[Plura-list] Terra Nullius; How they're killing the post office; When you hear "intangibles"...; Text-based, cyberpunk MMORPG

Cory Doctorow doctorow at craphound.com
Tue Aug 11 12:51:54 EDT 2020

Today's links

* Terra Nullius: Podcasting my column about "IP," John Locke, genocide
and erasure.

* How they're killing the post office: The USPS has been under threat
for decades, but now it's an existential crisis.

* When you hear "intangibles"...: Think "monopolies."

* Text-based, cyberpunk MMORPG: CyberCode Online is based on the VSCode

* This day in history: 2015, 2019

* Colophon: Recent publications, upcoming appearances, current writing
projects, current reading


🌪 Terra Nullius

For my podcast this week, I read my Mar 2019 Locus column, "Terra
Nullius," about the way that Locke's property theory ("I found this
stuff nobody was using, added my labor, now it's mine") is an act of
erasure and sometimes a prelude to genocide.


The germ of the column came from the bizarre tale of Aloha Poke, a
company started by non-Pacific Islanders in Chicago that then threatened
Hawaiians who operated poke restaurants whose name included the word "poke."


These guys are perfect Lockean grifters, because their claim implies
that "aloha" was an unimproved natural resource that they mixed with
their branding endeavor and converted to property.

It's a ghastly microcosm for the whole genocidal enterprise of settler
colonialism. For settlers to square the morality of stealing indigenous
land, they had to first declare the land to be uninhabited ("terra
nullius"), and then claim ownership based on their "improvements."

And it reveals the extent to which all of Locke's property theory is
grounded in erasure: there's nothing in the world that isn't in relation
to others. There's nothing that's just lying around, waiting for
Lockeans to pick it up and turn it into property.

To make Locke work, you have to zero out everyone else's claim. In
particular, you have to zero out claims that don't assert exclusive
property rights - if no one can authorize you to buy something, it isn't
property, so you can just take it.

This is the thread that runs through all our property relations, but
especially "intellectual property," whose incoherence can be traced
directly back to this phenomenon.

Edgar Allan Poe invented mystery stories. We can either all pay his
estate a royalty every time we write a mystery, or we can pretend his
invention wasn't an invention. There's no middle ground for Locke.

To make things more complicated, Poe invented the mystery story more or
less simultaneously with several other authors who had no knowledge of
Poe's work. There's a reason for that, which Kevin Kelly describes in
his 2010 book *What Technology Wants*.

Kelly describes something he calls "the adjacent possible." The basic
idea behind inventions pops up all the time, suggested by the underlying
principles that are combined to make invention. But inventions can't be
invented until they're possible.

So lots of people can observe the twirl of a maple key and the action of
a wine-screw and muse about something that looks like a helicopter, but
no one can make a helicopter until we've got the full complement of
helicopter-adjacent inventions.

But as those inventions - metallurgy, internal combustion, aerodynamics
- emerge, the idea of a helicopter gets more and more obvious, and more
and more people think of them and try to invent them.

Inevitably, when the helicopter is born, there are overlapping claims to
the invention, from all the people who successfully combined all the
adjacent stuff that had been invented.

These inventors want to be Lockean titans, but to achieve that, they
need to zero out all the stuff that came before. Like the mystery writer
who denies Poe's contribution, they assert metallurgy and internal
combustion were unimproved nature they mixed with their labor.

There's a power realpolitik here: if you want to zero someone else's
claim, you'd better be able to trounce them when they strike back and
cry thief. So while the Lockean delusion may be widely distributed, it's
most successfully realized when it's wielded by the powerful.

Which is why the Beatles can appropriate R&B; and call it inspiration,
but hiphop artists can't sample the Beatles and declare them to be
labor-blended raw material that is now their property.

I like the Beatles. I like hiphop that remixes the Beatles. I don't
think the answer is to create a property fence around R&B;, declare some
R&B; artist to be its true owner and make everyone else beg permission
to make R&B.;

I think the right answer is to erase Locke. Mixing labor with stuff
*does* create an interest, but it's not an exclusive interest. Invention
isn't the work of a titan, it's the emergent property of a moment. Above
all, recognize the power dynamics lurking beneath the surface.

I turned this column into a speech and delivered it as a speech at the
Internet Archive's Grand Reopening of the Public Domain event in January
2019. You can listen to that here:


and watch it here:


Here's the podcast episode:


and the MP3:


and my podcast feed:



🌪 How they're killing the post office

You've probably noticed that there's a lot of bad stuff going on with
the US Postal Service, the most popular US government agency (91%
favorable rating!). Trump has definitely been menacing them and talking
a lot of nonsense about postal voting.

USPS has been nearly bankrupt since the start of the crisis. Its
emergency is wholly artificial, the creation of a bipartisan coalition
of asshole lawmakers who insisted that the Post Office fully fund its
next 75 years' worth pension obligations.


We don't just need the USPS to run the postal voting that will be the
only safe way to hold this November's election: the postal service is
also the cornerstone of all of America's emergency recovery programs.


And despite the Trump rhetoric, every lawmaker, GOP or Democrat, is
relying on postal voting this year. Indeed, GOP lawmakers are freaking
out that postal votes are now a culture war issue and their voters are
refusing to vote this year as a result.


