Saturday, January 12, 2013




Perhaps the most progressive tendencies in written culture right now have nothing to do with science fiction and utopia. Perhaps they have to do with Young Adult (AKA YA) and design fiction.

(Or perhaps avant-garde poetry. I never know about that).

But I do think that YA, and near future dystopian YA in particular, must be just absolutely the idlest genre in all the multiverse.

Because it’s so hard NOT to totally nail it.

Take the “near future” bit first. If you write in that genre, you needn’t lose sleep over elaborate worldbuilding, as you might for, say, space opera –  you can just wander about a bit and stare at stuff and write it down. “Glowering penguin bollard.” “Mint velvet treggings.”

But at the same time, if any detail is WRONG, well, that’s just the subtle uncanniness of your near future setting. The Americanisms in Pirate Cinema are a case in point. “Dirty gray,” avers Doctorow at one point. “Pedophile,” he claims elsewhere.
“[Jammy Dodger] was also the name of his [Jem’s] favorite biscuit: the old classic round cookie filled with raspberry jam. I didn’t like the cookies much, but I was proud to be a JD, really. It was nice to belong.”
So Jem’s “favorite” “biscuit” is a “cookie”? Where exactly does HE belong? Stuffed up a chimney with Burt off Mary Poppins? Taking High Coffee-with-cream on the ceiling, munching their Jello-y Dodgers? Hmm. (Eyes go extra slitty).

(Here's another wee post about YA, BTW. Re the Americanisms in the UK: I did something pretty similar in the book I just wrote (Invocation). It’s set in the UK in the near future, and I thought I was being clever, forecasting increased Transatlantic cross-fertili(s/z)ation. But when I see another author doing it, suddenly I’m all prickly and suspicious).

It took me a while to confirm that Pirate Cinema was a near future novel in the first place. It opens with a Community Support Police Officer (“CP30”?) knocking on the McCauley family’s front door. On account of Trent McCauley’s copyright sins (our young hero is a cinema remix fanatic), the entire McCauley family are getting their net connection snipped. So at first I guessed we were talking present day: isn’t that a contemporary intellectual property controversy? Wasn’t that in the papers, like, a few months ago?
“I saw that what I had mistaken for anger was really terror. He [Dad] was even more scared than I was. Scared that without the net, his job was gone. Scared that without the net, Mum couldn’t sign on every week and get her benefits. Without the net, my sister Cora wouldn’t be able to do her schoolwork” (Loc. 114-17).
I checked it out, and it transpires we’re living in the limbo between the drafting of the law and its implementation. The Digital Economy Act of 2010 devised the broad principles: copyright-owners can cut off the internet connections of downloaders and filesharers who repeatedly infringe copyrights. The copyright-owners will have other debuffs in their quiver, but Pirate Cinema doesn’t really focus on those. BT and TalkTalk, an unlikely pair of paladins, lost their appeal on behalf of the Forces of Light in March 2012. The communications regulator, Ofcom, is now working out the details of the implementation, and it will probably kick off around 2014.

So Pirate Cinema could be set any time after 2014. The global warming stuff in the background pushes it back a few years too. I'll guess, 2020. If you were finnicky you could say the out-of-synch laws on squatting (at least, no mention of the non-residential requirement – see below) and laws on copyright, plus the invented pop culture (Trent is obsessed with a fictional film star called Scot Colson) actually make this a subtly-alternate history novel.

But it is BASICALLY near future. I think it was “at His Majesty’s pleasure” which sealed the deal for me. In Doctorow’s universe, the Royal Clog Popper has been summoned. (I imagine the Queen's death happened something like a Terry Pratchett King’s Speech redraft:

“What just happened? Who are you? Address me the first time as ‘Your Majesty,’ and after that you may call me ma’am.”


Maggie Smith played Queen Elizabeth II. Death played himself).

Just as the “near future” bit can loosen realism’s corset, so too can the “dystopian” bit. All your drama, all your narrative tension and conflict, can be built into the setting. This is just a world where terrible stuff happening is normal. It’s never going to stretch credibility to have, say, some guys in shades burst through a wall in a Hummer and start kidnapping everyone willy-nilly.

“What just happened? Who are you? Who sent you? AAARGH!”

“Let that be a warning to the rest of you. FICTION sent us.”

Same goes for the “YA” bit. It can encourage idleness in an experienced writer. If you’ve written something and it turns out a bit one-dimensional, that’s because you have a younger audience in mind. If it turns out a bit complicated, well, then that’s because you really respect the sophistication of your younger audience. You’re really pushing the genre in interesting and exciting directions. Well done!

On top of this, there’s something weird going on with YA fiction. It has to do with all the Actually Just Adults who write it and read it. It also has to do with age being, these days, a pretty bad indicator of what someone does or doesn’t know – let alone what they should or shouldn’t know. The possibility that a younger audience will surprise you with its sophistication is – whatever else it may be – a symptom of social atomisation. People mature at different rates. Different parts of people mature at different rates (like cheese, I think. Maybe that’s where the expression “follow your nose” comes from. I digress). Most importantly, different versions of “maturity” compete with one another. But it’s not as if YA is in crisis, faced with such an uncertain and fluctuating audience. On the contrary, YA is flourishing – intellectually, imaginatively, and financially too.

One explanation is that YA has seized some territory from middlebrow-to-lowbrow fiction, supplying the delight of undemanding reading with the added value of euphemism. This is not fiction for dumb people, it is fiction for young people! Playing dumb is a dubious pastime. Are you really pretending? How do you know you’re really pretending? Maybe you really are just dumb? You’re never quite sure. Whereas if you’re an adult who reads YA you may feel whimsical, nostalgic, ironic, knowingly self-indulgent, or even totally cutting edge and “magisterial” (the teenage argot in Pirate Cinema sounds – in the distinguished YA tradition à la A Clockwork Orange – totally preposterous, implausible and cringe-worthy; it’s probably all true), but you know for sure you’re not just young.

So perhaps that describes part of the present success of YA. Here’s a more interesting idea though (or a more interesting idea of putting the same idea). Perhaps part of the appeal of YA has nothing to do with age, but with simplicity per se.

That’s not to say there aren’t YA authors, good and bad, who are attempting, in good faith and in bad, to write for young adults as a category, to connect with their experience and their capacities. Of course there are. But perhaps YA is also part of an age-transcendent project which seeks a common ground where we can all stand, a plain speech we can all speak and understand. In that case, YA has an affinity with plain-language philosophy and with American pragmatist naturalism. It is invested (borrowing a title of a book on the pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty) in the politics of redescription.

YA is friendly. It hopes to be hospitable too. Hospitality can be labour-intensive (“can I get you anything?”). Or it can also be a kind of idleness (“help yourself to whatever, what’s mine is yours”). And weirdly, it can be BOTH at the same time. Real warmth and welcome often involves a kind of – a cunning neglect, you could call it – which frees up the host’s energy and attention to be focused where it’s really needed.

Or, to choose some notions perhaps a bit closer to Doctorow’s heart, perhaps YA conventions can be used as a way of “doing” inclusivity, transparency and openness? Openness also has a complex and ambivalent relationship with idleness. Sometimes being transparent and open is just a matter of tearing down fences, of throwing things open to all‑comers, and kicking back. But protecting the resulting free spaces from being co-opted or subverted by outside interests often turns out to be very demanding work. On top of that, in subcultures which really place a premium on individual liberty, it takes a constant extra effort to BE an individual. You can’t rely on knowing “your place in the world” as a shortcut to knowing “who you are.” You can’t rely on hierarchies and ingroup/outgroup rivalries – you have to constantly work it out for yourself.


2.1 Cool

This is getting a bit abstract. I’ll return to it later. In the meanwhile, how does Pirate Cinema fit in? Trent, abashed and aghast, soon runs away to London to lose his virginity, experiment with drugs, meet gay people, live in a squat, acquire a stupid street name, produce more fan-vid counterculture, and learn the true meaning of ... well, copyright, mainly.

So for starters, Pirate Cinema about someone working out who he is. It’s also very much about the delight and fragility of autonomous living. Is it THAT fragile, though? W-e-e-ell ...

Sleeping rough in Doctorow’s dystopian near future London resembles life in full communist paradise! Yes, teen runaways, prepare to fish delicious, posh gourmet meals from a skip. You’ll end up with some funny combinations, mind! Afterwards you’ll go to a magic warehouse and be given a free laptop. You’ll have to help cobble it together, mind! “It's a kind of spiritual snobbery that makes people think they can be happy without money,” says Albert Camus. So you will learn the cheat code for begging, and after that gain as many coins as you want. You won’t really have any NEED for your treasure, since everything is free, so you will mostly, uh, give it to beggars. You may also however clatter and jingle your way onto merry red buses at twice the normal fare, instead of getting an Oyster card. “He [Jem again, the Dickensian-in-a-bad-way “gentleman adventurer” who takes Trent under his wing] paid my fare, handing over a clatter of pound coins from his jingling pocket” (Loc. 555-556). (I exaggerate: Cash fare: £2.40, Oyster pay-as-you-go: £1.40. Yes I know about the deposit, but still).

Also, there are all these basically contemptible and limp “cool” “kids” who go to “cool” “parties.” They will all be like Angelina Jolie in the 1990s film Hackers. You will live in a cool squat with some of these boy Angelina Jolies.

Okay, so your cool squat will attract some dodgy characters. But what will these dodgy characters do? Will some of them violently beat you and rape you, perhaps? Will you perhaps pour your life and soul into protecting one of these self-destructive dodgy characters, only to have them OD, or die from liver poisoning, or commit suicide the first morning you allow yourself a lie-in?

No, far worse. One of them will insist on hogging the good food, stay up late and then complain about the noise when you get up at a normal people hour.

Oh. Those aren’t “dodgy characters.” Those are just FLATMATES.

Presumably if you suffer from depression or schizophrenia, or are raped, or stabbed, or get seriously addicted, or seriously ill, there are skips full of free health care and counselling and so on?

That skip behind Waitrose in particular seems WAY too straightforward. It’s just SO permanent and accessible and well-stocked. If nothing else, skipping is a grey area of the law: technically the stuff in the skip is still store property, so technically snarfing it counts as theft. Trent’s street sensei Jem AT LEAST ought to be furtive and nervous. If he’s found a gastro-fount, he wouldn’t want it mobbed by growly bellies. Nor would he want a jobsworth security guard or store manager giving him a hard time, or putting locks on the skips out of spite (“Listen mate, at the end of the day, if you get food poisoning and decide to sue, where would that leave us?”). It’s not an Items Shoppe at a dungeon mouth: staff may change, company and store policy may change. If stuff’s getting constantly chucked away, Waitrose are going to look at lowering procurement or discounting more aggressively. They’re going to look more carefully at composting and recycling. They’re going to chat to food distribution charities like FareShare, or even the Hari Krishnas – because that tramp’s legs wiggling in the bin out back are, frankly, an embarrassment. Someone as supposedly sharp as Jem wouldn’t be goading the local warlords, or the visiting inhouse auditors from Corporate, with nonchalance and triumphalism.

(This isn't the first time Doctorow has played around with paradise in poverty, and/or vice-versa. The narrator of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (2003), Julius, recollects a time when he was ‘[...] poor as a man can be’ (150). Nevertheless, ‘Compared to 99.99999 percent of all the people who’d ever lived, I had a life of unparalleled luxury’ (150). Julius describes how the other down-and-outers ‘got along just fine, hanging out in parks, arguing, reading, staging plays, playing music.’ I may come back to that ...)

2.2 Begging

In Pirate Cinema “cheat code for begging” is actually one of the better bits, to be fair. Jem has adopted an empirical approach to panhandling. He methodically alters variables of appearance and behaviour – the colour of the cardboard sign he clutches etc. – taking meticulous notes, till he hits on the most lucrative combo.

When Doctorow is doing this kind of quirkiness (tourists in “zap caps” that deal with the global warming mozzies, there’s another example), it usually comes across as winningly hyperreal or irreal or surreal, rather than distractingly unrealistic. I wish there were slightly more such quirkiness. In this case, it also works as ancillary satire of the disproportionate influence of marketing methodology in shaping policy throughout society. The ideal, of course, would have been if Jem had somehow convened a focus group:

“Okay, this is Prompt C. ‘Excuse me hello don’t worry I’m not going to hurt you I was hoping you could help me out I’m looking to get into a shelter for the night and I just need seven pounds more.’ I’ll say it one more time so you can hear. ‘Excuse me hello don’t worry I’m not going to hurt you I was hoping you could help me out I’m looking to get into a shelter for the night and I just need seven pounds more.’ Now no talking, remember. Just jot down literally your first impressions, and then we’ll discuss it as a group. I’ll give you just literally two minutes. Can you write ‘Prompt C’ at the top? Uh, is that – yes, ‘Prompt C.’ It’s just so at the end I know which is which! Two minutes.”

I do suspect that the way begging is constructed as a topic of scientific enquiry in Pirate Cinema partly reflects the consolatory requirements of a kind of affluent navel-gazing bourgeois consciousness marvelling at its own inconsistency in encounters with beggars. It’s sort of comforting to locate the source of this inconsistency in the secret logic of begging, rather than see myself as arbitrary and unjust, AS WELL as miserly.

“So when a beggar presents himself to you, you have to ask yourself – do I need a beggar today? If you do, give him alms.” – Tom Stoppard, Indian Ink.

Plus the way begging is portrayed in Pirate Cinema, it has an almost meritocratic aspect. Jem is a virtuoso, and he’s obviously rolling in dosh. Not only does he not bother with Oyster cards q.v., he says he’d “sooner starve than eat Domino’s. Save up for this stuff. [It’s some kind of really nice pizza]. It ain’t cheap, but this is a special occasion.”

All I’m saying is, medium Firenze from Domino’s is £15, so Jem be stacking some SRS cheese.

Although, pizza is a very popular dish.

So I can well believe it.

Perhaps Doctorow inadvertently retweets a old radical free market capitalist myth, the one about being able to succeed financially from any starting position, without any support. “If you want to double your success rate, triple your failure rate,” Jem advises. But not everyone has that kind of wiggle room.


