How tech-savvy author Cory Doctorow got scammed

The American Dialect Society’s 2023 word of the year? Enshittification. And our guest on this edition of Chicago Public Square Podcasts, Cory Doctorow, is the guy who coined it.

Hear him define it—and his harrowing explanation of how he, one of the world’s most tech-savvy authors and journalists, got scammed out of $8,000 before he could figure out what was going on. Also: The one “ironclad” rule you should follow to avoid a similar fate.

And then, in this—our first conversation since this podcast from 2019—you’ll learn, among many other things, why he thinks Amazon embodies enshittification and why so many major publishers refused to consider one of his books.

Or if you prefer to read your podcasts, check out the transcript below.

And if you’re a completist, here’s the original, mostly unedited, behind-the-scenes raw audio and video from the recording of this podcast via Zoom on YouTube.

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Now, here’s a roughly edited transcript of the interview, recorded March 7, 2024:

[00:00:00] Charlie Meyerson: The American Dialect Society’s 2023 Word of the Year? Enshittification. And our guest is the guy who coined it:

[00:00:10] Cory Doctorow: What I think is going on is that this bad idea, right?—“Let’s make things worse for our customers and our suppliers and better for ourselves”—is omnipresent in every firm.

[00:00:21] CM: Cory Doctorow’s a science fiction author, activist, and oh, I’d say a very active journalist with an email newsletter he publishes daily. His new book is The Bezzle, a high-tech thriller whose protagonist is … an accountant. More on that to come. I’m Charlie Meyerson with, which, yes, is also an email newsletter. And this is a Chicago Public Square Podcast. Cory, it’s great to see you again. What’s new since the last time you and I recorded a podcast—almost exactly five years ago this month, back in 2019?

[00:00:55] CD: Well, there was a pandemic, and you know, lucky for me the way that I cope with anxiety and stress is by writing. And so I wrote nine books, which are all coming out in a string, which has left me pretty busy—but in a good way. My friend Joey Dilla says, when life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla. So that’s definitely where I’m at now.

[00:01:18] CM: You have a daily email newsletter, you have a podcast, and you’re on this nationwide book tour now, although you’re home now in California. When do you rest, huh?

[00:01:27] CD: Well, when I rest, I think about how terrible everything is, and so I try to do as little of that as possible. I mean, my family and I go off and do things from time to time. But, yeah, I have always written as a way of processing the world, and the world needs a lot of processing, so I’m doing a lot of writing.

[00:01:48] CM: Did your, uh, restlessness contribute to an unfortunate happening that I think shocked a lot of readers on February 5, 2024, when it was the most-tapped item in Chicago Public Square? And I’m gonna quote you here, “I was robbed $8,000-plus worth of fraud before I figured out what happened, and then he tried to do it again a week later.” What happened?

[00:02:11] CD: Yeah, that was while I was taking a rest as it happened. So for Christmas break, my wife and I, and then my daughter and my parents joined us, went to one of my favorite places in the world, New Orleans. So, we landed and needed cash. So I went to an ATM in the French Quarter, was like a, a chase ATM, and the whole transaction ran and then it threw an error and said, we can’t give you your money. I was like, Ugh, what a pain. And later on, we were walking through town and we passed a credit union’s ATM branch.

I bank with a one-branch credit union. And most credit unions don’t charge fees to each other. So I was like, oh, we’ll just use this one. So I got some money up. A couple of days go by, it’s time to leave, my folks have already gone, my wife and daughter are at the hotel, and I’ve gone out to get my very favorite sandwich just before we go. And my phone rings and it’s the caller ID for my bank.

And they say, “Mr. Doctorow, this is your bank calling. Uh, did you just try and spend a thousand dollars, uh, at an Apple store in New York?” And I was like, Ugh. One of those ATMs turned out to be dodgy. Either was the one that threw that error. And the reason was that it had, like, a skimmer mounted on it and they captured my card number.

Or maybe it was that cheap Chinese ATM that the one-branch credit union I went to was using one or the other. I was definitely skimmed. So, you know, I make my peace with it and I start talking with this guy and you know, when you bank with a little one-branch credit union, they don’t have their own after-hours fraud unit. They just contract out. And so these guys, you know, they’re a little clumsy. They’re a little amateurish. They ask you a bunch of questions your bank should know the answer to because they’re not really your bank, they’re their fraud center partner.

I’m just going through this whole thing and it’s going on and on, and I can see the store that sells my sandwich, and I can see the time ticking down.

And finally, I said like, “Look, fella, you’ve already frozen the card, you’ve gotten most of the recent transaction data. I’m gonna go. When I get to the airport after I clear security, I’ll call the bank’s after-hours number,” and he got really surety and I was like, you’re just gonna have to suck it up.

