Cory Doctorow’s Vision for a Just Tech Revolution

Cory Doctorow

We talked to famed tech writer Cory Doctorow about his new book, The Internet Con; the fight against Big Tech; and how technology itself isn’t the problem — it's about who holds the reins.

The problem isn’t the rise of new technologies, but what we do with them. (Peter Dazeley / Getty Images)

Interview by
David Moscrop

In the opening lines of Cory Doctorow’s latest work, The Internet Con, a take-no-prisoners declaration sets the tone: “This is a book for people who want to destroy big tech. It’s not a book for people who want to tame big tech. There’s no fixing big tech.” However, Doctorow is quick to stress a critical distinction, vital to the battle against Silicon Valley: the fact that technology, in and of itself, is not the root issue.

Doctorow is unambiguous on the matter: “Technology isn’t the problem,” he writes. The problem isn’t the rise of new technologies, but what we do with them. He emphasizes that our focus should turn toward who benefits from technology and who it affects. As he puts it, we should “stop thinking about what technology does and start thinking about who technology does it to and who it does it for.”

Jacobin’s David Moscrop caught up with Doctorow recently to talk over Big Tech, rent extraction, forthcoming books, and reactionary anti–climate action warriors.

David Moscrop

Who does technology serve first and foremost? Who gets the most use of technology as a tool?

Cory Doctorow

Well, interestingly, the issue is not solely capital as a unified class. Within the capital class, many individuals find themselves excluded from the financial benefits offered by technology. I think Yanis Varoufakis really nails it in his new book, Techno Feudalism, that it’s a form of rent extraction. It’s a form of feudalism where the tech companies thriving most are those that possess assets that are crucial for other companies to generate income or exploit labor from workers. These platforms effectively position themselves between business customers and end users. They extract rent from the business customers who then raise prices on the end users. In doing so, they also manipulate and exploit the end users, all in the service of business customers and the bottom line. This pattern has led to a winner-takes-all scenario with a surprisingly limited number of victors.

That small number of winners offers cause for hope because there is a rift in the ruling class between feudalists and owners. It’s a very old rift. It’s one that Marx and Engels identified in the Communist Manifesto, and it’s a fracture line that leftists can exploit to play two different elements of the ruling class against each other.

Feudalists and capitalists are not on the same side. Adam Smith’s free market was not a market free of regulation. It was a market free of rents. Smith’s focus was not state intervention in markets but rather on the interventions by feudal lords in those markets.

David Moscrop

An interesting aspect of this issue is the codification of laws that facilitate rent extraction. Law is a key mechanism by which tech giants dominate the market and dominate consumers. This dominance is not achieved through force or moral persuasion but through the establishment of legal structures.

How did we end up with a legal regime that serves big tech ahead of the people who use it?

Cory Doctorow

I think the first thing we need to understand is the relationship between market concentration and regulatory capture. The term regulatory capture has got a funny history. It comes out of some of the most unhinged elements of neoliberal economics. It was coined by public choice theorists who operate in a world of perfectly uniform cows that are perfectly spherical and have uniform density and move around on frictionless surfaces that never make any contact with the world.

According to public choice theory, because the state is the most powerful actor in most polities, successful firms will be those that are the most determined actors in seeking to usurp that power. They will go to incredible lengths to seize and harness that power, which other market participants won’t be able to match in terms of force and motivation. And so they’ll always win. And then they’ll use the power of the state to exclude new market entrants who would otherwise offer consumers a better deal. And so, we should just get rid of the state, right? The only way to prevent regulatory capture is to have no regulation. That’s the conclusion that the public choice people come to. But very clearly, this is not true.

When dining at a restaurant, we can reasonably expect not to fall victim to food poisoning, and the structural components supporting the roof above us usually remain intact. This suggests that we possess the knowledge and expertise to determine the appropriate types of steel, alloys, and construction methods for constructing a structurally sound building. Similarly, our antilock braking systems don’t routinely experience catastrophic failures when we apply the brakes, ensuring our safety while driving. In other words, we know how to make good regulation. It’s not some lost art like embalming pharaohs.

Regulatory capture primarily occurs in concentrated markets characterized by a small number of firms that, instead of competing, become very cozy with each other. And that means that they can extract lots of money. They have giant margins, and so they have lots of excess capital that they can spend on lobbying. And then — this is very crucial –—because they’re few in number, they can agree on what those regulations should be. So, they don’t sabotage each other. They have class solidarity. They solve the collective action problem that they would otherwise be plagued by.