Then again, perhaps I shouldn’t brood too much over the bling Jem’s begging brings, since EVERYTHING in Pirate Cinema feels sort like the outcome of some past process of streamlining.

There is ONE okay illegal drug, spliff, and ONE bad illegal drug, sugar. There is ONE source for any technology – that laptop q.v., most egregiously – and everything there is free. There is pretty much only one grassroots activist movement, anti-copyright. I’ve mentioned that Items Skippe already. How do you find the SECRET cool parties in London? Basically, you just go online. There’s this one site you go to. Everyone on it is adorkable. If you leave cool comments, you get invited to the SECRET cool website, where they invite you to the SECRET cool parties.

This faintly fabulist, user-friendly atmosphere isn’t so bad in itself. But Pirate Cinema also often sports a kind of dissociative disorder, with mutually over-compensating (yep) grimness of vision and cosiness of address. As though the Land of Shit and AIDS Needles has come to the top of the Faraway Tree, hurrah! (I exaggerate again. A little).

Plus that’s all combined with a kind of gameplay imbalance – there just isn’t enough conflict and mystery for my liking. How do you lose your V-plates and get a cool girlfriend? Um, basically you just go online again. Then you find out where the girl you fancied at the cool party works (the cool anarchist bookshop, obv.) and go there and she fancies you back. So someone who COULD have been a love interest and a source of dramatic tension – by her implicit inscrutable gaze, if nothing else – instead becomes yet another sidekick / oracle in literature’s comfiest bildungsroman:

Use coming-of-age wizard (recommended)? ☐

Come of age yourself (for advanced ingénues only).  ☐

The ultimate boss is all humourless red-faced spluttering in his straining pinstripe suits. It’s kind of the MG fiction school of villainy, to my eye. Where are the agent provocateurs? Where’s the astroturf? Where are the spin doctors, and the churnalism which makes them invincible? Big corporations have weaponised humour just as effectively as activist pranksters. Why isn’t Trent smeared, with faux jolliness, as a Trustafarian Shoreditch Wanker / Angry Young Man who can’t be bothered to get a proper job?

At one point Trent McCauley narrates ominously, “Of course it was too good to last,” or words to that effect. Then a little later there’s some similar prophecy. “It was all about to go to shit,” or whatever. And I was genuinely scratching my head as to whether Trent’s good fortunes had been reversed and restored, and were about to be reversed again, and I just hadn’t noticed, or whether Trent’s two forecasts both referred to something yet to happen. Like a completely flat rollercoaster, with a driver who keeps saying, “Are you ready for this?!” and you’re not sure when to politely scream. Then a little further along, Trent is at it again. “Everything was about to go Pete Tong,” or whatever.


4.1 Information and ideas

The kinds of threats Trent does face, he seldom literally FACES. They’re either inside him (“Heart of stone, didn’t you just read that Trent’s sad again? Heart of stone? WAKE UP, HEART OF STONE! TRENT IS SAD AGAIN!”) or they’re unimaginably vast and nebulous threats (effectively the entire entertainment industry plus the government).

Doctorow deals himself other good cards – stuff to do with police surveillance, snitches in the underground, etc. – which he fails to play to any great effect. I feel like he should have flipped the pages of one of those ultimately Satanic über-prescriptive How To Write A Bestseller manuals. You know, like, “Make every sentence increase the tension. Have your MC face his deepest fear in the climactic battle. Make everything gurn and blow up.”

Then again, those manuals are really imagining a different kind of novel. In THIS one, everyone scoots around on soapboxes like irritating Davroses. Doctorow’s mouthpieces weave data-dumps on squatting, skipping, parliamentary process and party politics, fanvidding and the nature of creativity, the entertainment industry, encryption, and above all, copyright.

I think it’s pretty silly to take issue with Pirate Cinema for preachiness. Doctorow hasn’t performed a switch-and-bait, promising us “plot” and then giving us “his beliefs.” He’s just written a candidly and straightforwardly didactic novel. We can disagree with the ideas, the information, the arguments: but it’s disingenuous to protest that the ideas, information and arguments are there in the first place. (That may be putting it a bit strongly. I’ll touch on this again at the end). My favourite was the hacking stuff:
“That’s the Trusted Computing snitch. It’s a nice bit of engineering: triple thickness of epoxy alternating with corrosive acids that will destroy the chip if you try to remove it. Got its own little onboard processor, too, and some memory it uses to store a crytographic certificate [...] Ten years ago, a bunch of big companies and governments decided it would be handy if computers could be redesigned to disobey their owners, keep secrets from them. If there were secrets stored in computers that owners couldn’t see, you could get up to all sorts of mischief. You could make sure that computers never copied when they weren’t supposed to. You could spy on peoples’ private communications. You could embed hidden codes in the video and photos and network packets they made and trace them back to individual computers [...] So we’ve been having this invisible arms race for the past decade, users versus manufacturers, trying to hide and recover secrets from electronics.” (Loc. 983-999).
“About ten years ago” – does that definitely place us around 2015 then? There is a tension between a novel of ideas and information, on the one hand, and a near future / slightly-alternate history novel, on the other. Because you don’t just have to deal with what’s true and what’s false. You also have to deal with what’s true and what’s fictional.

4.2 Squatting

The squatting stuff for instance, is perhaps slightly out of date. “Squatter’s rights, mate” (Loc. 546). About a month before Pirate Cinema came out, a new Conservative / Lib Dem law came into effect in the UK (Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, Section 144) which criminalises squatting in residential properties. Squatters can be immediately forcibly evicted, and face up to six months’ prison and a fine of up to £5,000.

The government consultation – “Options For Dealing With Squatters” – is another in a long line of sham consultations, the kind which has already made up its mind, and isn’t even very good at concealing its patrician smirk.

That doesn’t mean that the groundswell against the squatting law was wasted effort, BTW. It may well have mitigated the worst bits: there is an exemptions for tenants who remain after their lease, for instance, and it doesn’t apply to non-residential properties, though the consultation document leaves that door (LOL) very much open:
“At this stage the Government will not seek to criminalise squatting in non-residential buildings, such as disused factories, warehouses or pubs as there does not appear to be the same level of concern about squatting that occurs in those premises. The Government remains concerned about squatters who occupy commercial buildings that are in use and will continue to explore whether the enforcement of existing criminal offences (such as criminal damage and burglary) and civil procedures that enable owners to regain possession of their properties can be improved.”

The new law PROBABLY wouldn’t affect Trent. Residential properties are defined as structures or parts thereof which have been “designed or adapted, before the time of entry, for use as a place to live.” The Zeroday pub which he and Jem squat sounds like one of those big old places where the publican’s family might live upstairs. So perhaps it could be an interesting test case. If something like the Zeroday were deemed non-residential, and there were no other criminal offences taking place, then the new law wouldn’t help its landlord: he’d probably have to rely on civil law, not criminal law (see e.g. Part 55, Civil Procedure Rules) to turf out his unwelcome guests. “It’s not a crime, it’s a civil violation.” (Loc. 614-615). That process can ultimately culminate in a forcible eviction, but the process takes much longer. So there would usually be a kind of default grace period between being found squatting and being evicted. For that grace period, someone who needs a place to stay has a place to stay.

And/or, during that grace period, an autonomous community can arise. Occupied social centres have a long history of hosting meetings, workshops, conferences, lectures, film screenings (obv.), exhibitions, performances, benefit gigs, advice services, social work, swap shops, skill swaps, bike stuff, hippie stuff, etc. There is typically an emphasis on voluntarism, strong egalitarianism and democracy (consensus decision making, rather than majority votes), mutual aid, and DIY. A provisional community centred on a squat may be involved with a particular campaign or project, or may go through several distinct linked phases, or it may be more general and open-ended.

Supporters of the new anti-squatting law have tended to present it in rather misleading language. There is talk about strengthening homeowners’ rights, with the implication that squatters could be keeping people out of their homes. But it was already an offence to squat properties, if you were asked to leave by “displaced residential occupier” or a “protected intending occupier” (that’s Section 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1977). They also talk about the time and expense of an eviction through the civil courts, but the law’s design doesn’t really reflect those priorities. The new criminal offence could have been refusal to leave within six weeks of an official request by the owner of a residential property. It’s not. It’s really a law designed for people who own properties they don’t need to live in. It’s a landlords’ law. It is an unwise law, degrading a delicate compromise which there were solid Lib Dem rationales and even solid Tory rationales (certainly for the One Nation Tory faction, and perhaps for the Thatcherites too) for preserving, even before you bring class warfare into it.

A bit more info here:


5.1 Srs??

Of course, squatting isn't the main focus of Pirate Cinema.

AGENT: Only, I felt there was a section just here where things were kind of flagging, maybe we could have some guys come through the wall in a Humvee –

CORY DOCTOROW: Got you, and then they give a long speech about intellectual property to get the adrenaline pumping?!

In the film of The Princess Bride, Dan Savage gets gramps to skip past the kissing parts. Some people skip to them. I think, excruciatingly, I'm becoming the kind of guy who wants to skip to the lectures on copyright law.

But I have a feeling Cory Doctorow is even slightly further along the finding-diatribes-about-intellectual-property-pretty-damn-exciting spectrum than I am. And I’m just a bit worried our end of the spectrum might be looking kinda dead. Even like it might be closing soon. There’s a guy wiping down tables and putting chairs on top of them.

(I've always suspected it's more that Savage doesn't want to like it. "You like it?" "Very arousing Granddad thanks.")

5.2 Detour

Plus, as I’ve already suggested, it’s tricky to be educative about something as subtle and vast and mercurial as intellectual property law within a novel, especially a near future novel like this, because any detail is liable to be made up. I kind of wish Pirate Cinema came with some appendices which separated the fact from the fiction, or showed the workings of a kind of plausibility audit. Even then, the law changes fast.

I have a hunch, BTW, that the lack of any such apparatus is a conscious choice on Doctorow’s part, not just slackness. I recall hearing that he’s done that kind of "the facts behind the fiction" appendix in the past, with respect to hacking. So perhaps it has to do with calibrating the didactic novel as such, getting the balance just right, and avoiding lapsing into propaganda (even propaganda in service of a good cause).

Wait, there’s this thing the internet! Lemme see if I can find out:

@JoLWalton: @doctorow Hey, did you ever consider adding an appendix to Pirate Cinema, to point out the factual bases? Or suggest further nonfic reading?
@Doctorow: @jolwalton I did, but ran out of time.

Another brilliantly insightful hunch.

(UPDATE: I notice that, despite the All Rights Reserved on my Kindle edition (which came as part of a Humble Bundle & in the magisterial company of e.g. Kelly Link), Pirate Cinema is supplied under a Creative Commons license, albeit the fairly restrictive No Derivatives version; & a note on Doctorow's site suggests that he did this out of a desire to keep "agents, subagents, foreign editors and their bosses [...] in the loop" in discussions about making translations available, rather than any animosity or avarice in respect of derivatives per se. (Which I don't fully get, BTW. Couldn't Pirate Cinema be done under Attribution + Noncommercial + ShareAlike, so if anyone wanted to do a free translation (or other derivation) they could just go ahead, whereas a commercial translation would still require Doctorow's authorisation? That's probably wrong; I don't really get the nuances of CC! Someone explain?). So the door is definitely ajar for people who know their stuff to produce extended editions which do include such appendices. Hmm. It changes the experience of reviewing, knowing that anything you didn't like about a book is something you could potentially change. Anyway).

Cool story, Jo.

5.3 Safety Net

The new-fangled infringement disincentives permitted by the Digital Economy Act of 2010 are a major focus of the Pirate Cinema curriculum.

The McCauleys are a poorish family. Between them they rely on the net for income, education, healthcare and psychological stability (that’s Trent. He goes proper mental denied his fanvidding destiny. Of course he does). The family copes without the net, but only barely. Through the McCauleys, Doctorow makes a pretty compelling case that being forced off the net is more than just A Bit Annoying. It can be brutal.

It is also surely a kind of collective punishment! Is this REALLY the course we’re set on? I feel like Pirate Cinema glosses over this aspect, other than to suggest, quite reasonably, that it’s impractical to ban Trent from the net without banning his whole family.

Even without the guilt-by-association aspect, however, netoctomy would be a capricious and unpredictable punishment. People rely on the net to different degrees, so they will be harmed in different degrees if it is confiscated. Such an arbitrarily variable punishment, by definition, can never hope to be proportionate.

Can’t the courts take special net reliance into consideration? Perhaps, but: (a) even social workers find it difficult to get to grips with that kind of fine-grain day-to-day detail, never mind expecting magistrates to do it, and (b) even if the courts were superhumanly sensitive and responsive to individual circumstances, there are other, subtler ways in which net reliance is unquantifiable.

Let me try and get this right. Living in the developed world today typically involves a series of interdependent bureaucratic commitments and statuses, in areas including employment, tax, insurance, pension, utilities, credit, property, the exercise of consumer rights, the receipt of state benefits, miscellaneous legal disputes, etc. These interact in complex way. No one can foresee how a netoctomy will influence the unique and mercurial bureaucratic conjuncture of an individual’s life, not even that individual. (“Just get to your local library and jump on a PC” may work for some things, but it’s not an elixir). The emergent effect may be of a monstrosity which is somehow both sublimely indifferent and yet elegantly bespoke to defer your desiderata in particular. In fact, I wish Pirate Cinema could have captured a bit more of the Kafkaesque quality which appears in Life Admin on the hardest setting.

Kafkaplexity, like chaoplexity! There’s my near future YA lingo sorted. “That’s totes Kafkaplexic, fam. YOLOL.”


