Don’t Curb Your Enthusiasm
Today (May 7), I’m in Berkeley at the Bay Area Book Festival for an 11AM event with Wendy Liu for my book Chokepoint Capitalism.
The old crow is getting slow;
the young crow is not.
Of what the young crow does not know,
the old crow knows a lot.
At knowing things,
the old crow is still the young crow’s master.
What does the old crow not know?
How to go faster.
The young crow flies above, below,
and rings around the slow old crow.
What does the fast young crow not know?
WHERE TO GO.
-John Ciardi, About Crows
Marcus Yallow is the 17-year-old hero of Little Brother, my 2008 novel about kids in San Francisco who wage high-tech guerrilla war on the Department of Homeland Security, who occupy the city after a terrorist attack.
Martin Hench is the 67-year-old hero of Red Team Blues, my just-published crime thriller about the curdling of the dream of Silicon Valley and the finance scams that destroyed it.
In between the two of them: fifty years.
Despite the age-difference, Marty and Marcus share a lot in common. Both are profoundly excited about what technology can do to make their lives better, and both are terrified of how it can make their lives worse.
In the third Marty Hench novel, Picks and Shovels (Tor/Bloomsbury, January 2025), we meet a young Marty as an MIT undergrad who becomes so obsessed with computers that he can’t actually complete his engineering degree. The academic study is too stodgy, while the opportunities to make computers dance to his will are too exciting. He drops out, enrolls in a two-year CPA program at a local college, and never looks back.
Soon, he’s driving his roommate’s old van to Silicon Valley, where everything is happening all at once: new computers are appearing every week, along with new operating systems, programming techniques and applications.
But even though young Marty fizzes with excitement for all this, he’s also increasingly frightened of the ways that the finance sector is bent on using computers to make life worse for everyone except the wealthiest people in America.
Naturally — he’s an accountant! His CPA classmates spent two years licking their chops, thinking about all the ways they could use spreadsheets to make money disappear (junk-bond king Mike Milken once said that without spreadsheets, there’d have been no junk bonds). Marty, meanwhile, is convinced that he’ll have all the work he needs, now and forever, using spreadsheets to find that money.
Marty is caught in a widening gyre of accelerating technology — technology that makes people’s lives better, and technology that makes those lives nightmarishly worse. He spends the next 40 years fighting for the latter and against the former.
Marcus, too, is besotted with computers. When we meet him at the start of Little Brother, he’s a 17 year old senior at a fictional high-school in San Francisco’s Mission district. He builds his own laptop, helps his teachers beat the school’s restrictive firewall, and knows how to fool the school’s security system so he can sneak out to play high-tech alternate reality games with his friends.
Marcus, too, is alive to the ways that technology can make his life worse. Indeed, when we meet him, he’s obsessed with the subject — the school firewall, the school security system, the restrictions commercial vendors put on their laptops.
But after terrorists bomb the Bay Bridge (not really a spoiler, we’re still in the first chapter!) and the DHS swoops in to turn San Francisco into a surveillance state, Marcus learns just how dystopian technology can truly be.
The rest of that book (and the two that come after, Homeland and Attack Surface) are all about that tension. Marcus knows that he and his friends can’t give up on technology — it’s the infrastructure that underpins their social and political lives — but that same technology has been turned against them.
They set about seizing the means of computation: rebuilding and promulgating technology that answers to its users, not to distant authorities. They win (sort of, it’s complicated — see Attack Surface for more).
Back in 2010, Michael Weinberg, then an attorney at the activist group Public Knowledge, published a white paper on patents and 3D printing called This Will Be Awesome If They Don’t Screw It Up.
No phrase better captures both Marcus and Marty’s views on technology better. Unsurprisingly, this is also my view; I kinda want it etched on my tombstone (I kid, I’m leaving my body for med-school pranks).
The story of Marty’s generation of technologists— and mine, the one that came afterward — is that we overestimated the liberatory power of technology and ignored its risks.
This is a profoundly ahistorical view: no one writes (or reads) cyberpunk because they think it’s all gonna be fine. And no one founds — or works for — an organization like the Electronic Frontier Foundation because they’re confident that technology can only be used for good.
A better way to talk about that era is to contrast Marty and Marcus. Both still hold out hope for better technology, and both are committed to making it happen, but Marcus is still new to the fight, full of energy, unscarred by bruising defeats in the long fight for human liberation.
Marty, by contrast, is 40 years into the struggle, and he’s watched tech devolve into “five giant websites, each filled with screenshots of text from the other four.”
Marcus is fighting to keep what he has; Marty is fighting to get back what he lost.
The techlash is long overdue. Networked computers let us work together in ways that are necessary and urgent — to form support the networks and coalitions that will save us from labor exploitation, the climate emergency, war and oppression.
The movement for technological self-determination needs Marcuses, fizzing with excitement for what technology can do, and Martys, coldly furious about what technology is doing.
Catch me on tour with Red Team Blues in Berkeley, Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, DC, Gaithersburg, Oxford, Hay, Manchester, Nottingham, London, and Berlin!
Cory Doctorow (craphound.com) is a science fiction author, activist, and blogger. He has a podcast, a newsletter, a Twitter feed, a Mastodon feed, and a Tumblr feed. He was born in Canada, became a British citizen and now lives in Burbank, California. His latest nonfiction book is Chokepoint Capitalism (with Rebecca Giblin), a book about artistic labor market and excessive buyer power. His latest novel for adults is Attack Surface. His latest short story collection is Radicalized. His latest picture book is Poesy the Monster Slayer. His latest YA novel is Pirate Cinema. His latest graphic novel is In Real Life. His forthcoming books include Red Team Blues, a noir thriller about cryptocurrency, corruption and money-laundering (Tor, 2023); and The Lost Cause, a utopian post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias (Tor, 2023).