'Context' Without the Context

Photo by Jonathan Worth

Despite the title, the book surprisingly offers very little context between technology guru Cory Doctorow’s ideas and thoughts from piece to piece.

Context: Further Selected Essays on Productivity, Creativity, Parenting, and Politics in the 21st Century

Publisher: Tachyon
Length: 238 pages
Author: Cory Doctorow
Price: $14.95
Format: Paperback
Publication Date: 2011-10

Science fiction writer Cory Doctorow, who is based out of London but was born in Canada, definitely has his fingers in a lot of pies. Aside from writing adult and young adult novels – perhaps his best-known work is the bestselling YA title Little Brother – he is the co-editor of the Boing Boing weblog, where he posts upward of ten entries a day. In addition to that, he’s a contributor to the Guardian, the New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly, Wired and countless other newspapers, magazines and web sites.

If that weren’t enough, Doctorow, as of 2008, became a dad to a little girl, and, you have to wonder, with all of the writing he must get done in a single day, where he finds the time to be an effective parent, let alone a doting husband. One thing’s for sure: the guy certainly likes to keep busy.

Thanks to his relative popularity in the science fiction and technology spheres, Tachyon Publications has seen fit to repackage some of his most recent articles, essays and book reviews into a slim, slightly more than 200 page volume called Context: Further Selected Essays on Productivity, Creativity, Parenting, and Politics in the 21st Century. If that sounds like a sequel, well, it is: it’s a follow-up to the similar collection of journalistic writing called Content: Selected Essays on Technology, Creativity, Copyright, and the Future of the Future.

As the title of the new volume attests, Doctorow definitely has a lot of things to say about the state of technology and where things are going. You might find yourself not always agreeing with him, causing one to sometimes have verbal arguments with the book (which is not good if you’re in a public setting), but Doctorow has a personable, effortless style of writing that can be addictive and overwhelming in equal measure. What Context makes clear is that Doctorow is a really intelligent thinker and, even if you don’t always bow down to his particular line of thought, he clearly is something of a tireless fighter for the little guy on the Internet, which is more than certainly welcome in this age of media conglomeration.

However, while the essays and articles can be somewhat enjoyable to read – and they are likely best enjoyed by those who are practitioners of technology in their daily lives – there’s a fundamental flaw with Context. Despite the title, the book surprisingly offers very little context between Doctorow’s ideas and thoughts from piece to piece. The book is simply a repackaging of Doctorow’s journalism, and it's not presented in chronological order. It hopscotches around articles without any sense of a timeline – though it should be said that articles about Doctorow’s insightful artistic process, ideas about copyright and brayings against certain media moguls like Rupert Murdoch are essentially lumped together – and, what’s more, simply publishes the author’s newspaper and magazine essays verbatim without any additional editing.

Therefore, you get lines like, “In my next column, ‘Macropayments’, I’ll write more about this consummative act ... ”. Of course, the very next article in the book has nothing to do with the subject of macropayments. This seems lazy, and it's a personal preference that Doctorow should have come back and rewritten some of these pieces to give them more of a thematic flow. As far as Context goes, you could basically set up an RSS feed for Doctorow’s publications on the Web, and get the same ideas into your news feed.

What’s more, with the rate that technology moves these days, some of the articles presented within feel as though they’re already dated. For example, there are three articles in the book about the iPad and why Doctorow isn’t going to buy one because of the oppressive set of Digital Rights Management (DRM) that Apple has placed upon the tablet, and the author believes that these devices won’t become popular as a result. Well, anyone who has visited a coffee shop lately will see people tapping away on the lofty iPad, so obviously Joe and Jane Q. Public have nothing against them. It seems that Doctorow misinterpreted the cultural zeitgeist and what people are looking for in a tablet PC on that score.

This actually leads to a bit of a related aside: at his worst, Doctorow’s arguments are a bit one-dimensional in advocating for a completely open and unfettered Internet and related gadgetry – while nobody likes being locked in how one can use material they download from the wonderful Web, as Doctorow argues, there’s actually a benefit to DRM and Apple’s insistence that all apps that the iPad runs get vetted with them. Yes, it may cut down on guys in basements innovating and coming up with new applications that are revolutionary, as Doctorow argues, but it also significantly cuts down on the amount of malware and other unsavoury apps that could be developed without having a control system in place. It may not entirely eliminate viruses, but it does make for a much more safe, stable and secure experience.

But there I am, having an argument with this book.

There are also articles that are included in Context that even Doctorow admits are “self-indulgent”. There’s a piece solely about the type of technology that the author uses in his day-to-day life as a writer, and it’ll only be of interest to serious gearheads or fans of Doctorow’s fiction – and even that might be stretching it. In addition, when Doctorow wades into the area of copyright – which generally takes up the middle third of the book – a lot of the material seems much more complex that could be written in a simple 1,000 to 1,500 word piece. There is, at times, a whole other book trying to burst out of Context, and Doctorow’s ideas seem constrained to the pithy word count that magazines and newspapers were willing to give him.

Overall, there’s some good writing and sometimes great thinking that has gone into Doctorow’s journalism, and Context is somewhat useful for those who may have read a novel or two of the author’s and wants to get a bit of personal insight into his thoughts about writing and technology. There are some really sharply written articles, such as the one about Doctorow’s musings on what could happen to his personal information on his computers should he unexpectedly perish, and what he did about that particular situation.

However, Context is lacking: the book is, by and large, frustrating because it careens wildly all over the place with no compass to guide the reader between one piece and the next. Perhaps Doctorow was too busy to, pardon the pun, doctor up some of these pieces in the compilation, but strung together nilly-willy as they are, these articles and essays don’t collectively add up to a coherent argument, and that alone dilutes their impact.

If you’re looking for particularly well strung-together insights into the working life of an author and his thoughts on how technology is changing our daily lives, Context isn’t the book for you. Put another way, doing a Google search on the author may yield the same results, and is utterly and totally free.


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