This is how it goes. You know, whatever losses you’re experiencing have nothing compared to the losses of me missing my flight with my wife and daughter. So go back and go to the, go to the airport and on the way I look at my phone and I find out that DC-737 Max Boeing Aircraft has just lost its door plug and all the 737 Maxes in the U.S., they’ve just been grounded. And we get to the airport and it’s a zoo. Everyone’s trying to rebook. By the time we get to the gate, we’ve got five minutes. ’Cause there’s just the lines, you know. Massive.

So I call the bank’s after-hours number and they say, “Sorry, sir, you pressed the wrong button. This is lost cards. Fraud’s a different number, but it sounds like you told the guy to freeze your cards. So it should be fine. Just come in on Monday and get your new card.”

So, uh, Monday morning I print out the list of all the fraudulent transactions, about $8,000 worth, and I go into the bank. And the cool thing about the one-branch credit union is that the person who helped me out was a vice president there and she was pissed about this $8,000 fraud. ’Cause if Visa wouldn’t cover it, then we’d have to eat it. You know—not me, but the credit union and, and so she’s pissed. I’m pissed. And I say, “Look, you know, some of this has to do with that crummy after-hours fraud center you guys use. ’Cause I told them to freeze my card on Saturday and all this fraud took place on Sunday.”

And she said, “Ugh, that’s no good. I’m gonna call them up now and find out what’s going on.”

She comes back five minutes later and says, “They never called you on Saturday. That was the fraudster.”

My card hadn’t been skimmed at all. So it turns out that guy—I’m like thinking about all the information I gave him: “Well, I gave him my name, but that’s in my Wikipedia entry. Gave him my date of birth; that’s in my Wikipedia entry. I gave him where I live; that’s in my Wikipedia entry. I gave him the last four digits of my credit card, and that’s not an—and then I was like, “Wait a second. He didn’t ask for the last four digits. He asked for the last seven digits”

And I said to the vice president of the bank, “You guys only have a single VISA prefix, right? The first nine digits are the same for every card you issue?”

She’s like, yep.

And I’m like, “OK. So I gave him the last seven digits and that was enough. Then he had the whole card number. And that’s how they robbed me.”

And he did it again the following Friday just before MLK weekend. And he called at 5:30 just before the bank’s closed for a three-day weekend or just after the bank’s closed for a three-day weekend, which is like the fraud golden hour.

And, you know, I recognized who it was and, and he said, “You know, your car’s been compromised. It’s so and so.” And I’m like, “No, it hasn’t. Card’s still in my wallet. Hasn’t left my wallet since I picked it up on Monday. Why don’t you tell me what the after-hours number on my card is? ’Cause I’m looking at it now. You tell me what number I call back to speak to you.” And he is like, “Mr. Doctorow, this is not a game. I have told you that there is active fraud on your card. If you don’t complete the anti-fraud protocol with me right now, then any losses will be yours to bear. The bank will not identify you.”

I’m like, “That’s adorable.” So I hang up on him and he calls me back and I’m like, oh, this guy is like definitely a fraud, right? Any doubt I had is immediately dispelled. So I just hung up with him and blocked his number. And then I called the risk management person at the bank when they reopened on Tuesday—’cause again, small bank, you get to talk to the person, and it turns out that there’s some a leak somewhere in America’s credit union supply chain. And somehow fraudsters are calling people knowing what bank they bank at, and knowing their phone number, neither of which is a matter of public record for me.

And that was the convincer for me. So even though I go to Defcon, the big hacker conference every year, and I go to those social engineering competitions where people get in a little soundproof booth in front of an audience and try to trick store clerks into giving them sensitive information, usually the store management has given them permission to try this out.

And I’m an expert on this stuff and I’ve written multiple novels about it. I got fooled. I got fooled using Swiss cheese security, which is where you have all these different layers of security. They’ve all got their little holes in them, like slices of Swiss cheese. Most of the time the holes don’t overlap and there’s no way to go all the way through the defenses.

But I was on vacation on the day the DC-737 Max, you know, had its door plug fall outta the sky. An hour before I was leaving, right after I used not one but two dodgy ATMs in one of the property crime centers of the world. You know, as all of these things all lined up, all the holes of the Swiss cheese lined up, I got fooled.

You know, there are lots of lessons here, but one of them is if you think you can’t get fooled, that’s the guarantee that someday you’re gonna get fooled.

[00:08:35] CM: Well, you’re certainly one of the most tech-savvy humans I’m aware of in this world. Is there any lesson that you gather from this? For the rest of us?

[00:08:43] CD: So the ironclad rule should be, and the rule that I normally follow is when your bank calls you, you say “Thank you very much. Do you have an operator number or anything so I can speak to you? ’Cause I’m gonna call back the number on my card.” That is complete proof against the fraud.

