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Makers Author Cory Doctorow Explains the SciFi Allure of Disney World

Makers Author Cory Doctorow Explains the SciFi Allure of Disney World” width=”560″/>

The Internet entrepreneur and author of the bestselling Little Brother discusses his latest novel, Makers, and what distinguishes his work from the cyberpunk of William Gibson.

Q: Where did you come up with the idea for Makers?

A: It’s funny, I started off thinking I was writing a parable about the dot com collapse. I lived in San Francisco through the crash, and what I found interesting was that although a lot of stuff disappeared, there were a lot of people who hung in there and realized they didn’t need much capital to do interesting stuff on the Web. They just kept making it, though nobody was paying them. And I found myself writing this book that was a parable about it. Then the economy collapsed [laughs], and I realized I had a story that was timely as well as historical.

Q: Was the timing a coincidence, or had you started to see the signs?

A: I certainly didn’t see the signs, apart from the general idea that we do have this boom and bust cycle that we’re stuck on. I have a theory about it that ties into Makers, though, which is that one of the effects of technology is it increases productivity in a way that allows people to do interesting things [with less] capital. And what that does is it creates a lot of cash that sloshes around with nowhere to go, so that gives rise to the finance industry. You end up with our situation where finance people spend money on other finance people. The latest crash took a whole bunch of really useful productive things like making cars, and made it no longer profitable because there was no way to account for it. It’s fantasy, like, we can’t figure out how to use your skyscrapers in our Dungeons & Dragons game, so we’re tearing them down.

Q: Your main characters are hardware hackers, innovating on products that already exist. Is there a difference between a “maker” and a “hacker”?

A: I think that innovation is best measured by what happens when the product meets the world, not by how much work you have to put in it. In the same way that you now have this Internet world with amazing photos and music that’s made by compiling other photos and music, I think we’re getting amazing hardware that’s made by compositing other hardware. There’s always been a certain amount of this: For most of the history of computing, you’ve just gone out and bought commodity components for a computer.

Q: So how did the concept evolve into creating a hacker Disney World in a Wal-Mart? Did it come from your other novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom?

A: What it evolved out of was the incredible fun I had researching a novel set in a theme park. I’ve got a real interest in gadgets and doodads, and I set out to reverse engineer a novel plot that revolved around my getting to do fun stuff to research it. Amusement park rides, buying interesting junk, visiting hacker spaces, looking at 3D printers… What novel fits in there?

Q: And then you made Disney the villain.

A: Disney is essentially a privately run city that has 50,000 employees on site and does some novel social stuff as well as lots of interesting technical stuff. And in a world in which the costs of organizing people is going through the floor, Disney ends up with a product that is more expensive. What if in ten years, doing 60 percent of what Disney World does costs a tenth of a percent of what Disney World costs? At that point, Disney World is in real trouble. Disney is a thing unto itself, and science-fictionally it’s bottomless.

Q: Lots of scifi authors are beginning to tackle economics in their scifi. What’s the allure?

A: That’s what my next novel is about too. It’s a young adult novel, For the Win, about people who work in video games producing video game gold that’s sold to rich people. And like Little Brother, it uses the fictional scenario to describe complex topics — in this case, it’s finance, global labor politics and macro-economics. I think that the attraction of writing about economics is one of the secret engines of the world. It’s out of the sight of the common person. The people who claim to understand it either can’t explain it very well or are lying, and yet it drives the whole world. It’s a subject rich with science fictional possibility.

Q: Do you think Makers represents the next era of cyberpunk literature?

A: I think you have to ask Bruce Sterling — he is officially the person who gets to tell you what the next era of cyberpunk will be. I think the main difference is that cyberpunk treated computers as metaphors that were useful plot devices. I don’t have the luxury or the desire to write metaphorically about computers. The other one is that I think there’s more optimism about the role of technology in my writing than there was in most of the cyberpunk writing. The vision of the cyberpunks was of big monolithic corporations producing big monolithic technologies, bits of which could be tweezed off into home-brew stuff. I’m more of the opinion that you’ll get things that will look and feel like a regular device, but will have been produced by a shoemaker. And in the end, that’s actually more subversive than guys in leather jackets who use computers to give themselves louder motorcycles.

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