Our study in “Writing the Future” revolved around Utopian and anti-Utopian science fiction from the second half of the twentieth century: Star Trek, The Dispossessed, Dollhouse, and Cory Doctorow’s 2003 novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Cory generously agreed to conduct an interview with the class on his book and his perspective on Utopia, which due to timezone pressures and volcanic eruptions was accomplished via a conversation he and I had over the telephone. With a couple of small exceptions, marked “GC” below, all of the questions were proposed and organized by the students in the course.

W20: What did this novel mean to you when you first wrote it, and how has the meaning changed in the seven years since? How might the novel be different if you wrote it today?

CD: That’s a really tough question to answer—not specifically because of the change in circumstances, but because of the change in the writer over time. The more time you spend writing, the more different your approach to the work is. That was the first novel I ever finished—it’s fundamentally different to write a book when you know you can finish a book than to write a book when you don’t know if you can a finish a book—and I actually think those differences would swamp any differences that arose from circumstances or politics or new wisdom or whatever. Just the idea of writing a book, when you know you can write a book, completely overpowers any of the other changes.

I don’t know if that makes sense. It probably doesn’t answer your question very well.

One of the things I realized in the course of writing the book, and that I think a lot of people miss when they read the book, is that Whuffie has one of the fundamental problems that accrues to money or property, which is that the more you have the easier it is to get more. That’s a pretty a pretty enormous gap in the Utopian character of Whuffie. A properly Utopian system is one in which you have something that’s a lot like merit, not like circumstance—where people are rewarded based on how great they are, not based how great they used to be. And I think Whuffie is primarily one of those systems that rewards you for having gotten lucky or doing something good some time ago, and then continues to reward you for that forever at the expense of other people.

I think Whuffie would follow a power-law distribution, just like in-bound links to blogs, for exactly the same reason.

W20: We talked a little bit about this, and it leads to the second question, whether or not large corporations are starting to create a system that’s sort of like Whuffie, but at the same time proprietary. We were thinking of Google, YouTube, Facebook especially, but even something like LinkedIn—isn’t this something like Whuffie that’s starting to materialize? Blog linkage would be the same sort of thing, facing the same sorts of problems you’ve just been talking about.

CD: I based Whuffie at the time more on Slashdot’s Karma, and I don’t know that Faceook has an exact analogue to it. I guess Facebook has this thing where you can see who has the most inbound links, who has the most friends, and you can “digg” up yourself by getting more of those.

I think that in general we have a pathological response to anything we measure. We tend not to measure the thing we care about; we tend to measure something that indicates its presence. It’s often very hard to measure the thing that you’re hoping for. You don’t actually care about how calories you eat; you care about how much weight you’re going to gain from the calories you eat. But as soon as we go, oh, well, calories are a pretty good proxy for weight gain, we start to come up with these foods that are incredibly unhealthy but nevertheless have very few calories in them. In the same way, Google doesn’t really care about inbound links because inbound links are good per se; Google cares about inbound links because inbound links are a good proxy for “someone likes this page; someone thinks this page is a useful place to be, is a good place to be.” But as soon as Google starts counting that, people start finding ways to make links that don’t actually serve as a proxy for that conclusion at all.

GDP is another good example. We don’t care about GDP because GDP itself is good; we care about GDP because the basket of indicators that we measure with GDP are a proxy for the overall health of the society—except as soon as you start measuring GDP, people figure out how to make the GDP go up by doing things like trading derivatives of derivates of subprime subderivates of derivatives, but which actually does the reverse of what we care about by undermining the quality of life and the stability of society.

So I think that one of the biggest problems that Google has, taking Google as probably the best example of someone trying to build a reputation currency, is that as soon as Google gives you any insight into how they are building their reputation system it ceases to be very good as a reputation system. As soon as Google stops measuring something you created by accident and starts measuring something you created on purpose, it stops being something that they want to measure. And this is joined by the twin problem that what Google fundamentally has is a security problem; they have hackers who are trying to undermine the integrity of the system. And the natural response to a problem that arises when attackers know how your system works is to try to keep the details of your system secret—but keeping the details of Google’s system secret is also not very good because it means that we don’t have any reason to trust it. All we know when we search Google is that we get a result that seems like a good result; but we don’t know that there isn’t a much better result that Google has either deliberately or accidentally excluded from its listings for reasons that are attributable to either malice or incompetence. So they’re really trapped between a rock and a hard place: if they publish how their system works, people will game their system; if they don’t publish how their system works it becomes less useful and trustworthy and good. It suffers from the problem of alchemy; if alchemists don’t tell people what they learned, then every alchemist needs to discover for themselves that drinking mercury is a bad idea, and alchemy stagnates. When you start to publishing, you get science—but Google can’t publish or they’ll also get more attacks.

