Interview with Cory Doctorow for The Guardian

AAA picMy interview with Cory has been edited down quite a lot to fit the Guardian word count. Here’s the full thing…

Is it fair to call Hack Circus “an effort to find a business-model for idle, useless, diversion?” That is, are you looking for a way to make just fooling around and being silly into a sustainable practice?

I don’t think there’s anything idle about it – the ideas are challenging and the overall editorial message of pushing your understanding of what is real and what can be trusted, is highly critical. In contrast to a commercial world where tech, art and design have to appropriated into utility and capitalist service, it is in part a useless, or ‘art’ case for tech projects. But it’s no more useless than any other entertainment and a good deal more informative than most.

The opposite of useful is not always useless, as such. The opposite of reportage is not always silliness, and the opposite of consumer messaging is not always fooling around. Playboy is one of the most successful media enterprises of all time, so presumably people don’t want entertainment for functional reasons. Perhaps fooling around can be a very effective business model.

It’s definitely true that I am slightly hamstrung by trying to convince people to take something seriously – to buy into something with their money and minds – while embracing it as a reaction to a different kind of seriousness. Hack Circus is peculiarly serious. It isn’t childish family fun, it’s sort of the extreme end of responsible adulthood that has worked, has lived a life, and now has the confidence to step outside the system.

And confidence is always a kind of madness; a clear vision of the chaos. The emphasis on ideas rather than humans means that while there’s a hint this confidence has been earned over a lifetime, there’s no clear route to it. So these are visions without homely visionaries – and a madness with no history to it, that has simply materialised in front of you, is the maddest madness of all.

Hack Circus people are hellbent on going places they’re not supposed to. It’s my job to welcome extraordinary individuals with their fascinating jobs, projects and ways of
looking at the world, to slightly rope in these minds which can go anywhere, and to keep the show moving. I keep getting images of Willy Wonka.

The events are fun, but they are reality-distorting rather than ‘comedy’. They are funny because the clever, strange people who like Hack Circus are naturally funny and have done such wonderfully surprising things, not because they’ve written a routine. I don’t want to do a science comedy night for sceptics and atheists, there’s plenty of that around. I’m far more interested in, and identify far more strongly with, the credulous than the sceptical, and I’m consciously working against the resistance to imagination that scepticism presents.

As for the business model, there’s no reason it should be any different from any other entertainment medium. There are risks with the degree of authenticity I’m always aspiring to. I’m aware there are agencies and individuals who will, sooner or later, offer me money to buy some of these hard-won values for themselves. And right now, if someone offered me a lot of money it would be very difficult not to take it, because my most pressing moral agenda at the moment is to remunerate everyone properly.

Do you feel like the neoliberal, austere, capitalist reality of the world militates against fun-for-its-own-sake? A friend recently remarked — referencing the old Church of the Subgenius — that the world doesn’t have any slack in it anymore. There’s a kind of continuous hustle that even the massively unemployed generation of kids is engaged in, because even if you’re unemployed, you have to do all this make-work-ish stuff (from internships to pointless Job Centre Plus mandated work-searches) that squeeze out every instant of potential leisure.

You wrote about the Internet making it cheaper to reach an audience and that making it harder to get noticed, which is an important irony. But the other piece of that is that the audience is also much more pressed for any kind of leisure/idle time than it has been in recent memory, so you’re not just competing with more people — you’re competing for an austere time-budget that matches the austere finance-budget.

Previous downturns have given us rich bohemias, from Weimar decadence to punk — but those were economic troughs in which being poor meant having nowhere to go. Today, being broke means that you never stop rushing around.

Do you think that this is the reason that there’s so much utility/capitalist talk whenever we talk about art?

Yes, although I feel like a lone voice on this most of the time, I’m incredibly conscious of a subliminal capitalist agenda, and – particularly in metropolitan places – what is rewarded is not just work, but the kind of work that propagates the status quo. There are some fascinating giveaways – the 9-6 office job adverts that have to use absurd words like ‘rockstar’ to disguise the fact that they are creating online services for others in response to existing trends and market forces and are, effectively, hiring digital butlers.

