The Quick vs. the Strong: Commentary on Cory Doctorow's Walkaway

Technological advances change the world. That’s partly because of what they are, but even more because of the social changes they enable. New technologies upend power balances. They give groups new capabilities, increased effectiveness, and new defenses. The Internet decades have been a never-ending series of these upendings. We’ve seen existing industries fall and new industries rise. We’ve seen governments become more powerful in some areas and less in others. We’ve seen the rise of a new form of governance: a multi-stakeholder model where skilled individuals can have more power than multinational corporations or major governments.

Among the many power struggles, there is one type I want to particularly highlight: the battles between the nimble individuals who start using a new technology first, and the slower organizations that come along later.

In general, the unempowered are the first to benefit from new technologies: hackers, dissidents, marginalized groups, criminals, and so on. When they first encountered the Internet, it was transformative. Suddenly, they had access to technologies for dissemination, coordination, organization, and action—things that were impossibly hard before. This can be incredibly empowering. In the early decades of the Internet, we saw it in the rise of Usenet discussion forums and special-interest mailing lists, in how the Internet routed around censorship, and how Internet governance bypassed traditional government and corporate models. More recently, we saw it in the SOPA/PIPA debate of 2011-12, the Gezi protests in Turkey and the various “color” revolutions, and the rising use of crowdfunding. These technologies can invert power dynamics, even in the presence of government surveillance and censorship.

But that’s just half the story. Technology magnifies power in general, but the rates of adoption are different. Criminals, dissidents, the unorganized—all outliers—are more agile. They can make use of new technologies faster, and can magnify their collective power because of it. But when the already-powerful big institutions finally figured out how to use the Internet, they had more raw power to magnify.

This is true for both governments and corporations. We now know that governments all over the world are militarizing the Internet, using it for surveillance, censorship, and propaganda. Large corporations are using it to control what we can do and see, and the rise of winner-take-all distribution systems only exacerbates this.

This is the fundamental tension at the heart of the Internet, and information-based technology in general. The unempowered are more efficient at leveraging new technology, while the powerful have more raw power to leverage. These two trends lead to a battle between the quick and the strong: the quick who can make use of new power faster, and the strong who can make use of that same power more effectively.

This battle is playing out today in many different areas of information technology. You can see it in the security vs. surveillance battles between criminals and the FBI, or dissidents and the Chinese government. You can see it in the battles between content pirates and various media organizations. You can see it where social-media giants and Internet-commerce giants battle against new upstarts. You can see it in politics, where the newer Internet-aware organizations fight with the older, more established, political organizations. You can even see it in warfare, where a small cadre of military can keep a country under perpetual bombardment—using drones—with no risk to the attackers.

This battle is fundamental to Cory Doctorow’s new novel Walkaway. Our heroes represent the quick: those who have checked out of traditional society, and thrive because easy access to 3D printers enables them to eschew traditional notions of property. Their enemy is the strong: the traditional government institutions that exert their power mostly because they can. This battle rages through most of the book, as the quick embrace ever-new technologies and the strong struggle to catch up.

It’s easy to root for the quick, both in Doctorow’s book and in the real world. And while I’m not going to give away Doctorow’s ending—and I don’t know enough to predict how it will play out in the real world—right now, trends favor the strong.

Centralized infrastructure favors traditional power, and the Internet is becoming more centralized. This is true both at the endpoints, where companies like Facebook, Apple, Google, and Amazon control much of how we interact with information. It’s also true in the middle, where companies like Comcast increasingly control how information gets to us. It’s true in countries like Russia and China that increasingly legislate their own national agenda onto their pieces of the Internet. And it’s even true in countries like the US and the UK, that increasingly legislate more government surveillance capabilities.

At the 1996 World Economic Forum, cyber-libertarian John Perry Barlow issued his “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” telling the assembled world leaders and titans of Industry: “You have no moral right to rule us, nor do you possess any methods of enforcement that we have true reason to fear.” Many of us believed him a scant 20 years ago, but today those words ring hollow.

