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Doctorow and Sterling Cyber-Riffing at SXSW 140

Bruce Sterling is the sort of writer who invites his audience to an open house with "anyone they'd like and anything they can carry." He's also busy in his non-writing life keeping up with the resurrection and commemoration of dead media and not-dead-yet online freedoms. Fellow online agitator and decorated science fiction writer Cory Doctorow seems more of an Ernster Mensch; Doctorow points out that he's a writer second, activist first. When these two started a freewheeling discussion ("intellectual cyber riffing," as Sterling described it) on The Death of Scarcity Tuesday afternoon, the quotable quotes were everywhere. Read on for the ones I jotted down, and a link to some more.

Within five minutes Doctorow was describing the common ground that economists of all stripes might find in a world of increasingly information flow and decentralization, and Sterling was questioning conventional wisdom on Google, file sharing, and other sacred cows of the techno-elite. This public conversation in a smallish but packed meeting room in Austin's Convention Center served as an endcap on the Interactive portion of this year's
South by Southwest Interactive conference, and probably crystalized a lot of what conference attendees had on their mind between panel sessions and parties. Below are some of the thoughts that came out in the course of the Sterling & Doctorow Show. (And Sorry, but the open house is over now. Thanks, Bruce.)

The worth of Information:

Sterling: "All of this circles around the central declaration of S. Brand -- 'Information wants to be free.' Yet, Information also wants to be expensive. ... I have to wonder, what would happen if sheep actually did shit grass -- would mutton be free? ... Doesn't [widespread file trading] crowd out what was formerly a competitive menu of available choices? What if you just can't sell music any more? Nobody's going to go down to [Austin record store] Waterloo, nobody's going to hang out with them afterward. ..."

Doctorow: "Whether Kantian or Marxist, the most valuable stuff isnt the world is the stuff we want to concern ourselves with, because when stuff is really valuable, it becomes scarce. ... [by contrast], the Napster ethic is, 'Be as selfish as you possibly can -- the more crap you download, the more crap there is for everyone to download.' ... Code is a little like speech, a little like a tractor. Keynes and Marx both talked about speech [being different from] a tractor; Code is a little like speech, and a little like tractors. When you've got something that's both speech and a tractor, you've got something really interesting."

Napster, the RIAA and file trading:

Sterling: "[Napster is] a kind of profoundly undemocratic technical fait accompli. 'Look at this neat gizmo that we geeks built while you weren't working. We geeks accidentally ate your industry.' [This is a] techno-imperative market argument which I don't think really makes all that much sense in a stagnant monopoly ... where is the steamroller going, I don't see it going anywhere particular, it's just abolishing other people's money. Does Napster give anybody money for a reelection campaign? Do they have a friendly judge? Is there somebody to sue?"

"What would the music scene look like if the industry disappeared? I imagine things like the Royal family paying for the production of Handel's Water Music. "

Product Interfaces.

Doctorow: "[...] That's what why we have wrappers. If you have good stuff in a crappy interface, somebody will build a wrapper around it. ... This revolution is ongoing -- Travelocity may suck, but it's a lot better than SABRE. This process of wrapping is going on every day."

Sterling: "I think that the crappy interface is one of the reasons for the power of the computer revolution. People are trapped."


Sterling: "It's a beauty contest, not a credibility contest. ... How is [google's reference-count system] different from turning on TV and seeing Dean Kamen talking on 22 channels about this revolutionary scooter? What I want to see ... the kid in Left Elbow, Kazakhstan, you give him an 802.11 Linux box, running google [and left to play]. In 4 years, I want to see him matriculate. [Laughter]

"... Now if we had an idiosyncratic version of google, that was sort of a Bruce Sterling google ... 'Well, Bruce, here are the things you're going to find really great today!" you know. There are things they they always claim on Amazon. 'So you've bought this book, ok? You might want to try this CD.' I've never bought any CDs on Amazon, they always think I have the worst possible taste in music. No luck over there at all.

"People gather together in little tidepools and trust, otherwise there would be no limits [on stagnation]. You'd simply say 'Oh, what's everybody using? Oh, Apple IIe, OK, that's it, end problem, Apple IIe, boy, that's for me ... Macintosh? Never heard of it!"

Doctorow: "I think the problem is that, as a society we've consistently choose the crappier and more available thing over the more beautiful and less available thing."

