Coase’s Spectre

by Cory Doctorow on May 10, 2017

If you’ve read Walkaway (or my other books), you know that I’m not squeamish about taboos, even (especially) my own. I even confess to a certain childish, reactionary pleasure in breaking through them (especially my own!).

But I have a single to-date-inviolable taboo, inculcated into my writerly soul by the elders who nurtured and taught me when I was a baby writer: DON’T RESPOND TO CRITICS. Not when they’re right, especially not when they’re wrong. It never reflects well on you. You can privately gripe to your good friends about unfair criticism (or worse, fair criticism!), but people who don’t like your book don’t like your book and you can’t make them like your book by explaining why they’re wrong, and the spectacle of you doing this will likely convince other people that you’re the kind of fool whose books should not touched with a 3.048m pole.

A corollary, gleaned from the wonderful Steven Brust when I was a baby writer haunting Usenet in the late 1980s: “telling a writer you think his book’s no good is like telling him he’s got an ugly kid. Even if it’s true, the writer did everything he could to prevent it and now it’s too late to do anything about it.”

Rules are made to be broken. These two rules of thumb have served me well in my writerly and readerly life, but a symposium like this is an extraordinary circumstance, a Temporary Autonomous Zone where even the deepest-felt taboos are exploded without mercy. Let us press on, even as my inner compass whirls, unmoored from the norms that were its magnetic north.

One concession to my delicate sensibilities: I’m not going to use this space primarily to engage with interpretations of the text, not disputes over writing, plotting and stylistic choices. Julia doesn’t like the sex scenes, and that’s indisputable, and so I’m not going to tell her she’s wrong, because she’s 100% right that she doesn’t like them. Likewise Neville’s views on how the story might have been told otherwise, or Andrew’s views on the pacing and plotting. Pax Brust: if these things aren’t good, it’s not for lack of trying, and it’s too late to do anything about them now.

I confess that as I set out to write this, I was intimidated by the amazing, thorough, thoughtful responses lately published here by Ada Palmer. She sets a high bar. I cannot vault it. I will go under it. She sets it so high I don’t even need to duck.

I won’t cover the breadth of territory that Palmer traversed, but I want to get to the depth that she reached, albeit in a narrower area: coordination.

Many of the fine essays that the symposium’s participants graced me asserted that Walkaway was about something and proceeded to talk about that thing in relation to the novel, the wider world, my ideology and the thinking and work of others.

There are two notable problems with discussing what a novel is about: first of all, it might not be about anything, and second of all, the author may have no clue what it’s about (c.f. Ray Bradbury, who insisted that Fahrenheit 451 was not a novel about censorship, but rather a novel about the evils of TV) (Ray Bradbury was wrong, and since I’m dumber than Bradbury, and since Bradbury wasn’t qualified to discuss what his novels were about, then I’m certainly likely to be unqualified to discuss any abouts in my books).

Setting aside these problems, I want to raise the special problem of deciding what science fiction novels are about, which is distinguishing the set-dressing from the axis on which the tale revolves. When an sf novel wants to critique or explore a technological novelty, it is generally necessary to surround that technology with a scaffolding of other gimcracks and gewgaws, or sometimes a lazy susan the centerpiece can rest on, so that the characters can spin it all the way round to show the thing from every angle.

To concretize this metaphor: this is not a novel about consciousness uploading (I wrote that one in 2003, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom) (sorry, Julia) or about 3D printers (that was Makers in 2009) (sorry, Astra). It’s a novel about solving Ronald Coase’s coordination puzzle using networked tools.

(*I remind you here that novels may not be about anything and if they are, their authors don’t necessarily know what that is)

The 3D printing and consciousness uploading and zeppelins and (yes, John) railguns and (yes, Mia) sex and so forth are all there to illustrate the astounding fucking magic of lowering the cost of coordinating our labor.

I am a Coasean in that I think that all our institutions exist to help us figure out how to accomplish super-human (that is, “beyond one human’s ability”) tasks. From the Republic to Republicans and the Pirate Party’s Liquid Democracy and so forth, the rubric for hierarchy — and coercion and obedience and other evils — is that working together we can do so much more than working on our own, and one of the most efficient ways to work together is to just put someone competent in charge and let them tell us what to do from their bird’s-eye view of the project.

So we subjugate our will, sublimate our preferences, shut our mouths and screw on the widget or dial into the conference call or show up at the bus stop.

Coordination even explains much of the basis for private property: if you’re going to mow the lawn, you need a lawnmower, and if anyone who wants to can just push the mower away and stash it in their garage, you’ll have to waste so much time searching for the thing — and so will all the other people who need to mow their lawns — that the coordination problem inevitably gets solved more cheaply by everyone buying their own personal lawnmower to use a couple times a month and leave idle the rest of the time.

