⚡ New Event: Attack Surface ft. Cory Doctorow

Author-advocate Cory Doctorow talks sci-fi and ethical tech work

Most of the books Reboot highlights are nonfiction: full of case studies and heady analysis. But over the last couple years, I've grown to value storytelling more—as not just offering emotional exhilaration (Normal People, The Poppy War), but also as a vehicle for understanding (shoutout to Ken Liu specifically).

That's why our upcoming event with prolific sci-fi writer and advocate Cory Doctorow is a perfect complement to last week's interview with Theresa Gao, an engineer and activist who kicked off the student #NoTechForICE movement. I hope you'll read these pieces in tandem and find the format that resonates with you.

📖 attack surface by cory doctorow

Cory Doctorow is a science fiction author, journalist, blogger, and digital rights advocate. His latest novel, Attack Surface, follows a programmer for a surveillance company who assuages her conscience by helping dissidents evade detection. When the tools she’s designed are used to target old friends, she’s forced to choose where her allegiances lie.

Attack Surface tells the story of a tech worker confronting the ethics of her work, and it asks its readers to do the same. Join us for an open Q&A on the role of sci-fi in ethical tech!

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🔊 our take: sci-fi is about you, too

By Ben Wolfson

Cory Doctorow is a blogger, journalist, and author, but maybe most importantly, he’s an activist—and he wants you to be one too.

His latest book Attack Surface is a standalone sequel to Little Brother (2008) and Homeland (2013); all three involve attempts by the Department of Homeland Security and private security contractors to attack the bill of rights, infringe on privacy, and set up a surveillance state. All three also feature climactic, heroic mass protest in response. Attack Surface digs into the moral quandaries of main character Masha Maximow as she’s pulled between her job building weapons and surveillance tech for a cybersecurity firm and her allegiances to her friends protesting against their use.

I don’t know where in the writing process Doctorow was when unidentified DHS agents escalated peaceful protest this summer and began snatching protestors into unmarked cars, but if he was writing about the future, we’ve already caught up. More recently, Google engineers began unionizing, and computer science students are increasingly selective about where they're willing to work (see our interview with one of the founding members of #NoTechforICE last week). There are still many tech workers like Masha creating products for state violence, but Attack Surface makes it easy to understand how one might find themselves in this position, and easy to understand how one might rationalize away their responsibility.

So what role should sci-fi play in a world that already feels like fiction? This is a common problem faced by speculative authors. Write about a future too close to the present, and the present is liable to catch up. Speculate more pessimistically, and stories can feel like self-fulfilling prophecies, generating panic instead of advocacy.

In an essay on "The Dangers of Cynical Sci-Fi" published alongside Attack Surface, Doctorow describes stories as “ways for us to mentally rehearse our response to different social outcomes." The entertainment we consume shapes our assumptions about social change, human nature, and morality itself. If the standard sci-fi dystopia demonstrates a fundamental pessimism about our world, readers are primed into expecting the worst from other people. But Doctorow argues that this is inaccurate: "we are a species of self-rescuing princesses—characters who save one another in crisis, rather than turning on ourselves."

Therefore, Attack Surface refuses to be either a utopian dream or a dystopian nightmare. It's a portrayal of realistic human struggle that shows that most people are good faith actors entwined in bad systems. By telling a compelling story about an all-too-common moral dilemma, Doctorow challenges us to see themselves in characters like Masha and reflect on the movements and worlds we can build.

🌀 microdoses

  • 😯 Cory Doctorow is out here ruining students' lives:

💝 a closing note

Taking a page out of Cory Doctorow's book (literally), I asked the team what's making them feel more optimistic these days:

  • Jasmine: Corny answer, but doing interviews for the Reboot Fellowship made me feel so excited about all the wonderful young people working to make tech better!

  • Jessica: Earlier sunrises and later sunsets, aka longer days :~)

  • Ben: Knowing there are many people/organizations working to make the world better that I don't know about/don't get media attention. And also Stacey Abrams.

  • Jordan: Not reading or watching the news.

  • Jihad: Lots of time spent with family and learning that despite all of the world’s problems, I can still find a nice routine that helps me get through the day.

Have a great day,

—Jasmine & Reboot team