Science fiction used to be filled with predictions of a future filled with flying cars and lives spent living among the stars. Since many of these predictions have failed to come true with the passing of the years, writers seem to have become more interested in suggesting ways in which technology will impact on our day-to-day existence or postulating alternate realities. While some writers still turn their eyes towards the stars, a great many have kept their eyes firmly affixed upon our planet and the human condition and society.
In the two books that I’ve recently read by Cory Doctorow, Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town and Little Brother, he has done a wonderful job of depicting our current world and the way in which technology impacts upon it. In both instances the technology depicted in the stories is nothing different than what’s available to you and me currently – although he does demonstrate some rather creative ways of putting that technology to work in both instances. However, that wasn’t the case in an earlier novel, Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom, as he gives a glimpse into one possible future. (As with all Cory’s novels Down And Out is available as a free download.)
Death and money have become things of the past in The Bitchun Society, as have the workplace and work. Instead of individuals accumulating personal wealth in order to obtain status and privileges they amass Whuffie, a complicated scheme that reflects the amount of esteem you are held in by society at large based on what you are doing with your life. Technically you could sit on your ass and watch television all day and drink yourself into a stupor, but because you won’t be earning any Whuffie with that type of behaviour you’d soon find yourself hitting the skids as your apartment is reassigned to someone held in a little more esteem.
But don’t worry, all is not lost, if things are really bad you can always revert to a back-up and wipe out everything that has happened between when you last saved your experiences and the present. Your old memories are simply downloaded into a clone and you pick up your life at that point in time and star over again. Of course if things are just too much, and you can’t find anything that interests you anymore, there’s always the option of deadheading for an extended period of time.
Most people use deadheading as a means of avoiding the tedium of travel – spending the four hours of plane travel in suspended animation instead of staring out the window in boredom – but it can also be used to put yourself to sleep for as long as you want. Having run out of things to do you might decide to deadhead until in the hopes things have changed when you come to. Of course if you ever get to the point where you feel as if you’ve seen enough you can always decide it’s you last day on earth and take the lethal injection that puts you to rest.
Jules has had a moderately successful two or three lives so far; he has composed a couple of symphonies and written three symphonies, but when he meets up with Dan he’s pissing away his accumulated Whuffie. Dan on the other hand has amassed stupendous amounts of Whuffie serving as a missionary to those pockets of humanity who have resisted joining the Bitchun Society. However he’s beginning to think that it will be time for him to check out soon – he’s seen more and done more than probably most people on earth have and from now on he figures it can only be boring and redundant. When they go their separate ways Dan is off to see if there’s anything left to do on earth, and Jules to start over again in his favourite place on earth – Disney World.
It’s in Disney World where Doctorow really brings the Bitchun Society into tight focus and we begin to see the flaws in this version of utopia. Disney World has been carved up into little fiefdoms with each area being controlled by the group of people, or ad hoc, who have been able to establish the most Whuffie for making the area exciting and popular. Jules and his new girl friend Lil, who was born and raised in Disney World, belong to the ad-hoc controlling Liberty Square; home to the Hall of Presidents, The Haunted Mansion, and the Liberty Belle riverboat. Not only are the members of an ad hoc responsible for the technical aspects of the rides, but they also are the live staff for the attractions and as such have developed the personalities of Disney employees.
When Dan shows up out of the blue he’s spent all his Whuffie and is a wreck – he’s not been able to summon the courage up to kill himself. It’s Lil who comes up with the idea that he needs to accumulate Whuffie again if he wants to top himself, as it’s far better to go out on top than looking like a washed up loser. Dan ends up joining Jules and Lil in their efforts to stave off the attempts of another ad hoc to take over first the Hall of Presidents attraction and then, the holiest of holies -The Haunted Mansion. We watch as what at first is an honest attempt on Jules’ part to preserve the attractions out of affection, becomes a dangerous obsession on his part that results in him not only destroying his relationship with Lil, but in the end losing all his Whuffie and becoming an outcast.
Cory Doctorow is no anti-technology Luddite, but he’s also very much aware of its potential for misuse. The more we learn about the great Bitchun Society and the way that technology is used so that people can slough off lives like a snake does its skin, the more we realize how facile and empty existence has become. There’s nothing at stake anymore, and the worst thing that can happen is that you simply revert to a back up and eliminate anything that you might have done that impacted upon your status. Why, you can even arrange to have someone murdered and then revert to your back-up and honestly have no knowledge of having set the forces in motion that resulted in somebody’s death.
With everybody hard wired into the same network, how else can you run a backup of your digital and organic memory if you’re not “on line”, and anyone can access your Whuffie score at anytime just by looking at you and calling up your data. A well orchestrated campaign against an individual can result in their going from having a moderately comfortable life to a complete outcast, shunned by decent society, in as long as it takes for information to travel the net. Not conforming to Bitchum Society norms – like deciding that you’d rather lose the capacity to be on line all the time rather than losing your memories of the last year by reverting to a back up as Jules does – is considered aberrant behaviour that could result in a serious hit to your Whuffie.
The concept of personal self-esteem in a society where you are judged by the popular esteem that you’re held in has become irrelevant. What does it matter what you think of yourself when nobody else thinks your fit even to merit being allowed to sit on a park bench or be allowed admission onto the hallowed grounds of Disney World? When an experience no longer has any meaning save for the impact it has on your social status and can be wiped out with a thought, and when there’s no risk involved in anything that you do, where’s the exhilaration of being alive come from? It’s like a society that’s been put on anti depressants and has lost some key element of what it means to be fully human.
What makes Doctorow so successful as a writer is how everything he writes is so believable. We learn about the society through the characters and their actions. Gradually he incorporates us into the world until the point comes where we take everything just as for granted as his characters do. It’s when we’ve reached that comfort zone that he begins to pull the rug out from under us, and we begin to see the ugly truths behind the idealistic facade.
Doctorow doesn’t preach to us, he simply lets us observe the society in action through the eyes of Jules. As his place in Bitchun Society becomes more tenuous we begin to see the hollowness at the core of the whole system. Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom is a well crafted and executed piece of social satire that reminds us that life isn’t and shouldn’t become a popularity contest. There’s lots of great uses for technology, but hard wiring us all into a massive social network so that we can vote on each other’s position in society is not a future I’d be interested in partaking in. Although come to think of it, how far from that are we now?