But if history is any guide, these things are cyclic. In another 20 years, even newer technologies—both the ones Doctorow focuses on and the ones no one can predict—could easily tip the balance back in favor of the quick. Whether that will result in more of a utopia or a dystopia depends partly on these technologies, but even more on the social changes resulting from these technologies. I’m short-term pessimistic but long-term optimistic.

This essay previously appeared on Crooked Timber.

Posted on May 15, 2017 at 2:21 PM28 Comments


Daniel May 15, 2017 4:30 PM

I concur @Bruce, it matches my own thoughts to a remarkable degree. The consequence to this truth is that the primary advantage the quick have over the strong, from a security point of view, is dodge. I mean dodge in the sense it is used in D&D and whose direct opposite is mitigation. When one realizes this one realizes that technology like the iPhone is primary of no use to the quick because the heart of the iPhone is mitigation. An iPhone is what one relies on after they have already failed their dodge saving throw. It also reveals the folly of OS hardening and defense in depth as a general concept for those among the quick.

Historically, there are some interesting parallels with what is happening in technology today and the settlement of the American West. By analogy, the native Americans were the quick and the US Army was the strong. The native Americans were actually very adept at adopting the new technology brought by the Europeans such as horses and guns, and using them in guerrilla raids. The problem for the native Americans was the same problem that would befuddle the south in the American civil war, too few numbers. It didn’t matter that they were quick, it didn’t matter how mobile they were, how much dodge they had, because they enemy could come at them from every direction with overwhelming numbers. At the peak of the Civil War the union outnumbered the confederacy by a ratio of 2:1. The union could successfully fight a war of attrition and the South could not.

So the real problem for the dissidents and the quick in general in a problem of numbers. With so many institutional actors there is no way to dodge a path to success. Whatever hacks, or doxxing, or intrusions dissidents can inflict on state actors those state actors simply tap the well of public funds. Wikileaks releases CIA or NSA tools and what does the government do? Hire more coders to make more zero days. The result is that I am the exact opposite of Bruce in my conclusions. I am a short-term optimist but a long-term pessimist. In the short term an individual or group of individuals might score some scattered victories but in the long-term they simply don’t have the numbers to keep the effort up.

Sancho_P May 15, 2017 5:08 PM

”I’m short-term pessimistic but long-term optimistic.” (@Bruce)

Regardless of what you mean by short-term – that’s bad (sad).
You could be dead before seeing the light.
I prefer to be optimistic now (my lifespan) and pessimistic in long-term 😉

It might be a bit more realistic, too.

Ross Snider May 15, 2017 6:08 PM

criminals and the FBI, or dissidents and the Chinese government

Dissidents in the United States (Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, Tea Party Movement, etc) were subjected to FBI targeting, surveillance and disruption.

Let’s not pretend that this is a “China goes after dissidents and America goes after criminals” thing.

Donald Trump election would not have happened without the internet May 15, 2017 6:29 PM

I don’t know how you could have left this out.

I am more optimistic than I have ever been about the power of technology to improve people’s lives. Without social media, Trump would not have been elected, period. If all people could have accessed during the campaign was the information coming from traditional media (TV networks, cable news, traditional newspapers, etc), Trump would not have stood a chance.

This reminds me of a conversation I heard in Meet The Press a while back. The topic of the discussion was campaign finance and how expensive it was to run campaigns these days. Steve Case said

” I’d say, I focus less on politics, frankly, and more on policy. But I actually think we’re fighting last year’s battle. I think all this effort is around raising money to fund television ads. And I hate to break this to you, but actually, people are watching less television. And those campaigns of the future are not going to be fought based on 30 second ads on television.

That’s why the internet is emerging as a force to spread information, engage the people. And I think the next wave of campaigns, it may take five or ten years, but people are not going to be running the campaigns the same way that the political industrial– “

I don’t think he had Trump’s election in mind when he said that.

Yes, a few vicious companies (Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Comcast, ATT, and the like) have a lot of control over the internet infrastructure but ultimately, it’s the people who make use of this infrastructure that matter. Encryption has made it possible for a guy in California to safely share his thoughts on what is going on in the country with a guy from Rhode Island in ways that were just not possible 20 years ago. The attempt to censor things won’t go anywhere.