Now, the banks could do something about this ’cause the reason that I didn’t do it that day is ’cause I wanted to get that goddamn sandwich and calling and speaking to someone like a rando in their voicemail tree and trying to tell them, you know, like, give them all my account information, a lot of which I didn’t even have ’cause it’s just, it’s in my laptop back in the hotel—going through all of that with a stranger would’ve eaten up all the time I had. So I was like, “Oh, I’ll just deal with this guy. He knows my number, he knows my name, and he knows where I bank. It’s clearly from my bank.”

But if they were to call you up and say, “Mr. Doctorow, this is your bank, this is my operator number, or a unique five-digit code, or whatever, write it down. Call the number on your card. And give that number to the interactive voice response system. The bank is gonna pay me to sit here idle for 15 minutes waiting for you so you can find a quiet place to sit down and call, and you will speak directly to me. We won’t have to go through a long process where you have to get me up to speed on the thing I’m getting you up to speed on, and we’ll just, we’ll just make it work.”

You know, we haven’t found out yet whether or not Visa’s gonna honor this claim. But if my bank loses $8,000 this year because of me—and it’s a credit union, so I’m a member of it, right? I’m co-owner of this bank, as are all the other customers of it—that’s all the money they’re gonna make for me this year, including the interest on my mortgage, right?

Like they’ve just zeroed out one of their most valuable customers. Paying the after-hours fraud center or an in-house fraud center to have a little bit more idle time at the margin so that you can have a higher fidelity of anti-fraud is something absolutely worth it. And you know, this is emblematic in some ways of what happens when you squeeze all the slack out of the system—is that you kind of groom people to cut corners because they know the process sucks.

So I think that it could be improved, and you know, clearly a lot of the blame here is on me, but not all of it.

[00:11:01] CM: You’re generous to accept even some of the responsibility.

[00:11:04] CD: Well, I should have known to call them back. But I didn’t.

You know, I spoke with that risk management officer, and I was like, “Let’s go through the way your interactive voice response system characterizes each of the options when you call after hours,” because I had missed the anti-fraud. ’Cause it’s not called “anti-fraud.” Like “If you suspect fraud on your card, press 2.” It was something else. Right? It was like, “If you have a problem with your account,” and I was like, “That’s something else.” I didn’t even press it.

So we discussed new wording and they’re gonna put new wording in. Also, I’m speaking at DEFCON this year again. This year’s theme is “Enshittification,” and so they’re giving me a keynote slot, and that always comes with a bunch of free speaker’s badges. What I usually do when I speak there is I go to the people in line waiting to buy a badge and I just pick five people and give them badges. But I’m saving one for my bank’s risk management officer, and she’s gonna get in for free and she can go to those social engineering competitions.

[00:12:00] CM: Well, I’ve fallen in love with this word that you coined, enshittification, and I need to note for our listeners that there are two T’s in the middle of enshittification.

CD: Mm-hmm.

CM: How did you decide on two T’s?

[00:12:13] CD: You know, the first time I used it, I only put in one.

CM: Did you? Okay.

CD: Two T’s is better.

CM: You think so?

CD: It makes shit an infix and it makes -tification the suffix instead of -ification.


CD: So en is the prefix, shit is the infix, -tification is the suffix, and that second T is doing some work there. The American Dialect Society, when they gave the word the honor—and it’s not just their word of the year, it’s like their digital word of the year, and, I don’t know, like their sweary word of the year; it, like, took top honors in a bunch of categories—they are actual cunning linguists, and they went ahead and dissected the word and figured out what all the things meant. I couldn’t diagram a sentence if you paid me.

[00:13:01] CM: I knew you’d have a reason for the double-T, and thank you for fulfilling my expectations. Yeah. But let’s back up for people. I imagine there are a few who do not yet know about enshittification.

CD: Sure.

CM: What is it?

[00:13:15] CD: It’s a term I coined to describe a specific pathology of late-stage internet platforms. Platforms are the unlikely endemic form of the internet. You know, for a medium that was supposed to disintermediate everything, the fact that the biggest form of business on the internet is intermediaries is pretty wild. And—if you wanna think of it as, like, a pathology—it describes the natural history, like what happens when a platform unifies and it has a very specific kind of decaying model where first it allocates value to end-users; those end-users flock in and get locked in somehow, so that when the company then starts to take away some of that value to give it to business customers, the users don’t leave, can’t leave. Then those business customers come in because of the attractive proposition that’s being made to them. And then they get locked in because they’re there for the end users who are also locked in. And then once everyone’s locked in, all the value is drawn out and given to the firm, the platform. And then the whole thing turns into a pile of shit, hence enshittification.

Um, but it also describes like the underlying mechanism, like what’s going on inside the firm? Why are digital firms so able to enshittify? And it’s because digital is very flexible. I had someone email me this morning and say, well, Panera Bread is steaming towards, its IPO and there’s this investigative report that says that they’ve cut back on their ingredients, their ingredients aren’t very good anymore.