So it’s a really thorny, thorny problem, and I elide that problem with Whuffie by imagining a completely undescribed science fictional system that can disambiguate every object in the universe so when you look at something and have a response to it the system knows that the response is being driven by the color of the car but not by the car, or the shirt but not the person wearing it, or the person wearing it and not the shirt, and also know how you feel about it. So it can know what you’re feeling and what you’re feeling it about. And I don’t actually think we have a computer that could that; I don’t think we have Supreme Court judges or Ph.D. philosophers that can do that.

GC: That’s sort of a fantastic self-criticism, actually—you’re exposing what’s so great about Whuffie and what’s so impossible about it all at once.

CD: Sure, and that’s why I think Whuffie feeds the fantasy of a meritocratic society. There’s something particularly self-serving about people who are doing very well imagining that society is meritocratic: it means that the reason you are doing so well is because you have merit, not because you were lucky or because you screwed someone else. So I’m always suspicious of people who are doing extremely well telling you how meritocratic society their society is. I’m also somewhat suspicious of people doing very poorly who tell you how meritocratic society is, because I think that’s often aspirational: they’ve basically bought the story that if only they work hard and are good and pure of heart they’ll catch up to the people who have been rich for a hundred generations. So I think the idea of meritocracy is a really tricky one because the embrace of meritocracy is seductive for reasons that transcend logic.

GC: I don’t know if I’ll include this in the interview, to embarrass my students or not, but this is something that actually comes up a lot in Duke classes. Duke students very much believe in meritocracy because they’re the winners of the system.

CD: Yeah, sure. I think we have a problem in that we end up with this tautological definition of merit in a meritocracy. How do we know what’s meritorious? It’s the thing that’s on top. You have this very Milton Friedman way of measuring accomplishment: you come up with some self-serving thing that makes you better, and declare whatever outcome you have as the best possible one. And I think that’s pretty nakedly not a great way of apportioning social resources or measuring the quality of life.

W20: Let me switch gears to the next question, which is kind of a shadow version of the last one. We talked a little bit about smartphones, and about closely they seem to match the things you describe in the book as the start of the Bitchun society, these little handheld devices. So on the one hand we have the question of whether or not it can still be Bitchun if it’s run by corporations, if they’re provided not by these collectives but by Apple. And then, as a secondary question, to what extent was this novel your personal prediction for society’s future, and what did you not predict that you wish you had?

I’ve never really done anything predictive in my life. I always say that I try to predict the present. Which is to say that you take those elements that seem futuristic that are kind of floating around in the present, but because they’ve snuck up on us so gradually, because we were boiled frog-style so gently in them that we end up not even noticing that they’re there.

My friend Jim Griffin always says that anything invented before you’re 20 was there forever; anything invented before you’re 30 is the coolest thing ever; and anything invented after that should be illegal. And I think one great way that a science fiction writer can help overcome that, or call attention to that, is to have a look at what’s around you and the stuff that feels futuristic and just write about it as if it hadn’t been invented yet, as if it were something you were making up for a science fiction story. And so everyone goes, “Wow, look at that, it’s this incredibly futuristic thing that we have right here about to happen”—and then they look around again and say “Oh my god, it’s happened!”, even though it was there before you started.

So I guess the best example of this was a presentation I once heard someone give on gold-farming at a games conference about five years ago. And then I wrote a short story “predicting” there would be gold-farming in the future. And people who discovered the story first and then read the article, or read more articles as the phenomenon increased—there’s now 400,000 people who earn their living goldfarming—assume that I predicted it. And really what I’d done is written about something in the present as though it were being invented in the future.