What Pirate Cinema IS fairly good at conveying though is the nebulous, “death-by-a-thousand-cuts” quality of that Life Admin. Library visits have to be fit around employment and childcare. Processes which should take weeks may take months. Bureaucratic windows of opportunity may pass altogether. It’s NOT about some palpable, clear-as-day injustice – “My Baby Eats Kilobytes, But The Coppers Unplugged Him.” No, it’s about postage stamps. It’s about an extra five pounds here, an extra wasted evening there. All the gradual, grinding stuff which makes you feel wimpish and brattish if you complain about it. It’s the experience of waiting for a bus that doesn’t come for ages to go to a library ten minutes before it closes where for some reason you can’t access the email which contains reference number you absolutely need by tomorrow to get out of a twenty pound fine you felt you didn’t deserve in the first place but now will have to pay, but magnified and distended over a year.

Yeah. Basically, it’s about postage stamps.

Another thing Pirate Cinema is fairly good at conveying is: all this is very difficult to understand if you are wealthy. If you are wealthy, you have that wiggle room. You affairs can be ordered in many different ways. Not having the internet would be a bore, but you’d find work-arounds. You might even find, eventually, you preferred it. Well done! Next, go around recommending it to all your rich friends. “You’re not still connected to the internet, are you? I simply don’t know where you find the time! HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!” (Bound off on space hopper, shooting stray cats).

Remember that in Draconian Athens, NO ONE WAS PERMITTED TO GO ONLINE! Not even Facebook. And what did they invent? Tragedy! It’s all there in, like, intricute microcosm.

5.4 Fair Dealing

I suspect that the way Pirate Cinema gradually depicts the McCauleys’ plight, often through implied off-stage activity, is one of its strengths as a didactic / consciousness-raising-type work.

I’m not quite so impressed with the related thread, which asserts the moral innocence and social benevolence of Trent’s copyrights infringements. Not that I don’t think Trent is morally innocent and socially benevolent. I totally do. I just suspect that he isn’t, as it were, illegal enough. Sorry pal, don’t take it personally. As such, Trent is something of a recuperation risk: his fanvidding is so obviously innocuous that policymakers are already toying with making it legit.

Under UK law it’s already perfectly fine to do all kinds of things with copyrighted works, so long as you do them for the purposes of non-commercial research or study, criticism or review, or for the reporting of current events. (This is properly known as Fair Dealing (there is also an elusive proviso that you have to treat the copyrighted works “fairly”); it sometimes gets called Fair Use, after a similar though more permissive US law. For instance, I can quote bits of Pirate Cinema without having to ask for permission (Pirate Cinema seems to be copyrighted, All Rights Reserved, BTW)). I can quote bits of, say, Jack Glass in a review of Jack Glass, without having to ask Adam Roberts for permission.

The Gower Review of Intellectual Property (2006), commissioned by Gordon Brown’s government, recommended NEW Fair Dealing exceptions – in addition to the existing exceptions for research, criticism and reporting – for parody and for transformative use. In the latter case, because it would be incompatible with European rules, Gower recommended that the UK ask “that Directive 2001/29/EC be amended to allow for an exception for creative, transformative or derivative works, within the parameters of the Berne Three Step Test.” Nothing seems to have come of that. Another review published in 2011, captained by Ian Hargreaves, reiterated Gower’s call for a parody exception. The Cameron government has very recently announced the intention to create an exception for “limited copying on a fair dealing basis which would allow genuine parody, but prohibit copying disguised as parody.”

I’m not sure how much this parody exception would help Trent. A transformative use exception looks a bit more promising. The new Hargreaves review doesn’t specifically mention any such exception (I think – I’ve only given it a quick scan), but it does suggest that the UK ought to hustle at the European level for new exceptions, such as a “non-consumptive” exception, and it does stare rather wistfully and lip-bitingly at the US system of Fair Use, where transformation is a key principle. (Compare, for example, Buffy Summers parachuted into the Twilight universe, courtesy of @RebelliousBytes).

So while a transformative use exception is certainly not inevitable, it’s certainly not impossible either. Such an exception wouldn’t get Trent COMPLETELY off the hook. He’d have wiggled to about the nadir of the U-bend, the naughty wee so-and-so. His videos would be legal, but the only really practical way of making them – downloading gazillions of films for free, to sift for appropriate footage – would still be illegal. However, Trent’s usage patterns would be quite different from someone downloading gazillions of films just to veg out. So content-owners might be willing to create services to cater for people like him. Say Trent pays a reasonable monthly subscription, and he gets to look through as much low-res, captions-only footage as he want, then download a limited amount of high-res footage and soundtrack for mixing his films. He might be happy. The content-owners might be happy too.

Like focusing too tightly on the few mermaids mashed in the tuna trawlers' haul ... does Pirate Cinema inadvertantly muster much of its polemic in service of a fairly minor adjustment to copyright law, namely a transformative fair use exemption?

I’m sort of generally aware that Cory Doctorow is an advocate for digital freedoms and an opponent of net homogenisation, net commercialisation and net surveillance. Pirate Cinema is literally – tweets and one or two linky blog posts aside – the only thing I’ve read by him [UPDATE: no longer], so I don’t know the deets of his positions. But even from just reading Pirate Cinema itself, I get the sense that his beef with the intellectual property legal regime extends way, way further than a desire for a Fair Dealing exception for transformative use in the UK, and a legitimate commercial service aimed at fanvidders. Is it another indication of a novel on too easy a setting? Even, in tutorial mode?

On the other hand, even if fairly superficial legal changes could solve Trent’s problems, his story can still illuminate the deeper structures at play. Thinking of radical politics in the UK, I would normally think of anti-cuts, anti-capitalism, anti-war, far leftism, ultraleftism, anarcho-syndicalism, feminism, environmentalism, trans activism, no borders, tax justice, anti-fascism, anti-globalisation, uh, Black Bloc stuff, culture hijacking stuff, avant garde and counterhegemonic writing and art ... and more, an altogether massive, tremendously energised, ornery, difficult and often riven and contradictory hodgepodge. But for some reason, anti-copyright didn’t feel like it was part of that hodgepodge. It felt like there might be a lot of sympathy and solidarity for it, but it felt separate.

Now, after reading Pirate Cinema, it feels part of it. Pirate Cinema’s concrete expository detail is commendable, but it was more its kind of mise-en-scène which made that come about. It doesn’t argue for the strategic importance of anti-copyright in connection with other struggles – an approach which would risk elbowing and moshing its potential allies aside – so much as portray a shared field of action. There are the MPs, strangely impotent and vacant: dognapped by their own careers, mesmerised by corporate hospitality, subjugated by their party leadership. The biggest weapon in their arsenal is simply to skive off work (just like most people, then). Then there is this fickle, sacred, baffling thing called “the public.” There are the activists: laughably impotent, hugely reliant on luck, constantly riding various runaway emotional tumbrils and arbitrary small-scale moral maelstroms, in addition to their involvement with the mega-sized ones, often being pulled in different directions, quite possibly living hand-to-mouth, and quite possibly caned, or mashed. There are the big juggernaut actors, the corporations and governments, and to some extent the political parties: they’re typified by short-termism, deafness, dogmatism, inwardness, a bungling tendency to lumberingly do the worst possible thing for everyone, including themselves, and (perhaps only in the case of the corporations, really) a less forgiveable tendency to pick vicious fights with individual scapegoats, and to thoroughly exploit the asymmetry of such fights, even paying zero regard to probable psychological and emotional harm to vulnerable victims, in their zealous pursuit of exemplary “My-God-In-What-Universe-Is-This-Even-Conceivably-Proportionate”-style compensation. Such a political landscape isn’t just a canvas or a chalkboard. It isn’t just the backdrop against which innately “bad” bits of copyright law can be depicted. Rather, it’s the mechanism by which readers can recognise intellectual property as a significant dimension of the large, complex and constantly mutating struggle for social justice.


6.1 This one goes up to four-and-a-half

Really I want to do Pirate Cinema four-and-a-half stars. Could you fashion a Goodreads bot to toggle your stars to and fro from four to five every few minutes? Cory Doctorow probably could. (Seriously sir, make it happen. My password’s TRUSTN01).

I grumbled a bit about a lack of tension or conflict. But the denouement is exciting, and conveys a sense of trajectories skilfully made to intersect. As for the rest of it, I recognise the kind of immersive, enveloping, reassuring style Doctorow is shooting for; it’s both an admirable thing to try to master, and perhaps also a canny complement to a didactic purpose (seeking to kindle that autotelic experience, innit?).

I’ve also grumbled a bit about realism too. But literary realism always has twin obligations – (a) correspondence and (b) contradiction. It’s not enough to reflect reality. Realism needs also to be able to fight whatever is suppressing the self-evidence of that reality. It has to energetically contradict falsehood -- that could mean false representation, seductive cliche, distraction, and even the “intrinsically” wearisome or finnicky or bathetic nature of some topic or other. On these counts, Pirate Cinema scores highly.

Or to put it crudely: you may lose a couple of Realism Points if you plump for a streamlined, fabulist London replete with intuitively laid-out resource nodes for the merry runaway. "What fun." #quote But you will gain many hatfuls of Realism Points when you give weight in your writing to what has weight in the world. When you give mimesis priority over imitatio, you could say. By my somewhat eccentric standard of realism, Pirate Cinema is an unusually realistic book.

I called Pirate Cinema a candidly didactic work. So what to think of its curriculum? Well, it’s nicely varied, and you’ll probably find something in there to spark your interest. The main focus is intellectual property, and like I’ve just suggested, it is pretty successful in presenting intellectual property as a dimension of a broader struggle, and in provoking further thinking and research, though it is pedagogically hampered by its status as near future YA fiction.

6.2 Originality

By itself, “thought-provoking” is the emptiest of epithets. So here are those thoughts.

Creativity, Trent argues, is just doing something that’s not obvious. It always happens within the context of inherited materials. All creativity is to some extent transformative use. “[S]omeone made the first film,” he reminds us. “And then someone made the first film with two cameras. The firm film that was edited. The first film that had sound. The first color film. The first comedy. The first monster film. The first porno film. The first film with a surprise ending.”

Against Trent’s maxim that ‘creativity is doing something that’s not obvious,’ his sister Cora comes up with a sort of ‘sweat-of-the-brow’ alternative. Actually, Cora points out, a lot of creativity IS obvious. “We come up with weird and interesting ideas all the time,” she says. “The biggest difference between ‘creators’ isn't their imagination – it's how hard they work. Ideas are easy. Doing stuff is hard.”

They’re certainly spot-on that copyright law doesn’t realistically reflect the practices of authors and other cultural producers. For instance, one key principle of copyright law is that “expressions” must be protected, whereas their underlying “ideas” must be free for anyone to use, but the distinction is a flagrantly synthetic one. Ideas very seldom exist in a raw, “idea-oplasmic” form, independent of any concrete manifestation in language or other media. Cultural production does not only work from the general towards the specific. It is much more messy, pluralistic and diffuse than the law recognises. There are no clean lines dividing influence, production, curation and interpretation. “When people are finding meaning in things – beware” (Edward Gorey, via @DouglasKolacki). Audiences are active in creating meaning, and cultural producers are active in creating their audiences’ luck. When I write, I witness the lacunae littering my creatures, unfixed affordances which only seem to turn into essences during dissemination. I aspire to be a careful constellator of lacunae, such that their early encounters are fruitful rather than retarding. I don’t just say things. I also create interplay among potentials for things to be heard.

That’s a bit dense, but the basic point is: yep, Trent and Cora, copyright law has bad sociological foundations. Perhaps even bad anthropological and/or metaphysical foundations. But the question is, does it matter?

Defenders of the common law systems of copyright (UK, US, Australia, etc.) will smugly accept that their systems have no good sociological foundation. That is, they will accept the mismatch between the practices of writers and other cultural producers, on the one hand, and the law’s implicit model of creative activity on the other. Why? Because common law copyright is devised out of thin air; it is lex posita; it is not rooted in innate rights, but is purely consequentialist / instrumentalist. It doesn’t CARE what creativity is. All it cares about is how to promote it. The Statute of Anne (1710) was “for the Encouragement of Learned Men to Compose and Write useful Books,” and that, very broadly, remains the idea today.

(Supposedly. And supposedly unlike the cumbersomely superstitious droit d’auteur of civil law, which considers artistic creations are mystical emanations of individuals, to which those individuals bear innate rights. This distinction between common law underpinnings and civil law underpinnings is often overstated, in my view, but that’s a whole other cool story, bro).

Trent has a lot to say about “creativity.” Creativity doesn’t have much legal standing though. The courts sensibly try to skirt round making arty-farty assessments. “Originality,” by contrast, is an important legal concept, but it has little to do with how fresh or imaginative a work is. Originality has everything to do with whether or not a work has a determinate ORIGIN. If it’s impossible to say who it came from, there’s no point in trying to give it protected status in law.

The key test for originality is supposedly labour and skill/judgement, but the tiniest smidge will do. It’s not about asking, “Has the creator really worked hard? Are they super-talented?” It’s about asking, “Can we spot anyone doing something that identifies them as the creator?” If the answer is “yes,” then the work is normally copyrighted. Trent’s cinematic mashups would DEFINITELY count as original works, and be protected by copyright. The problem is that they infringe other copyrights. (I think most of us go around thinking of “copyrighted works” and “infringing works” as mutually exclusive. We think something is either ORIGINAL (and therefore protected by copyright) or it’s STOLEN (and therefore a target for a copyright suit). It’s intuitive, but in fact that’s not how it works. Legally, a work can be both. Under current law, Trent’s works are both).

Has there been a relationship between the law’s imprecise, pragmatic approximation of cultural production, and its tendency to allow its overt purpose – to encourage cultural production to prosper –  to become subverted by powerful monied interests, and to be even completely reversed? I don’t know; perhaps there has been such a relationship historically, but I don’t think there’s a necessary, logical connection. In principle, the law could have more closely mapped what individual writers and artists actually do, and yet worked more powerfully against their interests.

In the last few decades, technological change has caused the pragmatic legal model to become even further decoupled from actual creative practice. For instance, the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 makes provision, at 9.3, for copyright of works without human authors. These works still have to be “original,” but what is the test of their originality? Labour and skill/judgement? So many creative endeavours involve large networks of individuals and technology that the courts are struggling to make sense of the the cases they process within the existing framework. The distance between the model and reality is by now so great that a new model is, largely unremarked, gradually sneaking into the gap.