That’s enshittification too, and it’s not quite. Because enshittification involves this process I call twiddling. It’s when the platform can change the business rules from moment to moment. So a really good example is an Uber driver who’s the business customer in that two-sided market riders and drivers.

So Uber practices this thing called algorithmic wage discrimination, which is a violation of labor law that they say doesn’t violate labor law. ’Cause they do it with an app. And what they do is if you are a driver who’s selective about which rides you take, if you only take the highest dollar value rides, then each ride that’s offered to you comes at a higher dollar value than it would if you were less selective.

The less selective you become, the lower the return per mile and minute becomes in small increments that are very hard to notice, and if you become more selective, they toggle back up again. And so the rate is going up and down and up and down in response to your perceived selectivity in a fully automated way.

And this is a kind of game of exhaustion because at a certain point, you take your eye off the ball and you start taking rides that are worse and then the rides get worse and worse and worse. Meanwhile, you’re jettisoning those things that you used to do as side hustles that let you be more selective.

That’s what it means when you’re taking worse rides as you’re taking more rides. And at a certain point, you’re just like fully locked in. You have a car lease to meet because you’ve bought a car just to drive for Uber. You’ve got some other overheads that you’re trying to meet, and your wages sunk to the very bottom that algorithmic wage discrimination is a term vena dubo coined is a thing that Panera Bread would love to do.

It’s a thing that like. You know, the black-hearted coal bosses of Tennessee Ernie Ford songs would love to do. But you know, like doing that manually with an army of guys in green eyeshades is not practical. And digital firms can alter the business logic from second to second in ways that offline firms or firms that have some physical component struggle to do.

And so that’s the underlying mechanism. And then the next question is, why is it happening to everyone all at once? Why are all these platforms enshittifying now? That’s kind of the epidemiological question, right? Where’s the contagion coming from? Because when a lot of firms start doing something all at once.

In the same way, it’s unlikely to be related to something endogenous to the firm. It’s not just that like a bunch of people had the same bad idea at the same time in all these companies, right? What I think is going on is that this bad idea, right? “Let’s make things worse for our customers and our suppliers and better for ourselves” is omnipresent—in every firm, right? Every firm is trying to find the equilibrium between apportioning value to say employees or suppliers and to customers and to themselves. And there are some constraints, right? One is competition. If you know, if you offer a substandard product and there’s somewhere else your customers can go, they’ll go there.

If you pay substandard wages and there’s somewhere else your employees can go, they’ll go there. You know, all of this stuff about “Nobody wants to work” is hilarious because I guarantee you they’ll work if you offer double the wage, right? “Nobody wants to work at the wage you’re offering” is like, “Nobody wants to sell me a plane ticket at what I think it’s worth.”

That sounds like a me problem, not like an American Airlines problem. Right. So, you know, the competition acts as this check on firms, but competition has been in free fall for 40 years. And I think that across the threshold, right? We allow companies to buy their major rivals. We allow them to engage in predatory pricing, to exclude new market entrants.

We allow them to buy nascent competitors before they can grow to be threats and then extinguish them. We allow them to do all the above, right? You have Amazon, which tried to buy—, which, you know, as is implied by the name, was an e-commerce platform that sold diapers. They were doing a really good business and they didn’t wanna sell to Amazon.

So Amazon first tried to do an anti-competitive acquisition, right? To take a firm that was its rival in a certain vertical and, and buy it. So the firm wouldn’t do that. So then they did predatory pricing. And buying the nascent rival and predatory pricing would’ve been illegal until the Carter administration.

Carter removed some Jenga blocks from the antitrust tower. Reagan started pulling them out by the fistful, and every administration since has lowered the amount of antitrust enforcement we do—to the point where now companies can just get away with murder. And so Amazon said, all right, we’re gonna start selling diapers below cost. They sold diapers below cost to the tune of a hundred million dollars in losses—which, put outta business. Right? So that’s predatory pricing. Then they acquired at pennies in the dollar. So that’s the anti-competitive acquisition, and then they shut them down. That’s, a catch and kill, right? All of this was, is illegal under the black letter of competition law.

None of it was enforced against. Amazon also derived a secondary benefit from this. And that secondary benefit was informing every other source of capital that if you invest in a company that competes with Amazon, the best you can hope for is an acquisition. But what’s probably gonna happen is you’re just gonna get driven outta business.

It’s what venture capitalists called the kill Zone, and it’s why people don’t compete with Amazon. And so we lost the constraint of competition and we lost the constraint of regulation. Because when a sector dwindles to a handful of firms, they find it very easy to agree on a single lobbying position, and they can make their will felt in Congress, in the expert agencies and in court, and they can get away with whatever they want.

[00:20:25] CM: What is your cure for enshittification?

[00:20:27] CD: So if you take each of these constraints, right—the first one being competition—restoring that constraint will reduce the power of firms to enshittify, right? If they have to worry about you quitting or leaving as a customer, then they have to treat you better. And if they don’t get the message, then you can go somewhere that treats you better.

