The Future is Now

Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the New Internet Economy

Down and OutThe very best science fiction isn’t about ray guns or spaceships, and very little about science at all. It charts how we constantly drag heritage through the muck of the moment, how we live the future vicariously in the fleeting present. Cory Doctorow knows this, at least instinctively, and his Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom artfully captures the ever present tension of the future-now.

And an intriguing time it is. Doctorow doesn’t spend an eon building a universe around his tale, but eases us quickly into its here and now by ensuring that the sights we see, the worries we have second-hand and even the devices we marvel at are either what we have today or extrapolations of them, clever plays on present memory. In that way, futurist though he is, Doctorow’s closest peers are Philip K. Dick writing Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in the late 1960s, and Robert Heinlein at work on Beyond this Horizon in the early 1940s.

The sense conveyed is that in this, Doctorow’s debut novel of 2003, a writer is at work shaping and reshaping his talent, reforming the genre as he embeds himself firmly within a tradition of realism and release, science fiction’s great double act. Like Dick and Heinlein before him Doctorow asks, what happens after utopia? There must be something beyond the appearance of perfection, because we’re imperfect beings.

Doctorow delivers the answer gradually, pushing the reader ever further into his conceit so that the kernel of reason, when it comes, seems obvious, inescapable. He chooses a setting at once real in that we can travel to it and hyper-real in its form without formidable substance: Walt Disney World in Florida. This is the soi disant era of Bitchun Society, in which reputation is capital and all else is seemingly free.

Magic Kingdom Castle, by photog friend, with Creative Commons licenceThe Disney World denizens, long since divorced from the corporation that inspired them, work to receive credibility from their peers, their families and park visitors. They accumulate currency in the Bitchun way, as ‘whuffie’, which they track, spend and otherwise use – and abuse – in lives lived online through cybernetic interfaces imprinted in their consciousnesses, removable from their cloned bodies should death refund them with temporary inconvenience.

In a world that discounts the inarguable finality of death and offers all else for free – even those without whuffie can scrape by on largesse – Doctorow offers us early imagery of dissent wrapped in futility. In a particularly evocative flashback, the anti-hero Julius (we’re given first names only; in the reputational economy everyone has a chance to become a single-handle superstar like Madonna) recalls how his girlfriend Lil had reacted when her parents decided to deadhead, to receive lethal injections and have their consciousnesses stored for 50 years or so, “to see if things change”.

Already we have the sense that utopia is somehow lacking, and Julius compounds it by retreating into himself: “I went back to bed and stared at the ceiling fan as it made its lazy turns and felt like shit”.

Flashback to 1979 in your own memory, if you can, and see Martin Sheen in Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, staring up at a ceiling fan as Jim Morrison of the Doors moans out ‘The End’: “Saigon. Shit, I’m still in Saigon”.

Future City Illinois, by ILMO JOE, with Creative Commons licenceWhether intentional or not, Doctorow compounds this imagery later in the book when Julius, after refusing permission to have his consciousness backed up, attempts to kill himself, to refute Bitchun Society in the only manner possible. He walks into Disney’s Seven Seas Lagoon because he has destroyed the Hall of Presidents. This in a fight for control of the Magic Kingdom that pits Julius, his girlfriend and ersatz friend Dan against their nemesis Debra, a queen of relentless innovation who has already had Julius murdered (before the then obligatory revival).

The attempted drowning, with its dream-like atmosphere, recalls the fate of Kate Chopin’s anti-heroine in The Awakening, another triumph of North American narrative. It also treats Bitchun Society with clarity; this is a system in which transactions between innovation and tradition still matter, where life and not reputation is the ultimate currency. All is free, but nothing is cheap.

You are Nothing, by an untrained eye, with Creative Commons licenceTo push this under a slightly different light, zero is an extremely important value in any system of exchange. It adds precision. Julius might be down and out in the Magic Kingdom (evoking, of course, George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, and by association his dystopic Nineteen Eighty-Four), but he is still a citizen of Bitchun Society, regardless of how hard he struggles for release. In the end, he just lets it absorb him, another numeral in the sum of humanity, happy enough.

That’s not a bad way to spend your days, happy enough. And we might even be heading there yet. Writing of the new Internet economy in the latest issue of Wired, Chris Anderson argues that the imminent economic future will be a peculiar zero-sum game, literally. The Internet, much like the Net that links Doctorow’s Bitchun folk, is a market in which the costs of production are declining towards nothing. Loss leaders will soon be history, replaced with genuine giveaways, whereby a small percentage of consumers who buy premium products, such as luxury airfares or full service Web hosting, will support the legion of happy, cost-relieved consumers.

Sounds a lot like Julius the rebel supporting the whuffie-sated many of Bitchun Society. But the parallel is a little tricky, because Cory Doctorow is an insider in this new economy. Following conventional publication through Tor Books at the beginning of 2003, Doctorow released Down and Out for free online, at his personal blog Craphound. Of course, you might know Doctorow as one of the editors at Boing Boing, the perpetually popular blog of wonderful things, or through his efforts to promote the dismantling of overblown copyright protection. So he wasn’t just offering the book as a loss leader for writing yet to come.

Indeed, he released his latest novel, Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, in the same manner, with the exception that people in developing countries can download, reproduce and sell it. So he added a second-degree profit motive to the new Internet economy for others than himself. He’s Julius with much whuffie, but he’s aware that the future is now, that innovation can both reduce costs to zero and create real social value in doing so.

LightBox, by Zigmond, with Creative Commons LicenceAre we heading for a more moderate Bitchun Society, then? It’s hard to tell – technology is fickle and ‘free’ is still a synonym for ‘nothing’. But unlike much of the science fiction heritage on which he draws, Doctorow makes it seem plausible. That’s the point – fiction doesn’t have to prove, it merely has to suggest.

And a tale like this will be hint enough to guide you through a puzzling world.

2 Responses to The Future is Now

  1. vanweyden says:

    your pictures are great. also interesting review, very in depth. the disney stuff sounds funny, I will definately look this book up.

  2. Mike Poole says:

    Thanks! I was just thinking that I should write a post on the pictures – I get most of them from Flickr. There are some very talented photographers online happy to share their work under Creative Commons licences. I’m glad you liked the review as well – you should download the book, or buy it if you like, it’s well worth the read.

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