Now, I don’t mean to sound all apocalyptic, but if this new model were ever to displace or seriously supplement the existing “labour and skill/judgement” model, I suspect it would significantly reduce what little legal friction currently confronts corporations in their efforts to gain access to or control over the creative capacities of individuals. I’m talking about the tendency of the courts (especially when considering Fair Dealing and substantiality) to lend more weight to whether or not a potentially infringing work macks on the aggrieved work’s market share. I’m also talking about their tendency to pay special attention to financial investment. When the overall rationale for copyright is discussed, the wording demonstrates a similar shift. Much less is made of promoting learning and culture, or of protecting the social category of cultural producers who can feasibly feed themselves. Much more is made of promoting economic activity pure and simple.

So the inchoate new model is, effectively, economic reductivism. Remember, the purpose of “originality” isn’t to pass judgement on how fresh or imaginative something is. It’s just to say that it IS something: something individuated, something which it is practicable to protect with copyright law.

The question "is it original?" was always really closer to "did someone originate it?" than "is it new and innovative?" The threshold for originality was set low, so as not to encroach on market determinations of cultural value. It is for the market to "decide" whether it's new and innovative -- if, indeed, those are properties which the market "decides" it wants.

Individuation through economics alone is dangerous. It means copyright becomes less about who’s done what, and more about who’s spent how much.

6.3 The Commons

There is a danger to dogmatic and unreflective resistance to copyright law, since CONTRACT LAW lurks in the wings to remake parallel structures in more monstrous form, should copyright ever succumb. I think this point is really important! Just about every prohibition contained in copyright law could be re-created in a contract. And it could be re-created without those helpful Fair Dealing exemptions copyright law gives us.

So what? If the contract is going to stop you doing stuff, you just won’t sign the stupid contract, right? Only, it mostly wouldn’t be a matter of signing anything. It would be a matter of clicking “I ACCEPT” to continue. We’re living in an era of shrinkwrap, clickwrap and browsewrap agreements.

I would hate for that ever to be used as a kind of lazy, supposedly knock-down argument against the movement for free and open culture.

But perhaps there needs to be some kind of law to stop content creators from unfairly limiting access to and use of their content via contract law. A “right to copy” law, or “copyright” law, if you will.

Speculatively, what would a benevolent copyright law look like? My hunch (you saw how excellent my hunches were before, right?) is that it would have to reconnect with two things: (a) the social aims of copyright, formulated broadly, not just in narrow economic terms; (b) the actual practices of cultural production, rooted in individual cognitive acts, but unimaginably complicated by technological and social contexts.

I have another hunch (cf. Alice the Camel) that the anti-copyright movement is currently further along in project (a) than project (b). It is more advanced when it comes to uncovering the discrepancies between copyright’s ideals and its consequences, than when it comes to articulating modern, cutting-edge substitute for “labour and skill/judgement.”

Rightly so, probably – understanding the proper aims of copyright is both the easier of the two projects, and also probably the strategically more significant. But I DO think there is some interesting and important work still to be done in creating such a model. Because we can’t necessarily do without it. (Though perhaps we can. Perhaps there’s another path, by which we insist on recompense for individuals, but no disproportionate hogging through contract law, but the tempering law does not resemble copyright. Just BTW).
"I don’t use a camera. I use other films and editing software. But I think my films are good.” I swallowed. "Forget that. I don’t care if my films are good or not. They’re mine. They say something I want and need to say. And I don’t hurt anyone when I say it. They say we have a free country, and in a free country, you should be able to say what’s in your heart, even if you have to use other peoples’ words to say it." The words were tumbling out now. "We all use other peoples’ words! We didn’t invent English, we inherited it! All the shots ever shot were shot before. All the dialog ever written is inspired by other peoples’ dialog. I make new words out of them, my words, but they’re not like, mine-mine, not like my underpants are mine! They’re mine, but they’re yours to make into your words, too!"
Which brings us back to where we started – YA fiction, common ground, and the desire for simplicity per se. And in a way, maybe it also brings Cory Doctorow back to where he started (kind of, I guess), back in 2003, in the Magic Kingdom. 


7.1 Down and Out

We should always improve our tactics. But we should also improve our desires.

Doctorow’s post-scarcity jaunt Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (2003) gives us clues towards an ideal aspiration, or focus imaginarius, for benevolent copyright law. But I want to sneak up on those clues gradually. ("Sneaking up" on "clues" "towards" an "ideal aspiration" -- very meta and abstract, but that's where I am). One of the things about these ideals is that they tend to fall apart as you draw close. So drawing close slowly gives you a chance to watch that disintegration, and maybe glimpse something useful.

So first some background on what kind of book it is. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom proclaims its main theme with a titular allusion to Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), George Orwell’s autobiographical novel. (Plus it perhaps also alludes to Kim Stanley Robinson’s 1986 science fiction short story “Down and Out in the Year 2000” (/ Robinson’s 1992 collection which includes that story)).

That theme is poverty.

But the novel’s opening words – “I lived long enough to see the cure for death” (1) – demonstrate the importance of the other part of the title. So we've got Down and Out – the toil, exhaustion, hunger, filth, uncertainty and unfreedom which characterises Orwell’s fleeting poverty; but we also got in the Magic Kingdom – literally, a zone within Disney World Florida, and allegorically, the heavenly abundance of the kingdom of God.

This is a novel about poverty, but about poverty in paradise.

It is an extremely bubbly, upbeat, perhaps sort of infectiously-enthusiastic book. Another quick comparison with Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London can maybe demonstrate that optimism; here Orwell describes a murder:
One night, in the small hours [...] I was woken by a fearful uproar, and, going to the window, saw a man lying flat on the stones below; I could see the murderers, three of them, flitting away at the end of the street. Some of us went down and found that the man was quite dead, his skull cracked with a piece of lead piping. I remember the colour of his blood, curiously purple, like wine; it was still on the cobbles when I came home that evening, and they said the school-children had come from miles round to see it. But the thing that strikes me in looking back is that I was in bed and asleep within three minutes of the murder. So were most of the people in the street; we just made sure that the man was done for, and went straight back to bed. We were working people, and where was the sense of wasting sleep over a murder? [...] Work in the hotel taught me the true value of sleep, just as being hungry had taught me the true value of food. Sleep had ceased to be a mere physical necessity; it was something voluptuous, a debauch more than a relief.
Sleep in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is also not “mere physical necessity” (q.v.), but has associations of profligate sumptuousness. The word sleeping is used in the ordinary sense, but it is also used as a synonym for Doctorow’s neologism deadheading. Deadheading describes a state suspended animation, a ‘sleep’ in which the sleeper does not dream. In the disembodied version of deadheading, a new clone will be grown for the sleeper to fill upon awakening – effectively the sleeper does not age either.

Doctorow surrounds the practice with an aura of voluptuous debauch. Characters deadhead on buses and aeroplanes out of impatience, or deadhead for hundreds or thousands of years out of ennui. Julius is present at the start of the long-term, disembodied deadhead of his girlfriend’s parents:
God, they were bastards.
“When are you coming back?” I asked, keeping my castmember face on, carefully hiding away the disgust. (177) 
Orwell does not roll over. He does not mark the murder below his window with complete nonchalance; he is mildly interested and troubled by it. To choose a phrase like “the thing that strikes me” so soon after noting the “piece of lead piping” and the purpled cobbles, and then to turn so swiftly to destitute gloating over “something voluptuous, a debauch” may also imply mordant, grim good humour on Orwell’s part. We may sense a kind of swelling of stubbornness, as though Orwell has drawn soft, indecent and barely-acknowledged encouragement from the incident.

In Down and Out, that is more-or-less the attitude with which Julius can look back on his own murder. ‘It was the first time I’d been murdered,’ he remarks, ‘but I didn’t need to be a drama queen about it.’ (34).

It is the third time Julius has died. After each occasion, Julius is ‘rebooted’ (29): a clone of his body is grown in an hour or two, a digital backup of his mind is transferred to its brain, and the new Julius resumes the legal and social nexus inhabited by his old self.
“So you’re saying that if you were obliterated and then recreated, atom-for-atom, that you wouldn’t be you anymore?”
“For the sake of argument, sure. Being destroyed and recreated is different from not being destroyed at all, right?”
“Brush up on your quantum mechanics, pal. You’re being destroyed and recreated a trillion times a second.” (36)
7.2 Post-Scarcity SF: Utopia or Design Fiction? -- a meander

Poverty in paradise. If that sounds like a paradox, it's not much of one. It's a pretty standard approach in modern utopian writing. Maybe it's because the classic utopias -- the likes of William Morris's News from Nowhere (1890) -- are felt to lack tension and conflict. So we tend to focus on writing about the flaws and costs of utopia. We explore the exceptions and the edges of utopia, imagine establishing it, replenishing it, extending it to new inhabitants, or excluding those who want to enter it.

There's another good reason to concentrate on the downside of utopia. Stories about utopia can be interpreted as a cultural symptom of our own real social and economic arrangements. Utopian stories aren't necessarily opposed to such arrangements in any deep or substantial way -- although superficially they may be describing something quite different.

But even if utopian writing can't quite separate itself from the conditions in which it arises, perhaps it can at least be aware of its entanglement? Sometimes authors focus so carefully on the flaws of utopian society that they really end up writing broken utopias. The point of a broken utopia isn't a dogmatic proclamation that all hope of helping one another and improving the world is futile. The point is just to alert readers to all the ways in which blueprints for better societies become tools and resources within whatever society which actually exists.

(Or perhaps: to resist the co-option of its utopian values by any process which works against them. That might not always involving alerting readers to something. It might sometimes involve hiding things from them).

Broken utopias and post-scarcity SF go back a ways: e.g. in his 1945 short story “Pandora’s Millions,” George O. Smith depicts the invention of a matter duplicating machine, the collapse of monetised exchange and the emergence of barter economies; a 1957 short story by Damon Knight, “The People Maker” – later developed into the novel The People Maker (1959), revised and retitled A is for Anything (1961) – involves a similar device, and describes the rise of society organised around chattel slavery, as commodity money, fiat money and barter become untenable. “The Midas Plague,” Frederic Pohl’s short story of 1954, imagines an abundance of automation and energy. In Pohl’s satire, the lower classes spend their days in frenzied, miserable consumption, whilst the upper have the luxury of going without. Charles Stross's Singularity Sky (2003) isn't exactly pleasant for everyone. And Michael Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time series, begun in 1972, and Steve Aylett's Rebel at the End of Time (2011) also supplies some good post-food for thought here.

Sometimes the breaks in utopia are hairline, not deliberate, nearly invisible. We may have to peer in pretty closely. We may want to ask: how does post-scarcity relate to empire? To capital? To ecology? To structures of global debt and trade relationships backed up by finance, law, ideology, military?

We may want to ask: post-scarcity for whom? Does anyone labour, or goes without, so that others don't have to undergo scarcity? If not (like in Iain M. Banks's Culture novels, for instance), what is this fantasy of fully automated production really about? Is it only about liberation from toil? And/or is it about the Western wish to be free from that nagging sense that we do, basically, own slaves?

That knowledge, without recognition, that our material abundance is directly and unambiguously based on the activity of people who have no realistic choice except to work in dehumanising and finally fatal conditions for sixteen hours a day? Perhaps it involves wishing that our slaves were a bit more dehumanised, to the degree that they assume the form of machinery?

What are the people who live in utopia like anyway? Who do they remind us of in the real world? Is Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom tacitly telling us that utopia is only for certain types of people? What are the desires fulfilled by the post-scarcity society -- where do those desires come from historically, and what have they been implicated in?

And -- back to Pirate Cinema for a second -- what kind of wish is an abundance-of-the-beggar, placing the blithely wealthy in the position of the exploited? Inverting poverty in a way which seems to destroy it altogether?

I don't know if it shows, but I'm a bit two-third-hearted about the utopian studies approach to post-scarcity SF. Is Down and Out's Bitchun Society really something which (a) looks a bit like a blueprint or a manifesto for a better society, but (b) is necessarily transformed -- perhaps through its subversive emphasis on poverty, squabbling, ennui and private emotional pain -- into a big, totalising critique, a critique of our society and everything it can produce, including the fantasy of the Bitchun Society itself, a critique which may or may not imply a kind of different utopia, in whatever form you think utopia is imaginable (as a process, a theory, a glimpse, a transitional demand)?

I'm really not sure. It all seems a bit excessively roundabout and wiggly to me. And it feels like it overlooks and explains away the novel's optimism too readily.

The thing about utopia is: how do we know we're even standing in the right line? We definitely don't want to talk to the people around us. One way or another, it's going to take ages, and we probably won't like them. Does utopia studies, I wonder, risk aggrandising any slow incremental grind whatsoever? (And, connectedly, risk aggrandising any infinitesimal surplus whatsoever, risk regarding any lost speck of sand as Blake's grain in Lambeth?).

Time for caffeine.

So Twitter is like, "BURN!" and Costa is like, "Burn? OK, we'll sue!" and everybody's confused about what's happening and it's too early and there's still no coffee. And I'm still queuing. And soon I'm caught in a recursive loop where I need the coffee to wake up enough to remember to fetch the coffee from the counter, so I keep ordering the coffee and forgetting the coffee and ordering it again, and soon there's an arbitrarily large number of lattes, just over half of which are labelled "Joe," most of the rest labelled "Jo," but a few of which ("a latte in each 50x100 lattice," as Blake might have had it) which in a monkeys-on-typewriters kind of way, are labelled things like "Jo's First WorldCon Problems" and "cognitive estrangement" and "utopian wish" and "closed totality" and "non-simultaneity." And maybe, just maybe, bit-by-bit, the truth starts to emerge, and maybe, just maybe, it emerges in a form which is something like discourse-with-praxis-affordance. That's what utopia studies feels like to me. It feels like a very confusing and inefficient and precarious way of organising hot liquids, involving way more queuing than strictly necessary. Perhaps a more narrow and exacting critique will be forthcoming one day. But I think maybe not. Sometimes you just have to have to take a wild guess about the ratio of babies to bathwater and choose to chuck.