Overall, I am extremely optimistic about the future. Never before have the people had the power they have today, to the point that the internet made it possible to elect an outsider as the most powerful political leader of the world. That’s what I call leverage of the forgotten man and woman!

milkshaken May 15, 2017 6:34 PM

You should maybe re-read a short assay “You and the atomic bomb”, where Orwell coined the term ‘Cold War’ in 1945.

He argues that when technology is staggeringly expensive and getting it requires industrial effort equivalent to building a battleship, only the rich governments will have it and use it. If it is cheap, widely available and easy to use, then it will favor underdog.

Clive Robinson May 15, 2017 7:15 PM

@ Bruce,

Speaking of the real world,

Criminals, dissidents, the unorganized — all outliers — are more agile.

Apparently we have been seeing a steady drop in “conventional” crime. Some have put it down to the cessation of TEL in petrol etc etc.

However whilst those “real world” crime figures have been dropping few if any have included the very very significant rise in cyber-crime over the same period. Depending on who you listen to cyber crime could be running at around half the value of conventional crime.

Thus the slightly smarter criminals could rasily have moved from ehat was high risk conventional crime into low risk cyber-crime…

The problem is most if not all LEAs are not set up to investigate Cyber-Crime and not just do they not record it, they effectively avoid having anything to do with it. As Ross Anderson pointed out in the interview you posyed a few days ago, in the UK bank related cyber-crime is given over to the banks to investigate which is frankly quite bizarre to put it mildly. Similar applies to “art crime” and other non violent crime.

Segregated South May 15, 2017 7:43 PM

Re: OP

Among the many power struggles, there is one type I want to particularly highlight: the battles between the nimble individuals who start using a new technology first, and the slower organizations that come along later.

There is always an “establishment” that resists change, that is, entrenched rent-seeking special interests who are profiting from the old technology.

Public libraries were once repositories of information to which legal access was guaranteed. Now there are grandmothers doing their knitting a the local library, they have appropriate children’s books, and a man — don’t even think about a black man — can scarcely even enter such a “library” without being charged with some trumped-up sex offense. That area of town is called the Library “District.” I am dumbfounded. Where are the school district and the fire district and who is paying the taxes for this tomfoolery?

So here I am in a Union town that has returned to the antebellum South. Headquarters of “Hallmark Corporation” which surrounds some Roman Catholic Church on three sides, apparently from which to draw commercial inspiration — we are supposed to celebrate Valentine’s Day with cards, and when a baby is born, then we have to celebrate Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.


Patriot COMSEC May 15, 2017 8:54 PM

As usual, Mr.Schneier makes interesting comments that aim to clarify. Once in a while I feel that his assessments are too rosy, but I trust that if he really sees the red light blinking, the one that warns of imminent 1984, he will say something.

What we do not want to see is technology enabling a terror state. The little guy in a terror state is indeed atomized, expendable.

The question is whether information technology, in its full expression, is more enabling of a “democracy” like the US, or do the Chinese, with their centralization and social unity, have big advantages?

I believe it’s the latter. Deep data connection in America has enabled incredible surveillance by the likes of Facebook and the NSA–when such intrusions ought to be illegal or are at least more like East Germany than the USA mist if us recognize. It has also caused distrust, enmity, and a new incivility. This is the problem. The current info war is not just an amplification of pre-existing conflicts, of which, in the US, there are many–the technology itself enabled a loss of rights that no one had dreamed of before.

And these conflicts are not entertainment, they are not detached from us like a spectator sport we can watch from the comfort of our permanently safe homes.

The civility we enjoy is precarious. Some thinkers, such as Hobbes, had a keen sense of this. He even thought it was rational to give up one’s rights to a sovereign–necessary in fact–so secure peace. Expand that to fit 2017 and the computer world we live in: interconnection was supposed to bring us together, but it pushed us farther apart and killed trust, so we need a central power more than ever. That central power is being enabled right now.

