by Y Combinator11/27/2019
00:07 – Adversarial interoperability
7:30 – So what should founders do?
13:30 – Copyright
19:30 – Remixing
26:35 – AT&T
29:25 – Firms and state-like duties
31:00 – Medium-term suggestions for founders
39:00 – Conspiracy theories
51:25 – Science fiction and predictions
56:30 – Peak indifference model
Craig Cannon [00:00:00] – Hey, how’s it going? This is Craig Cannon, and you’re listening to Y Combinator’s podcast. Today’s episode is with Cory Doctorow and Joe Betts-LaCroix. Cory is a blogger, journalist, and science fiction author. He’s also the co-editor of Boing Boing. Joe is the CTO of Vium and an expert at YC. You can find Cory on Twitter @doctorow and Joe @bettslacroix. All right, here we go. All right, guys, welcome to the podcast.
Joe Betts-LaCroix [00:00:27] – Excellent, thank you.
Craig Cannon [00:00:28] – Today we have Cory Doctorow and Joe Betts-LaCroix. Joe, could you start it off?
Joe Betts-LaCroix [00:00:33] – Sure, so Cory, when I saw your talk at Burning Man, this last time, and I heard you mention adversarial interoperability, my sort of nerd buzzer went off, and thought, this is going to be a really cool concept for the founders at Y Combinator to think about.
Cory Doctorow [00:00:53] – Most people are familiar with the idea of interoperability, per se. One thing plugs into another thing. And we’ve all encountered a kind of indifferent interoperability, where people who make your fridge don’t care what kind of magnets you put on the door. We’ve encountered cooperative interoperability, where the people who make your car actually go and adhere to a standard for the 12-volt lighter receptacle to make sure that when you go to the gas station and pay 50 cents for that USB charger thing that it always fits and works every time. And those are great, and they’re important, and they’re kind of how we build systems. But there’s another kind of interoperability that’s really important to the history of tech, which is adversarial interoperability. And that’s when I plug something into something you made without your permission, even if you don’t like it, and maybe especially if you would prefer that I didn’t, in order to make your customer my customer. And you can understand why companies that are very established don’t like adversarial interoperability. But people who are trying to start a company, that’s kind of where you’d want to start. And it used to be completely standard, right? If you remember, there were a couple of moments in, say, Mac OS’s history where adversarial interoperability was totally pivotal. At one point, Microsoft had not just dominance in the operating system market and the applications market, but it was establishing dominance in the local networking market, intranets.
Cory Doctorow [00:02:21] – They had a product called SMB that was a proprietary networking protocol. And although they made clients for SMB for other platforms, they were deliberately very poor so that those systems would always be second class citizens on the office network. It was really bad for Mac systems. It was really bad for GNU/Linux and other Unixes. And it really sold a hell of a lot of Microsoft systems. And so very slowly but surely, everything that wasn’t on Microsoft OS was being squeezed out of the office LAN. And this Australian grad student used a protocol analyzer to capture enough SMB traffic that he was able to replicate SMB. He released it as free opensource software. He called it Samba. It attracted a developer community and became kind of a gold standard, where now it’s bundled in with everything you use. It’s just part of the standard Linux distro, and it’s in Mac OS and even in mobile platforms. They did that even though Microsoft didn’t want them to. Apple then internally produced another set of adversarial interoperable tools that were really important in the mid 2000s when Microsoft dominance of the Office market, of the Office suite market was really threatening Mac’s ability to collaborate within those environments. Microsoft’s versions for the Mac always lagged the Microsoft versions. The documents weren’t really compatible. Excuse me. Apple reverse-engineered Microsoft’s file formats. They cloned them, and they made a new suite called the iWork suite. They did this, again, without Microsoft’s cooperation
Cory Doctorow [00:04:07] – and in defiance of Microsoft’s marketing strategy. In so doing, they were able to make Macs first class citizens on the LAN and in the office environment. In both cases, they were able to do this because there were very few legal recourses available to dominant firms that had taken over their field. Software patents were rare and thin. The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which is this 1986 anti-hacking law that Ronald Reagan signed into law in a panic after he watched Matthew Broderick in WarGames. I’m not making that up. Had not yet been extended to cover terms of service violations, as it would be eventually thanks to legal action by Blizzard and Facebook, where they were able to effectively say that violating terms of service was hacking and potentially a felony. We didn’t yet have theories of tortious interference for inducing users to break terms of service, to break contracts. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act and its prohibition on reverse engineering hadn’t become widely applied yet. So today if you were to try and do this, like say you were to try and make Android devices first class citizens on iOS environment and in order to do so you wanted to reverse engineer iOS and allow yourself to side-load apps into iOS and also to support the iOS API under Android. You would find yourself running up against software patents, Digital Millennium Copyright Act claims for circumvention. You’d find yourself running up against terms of service violations and probably tortious interference claims. This thicket has grown up around adversarial interoperability.
Cory Doctorow [00:05:56] – Every pirate wants to be an admiral. Everyone who goes up the ladder wants to pull the ladder up behind them. It’s not unusual that they wanted to do that. IBM wanted to do that when they were dominating the mainframe market. The difference is that we didn’t let them. We didn’t equip them with these legal tools. In the years since, we have created these legal tools that allow firms not just to dominate but to maintain their dominance not by making better products but by establishing a kill zone around their products, where it becomes so legally fraught to make compatible products that nobody even tries.
Joe Betts-LaCroix [00:06:28] – We have, at YC, this group of the little people who are striking out and wanting to create these huge companies rather than letting the big companies do everything. And one of our flagship publications or forums is Hacker News. There’s this ethos of, we are hackers. And we can get there by hacking. I would like to think that we can still hack and not get our heads hacked off. Is one of the, so a friend of mine, Aaron Patzer, created something called Mint and ended up taking a bunch of eyeballs from big banks and other financial companies by hacking, essentially, going, doing adversarial interoperability with their websites, by scraping, which is sort of marginally legal. It could be-
Craig Cannon [00:07:20] – Was it through like a virtual browser that he would just take your password information and log you in?
Joe Betts-LaCroix [00:07:24] – Absolutely.
Craig Cannon [00:07:26] – And then so were there-
Joe Betts-LaCroix [00:07:27] – Well, he gets the passwords from the users.
Craig Cannon [00:07:28] – Of course, yeah.
Joe Betts-LaCroix [00:07:28] – Voluntarily, and then everything just magically works in the background.
Craig Cannon [00:07:31] – Because there was no API at the time.
Joe Betts-LaCroix [00:07:33] – Correct. That allowed him to build a big startup that got sold for gazillions of dollars by one of those giant financial corporations, which is now one of these monopolies that is trying to keep other people from doing similar things. He also sold a bit early, like it wasn’t a billion dollar company yet. Do you think that if YC founders are using some of these tools that are kind of illegal-ish or strictly illegal right now they’re going to be forced into selling earlier, because otherwise they won’t be able to defend themselves?
Cory Doctorow [00:08:10] – That’s a great question. Let me answer it with a kind of theory of change, because I don’t think that the thicket is sustainable. I think that nobody really likes having a web that’s just five giant websites filled with screenshots from the other four. And you see it in the rhetoric of the big platforms, when they describe their own failings. They say, “Well, what do you expect from us? We’re giant,” right? Zuckerberg’s so-called free speech talk this week, one of the things that he said was, “Well, how can we possibly make speech adjudications in 100 languages for 2.3 billion people in hundreds of countries?” Once you build a thing on the scale of Facebook, you’re going to end up with some unfortunate ethnic cleansings. But you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. And you know, there is an obvious answer to this, which is, well, if you can’t do it at that scale, maybe you need a smaller scale. And given that we have gone from these big platforms and their inability to provide for use cases that are at their peripheries, like women who are harassed by terrible men or whatever, is intimidating and promotes inequality and makes people’s lives miserable to these platforms and their inability to address these corner cases result in acts of genocide. You might imagine that we are headed for some kind of crisis in these firms. Lawrence Lessig, the cyber lawyer who is the special master of the Microsoft anti-trust case and co-founder of Creative Commons and so on, he says that the world is regulated by four forces.