The last 5 years:

Doctorow: "In the last 5 years, Linux became useable. In the last 5 years we finally got. In the last 5 years we got Tivo. In the last five years we got 802.11 widespread. I mean, my life has been changed."

Sterling: "You mean, 'that fantastic innovation we saw until about 5 years ago.' ... I think [Innovation has] slowed to a crawl, and moving in a slow reverse, you're not going to see a lot of major innovation, outside of Linux --which is in danger of being outlawed. The 802.11b [phenomenon], same thing -- there are people who sit around all day trying to demonize 802.11b users and say that they're stealing -- 'the Parasitic Grid.' It's a social hack, but because of that, they're very vulnerable to political counter-hacks. They're not the same as genuine technical innovation. That's a difficulty."

Cultural spread and cultural inertia:

Doctorow: "There's an amazing story about the day someone sent the first hotmail message with 'Get your free email account at' at the bottom to India. The traffic statistics the next morning, they quintupled overnight, on the strength of one email."

On Copy Protection, the RIAA/MPAA, et cetera:

Sterling: "When will the U.S. snap? What will it take to put the genie back in the bottle, how many times will the genie have to be hit on the back of the head? What if someone accidentally breaks the bottle with his baton? What are we going to be left with that commands value? What can't we copy?"

Doctorow: "By an amazing coincidence, last week Congress held hearings about [copy protection in hardware] I think it's actually possible, I think it's actually possible, but the social consequence is quite horrendous. When Turing machines are outlawed, when universal computers that can do anything are no longer allowed to exist, then that kind of thing, I think the innovation we've seen over the last 20 years [will end].

This being SXSW Interactive, quite a few people in the audience were taking notes. Krow put his on LiveJournal, and I hope others will link to theirs below.

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Doctorow and Sterling Cyber-Riffing at SXSW

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  • Here's what... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by joebp ( 528430 ) on Thursday March 14, 2002 @12:28PM (#3162761) Homepage
    What are we going to be left with that commands value? What can't we copy?
    Emotion, love, knowledge, wisdom.

    These cannot be copied, nor faked. For example, the music industry may change for the better, or worse, but music will always exist. The RIAA and 'their senators' will pretend that the music industry is music until they are red in the face. The music industry will die from lack of emotion in their product rather than from P2P sharing.

    Note that freedom and justice are missing from my list. These are things which can be bought, and, from my point of view, are close to lost.

    "They don't want the voice of reason spoken, folks, coz otherwise we'd be free. Otherwise, we wouldn't believe their fucking horse-shit lies, nor the fucking propaganda machine - the mainstream media - and buy their horse-shit products that we don't fucking need, and become a Third World consumer fucking plantation, which is what we're becoming. -- Bill Hicks, 1991

    Yikes, Bill Hicks quote overload!

  • by renehollan ( 138013 ) <> on Thursday March 14, 2002 @12:50PM (#3162875) Homepage Journal
    If Napster and its P2P clones ever get loose, nobody in the music business will make any money ever again. And if 802.11b ever works, nobody will sell Internet access and AOL will go broke. And if Linux had a decent graphic user interface, Bill Gates would have no business model. Bill would have to spend all this menace. [emphais mine]

    This menace? This menace!? Since when is being able to share a menace? Certainly, one might share things that one oughtn't, and sheesh, there are lots of sharp or poisonous things around with which I can kill people that didn't exist 1000 years ago, but should we make them go away, so laws aren't broken? Is the convenience not worth the new risks? Should we ban cars so buggy-whip manufacturers don't disappear? Is the potential to break the law in new ways or make one's business obsolete what this "menace" is?

    I guess so.

    I can see the legal issues, but only barely. Ideas and things don't break the law, people's actions do. Still, if I could have a "safer" firearm that was less likely to go off accidentally, but just as effective as a defensive weapon, that would be desirable. I'd likely support home owners' association covenents requireing any firearms on one's property to be of the "safe" variety, though I probably wouldn't want that mandated by law (not being able to shoot an intruder because you could not afford the safer gun, would be a bad thing -- the price difference would be about as much of an issue for a home owner in an upscale neighborhood as the need to keep their yard tidy).

    But the "menace" here is not the bad side of the good/bad dichotomy that technology brings. It is simply the threat that an existing business model is no longer viable. Guess what? Welcome to old-fashioned free market competition. Innovation. Americans call it "know how" and, gosh darn, it feels about as good as Mom's apple pie: you get to try to sell me something and I get to try to find a way to not need it. That strikes me as rather fair.

