Commentary: Cory Doctorow: The Swivel-Eyed Loons Have a Point

Cory Doctorow
Photo by Paula Mariel Salischiker

One of the more baffling events of the first quarter of 2023 was the mass protest in Oxford (England, not Mississippi) against the “15-minute city pledge,” a movement to get city councils to strive for cities where each neighborhood is a walkable place, with most amenities (groceries, schools, health care, employers, leisure activities) located within a pleasant 15-minute walk from your door.

The 15-minute city is an extremely inoffensive and commonsense idea, and moreover, Oxford is basically already a 15-minute city, because it is a medieval city, with a streetplan to match, anchored around a massive university campus (university campuses everywhere are pretty much all 15-minute cities).

So it’s weird that a bunch of people showed up to protest it, chanting slogans and waving signs decrying the World Economic Forum, the Great Reset, imaginary “climate lockdowns,” and “eating bugs.”

In America, this is called “the paranoid style in Ameri­can politics.” In the UK, they have a far more colorful epithet: “swivel-eyed loons.”

Here’s the thing: the swivel-eyed loons have a point.

Oh, not about 15-minute cities! The 15-minute city is a perfectly pleasant idea that mostly requires adding a few bus lanes, loosening single-use zoning restrictions, and sprinkling some bike-locking pillars in strategic locations.

The organizers of the Oxford protests conflated the 15-minute city plan with another plan to restrict cars in the city center. Again, this is a perfectly good idea – Oxford is a medieval city, designed for pedestrians and horses, and anyone who’s driven through town during rush hour has seen its transformation into the kind of traffic jam Hieronymus Bosch might have painted on a particularly grim day.

The beleaguered municipal councillors behind this plan are at pains to point out that the car restrictions won’t involve building walls or check­points (so please, please stop bombarding us with death threats!). Rather, the restrictions will be enforced with automated license-plate recorders (ALPRs) that will log every car passing through the city, cross-reference it with the owner’s identity, log it, and issue fines if warranted.

The swivel-eyed loons at the anti-15-minute-city protests point out that such a scheme constitutes a form of pervasive location-tracking surveil­lance, and that this surveillance could be leveraged to attack disfavored minorities. They’re not wrong. Just look at London, where a (again, perfectly sensible) system of “congestion charging” and “low-emissions zones” has made serious progress in improving the air quality, reducing traffic, and improving journey times for public transit.

London also uses ALPRs to enforce its traffic restrictions, and pairs this with a massive public/private network of street cameras aimed at pedestrians, backstopped by a public transit system whose Oyster payment cards are virtually impossible to use anonymously.

The thing is, the UK government has a long history of abusing this kind of power. The Metropolitan London police ran a 40-year covert operation to infiltrate, track, and disrupt trade union organizers and activists, from students to Members of Parliament. The Met also colluded with large construction firms to maintain a secret blacklist of union organizers who were denied employment and had their lives ruined.

The Met’s National Public Order Intelligence Unit also spent decades infiltrating climate groups. Covert operatives even fathered children with the women they were spying on.

After 9/11 and the 7/7 bombings, the Met and other UK policing agen­cies infiltrated, tracked, harassed, and intimidated Muslims, wantonly and indiscriminately, tracking young children and seniors and everyone in between.

When the swivel-eyed loons warn that these traffic calming measures are designed in such a way as to enable unaccountable mass surveillance by agencies with a history of human rights abuses, they’re not wrong. They are, in fact, very, very right.

The anti-15-minute-city conspiracy theory holds that the 15-minute city is a precursor to a new generation of “climate lockdowns,” modeled on the COVID lockdowns.

“Climate lockdowns” are a product of a conspiracist’s fevered imagi­nation, but here’s the thing: when the swivel-eyed loons claim that the COVID lockdowns were a pretense to control everyday people while rich people swanned around having a lovely time, they’re not entirely wrong.

Take Dominic Cummings, the advisor to then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was charged with design­ing and enforcing the UK’s covid lockdowns. Cummings famously violated his own rules by driving 275 miles to Durham to check in on his family. Then he drove them home, making a 50-mile detour to visit scenic Barnard Castle. He claimed this was a necessary measure to check his eyesight (no, I don’t understand this, either).

