Walkaway by Cory Doctorow | A Review

Walkaway: A NovelWalkaway: A Novel by Cory Doctorow

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Too often, our science fiction tells us easy stories of how technology, either misapplied or misunderstood, runs amok to enslave and debase humanity. The narrative arrow points directly from a relatively decent today to a dark, oppressive tomorrow. In these stories, technology is a malevolent character, presented as an external force that subjugates and depraves. Such science fiction, think the Matrix, calls upon a single woke hero to band with a small group of the oppressed to fight the power and restore light in the darkest hour. I used to enjoy this story. Call it the spectacle of despair.

Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway points the arrow the other way. Our present day is the dystopia and creative, generous communities of shared effort use technologies to make possible a better world.

The novel opens in a non-specific future that feels like the very near future, say next Tuesday. Post-scarcity technologies have solved problems of labor and distribution of goods. Food, clothes, shelter, and medicine are all readily available upon demand through a combination of 3D printing, biochemical alchemy and the wide scale distribution of scientific knowledge. Despite this, the richest continue to get exponentially richer while everyone else stays stuck. There’s no need for inequality except that the uber-rich, the “zotta rich”, need someway to perpetuate their specialness. They need to keep score. This status quo world is called Default, the intolerable made tolerable by an industry of mass distraction, a relentless flood of entertainments to placate the discontent. The disaffected drop off out of their dystopian lives by “walking away”, the term for leaving the life of consumerist consumption to join a loose network of makers building a post-capitalist, post-consumerist society.

The walk away world is utopian. Walk aways live in leaderless maker communities organized around the basic principle that people must use their talents as they see fit to make things better. Distributed information networks get the people, the tools and the resources to the right place at the right time. If someone screws up, someone else comes along to fix the problem. No blame. No credit. Just people doing meaningful work that matters.

Oh, and sex. There’s plenty of well-written sex, a rarity in science fiction. Believable without being smutty.

The premise of Walkaway is that the default conditions cannot be fought on their own terms. The only way to overcome them is to disengage, to walk away. When the walk aways discover the ability to copy and upload human consciousness into the Internet, they find the ultimate tool of resistance. A kind of digital life after death. Doctorow’s exploration of artificial intelligence and digital immortality is exquisitely rendered in its balance between humor and existential horror. This is a joyful, serious story.

Walkaway is Cory Doctorow’s best written book to date. He pushes further into themes of post-scarcity society, digital immortality and how finding the right work makes life meaningful. If you’ve read Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom you will recognize these themes. They find fuller, more satisfying exploration here.

Highly recommended.

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FCC Chairman Ajit Pai thinks you are an idiot

So right before repealing Net Neutrality, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai took time to record and share a mocking video explaining how we’ll all still be able to binge watch Netflix and post selfies with our food on Instagram. He doesn’t mention how the Internet has become essential plumbing for most of the creative work being done today. He doesn’t mention that the Internet fuels innovation and is crucial in helping small companies get better ideas to market. He isn’t talking about the internet that helps level economic opportunity by making online education available to working adults in rural communities. In short, he isn’t talking about the internet we actually care about. He’s talking about entertainment. We’re talking about the infrastructure of our communities.

This government needs to get serious about its responsibilities to the future and stop wasting time posting dumb videos and picking Twitter fights. America is moving backward. These people are taking hammers to our future.

Anger is Useful.

I need to get political with you for just a minute. Stay with me. I’m not going to try to sell you something at the end. I just need to be heard.

I was raised in a loving, supportive family that taught me temperance is the greatest virtue. Somehow temperance has become avoidance of anger and an inability to talk about the most difficult things. I have become allergic to anger.

Sometimes anger is the only appropriate response. Anger has to be okay. Anger has to useful.

Jesus was angry. Martin Luther King was angry. Gandhi was angry.

Their anger was useful because they used it.

I am angrier than I have ever been in my entire life.

