Makers

BOOK REVIEW | For The Win by Cory Doctorow Thumbnail

Cory Doctorow’s latest YA novel, For The Win, just might be the Jungle of the digital age — a depiction of the plight of professional gamers and their struggle to unionize and extract concessions such as better pay, shorter hours, and safer working conditions (?!) from their employers through collective bargaining. Not being an avid gamer myself, much less a professional gold farmer, I’m left to wonder if it is as poorly researched and inaccurate as Upton Sinclair’s piece of socialist propaganda fiction. I expect left-libertarians will tend to like this novel but other libertarians will not. As for myself, I struggled to finish it and do not recommend it — as much because of the writing style and quality of writing as the subject matter.

For The Win opens with a gifted Chinese gold farmer — a working gamer who plays to collect game money and items to sell for “real” money to “rich,” lazy, mostly American gamers — in China who just happens to have the Western name of Matthew. He’s attempting to strike out on his own but is visited by Boss Wing’s goons and taught a lesson. Then we meet an American Jew in Los Angeles who goes by the Chinese name of Wei-Dong and moonlights, against his parents’ orders, as a gold farmer with some online buddies in China. Next, we’re introduced to Mala, aka General Robotwallah, a poor Indian girl with a talent for strategy and leadership, who is hired by a mysterious man to use her “army” to harass gold farmers in-game because they allegedly disrupt the game for honest, paying customers.

Before long we’re introduced to Big Sister Nor, a mysterious new figure on the scene who is out to organize working gamers into a union to fight corruption and improve their circumstances. As the novel progresses, we’re introduced to more characters, mostly in China and India, where the bulk of the action takes place. Perhaps the most notable is a female Chinese underground radio host who caters to the factory girls, giving them advice and urging them to stand up for themselves, while she dodges police raids, moving from safe house to safe house under a series of false identities.

One of the themes of the novel is how difficult it has been historically for workers to organize and how the internet (including social media and online games) provide game-changing tools for organizing labor. There is much truth to this, though I am skeptical that even the myriad tools of the internet can allow a voluntary global union to pull off anything like the ambitious scheme Cory’s protagonists endeavor to carry out in the novel. Although Cory has characters voice the usual skeptical objections to the efficacy of a voluntary global union, I don’t think he adequately addresses the difficulties such a union would face even in the digital age. Without state-backed coercion (directed at businesses, scabs, and their own members), how much power would a union really have, particularly spread out over the globe? Sure, gamers have an advantage in that they all work virtually in the same place — but still…

To Cory’s credit, however, he does depict a truly voluntary union whose leaders welcome freely competing unions in the market. The International Workers of the World Wide Web (IWWWW) or Webblies, as they call themselves,1 even eschew a formal hierarchy. The de facto head of the union at one point exclaims to her followers, “I’m not magic. … You all lead yourselves.” They also, admirably, do not seek compliance with their demands through legislation or regulation. Instead, they engage in self-help. Libertarians may find some of their methods questionable, however.

[Keep reading…]


  1. These terms were coined by Ken MacLeod, based on the real Industrial Workers of the World (or Wobblies), and borrowed by Cory Doctorow. 

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BOOK REVIEW | Little Brother by Cory Doctorow Thumbnail

Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother is a tale about tech-savvy teenagers as they rebel against a Department of Homeland Security crackdown following a terrorist attack on San Fransisco. A piece of YA fiction that even adults can enjoy — it’s YA largely because of its teenage protagonists and its educational aim at young people — Little Brother is the 2009 Prometheus Award winner for best libertarian novel. Little Brother also won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award and was a finalist for the Hugo Award.

Little Brother is set entirely in San Fransisco, California, in the very near future. Much of the technology in the story is already available, and what is not can easily be conceived as being on the horizon. The story is told entirely in the first person, from the point of view of the main character, Marcus Yallow. Marcus at first goes by the handle w1n5t0n (Winston in leetspeak, a homage to George Orwell’s 1984, as is the title of the book) but later switches to M1k3y (which could be a reference to the computer Mike in Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress).

