Cory Doctorow Rails Against Technological Nihilism; Wants You To Have Hope

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Security professionals are encourage to sign Cory’s petition and to audit EME extensions (learn more), disclosing any found vulnerabilities via email directly to info at

31 thoughts on “Cory Doctorow Rails Against Technological Nihilism; Wants You To Have Hope

    1. Yeah, they had a two-camera set up and the talk will be published. I have no idea the lag between talk and publication (editing is a thing so please be patient).

      I’ll keep my eye out and we’ll do a roundup of all the talks we loved from HOPE once the videos are live.’

      I’ve got like 6-8 more I want to write about so stay tuned this week.

  1. I’m glad he is maturing and getting over the nihilism typical of his earlier work, malcontented revolutionaries are so annoying and naive when compared with people who focus on nurturing evolutionary processes without imposing arbitrary ethical systems onto them.

  2. To me, it’s the entire concept of ownership that’s been under attack. This isn’t a new fight, digital is just a new battleground.

    I’m not sure what lessons history has to teach here, but I am hopeful that our digital philosophers and advocates are working on the ideas that engineers like myself can put into practice.

    1. I’m not sure, what you mean with “concept of ownership”. I hope you mean this only for immaterial goods, not like some communists who want to abolish private ownership completely.
      For me there is a big difference in the concept of ownership between material things and even real estate and immaterial things. Material things take a significant effort to reproduce, real estate can not be reproduced at all, but immaterial things take nearly no effort to reproduce. If I would steal somebody’s car, he does not longer own it and can not longer use it. If I duplicate a digital file the original owner can still use it to full extent.

      1. material things might take great effort to produce but what you produce them from surely has an effect on how much anything really is “yours”, a lot of modern technology is exactly there to try and mitigate this effect.

      2. “not like some communists who want to abolish private ownership completely”

        Would you like to explain why abolishing private ownership (at least in some regards) is a bad thing? And why communism is bad (as you’ve implied)? From what I can tell, no one actually owns anything, you’ve just ended up with it in your possession at some point in time, and at some later point in time, you won’t own it anymore. Sure, human-written laws might “guarantee” ownership of something to you, but the laws of physics say I can just take it from you.

        Maybe your immediate hatred of these “communist ideas” needs a bit of a re-thinking? Say, for the sake of reuse and recycling of “your” goods when you don’t want/need them any longer?

    1. I think this is the point that the article is trying to make: you’re right, but you shouldn’t be, and if you and everyone else keeps acting like you are right, then you will forever be right, because it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

      Sure, we can just accept that Mr. Sanders tried and failed. But is that the world you want to live in? I for one would rather die fighting for this “hope”, no matter how far-fetched or unobtainable it is, than bend over and accept the phallus of greed and power every day of my life. Of course, if that’s what you’re into, by all means…

  3. Unless serious people begin organizing serious efforts, I see no reason for hope.

    There is a huge disconnect between reality and what the general public think is reality. Then there is an even more alarming gap between what sophisticated people think and what they are willing to admit out loud.

    “It’s an Emperor’s New Clothes situation where otherwise sensible people are deceiving themselves.”

    Oh absolutely – but I have to warn you – nothing in the article above shows even the slightest bit of promise. Not when some obvious political ploy like Ahmed’s Clock can be so divisive while also being so obviously propaganda organized by sophisticated anti-freedom globalists.

      1. They are destroying our way of life while elevating a self-selected group to unelected global governance.

        Sorry you find idiotic accusations of racism more compelling than this obvious fact. YOU are the problem Greg.

    1. Right, hence the reason for the talk. Is this so hard to see? You’re falling into exactly the same trap that this speaker is trying to pull you away from. If you think serious people need to organize this, why don’t you lead the charge? I’ll gladly join you, and I’m sure a lot of others will too. Maybe it won’t work out, but at least you tried, rather than sitting around getting nothing done.

      1. The type of serious people that could make a difference are largely on the take – IE professors, politicians, etc.

        They status quo only listens to the status quo – and the populace follows the status quo.

  4. Hope can only return when the U.S. public education system (at all levels) is changed back to actually educating people instead of politically indoctrinating them. Even if that happens (unlikely in the foreseeable future), it will take generations to overcome the damage. If it doesn’t happen (likely), the future looks bleak. This outlook IMO is evidence-based, not raw Nihilism.

    1. …I can’t believe I have to keep saying this. Did you even read TFA? The entire point is that you need to stop saying EXACTLY THAT. Maybe you’re right, but if you’re wrong, you’ve got a slim window of opportunity to turn things around. Why not try, even if you might fail? If things are looking so bleak right now, then the only direction you can go is up.

  5. You mean it wasn’t a talk about “How to Piggyback People and Never Actually Do Anything and Still Get Paid”? Because that is what he excels at. That and some really awful scifi…
    I got over Doctorow and the EFF several years ago. I recommend others do to. The rest of the world makes a lot of sense and the big bad wolf never comes ;)_

  6. Because the video host Livestream does not support Flash 11 (no modern DRM, Adobe stoped updating flash on linux) none of the videos from the HOPE conference can be viewed on linux. I feel like that kind of goes against the spirit of the HOPE conferences and this keynote in particular.

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