Cory Doctorow [00:10:05] – One you’re definitely familiar with. It’s code, right? Things that are technologically possible happen sometimes. Things that are technologically impossible never happen. Obviously, right? There’s markets, right? Things that are profitable happen more often. And there’s law. Things that are lawful are more likely to occur than things that are illegal. And then there’s norms, things that are socially acceptable are easier to do than things that are socially beyond the pale. The question of whether or not someone like Jeffrey Epstein is welcome in your community has become one of enormous moment, right? And you can see that even though Jeffrey Epstein had billions at his disposal, the fact that he was normatively beyond the pale really irked him, right? This sociopathic monster of a man made it his life’s work not just to pursue the terrible acts that he pursued with vulnerable young women, but also to do so while not being socially unacceptable. His whole goal in life was to be in company of wonderful people. And you sometimes meet founders who cash out big businesses and decide they don’t want to pay taxes, and they give up their citizenship, and they move to the Grand Caymans or whatever. They discover after months or years that hanging out with like substance-addicted sociopaths on yachts for every hour that god sends is a bit tedious, right, and that eventually you want to put down your daiquiri, get on a plane, go back to a place where the action is happening. Norms are also very important.
Cory Doctorow [00:11:44] – What I would say is that if you have a business that is doing something that is legally fraught but that business is doing something that people love, that you are creating a constituency for a normative shift in how we think about this stuff and that you are also creating surplus capital that can be used to fund legal adventures to make this stuff more legal and that in the absence of such a constituency that change is going to be longer in coming and also much more chaotic when it arrives, right? Change that occurs without any kind of market constituency, where it’s just, it’s purely normative generally involves like guillotines, right? Firms, when their interests are aligned with a new normative view in the world, can ride a wave, right? They can be part of a legislative change that is also incredibly profitable for them and that they support for self-serving reasons but that has broad popular support, because it is doing away with something that was manifestly unfair. Now, they may find themselves on the wrong side of it later, right? And that’s often the cycle. The pirates become the admirals. The people who made radio and who played phonograms on the air and who faced down the collecting societies who said no music should ever be played on the radio, that’s piracy, they were on the right side of history. When they sued cable operators 30 years later for putting broadcasts on a wire, they were on the wrong side of history. But you can be on the right side of history if you are involved in this kind of firm.
Cory Doctorow [00:13:33] – And the big, big upsides are not creating another Facebook, because there won’t be another Facebook. The big, big upside is creating the thing that happens once Facebook has been torn down. There is no future in mimicking the past.
Craig Cannon [00:13:51] – I’d be interested in talking about specific examples, like Airbnb, like riding a change. But I’m also interested in talking about this as it pertains to your career. As a creator, copyright becomes really important for your livelihood. How have your thoughts changed over the course of your life, as a creator who sells their content?
Cory Doctorow [00:14:11] – I should mention I’m a science fiction novelist. I’m a reasonably successful one, 20-something books, New York Times Bestseller, six-figure advances, all of that stuff, right? I’m definitely in the one percent of literary creators. I like the idea of copyright, inasmuch as I like the idea of being in an industry that has a framework that describes how stuff works, right? What’s saleable, under what terms, what is unconscionable, what are enforcement mechanisms, what are our remedies? All that stuff, having rules of the road is really important in an industry. The specific rules that we’ve created I’m very skeptical of, not least because we keep trying to apply them to non-industrial contexts. Every industrial rule has to figure out who’s in the industry and who isn’t, right? If you create finance rules, again, something that I’m broadly in favor of, and you say things that are bank-like need to account for themselves with the SEC or with the FTC or with some other regulator to make sure that bad things aren’t happening. And we say, you are doing something bank-like when at least a million dollars changes hands. And then you need to fill in some paperwork. That might be a reasonable test of whether you are bank-like or not. But if then we have hyperinflation and a burger costs a million dollars, buying lunch for a friend does not make you a bank.
Craig Cannon [00:15:45] – Well, flip it around and be like, if you have a million dollars in net worth, something flips in your brain, and now you are an accredited investor and can make investments.
Cory Doctorow [00:15:53] – Sure, sure. Yes, yes. But imagine that suddenly a million dollars is worth a fraction of what it was.
Craig Cannon [00:16:00] – Sure, yeah.
Cory Doctorow [00:16:01] – Imagine that something that used to only happen every now and again is now happening a million times before breakfast.
Craig Cannon [00:16:05] – Absolutely, and so you’re a bank now.
Cory Doctorow [00:16:07] – And so not only are you a bank, but when you give your kid allowance, he’s a bank, too, right? Now we have to say, okay, well, this regulation, whether or not the regulation was good, the test that we’re using to figure out whether you’re in the regulation or outside of it needs to be revised. With copyright, the test that we use to find out whether or not you were in the entertainment industry is whether you are making or handling a copy of a work that involved creative labor. And that made sense when every book had a printing press in its history, and it made sense when every record came from a record press and every movie went through a film lab. There would be some edge cases that it would capture that weren’t actually part of the entertainment industry. Sometimes those would go to court, or they would just have a gentleman’s agreement to ignore it or whatever. But the main body, the first couple three sigmas, was all people in the entertainment industry. And if you can afford a printing press, you can afford a lawyer to make sure that you’re using your printing press well. But the internet only works by making copies. We have this polite fiction that there’s this way of getting data without copying it called streaming. It’s like a consensus hallucination, like the internet is made out of like a cunning network of cardboard tubes with mirrors at the end that somehow get the picture from here to there.
Craig Cannon [00:17:18] – Not only that, it’s with like 10 million concurrence.
Cory Doctorow [00:17:20] – Right. Streaming is just downloading without a save button, right? Streaming is, I’m letting you download this thing, and I think the client you’re using doesn’t have a save button.
Craig Cannon [00:17:29] – And you don’t know how to.
Cory Doctorow [00:17:30] – Yeah, yeah, you don’t know how to hack one in, right? So everything we do on the internet involves copying. And you copy a million times before breakfast. You know? That doesn’t make you part of the entertainment industry. The idea that we’re going to take copyright law, which is foundationally about regulating entities in the supply chain of the entertainment industry, and use it as our first line of regulatory coherence for people’s romantic lives and people’s family lives and people’s employment lives and people’s education and their civic and political discourse, right, that when someone uses a song in a political ad, that our first question is not a question about elections and election law but about entertainment law, we’ve clearly put the horse before the cart. Not only that, when we ask our fans to use copyright law to navigate their interactions with each other and with us, we create the circumstance under which either our fans are always going to be on the wrong side of the law, or the law will have to be so simplified and streamlined so that fans whose job is not to be in the entertainment industry can understand it that it will cease to be functional
Cory Doctorow [00:18:42] – as the technical framework for our work. I live in Burbank, California. I can walk from my house to Universal, Warner, and Disney. And there’s a very good Harry Potter theme park at Universal Studios that was made by licensing a bunch of IP from Warner. I also live on a block with a bunch of kids who go to middle school with my kid. And some of them write Harry Potter fan fiction. When the lawyer at Universal called the lawyer at Warner and said, “what are the terms on which we are going to conduct this extremely technical multi-million dollar high-stakes deal?” They did not have to use a framework that was so comprehensible that the 11 year old on my block writing Harry Potter fan fic could make sure that she was on the right side of it. And if they had to, it would’ve been a nonsense. There are a bunch of rules that I would like for copyright. But the most important copyright reform, the thing that gets lost whenever we talk about copyright reform, is that we should just stop asking people who aren’t in the entertainment industry to give a shit about copyright. If you have to be a copyright lawyer to read a book, then either no one will read books, or everyone who reads books will be wrong.
Craig Cannon [00:19:47] – And so how do you think about remixing and republishing?