I didn’t answer the part about whether smart phones can be Bitchun. And no, I don’t think so—I think the problem with smartphones is not necessarily that they’re run by corporations but the specific corporations that run them. Phone companies are basically a regulatory monopoly wrapped around a soft chewy core of greed and venality. The phone companies have always disguised a complete aversion to change, progress, and democracy by wrapping it up in high-minded talk about how they’re guardians our natural infrastructure. There’s a famous case called Hush-a-Phone in which finally customers won the right to attach a Privacy Cone—like the cone you put around your dog’s head when it has stitches—to the receiver of your phone. Because up until then Bell argued that connecting anything to a phone endangered the network, including, you know, putting stickers on it. And you see this today. Why can’t you get an open phone that you could run any software on? Oh, you could crash the network.

So I think the specifically the fact that cells are run by phone companies and then also run by control-freak companies like Apple that have decided that you shouldn’t be allowed to decide what software you want to run. And Apple has made this unholy alliance with the music industry, who are also great believers that you shouldn’t be able to inspect the workings of your device, and that you shouldn’t be able to use protocols anonymously, and so on. That unholy trinity of the entertainment industry, Apple, and the phone companies means you’ll never get anything remotely great out of mobile phones until someone breaks the deadlock.

W20: What about that last part, what did you not predict that you wish you had? I guess this doesn’t make sense as a question because you don’t predict anything.

You know, in terms of staying power, there are a few things that I predicted would still be in Disney World that have just shut down. The Adventurer’s Club, which I still think is the best Disney has ever done, is now shut. But I guess I could say that in my future they’re reopened it; I could fix that by adding a sentence that says, “The first thing they did was reopen the Adventurer’s Club,” and we’d be back in business.

GC: We were surprised to check your archives and find out that you’d liked the Johnny Deppification of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Given your characters, we thought you might have wanted it to stay the same.

I really like that. In fact we rode it last week, as we’re stuck in L.A. The new Lincoln Bot is good too; The new Lincoln Bot is awesome, actually: he’s lip-synching, he’s gesturing. The last Lincoln Bot, he was really, um—what they did is go back and research all of his historical gestures, and they put every single into his 90-second speech. They’d made it look like he had Tourette’s.

W20: I’m going to skip a question because we’re now talking about Disney World. They were really interested in why it was you set the novel in Disney World, how it fed into the plot or the themes of the novel. They were wondering if Disney World came first, or did it fit into the idea you had for the story line?

CD: No, it was definitely that Disney came first. I’d always wanted to write a book about Disney World. It’s always inspired me, going to Disney World. I find it inspiring as a piece of art and a piece of social engineering. And inspiring not in the entirely good sense, but inspiring in the sense that every time I go there I have a bunch of thoughts. It really gets both my creative and critical juices flowing, to go to DIsney World. I’m not the only one; if you read Baudrillard, he spent all this time there too.

It definitely started with Disney, and to be totally frank one of the cool things about writing a book set in Disney World is that it makes your Disney trips tax-deductible. Which is sort of an interesting, science fictiony thing: anything you choose to write a book about becomes tax-deductible. There’s a reason why Iain Banks took a year off from writing thrillers to write a book about whiskey; his whiskey became tax deductible for a year!

Disney has always had a love-hate relationship, or at least an ambivalent relationship, with audience participation. And with remix, obviously, which is ironic given all the ways Disney has borrowed from the culture before it to make new and I think very good cultural artifacts, by and large.

The Mickey Mouse Club, in the early days, actually met and made Mickey stuff, and did their own Mickey activities. There’s always been this aspect of, you know, take Mickey and make him part of your world—make your Disney memories classic memories of your life that stick with you forever. All that stuff has always been part of Disney’s DNA. At the same time they’re very proprietary: that shalt not copy, we own all rights in all media now known and yet to be invented throughout the universe, and so own. There’s also some of that.

But when you go to Disney World, what you find is that Disney’s implicit and sometimes explicit social contract with its visitors is that you are a resident of Disney World while you’re here. This is your place too. I once did one of the Disney management courses at the Disney Institute, and one of the things they said is that after a couple of days in Disney World people who are staying there start picking up trash when they see it.

