Bill Lynch Published

Tech Writer Cory Doctorow Talks The Internet In Appalachia

A stack of books on a table with two opened and their pages fanned out.Abhi Sharma/Flickr

This story originally aired in the Oct. 22, 2023 episode of Inside Appalachia.

Science fiction and technology writer Corey Doctorow (Dr. O) presented this year’s McCreight Lecture in the Humanities at the University of Charleston.

An award-winning author, he’s written novels and young adult fiction, as well as essays and nonfiction books about technology.

Bill Lynch spoke with Doctorow in advance of his visit to Charleston.

The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity.

Cory Doctorow

Courtesy Jonathan Worth

Lynch: I guess the first question is, how do you see yourself? You see yourself strictly as, as a fiction writer? Or are you a lot more than that?

Doctorow: You know, I think that on the one hand, when I write fiction, it’s because, without wanting to be too grand, I’m trying to be an artist, right? I’m trying to make art. That’s what creative writing is. It’s an art form. 

And so the job of an artist is to make good art, right? It’s to make you feel things that you wouldn’t feel otherwise, to kind of go to new places, and so on. 

Now, part of the method for doing that is to also infuse it with the work that I do as an activist, in part because the use of real-world, important issues in fiction makes the fiction seem more important. And it makes the fiction, I think, actually more important, you know? 

It’s easy to forget just how weird fiction is, right? That we somehow are tricked into feeling empathy for imaginary people doing things that never happened, and caring about what happened there. 

It literally could not be less consequential, right? Like, there are no consequences to the things imaginary people do. It just comes with the territory there. 

So, one of the things that I think makes the art more urgent and more artistically satisfying is the infusion of the art with real world stuff. At the same time, so much of the stuff that I work on is so abstract and so difficult to wrap your head around, that one of the things that fiction can do is make it more immediate. 

As an activist, you know, I’m always looking for ways to make things that are important, but are a long way off, or are too complicated to readily grasp into things that feel very immediate and pressing. 

Certainly, that’s something that happens a lot in my fiction.

Lynch: What’s one thing you’d like just the average person to understand about technology?

Doctorow: That’s a good question. I guess it’s that the collapse of the internet that we have today, from the wild and woolly internet, where disintermediation seemed everywhere, people, we’re able to have lots of technological self-determination, and to the descent into the internet we have today, which Tom Eastman calls five giant websites filled with screenshots of text from the other four, was not driven by any kind of technological inevitability, right? 

It wasn’t like it had to be this way. 

Specific choices, policy choices, made by specific named individuals whose home addresses are not hard to find, and who live conveniently close to a supply of pitchforks and torches, that those specific policy choices were made, and they gave us the internet we have now. 

And it needn’t be this way forever, that we can have a better internet, that it’s a matter, not of the great forces of history, but of human agency,

Lynch: Places like Appalachia, particularly West Virginia, have seen a decline in population, as people, mostly young people, have left. Could technology, technological advances, a better internet – could that mitigate that?

Doctorow: Well, you know, Appalachia, like many other places, isn’t the Silicon Valley. It’s a place that both needs technology and isn’t getting the technology it needs. 

The lived experience of bros in a boardroom in Silicon Valley is so far off from the experience of people in Appalachia, or indeed in many other places in the world, including in Silicon Valley, if you’re not a rich tech, bro, it’s very important that we have the right and capability to modify the technology that we’re expected to use. 

I’m not saying “learn to code” is the thing that we should tell miners that have been put out of work by the energy transition or anything. But I am saying that if you don’t know how to adapt the technology that is acting on you. And if you don’t have the right to adapt the technology that is acting on you, that it will only act on you and that will you’ll never be able to act on it, that you’ll never be able to adapt it to your needs and to make it do what you need in order to live a prosperous and better life.

So, it’s very important that technological self-determination be a part of the story when we talk about how we’re going to use technology everywhere, but especially in places that are so far, both in terms of their lived experience and the geographical distance, from Silicon Valley as Appalachia.