Another way of looking at post-scarcity science fiction doesn't bother so much with utopia. Instead it thinks of post-scarcity science fiction as a design fiction, as a collection of diegetic prototypes. Or, if you prefer, as draft policy with gaps in it.

7.3 Black Boxes: Makers

So perhaps we can look at post-scarcity SF as draft policy filled with a lot of big, weird gaps.

How do you fill in those gaps? How do you get from here to there? Good questions, but they don't constitute a knock-down argument against this mode of writing. If anything, those questions are tacitly an argument for more writing in this mode. The policy is still in draft stage, so drafty we don't yet know exactly what it is policy about.

So ... write your post-scarcity societies, write them again and again, first with the gaps in one place, then try and move the gaps to other places, then try to shrink those gaps, then do it some more, and just keep scribbling away and whittling away and maybe, eventually, something will begin to emerge that is less like a critique, less like a wish-fulfillment fantasy, less like a big wodge of interestingly reflexive ideology ... and more like the wavering outlines of something worth struggling for and maybe getting. 


1) Obviously we shouldn't count on that happening.

2) Also, the result of this process may be very circumscribed desiderata. Not blueprints for everything. Just things worth struggling for in one or two aspects of society, always trying to keep in mind how they might be interacting with whatever's outside their remit. For instance, perhaps we'll find some patterns which are applicable in developing an ideal copyright law. (There's that old saw about it being impossible to imagine an alternative to capitalism. OK, but corporations and politicians and policymakers and occasionally even people do imagine alternatives to bits and pieces of the status quo all the time. At least, they imagine them in sufficient detail to pursue them)).

Those gaps in post-scarcity science fiction, of course, aren't mundane gaps: they're black boxes, and strange, magical things occur inside them, out of sight and beyond conception. We see the inputs and the outputs: in go tomatoes, out come trump cards; in go conferences, out come hot cross buns; in go carpenters, out come Biros; what the hell is going on in there?

(To slip into utopian studies terminology for a second: black boxes often correlate with Suvin's concept of the novum, though I don't think a novum is sufficient or necessary for a black box. Black boxes also perhaps disrupt the distinction, made by Jameson and others, between the closed utopian program and the open utopian impulse. The black box is wedged in the closed utopia, holding it open).

I think there are two main kinds of enchanted gaps, or black boxes, in Down and Out. One is its makers and the other is its Whuffie.

(Or I could be a bit annoyingly contrarian and say that the key technology in Down and Out isn't actually Whuffie, but pinging. But basically the two things are intimately connected. I'll get onto that).

(There is of course the longevity and the reincarnation. But weirdly enough, I don't think these conceits are quite so large and important -- as black boxes -- as makers and Whuffie are. It feels like you could extract them from the story, and rejiggle it, a still depict broadly the same society. Maybe I'm wrong).

Starting with the makers: Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom imagines a society with more-or-less perfect social protectionism. Borrowing John Maynard Keynes' distinction between absolute and relative needs (PDF), we could say that when you live in the Bitchun Society, no absolute need will be left unfulfilled. (There are lots of different ways of understanding "scarcity," sometimes it's worth clarifying which one we're talking about. Compare: scarce attention). Insofar as there is poverty in the Bitchun Society, we must try to construe it as a poverty of relative needs. The narrator, Julius, relates his experience of this comprehensive social security net:
I slept in a little coffin on-campus, perfectly climate controlled. It was cramped and dull, but my access to the network was free and I had plenty of material to entertain myself. While I couldn't get a table in a restaurant, I was free to queue up at any of the makers around town and get myself whatever I wanted to eat and drink, whenever I wanted it.
It is a slender book, and has no treatise on production arrangements, but readers are reassured that these are comparably merry to the consumption which they underpin. (I'm not complaining: it feels like it should be a succinct book, that its pacing is one of its strengths).

"The Bitchun Society had all but done away with any sort of dull, repetitious labor, and what remained – tending bar, mopping toilets – commanded Whuffie aplenty and a life of leisure in your off-hours" (79). How have the Bitchun Society ‘done away’ with toil? This is a world built with very slight gestures (although Utopia, a perhaps-prequel-in-progress, promises to thicken it right up). When Julius says that he ‘was free to queue up at any of the makers around town’ I think it’s the only use of the word makers in the novel. We glean they serve some kind of soup kitchen purpose. Beyond this, there is only guesswork.

One association is the contemporary maker cultural movement. This is a convergence of digital culture – particularly hacker and open source culture – with DIY hobbyism. (Makers is also the title of a later (2009) Doctorow novel, which uses the word in more-or-less this sense. He describes it as 'a book about people who hack hardware, business-models, and living arrangements to discover ways of staying alive and happy.' There's a Bitchun vibe here. These makers may blend characteristics of arts and crafts hobbyist, artist, inventor, engineer and entrepeneur. They valorise collaboration, playful intelligence, and the ingenious use of resources, including the social and artistic application of skillsets acquired in a commercial context. One of the characters in Makers comments, ‘“You’re just bored. You’re a maker, and you’re running things instead of making things”’).

The word maker in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom may be inflected by nuances of solidarity and collaboration, and of creatively and parsimoniously making do. What economic competition the novel does portray tends to be over roles, responsibilities and factors of production, rather than over consumer goods and services. Maker culture is also an important context for understanding the plausibility of the quasi-professional pride.

But basically we pretty much know that the maker Julius mentions isn't any sort of person – it isn't any Bitchun Society equivalent of a Hare Krishna with a bicycle full of dahl. A maker is more likely to be a kind of general purpose public vending machine, a bit like the matter replicators in Star Trek.

Julius says that he can get ‘whatever’ he wants to eat or drink, and he means this quite literally. A close precedent exists in Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age (1995), which features social security-type ‘matter compilers’ capable of manufacturing any object. Public matter compilers synthesise subsistence materials – food, water, clothes, blankets, painkillers – free of charge.

So perhaps Down and Out is thinking about how abundance has always been structurally implicated in slavery, and whether that correlation is contingent or necessary. Makers are also a kind of ultimate ideal form of accumulated capital: so there's that sort-of-Marxian idea about this long history of exploitative economic arrangements eventually making some new economic arrangements possible, or even making them inevitable. ‘Compared to 99.99999 percent of all the people who’d ever lived, I had a life of unparalleled luxury’ (150). (And compare, if you like, go-to Marxist utopian theorist Ernst Bloch's thoughts on the "incomplete wealth of the past.")

Down and Out is also thinking about the specific ambiguousness of one particular programmatic post-scarcity narrative, which permits itself certain specific black boxes. Poverty in paradise: it's thinking about the residue of foundational poverty and suffering which remains even if we abstractly resolve the question of who is labouring by dumping it inside a black box.

7.4.1 Black Boxes: Whuffie

What would Whuffie be called if Down & Out had been written in 2012? Maybe FavCoin?

I think a lot of readers, especially SF readers, will breeze through Down & Out with a sense that they know exactly what's going on. They know what makers are, they know what Whuffie is. They know how backing up your brain works, and deadheading, and getting reincarnated. They know what pinging is. It's just -- it's pinging!

I'm going to try to demolish that sense of familiarity a bit. (In doing so, I'll mostly stick to the book itself, although it looks like there's plenty of other stuff out there about Whuffie).

Obviously Whuffie is a bit like money. But it never incarnates as cash. There is no mention, for instance, of coins or notes or bars or rods of Whuffie. Nonetheless the currency exists as a set of numbers with definite ascriptions to individuals. That is, it belongs to a formalised reputation economy in which relationships and transactions are knowable quantitatively.

In an informal reputation economy, we could talk about you having more credibility or greater honour than I do, but we would not be able say exactly how much greater. Whereas in a Whuffie economy, by subtracting one total from another, I could determine the precise level of my relative "dishonour."

Whuffie arrives in the novel almost immediately:
[...] they called him Keep-A-Movin’ Dan [...] he somehow grew to take over every conversation I had for the next six months. I pinged his Whuffie a few times, and noticed that it was climbing steadily upward as he accumulated more esteem from the people he met. [...] I’d expended all the respect anyone had ever afforded me. All except Dan, who, for some reason, stood me to regular beers and meals and movies. (7)
There's a wee equivocation here. Does Dan deplete his own Whuffie to treat Julius to ‘regular beers and meals and movies’? Or does Dan sort of use his own Whuffie but without depleting it? (Which isn't really what the phrase "stood me to" suggests to me, since Dan wouldn't be being generous / sacrificing anything; but perhaps it could still work somehow). Or does the respect which Dan has for Julius raise Julius’s Whuffie, thus giving Julius access to these things? If we think about the way respect works, it's perfectly possible to respect somebody but have contempt for somebody that they respect.

It turns out to be an intricate question. Let's nudge it aside for now. Julius, still recounting his relationship with Keep-A-Movin’ Dan, happens to slip in additional titbits about Whuffie:
[...] I think it came down to us having a good time needling each other. [...] I’d get him to concede that Whuffie recaptured the true essence of money: in the old days, if you were broke but respected, you wouldn’t starve; contrariwise, if you were rich and hated, no sum could buy you security and peace (8).
Reputation is often held to stand in an intimate, perhaps constitutive, relationship to money. For instance, fiat money is sometimes said to be backed only by the "reputation" of the sovereign which issues it. The words trust or confidence are also often chucked around in these contexts. These terms are all really being used as substitutes for creditworthiness.

Creditworthiness isn't really trustworthiness. (Someone who zealously repays debt, no matter what the circumstances, actually looks suspicious to me: they may be trustworthy, but I wouldn't count on it. What moral framework is producing this zeal? Do they believe debts should be collected no matter what?)

Creditworthiness isn't really trustworthiness. Creditworthiness is the metric which credit ratings agencies try to quantify. In the case of a sovereign state, creditworthiness is mostly a matter of its ability to raise tax revenues. Clearly creditworthiness is not without its own complex moral overtones. But creditworthiness isn't our sole concern when we talk about reputation currencies. The kind of reputation on which Whuffie is based is really way, way broader. In Down and Out, anything which is emotionally valued is potentially a source of Whuffie-denominated value. Whuffie is concerned not only with creditworthiness, but with status, esteem, eminence, popularity, trust, faith, wonder, admiration, affection, sympathy and love.

As a measure of reputation in this broad sense, Whuffie is inherently public. There is never suggestion of any secret offshore stashes of Whuffie. (How would that work? "You thought you didn't respect so-and-so, but you actually do?" That's not the same as getting new respect for someone). Though it is inherently public, Whuffie’s sensuous manifestation remains a little ambiguous. We know that Whuffie scores are displayed on Julius’s HUD (head-up display):
I took a moment to conjure a HUD with his [Dan’s] Whuffie score on it. I had to resize the window – he had too many zeroes to fit on my standard display. I tried to act cool, but he caught the upwards flick of my eyes and thein their involuntary widening. He tried a little aw-shucksery, gave it up and let a prideful grin show. (2-3)
This is the first time in the novel Julius views someone else’s Whuffie. On most later occasions, the term ping is used. ‘I pinged his Whuffie a few times, and noticed that it was climbing steadily upward’ (7). Again, a little later: ‘I pinged the elf. He had a lot of left-handed Whuffie’ (46).

I like that line. And it's like a caricature of a line I would like!

Later still, when the implants which normally generate Julius’s HUD are playing up, he uses a smartphone to ping ‘manually’ (160).

So what is this pinging?

Most of the time, pinging appears to be a near-effortless investigative act, perhaps analogous to glancing down to a name on a lanyard on said elf. Core to a fandom conventiongoer's skillset. (There is also a whole even-more-gigantic-blog-post to be written about honour currencies and those SF convention lanyard-beard-ribbons (source) signifying allegiances and labour undertaken and money transferred. Another time, like never).

The word chosen to name this near-effortless investigative prod is important. It may hold clues about the sensuous manifestation of Whuffie. Fortunately Ping Studies already exists as a field, inaugurated by puzzlement over the title of Samuel Beckett’s short prose piece “Ping” (1967). In correspondence with Maria Helena Peixoto Kopschitz, dated July 10 1977, Beckett characterises the ping of “Ping” as a plucking sound, a ‘a recurrent twang (pizzicato) punctuating icecold monotone’ (Kopschitz 94). In a 1968 essay on the piece, David Lodge calls ping an ‘irritating’ sound which ‘might denote the noise emitted by some piece of apparatus, perhaps marking the passage of time’ (87). Armed with proposals from unnamed helpers, Lodge continues:
[...] ping might be the sound of a bullet ricochetting, or the sound of water dripping or the sound of a bell, and the bell might be a bicycle bell or a sanctus bell or a typewriter bell (perhaps the writer’s own typewriter bell) [...] (87-88)
(I think Beckett's "Ping" may have originally been entitled "Bing." And Bilbo was originally called Bingo, so there you go. B, I, N, G, O, and in the darkness bind them).

PING is also a UNIX network administration command which sends small packets of data to a node on the network and awaits a response. It is usually used as a verb – “I pinged the host!” rather than, for instance, “I ran a PING on the host!” – and the term can refer more generally the transmission of any signal for the purpose of testing network connectivity.

There is also a link with sailing ships and submarines. Mike Muuss, the programmer of the original UNIX PING utility, tells how he “named it after the sound that a sonar makes” (‘The Story of PING’). The subaquantic ping connotes mutual discovery.The submarine captain who holds stealth most dear switches off active sonar. Passive sonar is a glorified pricking of the vessel’s ears, pingless. It is only active sonar which pings.