So they want to form a social contract with says that you and we are in this together—which I think is one of the reasons Disney doesn’t go after people who put entire ride-throughs of their rides on YouTube, or why by and large they don’t stop you from taking photos even of the photo ops where they sell you the photo. There’s never a time when they tell you to put away your camera because you’re “on stage”; you can always have your camera out, you can always be shooting. And that’s because it’s your place too; you’re supposed to be making memories and taking them home because that’s where they’re getting their value from.

And yet they’re not completely into this; there’s a place at which the social contract breaks down and becomes a commercial relationship again. And I think it’s pretty natural that fans of Disney World, who’ve been told for generations to form a social contract with Disney where they treat it as their own place, and also become not just guests but custodians of it, start to act like custodians of it.

There’s a great book by Greg Egan called Quarantine—it’s his first novel. In it, there’s a conspiracy of kind of bad guys, and one of the things they do to anyone who is on their trail is put a chip in their brain that makes them absolutely loyal to the conspiracy: they can’t betray the conspiracy, they’re neurologically incapable of betraying the conspiracy. And the way that they get out of it is really clever: what they do is have this mental game in which they say, “Only people who have this chip can be truly loyal to the conspiracy. Therefore the people who put the chips in our head aren’t members of the true conspiracy. They’re members of a false conspiracy because they can choose to betray the conspiracy and we can’t. Therefore it is our duty as members of the true conspiracy to betray the people who put the chip in our heads that make us loyal to them.”

I always thought that was a really interesting little bit here, to say: Who are you to say that you’re the true keeper of the flame? Maybe I’m the true keeper of the flame. You’re just a corporation who’s in it to make as much money as you can from these assets. And maybe that converges sometimes with being the best custodian, and maybe sometimes it doesn’t; maybe sometimes you’ll go off and chase the quarterly profits at the expense of long-term value. Meanwhile,I have no commercial interest in it – therefore I’m a better custodian than you, I should have more say in it that you do. And I think that relationship beats in the heart of big Disney fans, the people you see who know the park like the back of their hand.

W20: So then my follow-up question about whether Disney is a utopia or an anti-utopia has again already been answered in the sense that it’s both, right—that it has these utopian qualities and then these other kinds of countervailing qualities that push against it.

CD: Yeah, that’s right.

W20: So, then, two more questions. The first one—we’ve had a lot of talk about ecology and the environment in our course, and we got a little hung up on what you meant by Free Energy, whether this was something you were imagining seriously as a post-scarcity economics or if it was just something that was some magical thing.

CD: This is Free Energy in the kind of crank sense—zero point energy, cold fusion, perpetual motion machines. The perpetual motion machine has been a feature of Utopianism since Newton I guess. It’s science fiction shorthand, I think, for all of the above—an entropy reversing ray, another universe from which you can siphon off energy, whatever it is. You know, theoretically, fusion, if we ever get, fusion becomes more or less free energy. Not even cold fusion; moderate temperature fusion is more or less free energy forever, because it turns water into electricity.

W20: I think the feeling of the students who asked this question really had to do whether or not this was like the short-circuiting you were talking about with regard to Whuffie—that you kind of skip over the post-scarcity engine that makes this thing work, and that without something like Free Energy (which may or may not actually be possible, probably not) we could never actually get to the Bitchun Society because we’d constantly be falling back in to the scarcity wars, constantly falling back into exploitation.

CD: I don’t know that scarcity is necessarily what drives exploitation. I think abundance can drive exploitation too. The record industry certainly responded to a death of scarcity in its core product as a social evil. I don’t know that abundance is necessarily the necessary precondition.

But this is more like the physicist who sits down at the start of the Gedankenexperiment: let us assume a perfectly spherical cow of uniform density. Every Gedankenexperiment necessarily elides certain details, because that’s not what the experiment is about. The thought experiment is not about how we would get infinite energy, the thought experiment is about what we would do if scarcity vanished. There’s a different thought experiment about how we could get infinite energy; Damon Knight wrote a book called A for Anything that’s very good about that. A very cynical book, I think, but very good. And so there’s a lot of different variations on that theme.

W20. Last question and then I’ll let you go. Thanks for doing this. This was about whether you want to live in the Bitchun Society personally: Would you deadhead, erase memories, flashbake, use backups? What wouldn’t you do? Basically the question is: is the Bitchun Society Cory Doctorow’s Utopia?