Cummings (eventually) lost his job over this, but did not face the kind of harsh penalties that everyday people in the UK endured as the policies that Cummings himself created and oversaw were enforced against them.

Cummings wasn’t the only rich, powerful person who violated lockdown with impunity – famously, Boris John­son threw a series of radioactively illegal, extremely boozy parties in his official residence, even as everyday Britons were blocked from visiting dying relatives, attending their funerals, or comforting the bereaved.

The idea that rich, powerful people are happy to enact extremely invasive, restrictive rules that they are not in any way bound by isn’t wrong. It’s actually very, very right.

The COVID crisis is very, very real.

But that doesn’t mean that it’s not also a pretext.

The lockdown allowed our employers to convert our homes into rent-free satellite offices, transforming “work at home” to “live at work,” in a dizzying eyeblink. Our computers and phones – often devices that we ourselves were expected to pay for – were enlisted to the corporate IT system and then enshittified with bossware that spies on our keystrokes, plunders our filesystems, monitors our network activity, and for some workers, watches and listens to them constantly through their devices’ cameras and microphones.

This didn’t have to happen, but powerful people know better than to let a good crisis go to waste.

Same goes for inflation: while supply-chain shocks temporarily reduced supplies of some products (including basic commodities that serve as inputs to a wide variety of goods), the highly concentrated manufacturing and retail sectors used these temporary shocks to create permanent price-hikes.

The term of art for this is “excuseflation.” Corporate executives like Colgate-Palmolive CEO Noel Wallace boast to shareholders, “We’ve been very comfortable with our ability to pass on the increases that we’ve seen at this point, and we would expect that to continue to be the case.” Kroger CEO Gary Millerchip, meanwhile, is “very comfortable with our ability to pass on the increases that we’ve seen at this point.” Pepsi CEO Ramon Laguarta wants “brands that can stand for higher value to consumers and consumers are willing to pay more for our brands.”

Or, as Ken Jarosch, owner of Chicago’s Jarosch Bakery put it, “Whether it’s rye flour, or bird flu that impacts eggs, when it makes national news, just running a business, it’s an opportunity to increase the prices without getting a whole bunch of complaining from the customers.”

When the swivel-eyed loons claim that multinational corporations use crises like COVID or the climate emergency to screw them over, they’re not wrong. They’re very, very right.

It’s natural to be suspicious of the plans of the World Economic Forum, the talking shop for the richest, most powerful people in the world. The companies who pay big bucks to attend – and the top execs featured on its main stages – have a long track record of price-gouging, profiteering, and human rights abuses.

The WEF’s plan for a “Great Reset” in which people “own nothing” by the year 2030 is, in fact, creepy.

Like a 15-minute city, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with a world in which the goods that we need only from time to time are available on demand. As a homeowner who needs to hang between zero and three pictures per year, I own a drill I jokingly call “the minimum viable drill.” It is such a badly made object that I am halfway convinced that it will kill me some day when it explodes in a shower of white-hot shrapnel. But even if that’s how its duty cycle ends, it won’t change the fact that for 99.999 percent of its life, it sat in a drawer, taking up space.

I would love it if my local library or community group had a couple of floating drills that were of the sort that a contractor might use – a beautifully made, well-maintained work of art that would easily replace fifty minimum viable drills in my neighborhood, digitally tracked for routine maintenance and to gather telemetry that could feed into the next product design iteration to make its successors even better.

A neighborhood drill could be designed with non-market imperatives – for example, it could be designed for easy repair, and to gracefully decompose back into the material stream when it is beyond repair.

The corporations that pay to send execs to the WEF don’t want neigh­borhood drills. They want drills-as-a-service, with proprietary bits that cost fifteen times more than the standard hex bits and wear out after three uses. They want drills that are glued shut and protected by a thicket of anti-tampering laws that make them either nonrepairable or repairable only by a manufacturer’s price-gouging service depot.

That’s the “post-ownership” society they’ve already built. Amazon sells you Ring cameras to put in your home and on your porch, and then gives the cops warrantless access to their feeds. Apple sells you a phone that runs software only from its official app store, where they cream off a 30 percent fee for every in-app transactions – fees that are passed on to you.

