useful arts” (as the U.S. Constitution has it), but these were relentlessly converted from a utilitarian policy—we create exclusive rights to the extent that this produces more creative works—to a moral right to own “your” creations (a work of mental gymnastics that requires that you relegate all the stuff you pilfered to make your work as being in a separate category of creativity that doesn’t give rise to these moral rights, while elevating your own creation to a more important status that does attract them).

Today, there are modes of production and reproduction that militate for a much more limited—and in many cases nonexistent—set of exclusive rights, both as a matter of economic growth, as well as creative freedom and human rights (universal access to all human knowledge is nothing to sneeze at!).

But at national and intergovernmental bodies, we are incapable of considering that this might be the case. Instead, we’re strengthening” “intellectual property rights”—allowing GM to claim that the copyright in a car-engine’s software gives the automaker the power to decide who can fix that engine.

There are a lot of people carving out weird, walkaway-ish existences in our world—itinerant hackers and roving activists and makers of all description. I see a lot of this in the so-called millennial circles, thanks to the lack of other options—communal living, couch-surfing, gigging, and taking the streets in the name of Occupy and Black Lives Matter.

What did your creative process look like for Walkaway? How has your work for the Electronic Frontier Foundation informed your fiction, and vice versa?

My creative process for all my books is pretty much the same. I set a word target and write that many words, every day, even on days when I feel like the words suck. I finish mid-sentence every day so I have an easily extended rough edge for the next day.

I trawl the web all the time for blog posts for Boing Boing, and writing them up for public consumption helps me think them through and sets up my subconscious to look for unobvious and interesting connections between seemingly disparate phenomena that I can bring out in fiction.

Working for EFF keeps me very engaged in the fundamental justice of a networked world, and exposes me to a constant stream of people working on cool and important things, a front-row seat for the weirdest, most important, often least-sexy, and thus most obscure fights in our modern age.

In addition to myriad new technologies, Walkaway imagines new political realities. What political science fiction books have changed the way you think about society?

I was profoundly moved by Kim Stanley Robinson’s utopian novel Pacific Edge, which imagines a heavily industrialized, high-tech society where selfishness is a vice that can’t be openly practiced. It’s odd how rare that is.

Bruce Sterling’s novel Distraction introduced a networked politics grounded in making and smart-matter and loose, networked affinity groups long before these were obvious things in our world. It’s decades old, and still futuristic.

Not content with resignation, Walkaway’s protagonists put everything on the line against unassailable odds again and again and again without surrendering their ideals. When you face ugly truths or impending dystopia in the real world, how do you fight on? In your darkest moments, from what reservoirs do you draw strength?

To be honest, I often despair. But experience has taught me that the landscape shifts, and that seemingly hopeless situations acquire new avenues and paths of action, given time and perturbation. So when I feel like giving up, I go through the motions, power through, and fake it until things start to look up.

It’s pretty much the same as my approach to so-called “writer’s block,” which, for me, manifests as the sense that the words I’m writing are terrible. I know from hard-worn experience that I’m capable of writing unworthy words—but I also know that there is no correlation between the way I feel about the words I’m typing and how I’ll view them given the time and distance to look on them dispassionately.

So my cure for “writer’s block” is to remind myself, intellectually, that my emotional certainty that I’m writing shitty words is an illusion, and I just need to keep putting down sentences until the feeling passes.


Find more Fellow Traveler interviews right here and subscribe to my newsletter to find out when new ones drop.

Eliot Peper is the author of Bandwidth, Borderless, Breach, Cumulus, True Blue, Neon Fever Dream, and the Uncommon Series. He’s helped build technology businesses, survived dengue fever, translated Virgil’s Aeneid from the original Latin, worked as an entrepreneur-in-residence at a venture capital firm, and explored the ancient Himalayan kingdom of Mustang. His books have been praised by the New York Times Book Review, the Verge, Popular Science, Businessweek, TechCrunch, io9, and Ars Technica, and he has been a speaker at places like Google, SXSW, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Comic Con, and Future in Review.

Get new posts delivered straight to your inbox:

This blog exists thanks to the generous support of loyal readers. Become a member.