Our country is broken. I don’t need one more person to tell me it is broken because we have a black, liberal president or because gay people can get married or because transgender people suddenly need a place to pee or because another government official misused her email and tried to lie about it.

Our country is broken because we have been fighting the wrong wars in the wrong places for the wrong reasons.

Our country is broken because some police officers are afraid of black men and are using the authority we have lent to kill them.

Our country is broken because a black man targets and kills white police officers as an act of political speech.

Our country is broken because we answer the spreading problem of gun violence with more guns and an inability to study the problem as a social health issue.

Our country is broken because we can’t talk about income disparity as something that has more to do with accidents of race and geography than it is has to do with the willingness and ability of a person to do useful, meaningful work.

This isn’t a Republican/Democrat thing.

Most of our leaders are failing us. Some of them don’t want to help. Some of them don’t know how.

We have got to stop talking about other people needing to fix our problems. They can’t and they won’t.

This anger I feel is useful, but if I don’t start using this anger someone else is going to use it or me. If I allow someone else to use my anger, they are most likely to be using it against me.

Technophilia and the Importance of Not Necessarily So

If you haven’t met me, there is something you need to know. I am a relentless optimist. I expect the best of everyone and every situation. I carry a fundamental belief in the rightness of things and trust that the entire universe and everything in it will work in harmony for the ultimate benefit of all. I get frustrated when things don’t travel along the path of my expectations, though they do tend to more or less work themselves out well in the end.

I am an idealist. I get excited and enthusiastic about ideas. I champion change. I welcome things that feel like the future. I’m just made this way. Its how I’m wired. My idealism presses on people’s nerves sometimes. I get on my own nerves sometimes.

I am a technophile. It is a condition that warrants careful observation. I keep friends around me to balance my enthusiasm for New Things.  I trust my closest friends to help leaven my enthusiasm with a measured dose of skepticism. This relationship keeps me safe.

I like technology. Technology represents an expression of faith that problems can be solved. That things don’t have to be the way they are. In fact, the change of technology is an humbling reminder that human experience is always changing. We grow as individuals, and we grow as a species. There is, I realize, an element of blind trust that comes with technophilia.

Technophilia assumes that change is always for the best. I sometimes forget that this isn’t necessarily true. I often forget that many people, maybe most people, don’t see things this way.

I think this why I am so fascinated by my own interest in Jeff Bezos’ recent revelation that Amazon is working on a way to deliver products to doorsteps using flying drones. You may have seen the video already. Its all over Twitter and the technology blogs. If not, here it is:

This isn’t a post about the merits of using flying drones to deliver commercial goods. It is about my immediate, unquestioning reaction to that video. Of course, there will be delivery drones dropping off boxes and packages and pizzas in the future. I’m just caught by surprised by the real possibility that it might happen in my lifetime.

These are robots, people. The Star Wars kid in me is completely freaking out.

So, here’s the really funny part. I watch the video and think, “Of course. How wonderful.” I immediately start thinking about the practical uses for my college, which has 9 teaching sites and 3 physical libraries. I start mapping out the possible applications for interlibrary loan, direct to door document delivery. I could send books directly to a faculty member”s office on request with very little wait.

I am thinking these things. I am taking these thoughts very seriously. A part of my brain is actually working out what my library will need to do to be ready for that possibility. This is all happening quickly, immediately, without warning. It is occupying an inordinate amount of my mind on a pretty busy day when there are things that need doing right now. I do those things, but always with a part of me feeling pulled forward toward the idea I can sense but can’t quite glimpse.

I spend a lot of time this way. It is a kind of wakeful dreaming.

The technophile sees the new tool and immediately believes it will be a tool of great value.

I post to Facebook and immediately start reading comments about how dangerous, obnoxious and silly this kind of future might be. People might die. Decapitation is a real concern. Children might get hurt. Birds and power lines and aircraft and on and on. And the comments aren’t wrong. They aren’t mean or spoiling. They are truthful. They are correct. And they come from the dead center of my technophiliac blind spot.