Command-and-control coordination, whether by your boss or the state, sucks, and the best thing you can say about it is it beats the alternative of scratching in the dirt, wishing you were John Galt and could raise a mighty skyscraper by sheer will as you starve to death on a diet of tubers and regrets.

It’s been 15 years since Benkler made the connection between “commons-based peer-production” and Coase. Networked tools — wikis, source/version control, crawlers, searchbots, collaborative filters (and more advanced machine-learning cousins), containers, VMs, and others — provide a cauldron for all the stone soup the networked world cares to cook. Any of us can throw our contribution into the pot, and possibly improve the soup, and if the soup is not improved, we can always ctrl-Z revert it back to an earlier state. If we disagree about what belongs in the soup, we can fork the soup (or, I suppose, spoon it) and you can have your soup and I can have my soup and we don’t have to agree what goes in the soup.

The Coasean Internet is how we make OSes and encyclopedias with the kind of hierarchy we once deployed to oversee bake-sales or small town councils. These hierarchies aren’t nothing — indeed, they can be intense focii of bickering that can escalate to blood feuds (Kim Stanley Robinson has many special geniuses — Belle! — but the thing he does most wonderfully is elevate these fights to the same status as rayguns and other dramatic rubbish). But they’re still small potatoes compared to the palace intrigue of running an armed forces or a national government.

This is genuinely futuristic. The snarling, often dysfunctional world of Wikipedia edit wars and holy wars over free software vs open source are a much smaller hierarchical/institutional price to pay for getting projects on the scale of OSes and encylopediae than the institutions they are displacing.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom projected Slashdot karma and Napster superdistribution across a whole society as a way of illuminating the strengths and weaknesses of both. Walkaway tries to do the same with commons-based peer-production: what would a skyscraper look like if it was a Wikipedia-style project? How about a space program?

As a Coasean tale, Walkaway is one the battleground between the technological, Promethean left — which has promised to lift peasants up to the material comfort of lords — and the de-growth green left, which promises to bring lords down to the level of the peasants in the name of saving the planet.

The Promethean left isn’t intrinsically libertarian, though as Andrew Brown points out, both groups have common touchstones with the Whole Earth Catalog view of “access to tools and ideas” as inspiration and crux. This accounts for some of the confusion apparent in Astra’s view that the book is trying to handwave away questions like the role of public health in a Promethean world.

What is public health in walkaway land? It’s evidence-based medicine, published by Walkaway U researchers in peer-reviewed, open access journals, free from the undue influence of big pharma and the self-serving (and highly profitable) bullshit of the world of alternative medicine. It’s practiced by docs trained in the manner of Havana’s med-schools, dispersed across the world and practicing telemedicine for all comers — using coordination to solve the otherwise intractable problem of putting sick people and doctors together.

But even more interesting is the effect of coordination on the wider questions of public health, such as environmental degradation. As Astra notes, merely making manufacturing easier may increase access to material abundance, but it also dramatically increases the amount of potential garbage we could find ourselves swimming through, and the base-load on the environment, and any inequality in the system is exacerbated because the degradation will be pushed off onto the people who are already most disadvantaged.

But the presence of 3D printing as a solution to environmental problems — rather than their source — isn’t an omission or mere technological optimism. It’s a deliberate choice, an invocation of Bruce Sterling’s marvellous “spimes”: objects that exist as information until they are needed, which are then conjured into being in a way calculated to be most easily decomposed back into the material stream, which throw off usage data from cradle to grave, data that is used to improve the next one that is conjured into being.

This is coordination married to cooperation. Market economies are superbly efficient at reducing labor, energy and material costs in production (not out of an intrinsic desire to save any of these, but because the savings represent a competitive pricing opportunity and/or higher profits). But markets are great externalizers: one way to reduce material costs is to reduce material inputs. Another is to rig the market — through regulatory shenanigans, fraud, or accounting games — to make the same amount of inputs cheaper, reducing costs without reducing volume.

Investors don’t care if profits go up because chicanery made materials cheaper or because innovation reduced the material inputs themselves. If gaming the rules is cheaper, that’ll be where the action is at.

But non-market economies — reputation economies, gift economies — can be designed to privilege genuine efficiencies over externalizing. That’s part of the appeal of Walkaway — and of commons-based peer production. A design that games the metrics might put you at the top of a leaderboard, but a design that works better will (in a well-designed system) be taken up, replicated, refined.

