Canada Reads

Cory Doctorow believes reading can be an exercise in empathy

Doctorow's book Radicalized will be defended by Raptors personality Akil Augustine on Canada Reads 2020.
Cory Doctorow is the author of Radicalized. (CBC)

Cory Doctorow is best known for his science fiction writing; he's the author of notable titles such as Walkaway, Little Brother and Radicalized.

His latest book, Radicalizedcollects four timely science fiction novellas, all of which explore ethical questions surrounding how technology is abused on both personal and corporate levels. The collection touches on issues such as immigration and the dangers of proprietary technology.

Akil Augustine is defending Radicalized on Canada Reads 2020.

Canada Reads 2020 will take place July 20-23.

Doctorow spoke with Afternoon Drive host Chris dela Torre about what it was like having Radicalized be part of Canada Reads.

Cory Doctorow talks to CBC Radio about his collection of novellas Radicalized, which will be defended by Akil Augustine on Canada Reads 2020. 6:16

Making sense of current events

"It's a book of four science fiction novellas. I wrote them partly out of my Trump derangement syndrome and anxiety. As the headlines started slamming into my face, like they have for all of us after 2016, I started to use some narratives to make sense of them. The broad themes of these four stories is that the most important thing about technology is not what it does, but who it does it for and who it does it to. It's fine to be angry about technology, but the answer is to make sure we stop screwing it up — not to get rid of it, but to seize the means of computation.

As the headlines started slamming into my face, like they have for all of us after 2016, I started to use some narratives to make sense of them.- Cory Doctorow

"It's full of stories about people who use technology to change their life circumstances, like people in refugee housing, whose smart toasters and other appliances try to extract as much money from them by forcing them to buy their bread at the company store... otherwise the machines won't recognize them — but who then jailbreak their devices and become masters of their technological destiny and discover through that the seeds of their own liberation."

Stranger than speculative fiction

"I work on this as a policy matter. I work for a nonprofit that does activism. I'm chasing after a U.S. med tech giant who make a glucose monitor for people with diabetes and who've claimed that it's a violation of their rights for people with diabetes to reverse engineer their file formats so they can see their own blood sugar measurements to their own insulin pumps. And they've said that somehow this is a copyright violation, thanks to this bizarre Clinton-era copyright law. So we're already in a position where failing to arrange your affairs to benefit the shareholders of distant corporations is a potential felony — felony contempt of business model."

A lot of the differences that we talk about as differences in kind are actually differences in time.- Cory Doctorow

"There is this giant labour shortage of techies. Unlike other fields, there are just not enough of them. When you get into very specialized domains like machine learning and so on, there are vast labour shortages. And what that means is that techies have enormous labour power. They have workplace power. I always tell my nerd friends that the reason they get kombucha on tap and massages is not because their bosses love them, it's because their bosses are afraid they'll go work for someone else. We have these movements like Tech Won't Build It, who are saying to their bosses they just refuse to work on facial recognition for the Immigrations and Customs authority or drone software or any of another host of evils that projects the will of billionaires and plutocrats on the rest of the world."

Outsider's perspective

"There's obviously this distance that you get when you're an expatriate. I think a lot of the things that Canadians think of as being Canadian, they define as not American. One of the things about Canada is that it's got both more and less in common with America than we tend to think it does. A lot of the differences that we talk about as differences in kind are actually differences in time. We got our Trump five years later with the premier of Ontario, but it's not like he's cut from a particularly different cloth.

"And so being able to get a Canadian perspective on America that plays off the parts about America that leaps out to a Canadian eye, I think helps Canadians understand what parts of their identity really are distinct."

Exercise in empathy

"Well, I think at its best social media can activate our empathy, but social media is rarely at its best. Books really are an exercise in empathy. Novels only work if you can empathize and not with real people, with imaginary people, which is varsity-level empathy. 

Novels only work if you can empathize and not with real people, with imaginary people, which is varsity-level empathy.- Cory Doctorow

"And so to have that limbic experience, to be brought to the point of tears through this exercise in empathy, makes you a better person; it makes you better at understanding why the people around you are so difficult." 

Cory Doctorow's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

The Canada Reads 2020 contenders

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