Cory Doctorow [00:19:50] – Yeah, I think that when it’s cultural, it’s one thing, and when it’s industrial, it’s something else. and-
Craig Cannon [00:19:55] – Can you define that?
Cory Doctorow [00:19:57] – Sure, so what I was going to say is that, like some industrial use is very obviously industrial, right? Like if I write a book and publish it. It’s obviously industrial.
Craig Cannon [00:20:06] – Perhaps another way is like for profit.
Cory Doctorow [00:20:09] – Not all industry is for profit. So if I write a book and publish it for the Church of Scientology and don’t charge any money for it, it still might be industrial. On the other end of the scale, if you’re writing fan fic and sharing it on your classroom’s blog or Google classroom site, that’s clearly not industrial. And then there’s some corner cases. And crisply defining those is, it’s the work of years and you would still miss stuff. That’s why we have judges who apply principles when the corner cases matter. Most corner cases don’t matter, right? Most corner cases, like, oh, well, that guy’s doing something. Maybe it’s industrial. But it’s like, if there’s a loss to me, it’s measured in fractional cents. And if there’s a gain to him, it’s measured in fractional cents. People have blogs that have ads from ad brokers who have a few hundred readers a day. Those people are industrialish. No one is ever going to adjudicate whether or not they’re industrial, because the stakes are so low that nobody cares. They don’t care if they’re industrial. The people whose work they’re using don’t care if they’re industrial. It’s just a wash, right? So I like the idea of there being rules for industrial use.
Cory Doctorow [00:21:19] – But I think that those rules should err on the side of free expression. A good example of where that’s worked is there was an African-American writer who wrote an unauthorized sequel to Gone With the Wind called The Wind Done Gone. And it was told from the perspective of the slaves.
Craig Cannon [00:21:35] – Cool.
Cory Doctorow [00:21:36] – And it was about revealing the hidden white supremacist subtext of Margaret Mitchell’s famous novel, beloved novel. Now, unsurprisingly, the Mitchell estate was not happy that Margaret Mitchell’s book was being brought into disrepute by this work that was derived from it. I think we can understand that artistically, if you wanted to puncture the white supremacist subtext of The Wind Done Gone, the best way to do it, of Gone With the Wind, rather, the best way to do it is to make close reference to that work, especially if you’re going to do it in fiction, is to have the same characters, but a different point of view to understand what’s missing, what’s omitted from the frame. The Supreme Court agreed. The Supreme Court said this is fair use, and we’re good, right, even though it was commercial. It came out from a publisher. They charged money for it. It was sold in bookstores. It satisfied all the criteria for being commercial. Those rules are robust. Practice of fair use, I think, is great. I think we could combine the European fair dealing approach where they have enumerated exceptions with the American fair use approach where they have principles that are applied to get a kind of best of both worlds, where we might say, okay, here are a bunch of things that are always fair use, right? These kinds of things, like if you take x seconds of a song, it’s always fair. If you take x lines from a poem, it’s always fair. But that’s the floor. The ceiling is if you are doing something that has some free expression nexus,
Cory Doctorow [00:23:07] – that is critical or transformative and so on, these things that are harder and more nebulous and might require a judge, then we can future-proof fair use. Because some fair uses are intensely technological, right? We never had a question about whether it was fair use for like Dizzy Gillespie to blow eight bars of “Night in Tunisia” in the middle of a solo. But we had that question come up when it was Terminator X taking a couple of bars out of a classic jazz or R&B composition and mixing it into a Public Enemy album. And those fair use questions are going to evolve as the technology evolves. The way that we address them should be in the hands of both judges and lawmakers. We should have judges adjudicate them. If the answers become incoherent because we have different circuits making decisions, or if they fall afoul of public sentiment, then lawmakers might be enticed to change the law so the judges interpret the law differently. For example with deep fakes we’re seeing a lot of opportunity for legitimate free expression, things that are artistically or politically important, that are very exciting from an artistic perspective. Yet we also see a lot of risky things that are happening with it, including things that might be harmful to free expression, that might be harmful to artists and their livelihood and so on. If we had a set of principles that could be interpreted, you know, like we do now with fair use, where we have the four factors, then we can start to build up a set of norms around when a deep fake is good and when a deep fake is bad.
Cory Doctorow [00:24:40] – We’ll have some liminal stuff in the middle that judges will continue to adjudicate. And maybe eventually we’ll get a law that will clarify matters, although the ideal would be that the law would again form the floor and not the ceiling, that we’d maintain the principles that could be used as the basis for the next set of law as deep fakes evolve and other kinds of technologically assisted creativity evolve.
Craig Cannon [00:25:03] – But you have to allow some freedom there, right? Because if you write it all down, the future happens. And then it’s not relevant.
Cory Doctorow [00:25:09] – I alluded before to what happened when the phonograms-
Craig Cannon [00:25:12] – Yeah, exactly.
Cory Doctorow [00:25:13] – Broadcasters. It actually goes before the phonograms. The phonograms exist because they successfully fought off an effort by the people who made sheet music to prohibit recorded music. John Philip Sousa, you know, the composer who was in the sheet music business, went to Congress and said, “If the infernal talking machine is allowed to continue, we will lose our voices as we lost our tails when we came down out of the trees.” Right? Many points to Sousa for being an early advocate of the sadly still controversial theory of natural selection. But, but he clearly missed the boat here. And so yeah, so the sheet music people sue the record people, who sued the broadcasters, who sued the cable operators, who sued the VCR, who sued Napster, right? At each turn you have someone who claims when I did it it was legitimate artistic expression.
Craig Cannon [00:25:58] – Totally.
Cory Doctorow [00:25:59] – When you do it, it’s piracy, which brings us back to adversarial interoperability, where you have these firms that routinely engaged in adversarial interoperability who describe what they did as part of a kind of heroic effort to wrest control from dinosaurs who didn’t understand what the future needed but who now describes themselves as guardians of propriety who mustn’t ever be disrupted. Zuckerberg and that recording that leaked to the Verge of his all-hands meeting describing Facebook’s future and rubbishing Elizabeth Warren and her breakup plans. He says of Warren and the breakup plan, “If you’re worried about political disinformation and other harms that arise from Facebook, you must allow us to be as big as possible, for who can generate the surplus capital needed to hire the army of programmers necessary to deal with the dysfunctions of our scale, but for us,” right? This is an argument that’s been made by monopolists since the year dot. AT&T, when it was formalized as the Bell System and given a license to operate as a monopoly, with that came all kinds of special privileges. They had the right to decide what you could plug into the phone network, all the way down to mechanical couplings. They sued a company called Hush-A-Phone that made a cup that fit over the handset of your Bell rental phone, because you could only get a phone from Bell, so that when you had a conversation into it, it would be muffled and other people couldn’t read your lips. And they said mechanically connecting something
Cory Doctorow [00:27:28] – to the handset of a Bell phone endangers the long-term security of the Bell System. After all, the Bell System is now part of public safety. It’s part of security. It’s how we administer wiretaps. It’s how we connect the police with their constituents, you know, the people they’re supposed to be protecting, and so on. How are we to provide all this service unless you give us the monopoly windfall rents that we collect from monopolizing who can plug what into the system? And it held back modems. It held back the internet. It held back early Usenet. It was only the dismantling of the Bell System that enabled the next generation to emerge. And Facebook is positioning itself to become a state monopoly like the Bell System was, as is Google, as is Apple, right? All of these companies, they want to be, when they say please regulate us, right, when they say please make rules to tell us when we’re on the right side of the law, what they’re really saying is please fashion a kind of throne for us. And when we sit upon it, we will allow ourselves to be draped with golden chains, right? We will become kind of the divine right of kings. You aristocrats in the regulatory world who are, after all, when you’ve only got five companies in an industry, everyone qualified to regulate them is formally an executive at one or more of them, right? These aristocrats who are drawn from our executive suites will tell us how best to exercise our noblesse oblige to the little people so that we can go on running it. And you see this kind of state monopoly framework
Cory Doctorow [00:29:02] – emerging again and again when people talk about regulating big tech. What very few people are yet talking about is just breaking them up, right?
