With a Little Help (1 of 151)
COPYRIGHT & LICENSE
With a Little Help by Cory Doctorow. Copyright 2011 by Cory Doctorow.
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With a Little Help
For my friends, past, present and future. No man is an island.
A note about typos and other errors
Introduction by Jonathan Coulton
It turns out the future doesn't really care about space travel. It used to, or at least when I was growing up all the science fiction I read promised that space travel would someday be commonplace. That was what made it the future: we would all be so bored with flying to other planets that we wouldn't even really talk about it anymore, it would just become a dull backdrop to our daily lives. There would be aliens, obviously. Probably there would be some sort of intergalactic governing body, maybe a war involving a trade federation, some asteroid mines. At the very least, a mission to Mars. But it doesn't seem to be shaping up that way.
There's always something that science fiction gets charmingly wrong about the future. The problem is, every now and then there's an unanticipated seismic shift in the world, something that changes everything and creates a corner we can't see around. The most recent of these was the potent combination of digital information and global connectivity that transformed the end of the 20th century. I like to call it "The Internet," and mark my words, it's going to be very big. The struggling record industry, the death of the newspaper, the rise of LOLCats - these are just warning shots. Everything is going to get swallowed up eventually, and it's all going to get loud and messy and complicated. Forget space travel, this is the future we need to imagine now, and quickly, before it overtakes us.
Luckily, we have Cory Doctorow; he thinks about the Internet, a lot. And so his stories are especially compelling because they are so relevant to our immediate future. "Pester Power" tells us how the Internet has been watching us and learning, and how will finally, one day, wake up. "Scroogled" warns us of what might happen if Google someday decides that yes, actually, they would like to be evil after all. For a future-lover like me it's easy to get caught up in rosy visions of a world where we're all connected, and everything is free, and our in-brain iPods have every Beatles album with all the correct metadata. Cory's fiction reminds us that we have quite a few thorny issues to sort out before we get there, not least of which is the question of how people like Cory are going to make a living when books and publishing companies disappear. But of course he's thinking about that too.
With a Little Help is an experiment of sorts, an attempt to re-imagine what it means to publish, market and sell a book. It will be self-published, and like all of Cory's books it will be released under a Creative Commons license that allows for non-commercial sharing and remixing. There will be a number of price-points, ranging from free ebook and audiobook downloads, to print-on-demand paperbacks, to hardcover special editions with all sorts of extra goodies. The highest price-point comes with an opportunity to commission a brand new story based on a mutually agreeable premise (hence, "Epoch"). Throughout the process Cory will hold weekly public production meetings on Twitter in an effort to share information about the success or failure of these strategies. The plan combines a lot of different new ideas - audience participation, free culture, long tail economics - and it will test a few hypotheses about what it might mean to be an author in the future. It's a shotgun approach to innovation; as the old business models become quaint antiques from a not-so-distant past, sometimes the best way forward is simply to try a bunch of stuff and see what works.
At least, that was my theory when I finally decided to become a full-time musician. I had spent years avoiding a career in the music business because it seemed impossible. How do people discover you if you're not famous? And how do you get famous if nobody ever discovers you? Then I heard about Creative Commons, a brilliant licensing hack that sits on top of the complicated and antiquated copyright system. It allows creators to specify ahead of time what sorts of uses they'd like to allow for the things they create. For me and for Cory this means allowing people to share our work freely, and to re-use it to create new things. The first time the concept was explained to me I felt as though someone had set my brain on fire - it was the most exciting idea I had ever heard.
In my head, songs became little autonomous vehicles that I could release into the wild, letting them bounce around and find their way to the people who would enjoy them. It was a way to let this new "Internet" thing do all the heavy lifting, an organic and efficient method of targeting an audience of fans who did not yet know they were fans. On top of that, it was a perfect expression of what I had always felt about art, this idea that everything ever created owes its existence to something that came before. To be sure, there is a boundary between inspiration and theft, but it's a thick and mushy one. When we create, we borrow, we build, we steal. Declaring my intentions to allow this sort of thing, indeed to encourage it, made perfect sense. I didn't have it all figured out, but I started licensing my music with Creative Commons that very day. It became the first piece of the puzzle, and it remains an essential component of the mysterious machinery that now allows me to make my living as a musician. It was just one of those ideas that resonated, the buzzing end of a long wire stretching off into the distance, perhaps even around a corner or two.
Speaking of which, it's not unreasonable to ask: as a science fiction author, what is it that Cory is getting wrong about the future? What is the corner that he can't see around? Certainly there's something big coming, and we'll know it once we've gotten past it. But until then, we've got our own rather sharp corner to turn, and we're just now getting a glimpse of some of the possible futures that might be in store for us. Here in the real world, where constant change seems to be the new status quo, he's hedging against what we don't know, not just thinking about the future, but trying to take us there.