Jane McGonigal in Reality is Broken:
Extraordinary collaborators are extremely extroverted or outgoing in a network environment—even if they’re introverted or shy in face-to-face settings. They have what I call a high ping quotient, or high PQ. (In tech speak, a “ping” is a computer network tool that sends a message from one computer to another in order to check whether it is reachable and active. If it is, it will send back the message “pong,” thus establishing an active line of communication.) Extraordinary collaborators have no qualms about pinging—or reaching out via electronic means—to others to ask for their participation. They’re also highly likely to pong back when other people ping them. That’s what makes a high ping quotient a form of social capital.
Ken Macleod in Star Fraction:
Our armoured car has signature-scrambling hardware that can make any lock-on spy sat blink and rub its eyes and decide it must have made a mistake. The car will have pinged with the tollgate arch as we went in, but the militia’s privacy code is strict to the point of paranoia.
... and:
A holo appeared in the black depths, a show-off display of the signal’s path: Alexandra Palace – Telecom Tower – Murdoch GeoStat – bounced around a few more comsats – ping to Lagrange where a sargasso of space habitats rolled in the gravitational wake of Earth and Moon. There the line vanished into a scribble of local networks.
Linda Nagata in The Red: First Light:
Then I break radio silence. “Initiate ping.” The order goes out over gen-com. Each helmet responds automatically, sending position info. I fix my gaze on the icon for the LCS map and it expands. Ransom, Flynn, Specialist Samuel Tuttle, and Specialist Jayden Moon register as still alive on the side of the bluff.
... and in Vast:
From inside the house, the cabinet factory pinged the completion of its latest task.
Terry Pratchett in Making Money:
– and something went ping! in Cosmo’s memory.
Charles Stross in Singularity Sky:
Some of them had half melted in the heat of re-entry; others pinged and ticked, cooling rapidly in the postdawn chill.
Finally, there may be hidden in the background – like the screened-out tick-tock of a grandfather clock – a table tennis metaphor. When a ping is transmitted over a computer network, the data packet which is returned is known as a pong. The term Whuffie resembles another nick-name for table tennis, wiff-waff.

There is much here of relevance to Doctorow’s ping. As an onomatopoeia a ping suggests something soft but distinct. It could be an alert of some kind, but it also has connotations of haphazardness: a pinball pinging around in a pinball machine, perhaps. A ping is also often a very small, very swift investigative procedure. It returns limited information. In a computing context, that information is about the reliability of part of a network; beneath the sea, it is about the magnitude and bearing of nearby objects. In both contexts, a ping may give the first indication of the presence of another entity. And in both those contexts, a ping also reveals the enquirer’s presence.

A ping is also somewhat precariously placed with respect to volition. A user of the PING command does not authorise each individual packet of data; typically one use of the command will transmit a series of packets, averaging their results. Sonar sweeps likewise involve a mixture of automation and supervision. Even the blurred swipes of ping-pong professionals are partly volitional, partly thoughtless, inculcated instinct.

All the characters in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom – “elf” and old-fashioned hipster Keep-A-Movin’ Dan included – are cyborgs. ‘My cochlea struck twelve noon,’ Julius comments breezily, ‘and a HUD appeared with my weekly backup reminder’ (26). They communicate with wearable computing devices and/or surgically implanted neural interfaces. They occupy an augmented reality – that is, they are immersed in circumambient manifolds which enlace biologically-gathered sense data with content from such devices. You know, this kind of stuff:

(& this stuff, & this stuff ... & especially, this stuff).

So it is plausible that to ping someone’s Whuffie, all that is required is certain type of wish, which takes effect through a brain-computer interface, so that the relevant numerals will seem to hang in the air beside the pinged person. ‘Dan answered the door and I saw his eyes go to his HUD, back to me’ (183).

There is a slight tension here. Is to ping the same as to conjure an HUD (as Julius does upon meeting Dan) – that is, something which takes ‘a moment’ (2)? Even such a minimal effort may be at odds with the way in which Whuffie scores seem to manifest as common knowledge. Julius’s Whuffie fortunes undergo dramatic changes over the course of the novel, which are immediately reflected in his social interactions, without any lag. Friends, colleagues, acquaintances and strangers are all seem permanently up-to-date. Crowds even appear to be intuitively aware that Julius is down and out:
At least there was no mandatory Whuffie check on the monorail platform, but the other people on the car were none too friendly to me, and no one offered me an inch more personal space than was necessary. I had hit bottom. (159) 
This is how you hit bottom. You wake up in your friend’s hotel room and you power up your handheld and it won’t log on. You press the call-button for the elevator and it gives you an angry buzz in return. You take the stairs to the lobby and no one looks at you as they jostle past you. (183)
Has everyone in the crowd pinged him?

Julius does describe activating ‘Whuffie monitors’ – a deeper investigation than a ping – as normal behaviour upon first meeting someone. So perhaps when Julius conjures his HUD, it takes ‘a moment’ (2) because he's undertaking a more elaborate act than a humble ping.

We can speculate technological architectures which would further ease the tension. A particularly low Whuffie score might automatically trigger a ping whenever its bearer crosses a proximity threshold. The term ping certainly has associations with alerts and alarms: many cars ping if their doors are not carefully shut, every microwave pings when it is finished microwaving, giving us one Welsh term for the device, popty-ping.

The poor-in-Whuffie might tend inadvertently to solicit pings by their appearance and demeanour, with the snobbish curiosity then spreading virally through the crowd. ‘I stood in line for the Hall of Presidents. Other guests checked my Whuffie, then averted their eyes. Even the children’ (193). Doctorow certainly has an interest in (physical and virtual) crowd dynamics, as does Julius: ‘for me, it was Beating The Crowd, finding the path of least resistance, filling the gaps, guessing the short queue’ (88).

Most intriguingly, perhaps pinging is so integrated into the taken-for-granted, everyday practices, the habitus of the Bitchun Society, that people only sometimes realise they are doing it! The phrase ‘I was up a couple percentiles’ (35) corroborates the idea that Julius is on some level experiencing numbers, not visualisations. But it is telling that Julius never mentions any specific numbers (apart from on one occasion “nearly zero”). Whuffie is just high or low; it goes up or down; or it is construed according to some metaphor: ‘“That’s really, really Bitchun,” I said to her, admiring the titanic mountains of Whuffie my HUD attributed to her’; or ‘I could feel my Whuffie hemorrhaging’.

Perhaps this is a kind of representational strategy. Perhaps the apparition of specific numbers in the text would improperly imply Juliuis’s alienation from Whuffie. Whuffie scores might then have been construed as objects of theorising, not as seamless elements of a bodily performed, quasi-discursive knowledge. Pings might be like glances – overtly described when special in some way, but also constantly, quietly implicit throughout the novel.

7.4.2 Laws from Nowhere, or, an E-pouch of Respect

It's also not completely clear whether adjustments to Whuffie are volitional, instinctual, automated, or some mixture. Conscious decisions often seem to play even less of a role in adjusting Whuffie than in viewing it. For instance, Julius relates – as his best friend and girlfriend vainly implore him to get some rest – ‘I pinged my Whuffie. I was up a couple percentiles – sympathy Whuffie – but it was falling: Dan and Lil were radiating disapproval’ (35). No hint is heard that Dan and Lil mean to be emotionally unsupportive, still less that they aim to incentivise Julius to convalesce by yanking economic support. They are deducting Whuffie nevertheless. Maybe they can't help it.

I'll suggest a mechanism for such adjustments in a moment. But it's worth considering an occasion on which Whuffie seems to scoot about in accordance with a behest, not a reverence-bloated breast. There is no completely clear-cut counterexample, nothing along the lines of, “I made sure to tip the bellhop a few points of Whuffie.” However, Julius’s murderer does confess: ‘Debra would give me Whuffie – piles of it, and her team would follow suit’.

It is hard to imagine that such a transfer would be lived out entirely in that warmth and admiration which hiring parties naturally feel towards their contract killers.

It is harder still when we consider that Debra’s team would be unaware of the contract, and Debra herself very soon arranges to forget what she has asked for. If Whuffie transfers are exclusively involuntary, how much success could Debra expect with a Note-to-Self –“deeply respect so-and-so”?

How does that work? Is this just a continuity error in the depiction of Whuffie? A black box on skates, which scoots to and fro?

Here's one fairly elegant way to make sense of it. Just suppose there are two ways in which a Whuffie score may be increased. One is by choosing to ‘give’ Whuffie, which will deplete the score of the giver and proportionately increase that of the recipient. The other way, the main way, is by emotionally valuing someone. Appreciating someone (perhaps indirectly, by appreciating some entity with which that person is associated (that's when things get complicated, especially when we start trying to apply all this to copyright law -- I'll come onto surveillance / "Mass Representation" in a minute!)) will increase that person’s Whuffie, without any corresponding depletion.

Whuffie hugs the contours of public esteem with such fidelity that the two things are difficult to disengage. At times, that is, Whuffie is public esteem. It is plausible therefore that the novel presumes adjustments to Whuffie are directly linked to the physiological, neurochemical – or even neurological – foundations of esteem. For example, endorphin, adrenaline, heart rate, respiration, oxytocin and activity of the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis, eye saccades, body language and so on could be monitored – perhaps integrated with brain imaging information – and matched to profiles, triggering Whuffie adjustments. These adjustments could be countermanded by volitional gifts of Whuffie.

In other words, reassigning Whuffie is volitional and based on express instruction, whereas creating or destroying Whuffie is spontaneous and based on affect.

From the book, it looks likely that the circulation of Whuffie is dominated by creation and destruction, rather than by reassignments. The hire of a contract killer looks like a special case – generally speaking, goods and services are abundant, and priority of access is governed by Whuffie score without requiring any Whuffie be “spent”:
When I got down to the Contemporary’s parking lot, my runabout was gone. A quick check with the handheld revealed the worst: my Whuffie was low enough that someone had just gotten inside and driven away, realizing that they could make more popular use of it than I could.
Although consumption does not deplete Whuffie directly, any unpopular consumption (‘hogging library terminals’ (7), for example) will come with an associated cost.

A little earlier I said that mechanism by which Dan stands Julius ‘regular beers and meals and movies’ (7) is a mysterious one. Maybe we've done enough detective-work to try out a solution. Dan’s esteem for Julius must raise Julius’s Whuffie score somewhat, but clearly not to the levels at which he could access these treats on his own.

Nor does it seem quite right that Dan, for example, gives Whuffie to a waiter for Julius’s beer, or gives Whuffie to Julius for Julius to pass on -- goods are not usually paid for in this way. They are usually not paid for at all – although there is still a pecking order of consumption, and a low-Whuffie individual may wait forever to get served.

Instead, Dan just gets in every round. He vouches for Julius. Dan’s Whuffie suffers by being seen with Julius, perhaps in a relatively swanky, high-Whuffie joint. Dan’s Whuffie suffers further when Dan asks for a drink for his friend. But Dan’s Whuffie is massive. It can take it.

We must assume, by the way, that the algorithms which detect neurological correlates of esteem and translate them into Whuffie have a way of correcting for the respect people feel for people with a lot of Whuffie.

Am I maybe presuming too much, suggesting these mechanisms? There's nothing explicitly about brain-computer interface detecting neurological "I respect you" signatures. But the novel certainly does explicitly mention the technological management of emotional affect. For instance, when Julius’s own internal machinery malfunctions, he complains grouchily that ‘[Lil] had the perky, jaunty quality of someone who could instruct her nervous system to manufacture endorphin and adrenaline at will’ (69). Furthermore, there are precedents in other science fiction works. One is the 1994 techno-thriller Interface by Neal Stephenson and George Jewsbury, which Doctorow read in the year of its release. Finally, Doctorow’s comments in interviews support the reading that adjustments to Whuffie are not meant to be volitional, but rather to directly track changes in affect. In a 2003 interview, Cory says:
Lucky for me it’s science fiction and not science so I don’t have to explain the workings of this stuff. [...] I also don’t have to explain the working of the neural interface, which [...] is capable of figuring out how you feel about any given thing anywhere in the world that you have any opinion about – without asking you.
In the Bitchun Society, feelings spend. Presumably, the Whuffie system guesses as best it can about who or what is generating the esteem it detects. Perhaps this is one of those times where it's fortunate that we're dealing with such a gigantic number of interactions: while any one ascription may go wrong, by-and-large the respect finds its way to the people and things which are generating them.

We might imagine a kind of perpetual arms race too, as people try to figure out ways to benefit from this imprecision: to find the fruitful wakes and eddies in the flow of respect, to accrue for themselves the Whuffie which springs from other people's activities. It's important to note -- whilst maybe also recalling, for a moment, Pirate Cinema, and the idea that we're trying to head towards some sort of cutting-edge modern substitute for the "labour and skill and/or judgment" principle -- it's important to note the ways in which countermeasures against Whuffie free-riders are inherently political acts. Eradicating the illegitimate Whuffie-farming is all about taking sides: there is no neutral territory here. There is no way of construing this task as a merely technical one.

Perhaps you could make a rhetorical bid for neutrality, by making it sound democratic -- for instance, designating who is a free rider by referring to the hypothetical judgments which the Whuffie generators would make if they knew exactly what was up. So for instance, x is illegitimately gathering Whuffie from y through process z when it is the case that y, were they to have perfect knowledge of z would no longer be generating Whuffie for x. But then you still have to advance some kind of partisan account of what would count as "perfect knowledge." An extreme example might illustrate this: imagine, I dunno, the Wyoming Senate (sorry Wyoming) passing legislation requiring a Wife's adoration for her Husband to generate Whuffie for his employer, since job creation is the real foundation of breadwinner plaudits; whereas a Husband's adoration for his Wife generates Whuffie for their church, since it is by Christ's love and guidance that she is a discreet, chaste, loving and obedient homemaker, and perhaps a little for her parents too, since it means she was brought up right.

But actually, Cory goes a bit further, describing in a 2010 interview how he is:
... imagining a completely undescribed science fictional system that can disambiguate every object in the universe so when you look at something and have a response to it the system knows that the response is being driven by the color of the car but not by the car, or the shirt but not the person wearing it, or the person wearing it and not the shirt, and also know how you feel about it. So it can know what you’re feeling and what you’re feeling it about.
So the free rider problem doesn't arise, or at least, not in quite the way I just described. Doctorow’s idea is not only that the characters’ implants monitor the physical reality on which their feelings of esteem supervene. It is that these systems somehow monitor the intentionality of that physical reality – that is, they detect what that esteem is about.