Craig Cannon [00:29:10] – Well, some. I think it’s often, you saw it a couple years ago with the hearing. Many lawmakers have no idea of the scale, how they work. I mean, even, I think WhatsApp’s a great example.
Joe Betts-LaCroix [00:29:22] – Or Amazon is now involved in video surveillance at the behest, as you were saying, of police forces all over the country. That’s a situation where they have this creeping, growing monopoly power. It’s going to be likely enshrined or ennobled, as you say, by these bastions of legitimacy in the country, which is people who fight the crime, keep us safe.
Cory Doctorow [00:29:46] – They’re recruiting constituents, right, to their cause. If they are part, once you ascribe state-like duties to large firms, you make it impossible to make them smaller, because then they can’t perform the state-like duties.
Joe Betts-LaCroix [00:30:01] – Right.
Cory Doctorow [00:30:02] – We are at this point where we can decide that we’re going to fix tech or that we’re going to fix the tech companies. But we can’t do both, right? If we fix the tech companies, if we say in order to operate a social network you have to make sure that you are policing hate speech, copyright infringement, terrorism, and every other kind of bad act, then what you’re really saying is that you can only have a social network if you’re so big that you can afford the moderators to do all that work. The reality is they’re not going to do the work very well. Also, the reality is that if you give them 10 years without having to look over their shoulder at a competitor, that they’re going to be even more intransigent. It’s going to be even harder to uproot them. If you look at the AT&T antitrust case that finally broke them up in 1982, that was a 30-year effort to break up AT&T. It arrived at the moment in which Ronald Reagan was dismantling antitrust enforcement, which is why immediately after they were broken up, they started to re-merge, because they were like the last hurrah of antitrust enforcement in America.
Craig Cannon [00:31:08] – Thinking about this in the medium term for founders, strategically, how would you advise someone?
Cory Doctorow [00:31:17] – Nobody knows when these anti, these anti-adversarial interoperability laws can be invoked, ’cause the jurisprudence on them is very thin. What you have is a whole ton of extremely risk averse counsel and risk averse investors who don’t, they claim that they’re swaggering lords of creation and they’re, as we were saying before we turned the mics on, they’re perfectly willing to say, “Well, I’ve got this idea. I’m going to disrupt everything by turning every apartment in the city into an unlicensed hotel room.” But as soon as you say, “Well, I’ve got another idea.” Facebook doesn’t have users. It has hostages. People hate it. They lost 15 million Americans aged 13 to 34 last year, the largest ever exodus of Americans from Facebook. All those people landed on Instagram, right? I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to offer a tool that, just like Mint, logs into Facebook, pretends to be you, grabs all of the messages waiting for you on Facebook, cleans out all the waiting queue in your favorite groups, and then puts them into a new context for you, where Facebook can’t watch you and allows you to reply to them. Facebook, if you believe that they have 2.3 billion users, which may or may not be true, if they have 2.3 billion users, they have to support 2300 one in a million use cases every single day, which means that their bot detection and their ability to distinguish a bot from someone who’s just doing a one in a million thing is really, really hard. I have a friend who, Raph Koster, who designed a game called EverQuest.
Cory Doctorow [00:32:52] – In EverQuest, there was this thing where they set up an equilibrium for crafting where if you crafted a shirt, a sheep would disappear. And then if you wore the shirt until it wore out, a sheep would appear in the game. There was an equilibrium between sheep and shirts. What they didn’t imagine was that there would be someone who would find making shirts meditative and who would just fill their house with shirts until there were no sheep left in the world.
Craig Cannon [00:33:20] – Because while not wearing the shirt, it didn’t wear out?
Cory Doctorow [00:33:25] – That person is a one in a million-
Craig Cannon [00:33:26] – Very special player. That’s so funny.
Cory Doctorow [00:33:28] – Right? But the world is full of one in a million people, right? A world of seven billion people has, check my math, 7,000 one in a million users, yeah. So every day. And so what if you said, okay, Facebook has double-digit year in year growth. They’re worth billions of dollars. I just want to capture 2% of that market, right? That’s still bigger than any payout you’d get from making a company to be acqui-hired by Facebook. And you get to be your own boss, right? You wouldn’t have to work for the dysfunctional hornet’s nest that is Facebook. You’d also operate in a much lower stakes environment. You could create a thing that just peeled off all the anime fandom or all the, even all the medical support groups, right? That’s an area where Facebook is like really taking a lot of hostages. I know someone who started a medical pre-vivor, cancer pre-vivor, group, which is people who have a cancer gene but don’t have cancer yet.
Craig Cannon [00:34:25] – Oh.
Cory Doctorow [00:34:25] – And Facebook actively courted them. And so she brought her group there. She established this group on Facebook. And then she discovered a bunch of defects in the way that Facebook managed groups with highly sensitive information, like having a gene that puts you at a high risk of cancer. She discovered that you could enumerate the membership of any Facebook group, even if you weren’t a member of it. And when she reported it to Facebook, they said, “That is a feature request, not a bug report. We will send it off to the product team.” And when she made a big deal out of it, they said, “Okay, we’ll meet you halfway. Now you can only enumerate the full membership of any group you’re a member of,” which is still potentially very, very risky. Right? Imagine that this person who’s currently suing Facebook over this, imagine if they could have a Facebook-alike that didn’t rely on everybody who used that group deciding to give up Facebook en mass, which is a collective action problem that’s very hard to solve, and instead said, okay, here is the place where we now conduct our cancer pre-vivor thing. We understand that everyone is over on the other one, so it’s got a bot. It logs in as you. It grabs your waiting messages from that group. It brings them over here.
Cory Doctorow [00:35:33] – It lets you push them back over there. It allows you to block off sections of messages that are encrypted to a shared key that can’t be read if you’re on Facebook. Parts of it are just off-limits to Facebook scrutiny. Every message comes with a footer that says sent from this rival. 33% of the members of this group are now using it. Once it reaches 51%, we’re going to shut it off. Don’t miss the boat, right? That’s a product I would use. I’d pay to use that product if I were a cancer pre-vivor and worried about Facebook taking all my data. The thing is that right now, people have this all or nothing offer from Facebook. Either they get the support that they badly need to go on living their lives or they walk away from it. And the quid pro quo is you have to let Facebook kind of plunder every-
Craig Cannon [00:36:22] – There are still some fringe communities online.
Cory Doctorow [00:36:25] – Sure.
Craig Cannon [00:36:26] – They have their own sites. They host their own stuff.
Cory Doctorow [00:36:28] – Yeah, but the ones-
Craig Cannon [00:36:29] – Maybe they host it on Amazon, but.
Cory Doctorow [00:36:30] – The ones that got courted by Facebook and slurped into Facebook are now stuck there, right?
Craig Cannon [00:36:36] – For the most part.
Cory Doctorow [00:36:38] – And Facebook is, you know, what Facebook is good for, and this kind of dovetails onto another important topic, I think, which is whether or not Facebook is a persuasion engine. What Facebook is mostly good at is finding people. If you’re-
Craig Cannon [00:36:51] – Yeah, for sure.
Cory Doctorow [00:36:52] – A refrigerator salesman, you’ve had this conundrum all your life, as have all your forebears since the dawn of refrigeration, because the median person buys one or fewer refrigerators in their life. This is why refrigerator ads appear beside freeways, because you’ve just got to blitz them and hope someone’s buying a refrigerator. The conversion rate on a refrigerator ad through normal means is probably like 0.000001%.
Craig Cannon [00:37:15] – Right.
Cory Doctorow [00:37:16] – Facebook lets you find people who have correlates of refrigerator purchasing. They don’t have to be very good to improve a conversion rate that’s that bad, right? You can target anyone who’s looked for a new kitchen from Ikea. You can target everyone who’s read a refrigerator ad. You can target anyone who’s read refrigerator reviews, any of those things, right? All those correlates, bought a new house, whatever. And even if you multiply the conversion rate by 1,000, which maybe you could, you’re still at 0.00001% conversion rate.
