I was skeptical about a two hour block allotted for Cory Doctrow’s keynote address at HOPE XI. I’ve been to Operas that are shorter than that and it’s hard to imagine he could keep a huge audience engaged for that long. I was incredibly wrong — this was a barnburner of a talk. Here is where some would make a joke about breaking out the rainbows and puppies. But this isn’t a joke. I think Cory’s talk helped me understand why I’ve been feeling down about our not-so-bright digital future and unearthed a foundation upon which hope can grow.
You may know Cory as a fiction writer, an editor at Boing Boing, but what you should know him for is his work with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. His position there is actually supported through the MIT Media Lab as an Activist in Residence. That’s a pretty awesome title for someone who is helping lead the charge against Section 1201 of the DMCA. He threw down the gauntlet with his talk at DEF CON last year. With last Thursday’s news of Bunnie Hung and the EFF suing the US Government over Section 1201 it was obvious this talk would frame that issue. But that didn’t come until later.
Denialism and Nihilism
The majority of his talk centered around two argument styles: Denialism and Nihilism. Denialism is built on bad faith arguments. Despite overwhelming expert opinion, the denialists stick to their bad faith assertions: cigarettes don’t cause cancer, or climate change is not caused by man (or doesn’t exist at all). Even in the face of overwhelming evidence gathered, corroborated, and well explained by experts, a denialist argument blatantly ignores or falsely discredits all of that.
Look around for Denialism arguments in Internet rights issues and you’ll see them popping up everywhere. Cory made an impressive number of connections: music publishers using the technique to push DRM (we must control the media or it will lose all value) and paid streaming services where publishers blame customers for artists’ low income while the publishers make bank.
And this brings us to Nihilism. It’s obvious to me having now heard Cory’s talk, that this is where I’m stuck. Nihilism is the feeling (or false argument) that all is lost, so why fight it? This includes fallacies like: you can’t have security and privacy (an argument toward crypto back doors for law enforcement), that you must trade some of your privacy for the Internet to do interesting things for you (an argument toward companies harvesting huge amounts of data for their own gain).
Nihilism is what makes people think “they’re collecting data on everyone so we should all be okay”. It’s an Emperor’s New Clothes situation where otherwise sensible people are deceiving themselves. But it can’t go on forever. At some point everyone starts to realize they have no privacy — that the clothes they’ve been sold in the language of Terms of Service and slick marketing hype doesn’t and hasn’t provided the protections they thought it did.
I won’t go into the details of his case against DMCA Section 1201 — the gist is that it is a bad law because it prevents law-abiding users for full use of their media and devices and it criminalizes security research. The EFF does a great job of succinctly covering the reasons for this so go take a look if you’re not already a believer.
Pledge Yourself to Hope
Cory Doctorow brought it home in a way so perfectly engineered for this particular audience: have hope. It sounds sappy since this word matches the acronym of the Hackers On Planet Earth conference. But for all of us who understand technology, how our world depends on it, how those who don’t understand technology are being sold a poor bill of goods, and who the worst offenders of the practice are, there is a palpable feeling of hopelessness. You can’t make a difference in the world if you have subconsciously surrendered to thoughts of everything being broken and there being no way to fix it.
The EFF is at the beginning of a 10 year mission to end Section 1201 of the DMCA. But even larger than this is a movement to re-decentralize the Internet and all technology that makes use of it. Cory advocates two core tenets to take up right now in this fight:
- Computers should be designed to obey their owners. When devices receive conflicting commands from both a manufacturer and an owner, the owner’s desire must always win.
- True facts about computer security should always be legal to disclose.
His call to action at the end is to pledge yourself to hope. It’s sad that this is difficult to do, it’s powerful if you are able to do it, and he’s right.