Elephant in the room May 15, 2017 11:12 PM

Why is no one talking about the dog that did not bark? The TLA caught with their pants down when whoever is responsible for the DNC hacks, fake news operations etc succeeded unchallenged.

Are those TLA manned by idiots who are incapable of foreseeing vulnerabilities and being prepared if they materialise.

The morons where policing liquids on planes and preaching the evils of encryption with no backdoors, and the enemies stole an election unopposed.

Thanks again Obama and Comdey

tyr May 16, 2017 12:37 AM

Anyone who thinks a strong centralized system
is the way to do anything wasn’t paying much
attention when the Soviet Union went down as
a failure of central planning.

There’s a simple description of those who do
not like to be threatened by any changes to
their way of doing things. Fascist. Assuming
it is political rather than inbuilt into human
behavior just means you will never be able to
avoid it.

If you think the Net is threatening wait until
nanotech gets loosed into the average maker lab.
So far 3D printing has been used by morons to
make guns when any competent individual with
a small lathe can manufacture one better, cheaper,
faster. There is enormous power out there in the
hands of big organizations and they will respond
(usually incorrectly) to a percieved threat.

We don’t have any current institutions capable
of rational decisions but we do have a large
number of unforseen consequences roaring down on
us like a runaway freight train. Cory at least
tries to think through the consequences of what’s
coming down the track. Whether he is right is
something you have to decide for yourself.

Rock May 16, 2017 12:43 AM

I hope you’re right about long term optimistic here, Bruce. The past ten years has been very painful to witness online.

As for Corey Doctorow…..the man pains me. I am curious about his book, but Corey himself has been such an abusive monster over the past two years that the thought of picking up a book he’s wrote nauseates me. He is a perfect example of someone who has stared so long into the abyss that the abyss has stared back.

Winter May 16, 2017 12:47 AM

A people get the government they deserve. That is easy to see for the people abroad. At home, the right question to ask is:
“What have I done to deserve this government?”
In many cases there is a clear answer.

All the new information theory has made the world small. The result? A rise in xenophobia and the authoritarians and uninformed fleeing into filter bubbles to prevent being soiled by understanding.

Unlike all the romance and hero worship of the deviants, the establishment is us. And a complete breakdown of the establishment is very likely to result in a Somalia type of society.

If history has shown us anything, it is that societies rebuild themselves back to normal after a shakeup. The civil war did not change the US South that much. Middle Europe rebuild their pre WWII society after the fall of the USSR. And Putin’s Russia looks more like Czarist Russia than anything else.

In the end we do not want to end the powers that be as we put them there and keep them there.

Winter May 16, 2017 7:06 AM

“Wannacry ransom message was translated using Google translate but with a few changes”

Maybe someone was sloppy with operational security and we will see some “surprising” developments soon.

Rachel May 16, 2017 8:14 AM


‘60% of Danes want more surveillance.’

to quote Byron Katie, Daniel is that true?

oh, someone wrote an article, then they posted it online. Sorry, what was I thinking. Carry on

Rachel May 16, 2017 8:17 AM


I seem to recall your statement here in the latter half of 2016; you consider Snowden a traitor whom thus should serve the maximum possibly sentence, no?

Major May 16, 2017 12:27 PM


What did Corey Doctorow do that you object to? I don’t know of him that well, but I have enjoyed his Big Brother and Homeland series and I am starting Walkaway. I find his characterization to be among the best of the near future sci-fi genre I prefer. His young protagonists can cleave to radical ideas without devolving into self-righteous senseless cartoons, something we could all benefit from emulating. How has Doctorow been abusive?

Rock May 16, 2017 3:43 PM

He has waded into online conflicts he did not understand and used his BoingBoing soapbox to dehumanize others and advocate for a McCarthyist crackdown against people he’s never talked with. All in the name of some bizarre gender political agenda that has permeated throughout tech.

I used to idolize him growing up as well. He used to represent freedom for the little people for self-determination. When I hear of Doctorow now, I now think of the phrase “freedom for me but not for thee”.

Chase Johnson May 17, 2017 11:40 AM

@Major, Rock

Doctorow was on the right side of the GamerGate crap, in other words. Terrifying, that someone might want freedom for women, too.