Craig Cannon [00:37:45] – That’s worth a lot.
Cory Doctorow [00:37:46] – And it’s worth a lot, but it’s not mind control. And so we hear people say, well, what Facebook does is it lets Cambridge Analytica find normal people and turn them into Trump voters, right? And certainly Cambridge Analytica made that claim. They cited all this junk science about the big five personality types and sentiment analysis and all this stuff that when you actually read the literature from people who don’t work for companies pedaling this crap, they say, “Oh, it’s thin to nonexistent, small sample sizes, small effect sizes, dodgy methodologies, p hacking like crazy.” It’s just phrenology 2.0, right?
Craig Cannon [00:38:25] – I haven’t read it, I’m not sure.
Cory Doctorow [00:38:26] – People have been claiming to have mind control rays for 1,000 years. No one has yet built a mind control ray. If Cambridge Analytica had a mind control ray, they could’ve made trillions just getting people to like lay off the carbs and lose 20 pounds, which right now is one of the biggest market opportunities we have. They would’ve found willing subjects, as opposed to unwilling subjects. Cambridge Analytica’s failure to exploit any of the things that you could actually get super rich from if you could control people’s minds tells you that probably what they were doing was finding racists and convincing them that Trump was someone to vote for.
Craig Cannon [00:39:00] – Right.
Cory Doctorow [00:39:01] – Not finding normal people and convincing them to be racists.
Craig Cannon [00:39:04] – What do you say about YouTube, then, because YouTube finds things that are like, everything is, it becomes a hub, right? And there’s a little spoke. And maybe this thing is a little bit more tantalizing. And then maybe the next thing’s a little bit more tantalizing.
Cory Doctorow [00:39:18] – This raises this important question. Why is it that people are vulnerable to conspiracy theories, right? If what these algorithms do is find people based on traits, why is the trait of vulnerability to conspiratorial thinking seemingly on the rise, right? Or I guess there’s an alternate explanation, which is that they found a previously untapped scene, that we never knew how to find conspiratorial thinkers, because they’re all in bunkers, you know.
Craig Cannon [00:39:46] – Well, just think about it. It’s like one of your siblings, but like, they don’t meet each other.
Cory Doctorow [00:39:49] – Right, right. So maybe they’re just so thinly dispersed that we didn’t know that, maybe they were always there. I don’t think that’s the truth, though. I think that we have some well-known correlates of conspiratorial thinking, and the biggest one is conspiracies, right? When you live in a world in which there are a lot of conspiracies, it’s hard to know what’s true. So you know, Putin’s head of media strategy in his cabinet cheerfully admits that some opposition groups to Putin are secretly funded by him as a slush fund. But he doesn’t say which ones. And so some of the groups that are agitating to overturn the Russian state are inauthentic. And you never know which one you’re in. And so when you’re in one of those groups and someone says, “I actually think that you’re an agent provocateur, you’re like, maybe they’re an agent provocateur,” right? Because we know that these groups are shot through with them. When you scratch a UFologist, you find someone who knows an awful lot about military coverups. Not fake, imaginary military coverups. Actual aerospace and military coverups, of which there is no shortage. When you talk to people, primarily African-American people, who believe that during Katrina, they blew the levees to flood the black neighborhoods and spare the white neighborhoods, inevitably they will know an awful lot about Tupelo, Mississippi, where 40, 50 years earlier that actually did happen.
Cory Doctorow [00:41:09] – And when you scratch an anti-vaxxer, you will find someone who will tell you, chapter and verse, about the opioid crisis and about the fact that the Sackler family weaponized some junk science and a few very vague early indicators about the addictiveness of opioids and their safety and whether or not we’re, on treating pain. They suborned the regulatory process and the research process to create the opioid epidemic, which claimed more American lives than the Vietnam War and made them richer than the Rockefellers in the process. It’s true, right? That rise in conspiracies that we’re experiencing now, where there’s tons of industry collusion with regulators. There’s lots of regulatory capture. Industries converge on sets of policies that if they were legitimately competitors, you would expect that one of them would defect from their consensus, but they actually all line up behind the same thing. Look at the cable industry and its universal condemnation of net neutrality. If we had a competitive cable industry, you’d expect to find a cable operator who would say, “Sign up with us. We’re the neutral one.” And you know, you have that here. You have Sonic. But Sonic is in single digits.
Craig Cannon [00:42:23] – It’s a fraction wide.
Cory Doctorow [00:42:24] – They don’t play on the national stage. Ting is another one that buys mom and pop cable operators and rolls out fiber loops. But most people don’t have a competitive market. You look at that photo, that infamous photo of the tech leaders around the table with Donald Trump at Trump Tower after the inauguration. The first impulse you might have is to say how can they sell us out like that? The second impulse should be, how is it that everyone who runs tech fits around a single table? Once they do, how hard is it for them to converge, without an explicit conspiracy, on a set of mutually beneficial policies like the policies that all of tech arrived at along with the big entertainment companies to do no poaching in California. California has a legislative prohibition on non-competes. It’s why we have Silicon Valley, you know? Silicon Valley was founded by a Nobel Prize winner who later went crazy, right? The guy who figured out how to make transistors out of silicon instead of gallium arsenide, Shockley, after he got his Nobel money and started the first semiconductor company here in Silicon Valley, then went nuts, became paranoid, became an ardent eugenicist, spent his Nobel money playing black and brown people
Cory Doctorow [00:43:36] – to be sterilized, and started wiretapping his colleagues and his family. It got so bad that his eight top hires, these Hungarian mathematicians, quit and started a company called Intel.
Craig Cannon [00:43:49] – Whoa.
Cory Doctorow [00:43:50] – If it hadn’t been for the non-enforceability of non-competes here in Silicon Valley, in California, that would’ve been the end of semiconductors, right? They would’ve been held hostage to the mad fancies of a eugenicist. In California, we have no enforceable non-competes. The big tech companies all got together in secret with the big entertainment companies and agreed that they wouldn’t hire each other’s employees, top employees.
Craig Cannon [00:44:14] – A lot of people don’t talk about this.
Cory Doctorow [00:44:15] – How did they get there, right? So how is it that we have all these conspiracies? Well, these conspiracies are necessarily a function of market concentration. Because the collective action problem becomes insoluble when you have too many people who have to be inside the conspiracy. If there are 100 cable operators, it’s going to be really hard for them to arrive at a single lobbying position. When there’s one per district, when they’ve carved up the country like the Pope carving up the New World between Spain and Portugal, and they never have to compete with each other, it’s very easy for them to agree that they’ll scratch each other’s backs. And so I believe that the rise in conspiratorial thinking is part of an epistemological crisis, right, a crisis in how we know whether something is true. Because it is hackerish as anything to go, okay, well, I’m going to find out what’s true by researching it myself.
Craig Cannon [00:45:07] – Sure.
Cory Doctorow [00:45:08] – But even the most ardent hacker can’t do that for everything.
Craig Cannon [00:45:10] – You can’t know everything about everything. Yeah, but there’s a basic human trait, though, to like, once you figure out a little thing, you just apply it all the time, right?
Cory Doctorow [00:45:17] – Sure, yeah.
Craig Cannon [00:45:18] – And so you’re arguing that has changed, or is like a step function higher now.