As the tech sector has become increasingly concentrated — largely due to the abandonment of antitrust enforcement four decades ago— its tendency to monopoly has become more and more pronounced. At the same time, every presidential administration has become more lenient about the tech sector’s monopoly (until the current one, which has made a sharp reversal of it, which is very important). So, because we let them become very concentrated, they captured the regulators, and they were able to make policies that do two things.

The first is they were able to forestall policy that prevents them from exploiting the wonderful flexibility of digital technologies to do bad things to us. They’ve effectively exempted themselves from labor, consumer protection, and privacy law. And we’re all familiar with this, right? “It’s not a labor violation if you do it with an app.” On the other hand, they have managed to stop any of us or any new market entrant — whether that’s workers or co-ops or nonprofits or startups or large firms — from using that same digital flexibility. They have managed to protect themselves from all the gimmicks that the tech sector is able to use to abuse us as consumers, as workers, and as citizens.

It’s a perfect storm: an intensely concentrated tech sector and regulatory capture. Because the tech sector captures its regulators, it is able to enjoy wide latitude in using the flexibility of digital tools to do us harm. And because it’s captured those regulators, it’s able to prevent anyone, be they fellow members of the ruling class, capitalists or would be feudalist, but also workers, consumers, and activists, from using those same flexibilities to resist them. That’s the airtight bubble they’ve built.

Sand in the Gears

David Moscrop

And yet there’s a little bit of grit in the machine. You spend a lot of time in the book talking about interoperability and how it is hard, for instance, to make a computer that can’t be reverse engineered. To what extent does interoperability give consumers a bit of leverage and competitors a bit of leverage in a highly concentrated marketplace?

Cory Doctorow

It gives us a lot of leverage, but only to the extent that we are lawfully permitted to use it. It’s important here to distinguish between conduct that is lawful and conduct that is possible. There are a lot of people who are kind of technologically savvy, who, say, know how to buy a DVD and rip it, even though formally that’s illegal. Nevertheless, they know how to do it and they can figure out where to get the requisite tools.

Now that we’re in the big streaming squeeze, all those movies that you thought you would have access to forever for twelve dollars a month are disappearing behind paywalls or disappearing altogether. Prominent people like David Zaslav at Warner are saying that it is more profitable to literally legally write down an entire produced film or TV series. This effectively renders them ineligible for distribution, designating them as retired assets, and thereby prohibiting any sale or trade of copies — all in order to secure a tax credit.

In that world, if you never had it on DVD and ripped it, you’re stuck. That file just goes down the memory hole. While there are plenty of people who do possess the know-how to get that locked file, there’s a world of difference between that and being in the checkout aisle at the Walmart and encountering a ninety-nine-cent dongle that you plug into your DVD player or your phone or your internet-of-things-cat-food-dispenser or whatever that unlocks the content. Walmart is entirely indifferent in this equation: “We will collect a profit from selling you these terrible internet of things gadgets, and then we’ll collect more profit from selling you the thing to unlock it.” Walmart doesn’t care. It’ll take the money either way.

And that is a massive difference. There’s the world where if you want to get your car fixed by an independent mechanic, who might know how to get a black-market tool that’ll diagnose it, and a world wherein you simply have the assurance that every mechanic can access a cheap tool that will diagnose your car. That’s where the law intervenes to prevent interoperability and to prevent what would otherwise be both a corrective that we could achieve through market mechanisms and a corrective that we could achieve through solidaristic labor or public action.

And let’s just take a minute here and note that the only computer we know how to build is the interoperable computer. It’s the Turing complete universal von Neumann machine, capable of running every valid program. And that’s a lot of computer science jargon, but it just basically boils down to no one knows how to make a computer that just does the things that the shareholders of the company that made it prefer you to do.

The only way to prevent consumers, workers, other stakeholders, suppliers, whatever, from unlocking computers’ capabilities to do things that shareholders disapprove of — but that are good for them — is to have the state intervene on behalf of a dominant firm to prevent that action. And I think if you’re not technical, it’s easy to lose track of that fact or to not quite understand its implications. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the reason no one’s made an alternative app store for the iPhone is that it’s impossible rather than recognizing that it’s illegal.

Seizing the Means of Computation

David Moscrop

The book’s subtitle is “How to Seize the Means of Computation.” It’s a clear reference to Marx, worker power, and solidarity. How do computing technologies and Big Tech shape relations of production? I read that subtitle and I think about relations of production. I think, okay, Marx was writing at a particular time in history. But how do these technologies and the current legal framework shape contemporary relations of production? Is it fundamentally different from the nineteenth century?