So we are in a historic moment for antitrust enforcement. As we record this today, the European Union has just started enforcing the Digital Markets Act. Here in the United States, we have generationally significant leaders at the Department of Justice Antitrust Division—with Jonathan Kanter at the Federal Trade Commission with Chair Lina Khan, and at the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau with Rohit Chopra.

No coincidence that there is a bipartisan effort to slash all of their budgets working their way through the mini budget right now. Right? But reinvigorating antitrust is a way to restore the disciplinary power of competition. It also restores the power of regulators because it’s not just antitrust that regulators do—it’s everything.

And if you want a company not to rip you off, say the way Amazon does. So if you go to Amazon, you click the first link on an Amazon search, on average, you pay a 29% premium relative to the best item. ’Cause Amazon makes $38 billion a year selling payola the right to make the top search result.

If you walked into a Corner store or Target and said, “Sell me your cheapest batteries,” and they sold you batteries that were 30% more expensive than their cheapest batteries, That would be fraud. Amazon’s regulatory capture allows it to say, “It’s not fraud when we do it with an app,” just like Uber says, “It’s not a labor violation when we do it with an app” or Google says “It’s not a privacy violation when we do it with an app.” Make those companies more fragmented and you starve them of the capital they need to suborn their regulators, and you also introduce a collective action problem where they just become too many companies to agree on what it is they’re gonna tell their regulators.

CM: Are you available for federal office?

CD: Uh, no. I wrote nine books during lockdown and I just agreed to write a 10th one about unification. I’m busy till 2027.

[00:22:35] CM: Cory and I have something else in common—decades apart from one another. We’ve both been contributors to the Venerable Journal of Science Fiction Locusts, although my main contribution consisted of a series of cartoons I drew as a teenager. What do you make of the state of science fiction these days? Text, TV, motion pictures.

[00:22:53] CD: Well, it’s certainly at an interesting moment. I mean, there’s one way in which the most salient fact is that it’s dominated by five companies—five major publishers that sell to one national brick-and-mortar chain owned by a private equity fund, Barnes and Noble; and one rapacious monopolist e-commerce platform, Amazon.

Ninety percent of the audiobooks are controlled by Amazon subsidiary Audible. There’s a single national distributor, which is Ingram. All the other distributors are owned by the Big Five publishers. So I published a book in 2020 with my colleague Rebecca Giblin about how monopolists rip off creative workers.

None of the Big Five publishers wanted to publish it ’cause it was really critical of them. So we published with a wonderful independent press called Beacon that’s 150 years old, owned by the Unitarian Universalists. Albert Einstein once very famously said, “If there is hope in this world, it the Unitarian-Universalists and Beacon Press” (Editor’s note: Not quite, but not far off in spirit.) Beacon is distributed by Penguin Random House, the largest publisher in the world who got a dollar every time we sold a book explaining why they were an evil monopolist.

Right? So. That’s one way in which science fiction is just on the ropes, right? You have four major studios, thankfully, uh, thanks to our friends in the federal government, Paramount did not just sell to Disney, but they’re looking for another suitor. And so, you know, in every way we are struggling.

You have HBO Warner, which is cutting shows they have—and not because no one wants to see them, but because David Zaslav—the villain from central casting who runs that business—has figured out that he can get more in a tax credit for writing off a show than he can for releasing it—taking stuff that people, like, miss their parents’ funeral to work on and just flushing it down the toilet. So in those ways it’s very bad. In terms of the work being produced, it’s never been better. I mean, we’re in an amazing moment for the field. People are writing incredible things—notwithstanding the massive scandal at the Hugo Awards last year, which is a whole different story about the difficulties of hosting the Hugos in China and the mistakes that the non-Chinese Hugo administrators made.

[00:25:07] CM: I missed that. Give us the short version of that.

[00:25:09] CD: Oh my gosh. So after the Hugo Awards are awarded as you leave, they’re handing out sheets of photocopied paper with all the vote tallies and nomination tallies—that didn’t happen at the WorldCon China, which was the first ever held in China, which has more science fiction fans than all the rest of the world combined, and, you know, more than deserves a world con. Instead, the committee that oversaw the Hugos waited until the very last minute permitted by the bylaws to release the numbers, whereupon everyone realized that something was up. And it turns out that they had unilaterally disqualified innumerable works both Chinese and also a number of works by American and European Chinese writers of Chinese descent. And they had done this—it transpired after lots of memos leaked and so on ’cause they stonewalled when people asked about this—they’d done this not because anyone in China had asked them to, but because they thought that the Chinese government would get upset if they didn’t.

And they went so far as to assemble dossiers on people nominated for awards and disqualify them if they thought they had been to Tibet. It turns out the person that they disqualified for having traveled to Tibet, had traveled to Nepal, which is not Tibet …

CM: Easy mistake to make.