Cory Doctorow [00:45:22] – Historically, we used, instead of understanding how things work, we understood how, the process by which things were known. We would say, okay, we have these truth-seeking exercises. A regulator, an expert body, a blue ribbon panel gather together, take in competing claims from different people, different firms, people with self interest, academics, whatever, sort through those claims, show their work about how they arrived at a conclusion, published that conclusion along with their work, along with registers of their interests so you can see whether or not they might’ve been suborned. They are bound by strict ethical guidelines. Then there’s a whole rule of law, a set of fallback positions when new facts come into evidence if we need to revise our understanding of the truth. But the truth-seeking exercises become an auction. A good example of this is in West Virginia. West Virginia we think of as coal country. It’s actually chemical processing country, is the biggest industry. And because it’s highly concentrated, like every industry, Dow Chemical basically swamps all of its competitors there. In the chemical industry lobbies in West Virginia, it’s Dow. Dow, through its lobbying arm, just intervened in a regulatory process in West Virginia that was asking the question, should we relax the standards for how much chemical waste can go into drinking water? And there’s a national level that’s set by the FDA. And they were seeking to determine whether or not they could have a variance
Cory Doctorow [00:46:42] – that would allow for more chemical processing. Now, on its face that’s not a terrible question to ask. There’s certainly levels of waste product that can go in your water without making you sick or harming you in any way. And it would be silly to set that number at zero, because then it would make the useful things that we get from chemicals much more expensive. But Dow’s answer to this was, “Of course we can afford to have higher levels of toxic waste in our drinking water. Those national levels were based on the national BMI. And here in West Virginia, we are so fat that the poison will be diffused in our tissues. And besides, West Virginians hardly drink water, right?”
Craig Cannon [00:47:24] – Oh my god.
Cory Doctorow [00:47:25] – You remember when we only had medical marijuana in California, not recreational marijuana? And if you wanted marijuana, you had to write a reason for it, and you could just write like, trouble sleeping, right? This is what you write in the box if you’re Dow Chemicals and you know you get whatever you want. You know that you bought the truth, right?
Cory Doctorow [00:47:41] – Well, if you don’t know whether your drinking water is going to kill you, you don’t know whether the reinforced steel joists in your roof are sufficient to keep it from falling on your head, and you don’t know whether the tailpipe emissions from your diesel are going to poison you and your family and you don’t know whether your antilock braking system is secure or whether or not the credit bureau that has compiled a non-consensual dossier on you and all your financial information’s about to breach it, and you can’t trust the process by which we determine whether those things are true or not, then what you end up with is instead of the rule of law, you end up with the rule of man, where you find someone who says a thing that you know to be true, that turns out to be true. And you follow them, right? It’s like “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” If you have the towel, you probably have the toothbrush and the backpack and the rail pass. You follow people where they lead you once they show you that they know one true thing. Donald Trump says the system is rigged. The system is rigged. He is going to rig it more. But he is the only one in the presidential debates who will say the system is rigged. Joe Biden doesn’t say the system is rigged. Joe Biden says, “Let us return to the time in which we didn’t talk about whether the system is rigged.”
Craig Cannon [00:48:47] – Well, you’re Canadian, but I just got married. And my wife is Dutch. And so we came into the country, we’re doing all the green card stuff. Trump said like, “We only want rich people coming in.” And I was like, “That’s a terrible thing to say.” But having just gone through the process, it’s always been this way.
Cory Doctorow [00:49:02] – No shit, right? Exactly. I have a green card. I’ve been through the process. I can tell you, I know exactly where you’re coming from.
Craig Cannon [00:49:08] – Yeah. Yup.
Joe Betts-LaCroix [00:49:10] – I saw a recent study, academic study about conspiracy theories, and, because people have been saying, wow, there’s so many more conspiracy theories now. And they used a method for analyzing that, which is hard to measure over time, have conspiracy theories gone up or down?
Craig Cannon [00:49:25] – Really.
Joe Betts-LaCroix [00:49:26] – Their method was to look at thousands and thousands of letters to the editor that are all well documented in The New York Times, going back, you know, 75 years, 100 years or whatever. And it’s actually gone down. The number of letters to the editor saying, “I think the system is rigged, I think there’s a secret cabal of people determining the price of wheat” or whatever has, I don’t remember the exact percentages, but from 36% of letters down to 20% of letters today-
Cory Doctorow [00:49:56] – But do we know that that’s what reflects an editorial change in what letters The New York Times publishes?
Joe Betts-LaCroix [00:50:01] – That absolutely could be, yeah.
Cory Doctorow [00:50:03] – I mean, that might be a very different thing.
Joe Betts-LaCroix [00:50:06] – And it also may be, like especially super recently, a letter to the editor isn’t the way that people communicate about conspiracy theories anymore either.
Cory Doctorow [00:50:13] – It might just tell you something about the conspiratorial beliefs of people who write letters to the editor as opposed to conspiratorial beliefs, per se. I mean, it is very interesting to look at things like the resurgence of the flat earth, which I think, you know, although I don’t have an empirical basis for asserting it, it certainly seems qualitatively like the belief in the flat earth is more central than it was. 10 years ago. Now, and on its face, there’s never been a worse time to promote the flat earth, right, because people have seen the curvature of the earth. They’ve been in airplanes, right? They’ve like, attached a GoPro to a balloon at their local hacker space and brought it up and brought it down again. Or even at their elementary school. And so this belief in conspiracy, when you ask those people to explain why they believe that there would be a conspiracy about the flat earth, they will regurgitate a kind of blend of real conspiracies and conspiracy theories that are predicated on the existence of real conspiracies.
Cory Doctorow [00:51:21] – The credibility of the system has been eroded through market concentration and corruption. That’s what corruption is, right? It’s when truth-seeking exercises are suborned by parochial interests. Rather than regulating the public interest, we regulate parochial interest.
Craig Cannon [00:51:39] – We have yet to talk about your work at all. And I’m, related to this, I’m interested in your predictions of the future. Especially in, you know, 50 year future, because Joe and I talked about this before we started recording. And we’re like, “Man, so many of these essays and speculative fiction works are very near future, at this point.”
Joe Betts-LaCroix [00:52:01] – Well, so like in 1992, Neal Stephenson wrote “Snow Crash.”
Cory Doctorow [00:52:06] – Right.
Joe Betts-LaCroix [00:52:07] – And it was brilliantly prescient of a lot of things that would come. And you could say even though those were kind of self-referential, like Second Life was probably explicitly based on having-
Cory Doctorow [00:52:17] – Oh, no, totally, when you got hired at Second Life, they gave you a copy of “Snow Crash” and said you start Monday. Read this over the weekend.
Joe Betts-LaCroix [00:52:23] – Right, so you and your fellow cyberpunk authors are not just predicting the future but also creating the future, which is a fabulously creative position to be in. In the past, it seems like the things that came out of those novels took 10 years to happen. Whereas now it feels like they’re all becoming closer term. You know, like in Neal Stephenson’s latest book, “Fall,” he was talking about how the internet is going to just fall apart and be discarded. And he calls it the miasma. And there’s so much fake news and disinformation and bots creating news that nobody trusts any of it anymore. And they’re just going back to just these little subnets where people are following other people they really, really trust. And similarly, like in “Radicalized,” your most recent book, a lot of it seems very near term. You’re writing about things that are happening right now or are just on the verge of happening. Is that a trend, do you think, because the world’s changing faster, or?
Cory Doctorow [00:53:32] – I’ve always been pretty near future in the work that I’ve written. Not all of it, but in the main thrust of my work is very near future. I mean, I was once nominated for a Hugo Award for a novel set, a novella set like 500,000 years in the future among dueling solar system-scale AIs that were fighting over, where their major limitations were things like light-speed lags and whether their light cones intersected and stuff. But for the most part, I’ve kept things pretty close to here. I don’t think science fiction does predict the future. I think it can make the future, which is exciting. But I think that the idea that the future is predictable is itself horrifically fatalistic. Like, I think whether it’s the hacker mentality or the activist mentality, you have to believe that the future is up for grabs, that something different can happen. There are some things that are like parameters that we probably can’t change. If a million people are born this year, then in 18 years, there won’t be more than a million 18 year olds. That’s definitely true. But the lower number is zero, right?
Cory Doctorow [00:54:37] – They could all die tomorrow, right? We could, I’ve been to a Passover Seder. I know that the firstborn can all be snuffed out in one night. So there are some things that we don’t, that we can say with a certain degree of certainty. But there’re actually pretty trivial. And I like to think that what you get when you read a science fiction story is insight into what that writer hopes for and fears about the way technology is interacting with human civilization and that when you find a science fiction book that is doing well in the world, you find out what the world hopes and fears about technology and their civilization. And that’s hugely influential.
