ZHackers

  • Review: Information Doesn't Want to Be Free
  • Review: Information Doesn't Want to Be Free

    (105 comments)

    I've been listening to the audiobook of Cory Doctorow's Information Doesn't Want to Be Free read by Will Wheaton, and thought I'd share my thoughts on it here. I've met Cory precisely once, at a Chicago Public Library event for the launch of his book For The Win. He was a nice, fun geek and we talked about Linux phones and other stuff, and I had a great time. It's partly because of him that ZHackers opens not with a copyright page, but a copyleft page.

    For those of you not in the know, the title is based on the common phrase “information wants to be free” which is based on the following quote:

    On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.

    Stewart Brand

    Stewart Brand's quote has been used, remixed, and transformed for more than three decades both to argue for the free and open sharing of information and to ridicule those who do (particularly by those who don't understand the difference that free as in freedom and free as in free beer).

    Now, I'm all for the open sharing and remixing of information. I publish both my software and my books under copyleft licenses and contribute to open source and free culture projects whenever I can. But I also sell download keys for my Creative Commons-licensed ebooks for $2.99, which is $2.99 more than free and paperbacks for even more. And people *choose* to pay me!

    So, as an author, I was particularly interested to hear what Cory Doctorow had to say, long form, about the subject.

    What the book is not:

    If you're looking for a step-by-step guide for making buckets of cash on your book, this book is not it. In fact, Doctorow says over and over, that throughout all of history and even now most artists will not make enough money to earn a decent living off their art. If you're looking to get rich, there are many, many easier ways to do it.

    However, there's never been a time when it's easier for more people to earn something than right now. The cost of creating art (blockbuster movies notwithstanding) has never been lower. Which means, creators (like me!) have a lot more options now. More on this later.

    Used to be you needed a multi-million dollar studio to run a radio show. Now, you need a computer (which you already have), a microphone, some sound editing software (free), and an online service to post to (which is also free).

    DRM-Free Digital Download: http://craphound.com/news/2014/12/10/information-doesnt-want-to-be-free-audiobook/

    What it is:

    Is Freedom. Or more precisely it's a framework for thinking about how to engage with publishers, distributors, and your audience in the digital age. I've read a lot, and I mean a lot, about copyright, DRM, free and open source software, creative commons, and the rest of the stuff Cory Doctorow talks about in the book. So if you're like me, much of the content of this book will be familiar to you. But, if you're a new, if you're an artist looking to make sense of publishing options, reaching fans, understanding what copyright and DRM actually mean for you, Cory knows his stuff, and he's going to give you a good foundation to stand on.

    Cool Stuff Inside:

    The book usually refers to DRM as digital locks, because, well, that's what it is. This struck me as a nice way of getting around the acronym nonsense of “Digital Rights Management.” (It actually just took me a second right now to remember that those letters weren't originally supposed to stand for Digital Restrictions Management.) Calling them “digital locks” also makes it really easy to see why DRM fails to do its job: locks can be picked. At infosec conferences, there are whole rooms devoted to the recreational picking of locks. Of course since creating digital lockpicks is illegal, nobody does that and “internet piracy” has been solved forever.

    Or something. Actually, the failure of digital locks as anti-piracy measures points the way to what was for me the most illuminating part of the book. DRM is not for the benefit of artists, publishers, or whoever the copyright holder is. It's for the distributors! DRM does not protect you, me, Random House, or Hachette. It doesn't magically turn torrenters into paying customers. But it does lock Apple and Amazon's customers into their ecosystems. If I bought this audiobook on Amazon's Audible service, the digital locks they put on the files would make it illegal to take my copy to a competing ecosystem, making it much harder for Audible's competitors to gain traction because when you've got a hundred books on Kindle, you've sunk a lot of investment into that ecosystem.

    Incidentally, this is why my own books are DRM-free, and why I only buy DRM-free books. Thanks to a complete lack of digital locks, I was able to play this in VLC and make Wil Wheaton sound like a twenty-five-years-younger Wesley Crusher while preparing this review. What can I say, I'm just a geek.

    ZHackers: Proving Cory's Point Since Whenever

    ZHackers would not exist (at least without massive changes) unless it was possible for one determined person to write a book, assemble something of an informal editorial staff, typeset, create or commission cover art, have books printed in affordable batches, and sell them to an eager fanbase.  And of course for the many, many people who really do like supporting creators!

    It's the type of idiosyncratic book series that breaks the mold of traditional publishing. The first book doesn't hit the target of 80-100k words. Nor does the second. You could put them both together and they wouldn't hit 60k.

    But – That doesn't matter! Each volume is the length it is for a reason. Sure, if I needed to satisfy an editorial requirement, I could've padded the first book with another 60k words of pointless action, or perhaps combined the first 2.5 books together, creating an effect much like combining Fellowship of the Ring with the first half of The Two Towers.

    And if you think padding or weird, blobby structure is bad, that would be nothing compared to the evisceration of thematic depth most traditional publishers would demand thanks to their total pants-shitting fear of fair use.

    That's because in addition to all the science, tech talk, and hacking of various sorts, ZHackers is very much about how we geeks relate to culture. There's a sort of exploration of the remix and response culture we live in. Movies and books aren't just things we enjoy, they're a part of how we think about our world and how we communicate ideas to each other.

    There's an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called Darmok, in which the Enterprise meets a culture that communicates through reference. Many people think of it as an exploration of how alien a language might be, and I'd agree if it weren't also a perfect example of everyday communication. Even the phrase “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” or even just “Darmok” communicates a very specific idea about communication by references and how it can render otherwise intelligible language into gibberish to those who don't understand the reference. So saying “Did I just go full Darmok there?” is the same as asking “Did that make any sense or did I use too many confusing references and I'm just speaking gibberish?” To haveFor The Win a character say that is to say that while commenting on how the episode Darmok provides us with a neat shorthand and a lens for understanding our everyday use of reference.

    The speech and thoughts of Daniel, Samantha, Richard, and all the other geeks in ZHackers are peppered with quotations, paraphrases, and complete transformations of popular culture. And every time they do, it's a tiny nugget of commentary exploring the ways we relate to both the specific work and culture in general. The context and meaning ascribed to each little quote says something specific about the thing being quoted and often transforms it into something new along the way.

    And the law protects this kind of use. It's minimal, transformative, and unlikely to impact other works' commercial value beyond making readers want to crack out their old Star Trek DVDs or buy a copy of Dune because it sounds like Chilton's most fascinating how-to manual ever.

    But, the same web of references that make the book such a vibrant exploration of our culture are also guaranteed to make all but the most forward-thinking publishers squirm. Fortunately I don't have to care. The numerous print-on-demand services available mean I can print my own copies, book a table at the next fan convention, and make a tidy profit while having fun, meeting supportive fans, and getting compliments on my shirt, scarf, and hat.

    The Bottom Line?

    If you're an artist or anyone looking to understand freedom in the information age, Cory Doctorow is a good person to listen to. Seriously, if nothing else, go find some videos on $STREAMING_SITE right now. Or go read one of his free downloadable ebooks on his website: www.craphound.com . Although fair warning: that's how I ended up with several signed paperbacks and an audiobook.

    Information Doesn't Want to Be Free is best when seen as a collection of the things he talks about elsewhere in one digestible place, interrelating data, anecdotes, ideas in one convenient package. You could dig through a mountain of articles on TechDirt, BoingBoing, and other sites, or you could sit down and listen to Information Doesn't Want to Be Free.

    DRM-Free Digital Download:

    http://craphound.com/news/2014/12/10/information-doesnt-want-to-be-free-audiobook/

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