CD: These were Americans and Canadians, not Chinese fans. And they disgrace themselves. They disgrace the award. The people who won the award now have an asterisk next to their name. When they were fighting for their reputations and stonewalling, they were gratuitously insulting to these writers, most of them of Chinese descent. You know, Chinese Americans primarily when they question this and they are fans of very longstanding people who have volunteered to run this award for decades.

And this is the way they’re going to end their careers in fandom. It’s quite sad.

[00:27:05] CM: One of the things Cory told me, back when we talked in a previous podcast in 2019, was that one way to spot terrible technology in our future would be to take a look at what the powers that be are foisting on prisoners. And now five years later, his new book The Bezzle offers a look at just that. But why did you set it to open in 2006?

[00:27:28] CD: Well, for that you need to understand these nine books I wrote during lockdown. So one of them was a book called Red Team Blues, and the conceit behind Red Team Blues is, it’s like a detective thriller about a hard-charging, two-fisted but lovable forensic accountant—67 years old, spent 40 years in Silicon Valley undoing every bit of mischief that a tech bro ever thought to do, finding all the money that people use spreadsheets to hide. And the conceit was, it’s like the last volume of a beloved detective series you have read for 25 years and grown up with.

Except I’m not gonna bother writing the other books; it’s just the last one. And it was pretty successful. I sent it to my editor who I love dearly. I met him on a bulletin board system when I was 17 years old. He’s edited all my novels, and he will not think that I am being overly critical of him when I tell you that he’s not the world’s most reliable email correspondent.

And so when I sent him the manuscript after finishing the first draft, I finished it in six weeks from the first word to the last. In that first draft, I sent it to him and I expected months to go by. And instead the next morning there was an email waiting for me that was just, that was a fucking ride.

Whoa. And he bought three of them. And there’s a problem because this is the last adventure of Martin Hench forensic accountant. There is some precedent for bringing a detective out of retirement. Very famously, Conan Doyle brings Sherlock Holmes back over Rickenbacker Falls because Queen Victoria offered him a knighthood.

My editor is a very powerful man in New York publishing. He is a vice president in the McMillan company, but he cannot knight me, so I was not gonna bring poor old Marty out of retirement. And so I had to come up with something else. And it occurred to me that I could write these books out of order. I could write them in any sequence.

He’s like the Zelig of high-tech finance fraud. He’s been at every place where someone ripped someone else off with a computer. If I wrote them out of order, I wouldn’t have any continuity problems ’cause when the series goes backwards, you’re not foreshadowing—you’re backshadowing. And the more detail you throw in, the more of like a, you know, absolutely premeditated motherfucker you appear to be—even if you’re just winging it.

So this is the second book. The first one is set in the 2020s. It’s a cryptocurrency heist novel. This one is about the era where Yahoo is buying and destroying every successful Web 2.0 company. It’s a time I know very well. I was there. I founded a startup that, you know, Microsoft tried to buy—that our investors then stole from the founders and then the deal fell through and the chaos that ensued.

And so I’ve lived through it. And so it was a moment I really wanted to write about in particular because. It’s the moment that represents the time between the dot-com bubble bursting and the subprime bubble bursting, and it’s this period that you can think of as the bezzle. The bezzle, B-E-Z-Z-L-E, not B-E-Z-E-L.

Not the rectangle around your phone screen, but this term that was coined by John Kenneth Galbraith to describe what he calls the magic interval. After the con artist has your money, but before you know it’s a con. And in that moment, Galbraith says everybody feels richer, everybody is happier. The national stock of happiness goes up for so long as the bezzle is going.

The longer the bezzle goes, the more unhappiness debt you accumulate because the more money gets pumped into the fraud. Right? And so the irony of the bezzle is that the people who are in it don’t want you to rupture it, even if that will save them from losing everything, because it’s when the unhappiness starts. It’s like continuing to drink so that you don’t get hungover.

The more you do that, the worse the hangover becomes, and that moment, those charmed and difficult years from 2002 to 2006, are really an ideal time to tell a story that I think of as Panama Papers fanfic.

[00:31:49] CM: The Bezzle has a few Chicago connections. One is a name well known to people in Chicago: Wrigley. Give our listeners a taste of how that comes into play.

[00:31:59] CD: Yeah, so that same editor of mine, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who I love dearly but is not the world’s most reliable email correspondent—when he edited my first novel, now almost 25 years ago, he gave me this piece of advice with his editorial note that I’ve never forgotten: He said a science fiction novel has the world and the character, and they’re like a big gear and a little gear. And the point is to turn the world all the way around so the reader can see what’s going on in the world.

And the way you do that is by having the little gear, the character, turn around as many times as it takes to spin the world one complete revolution. And the teeth have to match for that to happen. The world has to be a macrocosm of the character. And the character has to be a microcosm of the world. And when the books don’t work, check your micro-macro correspondences, see if they’re, if the one is the miniature of the other.

