Book Review: Context: Further Selected Essays on Productivity, Creativity, Parenting, and Politics in the 21st Century (Cory Doctorow)

Technology cannot be ignored, and those that attempt to slow the progress being made are condemning themselves to oblivion as well as (more importantly) bankruptcy. Creativity, Doctorow argues, must be free-as-in-freedom; the giant corporations and artists who hunt for and slap lawsuits against any and all violations of their copyrights (real or imagined) kill more than just their fanbase, whom they are mercilessly persecuting for enjoying their creations, but also stagnates creativity and cultural development itself.

Context is a collection of some of Doctorow’s best essays that have appeared in The Guardian, Lotus, Wired, the New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly, as well as his blog and website Boing Boing. (Context can be downloaded for free here; it’s licensed under a Creative Commons license, which means you are free to download, upload, remix and share it with anyone you wish). They express Doctorow’s keen and perceptive insights into recent developments in technology and internet culture; often fiery and enthusiastic as well as sharply logical argumentation combine in a package full of marvelous prose that makes the collection frequently not merely interesting, but pleasurable, to read.

Even as he brilliantly argues against cloud computing and points out that streaming video will never stop downloading and piracy, issues that are very serious and impact the rights of the user and the future of actual private ownership, Doctorow never forgets his wit and his charm (not to mention his ability to turn a phrase or use an aptly insightful metaphor). His pieces never rest on pugnacity or fiery prophetic jeremiad alone, which would make them a slog and a pain to get through like any other self-righteous tract of denunciation. Instead, you find yourself won over by his common sense and delightful sense of humor. After a few essays on the superiority of open source OS and programs and I’m pretty much ready to switch to the Ubuntu OS myself.

Easily the best essay in the collection was an unexpected one. Doctorow has recently become a father to a little girl of about 16 months (at the time of writing), and his piece “Jack and the Interstalk” is a magnificent bit on how he has thought through the exposure of his children to computers and technology. He reveals how parents can use their computers as a means of creating an interactive experience for their children by decribing how he and his daughter will look up images of the various elements they stumble across in their stories, and how they have used those images to then build props from household items based on the stories that become a game of chasing and running around the house and actually participating in the stories they’re reading. To me this is a beautiful picture of redeeming the technology for better, interactive, participatory culture, rather than something you turn on to zoink your children out when they get too rowdy.

It is easy to see why this essay was put first in the collection. It really sets the stage for the whole book’s argument – that we have nothing to fear from technology, which encourages freedom and diversity of use, builds participatory, creative culture in which ordinary people can transcend their status as passive consumers into participants in the creation and production of culture and development. Ultimately, it is this idea that so threatens the multinational corporations. They are uninterested in our becoming producers, because they are the producers, and the moment we no longer need them as gatekeepers and gateways to accessing and producing culture, that moment they will perish, their goods lose value, and their bottom lines bottom out. And that is why Context, and the things Doctorow argues for, are so very important and vital at this moment in history.

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