I would definitely backup; I would probably flashbake; I don’t think I would deadhead though it’s hard to say what you’d do after 100 or 1,000 or 10,000 years. Nobody really knows the answer to that question. And I think that by and large the Bitchun Society would be better than the one we have now; I don’t know that it’s Utopia. But one of the advantages of the Bitchun Society as opposed to other Utopias is that it doesn’t require a tabula rasa as an interim step.

I think Utopianism has genocide lurking in its bowels; I think a lot of Utopians are saying, “First we eradicate all the systems that are present. We settle all the grievances, we wipe the slate clean, we level the earth, we pave everything, and then we start from go.” The Bitchun Society doesn’t require that at all; it does have a lot of social upheaval in it, but it doesn’t begin “First what we do is kill anyone who has a beef with anyone else in the Middle East, and then we settle up with whoever is left.” That’s a bad solution.



13 Responses to “Trying to Predict the Present: An Interview with Cory Doctorow”

  1.   heb7 Says:

    “And really what I’d done is written about something in the present as though it were being invented in the future.”

    This interview was fascinating and for me, both cleared up some confusion surrounding the novel and left a few concepts more open-ended. The quotation above is significant, most of our course discussions were framed as if Doctorow did indeed attempt to predict the future. Looking back to when the novel was written, however, the events and rather symbolic technologies in the Bitchun society could definitely be seen as a reflection and attempt to assimilate and understand the immense technological improvement in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

    I also did not realize Disney had created a new Lincoln Bot, but am interested in the Disney conflict between participation, ownership, and the experience. I only stayed in the Magic Kingdom for a day but can attest to the fact that the workers strive to make you feel at home. Everyone was pleasant and accommodating and I am positive that a few days “residence” in the place would indeed leave one feeling as if they belong and had a duty to keep “their” park clean and free from filth.

    I still would have liked to know more about the “moral” implications of dead-heading. In the Bitchun society; do y’all think you would lose quite a bit of your own personal self with each back-up? Does the opportunity to create a new self (a lack of scarcity) lower the overall quality of life as people learn not to value their livelihood. Virgil once said that “The greatest wealth is health;” in a world of back-ups, would people prefer accruing Whuffie to appreciating their lives and ultimate wellness?

    Finally, I would like to speak of my own experience with Duke meritocracy. Duke University actually trampled my faith in the meritocracy (particularly in some of my more difficult courses). Please do not misunderstand me; I love ol’ Duke; the majority of my experiences have been pleasant, but hard work does not always “pay off” like it seems to in my small hometown (at least based on high school and summer work experiences). I do not feel like a winner of meritocracy, even if I did manage to be accepted at Duke, because no matter how hard I work at this University, there is always somebody more intelligent, someone that is able to work harder, someone that actually deserves to really succeed and perform more proficiently than me. In high school, if I put in the effort, I did indeed reap the benefits, but here, hard work just doesn’t always pay off in the manner that I am accustomed to. I apologize for the rant, but what do you all think about the merit system here? Do your positive thoughts, work ethic, and hours upon hours studying always pay off?

  2.   Susan Says:

    “One of the things I realized in the course of writing the book [...] is that Whuffie has one of the fundamental problems that accrues to money or property, which is that the more you have the easier it is to get more.”

    This is indeed something that I missed when I read the book, and I’m not sure but I think our class in general missed it too. I had taken for granted that Whuffie is a more fair method of measuring success, since it doesn’t carry with it all the implications that money and the capitalist system does (with bribery and increasingly stratified social classes), but this is a good point. Now that I think about it, when Jules has no Whuffie left, everyone else treats him the same way that contemporary people would treat a homeless person, and Dan’s willingness to help Jules is similar to someone rich doing charity work (Jules tells himself that he knows Dan is just being nice to him, and Dan has enough Whuffie to never have to worry about his reputation). I think it’s interesting that we never measure the thing itself but indicators of the presence of that thing. I’ll have to keep that in mind!

  3.   Hunter Says:

    Obviously a very switched on, big-picture guy. Thank you so much for doing this interview.

