Note: I wrote this entry in late 2012 after finishing the young adult novel Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow, a book that explores, among other things, the consequences of criminal penalties for civil acts like copyright infringement. I was thinking about civil liberties and internet freedoms and what I’ve chosen to do with my life. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the entry after writing it, so it sat for three years. Re-reading it now, the feelings and conflict I expressed still resonate.
I can get to feeling about Cory Doctorow the same way I often feel about Richard Stallman, the famous advocate for free and open-source computer software. Zealots. Troublemakers. Not everything is about The Man out to squash the little guy. Geez, I’m not evil just because I use Apple products! I respect your opinions on copyright and software, on free expression and privacy — but do you have to be so darn annoying about it?!
I suppose it is the same with anyone with a Cause. It makes the rest of us nervous, because we aren’t True Believers like they are. The long and short of it is that I have gotten older and supposedly wiser, and at some point I decided that the world is really complicated. Seeing lots of shades of gray makes it hard to get worked up about causes, which I suppose is why most people don’t.
I do care about this stuff. I care about it a great deal. I care about internet freedom, about privacy, about civil liberties, about remixing and free expression, about individual rights and blanket licenses, internet radio and everything else. I cared about it all through high school — I even took a summer course at UC Irvine in “Internet Law”, back when the whole field could be surveyed in 5 weeks! I followed mailing lists and message boards about the Napster and Kazaa court fights and the DMCA and the Communications Decency Act legislative battles.
When I had the opportunity in college to get an internship for my legal studies minor, I wrangled a placement at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, the original epicenter for scholarship in the field of internet law. And when I got my first job out of college, it was at Berkman as well, working alongside some of my heroes.
I thought I would be a public interest lawyer. I thought I would live and breathe this stuff. And I met a lot of very smart people in this field, and I respect them a great deal. But the pace of it didn’t work for me, someone built for high pressure and quick wins. The law is slow and plodding, a years- and decades-long synthesis of law review articles, amicus briefs, books, conferences, and winding cases. It works for many people, and its very good work indeed, but it was not going to work for me.
Now I’m in the fast-paced world of technology, wrapped up in fancy new trends like “DevOps” and “continuous integration” and “infrastructure as code”. There is lots of energy and lots to do. I feel busy and driven, but not the way I felt about internet law. I don’t have the same purpose — I never feel like the work I am doing has the last possibility of fundamentally affecting our culture or reshaping our society. No one is going to jail for abusing deployment frameworks, and no one is passing legislation telling me how I can or cannot administer a web server. The stakes just aren’t very high.
I just finished Cory Doctorow’s latest novel for young adults, Pirate Cinema. The main character is a teenager in a near-future Britain whose (illegal?) video downloading and remixing gets his family “banned” from the internet. This leads to all sorts of serious consequences — his father loses his (online) job, his mother can’t apply (online) for her disability benefits, and his sister fails out of school due to being unable to research and do (online) homework. Embarrassed and ashamed, our young cyber-criminal runs away from home and ends up in London. There he builds a new life after taking up with a loose collection of anarchists, activists, and other down-on-their-luck free-thinkers. Eventually he spearheads a a campaign to overturn the draconian laws that got him in so much trouble in the first place.
It’s all a bit contrived, and some things fall in to place much too easily. Certainly the homeless life is glamorized to a degree I find unsettling. But the fundamental fear expressed in this pointed critique is sound. Yes, Big Content (also known as the entertainment industry) pushes for laws that protect their commercial interests at the expense of our culture. Yes, the penalties for victimless crimes of copyright infringement continue to become more and more harsh. And yes, this leads us down some pretty slippery slopes.
And frankly, it is a whole framework of thought that I have managed to relegate to the dustbin at the back of my brain, a big ball of stuff I believe deeply in but have carelessly shoved aside.
Cory Doctorow’s novel has given me a bit of fire back, and for that I thank him. It also gives me hope. Doctorow postulates a future in which the internet becomes so central to everything we do that the general public has no choice but to stand up and take a stand against the government and corporate control that is clamping down on us from all sides. Doctorow makes a persuasive argument as to why this sort of control is not only wrong, it is destructive to a free society. And he aims to persuade young people who are the most affected by these changes but not always cognizant of them. He is telling them they should care, and I hope his message takes root.
As a young kid I taught myself how to edit videos long before I taught myself how to program. I can only imagine that if I was born ten years later, in the age of high speed internet and much more powerful computers, I would have been a “remixer” myself. Heck, when I was young I saw the world as amazing and wonderful, the future as bright and thrilling and open for the taking. In short, I was just the sort of person liable to get caught in one of these copyright webs and have my life completely ruined.
I can blame my current cynicism on all sorts of things — endless war, recession, the general ennui that comes with growing older. I wish I could recapture some of that excitement, some of that optimism I had as a kid. What gets to me about Pirate Cinema is that by the end I was rooting for our young heroes to succeed, yet all the while convinced that he was writing to us from his eventual jail cell. I’m only slightly ashamed to admit that as I read the final pages tears welled up in my eyes. Not because its the best book or the best story in the world, but because it reminded me about what I care about, and that things are worth fighting for, and that the bad guys don’t always win in the end.
For all that, it is not at all clear that our “hero” lives happily ever after. Doctorow acknowledges that youth can’t last forever, and even the most idealistic of us do have to grow up and face, dare I say it, a more complex, more nuanced world. It is up to each of us, then, to temper our wisdom with a streak of idealism, and to not forget about the causes and morals we hold dear.