I think the utility question comes up so strongly specifically with technology and art because technology is so now entrenched in service. It’s an aberration to use technical methods to do anything but butler our everyday lives. It’s as if the uncanny valley effect extends into our social expectations. We’re so used to tech being part of the world of useful things, we’re confused and unsettled when we find it in another context. It looks like it’s in disguise.

There is still slack but there is a trend towards controlling it like a job. It may actually be that this was always the case. While we remember long endless summers of our childhoods, we always got called in for tea. But the leisure of the current moment does feel particularly sternly delimited, almost as if counting the units will favourably exaggerate it. Video game play is measured in hours, steps are counted – we even send calendar invites with times marked out when we meet friends for dinner. Leisure is acceptable but there needs to be a line of approval around it. Mainly, I think, measuring leisure time makes it ‘shareable’; not something singular or challenging. It gives us a way of making sure our free time is not too free, that we are still reassuringly the same as our friends.

I agree that time and fiscal poverty seem to go hand in hand, and those with a leisure budget will be making more money. This is why I don’t want to put everything onto the individual. I don’t want to create a luxury product – I can’t afford to, and of course, it doesn’t fit my values. But at the other end of the scale I’m also keen that this isn’t mistaken for a hobby, simply because of the history of print, zines, etc and my own history of sort of punk interventions. There are many good zines, many artistic statements made through print, but when it comes to the burgeoning work in tech and art, I think we need to tackle capitalism in its own backyard.

Can you explain what you mean by butlers? Is there a distinction between your computer predicting what groceries to order, remembering phone numbers for you, and interfacing with your mains to tell you where you’re wasting energy and automatically intervene to save it?

That’s the kind of thing. Technology does a lot of useful stuff for us. It’s wonderful (and it’s also an artistic tool with huge subversive potential). By ‘hiring digital butlers’ though, I meant the real humans! Humans with talent and imagination who somehow have been sold on the dream of going into service. Agency life to me felt like a crippling compromise; the power structure was appallingly apparent. Coding, design, editorial all have very good PR around them right now, but making is not all alike. Making stuff for someone else’s dream can feel more like manual labour than an incredible creative ‘opportunity’.

As humans, we create our tech in our image. That’s why most visions of the future look hilariously inaccurate and naive in retrospect. Why do the Transformers and the killing machines in Terminator look like people with massive metal flares on? Big metal legs, surely, do not bring efficiency and speed across any terrain. But we give our tech butlers abilities and tasks we would give our human butlers. We use computers and phones as prosthetics for our memories and we trust them to tell us the truth. We trust them with our lives. But things, and people, get far more interesting when they start to get unpredictable and unreliable.

Citing one’s own fiction is uncomfortably like being a dope-peddler who samples his own product, but here goes: I wrote a book called MAKERS in which people make stuff just because it delights and weirds them, and when the finacializers build and crash a bubble around them, they keep on doing what they love, because it turns out that making has gotten so cheap that it can be a post-economic (or at least, post-financial) activity.

Is Hack Circus “living like it was the first days of a better nation” in which you can woo the muse of the odd not in spite of the fact that there’s no money in being weird, speculative and reactionary, but because of that fact?

You know, I’d love for that to be the case. I’m conflicted because I need both sides. I heard a charity campaigner saying her business was other people’s pain. Without the poison industry, you can’t have the antidote business. I need there to be in a fringe or underworld, because that’s where Hack Circus comes from – that’s where I live – but I also need an establishment to react to. Rightly or wrongly, the inside helps us to contextualise those inherent outsider feelings we’ve always had…

It feels a bit odd that I find myself reacting so strongly to zine culture given the obvious parallels, but it has assumed mainstream tropes through nostalgia and through the web. I think there is so much rubbish being created that it holds the rest of us back – people assume what you’re making is ‘just another x’. Superficially, all digital looks the same, so people skim the details and miss the big picture. And, I feel, through all the anarchy of web content and anyone-doing-anything, no one else is saying things should be more ambitious, louder, even profoundly game changing.