    The thought that the more Whuffie one has, the easier it is to get did occur to me, or at least didn’t seem surprising when Cory mentioned that in the interview. I am very appreciative of the fact that he is aware of the potential for any sort of currency to be abused and the system to be manipulated for one’s personal accruement of currency. He certainly articulated this in a way I hadn’t thought of before. The flipside of that, however, is that the abuse of Whuffie may not be such a bad thing, as we see Tim (the elfy guy) giving piggy-backs to kids in China to boost his (business’s) Whuffie. Then again, this raises the question of whether disingenuous good deeds are good deeds at all.

    I certainly feel like I’ve been dealt a good hand in the game of life, and have, over the past few years been increasingly aware of how fortunate I really am. To that end, my political views have been reasonably conservative, and I suppose you could say that I have been a believer in meritocracy. Am I still? Not at all to the same extent. Do I believe meritocracy is a noble ambition? Yes. I believe that meritocracy is present to some extent, but far from achieved. Where I am now is due in part to my hard work, but much more so due to the hard work of my parents. Mostly it’s due to the fact that I was lucky enough to be born into a free and peaceful country with a good public school system (New Zealand). I now recognise that my responsibility is not to declare that it is my hard work that has got me here, but to work hard to give others the opportunity to get here. Yes I’m a winner of the system, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to change the system.

    I liked Cory’s explanation of how Disneyland was the starting point for the novel. The interesting mix of public and private “ownership” was something I hadn’t thought about before. In my opinion it probably stems from the entire corporation being the baby of a single guy. It’s a lot easier to have contradictions and to maintain a balance when you’ve got just one person controlling the company’s vision. I feel like a person of contradictions who somehow keeps a balance.

    I think Le Guin does a good job of negating abundance as a necessary condition for utopia.

    Finally, despite everything we’ve talked about in this class, I still wouldn’t want to live in the Bitchun society. Speaking of which, any clarification on why it is so called? Just a joke? I forgot to ask that. Backing up is just too creepy a notion for me. I’d probably do it if I was born into that society, but given the choice today I would not. If I had a gun pointed at my chest, I guess I would. Maybe my assertion that I wouldn’t want to extend or enhance my life goes back to my propitious position in life generally. Maybe it’s an arrogant thing to say I wouldn’t want to back up?

  4.   Cedric Says:

    I agree with Susan here. I totally missed the concept that Cory Doctorow meant for Whuffie. I still think it more resembled a modern day Facebook or Myspace. Whuffie, I thought, was better was of seeing people’s ranks in society. Respect should matter more than money. In this novel, money is no longer an issue; respect is all that matters. Whuffie gives the society a way to tell who is trying and who isn’t. Why would some want to rely on someone else with a low Whuffie? This low Whuffie means the person is, for some reason, disconnected from society at the moment. We saw in the book that it is pretty easy to lose all of your Whuffie. Whuffie is an equivalent for money. You can lose money really fast if you gamble it wrong. You can do this as well with Whuffie. I understand why Cory Doctorow said that once you have a lot of money (Whuffie) it is easier to get more, but I don’t think I exactly agree with it. The statement might be true, but there are definitely time in his novel that he shows that Whuffie can be lost rather quickly.

  5.   sch30 Says:

    Thank you so much for doing this interview! It definitely brought some closure to the various questions I had after finishing the novel.

    In reaction to Cory Doctorow’s last comment on utopias, it definitely got me thinking of what exactly constitutes a utopian society. Since our final papers revolve around the idea of a utopia, I found it interesting that for the most part the statement about genocide – be it of a government, institutional system, or way of life – seems relevant to the creation of a utopian society. Not to say that’s true for all cases, but it’s a provocative observation to make. However, Cory also stated that performing a tabula rasa doesn’t always bring a utopia; the hypothetical genocide he presented is a great example of a horrific tabula rasa. His Bitchun Society didn’t necessarily “eradicate” any previous condition of the state but presented a new form of technology that prohibited mortality in society, so in that way he suggests that Bitchun Society isn’t quite Utopian.

