Doctorow's novella "Unauthorized Bread" explains why we have to fight DRM today to avoid a grim future

Salima has a problem: her Boulangism toaster is locked down with software that ensures that it will only toast bread sold to her by the Boulangism company… and as Boulangism has gone out of business, there's no way to buy authorized bread. Thus, Salima can no longer have toast.

This sneakily familiar scenario sends our resourceful heroine down a rabbit hole into the world of hacking appliances, but it also puts her in danger of losing her home -- and prosecution under the draconian terms of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Her story, told in the novella “Unauthorized Bread,” which opens Cory Doctorow’s recent book Radicalized, guides readers through a process of discovering what Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) is, and how the future can look mightily grim if we don’t join forces to stop DRM now.

“Unauthorized Bread” takes place in the near future, maybe five or ten years at most, and the steady creep of technology that takes away more than it gives has simply advanced a few degrees. Salima and her friends and neighbors are refugees, and they live precariously in low-income housing equipped with high-tech, networked appliances. These gizmos and gadgets may seem nifty on the surface, but immediately begin to exact an unacceptable price, since they require residents to purchase the expensive approved bread for the toaster, the expensive approved dishes for the dishwasher, and so on. And just as Microsoft can whisk away ebooks that people “own” by closing down its ebook service, the vagaries of the business world cause Boulangism to whisk away Salima’s ability to use her own toaster.

If this sounds absurd, recall how Keurig tried to impose a DRM scheme on their popular K-cups a few years back. The only difference is, Salima doesn’t have the simple option of just getting a different toaster. The residents in Dorchester Towers, located right here in Boston, the home of the Free Software Foundation (FSF), are being forced, as Doctorow puts it in an interview in the LA Times, to “use our worst technology as beta testers for bad ideas.” To add insult to injury, they can only enter their high-rise apartments through a system of “poor doors” imposed via elevator software to ensure that the wealthy residents of the building never have to see them. (Lest this sound too on-the-nose, “poor doors” are a real phenomenon in the US, UK, and Canada.) It isn’t just degrading either: since the wealthy residents are prioritized, during busy hours, it can take over an hour just to get onto an elevator, and so the residents grow accustomed to hiking up thirty or more floors.

Salima initially solves her problem by searching “dark Web” videos that teach her how to hack her toaster to make it work again with whatever bread she likes; to her delight, she discovers quickly that she can also hack her dishwasher, the ventilation system in her apartment, and more. When her friend’s teenage son Abdirahim catches on, he takes Salima’s hacking a step further and teaches all of the rebellious, clever kids in the building to hack all of their household appliances (and maybe an item or two that Salima hasn’t figured out yet).

But when Salima and Abdirahim learn that the freedom to cook and wash whatever you like is limited to people who can pay for the privilege -- and that the consequences might include losing their hard-won homes or even their freedom -- the issues get complex quickly. What comes next are a series of debates, a plethora of new hacks, and a pretty suspenseful chase scene, which happen to lead the reader through a sophisticated and detailed argument about what DRM is, and how the more vulnerable a population is, the harder it might be to resist technological abuses.

This story is not exactly subtle, and it’s not meant to be: as the Los Angeles Public Library review notes, “There is no question regarding Doctorow’s positions on the ‘hot topics’ about which he writes in this collection, and he wants you to know it.” Whether this approach makes for fun reading or not depends on how okay you are with being very clearly fed a message, and it’s not for everyone; it’s definitely a polemic. However, we here at the FSF aren’t in the habit of being shy about our ethical opinions, and I also found this story to be a speedy, engaging read full of characters who I enjoyed spending time with (if anything, I would have preferred this scenario to be spun out into an entire novel, and am glad it’s being developed for television).

If I have any quibbles at all with “Unauthorized Bread,” it’s that the ending feels a little abrupt, and has a bit of a deus ex machina feel -- but, on the other hand, the ending can be interpreted to mean that the fight for software (and appliance) freedom is going to require the developers of technology as well as the users to join the fight. Tech workers have already taken a variety of stands in recent years to push their employers to adopt more ethical practices, so why not stand with the public against DRM? The future posited in this book is grim: but if we band together to fight back, we don't have to settle for shoddy technology that controls us.

"Unauthorized Bread" and the full version of Radicalized are available at Doctorow's store as DRM-free MOBIs and EPUBs. Doctorow's books are published under the Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license (CC BY-NC-SA).