Cory Doctorow: A Cosmopolitan Literature for the Cosmopolitan Web

Standing in Melbourne airport on the day before this year’s World Science Fiction convention, I found myself playing the familiar road-game known to all who travel to cons: spot the fan. Sometimes, ‘‘spot the fan’’ is pitched as a pejorative, a bit of fun at fannish expense, a sneer about the fannish BMI, B-O, and general hairiness. But there are plenty of people who are heavyset, and practically everyone debarking an international flight to Melbourne is bound to smell a little funky, and beard-wearing is hardly unique to fandom.

If there is one thing that characterizes fandom for me, it is a kind of cosmopolitanism. Now, we tend to think of ‘‘cosmopolitan’’ as a synonym for ‘‘posh’’ or ‘‘well-travelled.’’  But that’s not what I mean here: for me, to be cosmopolitan is to live your life by the ancient science fictional maxims: ‘‘All laws are local’’ and ‘‘No law knows how local it is.’’ That is, the eternal verities of your culture’s moment in space and time are as fleeting and ridiculous as last year’s witch-burnings, blood-letting, king-worship, and other assorted forms of idolatry and empty ritual.

One of science fiction’s greatest tricks is playing ‘‘vast, cool intelligence’’ and peering through a Martian telescope aimed Earthwards and noticing just how weird and irrational we all are. At its best, science fiction is a literature that can use the safe distance of an alien world or a distant future as a buffer-zone in which all mores can be called into question – think, for example, of Theodore Sturgeon’s story of the planet of enthusiastic incest-practitioners, ‘‘If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?’’ published in Dangerous Visions in 1967.

Behind every torturer’s mask, behind every terrible crusade, behind every book-burning and war-drum is someone who has forgotten (or never learned) that all laws are local. Forgetting that all laws are local is the ultimate in hubris, and it is the province of yokels and bumpkins who assume that just because they do something in a particular way, all right-thinking people always have and always will. For a mild contemporary example, consider the TV executive who blithely asserts that her industry is safe, because no matter what happens in the future, the majority of us will want to come home, flop down on the sofa, and turn on the goggle-box – despite the fact that TV has existed for less than a century, a flashing eyeblink in the long history of hominids, most of whom have gotten by just fine without anesthetizing themselves with a sitcom at the end of a long day.

Which is not to say that cosmopolitans don’t believe in anything. To be cosmopolitan is to know that all laws are local, and to use that intellectual liberty to decide for yourself what moral code you’ll subscribe to. It is the freedom to invent your own ethics from the ground up, knowing that the larger social code you’re rejecting is no more or less right than your own – at least from the point of view of a Martian peering through a notional telescope at us piddling Earthlings.

My high-school roommate, Possum Man, was the very apotheosis of a science fiction cosmopolitan. Educated in the radical (and quite wonderful) Waldorf school system, Possum decided that quantitative grades and credits cheapened the learning process. So even though he took a full roster of courses, he rejected all grades and credits for his (quite excellent) work, and never received a formal diploma despite a long and honorable career in our alternative secondary school.

Possum was willing to reconsider anything and everything from the Martian distance. One day, he noticed that the insides of his knit sweaters were much more interesting than the outsides – busting with tasty asymmetries and pretty loose ends, a topography that was far more complex and chewy than the boringly regular machine-made exterior. From that day forward, he started wearing the sweaters inside out. (Today, he helps coordinate Toronto’s free school, AnarchistU.)

Which brings me back to spot-the-fan. Looking for fans isn’t just about looking for heavyset people, or guys with big beards, or people who are sloppily dressed. Looking for fans is about looking for people who appear to have given a great deal of thought to how they dress and what they’re doing, and who have, in the process of applying all this thought to their daily lives, concluded that they would like to behave differently from the norm. It is about spotting people who are dressed as they are not because of fashion, nor because of aspiration, but because they have decided, quite deliberately, that this is the best thing for them to wear. (Before I go on, let me hasten to add that some fans are simply bad dressers with poor hygiene and grooming – but that’s hardly the exclusive province of fandom or any other subculture).