Rock May 18, 2017 10:05 AM

@Chase Johnson

I’m sure that’ll go over well with my woman friend that ended up homeless for 4 months because of two guys who spooked her employer. The two guys claimed she deserved it for being part of an “anti-woman hate group”.

There’s a disturbing number of other examples of crap like that which went on, but you wouldn’t know if you only read the dehumanizing caricatures on the news. Dehumanizing caricatures that resulted in real people, mostly innocents, getting hurt badly.

Major May 19, 2017 10:38 AM

@Rock, Chase

Thanks for the background. The whole gamergate thing has legs, doesn’t it?

In the US these days everybody feels aggrieved at their neighbors while the country is being carted away by the big fish. It reminds me of the tower of Babel story – people who could strive together for a goal (in this case, fairness) can’t even understand each other any more – subverting their endeavors and, in this case, leaving them as prey for those who never cared about fairness in the first place.

“No politician in history — and I say this with great surety — has been treated worse or more unfairly” – POTUS

Rock May 19, 2017 3:13 PM


It would be nice if we could work towards common goals. I’m so tired of gender politics warring. It’s making everyone except a tiny handful of opportunists (of all genders and ideologies) miserable and splitting people up on arbitrary criteria.

TM May 22, 2017 8:08 AM

Major • May 19, 2017 10:38 AM

Honest question: why do you ask us to sympathize with a rich spoiled child whining wimp? Are you a rich wimp yourself? I can’t fathom any other reason why anybody would have anything but contempt for that monument of self-pity.

Myrelegeme May 23, 2017 7:48 PM

Don’t listen to the BS from Daniel. “The Local” is an extreme right wing racist site. The Danes want less snooping according to everyone not on the very extreme rightwing.

Lester November 26, 2017 5:55 PM

It is a pseudo religious experience to cover back to this blog, as I used to read Schneiers blog all the time years ago, and many times since have remember and valued the high quality knowledge and advice…

I found this page by searching for “forum walkway, cory doctorow” etc . In hopes of finding others to collaborate on producing some of the hardware that may be at the heart of actually doing something like this, one of the first walkway communities.

I have spent 4 months at a place called open source ecology, which is actually doing this, although they are very underfunded and under labored. (This btw obliges them, I might say us, to take what appears to be a slightly crackpot approach, but it is a start where no one else is even moving).

I have also spent a year in the biggest maker spaces in Canada, and some elsewhere, full time, pursuing similar things….

But anyway, it is battling to me to see the assertion that the unempowered benefit first from technological advances, somehow. This includes equipment designs, protocols, methods of people collaborating, farming techniques, all kinds of techniques, sometimes but by no means always or entirely, flowing through manifestation as physical equipment at some point.

It is totally, totally, extremely the opposite. Unempowered means poor, basically, which directly implies oppressed as history invariably shows the current wealth differentials are heavily due to oppression, deliberate destruction and denial and enslavement, not some kind of difference in incompetence in the face of the challenges nature presents and had presented us with. Secondly no matter how the poorness came to exist, predation is the norm now, so active and current enslavement and oppression is directly implied.

Technological development is steered heavily by the wealthy, in favor of what they want, first of all.

The ability to use techniques is multiplied by existing power, just like surveillance ability is. To have the equipment the technique requires, etc. And also to commit crimes against other people and get away with it.

It may be that after a certain new technique or type of equipment shows up in the life of a poor person, they benefit from it more relative to their previous self than rich people would.

But the idea that poor people somehow are first to adopt technology or benefit the most from it, especially after you subtract the harm caused to them with it by the ruling class, is very very very polar opposite to the way it is.

It is completely at odds with the realities of where the technology Congress from, the entire origin of technology. The powerful technologies are always developed in engineering firm land or above and flow downwards, way later being seen by the poor, if ever.

The idea that the poor would get technology advances first is so backwards I had to think about what you might mean, and perhaps you are thinking certain types of technologies like Twitter or some software, or consumer technologies that get rolled out directly to people on a large scale. But those are really a relatively small subset of technologies.

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.