Trusting the idea of technology to improve lives is an expression of faith. It is a kind of blind trust akin to religious dogma. It is a belief that there is an expression of intelligence that wants to make things work better and that everything will be better if we simply trust that intelligence and let it do its job. This is not to equate a fondness for technology with religious faith or create a false opposition between them. It is simply an observation that the technophile (ie, “me”), brings a lot of assumptions and unexamined baggage to the table when faced with something new. It is a reminder that the best response after that initial wash of enthusiasm might be, “Not necessarily so.”

“Not necessarily so” is an excellent mantra for technophiles to embrace. “Not necessarily so” keeps us honest. “Not necessarily so” keeps us vigilant and skeptical and open to the possibility that sometimes things don’t work out for the best and sometimes, often even, there are unintended consequences. One of my best friends often reminds me that the study of human history is pretty much a catalog of unintended consequences.

And so, I take a deep breath and wait a little longer to see how the future plays out. I listen to the friends who see clearly by standing in the middle of my blindspot. And I am grateful.

I am fascinated by the Amazon drone story because it portends a leap toward a vision of the far future I had glimpsed when I was a child. I didn’t expect to see such a leap in my life. And yet, I write this to friends and readers scattered all over the world. I will read your comments on my smartphone, which is a marvel all its own. As William Gibson puts it, “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed.”

And yet another layer of fascination. There is no date by which Bezos expects to have this project ready. It may take years. Why announce it in such dramatic style on the 60 Minutes TV show during the busiest shopping weekend of the year? I think Om Malik has it figured out: to get free advertising, to change the subject away from labor issues and sales tax problems, to force policy decisions. Read “So Why Did Jeff Bezos pre-announce plans for drone-based delivery now?

Which leads me back to my main point. Technophiles should always take a deep breath and recite, “Not necessarily so.” Technology is a tool. Tools work for the good of the people who have them in their hands. Always. Full stop. No exceptions.

Information (sharing) is power: Notes from Vint Cerf

I am a few years late to the podcast party, but I am here now and completely hooked. I drive an hour and 15 minutes every day and have found a well-chosen podcast to be a funner, more informative, more entertaining companion than music or the news. I follow quite a few in rotation but my heavy favorites are The Nerdist, Radiolab and, as of today, DecodeDC.

DecodeDC is a new project by NPR’s Andrea Seabrook. It is smart, focused and fun.

Sometime this week you will have a free 24 minutes and 34 seconds. In that free time, you need to listen to Seabrook’s interview with Vint Cerf  (Cerfing the Net) about intellectual property law, the copy-machine nature of the web and the coming Internet of Things. Cerf is the main founder of the World Wide Web, which is, as he says, the crucial human tool of the 21st century. The Web underlies everything. We are accustomed to hearing people say that “information is power.”  Cerf says this is wrong. Instead, information sharing is power.

The Internet has become so essential so quickly because it is a catalyst that allows people to share ideas efficiently. The problems and challenges we face are immense. The solutions require everyone’s best ideas and honest conversations. The internet makes this conversation possible.

Cerf tackles the adage “Information wants to be free”. This is true, he says, in the sense that information wants to be freely accessible. It doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t be able to charge for access to valuable information and cultural products. Just that the information should not be hidden, undiscoverable behind pay walls. Current intellectual property law favors corporations and the descendants on culture creators at the expense of the people who would use that culture to create new art, solve problems and move everyone forward. We are losing access to our own tools of cultural creation.

Cerf also talks about the need to talk more about new business models to support cultural creation rather than focus on new restrictions designed to perpetuate old, non-functional models. He offers the notion of subscribing to a film producer or a television screenwriter as a way to support and reward work. The idea is that through subscription-based models, patrons would continually support an artist’s next work of art rather than their last work.

Lots of challenging, interesting ideas here. And a brief riff on Angry Birds.

The interview is short, fun and accessible. If you are at all interested in how the internet works and why the internet matters, this 24 minutes will make you smile.