The Google Nest burglar alarm or smart light switch you buy bricks itself when the manufacturer decides it’s time for you to upgrade. Every modern car tracks your location wherever you go, selling that data to shadowy brokerages who merge it with other data and sell that to all comers.

In their post-ownership society, your Kindle ebooks aren’t yours and can be updated or deleted at any time. Your HP printer “updates” itself and learns how to reject the third-party ink cartridges you bought a year’s supply of at the start of the year.

The music you ripped with iTunes from CD is deleted because Apple had a contract dispute with the label.

You can’t buy Christmas movies anymore, just subscribe to streaming services that remove all the holiday programming from the “basic” tier from November to February, and charge you an upgrade fee to share them with your kids on Christmas morning (you can enjoy Rudolph for free with your subscription in July, though!).

The swivel-eyed loons aren’t wrong to be worried about the WEF’s version of a post-ownership society. They’re very, very right.

When COVID first struck, the science was unclear, and we took a lot of countermeasures to prevent transmission via surface contagion (remem­ber washing your groceries?).

After we learned more and the WHO finally stopped dragging its feet and acknowledged that the virus was primarily spread by aerosols, not droplets, we largely stopped worrying about surface contamination (sadly, we never embraced ventilation with the fervor that we brought to surface cleaning).

But not when it comes to cash.

The “cashless society” was vastly accelerated by lockdowns, and with it, massive profits for the highly concentrated payment processing sec­tor – companies like Visa, Amex and Mastercard and their banking affiliates – who are creaming off billions, charging us to spend money (technically, they charge merchants to receive money, but those expenses are passed on to us).

Swivel-eyed loons are very worried about the cashless society and claim that it gives corporations undue control over basic commerce, by deciding who can get access to a credit card, and which merchants can accept cards.

They’re right to worry. Access to financial services is a primary means of extralegal control over whole sectors of the economy. It’s not just that poor people pay higher fees for credit and debit cards (though that’s true – the poorer you are, the more spending a virtual dollar costs).

It’s also that sex workers, migrants, dissident journalists, and other marginal and at-risk groups are routinely denied banking services and transaction processing, creating pain and privation for the people who can least afford it.

One answer to this is the Central Bank Digital Currency – basically, publicly run alternatives to credit and debt cards. In theory, a public op­tion for cashless transactions will discipline the big financial institutions, forcing them to slash junk fees and predatory rates in order to remain competitive with CBDCs.

Swivel-eyed loons oppose CBDCs on the grounds that they are another potential tool of state surveillance and oppression. They’re not wrong about that.

But the thing is, the financial companies are already incredibly cozy with law enforcement and national security agencies, engaging in rou­tine, widespread data-sharing with cops and spies.

The government doesn’t need a CBDC to spy on all your transactions or to decide that you should be allowed to get the money you’re owed – they can already do that with a quick call to Mastercard, Visa, Amex, PayPal or the other major transaction processors.

The difference being that a CBDC would slash bank profits.

Likewise, a 15-minute city will erode oil company profits.

The swivel-eyed loons have a point, but they’re missing the bigger picture. They’re right to be suspicious of ALPRs, but not because these will be used to oppress well-off small businesspeople – it’s because they are already used to oppress people of color and poor people.

They’re right to be suspicious that a crisis – be it COVID or the climate – will be seized upon by opportunistic corporations to brutalize workers and gouge shoppers. But the answer isn’t less regulation, it’s muscular antitrust, shattering these companies into squabbling competitors who can’t coordinate to rip us off.

They’re right to be worried that our movements are being curtailed – but not because 15-minute cities are a stalking horse for Warsaw-Ghetto-style walled neighborhoods. There is already a program of widespread, nightmarish, illegal restrictions on movement, in the form of the UK, the US and the EU’s blatant violations of their obligations to refugees and asylum seekers.

The antilockdown movement exploited the legitimate anger of every­day people about elites ignoring the rules they set for the rest of us. These everyday people were then mobilized to fight for the rights of factory owners, logistics companies and other large corporations to murder their workers with a policy of “let ’er rip.”

You might have some swivel-eyed loons in your life. I certainly have my share. Remember that we have common ground.

