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Cory Doctorow on the teen imagination, paranoia and the late Aaron Swartz

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In Cory Doctorow's novels for young adults, teenage "techno-ninjas" do battle with the powers that be, often represented by the Department of Homeland Security. Little Brother (2008) depicted a police-state crackdown in the wake of a terrorist incident in San Francisco.

But these aren't just scenarios spun for entertainment. Through his work for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, his writings for Wired and the blog he co-edits, boingboing.net, along with best-selling novels for young adults, Doctorow has become a leading voice on the complex issues surrounding "hacktivism" and a devoted advocate for Web openness.

In Homeland, his follow-up to Little Brother, a Wikileaks-style data dump falls into the hands of Doctorow's young hero, Marcus Yallow, pitting him against both government hardliners and an anonymous hacker army as he attempts to act according to his beliefs.

Marcus shares a number of qualities with the young Internet pioneer Aaron Swartz, who was a close friend of Doctorow. Swartz, who struggled with depression, committed suicide last month at the age of 26 while facing federal hacking charges stemming from downloading journal articles through Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer networks.

Doctorow wrote an online tribute to his friend that served as an eloquent introduction to Swartz's lifework and the causes to which Doctorow remains so passionately committed. He spoke with us from Seattle, where he was beginning a book tour.

INDY WEEK: What is it about the adolescent imagination that draws you to write YA novels?

CORY DOCTOROW: Young adults' lives are extremely exciting to write about because young adults do things for the first time, and doing something for the first time is very different from doing it for the millionth time. The first time you do something that may later turn out to be quite banal, it's rather exciting because it changes you: the first time you tell a lie of consequence, or the first time you do something noble for a friend. You come out of that experience a different person than the one that you were going in, and what's more, you have no way to predict, going in, what you will be like coming out of it again. You are changing yourself, without being able to know for sure who you'll be when you're done.

World events are so closely mirrored in your fictional world—do you ever feel hemmed in by having to create fictional characters and situations that are technologically plausible and reflect the rapidly changing world?

I always say [my books are] set in a contra-factual near future that's an indeterminate number of years away. The advantage of doing that is you can write stories that it doesn't really matter if they contradict some of the stuff that's going on in the world around them because they take place in a very nearby parallel dimension.

There's a lot of paranoia in the world, and in your books. Is paranoia like cholesterol—there's good paranoia and bad paranoia?

One of the problems that we have when it comes to privacy is that it's very hard to adequately price out, or understand the cost in advance, of privacy disclosures and of privacy breaches. Because privacy and its consequences are separated by a lot of time and space. You make a privacy disclosure now, and months or years later, somewhere very far from here, the consequences of that come back to haunt you. And that's the hardest kind of thing to get good at. Imagine if you were trying to learn to hit a ball, but you swung the bat and you only found out whether the bat connected with the ball a month later, while you were very far from the ball diamond. You wouldn't ever get better at swinging. And so one of the ways that we can get better at pricing out privacy is to add not just an analytic dimension but maybe an emotional dimension too, maybe to have a kind of visceral or atavistic feeling about what may come about as a result of privacy. Maybe we learn to price privacy better through getting these very vivid looks at the privacy consequences that other people pay.

You make a similar distinction between good and bad theft, like the test results that Marcus' girlfriend, Ange, steals and, more broadly, the MIT documents that Aaron Swartz made available.

First of all, Aaron didn't make any documents available. He downloaded documents. I don't know that I necessarily would put those in the same place. And I don't know that I would call either of those thefts. We have, for example, language in law about things like copyright infringement that appear in statutes that aren't the theft statutes. And we distinguish between them because they're different kinds of things. Obviously people who have something stolen from them are deprived of it, whereas people who have their information copied are not deprived of that information—they still possess the information, it's just that other people possess it too. It's sort of like saying, jaywalking is bad, rape is bad, so why don't we call jaywalking "road rape"? They're different worlds.

I think that when you are young, you often have a hard time appreciating the potential consequences of your actions. Your development is all about taking incredible risks, doing things that you can never anticipate the consequences of. So the young people do often risk a lot, and certainly one of the crises of the way we handle young people and discipline is that, in the world of zero tolerance and incredible sentencing in the federal sentencing guidelines and three strikes and you're out, we end up turning kids' natural risk-taking behavior into something absolutely pathological, and we end up punishing them in ways that are completely out of step with any kind of justice or any kind of mercy. And we do so on the theory that this may deter young people from taking these risks in the future, but there's no evidence that young people are deterred by these incredible punishments.

Little Brother and Homeland invoke Kerouac and the Beats, who prized nature—and movement. Did this worldview emerge because youths in the '50s were utterly unsurveilled, free, even encouraged to be outside and far from their parents or anyone's eyes?

Some people say the job of a science fiction writer is to contemplate the car and the movie theater and invent the drive-in, or maybe to contemplate the car, the movie theater and the drive-in and invent the sexual revolution. But when you think about what happened then, it wasn't just that kids had this unprecedented freedom of motion in the form of the postwar automobile, but also, for the very first time, people who were civilians and had done no wrong began to carry identification papers. This thing that had been a feature of totalitarian states became in fact a tool of freedom: the driver's license. And this kind of paves the way for the database society that we live in now. It's kind of the strange unintended consequence, and maybe the inevitable consequence, of having to be licensed to conduct your daily rounds in the world around you. And so the driver's license becomes something like an internal passport and over time becomes increasingly Sovietized, and maybe that is a contrast there between the freedom of the car culture that you see in Kerouac, the wide open road, and the kind of constrictive, claustrophobic, paranoid world that the characters in my books inhabit.

In 1984, they break Winston Smith when he says 'Do it to Julia.' In Homeland, Marcus is forced to do things he regrets, but he's not broken by it.

Marcus doesn't live in as polarized a place as Winston Smith did. And he is in a place of privilege that Winston Smith isn't. He's a white middle-class kid who's got friends in the political sphere and who are lawyers, who are journalists and so on. So he's in a much better place; what he never gets into is the place where, say, [WikiLeaks informant] Bradley Manning was in, where he was subjected to months of torture. And he never gets into a place where he's playing a non-iterated prisoner's dilemma where he and other people that he cares about are separated and offered deals where, if they rat out their friends—whether or not their friends have done anything wrong—their friends go to jail forever and ever, and they go to jail very briefly. And of course that's a situation that a lot of people in America face themselves. And maybe that's something that should be in a book like Homeland and may end up in a book in the future. The dilemmas that Marcus faces aren't that kind of dilemma. But they could be, and there are lots of people who, due to the fact that they don't have the privileges that Marcus has, end up having to choose whether to save themselves from an absolutely brutal punishing penal system, but to do so involves putting someone else in the path of that brutal penal system.

The kids in your books are so caught up in gaming, and the schools seem so ineffective, you wonder how kids are going to master the ancient art of writing. Where is the next generation of writers coming from?

The Internet is primarily still a verbal medium, a written medium. There's plenty of English teachers and creative writing teachers out there who do great work, but ultimately the way that writers learn to write is by reading and writing, and kids today do more of both of those things than they have ever done before. Even in the era of the long, epistolary relationship, carried out by letters over the weeks and months, most people didn't partake in that culture at all. We have this impression that everybody was writing long letters to each other—because the long letters survived—and the people who didn't write letters to each other, their words evanesced. But I think there's more writing going on now than there was, even in those days.

From your lips to God's ears.

Or whoever—from my lips to the emergent phenomena of a quantum and rational universe.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Generation hack."

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