So one of the things that I do in these novels about scams is I try to start with a small scam that’s a kind of microcosm of the big scams. So the big scam in this book is about prison tech, but the small scam in this book is a Ponzi scheme and it’s set on Catalina Island, and Catalina is a place I’ve fallen in love with since I moved to Southern California.

And it’s for people who don’t know, it’s this kind of storybook island across the channel from Long Beach. It’s the deepest channel in the world. And this island was owned by the Wrigley family. It’s where the Cubs used to have their spring training.

It’s where Marilyn Monroe was a child bride. It’s where the CIA was founded. It was home of the largest ballroom in America and every week the most popular dance music program in the world used to broadcast live from high atop Avalon on beautiful Catalina Island. It’s home to—originally—13 male bison that got loose after shooting a Zane Gray movie. But then old man Wrigley decided it would be un-Christian to have 13 bachelors. So he imported 13 cows for them—not understanding that, uh, bison form harems. And they have ever since struggled with an out-of-control bison population.

It’s a remarkable place and one of its peccadillos leftover from Old Man Wrigley is that when he gave the island to a land trust, he decreed that there would never be a fast-food chain on the island, which, you know, whatever. In terms of folly pursued by billionaires, it barely registers. I’m not a big fast-food eater myself, but for the people on the island, fast food has become a kind of forbidden fruit.

And if you go to the little K to 12 school and you go for an away game with your football team, everyone expects you to bring back a sack of sliders because everyone wants to try, you know, the fast food they can’t get on the island. And so I made up a little Ponzi scheme involving hamburgers brought over from the mainland and flash-frozen … to be traded as futures in the same way that housing and luxury tower blocks—only incidentally, a place where someone might live—is primarily a source of leverage and a safe deposit box in the sky, which, you know, in the runup to the 2008 crisis was, you know, often bought and sold several times before it was built, had multiple, uh, collateralized debt obligations and synthetic collateralized debt obligations hanging off of it and could be inflated into paper worth 10 or 20 times its value, which is exactly what happens to these deep-frozen hamburgers on the island.

Thanks to a wicked real estate baron, who it turns out is doing the same thing with real estate as he is with hamburgers and who becomes so enamored of his own cleverness that he begins to relish the moment when the whole thing bursts and the island’s economy tanks. And that’s where Marty Hench and his friend come in and they decide to do a controlled demolition of this Ponzi before it can take down the island.

[00:36:16] CM: You know, as I read The Bezzle, I thought. Boy, there’s a lot of food in this book. How important is food and cooking in your life? Or was that just you writing about people for whom it is a big deal?

[00:36:28] CD: I mean, I love to cook, but Marty Hench is a better cook than I am. I love books that have delicious food in them. And I love books that have delicious food that’s well appreciated. You know, the Hemingway hamburger of, you know beef, salt, pepper, turn it once, don’t touch it again, is actually pretty goddamn good advice for making a hamburger. I put a little butter in the pan depending on the fat content in your ground beef, but it’s not bad.

I find these books to be a really fun way to kind of do the adult version of what I did in the Little Brother books. So in the Little Brother books, it’s kind of like that cool uncle or your friend’s older brother puts an arm around your shoulder and says, “Lemme tell you how the world really works, kid.”

And just opens your eyes. And these books are more like, let me tell you how the worst things in the world are done. And counter sinking that with the great pleasures of life, I think makes these books more balanced.

[00:37:41] CM: Your books were some of the first that I read on mobile devices—a Blackberry in my case—and I know you’ve continued to champion that technology. Digital rights management—DRM, the fences around the use of people’s electronic content—has been a longstanding concern of Cory’s. How’re we doing?

[00:38:01] CD: Well, again, back to that, you know, generational moment for tech and antitrust. There is, for the first time in the whole time that I’ve been working on this, some real energy to do something about it—some sense that it is iniquitous.

So, to give you a sense of how screwed up this whole system is: In 1998, Bill Clinton signed this law, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Section 1201 of that makes it a felony to traffic in, quote, a circumvention device for effective means of access controls to copyrighted work.

So if there’s a thing that stops you from accessing a copyrighted work and someone makes a tool that allows you to access it. That tool is illegal and the person who who gives it to you as a felon can go to prison for five years and pay a $500,000 fine for a first offense. So what that means, very practically speaking, is if I want my audiobook sold on Audible, which requires digital rights management—a lock on every book that ensures that it can only be played on a device that Amazon has approved of—then I can’t leave Amazon and take you with me. If I decide that Amazon is abusing me, and they really do abuse their suppliers, especially in the audiobook world.