Content is very easily appropriated, no one reads anything properly – as you said, people don’t have time. People certainly don’t have your best interests at heart; whatever you say they will take from it what suits them. But there is something beyond content that may have a hope of leading a change: its container. Digital culture has created a new outsider: there is a new sense of statement about an object. Nowadays it is so expensive and weird to make media in the real world that an object has to have a point. That’s why print design is so much more beautiful and complete than web design; it’s not the fault of web designers, who are ingenious within their extraordinary constraints. But websites are so enormously compromised, so crushingly shareable on every level, every pixel, that it is much harder to allow digital the basic privilege of its own voice. In short, I think we might be able to use the physicality of magazines and events to gain a bit of ground that has been lost by digital because the meaning of physicality has changed.

I’ve always said that “Content isn’t king, conversation is” — that is, “content” is only valuable to the extent that it gives you something to talk about and make part of the social context of you and
your friends.

I understand how your events are “conversational,” but don’t you worry that print magazines are hobbled by their physicality in this regard? Whatever demerits a digital piece has, it has the virtue of being able to be shared with everyone you think would have something to say about it (as you say, this is the source of so much of our overload, too, which arguably validates my hypothesis about this value)?

And about zines: I always thought that the thing that made zines so valuable while they lasted was that they were uncommodifiable in that a trained commercial designer would probably rather gouge her out eyes out before making things that were that heroically ugly (at least until a new generation of designers emerged from zine culture). The same was true for Geocities pages and Myspace pages.

One problem with “bohemian” projects is that they can be moved from the underground to the high street in seconds. How do you put a defensive ring around your noncommercial, anti-utilitarian technology? 

I think a lot of ziners would argue their work is/was a kind of artful ‘poverty design’ – the beauty and ingenuity of making do with what you have, and I absolutely appreciate that and can relate to it with Hack Circus. And I agree that the Myspace and Geocities days were definitely the inheritors of that spirit. But the fact it looks like a style (even an ugly one) means it looks like a dream, and the resulting glorification of amateurism and its associated poverties comes with a danger. Because it reinvents quality along lines that have no external measure, and in doing so devalues everything, including itself. Websites used to be something people visited, left a note on, and left. The reader had limited agency, and we were constantly aware there was an invisible barrier between author and reader; that the internet was a series of destinations, not just a flip book with us at the middle of every page.

I think the almost comically extreme trend towards online shareability is partly about our desperation to be noticed by *anyone*, now that the internet is so crowded. The cocktail of ‘shareable’ and total power of authorship leads to a dangerously irresistible temptation to talk chiefly about oneself. The social internet perpetuates the illusion we are at the centre of the universe. Hopefully we are on the way to something good, but in some ways, digital is going through its ‘terrible adolescent poetry’ phase. If you want people to buy something, whether you’re creating propaganda or doing commercial publishing (or both!) you cannot presume an interest in you or the things that matter to you. You have to meet your readers halfway.

To meet people halfway means finding a common language, and beautiful, evocative design is one way to do that very quickly. I believe it’s a lot easier to achieve that connection through print, paradoxically because it slightly pushes the viewer into a role – it sets them back into a read-only mode. So I think physical magazines are conversational, but in a slightly more subtle way. I mean, people absolutely love magazines. And advertisers love what people love, and that’s why mags have weathered the rise of digital better than newspapers. Beautiful magazines arrive like magic in the world, especially ones which come through your letterbox. Online magazines are not just ‘magazines on a screen’, they are a totally different beast – they’re less magical, less personal. You know everyone else is looking at your dream at the same time. You can see them being constructed in front of you, and that’s a different kind of voyeurism.

But yes, of course it would have been easier to have made a digital thing, both in terms of reaching audiences and creating something immediately understandable to people. This is why I try to talk about Hack Circus as a sort of phenomena rather than any single thing, and I think that’s how I am protecting it. Giving people something to buy gives them a piece of it in the world; you know you are one of a limited set of rather unusual people who would buy a peculiar print magazine, sight unseen, in this climate, and it creates a sort of community on the edges. There’s also the podcast, the live events, and the blog, where I do post ‘shareable’ content. As for protecting that spirit from high street commercialisation, well, as someone trying to survive in society, both Hack Circus and I already have a foot in that world, so it’s only as fenced in as any money ever is. So while I’m trying to elect allegiance on the most value-matching grounds possible, it’s not really possible to hold the project to a higher ethical standard than anything else in the supply chain.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *