Three rules of the internet – one fascinating night in Manchester

coryCory Doctorow, author and activist, was in Manchester tonight at Waterstone’s on Deansgate. The highly enjoyable – even inspiring – event was organised by the digital campaigners at  manchester.openrightsgroup.org

The bulk of his talk centred on three rules (of the Internet. The first of many useful aphorisms was this – “everything we do today involves the Internet. Everything we will do tomorrow will require it.”)

RULE ONE; Anytime anyone puts a lock on something you created, it’s not for your benefit

He explained the background to the recent spat between Amazon and Hachette (one of the five big publishers left).

In the “normal” run of things, if you are a large supplier of a product that makes the retailer profitable, and gets people coming to the store, then you have more power. BUT if the retailer is able to find a way of “crazy glue-ing” the end-buyer to their store, then they have the power, because you as a supplier would have to hope that those end-users would rebuy  the stuff from you elsewhere….

RULE TWO: Fame won’t make you rich, but nobody will buy your stuff if they don’t know your name.

Here he cited another aphorism-monger; “the problem for most artists isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity.”

He gave examples of artists (aka content generators) who have managed – by various mechanisms and in differing circumstances – to negotiate reasonable deals with the behemoths who run the show.

RULE THREE: Information doesn’t want to be free…

It wants us to stop anthropomorphising it… People want to be free.  Here he came into his own.  There was – as anyone who has read his fiction or non-fiction would expect – intelligence, insight, humour, energy, warmth, creativity and a bright ethical light.  He pointed out that the Internet must not be thought of as “a glorified video-on-demand service”, but as “the nervous system of the 21st century.”  He pointed out that the provisions of various digital rights management laws means that security flaws in iPhones (you know, those camera/microphone/tracking devices you take with you EVERYWHERE) don’t get flagged up as easily.

He told the horror story that was the passing of the Digital Economy Act in the last day of the last parliament (2010.)  And he referenced the fascinating-sounding study that Martha Lane-Fox (“Baroness of Soho” and ex “Champion of Digital Inclusion”) hired price waterhouse coopers to do on the impact of digital inclusion on  people’s lives (above and beyond ‘better grades’ – better jobs, healthier, more civically engage.

Artists, he said, should never be on the side of censorship and surveillance, and if the business model they are using requires those, then the business model is wrong.

The Q and A was brief (he had a train to get to) but he did three interesting things

  1. He gave really interesting answers (it doesn’t always happen) that included references to other thinkers (Laurence Lessig on corruption) and even classic movies – he tied The Magnificent Seven to a possible anti-fracking tactic!!
  2. He answered the question that the questioner was trying to ask, should have asked
  3. He explicitly asked for questioners who “weren’t dudes; sometimes Q and As turn into sausage fests.”

After a final shout-out to librarians (the best people to guide us through the data smog) and pointing out that “libraries are not book depositories, they are information dojos” it was time for some book signing.

I am now going to do two things.

  1. Join manchester.openrightsgroup.org. As the man said – all the other battles we are going to fight – on environment, on human rights etc, are going to have the Internet as an/the substrate
  2. Make sure I don’t start reading the novel I bought – “Pirate Cinema” until I have an uninterrupted chunk of time. Mr Doctorow has already caused havoc to my work schedules a couple of times by writing books that ya just can’t book down.  #wontgetburnedagain
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