Markets have dramatically decreased the material/energy/labor budget for manufactured goods. But they’ve also dramatically increased the amount of pollution, waste, and other externalized costs, and have used the gains from these improvements to weaken our regulatory immune system, triggering a death-spiral where the easier it is to cheat, the more money the cheaters have to change the rules to make cheating even easier. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The green left says that finite planets have limits to growth. The Promethean left throws its lot in with Engels and says that efficiency leaves us with lots of room at the bottom. Owning a lawnmower isn’t material comfort: having one to hand at the moment that you need it is just as good — better, because you don’t have to waste garage space on idle lawnmowers. Coordinated efficiencies could reduce the number of lawnmowers (and other comforts) by orders of magnitudes without reducing our access to them. We could have better lawnmowers, magically turning up at their needful moments, ready to be handed off to their next users when they’re finished. Collectivized Zipcars for everyone and everything! This is the answer to John’s questions about grappling with abundance: abundance is a function of what we have, divided by what we want, multiplied by how well-distributed things are. 3D printing and immortality are the lazy susan on which Walkaway‘s centerpiece rests: coordinating networks. This isn’t a novel about 3D printing our way out of scarcity, it’s a novel about the pointy end of the abundance triangle — coordination, the least science fictional corner — stretching out into an impossible isosceles, whose other corners (manufacturing and desire) whirl in great arcs on that elongated tip.

Fully automated leisure communism isn’t binary: there are intermediate stages of automated comfort we can seize.

These intermediate states are only in our grasp if we can overcome self-serving bullshit: beliefs in the venality of our fellow humans (which justify our lack of care for their plight and our lack of generosity to help them out of it). As Bruce notes, technological problems have ideological dimensions, and both dimensions have to be addressed in concert (this is Barlow’s great insight from his visionary and inspiring Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace: not a denial of the policy sphere, but an assertion that policy solutions be indigenous to the net and informed by technology).

Coordination is why this book is so talky: not because it’s an attempt to recreate the Republic, but because the people who are making coordination do the work of hierarchy are trading subjugation for gabfests. That’s why there’s a character in the middle of the book singing a profane campfire song about the tedium of trying to reach consensus!

This is (in my view) a Utopian vision. It supposes that the Bohemian projects that even the most buttoned-down societies allow at their margins can breed real discontent and nurture and sustain it into something that genuinely challenges its host. This is why (Henry) there are low exit costs: because letting people form Bohemias is cheaper than jailing them and provides a source of fascinating walks-on-the-wildside for the rich (think of the turnkey camp types who’ve brought Burning Man into such disrepute). It’s the theory that “failed” political movements — OWS, Idle No More, the Arab Spring — were not failures (per Astra), but rather, incomplete successes. They were moments that radicalized (pax Mia!) the activists who would take the streets next time. They provided real-world lessons on which tactics worked and where the weaknesses were. They were battles, not the war. The only thing more extraordinary than a social justice prevailing at all is for it to prevail on its first outing, or second, or third.

As Henry notes, this book doesn’t try to predict or set out a program for getting from here to some better nation there. Rather, it posits what a better nation might look like, and some vectors to approach it. That’s because — as Occupy and the rest reminded us — the first casualty of any battle is the plan of attack. No point in planning out a detailed route across territory that will shift dramatically the moment we set out. Better instead to know where we’re heading and improvise along the way, letting coordination do the heavy lifting that was once carried by detailed (and brittle) advance plans. For the adversary to get inside your OODA loop, you have to have an OODA loop. If you can pull off mass action without one, you are immune to existing counter-insurgency tactics.

This is why Maria’s observation that there is a lot of distance between Kim Stanley Robinson and Iain M Banks is so apposite. That imaginative landscape is exactly the territory I want to occupy (ahem) with Walkaway: an intermediate step that is more likely to turn out to be a metaphor than a prediction, whose metaphorical substance is about the role of coordination in taking us from Belle’s thrice-damned committee meetings from KSR’s Mars Books to the Made Minds of Banks.



William Timberman 05.10.17 at 1:10 pm

Coordination. Karl Marx and Stewart Brand shaking hands across the familiar abyss of lust, fear, greed, and stupidity, while patient giraffes with liquid brown eyes await their new Noah. If this is the state of the art, and I agree that it might as well be, we could certainly do worse. As a reformed Promethean leftist, and an ancient one at that, I’m glad you exist.


mclaren 05.13.17 at 3:04 am

Any writer who produces something new, even if imperfect, deserves infinitely more praise than some schmuck who sits back and carps.

FWIW, Cory Doctorow strikes me as one of the best living writers of short science fiction. It’s a huge tragedy that the market for short science fiction has totally disappeared.

Walkaway does a fabulous job of giving the visceral sense of what it would smell and taste and sound and feel and look like to live through the transition from the current age of stratokakistokleptocracy (government of the worst, by endless war & theft) into an era of post-scarcity beyond capitalism.

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