Tag Archives: Business

Cory Doctorow, Makers

The cover art for the British edition, which looks so much better than the American cover.

One complaint I hear from people who don’t like science fiction is that it’s about ideas and not people. Given the amount of SF I read I obviously don’t agree, but even I think they sometimes have a point–about Cory Doctorow’s Makers, for example.

For me, Doctorow is a love-it-or-hate-it writer. His best book is Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town. Unlike his other novels, Someone is a surrealist fantasy. Maybe that helped. Writing about a guy whose parents were a mountain and a washing machine, Doctorow has fewer occasions for awkwardly wedged-in futurist polemics about technology, copyright, and geek culture.

In Makers Doctorow writes about lots of things–solutions to the obesity epidemic (which lead to new and worse problems), clever uses for RFID tags, amusement parks–but mostly about a new economy where 3-D printers and cheap computers let small startups compete with bigger companies, and how to transition from here to there. And Makers’s characters pontificate endlessly on these subjects, and as they do so they sound just like Doctorow’s nonfiction.

Makers doesn’t have characters so much as mouthpieces. Everything its characters say is a speech. Everything they do is a demonstration. Some characters are good examples who embody Doctorow’s ideas. Some are bad examples. None feel like people. I never was able to keep Lester and Perry, Doctorow’s two geek heroes, straight.

Makers is weirdly Ayn Randian in its style of argument if not its worldview. (Doctorow is similarly keen on the kind of economics currently and not always accurately characterized as “free market,” but while Rand dreamed of a world ruled by captains of industry Doctorow sympathizes with ordinary people and believes the best ideas come up from below.) One of the villains is a journalist the heroes call “Rat-Toothed Freddy.” Not only does he question Makers’s worldview, but like Rand’s villains he’s ugly and petty and makes his case as offensively as possible, with gratuitous personal attacks.

Freddy doesn’t learn anything because he’s the bad guy, and Lester and Perry don’t learn anything because as the book begins they already embody Doctorow’s ideals. The last we see of them it’s years later and they’re back to their old tricks. The only character who ends the story as a better person is the second villain, Sammy, a midlevel Disney executive. At one point Makers states “Lester came to understand what it meant to be responsible for people’s lives.” But that’s something we’re told, not shown. We don’t feel what Lester is feeling, and after his moment of revelation he acts pretty much the same. At the climax of the novel the “good guys” do the right thing, the thing that solves everyone’s problems, only because it gives them a chance to humiliate Freddy.

There’s a moment, somewhere around then, when Lester (or was it Perry?) has a brief flash of insight and wonders whether Freddy has a point. Then it’s gone, and he worries no more. Which is too bad. Sometimes, Freddy does have a point. He’s the only character willing to question Makers’s worldview, and there are questions Makers ought to ask of itself, and doesn’t.

How easy is it for people who’ve dedicated their lives to a company to pick up the pieces after their jobs blow away in a hurricane of “creative destruction?” Lester and Perry’s associates skip from job to job with songs in their hearts, but for some people the stress of having their cheese moved on them all the damn time takes years off their lives. How many little startups can the market support? (Maybe not so many, given how quickly the New Work implodes.) What happens to the people whose companies fail? What about health insurance? (There’s not much sign that Makers’s America has solved its health care problems.) In practice, much of the New Work produces tchotchkes, bric-a-brac and dime-store kipple–to borrow William Morris’s rubric, things neither useful nor beautiful. How liberating is the New Work if people are still just selling each other junk they don’t need and don’t really want?

On the other hand, I do admire Makers for making kipple look fun. Makers succeeds at one thing: celebrating making. Makers respects people who do things, and do them well, regardless of who they are.

Sammy’s salvation lies in coming up with an idea he cares about, and although the Disney corporation in general serves as a villain Makers allows its good-guy journalist, Suzanne Church, to be impressed by the pride and attention to detail of the people who build and rebuild Disney World.

Of course, the Disney workers have something the Makers don’t: stability. There’s an idea floating around, courtesy of Malcolm Gladwell, that to really master a craft you need to spend 10,000 hours doing it. (Which may be why I’m great at my job, but less great at the things I love to do when I’m not at work. I need to work on my attention span for my hobbies.) 10,000 hours is a glibly arbitrary number, but it’s true (even with simpler tasks like selling electronics, as Circuit City discovered, to their cost, after they laid off their most experienced employees) that you’re more likely to find expertise in places where people have the job security to concentrate on mastering their trade.

In Makers‘s New New Economy of laissez-faire, layoffs, and dizzyingly rapid boom-and-bust cycles, just surviving takes half of everybody’s energy. Energy they could be using to, y’know, make things.

Bailing Out Dombey

I’ve been thinking lately about the last Dickens book I read—Dombey and Son. The news brought it to mind.

Dombey is the head honcho of Dombey and Son. He thinks this makes him a Great Man, and just to make damn sure he’s out to suppress all threats to his Greatness. This can get time consuming. See, all you actually have to do to threaten Dombey’s Greatness is contradict him. So Dombey spends half the 900 page epic picking up sycophants so oily you could run a Hummer off their bodily secretions, and the other half methodically alienating anybody who cares enough about him to tell him the truth.

The truth is: Dombey is a moron.

That name, “Dombey and Son?” Our Dombey’s the son. He’s like the third or fourth generation of son. He didn’t build the business. His dad didn’t build the business. Everything he has, he inherited from somebody else who also inherited it. Dombey and Son started without him and continues through inertia while he warms the chair in the big office. And he has no idea how to run it. He has no idea, for example, that sycophant numero uno Carker has for years been using shady accounting to siphon off gobs of funds. And when Carker runs off with the cash, Dombey has no idea it might be time to do something differently. He has no idea he could do anything differently. He’s Dombey, dude! The top of the heap is Dombey’s natural place. That’s how the world rolls. So he coasts placidly along as he always has, and bankrupts the firm.

This is where the news comes in. And as our fearless leaders discuss handing a $700 billion blank check of taxpayer money over to the guys who created this interesting situation, I can’t help but remember what happened to Dombey.

He, himself, personally, went bankrupt.

This was not an oddity in Dickens’s time. It was standard operating procedure. Business owners in 19th century England were personally liable for business debts. (It was a better deal than ordinary debtors got. They ended up in prison. See Little Dorrit.) But Dombey’s attitude is striking:

‘The extent of Mr Dombey’s resources [says Mr. Morfin, one of his middle managers] is not accurately within my knowledge; but though they are doubtless very large, his obligations are enormous. He is a gentleman of high honour and integrity. Any man in his position could, and many a man in his position would, have saved himself, by making terms which would have very slightly, almost insensibly, increased the losses of those who had had dealings with him, and left him a remnant to live upon. But he is resolved on payment to the last farthing of his means. His own words are, that they will clear, or nearly clear, the House, and that no one can lose much. Ah, Miss Harriet, it would do us no harm to remember oftener than we do, that vices are sometimes only virtues carried to excess! His pride shows well in this.’

The vices of our current class of economic honchos are probably not virtues carried to excess.

I don’t mind bailing out the little guys. If this $700 billion were going to rescue struggling people who got suckered into crazy mortgages, I’d consider it money well spent. But before we hand our tax money over to these companies? I’d like to see their CEOs and boards of directors sell off a few private planes and summer homes. Then we’ll talk.