As the story opens, we are introduced to Marcus and three of his friends — Jolu (Jose Luis), Van (Vanessa), and best friend, Darryl — who ditch school to play an ARG (Alternate Reality Game) called Harajuku Fun Madness in and around the city. They happen to have the misfortune of being in the wrong part of town when terrorists blow up the Bay Bridge. In the chaos and confusion that follows, they get picked up by the Department of Homeland Security and then subjected to several days of interrogation and psychological torture in a “Gitmo by the Bay” before being released (with the exception of Darryl) with threats to keep quiet about their experience…or else. But once set free, Marcus and his friends are disturbed to see their city being turned into a police state.

Marcus resolves to fight back against the DHS, to restore civil rights and liberties and to free Darryl. He soon becomes the unofficial leader of a growing, decentralized movement of rebellious teenagers. But his covert struggle starts to put a strain on his relationships with his family and friends.

[Keep reading…]

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BOOK REVIEW | Makers by Cory Doctorow Thumbnail

I didn’t like Makers. I wanted to like it. Cory Doctorow, the author, is a cool geek and something of an ally in the struggle against intellectual property, i.e., government grants of monopoly privilege. But overall I just did not enjoy the book for a number of reasons.

To be sure, there are things to like about Makers. If you’re an avid reader of Boing Boing, you might like it. I only dip my toes in occasionally. Reading Makers is a lot like reading Boing Boing in novel form. Cory excels at imagining interesting gadgets and cool new uses for current and upcoming technology — the kind of geeky tech and pop culture things he and his fellow bloggers share on Boing Boing all the time, only some unspecified number of years into the near near future. The book will probably date quickly, but this aspect of it was fun…for a while. When it comes to things, Cory has an expansive imagination and a deep understanding. When it comes to people and plotting, on the other hand, his imagination and understanding seem to me to be more limited.

Makers started out as a novella titled Themepunks, serialized on Salon.com, though it appears Cory envisioned it from the beginning as merely the first part of a novel. I wish he hadn’t. Makers consists of three parts and an epilogue, with Themepunks being part one, the first 100 or so pages. Like Luke Burrage, I enjoyed part one, for the most part, but thought the novel went downhill from there.

As the novel opens we are introduced to the first main viewpoint character, a tech reporter by the name of Suzanne Church (Andrea Fleeks in Themepunks1). Suzanne attends a press conference held by the new CEO of Kodak/Duracell (or Kodacell), Landon Kettlewell. Kodak and Duracell are struggling companies in the near future. There’s no longer a need or market for their products. I guess they failed to innovate and remain competitive in a changing technological landscape. Kodak I can see. But Duracell? People won’t need batteries in the future? Duracell will fail to develop new power cells for new products? Really? In any case, Kettlewell and his financial backers decide to buy and merge Kodak and Duracell and then essentially gut them. The idea is apparently to trade on the old companies’ good brand names and use their capital to back a creative new business model.

Under Kettlewell, Kodacell becomes a kind of Grameen Bank of venture capital, engaging in micro-financing of garage-next-door would-be inventors and entrepreneurs. The business plan is for Kodacell to find untapped creative geniuses throughout the country, provide them with funding and a business manager, and act as the central coordinator in a distributed network of small, independent teams. A pretty nifty idea. This relatively non-hierarchical business model, the focus on 3-D printers, and a number of other aspects of the novel will be appealing to many left-libertarians, I think.

Suzanne then takes on the role of embedded journalist and later blogger when she travels to Florida to follow Kettlewell’s star makers, two young guys named Perry and Lester. She befriends them and reports on what they’re doing and on their relationship with a resourceful local squatter community (another thing left-libertarians and off-the-grid survivalists will probably like). Thanks in large part to her reporting a new worldwide movement is spawned and later dubbed the New Work (too New Deal-esque, for my taste, but at least it was a voluntary private initiative). Kodacell quickly attracts imitators and the new venture micro-capital market is soon unsustainably flooded with an excess of money, credit, and competitors. Irrational exuberance, I suppose.

[Keep reading…]


  1. I’m not sure what else might have changed from novella to novel other than this character’s name. 

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