I had the pleasure of spending some time with Cory Doctorow on Feb. 25 at the Jefferson Hotel here in the nation’s capital. Doctorow is the author of “Little Brother” and more recently “Homeland.” He’s perhaps more well known as a co-editor of Boing Boing, a long standing must-read for people like me. Here are some amusing excerpts from our chat.
Malda: Burning man. I know nothing about it. The only thing I know about it is that at the Hack Space I worked at for a year, there were two kids building suits for Burning Man.
Cory Doctorow: I never went to Burning Man when I lived in San Francisco, but my wife talked me into going for my 40th birthday. People go totally, completely all out and do the most improbable things. It reminds me a bit of the Teller from Penn & Teller where one of the secrets of magic being is that when people see a magician doing a trick like making cockroaches appear they suppose that it’s possible to train cockroaches, but nobody would do it. One of the secrets of magic is that you actually do train cockroaches. You do the improbable as part of the the preparation, and people discount it. Burning Man is like that.
Malda: You make a concerted effort in Homeland to tell people how to do certain things. You will have a character talk about securing an Android Phone for a page or more. That’s an article I read on the internet two years ago, maybe the same time you did.
Doctorow: It’s a tradition in techno thrillers to have have spycraft excerpts. James Bond explains his cypher wheel. On one hand, this is in that tradition. I grew up with books like “Steal this Book” and “The Whole Earth Catalog” — books that were filled with recipes or instructions for doing stuff. That was back when facts were expensive. How do you cheat a pay phone to give you a dial tone without a quarter? ... If you know something is possible, you can type it into a search engine and find out how to do it, so the challenge today is to convey that things are possible, and that they are worth doing. And that’s what the book is doing. It’s not recipes like Make Magazine. It’s the pitch that you would make to Make Magazine to get the editor to buy your article. My hope is that kids will follow from this and type it into a search engine.
Malda: You had a thing about cold brew coffee. You explain for two pages how to make cold brew coffee. You had an article a few years ago on a book tour where you explained your frustration with coffee while on a book tour. You explained the Aeropress which I use.
Doctorow: I have one upstairs
Malda: So this is familiar material to me.
Doctorow: It’s about conveying your enthusiasm. My readers like that enthusiastic voice. The dirty secret about geeking out is that it becomes a meditation. What starts as a frivolous “whatever” and people go, “whatever, look at that guy with too much time on his hands” becomes a meditation. Thinking about anything and doing it well becomes meditative.
Malda: You see that with coffee. They have all their procedures and scales. This is relatively new to me: an Aeropress is relatively simple. Pour-over [coffee] has 20 steps, and you can add steps 21-23. It becomes a Zen thing.
Doctorow: Yeah, being there in the moment. Coffee is a drug, and taking a drug without thinking about it is a great way to take too much of that drug. Whereas taking a drug and putting a lot of thought into it is a way to master it instead of having it master you.
Malda: I like ritual. I like procedure. But it’s not creative. It’s you executing a specific pattern.
Doctorow: But if you are trying to optimize it, it is creative.
Malda: Security. Paranoia. Where do you sit in that world?
Doctorow: Security. Although there are things we can and should do to be secure, I think there are borderline miraculous things about information security — like that the universe allows cryptography. Wove into the fabric of the universe is the fact that encrypting a message is easier than decrypting it — trillions of times easier by brute force. Secrets are woven into the fabric of the universe. That’s cool. We should all geek out on that. But no one of us can make our device secure. Right now, the way that we regulate device security is backwards. We tell people that it’s against the law to remove the locks from their devices because you might be able to commit copyright infringement. The [Digital Millennium Copyright Act] DMCA prohibits the removal of locks, which is effectively prohibition on the close inspection of devices that are now everywhere, that we put inside our bodies. At the same time, we have terms of service agreements that are sometimes treated with the force of criminal law.
If we were talking about waterborne parasites, no one would say — if you open your plumbing or test your water; if you examine the sewer system or tell your friends about problems with the water — you are a criminal. Nobody would say that water rules should be [rejiggered] to maximize profits for the entertainment industry. The Internet is just as important as water to people now. Take away the Internet and people start dying.
Malda: I can’t even turn my lights off.
