A cheery conversation with Cory Doctorow about the upside of economic collapse

Cory Doctorow got the idea for his latest novel, Makers, during the economic meltdown that started the decade. He released it during the meltdown at the end of the decade. And he wrote it during the boom in the middle.

“I wrote it as a parable about the dotcom collapse, and specifically the aftermath in San Francisco. Because there was this amazing thing that happened when the money went away in the Bay Area,” Cory said in an interview. “It really seemed like one day there was an unbelievable amount of money sloshing around the city, and the next day it just vanished. I remember walking down Van Ness [Avenue, in San Francisco] one day, somewhere near 18th Street, and passing a guy who had 50 Aeron chairs and five boxes of dotcom T-shirts on the street. He had a sign up that said, ‘Make Me An Offer.’ He was literally folding up his company and going back to the midwest that day, as soon as he sold his Aeron chairs.”

But the money running out didn’t put a stop to the creativity.

“People kept doing stuff, making stuff. They made stuff that was in many ways cooler than the stuff that had been made when there was a ton of money lying around,” Cory said. For a startup company, finding investors is a mixed blessing. Investors restrict freedom, they demand oversight, they reject ideas that are too crazy or dangerous, and require a lot of time in meetings. But it doesn’t take much money to create Flickr or Twitter, and freedom from the hassles that come with investor money gives developers the time and freedom to create, Cory said.

And that was the genesis of Makers (which you can read free online). “I wrote it as a parable of the dotcom collapse, but the economy did me the favor of collapsing again before the book came out,” Doctorow said. That made the book suddenly topical. “A lot of people have drawn parallels to what is going on today, but I certainly don’t think I predicted the economic collapse, except in as much as economic collapses are cyclic, and they tend to be reasonably self-similar,” Cory said.

I interviewed Cory for my Copper Robot podcast, a series of interviews about books, technology, pop culture, politics and science fiction, recorded with a live audience in Second Life. Listen to the interview:

DOWNLOAD THE AUDIO FILE

In addition to Makers, Cory is the author of Little Brother; Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town; Eastern Standard Tribe; and other novels. He blogs about civil liberties and other subjects at Boing Boing. He’s a Canadian who spent years in America, and now lives in London.

Makers is a near-future science fiction novel that starts with an economic bubble brought about by 3D printers and other cheap manufacturing and design techniques. But most of the novel deals with the aftermath of the boom, when the economy collapses and people are left scrambling to make a living.

Cory wrote about the future bust during the recent boom. “There’s no better time to write about the bust. When busts are happening, it’s hard to have perspective on them. You’re too busy panicking,” Cory said.

I read Makers in the days after I was laid off from my job, which gave the book an added frisson of anxiety. One of the most evocative elements was a shantytown in Florida that figures as a prominent location. At first, the shantytown seems terrifying and squalid, like a Third World slum; it’s exactly the kind of place I have nightmares about ending up if I can’t continue to earn a living.

But then, over the course of the novel, the shantytown emerges as a warm and homey place. The shantytown has violence and crime, but also shops, and people creating fantastic buildings, and a powerful sense of community and neighbors helping neighbors.

Cory was influenced in writing the shantytown by the book Shadow Cities, by Robert Neuwirth, who also writes the blog Stealth of Nations. The book is about slums on several continents, and looks at how slums work as societies, where they fail, and how government efforts had helped people who live in slums, and where governments have failed to help.

The informal societies that rise up in slums are similar to the structure of the open software movement and the Internet, which are organized without formal constitutions and chains of command, Cory said.

“I guess I do have a certain amount of affection for creative destruction. It can be fun, waking up every morning and having a whole new group of presents under the tree whose existence you never suspected before. It’s not the stuff you always hoped for, it’s the stuff you never expected. But I don’t deny that it’s wrenching, that it can be miserable, and I don’t deny that it’s not bloodless,” Cory said.

Change is permanent: “We are not in a period of technological transition headed for a period of technological stability. We are in a period of total wrenching technological chaos headed for a period of greater total wrenching technological chaos, for better and for worse,” Cory said.

Cory and I also talked about his work blogging at Boing Boing, the satisfactions of hacking, Robert A. Heinlein’s influences on Makers, Doctorow’s upcoming novel For the Win, upcoming self-published story collection With A Little Help, in which he’s experimenting with multiple business models for sales; and virtual worlds and Second Life.


Mitch Wagner is an science fiction fan, Twitter and Facebook addict, Second Life enthusiast, Internet marketing consultant, technology journalist, husband, and co-owner of a cat who holds him in disdain. He hides from the sun in San Diego, blogs at Mitch Wagner’s Blog podcasts at Copper Robot, and tweets far too often at @MitchWagner.

Photo credits: Cory in first life, by Paula Mariel Salischiker. Cory in Second Life by ArminasX Saiman on the Second Effects blog.

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