Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Reading :: Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom
By Cory Doctorow

A short review for this one. I almost never read fiction anymore, but four things compelled me to read this book.

First, I had heard a lot of good things about it, and I'm a fan of Doctorow's writing on BoingBoing.

Second, because Jenkins and others have mentioned this book's use of the term ad-hocracy, a term that has fascinated me since I read Toffler's Future Shock.

Third, Tara Hunt and others have mentioned borrowing the term "whuffie" (roughly, social capital) from it.

Fourth - well, it was free.

Bottom line, it was a pretty good book. Doctorow is interested in how social dynamics change when people are given effective immortality, their basic needs are taken care of, and they're perpetually wired into a social information layer. In this future, money has been replaced by whuffie, social capital that is automatically tabulated through the social information layer. Make people happy and you get more whuffie; rock the boat or irritate people and you lose it.

Although whuffie sounds great - and people who have adopted the term have enthusiastically used it as a metaphor for social capital, describing its pluses - the story is in large part about its downside.

The protagonist must solve his own murder after being restored from his last backup. Being murdered really bothers him, and it also bothers him that no one else seems to care much about solving the crime: in a world in which people casually destroy their bodies and restore their memories in clones (sometimes just to avoid a bad cold), being murdered is not a big deal; it's more of a faux pas. But the protagonist has a pretty good idea of who murdered him and why. In fact, he suspects a plot. But as he struggles to prove this plot, he behaves badly, makes mistakes, and eventually becomes a pariah with whuffie so low that even small children look away in horror when he passes them. Whuffie, Doctorow shows us, functions as a way to normalize behavior, rewarding safe, conservative behavior and penalizing struggles and conflict.

Ad-hocracies don't come out well either. In the Magic Kingdom - the story is set in Disney World - the sections are run by consensually governed, leaderless collectives. Generally, these collectives turn out to be good at maintaining sections of the park (and group consensus), but bad at innovating or reacting. The exception is an organization that is de facto led by an outsized personality. They're a far cry from the agile specialists that Toffler describes.

In all, it's an engaging and quick read. If you're into science fiction with social commentary, give it a look.

1 comment:

Kyle Stedman said...

I'm glad you wrote this, because it reminds me of some thoughts I've had lately as I reread the Harry Potter books, where the wizarding community seems to take a startlingly "whatever" attitude toward danger, violence, etc.--anything that can be fixed with a quick flit of the wand.

I've read Doctorow's book before (er, listened to a rather bad fan-produced audiobook of it), but I had forgot how it touches on some of the same themes. Both books ask us to wonder how societies would evolve in the long run when basic assumptions about personal safety are shifted.

Thanks for the reminder!