There was a ghastly scandal last year called Audiblegate, which involved at least $100 million in wage theft from independent audiobook authors that Amazon did with a scummy accounting trick. So if I go, look, I’m gonna leave and I’m gonna take my readers with me, and I’m gonna give them a tool so they can unlock their books, take them to whatever app the next store I decide to sell on uses, I commit a felony. Not only do I commit that felony, but the felony carries a harsher penalty than you would pay if you were to go to a pirate website and download the book. But it’s also like a higher penalty than you would pay if you were to go into a truck stop and shoplift the CD of the book, and it’s probably a higher penalty than you would pay if you stuck up the truck that delivered the CDs and stole the truck.

Right. So for me to allow you to access the book that I wrote maybe that I financed the audiobook for, that I read the audiobook for is a crime that exceeds the penalties then that you would pay for even really serious property crimes involving other people’s property. And this just gives Amazon enormous leverage.

People are getting sick of this in Oregon. They’ve just passed a right-to-repair bill. That prohibits companies from using this technology to lock parts to their devices. So if you take a screen outta one iPhone and put it in another iPhone, right? If you’re an independent repair shop, and Apple won’t sell you parts, but you’re buying broken phones and harvesting dead parts out of them, you have to do something called parts pairing, where you enter an unlock key, and the same law—this law that prevents you from unlocking your audiobooks—also prevents someone from giving you a tool to do the parts pairing. And so the screen won’t work on the phone. Oregon’s just banned using that technology, so they can’t overturn this law. It’s a federal law, but they can ban you from using technology that implicates it.

Um, I think that. You know, we are in a moment where enough is enough. People are getting really pissed off about it. They’re no longer getting duped by the story that this stuff is anti-piracy technology that stops people from stealing from you. And they’re realizing that the thing that you have to worry about is not that your readers might.

Read or listen to your book the wrong way, but rather that the companies that distribute your books might rip you and your readers off that you are class allies in the fight against monopolies.

[00:41:55] CM: Back to your daily newsletter, in which you deal with issues like this every day. It reads typographically like an email newsletter circa the turn of the century. You run full web addresses …

CD: Mm-hmm.

CM: … URLs. You don’t hyperlink words or phrases. Why is that?

[00:42:15] CD: So I want it to be future-proof. So I want you to take something out of your inbox from 20 years ago that I wrote and copy and paste it into some other format that doesn’t exist yet. I. And for you to be able to know what all those links were.

So there’s no tracking redirect, you know, like the redirect that Twitter uses or I think it’s HREF that Tumblr uses, and so on. They all have their own little redirects. I want the link to be live. I want you to be able to see the semantics of the link before you copy it or before you click on it.

I want you to be able to see whose link you’re going to without having to sort of glance around somewhere on the screen for a link preview. And I want you to be able to copy and paste it between programs—even programs that don’t carry over the style information or the link information—and have it all carry over.

And so that’s why putting it all in that plain text format is, is so important to me. I do every now and again, shorten a URL if it’s very, very long. So sometimes I’ll, I’ll link a gift link from the New York Times, from my subscription to the New York Times in the thing. And those NYT gift links are obnoxiously long, like hundreds of characters.

So I have my own URL shortener, and so I’ll sometimes do a little URL shortener in there, but for the most part, I don’t shorten URLs.

CM: Closing thoughts, Cory?

CD: We’re emerging from a 40-year neoliberal period incubated at the University of Chicago—thank you very much— …

CM: Yeah, sorry about that.

CD: … Where we only talked about economics and never about power. I got an email from someone yesterday saying that it’s not price gouging. If profits go up when gas price inputs go up at the pump, right? If the cost of oil goes up, then the cost of gas goes up because the investors, I.

Want the same margin. So if gas is a dollar a gallon coming into the gas station and they’re getting a 50% margin, then it’ll be a dollar 50. If it’s $2 a gallon, then they’ll get $3 and so on. And that’s not price gouging, that’s just maintaining a constant a constant margin. The thing is no one came down off a mount with two stone tablets and said, you are guaranteed that margin that it is power.

That determines whose end that margin comes out of. Does it come out of your end as the retailer? Does it come outta your distributor’s end because the retailer refuses to buy it at that price? Does it come out of the consumer’s end because the price goes up? If those questions aren’t contestable, you are not operating in a market.

You are getting a guaranteed margin. That’s a planned economy, and you know, I’m a red diaper baby. Planned economies don’t scare me. But if we’re gonna have an economy that’s planned, I’d rather have it planned by democratically accountable lawmakers who deliberate in public than by shareholder-accountable monopolists who deliberate in boardrooms.

[00:45:23] CM: My closing thought: I find Cory’s email newsletter must-reading daily and his books are always gripping. Sign up for his Our guest on this edition of Chicago Public Square Podcasts—recorded via Zoom March 7, 2024—has been Cory Doctorow, whom you can find at bookstores everywhere and also at And you can join me for a roundup of the news weekday mornings at I’m Charlie Meyerson. On behalf of my friends and co-conspirators at Rivet360 in Chicago, thanks for listening.

[Original transcript via of Descript.]

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