  6.   Jared Says:

    To both Cory Doctorow and Gerry Canavan, thank you for doing this interview. Cory’s point about measuring proxies really struck home with me. It is far too easy, possibly even inevitable, that we forget what we really care about when we try to measure it. All the time we see food marked “low calorie” or “low fat,” and while these statements are technically true, much of the time they do not make the food any more healthy. Companies producing the food (if we can even call some of it food anymore) have learned how to game the system and make cheap food products that are “good” by some standard of measurement, which we unfortunately use as a proxy for how healthy the food is. Case in point: high fructose corn syrup is marketed as nutritionally the same as sugar, though research suggests it is not (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/03/100322121115.htm).

    Cory’s pointing out the “tautological definition of merit in a meritocracy” was also enlightening. However, I would go a bit further; I wonder if we are truly winners of this system. I’m not trying to say I don’t think Duke is great, but I do wonder if it is that much better than any other school could have been for a lower price. We believe ourselves to be winners of this meritocratic system, but the definition of winning also seems tautological here: we believe we are winners here because we are told that getting into Duke means you are a winner, not necessarily because Duke is the best school (not that I am saying it isn’t).

  7.   Trying to Predict the Present: An Interview with Cory Doctorow « Gerry Canavan Says:

    [...] coursework this semester my Writing 20 class recently did a group interview with Cory Doctorow, which can be found at the course blog here. It came out, if I may so myself, pretty well; they asked really good questions, and Cory gave [...]

  8.   Cory Doctorow’s craphound.com >> Blog Archive » Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom: Utopianism and the problems with Whuffie Says:

    [...] Gerry Canavan in teaching my novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom in a class on utopias and he conducted an interview with me on the subject for the course: CD: I based Whuffie at the time more on Slashdot’s Karma, and I don’t know that Faceook has [...]

  9.   Down and Out In the Magic Kingdom >> Blog Archive » Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom: Utopianism and the problems with Whuffie Says:

    [...] Gerry Canavan is teaching my novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom in a class on utopias and he conducted an interview with me on the subject for the course: CD: I based Whuffie at the time more on Slashdot’s Karma, and I don’t know that Faceook has [...]

  10.   Up Too Early Central Timezone Blues « Gerry Canavan Says:

    [...] It turns out the measurement fallacy Cory Doctorow was speaking about in my class’s interview with him has a name: Goodhart’s [...]

  11.   Felix Pleșoianu Says:

    @heb7 You wrote:

    “Duke University actually trampled my faith in the meritocracy (…) I do not feel like a winner of meritocracy, (…) because no matter how hard I work at this University, there is always somebody more intelligent, someone that is able to work harder, someone that actually deserves to really succeed and perform more proficiently than me.”

    Uh, no offence, but you seem to be describing a meritocracy that actually works. How did that trampled your faith in meritocracy? Because you’re not at the top? It sounds like what you don’t really believe in meritocracy in the first place, but just want to be at the top because… um, er… don’t we all?

    Incidentally, we do have a world-wide meritocracy that actually works… mostly (with the problems mentioned in the interview, but hey, that’s the network effect for you). It’s the world of open source software development, and you know how much controversy it stirs. A lot of people *cough* managers *cough* marketers *cough* *cough* can’t seem to wrap their heads around an environment where there’s an objective, impossible-to-game measure of good work. That might explain why the society at large isn’t a meritocratic utopia yet: because people know that in such a society, if they ended up at the bottom, they couldn’t complain about it.

  12.   Felix Pleșoianu Says:

    @sch30 Isn’t that the whole point of the book? That the Bitchun Society, though utopian from our perspective, is far from perfect? Well, of course; perfection is unattainable, pretty much by definition.

    As for trying to create an utopian society by force, there’s a very good treatment of that in Bernard Weber’s novel _The Ants_. Each chapter starts with a (presumably real) case study of someone or other’s attempt to create an utopian society. Interestingly enough, all these attempts boiled down to the same scenario: gather up a few people, lock them up in an isolated compound and force them to live by an artificial set of rules with no grounding in reality. The result? A bloodshed in a few months at most. In. Every. Single. Case.

    And how are you going to create a perfect society? Egalitarianism doesn’t work, simply because things aren’t equal, let alone people. And if there’s going to be an hierarchy, someone’s going to end up at the bottom… and they’re not going to like it at all, even if they fully deserve to be there. So no matter what you do, not everyone is going to get what they want. No matter how much there is of everything.

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