There’s something comforting about cosmopolitanism, especially if you start off as someone who’s a little bit weird or off-kilter. Cosmopolitanism comforts you with messages like, ‘‘The head cheerleader and the quarterback may rule the school, but they have no more virtue than the peacock with the biggest feathers, the goldfish with the bulgiest eyes, and in most of the cultures that ever existed, they would be thought ugly, stupid and ridiculous.’’ The haughty distance of cosmopolitanism lets you avoid the misery of the daily, earthly reality of being a social pariah – I may be a Martian, but at least I can look down on all of you from Mars and see your absurdity for what it is.

And once you start, it’s hard to stop. Reading Patterson’s recent biography of Robert A Heinlein, Learning Curve, I was struck by how much fringey stuff old RAH dabbled in: telepathy, radical politics, polyamory (or ‘‘companionate marriage,’’ as it was called in his day), nudism, and all manner of funny business, all of which is reflected in his books, and all of which can be summed up with ‘‘all laws are local.’’

That takes me to the Web, and to ‘‘Rule 34’’: ‘‘If it exists, there is porn of it. No exceptions.’’ (Charlie Stross has recently completed a book called Rule 34, which sounds like a hoot). Rule 34 can be thought of as a kind of indictment of the Web as a cesspit of freaks, geeks and weirdos, but seen through the lens of cosmopolitanism, Rule 34 suggests that the Web has given us all the freedom to consider that the rules we bind ourselves by are merely local quirks, and to take the liberty to turn our sweaters inside out, practice exotic forms of vegetarianism, or have sex while wearing giant anthropomorphic animal costumes.

Rule 34 bespeaks a certain sophistication – a gourmet approach to life. As Kevin Kelly points out in his excellent new book, What Technology Wants, a gourmet isn’t someone who shovels everything he can get hold of into his gob; rather, it’s someone who looks long and hard at all the available options and picks the ones he finds best. Kelly’s definition is an important one, because it provides a roadmap to a sophisticated approach to any product or practice; for example, this definition makes the Amish into the world’s greatest technophile, since the avant-garde of Amish hackers try every new technology, evaluate whether it fits well into Amish life, and report back to the wider community who decide whether and how to adopt the tool or service based on what it is likely to do to their lives. While the rest of us are gobbling up new technologies like they were $0.99 Super Big Meals, the Amish are carefully tweezering out the best bits and leaving the rest behind.

Rule 34, the Amish, and fandom’s willingness to wear its sweaters inside-out are the common thread running through the 21st century’s social transformations: we’re finding a life where we reevaluate social norms as we go, tossing out the ones that are empty habit or worse, and enthusiastically adopting the remainder because of what it can do for our lives. That is modern, sophisticated, gourmet cosmopolitanism, and it’s ever so much more fun the old cosmopolitanism obsession with how they’re wearing their cuffs in Paris, or what’s on at the Milan opera.

Cory Doctorow is the author of Walkaway, Little Brother and Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free (among many others); he is the co-owner of Boing Boing, a special consultant to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a visiting professor of Computer Science at the Open University and an MIT Media Lab Research Affiliate.

From the November 2010 issue of Locus Magazine

14 thoughts on “Cory Doctorow: A Cosmopolitan Literature for the Cosmopolitan Web

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  • November 3, 2010 at 4:06 pm

    Yes, all laws are local and to claim otherwise is to lack imagination. But you seem to blur the distinction between social norms and moral imperatives by asserting that “to be cosmopolitan is to…decide for yourself what moral code you’ll subscribe to.” While we are entitled to decide which social norms to keep and which to throw away (e.g. wearing clothes, but wearing them inside out), we are not entitled to calibrate our moral compass in whatever direction we so please. Free perhaps, but not entitled.

    For a pure example that gets the social out of the moral, let’s look at (non-human) animals. Lighting a cat’s tail on fire, or to take a more real and pervasive (but no less disturbing) example, docking the tails of baby pigs without anaesthesia, creates real pain no matter what values the actor and those around her do or do not possess. This isn’t to say that animal suffering is not, in the broadest sense, local – someday we may engineer farm animals (though chances are we’ll be subsisting on in vitro meat long before this happens) that lack sentience and the ability to suffer – but until that day comes we have an ethical relationship that involves real suffering. And this is not some hypothetical: this is everyday, mundane-seeming food choices that essentially dictate the lives of others. And this raises a broader point which is that cosmopolitanism is, to a great extent, hinged on – to invoke a language that may be unnerving to those who prefer to view everything from the martian’s perspective – privilege. That is, some people (and some species) have much more freedom over their moral code and social norms (i.e. those who possess moral agency, those whose safety or survival or financial security does not depend on their abidance to certain social norms, etc). All that aside, I find your thoughts on cosmopolitanism elegant and compelling.