    I am a software engineer. My current skills go the way of the buggy-whip about every 3-5 years. Yet, I adapt, I keep up, I learn new skills. I also learn how to effectively apply new skills fast. I deal with progress and it's threat to me. Heck, I'm one of the ones making it happen. What the hell makes anyone think that they should be immune to progress, and gives them the right to keep us in relative misery compared to a prospective brighter and easier future? Profit?

    There is no right to profit. I suppose if there were, I'd go around shoving buggy whips and horse dung catchers in people's faces, extorting the profit to which I have a right, having auto manufacturers thrown in jail for violating my rights, while little Johnny and Janie die because they can't be brought to urgent medical attention soon enough.

    Those people who restrain progress by appealing to a supposed right to profit might not be accessories to murder in such a context, but they damned sure have a depraved indifference to human life.

  • by SirSlud ( 67381 ) on Thursday March 14, 2002 @01:05PM (#3162954) Homepage
    "Given paying any price and free, people choose free."

    "Why do you think there are so many surveillance cameras and plainclothes security in stores?"

    You, my dear friend, are a moron. I'm sorry to say that, but this argument is the most moronic argument known to man. What you are telling me is that before surveilance cameras, everyone stole. Nobody paid for anything, because we couldn't keep tabs on people. Idiot. I am truely sorry for your narrow minded view of fundamental human values. The suits have turned you against your common man, and if your rhetoric is any indication, their tactics are working great. (Unless you're a suit, in which case you have a vested interest in beliving your assertions are true, because it gives you an excuse to exercise technological control (ie DCMA, SSSCA) over your consumer base.)

    "The music being stolen is NOT your intellectual property and no matter what the owners of the property want to charge for it, that doesn't give you the right to steal it."

    If many people in an economy steal it, yes it does. Does anyone remember that economies are to serve the interests of a society? What good does it do to hold a society hostage to the interests of an economy? Your argument is like the Brits saying to their American colony, "No matter how much you dont like this situation, the law says you must adhere to it. And you can always work within the rules to change it." When people realize those rules are not serving the social interestest of a society, you know what they do - they fuck the rules. Those in power always claim that its because the people are just immature and criminal. The people know better - they understand the situation is jury rigged, and that any opportunity to change the game within the rules of the game are futile.

    What you simply cannot comprehend is that all these IP laws were passed under the nose of an unknowing public (indeed, who has the time to learn our complicated legal system as it stands today) by a few. Now that those laws are not reflecting the interests of a many, you can't lock up those many. You shouldn't have made those rules in the first place if it ran counter to the actual interests of people within that society.

    You have to think bigger. Who made the rules, and why are people forced to abide by them when those rules were asked for and passed by an already wealthy few?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 14, 2002 @01:10PM (#3162984)
    But the central point is that the industry may die, but NOBODY NEEDS THE INDUSTRY. People sang for their supper for millinea before the gramophone was invented, and the hundred years afterward.

    Most musicians make their money the old fashioned way- playing gigs. I buy my CDs straight from the bands, who sell them for five to eight vs the industry fifteen to twenty five, and they make three to five bucks vs the thirty cents Vivendi would give them.

    Most of the CDs I buy say something like "Thank you for buying this CD. Please burn a copy for your friends!" Because except for the likes of Lars and Ringo, mp3 trading is the best thing to happen to musicians since the invention of the les paul.

    Face it, I'm more likely to pay a five dollar cover if I've heard and liked your band than if I've never heard of you. Morpheus is, for the musician, radio for the 21st century. Only now they don't have the damned RIAA gatekeepers standing between them and you.

    I for one will celebrate when the likes of Vivendi, Bertlesmann, and Virgin declare chapter 11- more money for the musicians, more money for the customers. Death to the industry who would gouge both the musician and music customer, and to those who would trade my freedom for protection of their industry!

    -steve mcrew
  • by notfancy ( 113542 ) <matias@ k - b e l l . c om> on Thursday March 14, 2002 @01:30PM (#3163103) Homepage

    Done: here is the proof []. Be warned, though: it's highly technical.

  • Re:Yuck; (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Amazing Quantum Man ( 458715 ) on Thursday March 14, 2002 @03:15PM (#3163720) Homepage
    If code was apolitical, then why is there the Gallery of CSS Descramblers []?

    In many cases, they're written as a political statement against the DMCA and the DVD-CCA.

Civilization, as we know it, will end sometime this evening. See SYSNOTE tomorrow for more information.