When they say they don’t trust vaccines because the pharma compa­nies are corrupt and their regulators are toothless, that’s not your signal to defend the manifestly corrupt pharma companies who murdered 800,000 Americans with opioids, nor to cape for the regulators who let them get away with it.

Likewise, we all want to “save the children.” It’s just that some of us want to save the children from real threats who never seem to face justice – youth pastors, Catholic priests, rich people with private islands, border agencies practicing “family separation” – while swivel-eyed loons want to save kids from imaginary threats (adrenochrome-guzzling Satanists).

Remember all the things they’re right about. Lean into the common ground. Help them understand that corporate power, and its capture of government, is our true shared enemy.

We live in a fraught and perilous time, and powerful people really do want to capitalize on this situation to enrich themselves at our expense. It’s a brutal thing to think about and frankly, it’s no wonder that it turns some of us into swivel-eyed loons.

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.

All opinions expressed by commentators are solely their own and do not reflect the opinions of Locus.

This article and more like it in the May 2023 issue of Locus.

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7 thoughts on “Commentary: Cory Doctorow: The Swivel-Eyed Loons Have a Point

  • May 3, 2023 at 9:06 pm

    “One answer to this is the Central Bank Digital Currency – basically, publicly run alternatives to credit and debt cards. In theory, a public op­tion for cashless transactions will discipline the big financial institutions, forcing them to slash junk fees and predatory rates in order to remain competitive with CBDCs.”

    It says “Central Bank”, whereas you’re implying, but not clearly stating some form of decentralisation (distributed, in IT parlance).

    But note that the trend is for big business to replace government, not for government to address the greed of big business. It is a parody of Orwell’s 1984, where there may be a few Big Brothers, in a small, happy family at the very top of the pyramid.

    I greatly admire your writing, which I only discovered recently. But I find your very Yankee optimism quite misplaced. In my opinion – and I am not alone in this – it will take a massive catastrophe, one that leaves a permanent, memorable scar in an overwhelming majority of people (having to eliminate nine human corpses for each living human, for example), to bring about the necessary, if perhaps futile, turnabout.

    That said, your writing may not resonate with me, if your optimism weren’t so easily detected. But here’s the rub: I am a very literal person and I am often accused of not having a sense of humour. I happen to increasingly believe that there is too much laughter accompanying very serious news reporting. Maybe the ancient Greeks’ passion for tragedy rather than comedy is a phase we still need to pass through before we realise we are in deep trouble? Let me refer you to “Don’t Look Up” as an example.

    Regards. Lucio (from rural South Africa – for what that’s worth)

    PS: I would love to embark on a dialogue with you, Cory; fact is, I am a dreadfully inconsistent correspondent.

  • May 19, 2023 at 1:18 am

    Is fear of what you call “Warsaw-Ghetto-style walled neighborhoods” entirely misplaced, given that such neighborhoods do indeed dominate urban design in China (where they’re known as “xiaoqu”) and that this is the fundamental reason why China was able to maintain its Zero Covid policy for so long?

    The only other nations where Covid lockdowns were anything like as successful as in China, were isolated island nations like Australia and New Zealand that (unlike the UK and Ireland) don’t trade internationally using trucks, but only by container ships (whose crews need never leave their vessels) or aircraft (whose crews can be isolated within the airport until they fly out again).

  • May 31, 2023 at 11:25 am

    You are free to offer such a drill lending service, you don’t need the permission of ” corporations that pay to send execs to the WEF “. If such services don’t exist, it is not because “corporations don’t want it”.

    There is nothing wrong with offering services within 15 minutes of waling distance, but there is something wrong with punishing people if they want to leave that perimeter. You are free to offer services in convenient locations, at reasonable rates. Like what rent will the mall in walking distance pay? Will it be able to offer goods for the same cheap prices as the mall outside of town in the cheap industrial zone? Will rents remain the same in the city center if some of the space has to be given up for services and shops?

  • May 31, 2023 at 1:34 pm

    mr Doctorow should read more on how think tanks drive public opinion.

    doing focus group on how to name laws, to planting fake news that turn sensible opposition into lunatics (e.g. you cannot discuss that it is time we rethink fluoride water supply without someone bringing up chemtrails and mind control …cant discuss lead on airplane fuel either btw).

    very poignant article otherwise.


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