Doctorow: The plane I flew in to get here is a flying Sun Solaris workstation in a very fancy aluminum case. … Until we start conforming our regulation to the reality of the universe — the world is made of computers and networks, and they should be regulated as a public good, and not as a means of maximizing the profits of entertainment companies, or assuaging the fear of pornography — we are going to get it consistently wrong. We can’t even teach kids to be private on the Internet because the most major invasion of kids’ privacy is the federally mandated censorship walls on school and library networks, which in addition to censoring the Internet, they surveil the Internet. If you tell kids that privacy matters while simultaneously taking away their privacy, its like telling them not to smoke while you are lighting one secret off another and stubbing it out in the ash tray. Actions speak louder than words.
Doctorow: Hackerspaces are amazing. My hackerspace in London is upstairs from me. Although they are moving to a bigger space. They discovered that they forgot what bank account subscription fees were going into. They had been paying out of other revenues and they realized they were rich. So, they are moving to a bigger space. On the plus side, sometimes the vent hood for the laser cutter doesn’t work. And I discovered that as I become dizzy and realize that my office is filled with toxic fumes.
Malda: 3D Printed Guns?
Doctorow: I’m a Canadian who lives in Britain. I have never grown up with guns. I am actually largely in favor of some form of effective gun control. I do think that 3D printers today offer opportunities to circumvent some forms of gun control. And more importantly, 3D printing tomorrow will offer opportunities to make guns and other things we’d want to control like meth labs.
The key word is “effective”. Prohibiting 3D printers from executing certain instruction sets would be an ineffective means of regulation. First because it would be trivial to circumvent, as we know from the copyright wars, prohibitions on circumvention don’t prevent circumvention, they prevent deep inspection in order to discover their security flaws and to keep people safe. Because we don’t know how to make a computer that can execute every instruction except for the one that [ticks off] a regulator, our closest approximation is a computer that can execute every instruction, but has spyware lurking in the box. Some Hal 9000 program whose job it is to watch everything you do in case you do the prohibited thing, at which point it swings to the fore and says, “I’m sorry I can’t let you do that, Dave.”
In order to make that a more effective system you have to design the computer so that the owner can’t see everyone that it does, and it is backstopped by some sort of regulation. Once that happens there is an invisibility cloak built into a computer that any bad guy can use to sneak into a computer and cloak her actions in order to compromise the user further. So, on the one hand, we shouldn’t do this because it won’t stop bad guys, and on the other because it will put the owners of 3D printers at risk big and small. Charlie Stross [author of “Rule 34”] imagines waking up one morning having the Second Life griefer attack being transmitted into your hacked 3D printer so that your entire house is filled up with 3D-printed [manly naughty bits] that have rolled off the build platform until the printer ran out of plastic.
Malda: You laugh, but that happens at my house all the time.
Doctorow: Yeah. I really do think this is the stuff that gets missed. Our requirement to put spyware into computers is not good for the general public. This is the cyber warfare discussion. Doesn’t cyber warfare, that is to say the trade in zero-day exploits, doesn’t that save lives because it keeps people from fighting wars, and instead we sabotage the enemies material?
The problem is that when you create a market for zero days, you change the market for security. If you discover a flaw in a device that could be used to harm the public, rather than disclose that to the manufacturer, you sell it to the government. Then the government has incentive to make sure that nobody finds out about this flaw and repairs it. Which means we end up with devices that are more likely to have back doors in them that the government knew about. Our devices get less secure as they become increasingly interwoven into more critical areas of our lives.
Doctorow: Embedded [operating systems] are used in implanted medical devices like the implanted defibrillator. The implanted defibrillator is a really cool piece of technology that will keep you alive if you have a weak heart. Barnaby Jack demoed an attack where he could hack into their wireless interface to —
Malda: Defibrillate to the tune of Skrillex?
Doctorow: Worse! To seek out other defibrillators and reprogram them to become a vector for an attack which could deliver lethal shocks. One person, without their knowledge, could be reprogramming all the defibulators. It is already a matter of life and death for people walking around today. And yet governments are buying flaws in implanted [operating systems] who sell them rather than disclosing them. And then the governments keep them a secret. They say that‘s in the name of safety, but that’s not going to be much comfort to grandpa when he keels over because some griefer hacked his heart.
Malda: I haven’t read the second half of the book yet, is there anything you want to talk about in there?
Doctorow: Well, there’s the Godzilla attack…
Malda: Did you see the article about buying your way onto the New York Times bestseller list?
Doctorow: We’re not doing that!
Malda: I’m not accusing you...
Doctorow: We are buying our way onto the bestseller list by sending me to places I meet people who like my books. That’s the honest way to do it.
Malda: That’s a fair way to end… Buy the book!
Doctorow: Homeland is in bookstores!
(I then proceeded to force him to sign my copy. Thanks to Cory for hanging out with me when he probably would rather have slept.)