Joe Betts-LaCroix [00:55:24] – I, as a founder, look at science fiction as a menu of choices. Which future do I want to bring about? There are these, in “Snow Crash,” there are these tiny computers instead of the big laptops that were around, just barely happening in those days, or desktops mostly. They’re these little ones that were put on the chest and so on. And that was part of my inspiration for creating the world’s smallest laptop in the early 2000s.
Joe Betts-LaCroix [00:55:48] – And, which is now in the Guinness Records, I guess. The menu of options is something that I, it’s great. It’s part of the creative process. And I would love that, if, for the YC community to avail itself of science fiction as part of the idea generating process, because a lot of founders come into YC with terrible ideas. But they’re like, sometimes when they’re fantastic founders, they’re like, let’s just accept them anyway, because I know that when they’re exposed to the richness of this network and the community here, they’ll realize, oh, there’s a much cooler thing to do.
Craig Cannon [00:56:30] – Well, I mean, that’s the incredible downside of being in an ecosystem like Silicon Valley, right, because there’s the groupthink. And then all of a sudden you just come up with the same derivative ideas, which is why like taking the full menu of science fiction in can be so creative and fun.
Cory Doctorow [00:56:43] – I think that in terms of like what I see in the kind of near to mid term, so first of all, we’re at a tipping point for our understanding of the climate risk. I have a model I call the peak indifference model, which is when you have a problem that’s a long way off whose causal relationships are not crisply understood or crisply demonstrated, it can be hard to even convince people that there is a problem, right? Like, what’s wrong with smoking? Smoking is fine. I don’t have cancer, right? Now, that, if the problem is real and you don’t address it, people don’t believe that it’s a problem, then you build up debt, right, that over time you will experience more mutations and your likelihood of getting a tumor goes up. Over time, the planet will get warmer. Over time, the lack of encryption in the web will invite more surveillance, man in the middle attacks, and so on. And at a certain point, that debt will be so onerous that the number of people who are indifferent to the problem will monotonically decrease without any outside action. That day to day and week to week, there’ll just be more people who have cancer, right, or whose houses are on fire or whose lives were ruined by identity thieves, right? And so they now are no longer in need of being convinced that there’s a problem. But then they need to be convinced that there’s a potential for a solution, right, that denialism can slide into nihilism very quickly.
Craig Cannon [00:58:13] – Absolutely.
Cory Doctorow [00:58:13] – If I spend 30 years unsuccessfully convincing you that we need to care about rhino populations, and then one day you wake up and you’re like, “Okay, well, there’s only one left, the logical next thing to say is, we might as well find out what he tastes, like,” right? So there’s only one left, you know?
Craig Cannon [00:58:27] – Going back to what you said before, there’s no reason you can’t use persuasion for positive.
Cory Doctorow [00:58:33] – Sure, sure. And so back to this idea that what the platforms actually deliver is the ability to find people who share beliefs, that’s critical. It’s also dangerous, right? It’s what created the movement for Black Lives. It’s what created non-binary gender identities, right? These things that are widely dispersed, not concentrated in any one place. You know, San Francisco was a nexus for gay liberation for lots of reasons. But one is it’s like where the Navy used to discharge people, men, who had gotten into trouble for being gay, right? So they actually created, they took a trait that was widely dispersed in the population, and they created a locus for it. And it became an attractor. If you were gay and you lived somewhere else, there was a higher than median chance that you would toddle off to San Francisco. And so it created this. But now we can do that without waiting for the accident of history. Right now we can, now if you are trans or if you like a weird kind of manga or if you’re trying to find people who want to buy refrigerators, you can use the internet to do that. You can use the platforms and their non-consensual surveillance dossiers to do that. The other thing that you can do with it is you can find people who might want to carry a tiki torch through the streets of Charlottesville chanting-
Cory Doctorow [00:59:48] – Right? It does allow every kind of idea that is not yet in the mainstream to find potential co-adherents and to build up a community of mutual support that you can then use to try and bootstrap what’s in like the demimonde into the wider world.
Joe Betts-LaCroix [01:00:07] – But I like this mental model of the pressure, like sort of the ratio between the pressure for something that’s been building up and the indifference to it at the same time.
Cory Doctorow [01:00:18] – Sure, sure.
Joe Betts-LaCroix [01:00:19] – As a founder, to be able to have x-ray glasses where you can look around at society and see where that pressure differential is the highest, seems like it would be a great algorithm for finding your next startup idea.
Cory Doctorow [01:00:33] – Do you have suggestions on- To be very Canadian about this, if you’re going to skate to where the puck is going to be, I think that one of the things we’re at a tipping for now is the understanding that concentrated industries and wealth concentration are both massive contributors to climate change. And again, there’s this idea that you could either go with action or nihilism. We might say, okay, well, let’s just find some feudal lords and allow them to decide what we’re going to do now that the crisis is upon us, because it’s too late. Or we might say, actually we’re going to pursue pluralistic solutions. Again, this is one of those things where I’m not making a prediction about which one we’re going to do. I’m saying that you get to decide which side of that you’re going to be on.
Joe Betts-LaCroix [01:01:21] – Are you going to create a startup that speculates on land that is not going to be flooded and sells it ahead of time?
Cory Doctorow [01:01:28] – Right.
Joe Betts-LaCroix [01:01:29] – Or can you be a part of stopping the rising of the sea in the first place?
Cory Doctorow [01:01:31] – And you know, this idea, I want to return to the idea of science fiction here. People tend to mistake science fiction in which a lot of things have gone wrong all at once for dystopias. It is not dystopian to imagine that complex systems will break down. Engineers who assume that complex systems won’t break down are not good engineers. They’re idiots, right? That’s what leads you to build the Titanic and then not put any lifeboats on it, right? An engineer who understands that entropy’s not just a good idea, it’s the law is someone who plans for graceful failure, right, who looks at the way things will break down and figures out how we can get them started again. So…
Joe Betts-LaCroix [01:02:14] – Right, dystopia’s when everything goes to hell at the same time, and the one thing going to hell takes the other thing down, and there’s a positive feedback loop.
Cory Doctorow [01:02:20] – And no one can, but also where we are painted as the fallen remnants of a once noble species that could, at one point, figure out things like sanitation and civil engineering and so on, but which has lost that praxis and could never recover it because we are fallen. We have fallen from grace. That’s “The Road,” right? “The Road” is the idea that when the lights go off, your neighbors are going to come over and eat you. Literally come and eat you. Right? The actual lived experience of people who have been in disasters is that the crisis is when the background refrigerator hum of pretty grievance stops and you realize that you have much more in common with the people across the street than you ever had against them. And people pitch in and help each other. There’s a wonderful Rebecca Solnit book called “A Paradise Built in Hell” that’s this closely researched historical text about how people behave in real disasters. And it opens with the 1906 quake here in San Francisco.
Cory Doctorow [01:03:18] – And the elites who lived in high ground experienced something that sociologists, they now call it elite panic. They said that the poors were coming to eat them. They sent out General Funston from the Presidio with his troops. He was convinced of two incorrect things. One was that he knew how to use controlled demolitions to set fire breaks. And the other one was that once he set the city on fire, that he couldn’t trust poor people to go back and fight the fires, because they would loot. And so that’s how he came to burn down a quarter of San Francisco, including the mission. And the actual lived experience of the people who were not on the high ground, the people who built temporary villages in what’s now the Golden Gate Park and so on is that there was this enormous feeling of coming together, that everyone pitched in to help everyone else. There’s stories of like butchers who cleared out everything they had and just cooked it in what’s now, what’s the park at 18th and just past 18th? Dolores Park, which was then I believe a Jewish cemetery. And they set up a cook pot, and they cooked all the food from the butcher shop and gave it out to people, right? So building for resilience, building for recovery when you can see disaster on the horizon is not just an optimistic thing that is a kindness to your species. It’s also good market sense, right? We are very soon to be in the market for graceful recovery, not for luxury bunkers where you can wet the bed and wait for better people than you
Cory Doctorow [01:04:54] – to rebuild civilization so that you can emerge with your AR-15 and your thumb drive full of Bitcoin and live out life in a Frazetta painting, where you’ve got like a harem and a bunch of mercenary guards. Actually building stuff for recovery and resilience, there’s a huge potential future market for that. In terms of adversarial interoperability and what’s going to happen to the platforms on the way, our willingness to trust that big firms have our interests at heart and that the processes that regulate them are on the side of the public interest and not the side of the firm’s parochial interest, that is coming to an end. And so if you want to be where the puck is going to be, betting that when you do something that disrupts the big platforms that public sentiment and therefore lawmakers will be on your side is a good bet. Now, many of those people will time it wrong, right? Many of those people will get there too early.