7.4.3 Weighted Whuffie

The prepositions associated with Whuffie also deserve attention. Individuals “have” Whuffie, but they often have it “with” others. Here are two examples:
They sauntered into the graveyard, hissing vitriol at me. Oh, they had lots of new material to post to the anti-me sites, messages that would get them Whuffie with people who thought I was the scum of the earth. A popular view, those days.(173) 
Not a hothead. Not prone to taking radical switchbacks. This plan would burn up that reputation and the Whuffie that accompanied it in short order; but by the time that happened, she’d have plenty of Whuffie with the new, thousands-strong ad-hoc. (86)
What's this about? Money may be “with” a bank or financial institution. Credit “with” an entity usually implies that the entity is disposed, formally or informally, to make a loan, but that the loan has not already been made. To say you are “in credit with” an entity usually implies that you have made a loan to that entity (or received some other form of IOU). Someone may have influence or a good reputation “with” certain people but not with others. I think it's this last sense which is most important for Down and Out.
It occurred to me to turn on some Whuffie monitors. It was normally an instantaneous reaction to meeting someone, but I was still disoriented. I pinged the elf. He had a lot of left-handed Whuffie; respect garnered from people who shared very few of my opinions. I expected that. What I didn’t expect was that his weighted Whuffie score, the one that lent extra credence to the rankings of people I respected, was also high – higher than my own. I regretted my nonlinear behavior even more. Respect from the elf – Tim, I had to remember to call him Tim – would carry a lot of weight in every camp that mattered.
Julius has access to Tim’s Whuffie score, but by taking a moment to apply analytic tools, he also discovers the provenance of Tim’s Whuffie. A similar event almost takes place the first time Julius meets Dan: “I try not to pay it much mind. Some people, they get overly grateful.” He must’ve seen my eyes flick up again, to pull his Whuffie history. “Wait, don't go doing that – I'll tell you about it, you really got to know.”

In theory the comprehensive Whuffie history could allow for all kinds of weightings. But rather than a proliferation, the novel suggests only two ways of weighting Whuffie – in a sense, only one, with two different sides to it. You may either emphasise someone’s reputation among those whose opinions accord with yours (“weighted Whuffie”) or among those whose opinions conflict with yours (“left-handed Whuffie”). For the sake of clarity, I'll refer to right-handed Whuffie and left-handed Whuffie, and reserve weighting to refer to this process generally.

“Shared opinions” is elided with “people I respected.” It seems likely that “shared opinions” is a fairly free paraphrase, and “people I respected” is the more scrupulous way of putting what the weighted score is supposed to reveal. Of course, respect in this sense is nothing but a function of Whuffie.

So a simple model of such weighting might be as follows. When Julius applies the weighted Whuffie filter to Tim’s Whuffie, the system checks to see if any of Tim’s Whuffie was generated by a third party who possesses Whuffie generated by Julius (i.e. 'is respected by Julius'). Any such Whuffie is multiplied by a figure greater than one. (Exactly how much greater than one would be determined by the level of Julius-generated Whuffie is held by the third party. It might also involve other information, such as the total amount of Whuffie held by the third party). Tim’s remaining Whuffie would be multiplied by a figure between zero and one.

We can also imagine a filter which casts a larger net: it does not only check to see if Tim is respected by anyone whom Julius respects, but also if Tim is respected by anyone who is respected by anyone whom Julius respects.

7.4.4 Whuffie WTF

OK, let me try to summarise and describe an arrangement consistent with all features of Whuffie as I've deciphered it. Whuffie is a reputation currency, directly generated or destroyed by feelings. It is also probably transferable by express instruction, although this is not utterly certain from the novel, and if it is supposed to occur it is perhaps uncommon.

Whuffie is so close to actually being the same as respect that people tend to forget there can be any difference. If you were to say, "I rilly rilly respect the way he has no Whuffie," people would be like, "Whaaa...?"

Your Whuffie does not consist of a single number, but of a data set, with each subdivision of your Whuffie tagged to identify the person whose feelings generated it. To say that a lot of your Whuffie is with some category of people implies that it was the feelings of such people which generated a sizable fraction of your Whuffie score.

The same thing could be loosely implied by saying that you have a lot of Whuffie with some category of people, although though strictly speaking – if you are a high net Whuff individual – much of the Whuffie they have generated may belong to you, and may nonetheless be a negligible fraction of your total Whuffie.

To say that you have a lot of Whuffie with some category of people may also imply that, from their perspective, your weighted Whuffie score (which emphasises what I am calling “right-handed Whuffie”) is particularly good. One way for this to come about might be if such people had personally generated a lot of your Whuffie. But it could also happen through strong family resemblance between those people and the people who did generate your Whuffie.

This provokes some new questions. Can a subdivision of Whuffie be diminished by anyone, or only by whoever originally generated it? Having Whuffie "with" so-and-so may connote the latter: in the same way as, for instance, if you have money with a particular bank only they can return it to you, or go bust and lose it for you. So for the purpose of constructing reputation as currency, that option seems the stronger choice. You can gain my respect, and you can lose it. You can gain Lil’s respect, and you can lose it. If you lose my respect and Lil’s respect, perhaps you have zero respect. But it is counterintuitive to imagine that you can gain my respect, and then lose it to Lil.

Neveretheless there are indications that actually, that is the way Whuffie operates. A key principle, exemplified several times, is that annoying people are doomed to loss of Whuffie. It does not matter that they may not know those whom they annoy.

(Aside: I suppose another way of explaining that would be to assume that everyone actually starts out with a certain baseline Whuffie score with everyone -- the respect afforded strangers -- before they even meet. But I won't get into that theory).

A connected question: if Whuffie determines privileged access to those few resources which are still scarce, and if your Whuffie appears differently to different people, which of these Whuffie scores determines such access? This could be your composite score, with no weighting whatsoever, or perhaps some weighting to diminish the influence of prolific admirers (i.e. people with a lotta respect to give). Or the weighting could vary from place to place, depending on which adhocracy is responsible for running it. It could even vary from good to good.

And another connected question: if any ire can lose you your Whuffie, and if units of Whuffie are not identical (since they are associated with the people who generated them, and transitively with the people who generated their Whuffie), then which Whuffie units do you lose when you make a nuisance of yourself?

One set of possibilities involves you simply losing the last point you gained, or the first point you gained that you have not yet lost, or a randomly selected point. The problem here is that over time your weighted and left-handed Whuffie scores would become corrupt. If you have very good Whuffie with group x, and moderately good Whuffie with group y, and abominable Whuffie with me, my continued disparagements of you really ought not upset the extent to which your Whuffie is stronger with group x than with group y. Under all those possibilities, they perhaps would.

Two other possibilities are compatible with Doctorow’s universe. One – the simpler option! – is that any diminishment of your Whuffie is spread very thinly across all points. Whuffie may have some ultimate granularity, but the mention of ‘percentiles’ (q.v.) suggests that it is highly divisible. The second option is that you could lose, as it were, the respect that is the closest match for the respect you would otherwise have lost had you had it. Whoa: in other words, specific Whuffie points could be targeted by matching the profile of whoever originally generated them to whomever it is you are annoying.

(These two options might also be synthesised. For instance, to the extent that there exist close profile matches between those who have granted you Whuffie, and those who would take it from you, your loss might be concentrated in a few relevant Whuffie points; to the extent that there are no matches, the penalty would be paid by salami-slicing many Whuffie points).

What information would be pertinent to a profile? Two bits of the above quotation are relevant: “people who shared very few of my opinions” and “people I respected” (q.v.).

I think Cory more-or-less confirms this reading in his 2003 interview, and gives his sense of influence of default settings:
Unlike things like Google PageRank, it’s not a beauty contest; it doesn’t tell you what the average person thinks is right, or beautiful, or worthy of esteem, it tells you what people like you – people who bought this book also bought clean underwear – think about this resource. And because it’s not domain-specific, because it spans all these domains, it’s got this incredibly rich dataset, so it’s like people who are like you on lots of different axes telling you what to think.
7.5 Whuffie & Posthumanism

One of the earliest mentions of Whuffie in the novel is as ‘savings from the symphonies and the first three theses’. Given Cory's emphasis on objects in the interview quotations above (‘disambiguate every object in the universe’), it’s worth thinking about how the novel often presents the characters as though they were surrounded by satellites – achievements, projects, memberships, personal associations – which conduct partly independent lives vis-à-vis Whuffie.

It's a very intuitive position for cultural producers and heavy users of social media: there's me, but even when I'm dormant, there is the echo chamber of me, there are the mini-mes swarming around, living my life for me. It's also some pretty standard posthumanist shtick: "individuals" are distributed throughout complex networks, etc.

This may be another way in which the term Whuffie is mirroring a term such as respect. Whuffie, just like respect, may involve a direct response to personality as revealed in behaviour, or it may be drawn in the first instance by some affiliation. It is quite intuitive to say, “I did not know that this person was involved with that project, or a member of that organisation, or helped to accomplish that feat – I now have more respect for that person.” Likewise respect at one level may be offset or bolstered by respect at another. You may like the author of a certain chapbook, but dislike the thief who has drunk all your whiskey; the Whuffie system will recognise that they are the same person, and confront you with your own aggregate attitude.

Maybe that gives us a taste of how Whuffie hybridises money and symbolic capital. Whuffie can act as a unit of account and as a medium of exchange. Debra uses her Whuffie to pay for a service. In this respect, Whuffie functions as money does. However, achievements, projects, memberships, personal associations and so on may also influence Whuffie scores. In that respect, Whuffie is more like symbolic capital.

For instance, Julius muses how ‘new castmembers [...] would want to record every little detail and push it out over the Net as a big old Whuffie collector’. Here an appropriate comparison could be the “popularity” of a YouTube clip which has garnered millions of hits and hundreds of thousands of thumbs ups. It may feel problematic to ascribe this popularity to the creator or curator of the clip. We tend to be slightly more open to the idea that the author of popular novel is a popular author.

Of course, either or both of these attitudes may be contested. But the fact that the popularity can discriminated across the these contexts, by two contestibly different kinds of transitivity, demonstrates how difficult it is to draw a bright line around any individual as a locus of esteem.


8.1 A copyright focus imaginarius: never ask permission, always share the profits

So that ride was pretty much, in itself, worth all your worldly weapons, obviously. But where does it leave us vis-à-vis copyright? The basic point is this. Ideal copyright law -- as opposed to some kind of end to copyright -- might have to involve establishing exactly who is behind every cultural phenomena you experience, and to what extent, and rewarding them, if that's appropriate, for their input. Which is basically what Whuffie does.

Let's adjust that a little bit. The "reward" is a matter of pragmatism, not transcendent moral principle. Copyright law in the UK/US makes no pretense of accurately capturing the creative process. It has a rough model of creativity, and so long as sticking to that model fosters culture, learning, writing, art, research, journalism, and public dialogue, then the model is doing it’s job. It doesn’t have to be 100% accurate.

(That’s the principle, anyway. In reality – well, read Pirate Cinema).

But the point is, our ideal copyright system also doesn’t have to bestow rights on the basis of what’s really original, or who really came up with what. It just has to bestow rights in a way which is maximally conducive to the generation of new culture. (I’ll use ‘new culture’ as shorthand for all those words I just mentioned). The ideal system doesn’t even have any obligation to justice – although justice must make its way into our desiderata of its own accord (as it always does) – and besides, there’s a good argument that any flagrantly unjust copyright system could never be a very fruitful one, because injustice puts people off.

Here’s one simple way of balancing the requirements of fairness, of the freedom for culture to flow, mix and evolve, and of well-supported and incentivised fruitfulness. It’s not a real proposal, of course: it’s only ‘simple’ because we’re allowed to use magical black boxes. It is kind of, I think, something that is implied by the really existing system. It uses magical black boxes to exaggerate aspects of the really existing copyright system, turning some of the sliders on up to max.

In this ideal copyright system, no one ever has any right to exclude anyone else from using anything they’ve come up with. But anyone who ever comes up with something original will rewarded every time anyone uses their creation to earn money. This will be the case no matter how diluted, attenuated, transformed and chopped up their creation is – if its influence can be detected, the originator is rewarded, although the reward will be diminished proportionally as the original shape of the creation is diffused and distorted.

Wait. What about the intermediate stepping stones between some original expression, and some later expression which resembles it? Should they scoop some share of any royalties?

For instance, if it's 2014 and you write the sentence, ‘We dwelt in a giantess’s abdominal cavity, fainting nibbling wonks of its flora,’ and in 2015 Cory Doctorow writes the sentence, ‘Jeremy told me how she’d been raised in a giant, with cells so big you could see ’em with your naked eye,' and then in 2016 I write the sentences, ‘That summer we went fishing in the large intestine lake, and some days stripped nakie and paddled. But what we really lived on were dreams’ – my sentences clearly kinda stolen from you guys – who should get the royalty stream, you or Cory?

Well, I think you both should. How to divvy up the flow? The royalty distribution algorithm would take into consider levels of resemblance among the various expressions, types of resemblance, levels and types of dissemination, the time elapsed between different expressions, and various other factors.

So if you came up with an influential expression (a 'big old royalties collector'), under this ideal copyright system, you'd probably discover two opposing dynamics within its revenue stream. On the one hand, as it spins off new, mutant instances, it must share its royalties with an ever-widening network. On the other hand, as the network expands, every new node is potentially farming a dribble of extra royalties for you, so the total that is divided up is rising too.

Obviously most expressions will resemble many, many other expressions. So any earnings they are implicated in would have to be split up among thousands or millions of predecessors.

8.2 Originality, Everydayness, and YA

So what would count as "original"?

Real copyright law tends to negatively circumscribe a kind of cultural commons, a space packed with everyday expressions, constantly on the lips of every Everyman and so therefore supposedly without an Author, and also packed with scènes à faire, expressions so customary to their genre, and/or so "naturally" and unavoidably suggested by their particular subject matter, that they too are uncopyrightable. The principle of "labour and skill and/or judgment" conveys a faint rationalising, moralising force, but its main point is to sustain a dividing line between this cultural commons and a realm of potentially copyrightable expressions. Quality is not an issue: pretty much any labour and skill and/or judgment will fillip you to the other side, the area where things have been originated and so are "original" in the legal sense, the area of artifice and commercially exploitable intellectual property. Everyman exercises no labour and skill and/or judgment just to be Everyman.

