I’m of the nerd vintage who came of age reading Slashdot, so Cory Doctorow has long been a fixture in my map of the tech landscape. I remember staying late a few nights at my first real job to print out chapters of his first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, on the company’s toner dime.
As the industry shifted, it seemed more and more like Doctorow’s arguments about digital rights were losing, or at least failing. His warnings about DRM and trading control over our computers for slick design started to feel, at the very least, quaint as streaming and the iPhone ascended. Rather than shrink back, though, Doctorow only expanded his critique, in march-step with the locust-like way tech was, as Marc Andreessen so inelegantly yet appropriately put it, “eating the world”. After the global financial crisis, it wasn’t just computer manufacturers and global entertainment conglomerates but finance, management consulting, and burgeoning social media companies that came under Doctorow’s ever critical eye.
Reading this recent profile in the New Yorker, I couldn’t help but feel Doctorow’s post-cyberpunk oeuvre has been pretty much right all along. His hand wringing about DRM and mobile phones that we can no longer repair were the forbearers of a level of corporate intrusion into our everyday lives that now feels inescapable.
Having read Doctorow for over 20 years now, I can’t help but marvel at not just his amazingly prolific output but his consistency. As the Washington Consensus of neoliberalism has given way to the Silicon Valley Consensus of a neo Gilded Age, Doctorow’s critique has held up remarkably well. If it feels weird the self-styled brahmins of Sand Hill Road are, for example, cheerleading massive consolidation and monopoly power when it comes to using capital over labor in the case of Uber, but very performatively skeptical of that same monopoly power when it comes to Apple’s app store, it will be comforting to know Doctorow has written extensively about how they’re both wrong. The same is true for those on the left who saw social media as tech-as-liberation during the remarkably brief aftermath of the Arab Spring — Doctorow knew this was foolish long before Cambridge Analytica or Elon Musk.
Fortunately, it doesn’t seem like he intends to slow down, with eight books currently in the queue and his gaze ever widening to AI, VR, crypto, and whatever else is coming. I’m willing to bet he’ll continue to be right.