Cory Doctorow

I think that what we have today is digital Taylorism on steroids. It’s disciplinary technology. The limitations on how ruthlessly your boss can exploit aren’t solely grounded in moral or legal factors, although those dimensions play a role. They’re often technical. The current situation evokes the historical battle over automation in the textile industry. The key insight is that when your boss could transition your cottage industry into a factory setting, they gained an unprecedented level of control over your daily life. It may sound self-evident when put that way, but when your boss can tell you when you can go to the bathroom and when you can take a break from work and have lunch, you are in a much worse circumstance — both moment to moment and overall as a class of workers — than you would be if you were able to control the means of your production.

Digital tools have given us a level of fine-grained Taylorism that even the most venal mill owner couldn’t have imagined. Consider Amazon drivers, who are not technically employed by Amazon; they operate as subcontractors, and sometimes even subcontractors to other subcontractors. They are misclassified as independent contractors, even though they’re workers — they’re employees. But their employer is a delivery service platform distinct from Amazon, even though they drive vehicles with Amazon branding. These delivery vans are equipped with an array of cameras that work as disciplinary apparatuses. They track drivers’ eye movements to ensure they aren’t looking away from the road, monitor their driving speed and work quotas, and observe their handling of packages.

This is the grim context in which we see employees resorting to desperate measures like shitting in bags. It’s not just that they’re not given any time to leave, it’s that if they do leave, they’re observed and they’re clocked, and their pay is docked. And this problem extends to a broad spectrum of workers whose boss is an app.

If you’re a performer who works on a platform like YouTube or Instagram or TikTok, you invest your own money in making a video. In this sense, you’re much more like a serf who’s bound to the land than an employee who’s using their boss’s capital. The serf had to buy the scythe and the hoe and the livestock. The boss didn’t provide that capital. You are providing the capital to make the video. However, when it comes to determining whether the content will be shown to the subscribers who requested it, an algorithm takes charge. But the algorithm’s criteria are not disclosed by the boss, who argues that revealing them to creators would enable creators to manipulate the system. By this funhouse logic, such a disclosure would allow creators to cheat the boss.

In effect, your boss hands you your paycheck at the end of the month, and he says, well, I’ve docked your pay, but I’m not going to tell you why I docked your pay because you’re not allowed to know those rules. If I told you the rules, you’d figure out how to cheat. This contemporary form of Taylorism exceeds the schemes even Robert Blincoe could have imagined. Blincoe was the ten-year-old who was indentured to work in a Manchester factory and wrote a bestselling memoir about it when he finally escaped ten years later, and it became the basis for Oliver Twist, which is basically Luddite fanfic. His boss could not have dreamt up the app boss system.

The Difference Between Optimism and Hope

David Moscrop

I want to turn to another book of yours, out in November, The Lost Cause. It’s a book about climate change, family, and reactionary politics. It’s set thirty years from now, but it reads as if it’s set today. I’m curious to what extent the book is a history of the future, a story about the sort of natural — even inevitable — struggle between the many who accept the need for aggressive climate action and those who live in their own universe. Is this book a projection of today’s challenges extended to their logical conclusion three decades down the line?

Cory Doctorow

A little bit. It’s maybe fairer to say that it’s me confronting my own wishes. I often think what it would be like if a Green New Deal were to be implemented. We got closer to it than we might realize. I mean, Bernie Sanders was closer than I think anyone had any business believing he could get to becoming the president of the United States. We nearly had a democratic socialist president. It’s wild.

But when I think about all these scenarios in which we get a Green New Deal and aggressive climate action, it is very clear that the losers of that much-needed just transformation are not going to go away. If there’s one thing Trump taught us, it’s that there are these simmering resentments that are not necessarily hugely salient to people under normal circumstances.

I think that it’s a mistake to think that Trump made people racist. I think what he did was make people’s racism more central to their identity. Racism became the defining factor that turned many into single-issue voters, aligning themselves along racial and reactionary lines. Previously, voters might have cast ballots on other bases and might’ve organized their lives and their belief systems around other bases in which racism may have been just one factor.

These underlying prejudices still exist, ready to be activated, especially if the climate crisis continues to inflict harm on people. We’ve blown past a lot of the deadlines for avoiding the worst of its effects. Right now, what we’re arguing about is not whether we’re going to lose cities. It’s about whether we’re going to have a managed retreat or whether those cities will be lost in the most traumatic and expensive and horrific ways possible.

As people see their way of life changing in awful ways, as they endure hardship and privation and wildfires and floods and zoonotic plagues and whatever, their reactions to those in power, even if these leaders are genuinely striving to improve the situation, are uncertain. How people will react in the face of such circumstances remains an open question.

Contemplating the potential counterreformation to climate reform, even with the most desirable outcome to our circumstances I can envision, is an ugly vision, and that’s where The Lost Cause comes from. Even if we foresee spending two hundred years correcting the injustices of our forebears, we can’t assume that these two centuries will be characterized by solidarity and consensus. There’s going to be a lot of reactionary countermovements that we are going to be fighting through that whole time.

David Moscrop

And yet for all the catastrophe in the novel — cities being moved inland, for instance — it also conveys a sense of optimism regarding humanity’s ability to initiate global-scale climate mitigation and disaster relief efforts. Despite the presence of reactionary grievance politics and their consequences, you seem to have some hope that collective actions can be taken to safeguard as many people as possible and provide them with the best possible outcomes in the face of climate-related challenges.

Cory Doctorow

Yeah, I am hopeful. As I always say when I talk about my work, I think there’s an important distinction between hope and optimism. Optimism is this fatalistic belief that things are just going to get better. It’s just pessimism inverted. And both pessimism and optimism presume that we have no role in shaping our destiny. In contrast, hope is grounded in the idea that by actively changing our material circumstances and moving toward a better world, we can gain a new perspective. And then we might be able to see paths that were previously invisible, occluded by the terrain around us — paths that can lead us even further up the gradient. And through that, step-by-step, we can ascend the gradient toward a world that we want to live in.

Infrastructure as Solidarity

David Moscrop

I’d like to conclude by drawing a connection between the two books. To what sense does technology play a critical role in addressing climate change? And to what extent is it used as a tool to undermine climate action? The concentration of technological power can significantly hinder climate action, making it challenging to enact effective mitigation measures. To what extent can liberating technology from this concentration improve mitigation efforts?

Cory Doctorow

Let’s start with just how those mitigation efforts are going to require the deployment of technology. Deb Chachra is a leftist material scientist. She has a book coming out in mid-November called How Infrastructure Works. And it’s a very good book about what infrastructure means, because infrastructure never amortizes over the life of the people who build it. That’s kind of one of the defining characteristics of infrastructure. Infrastructure is always an act of solidarity with people who aren’t born yet, and infrastructure always requires planning that goes beyond what markets can accomplish. The book makes quite a profound insight. And as she digs into the nitty-gritty of infrastructure, one of the points that she makes is that you could give every human being on earth the energy budget of a Canadian, which is like an American energy budget, but colder.

We could give every person on earth a Canadian energy budget by capturing 0.4 percent of the solar radiation that passes through our atmosphere. We have access to effectively unlimited energy, but we have severely limited materials with which to capture that energy. And we all are familiar with what happens when we don’t manage our material cycles well. You get microplastics in the water and in our bloodstream, you get carbon in the atmosphere, you get poison and privation and despoilment.

For most of human history, we’ve operated under the assumption that materials were abundant, and could be used once and then discarded, while considering energy to be scarce. And the reality is that we receive a constant influx of energy every time the sun or the moon rises, and new materials only arrive on Earth when a comet manages to survive entering our atmosphere.

A rational, technologically informed program of sustainable circular material use that trades energy for material is important. For example, it might be energy intensive to recover the lithium from a battery at the end of its duty cycle, but this energy intensity becomes less critical if we use the lithium to manufacture batteries and other conflict minerals to create solar panels. This could allow us to capture solar energy and use as much of it as needed to replenish these materials when they reach the end of their life cycles. There’s a point at which, through wise stewardship — if we can attain liftoff — we can inhabit a world of great abundance that does not come into conflict with the habitats and biota that we share it with. And ultimately, we need something beyond what markets can deliver to get there.

People seizing the means of computation is key to having that better future, that sustainable future, that future that allows us to live well and responsibly. To navigate this path, speaking to someone who dedicated their teenage years to activism, cycling through the streets of Toronto armed with a bucket of wheat paste and a ream of handbills to plaster to telephone poles, I can confidently tell you that organizing global mass movements will not be possible without harnessing the power of technology.

And so the people in the book inhabit a future where they’ve adeptly leveraged technology to navigate their way out of the current crisis. They employ technology not only to address the immediate challenges we face but also to engage in the long-term battles required for constructing the extensive infrastructure essential for multigenerational work.