April 4, 2009

Book Reviews: Cory Doctorow and Mafiaboy

Calce, Michael with Craig Silverman. Mafiaboy: How I cracked the Internet and why it's still broken. Toronto: Viking Canada, 2008. 277pp.

Doctorow, Cory. Content: Selected essays on technology, creativity, copyright and the future of the future. San Francisco: Tachyon, 2008. 213pp.

I'm reviewing these two books together for two reasons. First of all, I don't feel the need to go on at great length about either of them. Secondly, I think that they're related -- they both touch on the free, open and ungoverned (ungovernable?) nature of the Internet. One is a white hat treatment and the other, black hat. Or perhaps, many will think of both of these books representing a black hat perspective, that perhaps both these books represent the worst that the Internet has brought to modern society. The Web promotes openness and freedom. Generally, we consider both of those qualities to be positive. Certainly, Cory Doctorow would be a prime advocate of openness on the Web. On the other hand, the freedom that the Internet provides can also be cover for those that would exploit weakness and take advantage of others. Certainly, the story of Mafiaboy epitomizes the dark side of hacker culture.

Cory Doctorow's Content is a colletction of Doctorow's various essays on copyright and open content. collected from a bunch of different places, this is a stimulating and thought-provoking collection. Of course, every single essay is available for free on the net. An interesting conundrum, of course, is that if it's all available for free on the Web then why did I buy it? Most of all, I really like the idea of sending a little cash to the artists and thinkers whose work moves and inspires me. So, yes, I still buy books and CDs and pay to see movies in the theatre.

Never mind what you should pay for this book, who should read it? Well, if you're a copyright minimalist it's preaching to the choir. You'll agree that information wants to be free and that you the best business model for artists is to give stuff away that's easily copied and sell stuff that isn't. In other words, in a world where bits can be easily copied for virtually no cost, you have to be able to actually sell something other than pure content to make a living -- like experience. If you're a copyright maximalist, well, Doctorow is the anti-christ and you probably won't really appreciate the book. If, like most, you're in the middle, then this book is for you. Doctorow really makes a very strong and very persuasive case for his point of view, that . It's compelling and hard to ignore. You might not end up agreeing with everything (I certainly don't), but he will definitely win you over on a lot of points.

If there's one thing that detracts from Doctorow's ability to make his case, it's his attitude. Sometimes he's just too cocky, too arrogant, too sure that he's right and you're dead wrong. There's no agree-to-disagree is his world, it's my-way-or-the-highway. Take his opinion of opera:

The idea of a 60-minute album is as weird in the Internet era as the idea of sitting through 15 hours of Der Ring des Nibelungen was 20 years ago. There are some anachronisms who love their long-form opera, but the real action is in the more fluid stuff that can slither around on hot wax — and now the superfluid droplets of MP3s and samples. Opera survives, but it is a tiny sliver of a much bigger, looser music market. The future composts the past: old operas get mounted for living anachronisms; Andrew Lloyd Webber picks up the rest of the business.
My only reaction is that Doctorow is completely wrong in this. In fact, he really contradicts the main point of the long tail that Internet gurus are so adamant about. The new media landscape doesn't make 60 minute operas less interesting and relevant. It makes them more so -- finally able to find their niche in the long tail of human artistic expression. People that like opera can enjoy and obsess over it. People that don't, well, can listen to whatever they like. The point isn't Doctorow's rather juvenile assertion that some particular type of artistic expression is somehow not worthy, the point is that the Internet enables every kind of artistic expression is a way that was not possible before.

In any case, that was one of the few false notes (all the same kind of thing) in an otherwise excellent book. Read it and disagree, engage and enrage. But it's too important to ignore. I would recommend this book to any academic or public library as well as to anyone interested in the future of content in a fragmented and radically shifting online landscape.

And let's take a look at Michael Calce and Craig Silverman's account of Calce's life as Internet hacker Mafiaboy. Its a fascinating story of a Montreal-area teen and how he got involved in the world of hacking and ended up launching a couple of big denial of service attacks on some prominent web sites like Yahoo! and CNN. Calce tells the story of how he got involved in the hacking underworld as well as how he was caught, the jail time he served as well as how he's reformed and is using his obvious computing gifts for good instead of evil.

A couple of interesting points, though. Especially in his tell of the early part of the story, Calce comes off as a bit arrogant and clueless about the seriousness of his actions, not really showing much empathy. I find this interesting because while the later chapters make it pretty clear that he's grown up and left those feelings mostly behind, there are still glimpses and insights into the teenager that caused the havoc. We see the macho reputation building, the bragging and the power trips but not really from the point an introspective point of view. I guess it's hard to expect anyone to write that kind of book.

A great story, well told, well worth reading and thinking about. I would recommend it to any academic or public library interested in the way the Internet is shaping our society.

1 comment:

Zed Guy said...

I did a review of Mafiaboy a few months back after seeing his interview on The Hour. While it wasn't exactly a page-turner, one of the things I found interesting was the culture- the idea that you had these battles going on daily and no-one really knew about them, until, as he says, they spilled from a back alley into a shopping mall.

Link: http://www.yyztech.ca/reviews/book/mafiaboy-how-cracked-internet-why-still-broken