I read Cory Doctorow’s Attack Surface in the past days. I bought it already late November, directly from the author’s website (I’m trying to avoid buying through Amazon when I can), but read some other books first.

Attack Surface is a fast paced action packed novel, and I enjoyed it a lot. It takes you on a tour of both general and targeted surveillance technology and discusses how and when you can expect to be able to defend yourself against it, and when not. Reading the book was much like being in conversation with Arjen Kamphuis a Dutch it security expert who went missing in Norway two years ago, and like reading the accompanying storyline to Arjen’s 2014 book Infosecurity for Journalists.

Doctorow doesn’t explain technology much in his books, on purpose. He uses his books to make people aware of the names and terms to describe current tech, to ensure they know how to search online for explanations of the technology. On the assumption that the lack of awareness about certain tech, and the social and political implications of that tech, stems from not knowing enough to be able to search for more information. His books fill that gap.

…when I sat down in 2006 to write the first Little Brother book, I realized that facts were now cheap – anything could be discovered with a single search. The thing in short supply now was search terms – knowing what to search for.

For Attack Surface, one reader took this notion to turn it into a ‘Mashapedia‘ (Masha is the book’s protagonist), to provide a chapter by chapter glossary with links to explanations of each technology mentioned.

Doctorow describes himself as a realistic techno-optimist, not a tech-utopian, and I’m in the same position. In the final chapters of the book the characters point out that resisting surveillance tech is not about winning against that tech and permanently becoming immune to surveillance, but to create enough space to win political momentum against surveillance or those who use it. To resist surveillance in order to work political change. This hews close to the type of conversation I had during the Cph150 I had last year.
Around that time I wrote “treating [my work] as a political endeavour in its own right is different. I realise I may be in a place in my work where that deserves to have a much more deliberate role.” Doctorow reminds me to think that through some more, also as it builds on his contribution to the SF writers and economists meet-up late 2019 in Brussels I took part in, and the conversation we had there beforehand.

Cornucopia
Abundance isn’t shipping containers full of stuff. (image by me, CC BY NC SA)

Last month I was at the Scifi Economics Lab, and Cory Doctorow
was one of the speakers. There was much to unpack in his talk, and he has a style of delivery that makes you want to quote a lot of things. I won’t give in to that urge, but will highlight one expression.

At some point he talked about abundance. It’s a term I’ve struggled with over the years because it’s so easy to interpret as having mountains of stuff, as per the image above. Or have everything free. A Dutch expression or rather admonition “we don’t live in the land where chickens fly into your mouth already fried” is probably an image our Calvinist culture associates with abundance: no work, but all the fruits of it. I have a sense of the meaning of abundance other than that, but never felt I had the right words to express that other perspective on abundance.

Doctorow’s metaphor for abundance was useful for me. He described back packers always having to carry a roll of toilet paper with them and that if not used it would desintegrate in your backpak, and therefore regularly needs replacement. Backpackers spent resources on replacing their toilet paper and spent mental energy on keeping an eye on still having it with them. A constant worry, and an inefficient use of resources (as you don’t use much of the toilet paper for its intended purpose, due to degradation).
Abundance then is being certain there is toilet paper when and where you need it. This is a qualitative metaphor that adds location, timing and actual need as dimensions of relevance. Abundance here is also more efficient, reduces worry, and is always there when needed. But it’s not limitless, free, or available anywhere for anything at any whim. It’s about qualitative abundance not quantitative abundance (‘heaps of free stuff’).

Hotel Room Toilet Paper Roll FoldMetaphorical Practical abundance, image by Tony Webster, license CC BY

This makes a vast number of things abundant in the society I live in, because it is there when I need it, without worry. Water, food, energy, clothing, transport, and everything else including toilet paper. (I once had a Central-Asian colleague who told me she thought, having visited, the Netherlands was totally boring because of that predictable abundance: no need to improvise anytime/anywhere.) Especially in the context of the six ways to die, abundance is an important notion, also because that abundance is often acquired by increasing the complexity of our systems. That complexity can break down.

Time, location and the context of an existing need are qualitative dimensions interesting to consider as design factors. What do you do when one or more of them are not to be counted on? Or can be counted upon, but at specific intervals? This is dealing with and designing for intermittence, as building block of both resilience and agency. That’s for another time.

In a case of synchronicity I’ve read Cory Doctorow’s novel Walkaway when I was ill recently, just as Bryan Alexander scheduled it for his near future science fiction reading group. I loved reading the book, and in contrast to some other works of Doctorow the storyline kept working for me until the end.

Bryan amazingly has managed to get Doctorow to participate in a webcast as part of the Future Trends in learning series Bryan hosts. The session is planned for May 16th, and I marked my calendar for it.

In the comments Vanessa Vaile shares two worthwile links. One is an interesting recording from May last year at the New York public library in which Doctorow and Edward Snowden discuss some of the elements and underlying topics and dynamics of the Walkaway novel.

The other is a review in TOR.com, that resonates a lot with me. The reviewer writes how, in contrast with lots of other science fiction that takes one large idea or large change and extrapolates on that, Doctorow takes a number of smaller ideas and smaller changes, and then works out how those might interplay and weave new complexities, where the impact on “manufacturing, politics, the economy, wealth disparity, diversity, privilege, partying, music, sex, beer, drugs, information security, tech bubbles, law, and law enforcement” is all presented in one go.

It seems futuristic, until you realize that all of these things exist today.
….. most of it could start right now, if it’s the world we choose to create.

By not having any one idea jump too far from reality, Walkaway demonstrates how close we are, right now, to enormous promise and imminent peril.

That is precisely the effect reading Walkaway had on me, leading me to think how I could contribute to bringing some of the described effects about. And how some of those things I was/am already trying to create as part of my own work flow and information processes.