  • November 3, 2010 at 7:54 pm

    You, me and several thousand others have noted this. Most have kept it to themselves, not having a good outlet.

    Rule 34 was noticed by me as something I called the “anthropology lens” used by successful sitcoms. The usual deal is some spin on aliens coming to earth. Alf, coneheads, Mork and Mindy, 3rsd rock etc. They portray us as absurdly as we are and we all laugh. Never fails to work. And lets them touch upon “touchy” subjects like sex, drugs and rock-n-roll.

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  • November 4, 2010 at 10:40 am

    Ironically, some of the strongest (and mututally exclusive) my-way-is-obviously-proper-socialization-and-yours-is-WRONG attitudes I’ve encountered have been from people who still consider themselves fannish. I prefer to think that such folk are not representative.

  • November 6, 2010 at 7:09 am

    Congratulations to Ben Davidow for showing by example that no law knows how local it is: Of course the belief that sentience entitles a being to be free from pain/suffering is also just one of your local laws.

    Cosmopolitanism means understanding that and still allowing it to make it part of your personal “moral compass”, or, to stick with Sturgeon (quoted below), your ethics. There is no separate entity that checks whether you are “entitled” to do so. Have a look at the following quote and identify the actors. There is no third one:

    Morals: Society’s code for individual survival.
    Ethics: An individual’s code for society’s survival.

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  • November 7, 2010 at 6:43 pm

    I had never heard of “all laws are local” until this article, and after a bit of research, I’ve only found Alan Alda as a reference for the saying… which would make it 6 years old, far from “ancestral.” Was it a joke that completely went over my head? Or is there a vast but buried archaeology of the term that fans are keeping secret?

  • November 11, 2010 at 10:38 am

    Someone has to repeat the counterargument against relativism here, and it might as well be me. All laws are local, including this one. Extreme relativism contradicts itself. A willingness to consider the possibility that a particular law is local, or to consider how far it might extend, or its potential exceptions, is admirable; a blanket assertion of universal relativism is not.

  • November 12, 2010 at 1:34 am

    I’m a fan, but day-to-day I look totally unimpressive. My clothes don’t talk about me at all. Well – all laws are local so the ones Cory talks about are too. (I’d make an exception for laws or physics, so RAH experiments with telepathy don’t really contribute to his “new cosmopolitan” image).
    An aside, but important one – for more perspective on the Waldorf education, please look here:
    While it looks really nice at first, it’s founded on totally barmy ideas. It’s a religious school that doesn’t admit it for fear it will scare pupils away.

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  • November 12, 2010 at 2:09 pm

    I’m not sure but if I read this right, it seems like the basic message is “hey good news people who think of ourselves as weirdos, we’re better than them” which has a certain kind of appeal and is probably how I made it through junior high with my sense of self intact, but this law also is local.

    What if. What if there were mainstream values that were better than the weird ones? What if there were ways that the cheerleaders and jocks (note the sexist assumption of that pairing, which Doctorow wields) were smarter than us (where “us” is whatever value of nerd and subculture you identified yourself as being.

    I don’t remember where but I remember reading that pretty much everyone thinks of high school as being a place that was full of cliques but thinks as themselves as someone who kind of floated between them without really belonging to any one in particular.

    I have some friends that I like to visit. They would be targets for Doctorow’s spot the fan game. They are very deliberate about being weird. They go ON AND ON about how unusual they are. Their world is very clearly divided into normals and them. They take great pleasure in catching a normal thinking or knowing about weird things.

    Some of them are trapped by this. They are just as trapped and it can be just as stifling as in the mainstream world they proudly sought to escape. There are lots of things that they are too smart for (which is equivalent in every way to jocks being too cool for things). They look down at the wrong kind of fan or the wrong kind of fandom. They can be self-satisfied to the point of nausea. It’s an atmosphere that makes some people feel very, very unwelcome.

    The kind of people Cory celebrates here will always be my people. I will always have a soft spot for them, especially for the younger ones, constructing shells to keep the hateful, hateful world out. But there comes a point of growing, a point where you can look back at your own Martian’s distance from a Martian’s distance and you recognize that there too, there were empty habits or worse.

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