Joe Betts-LaCroix [01:05:53] – Aaron Swartz.
Cory Doctorow [01:05:55] – Aaron Swartz, yeah. And others, right? I mean, Power Ventures was a company that scraped Facebook, along with a bunch of its competitors like LinkedIn, put it all in a single dashboard. Facebook went after them using the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which is the law that was used to prosecute Aaron. They successfully argued that violating terms of service was a Computer Fraud and Abuse Act violation, building on a precedent set by Blizzard when they went after people who made their own bnet, Battle.net server called bnetd. And set this terrible precedent, which shouldn’t stand. First of all, I think if there was a circuit split and it went to the Supreme Court, they would lose. But we should have legislative clarity on this, that you cannot create a felony out of thin air by sticking a sprawling garbage novella of legalese in front of your product that says doing anything disfavored by our shareholders is illegal. That should just not be how our law works. It’s not a just system of law. It’s obviously not a just system of law, not least because were it the system of law when all of these firms who’re deploying it were getting started, none of them would have succeeded, right? Getting the scraping time right, it’s going to be hard. But hiQ was scraping LinkedIn to produce employer analytics. LinkedIn turned a blind eye to it until they launched their own analytics product. Then they tried to block them out and sue them under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Not only has hiQ won in court and had a judge say you can’t use the Computer Fraud
Cory Doctorow [01:07:29] – and Abuse Act to legally punish people who scrape your site, the judge also said you can no longer use technical countermeasures against hiQ, which is crazy.
Craig Cannon [01:07:40] – So like no rate limiting, nothing like that.
Cory Doctorow [01:07:42] – No rate limiting.
Craig Cannon [01:07:43] – Crazy.
Cory Doctorow [01:07:44] – You can’t block their IP addresses, nothing.
Craig Cannon [01:07:45] – Whoa.
Cory Doctorow [01:07:46] – You have to let them scrape you, right, because this is a pro-competitive public interest based activity.
Craig Cannon [01:07:51] – Where was this?
Cory Doctorow [01:07:52] – Ninth Circuit, here.
Craig Cannon [01:07:53] – Really?
Cory Doctorow [01:07:53] – Who would’ve thought it? Right, so the Ninth Circuit’s really interesting, because it’s the tech circuit, right? It’s also the entertainment circuit, because California has this dual nature. So sometimes you get that conflict where you have crazy copyright decisions coming out. Sometimes you have ones that are like really skeptical of copyright claims, and it’s very hard to guess which judge is going to jump which way. But the other time where it gets weird is that some of the bench are like, “Well, I’m here to support new entrance into the market, because that’s the heart and soul of what makes Silicon Valley Silicon Valley.” And some of them are like, “I’m here to support the kings of Silicon Valley, because they’re what makes Silicon Valley Silicon Valley.” What would Silicon Valley be without Google? Now, the same thing Silicon Valley would be without, I don’t know, DEC or Cray.
Craig Cannon [01:08:43] – Exactly, like HP, whatever.
Cory Doctorow [01:08:44] – Silicon Graphics. Literally, I have been to the Googleplex when it was Silicon Graphics. I’ve been to it when it’s the Googleplex. I will happily visit it again when it’s the hiQplex and built on nothing but building better scrapers, right?
Joe Betts-LaCroix [01:08:58] – Just circling back to YC founders, then, you think that they can now proceed because of this Ninth Circuit decision with less fear and build some companies based on massive scraping?
Cory Doctorow [01:09:09] – I am not a lawyer, and I’m not their lawyer, but I will say that if I were talking to an investor about how I was going to nibble Facebook to death, I would be showing them the hiQ decision. Not every investor is going to be convinced, not least because a lot of those investors are now invested in companies whose bottom line depends on there not being scraping that disrupts their monopolies. But money talks, bullshit walks. There’s a market opportunity there. It is clearly a giant market opportunity.
Joe Betts-LaCroix [01:09:43] – And there are a lot of VCs.
Cory Doctorow [01:09:43] – And there are a lot of VCs. And there, and if you do it, you will be building a constituency for more legislative and legal clarity and also for a better public understanding that scraping is legitimate. I got onto this adversarial interoperability kick when I went and spoke at the 50th anniversary at the University of Waterloo’s computer science program. I’m a proud U Waterloo computer science dropout. And they’re whip smart. They call themselves the MIT of the north.
Joe Betts-LaCroix [01:10:22] – Just like McGill is the Harvard of the north.
Cory Doctorow [01:10:24] – That’s right, yeah. It’s hilarious. As Canadian as possible under the circumstances. The Q and A afterwards, this super smart grad student said like, “Well, I hear what you’re saying about Facebook and its monopoly, but how would I ever convince all my friends to leave it at the same time as me? “And if I didn’t, how would I talk to them?” I’m like, “Are you kidding me? You’re a grad student at a lead computer science program. Write a very small shell script, done in one, right?” Like, that part has been solved for a long time, and it is a recurring motif in the history of our industry and of every other technological industry. Where did cable TV come from? Cable TV came from slurping down broadcast signals on a big antenna in rural Pennsylvania that was too far for anyone with a TV to reach either Philly or Pittsburgh and then charging money to re-transmit them over wires to people who owned televisions in this small town. It was created by a TV salesman. It was called Community Access TV,
Cory Doctorow [01:11:27] – or Community Antenna TV, CA TV, before it was called cable. It was adversarial interoperability. If broadcasters had had the copyright or patent or Computer Fraud and Abuse defense or whatever, we would’ve never had cable TV. Every industry has an incumbent disrupted by a new entrant, not by making a thing that is totally disjoint from the new entrant, not by asking people to leap the chasm from one to the other, to let go of the vine they’re holding before they’ve got a secure handle on the next one. Everyone figures out how to allow people to have a foot on both fields while they figure it out, you know?
Joe Betts-LaCroix [01:12:01] – Well, I think that’s consistent with the hacker spirit of YC community. And I’d love to see more of that happening. Thanks for the inspiration.
Cory Doctorow [01:12:08] – Well, thank you very much.
Craig Cannon [01:12:09] – Thanks so much, Cory. If someone wants to read your work, find out more about you, where do they go?
Cory Doctorow [01:12:12] – I’m often the first Cory in Google. It’s pretty easy to find me. Otherwise, my personal site is called craphound.com.
Joe Betts-LaCroix [01:12:20] – As well as your podcast.
Cory Doctorow [01:12:21] – As well as my podcast. And I’m one of the owners of a website called Boing Boing, boingboing.net. And I’m @doctorow on Twitter.
Joe Betts-LaCroix [01:12:28] – Perfect, thanks so much.
Craig Cannon [01:12:29] – Thank you.
Cory Doctorow [01:12:30] – Thanks.
Craig Cannon [01:12:32] – All right, thanks for listening. As always, you can find the transcript and video at blog.ycombinator.com. If you have a second, it would be awesome to give us a rating and review wherever you find your podcasts. See you next time.
Y Combinator created a new model for funding early stage startups. Twice a year we invest a small amount of money ($150k) in a large number of startups (recently 200). The startups move to Silicon