Our Boing Boing partner Cory Doctorow—activist and author of Chokepoint Capitalism, Attack Surface, and, of course, Little Brother, among other books—is interviewed in The New Yorker! The freewheeling and informative conversation with Christopher Byrd spans the "mediocre monopolists" of Big Tech, the salience of cyberpunk, the danger of pseudonymity, and his experience of Fingerspitzengefühl for computers. From The New Yorker:
If there were one thing that you wish more people would think about when it comes to where tech is going, what would that be?
When we design a computer that treats its user or owner as its adversary, we lay the groundwork for unimaginable acts of oppression and terror. Here's an example: in 2005, it was revealed that Sony BMG had shipped millions of audio CDs that had a rootkit on them that, when you put it in the CD drive on your computer, silently patched your computer's kernel so that it could no longer see programs that began with "$sys$"—that little string of characters. And then they installed a program that started with that string which broke CD-ripping, so you could never rip a CD again. They didn't want you to uninstall that program, which is why they modified your kernel for that. This was radioactively illegal. They infected between two and three hundred thousand computers. They settled with the F.T.C. for a giant amount of money. Every virus writer in the world immediately pre-penned their virus to "$sys$" and made it invisible to your computer and its antivirus software.
This is 2005. So we are now fifteen years into this and we still have car companies, phone companies, med-tech companies all building devices that are designed so that the owner cannot override the manufacturer's choices. You have HP shipping updates to printers that update them so they can detect the latest third-party ink cartridges. And everyone has followed them because, of course, we have market concentration, so there's only four printer companies. They all do this now. They all have zero-touch, no-user-intervention firmware updates that could be used by malicious parties to do incredibly terrible things to your network, to you, to your data.
There's a guy named Ang Cui. He runs a thing called Red Balloon Security. But, in 2011, he was a grad student at N.Y.U., and he gave a security presentation at the Chaos Communication Congress called "Print Me if You Dare," where he showed that he could update the firmware of an HP printer by sending it a poison document. You just give, like, the H.R. department a document called resume.doc. And when they print it the printer's firmware is updated silently and undetectably: it scans all future documents for Social Security numbers, and credit-card numbers, and sends them to him. It opens a reverse shell to his computer, through the corporate firewall, and then it scans all the computers on your lan for known vulnerabilities and takes them over. It was just a little proof of concept; he never released it.
You don't have to be a science-fiction writer to see this coming because it's been happening in the real world for fifteen years.
In "Attack Surface," you write, "Indifference is a lot harder to correct than simple ignorance." I wonder if cyberpunk can do anything to correct that indifference.
Think of it being like "Silent Spring," right? Before DDT made a bunch of animals extinct, "Silent Spring" convinced people to take action. There's a problem when you have threats on your horizon where the cause and effect are separated by a lot of time and space. The natural point at which denial gives way to concern is past the point of no return. So what you want to do is shift the moment of peak denial further back so that you've got more runway to do something about it. You see it very explicitly now with climate fiction.
What that narrative can do is shift the point of peak indifference. But, just as importantly, it can keep denialism from sliding into nihilism. What you have to show people is not just how bad it will be if they don't take action but how much room there is to take action to make things better. And it's a very hard balance because the better job you do of demonstrating the vast, frightening challenge ahead of us and the consequences for inaction, the harder it is to convince people that some action could make a difference.
I think the best fiction does strike that balance. I mean, not to toot my own horn, I think that's the thing that people like about "Little Brother." It is a story that, for a certain kind of reader, both scares the shit out of them about how bad things can be and inspires them about how much we can do to make them better. This will all be so great if we don't screw it up.
"Cory Doctorow Wants You to Know What Computers Can and Can't Do" (The New Yorker)