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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Another Google Tool Gone: Google Reader

Twitter is abuzz right now with the news that Google will deactivate Google Reader on July 1. I haven’t sifted through all the conspiracy theories, hand-wringing and lamentations yet. I will. There will be blood. Nothing gets nerds more bestirred than the loss of free tools that work so well and with such single purpose that they disappear into the background like plumbing.

Come to think of it, that’s pretty much what this feels like. Google just told me that they are coming to my house on July 1 and removing all my plumbing. Sorry. We just áren’t doing plumbing anymore.

Okay, not exactly, but this isn’t the first time Google has taken away a tool that I found essential, useful and brilliant in its simplicity. A few months ago, I lost Google Desktop, which for several years had been the easiest way to find anything in my work computer files. I file things pretty well but Google Desktop was a master tool because it indexed the fulltext of every document and every email on my hard drive. Major power. When I received a new laptop from work, I tried to reinstall the application only to learn that it had been discontinued months before. I have been limping along ever since with the Windows 7 native search feature. Useful but weak in comparison.

More recently, the migration from Google Docs to Google Drive broke some of my documents and made it hard to edit documents that started out as Word files. It took a while to realize that you can still save those documents as editable and shareable Google docs files. They just don’t make it obvious. I have since caught on. No big deal.

The loss of Google Reader is a bigger deal. I have been using Google Reader as my RSS aggregator for years. I particularly like the way it integrates with third party iOS apps like FeedlerPro. I’ve got a few months to research options. Lifehacker offers a few suggestions.

In the meantime, enjoy the firestorm on Twitter. The nerds are bestirred. Long live the nerds.

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?

My latest training fail!

People who love new technologies need to be careful when teaching others how to use them. We need to remember that technologies should solve problems, not create them.

I get excited and lose sight of this basic idea sometimes. I get my reminders several times a day. The reminder is always painful.

My most recent reminder came when doing the first staff training session for downloading eBooks to eReaders.

The problem we face is pretty complex: getting library books distributed easily and immediately to our students, staff and faculty at 8 teaching locations plus online. eBooks are the technological answer.

The problem is eBook downloads are, by design, not easy. Here’s the nutshell: two product platforms; a proliferation of eReaders which use different file types, three different passwords (library authentication for off-campus use, product login for download, Adobe ID for DRM authentication) and a separate download of Adobe Content Manager to drag the book through to receive its DRM christening. For tablet users, don’t forget the need to download the app and the app store password you will need to get the app if not already loaded. BTW, if you have Kindle Fire and are wanting a non-Kindle compliant title, you will need an entirely different set of instructions to go outside the normal Kindle app process, modify your device settings and then download the reading app while ignoring your devices warnings that the app you are downloading may not be safe.

Sounds bad, yes? It is. At least, the set up is. Once past the initial set up, downloading eBooks works great and solves a pretty significant problem: how to get library books where I want them, when I want them.

Here’s how to train staff on this process: give them step by step written instructions, give them laptops that have not yet been associated with ACM software and have them walk through the proccess step by step for themselves and then discuss what and why.

Here’s what I did: explain the difference between “dumb” eReaders (non-cloud based) vs. “smart” tablet eReaders; touch on why authentication is required and, if possible, a bit about how that works; describe what DRM does and why publishers want to ruin their own products with it; gush about all the technical things going on behind the scenes that make eBooks possible. Then, do a demo and then have them do one on the device of their own choice.

FAIL! We all came away a bit dispirited and thinking that maybe eBooks cause more problems than they solve. That isn’t true, of course. eBooks are a useful, practical solution to a real and significant problem: getting library books to patrons where they need them, when they want them. The process isn’t as elegant as it needs to be, yet, but is still a real improvement over the need for patrons to search the catalog, request a book and then wait one or two days for the book to be sent to a campus they will physically visit to receive the item.

eBooks are great. They work and will help our students, staff and faculty. That isn’t what I taught my team on Friday.

It wasn’t a total loss. Any time I can get reminded to make training simple, direct and practical, the better I become at training. I should be a training superhero pretty soon!

The takeaway:

When teaching others how to use new technologies, the focus has to be directly centered on what the particular tool at hand can do for them. Presumably, the use of appropriate tools makes part of our work easier so we can focus on more complex matters at hand and achieve bigger things. Forget this and you’ve got a recipe for failure.