Amazing talk from Cory Doctorow at this week’s Firestarters. Cory covered a head-spinning amout of ground, at a dizzying pace.
His theme: the impending ‘war on general computing’.
His premise: that computers are becoming so pervasive, powerful and increasingly invisible that the tension between personal autonomy and the protection we receive from lawmakers is going to become even more palpable and troublesome.
He talked about copyright, privacy, spyware, hacking, data, marketing… seemingly everything. And he did speak very quickly. Many people I’ve spoken to since took few notes; the tweet rate seemed down significantly on previous Firestarters events.
There will be good write-ups, naturally, and a couple have appeared already (here and here). I think, though, that we might need some sort of blog wiki that can aggregate the different fragments that different people will have been able snatch the Google 9th floor ether.
Whatever you managed to grab hold of, chances are you were nevertheless intoxicated by what was really the first Firestarters lecture. In a very good way.
Like any good polemicist, Cory had an entire arsenal of metaphor and soundbites at his disposal. This is not a criticism, in fact quite the opposite.
I was thinking about the nuggets that stuck in my mind, and what made them stick. A combination of language, imagery, humour and resonant metaphor made what Cory had to say incisive and powerful, as opposed to merely interesting and thought-provoking.
He talked about how censorship and surveillance used to be different things. If you wanted to ban a book 50 years ago, all you had to do was limit the books’ appearance in book shops. The restraint was on the publisher, not the reader. Now the enforcement of censorship requires surveillance of the reader, control access and putting restraints of the movements of the user. Censorship and surveillance have converged.
Cory can also pull a great emotive metaphor out of the bag, especially when building on the way users are being blamed for the capabilities of mass produced technology. Copyright, he argued, used to be like a tank mine, which only blew up when a record plant would do the wrong this. Now it’s like a landmine, blowing up 14 year old kids who unknowingly infringe arcane publishing laws.
It’s a powerful image – capturing immediately the innocence of young transgressors and drawing the lawmakers as a common ethical enemy.
My favourite was when Cory forensically analysed how legisltation designed to solve one copyrighting problem unwittingly gavce birth to other problems, either because smart technology owners were given an opportunity to circumvent the new law, or because the bluntness of legislation scooped up a bunch of other people and users and issues along with the very specific issue it was trying to address.
His masterstroke was to talk about this by using the kids’ rhyme about the old woman who swallowed a fly, then a spider, then a mouse, cat and horse. It brilliantly punctures the futility and absurdity he sees in lawmakers’ efforts to control an uncontrollable situation.
Now I’m not necessarily saying I agree with all these statements in the cold light of day. And I’m sure my re-creation of the metaphors hasn’t done them justice.
But in the moment, in the room, they’re intoxicating and persuasive.
And it worked because his whole talk was based on a metaphor. He painted the copyright wars of recent years as merely the skirmishes that precede a far bigger war – the war on general computing. He got us to think seriously about the future by telling a powerful story of the past.
Capturing complicated ideas is difficult. Metaphor is often the best way to somehow make these ideas more powerful even as they become simplified. When I was writing my own Firestarters talk on the future OS of agencies my head was full of the notion of architecture as a metaphor for other constructs. Designing space and guiding behaviour. Setting the initial conditions for what you want to have happen. The way buildings can reflect the times, culture and people who made them.
I haven’t been to one of Andy’s Metaphwoar events yet, but I certainly intend to. Consciously thinking of parallel forms of expression can make what we’re trying to say more clear and more tangible. It can make clients more likely to buy what we do. It can make us better communicators.
At each Firestarters Neil always mentions that we should consider the event as a part of a conversation. Certainly what I’m getting out of each session is evolving. Last time out Phil talked about the community aspect of it. Perhaps this time the out-take might be that it’s not just the subject matter that Firestarters opens up to us, but also access to the ways that smart people are able to communicate and help us learn in the first place.
Here’s to those who don’t just have something new to say, but are finding potent and engaging new ways to say it.