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Unauthorized Bread by Cory Doctorow (2019, read in 2020)

Published by marco on

Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

Unauthorized Bread by Cory Doctorow (Ars Technica) is a novella describing a near-future (or perhaps alternate present) that could really only happen in the United States. Hyper-capitalism has proceeded to a point where private industry has extended its tendrils into all aspects of the pitiful excuse for a social contract the state even bothers to extend to the overwhelming majority of its population.

The story is about Salima, an immigrant bouncing around the system, trying to get her feet under her. She befriends Nalifa, an Eritrean immigrant with two children, at an internment camp. After a couple of years, they get an “opportunity” to get cheaper housing in a building called Dorchester Towers.

This building offers reduced-rate housing in exchange for being able to build much higher than the local building codes would allow. There is a rich section and a handful of floors—35 to 42—reserved for the poor. The elevators prefer the rich. The poor are forced to walk in the morning, when the 45-minute wait for an elevator would make them late for already-precarious jobs. In the evening, they tend to just wait rather than walking up 35 flights.

There is no air-conditioning in the poor half of the entryway to the building. Security guards keep the riff-raff out. The apartments are small, but decent. However, none of their appliances are theirs: the toaster only cooks approved foods; the dishwasher only washes approved dishes; the refrigerator only hold approved foods. These foods are, of course, more expensive and nutritionally worse than the more “ethnic” food that most of the residents would prefer.

The story is of the failure of the web of companies—one among them being Boulangism, which makes the toaster—that were responsible for maintaining the servers with which all of the appliances communicated in order to function. So the poor floors are left without an oven too cook in and without a dishwasher to wash dishes in and a refrigerator that refuses food.

Salima learns how to hack on the Darknet—using an old notebook rather than the ‘fridge (which is the main way most people access information). She hacks her own appliances and gets not only food and a working dishwasher, but a degree of autonomy and control over her own life. She helps the rest of the poor part of the building free themselves as well. They all benefit, as they can now buy cheaper and healthier supplies rather than the corporate foods.

In her travels to accounting clients (she’s an accountant for small businesses, doing quite well for herself, actually), she meets Wye, a programmer working for the company that acquired the husk of Boulangism and is working very hard to get things back online—and providing, once again, money for the corporation.

Wye is sympathetic, but is also initially callous, not even really understanding how terrible it is for a system to force people to use such appliances and then to just drop them for months, making it illegal for them to make other arrangements, despite the state and corporation having failed to hold up its end of the bargain at all.

When the software comes online, though, it will detect all of the hacked software and pinpoint Dorchester Towers as a “bunch of cheaters”. Salima desperately tries to put things back the way they were, killing the budding revolution in the cradle, afraid (quite rightly) that the powers-that-be will exact a terrible punishment. Once she has converted all of the apartments back, she discovers a better way: run a VM in the devices that pretends to be a conforming device, but which runs another copy of a non-confirming and hacked OS.

Though the company tries to get Salima to work with them, essentially betraying her own class, Salima holds strong. At first Wye is disappointed, but she comes around and works, in the end, to help Salima continue to subvert any anti-hacking measures that the company employs.

Citations

“But there was another world, vast beyond her knowing, of people who didn’t know her at all, but who held her life in their hands.”
“The soldiers and cops and guards who pointed guns at her, barked orders at her. The bureaucrats she never saw who rejected her paperwork for cryptic reasons she could only guess at, and the bureaucrats who looked her in the eye and rejected her paperwork and refused to explain themselves.”
“The elevator captains had been a good chuckle, a way for everyone from the poor-doors and the poor-floors to feel like they were mice outsmarting the cats. The letters put them in their place: roaches, facing exterminators.”
“This was the antidote, she realized, to the feeling of distant people whom she’d never meet who held the power of everything over her. To be able to control the computers around her, rather than being controlled by them.”
“But with both companies bankrupt, they won’t be expecting any new money. Now, if the companies do ever come back from bankruptcy and still no one here is using their products…””

Only in America would it be even conceivable to write a feasible story about subsidized housing without a kitchen.

“It was also scary to hear them uttered aloud, and scarier still to think of the level of recklessness the kids had exhibited, even though they’d understood those stakes.”

They can recite them, but don’t understand them.

“What did these kids think about the appliances they jailbroke? Did they see them as just weirdly nonfunctional gadgets they had to work around, like the bad touchscreens at the shelter? Or did they see them as the enemy, something that they were at war with, the weapons of a distant adversary who wanted to subjugate them to its will?”
“Wyoming startled at the question. “Oh, shit! I didn’t even think of it. This must have sucked for you. How long has it been? Four months? Five? With no oven? You must be so sick of waiting for us, huh?” “Five months,” Salima said. “It certainly has been a long time.” “You poor thing. I would have just jailbroken mine. There’s been so much of that, honestly, it’ll be months before they sort it out. I don’t blame the users, either. I mean, ugh.””
“They’ve been watching the darknet boards, they know that everyone’s been figuring out how to jailbreak their shit while we’ve been getting restarted, and they figure all those people could be customers, but instead of paying for food we sell them, they’d pay us to use food someone else sold them.” Salima almost laughed. It was a crime if she did it, a product if they sold it to her. Everything could be a product.”
“Salima had thought of Wye as her ally, every bit as offended by the locked-down world of Dorchester Towers as she was. But Wye had been working long hours for Boulangism and its new sister companies. She thought the problem was that Salima didn’t want to get into trouble. Salima had been thinking that, too. But that wasn’t the problem. Boulangism itself, that was the problem. The whole rotten business, that was the problem.”
““Because it’s their homes. Why should they have to pay to use the things in their homes?” “I agree with you, but the company would say it’s because they chose to live in a place where the rent was lower because the landlord thought he’d make money from their appliances. It was a deal, and that’s their end of it, and they can pay more somewhere else if they want that choice.””
“She took a deep breath. “What I’m about to say isn’t how I see things, but it is how the company sees them. They say that you don’t have that choice, that they have that choice, and they’ll sell it to you. But if you take it without paying, that’s stealing. Again, that’s what they think.””

The following is a conversation between an employee of Boulangism and Salima. He starts off.

““You were living somewhere before this place, right?”

““A refugee shelter.”

““You could have chosen to stay there, right?” [Salima] wanted these people gone.

““I don’t think that is much of a choice.”

“He shook his head. “The point is that you had a choice, and that’s because appliances like ours made it economical for landlords to build subsidy units.”

“She didn’t say anything. She was getting angry and she didn’t like to be angry, didn’t want to show these people that she was angry.

““We want to help you people, let you get more out of your lives, give you more choices.”

“What about the choice to jailbreak my things? She didn’t ask it.

““Honestly, I can’t understand your decision here.”

“Choice is good, so long as I don’t choose not to help you? She didn’t say it.

““Can’t you see we want to help you?”

“I can see that you want me to help you get more money from “people like me.” She still didn’t say it.”