Writing in Vox, Adam Clark Estes provides an excellent overview of the
challenges currently facing the postal service, including some pretty
grim facts about the new Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy.


DeJoy has sabotaged the postal service we pay him to run. As America has
become more dependent than ever on postal delivery, as increasing
numbers of postal workers have taken sick leave after contracting
coronavirus, DeJoy has ended the overtime needed to meet the demand.

That's why regular mail is delayed on average by 2 days, why, for the
first time in history, Express Priority Mail is not going out on time.
(Postal sources told Estes that Amazon parcels are getting priority though).

To make things worse, DeJoy has fired and sidelined the country's most
knowledgeable and experienced postal execs, annihilating a source of
absolutely essential knowledge and expertise.

Some facts about DeJoy:

* he and his family have $30-75m invested in USPS competitors

* he has donated over $1.5m to Trump campaigns

* his wife is teed up to be Trump's ambassador to Canada

The USPS is normally profitable, an entirely self-funded org that
provides universal service to every place in America, no matter how
rural, as is mandated in the US Constitution. But today, thanks to the
pension-fund sabotage and the pandemic, it needs a LOT of money.

Fedex and UPS have been lobbying hard to kill the postal service for
decades. Congress - both sides the aisle - have participated in
shameless fuckery to hasten that day. Today, the legitimacy of the
American democratic system hinges on the postal service's survival.

92% of Americans support a bailout for the postal service.



🌪 When you hear "intangibles"...

Stocks keep climbing, and the firms driving the bull market have
incredibly low asset-to-valuation ratios: that is, if you add up all the
stuff they own, that's a much smaller number than their market valuation.

Nowhere is this more true than in tech stocks.

Tech companies own very little and they're worth a lot: working at a
tech company can make you rich just on the basis of your stock - Apple
CEO Tim Cook just became a billionaire thanks to his stock grants.

That gap -  between capital assets and market valuation - is attributed
to "intangibles."

What are intangibles? Well, they're not R&D.; Big Tech companies spend
$10-20B/year on R&D;, and have ~$1T valuations. R&D; is a drop in the

And if there's anything the latest Congressional hearings taught us,
it's that the intangibles are "goodwill" either - people really hate Big
Tech, and every day that goes by increases the global distrust and
distaste for these companies.

So what are their intangibles? John Quiggin has an idea: it's
monopolies, "arising from network effects, intellectual property,
control over natural resources and good old-fashioned predatory conduct."


The reason these intangibles are so highly prized by investors is that
they prevent competition and allow the extraction of monopoly rents: "No
one can sell a Windows or Apple operating system, even if they were
willing to invest the effort required to reverse-engineer it."

Quiggin's conclusion: "this means that traditional ideas about capital
and investment are largely irrelevant in the information economy."


🌪 Text-based, cyberpunk MMORPG

Visual Studio Code is Microsoft's hugely popular source-code editing
environment; it's so popular that it's being used as the interface for
games now.

CyberCode Online is a new text-based cyberpunk MMORPG that uses VSCode
as its UI.


It's both pretty fun and very clever; even as a VSCode noob, I found it
easy to get used to, and the source-code editor mechanic made for a
surprisingly immersive storytelling experience.

Who knew that what Zork was missing was an IDE?


🌪 This day in history

#5yrsago US lobbying for TPP to lock up clinical trial data

#5yrsago Felicia Day's "You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)"

#5yrsago War Boy bandanas

#5yrsago Oracle's CSO demands an end to customers checking Oracle
products for defects

#5yrsago The failed writer who became NSA's in-house "philosopher"

#5yrsago Overshare: Justin Hall's biopic about the first social
media/blogging https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AxD4mqFtySQ

#5yrsago Insurance monitoring dashboard devices used by Uber let hackers
"cut your brakes" over wireless

#1yrago Brazil's highest court rules that Bolsonaro cannot use criminal
investigations to harass Glenn Greenwald and The Intercept

#1yrago Compromised speakers can be forced to play tones so loud that
the speakers start to melt

#1yrago Donor maps show just how widespread Sanders' support is

#1yrago Big Pharma's origin: how the Chicago School and private equity
shifted medicine's focus from health to wealth


🌪 Colophon

Today's top sources: Four Short Links
(https://www.oreilly.com/feed/four-short-links), Naked Capitalism

Currently writing:

* My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and
reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 563 words (47816 total).

Currently reading: The Deficit Myth, Stephanie Kelton

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 12),

Upcoming appearances:

* Virtual event with Christopher Brown for his novel "Failed State," Aug

* Induction into the CSFFA Hall of Fame, Aug 15,

* Keynote for Law Via the Internet conference, Sept 22,

Latest book:

* "Little Brother/Homeland": A reissue omnibus edition with a new
introduction by Edward Snowden:
https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250774583; personalized/signed copies

* "Poesy the Monster Slayer" a picture book about monsters, bedtime,
gender, and kicking ass. Order here:
https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781626723627. Get a personalized, signed
copy here:

Upcoming books:

* "Attack Surface": The third Little Brother book, Oct 20, 2020.

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provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link
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*When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla* -Joey "Accordion Guy"

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