Hyperbole kills: Tech advertising limits ability to solve problems

Random juxtaposition of ideas is often, for me, the Web’s most useful gift. Consider this: last night I watched this satirical video about Apple’s iPad mini:

and then 20 minutes later read this really insightful article from MIT Technology Review about “Why We Can’t Solve Big Problems”.

You should enjoy both for yourself. The idea that sparked for me was the false expectation that each generation of Apple stuff be revolutionary, innovative or game-changing. We should place a moratorium on these words when talking about technology.

A faster processor is not revolutionary unless it allows us to do something we couldn’t even think about before.

Better screen resolution isn’t innovative unless it makes things visible that were not visible before. It just makes things look prettier. Prettier is good. Prettier is worth paying for. Prettier isn’t necessarily innovative.

If I were a person who carried things in a purse, I might be tempted to consider a smaller iPad as being game-changing. But only if it meant I could use my iPad in novel situations where I could not previously use it.

I love my iStuff. Desperately and truly. I just happen to believe that Apple is guilty of the kind of advertising hyperbole that diminishes our collective ability to imagine the ways great technology might help actually solve huge, intractable problems.

I’m am so glad to have smartphones, Twitter and streaming video service enriching my daily life. Where are we with world hunger, climate change and space exploration?

Future orientation

I have had some recent life experiences that have allowed me to reflect a bit more deeply that usual on who I am and how I view the world. I am strongly future-oriented. This serves me very well in my role as a library administrator. I am often able to imagine what services and resources are likely to be needed tomorrow so I can start building them today. This is nice gift to have. It keeps me enthusiastic and creative. It keeps me moving forward.

The problem with future-orientation is that I often feel like I can see the future more clearly than the present. More to the point, if I am not careful, I can easily spend more time and energy looking at the future than I do the present. This can lead me to see the big picture quite clearly but miss the thousand essential details that make up today. So I need people around me who can help me be mindful of what needs my attention today. And I need people around me who can be patient with my tendency to leap forward before I walk back. And I need people around me who appreciate the beauty of ideas and know that not every thing I say aloud has to become instantly true. Not every project has to get born. We can negotiate. We can prioritize together. But we have to move forward. Sometimes we move quickly. Sometimes we move slowly. We have to be always moving forward.

I am grateful for the people in my life who recognize this aspect of my nature. I am grateful when they appreciate this way of seeing. I am grateful when they can help me to be mindful and pay attention to things as they are today. I am grateful when I am able to make this way of seeing useful. I am grateful for the people who connect my ideas to reality and use them to move things forward.

The future started 15 years ago. It’s time to stop being afraid.

Just had to share this little gem from Tara Barseghian’s MindShift blog post “How Do We Prepare Our Children for What’s Next?”:

We’re 15 years into something so paradigm-changing that we have not yet adjusted our institutions of learning, work, social life, and economic life to account for the massive change. Fifteen years in is when people tend to start thinking about technological change in less fearful and more practical ways. They give up their nostalgia for the “before” and then start to focus on now, on how we can make the tools and resources available to them as productive as possible.

In other words, we are right on time to give up techno-phobia and to tackle the problems and opportunities of the digital world with good sense, pragmatics, realism, and purpose. Once we absorb the realization that we’ve already changed, and that we’re actually doing pretty well despite major realignments in our lives, then we can think about how we want to take this amazing new tool and use it in a way that better serves our lives. Being afraid is never useful. It’s time to survey our lives and figure out what works, what doesn’t, and how we can make real and practical improvements in our schools, our workplace, our every day lives.

This passage recalls me to my original intent in writing Ubiquitous. Quotidian. We are already living in the future for which we have spent so much time waiting. It snuck up on us. I’ll see if I can keep myself away from the Big Thoughts and simply document the simple, unobtrusive ways in which my daily life is shaped, both for the good and bad, by continual, reliable and portable access to the Internet.