Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Cory Doctorow: Radicalized



Cory Doctorow returned to the OIWF to discuss the forces behind Radicalized, his collection of four novellas: “Unauthorized Bread,” “Model Minority,” “Radicalized,” and “The Masque of the Red Death.”


In conversation with Derek Künsken, author of The Quantum Magician, Doctorow explained how Radicalized rose out of his anxieties over Trump derangement syndrome. He asks us to consider whom technology works for, and whom it works against.


We are entering what Doctorow calls twenty-first century feudalism—where technology users are convinced to accept a shift from owning to leasing, and where the technology that mediates our daily lives is designed to impose restrictions for the profit of monopolizing corporations with limited liability.


Doctorow calls for legislation to respond to facts, to serve as a regulatory force to protect the public’s interests rather than the profits of corporate oligarchs. Whether concerning climate change, privacy breaches, or systematic disempowerment, apathy is an exploitable resource.


Doctorow expects our society will come to a point of peak indifference, then the accumulation of crises will drive us to pursue change. The risk, however, is that if harmful trends aren’t acknowledged until it is too late, denialism will become nihilism, which encourages defeatist passivity rather than activism.


Any system built on denial will collapse, Doctorow observes. When the inevitable crash happens, it’s the people at the bottom of the power chain who pay the price for poor management executed by those at the top. Meanwhile, those in power exploit the system as much as they can before the crash, rather than guiding the system towards sustainability. The richest can accumulate resources to prepare for the worst—but even if you have a bunker, isn’t it just better if society doesn’t collapse? The future is profitable, but only if we have a future. Or in the less mercenary terms Doctorow prefers: it will all be so great if we don’t screw it up.


Then there’s radicalization. Doctorow stresses that while technology enables individuals to network and form hate groups, radicalization is not an indiscriminate conversion process contracted by exposure to radicals and their ideas. Because a strong predictor of radicalization is suicidal depression after trauma, Doctorow asks how we can shape society to minimize its members’ exposure to trauma.


Doctorow’s work in sci-fi and activism is not undertaken to predict the future, but rather to shape it. He points out that when you are aware of the forces that affect human motivation, and how past, present, and future are connected by patterns of human agency, you can use code, law, market, and norms to shift the power dynamics that are perpetuating an unstable system.


According to Doctorow, the key is neither optimism nor pessimism, but hope—hope in human agency. When you can’t deny that the system is unsustainable, you can try to change the system to mitigate the crash. To that end, he gives us “unauthorized bread,” the keys to unlock our minds, and enough freedom to be dangerous.