You could, perhaps a bit whimsically, even call that purported common area YA culture. It's the stuff everyone supposedly has to know as a baseline, before they can go ahead and be anyone specific. YA is invested -- not always in a straightforward and uncritical way, of course -- in the idea of a common core, a place of simplicity and familiarity, whose ingredients can be used as staging posts for voyages into the specialised and differentiated peripheries of human culture, or can be wittily recombined, drawing on emergence to cheat anomie and atomisation, to tell complex stories with simple, universal ingredients.

This perspective is, of course, not quite tenable. Adult is tacitly humanist terminology, young adult doubly so. Our ideal copyright system would scuff and erase that line drawn around YA culture.

Just as Whuffie peeled back the lid of an invisible, taken-for-granted realm of everyday observation and judgment, revealing a massive set of distinct ping events, in principle available to computation, so our ideal copyright system would denature that YA culture, denature that cultural commons, exposing the concrete evolution of every interwoven expression in minute detail. There would be no de-historicised stock of common knowledge. There would be no bright line, no hard-and-fast distinction between originated and non-originated expressiveness.

8.3 Originality and Neutrality

So what would there be? Everything comes from somewhere, and most of it goes somewhere too. There would be an intricate texture; beyond that, it depends what patterns we choose to let the system look for. Poking Whuffie a little us taught how seeking technocratic protection against Whuffie free riders would be an innately partisan project: no clean mitts, no neutral ground, etc. The same applies here. We're trying to organise all this sort-of-raw culture, to dream up an alternative to the principle of labour and skill and/or judgment, to establish hierarchies which show us what little bits of culture should be indebted to what other little bits. What axes should our copyright system use to individuate expressions and to position them in relation to each other? What should count as as a more or as a less important resemblance, how should we trace the origin of a branch or the conclusion of a convergence, what should count as identity, what should count as difference? What should count as "a bit samey"?

It seems impossible to make these decisions without a substantive political agenda to guide them. Ascertaining identity and difference at a linguistic level quickly leads into class and identity politics. But it's a fascinating, giddy form of incentive design, because you're trying to pick incentives that won't just steer us as agents, but actually change the kinds of agents we are. You want to reward and promote the kinds of expressions which by definition you've probably never heard, and perhaps don't yet exist.

8.4 Originality as Surface Idiosyncracy

Unless ... perhaps all this is just the kneejerk thought of someone steeped in the shilling of the humanities, and OD'd on social media identity politics? I'm not sure just now.

So as a (probably naive) commonsense approach, just for starters: our ideal system could simply compare anything which anyone expresses to everything else ever expressed in the same or similar mediums. The less often those words have appeared together in that order – let’s stick with the example of writing, for simplicity – the more original the expression. There’s perhaps some synonym-matching too.

To the extent that you come up with stuff which doesn't appear anywhere else, you may receive royalties from anything that resembles it later on. To the extent that you make money from something with detectable influences, you pay their originators some royalties.

You can imagine these kinds of automated comparisons being done with words, with music, with video footage etc. We could compare John Cayley's "Common Tongues" project. It re-creates a text by Samuel Beckett by collaging together short strings found on the net (with footnotes to indicate the "source"). Every word in the text -- which, apart from the footnotes, is identical to Beckett's -- "comes" from somewhere other than Beckett's text. Or we could compare any run-of-the-mill plagiarism-detection software:

... especially if it's equipped to deal with synonyms and spinner software ("Take the 'not so distant future' bit first. In the event that you compose in that class, you needn't lose rest over fancy world-building, as you may for, say, space musical show ..."). (Plagiarism detection software makes me feel uneasy, BTW, especially when you're talking about students writing in a second language. But save that for another time, because ...)

This approach generates plenty of useful problems.

If our ideal copyright's political agenda involves -- as stated in the sort-of-famous Statute of Anne -- the promotion of learning, then this kind of system would be over-privileging textual distinctiveness. For learning to flourish, we surely don't want as many as possible distinctive cultural atoms -- actually, we want overlaps, we wants points of reinforcement, a robust webbing which we can drape onto the universe and discern its real shape.

There might also have to be some way of measuring how important a particular adapted expression is in the context of its work as a whole. If it is trivial, it makes sense to reduce the royalties accordingly. In fact, since we’re concentrating on monetisation, the ‘the work as a whole’ may not be a suitable final horizon. It may be necessary to think of how important the expression is within the author’s oeuvre, the publisher’s list, the genre as a whole, even within the profile of the language itself as it measures up to other languages. There would have to be some sort of ongoing analysis of demand elasticity and the fungibility of consumption.

Furthermore, although the distinct, circumscribed realm of everydayness has been disarrayed and disheveled about the edges, the idea of the stock phrase still survives in a more qualified, pluralistic form. For instance: who owns the expression ‘she came out of the shop accompanied by six birds which, upon closer inspection, were part of her body’? What about ‘she did not wish to jeopardise the commission’? How about ‘the tips of his fingers were callused’?

You might say that it varies from one speech community to the next. Although that first expression seems quite portable, armoured and self-sufficient: it is difficult to imagine dropping it into a new context without something being due to an originator. The same is not true of ‘the tips of his fingers were callused’.

So perhaps our ideal copyright system, in establishing how deserving of royalties an expression is, and where its roots lie, is also trying to establish what superficial features are characteristic of expressions which tend to retain their integrity when dropped into new surroundings, versus those whose meanings are more permeable to context?

8.5 Originality, Surveillance and Mass Representation

As it stands, the system could also be gamed easily. Monkeys-on-typewriters spam-of-record could spew out a vast corpus of semi-randomised expressions in the hope of hitting on a few winners. (Insert jokey ad hominem aside. The gist is to pretend that so-and-so already writes like this, but it is joshing, is what it is).

Well, what if the author has never seen those expressions? One intriguing principle to add would be that royalties are weighted according to what the author has or has not seen. Perhaps if two different people come up with the same thing independently, they should both be rewarded – regardless of who got there first!

A problem with that, of course, is that it encourages authors to never read anything. Perhaps the privilege of receiving royalty from an independent, parallel origination would only be given to authors who read an above-average amount.

This implies keeping track of which authors have read what. Which is of course troubling. It is another area in which a comparison with Down and Out is bright and clear: I think Whuffie does imply something like mass surveillance and/or Very Big Data.

Although . . . perhaps those terms are a little too loaded? They imply a certain affordance to control, husbandry and exploitation by powerful institutional actors, especially by states. In that respect, I think terms like mass surveillance and Big Data beg some of the questions that science fiction like Down and Out is trying to pose – questions about radical transparency, about the politics of free and equal access to abundant information.

Questions which are certainly at the heart of an ideal copyright system thought experiment. Perhaps what’s going on in Down and Out could be called ‘Mass Representation’ instead? The point of the trope of Mass Representation, which I think is a pretty common and fundamental trope in a lot of SF worldbuilding, is not really that the NSA is spying on everyone Just In Case. That’s only one possible configuration within Mass Representation.

The trope of Mass Representation is more elementary and more open-ended. It simply imagines a world in which pretty much everything which exists – or at least, everything which anyone experiences – is associated with a representation somewhere. It does not have a necessary stance on who has access to those representations under what conditions.

Mass Representation necessarily puts a theory of individuation into effect. It establishes where one thing ends and the next one begins, even if it allows for certain kinds of dynamism and overlap. There may be a kind of attempt to map human language or human concerns ... or the individuation may be organised in some other way. Also, for any given phenomenon, the representation may be comprehensive or limited, and it may be way off or a little off or just right.

(And okay, obviously ‘Mass Representation’ is an intimate associate of late stage capitalism; we are peculiarly compliant to gossip about a medium into which anything can be adequately translated, because we have learned to live with that particular half-truth in the form of money. Perhaps the coinage Mass Representation is unnecessary: there are close links with capitalist realism, reification, Internet of Things, and I could probably go ahead and say the same thing using that terminology).

8.6 Individuation & Identity Redux

The main problem with this whole "just compare the words and the order of the words" is something more fundamental. It's something pretty obvious, really.

The meaning of an expression alters according to its context. The same words in the same order can mean quite different things -- in fact, at a certain level of zoom, they always do.

This is troubling. For instance, how would satire work in our ideal copyright system? Your well-observed portrait of a certain type of person could have the unintended consequence of generating royalties to the very people you’re trying to lampoon.

Perhaps our ideal copyright system must compensate for this risk by introducing the principles of readerly response and/or authorial intent. While these are philosophically swampy areas, remember that even our ideal copyright system is not oriented towards the truth about artistic creation. It has a more limited technocratic orientation. All it wants to do is cultivate and support writing, publishing, research, journalism, deliberation and so on. For those limited purposes, notions like readerly response and authorial intent are neither impractically subtle, nor sabotaged by hopelessly philosophical naivety.

Take the satire example. The system could at least monitor various instances of an expression and detect where some tend to be mixed up with laughter. We can imagine a more intricate system of distinctions arising from analysis of how different readers feel and behave in the vicinity of a particular expression across its many different contexts. If indications are that, despite the surface resemblance of words and word order, there are sharply discriminated meanings at play, the link could be weakened between the expressions, and the royalty flow turned down proportionately.

Let’s extrapolate, of course. A cabal of Hollywood studios club together to gradually eliminate the 100 most common English phrases from their movies, replacing them with a synthetic argot to avoid paying micro-royalties to whoever first came up with, "Hey man, what’s up, how’s it going."

I don't know. Maybe to really detect something "original" -- in our sense of "worthy of incentivisation by the ideal copyright system" -- you'd have to go about it altogether differently. Try this: if the subaltern were to speak, maybe it should speak (c). Maybe our ideal copyright system doesn't get itself embroiled in the problems described above. Maybe in dives into different problems. Maybe it looks for the clinamen moments where we temporarily swerve out of the social and economic functions which are overdetermined by the totality in which we are embedded. It searches for those moments in which the status quo (you know, the entrenched, homicidal, flexible, kyriarchical, slave-owning one) is bucked, where it doesn't recuperate and recover itself as fast as usual, where capital or power flows, as it were, in an original direction, assumes an original configuration. Then our ideal copyright system scans for whatever symbolic capital which is by-and-large associated with such moments, particularly as contributing cause or resource, and that is what it counts. Counterpower and counterhegemonic discourse, as revealed by its connection with real material sallies of practice, within the necessarily somewhat arbitrary aspirations and strategies of a particular political program -- that is the only really new thing that can be written onto the texture of a global society so capable of counterfeiting a constantly tabla rasa, of simulating pure, sheer, snowy neutrality.

That's maybe a little garbled. A short, slightly cruder version. Maybe our ideal copyright system would reward culture which actually does -- in a more-or-less verifiable way -- make people act in a different way. Act in a different way, that is, not just from the perspective of their friends or their lover or their kids or whatever, but from the standpoint of history.

Isn't that how an ideal copyright system should define "originality"? And in particular, isn't it a stunningly original thing to do, to find a way to increase freedom instead of abolishing it? To mitigate suffering, instead of ratcheting it?

(I mean, a centaur unicorn is pretty original too, especially if the horn is still at the tip of the horse bit, jutting through the lungs from the withers).

8.7 Whuffie Redux

Cory Doctorow is soon to revisit the world of Whuffie with Utopia, a work-in-progress which perhaps will act as a prequel to Down and Out. I heard a very promising snippet at Worldcon: light, funny, with brio and buoyancy yet not too feverish, too throwaway nor too wordy, and simmering with all kinds of witty conceits within the span of just a few pages. My ideal copyright system (it's real: twist!) even flagged up a few micro-royalty flows irrigating the estate of David Foster Wallace.

Utopia is being described as a "novel for adults." The snippet I heard was partly about being young, or not, about inter-generational or inter-micro-generational awkwardness, about fashions and fads and partying and politics. And it also sounded like this was still someone who was thinking hard about how -- if at all -- cultural production can seize agency in political struggle.

One very basic rule of thumb there, obviously, is to try to write for young people. YA is precariously placed: there is a mighty potent link between youth and brave, reasonable political energy. Between youth and revolution, you might say, though that's so often said with a scoff I'm reluctant to say it. Yet that's also a potentially perpetual excuse: this generation is past it, but the next generation can do what needs to be done.

And a lot of YA literature, especially that which is literally exclusively "aimed at" children and teens often feels like it's there to contain and discipline that energy, rather than to fuel and inform it: You're young? Great, you should be rebelling! In particular, rebelling in the following ways: blah, blah. And here, have a lot of imaginary dystopias to distract you from the real dystopia.

But YA isn't just books like these. It isn't, in fact, any slot in a taxonomy. Texts don't go in YA, YA goes in texts. It's a dynamic, something that can be alive in any genre (try this).YA also almost feels like it's taking over many of science fiction's positions, or science fiction's functions or possibilities, within imaginative literature. The future has already been here for a while, just not evenly distributed: literature which focuses on the many possible redistributions of that future may feel like it is and yet is not science fiction.

And, of course, YA isn't just for young people! It's not just for young people, not just about them, not just of them. As I explored at the start of this review, the reasons for that may not be altogether heartening. Perhaps YA is a symptom of a particular phase of atomisation and fragmentation. Perhaps it's about a desire for a missing common ground, for a baseline or core culture of uncontested humanity. But even so, there's also something faintly hopeful here. If YA isn't just for young people, maybe the politics of youth aren't just for young people either.

And meanwhile, even growing up isn't what it used to be: geeks aren't putting aside childish things, dammit! They're keeping them and having kids of their own. And they may be open to transforming either or both of these practices. So the narrative of playing in your youth and working in your middle age has been plenty disrupted. Likewise, the narrative of tearaway youth full of possibilities, followed by a settled middle age, where you reign in your horizons, and come to terms with your responsibilities and complicities, while it is still a powerful narrative, is perhaps not as powerful as it once was.

And ... I think that'll do.