Virality is a double-edged sword

by Astra Taylor on April 28, 2017

Is Walkaway a novel? The answer is undoubtedly yes, but as long as I thought about it in terms of literature I’ll confess I found the book a bit confounding. Once I re-categorized it in my head as a book of political philosophy, something in the mode of Plato’s dialogues (which even get a couple of shout outs from Doctorow), I was able to accept, and even enjoy, the text in front of me. The long expository and ideologically-focused conversations (all composed in the same rather pedagogic voice no matter which character is speaking) are extremely engaging by the standards of political theory, and there’s plenty of action—sex, violence, raves, and hanging out in saunas—interspersed with the arguments and explications. And the arguments are thought provoking, if not wholly convincing. Which is fine, because it is a novel, after all.

Here, in no particular order, are some elements of Walkaway that stood out to me, and the random musings they inspired.

+ Without giving away too much of the plot, the premise of Walkaway is that abundance via 3d printing technology will tip the balance of power in favor of regular people. Set in the not-too-distant future in Canada, 3d printing technology has reached a remarkable stage: goods, food, shelter, and even at the very end of the book, bodies and brains, can be fabricated freely. That “free” is free of both cost and copyright—if you are a “walkaway” who has left the mainstream society behind. Meanwhile, in “default” as the mainstream is called, mega-rich corporate “zotta” overlords cling to their dominance through a combination of intellectual property laws and brute force (namely, raids, drone strikes, and jail time for those who resist).

By insisting that 3d printing will change everything, Walkaway challenges the reader to examine to what degree our current problems fundamentally stem from material scarcity. 3d printers that can print 3d printers that can print anything would certainly be game-changing, there’s no doubt about that. In Walkaway much is made of “zotta” tycoons imposing artificial scarcity as a means of social control. However, I doubt it’s controversial to say that much of the scarcity of our present day is also artificial, a consequence of wealth hoarding and problems of distribution rather than of production (the problem is who owns the means of production and distribution, a problem 3d printing circumvents in Doctorow’s made up world). That is to say, the challenges we face are more political than technological, which makes them tougher to solve. It would be nice if technological innovation swept such political and economic dilemmas away, but somehow imagining a world in which that happens feels like a more like a trick than a profound revelation.

Nevertheless, Walkaway is engaging. For example, it deals with people’s relationship to material possessions in some interesting passages. Soon after a trio of protagonists leave default, walking away into the autonomous zone, their rucksacks are stolen, an experience used as a teachable moment, specifically an occasion for a lecture about ownership and covetousness in a world where everything is easily replaced. For some radicals, possessing little becomes a point of pride, which hints at the positional nature of possessions. Perhaps an age of incredible 3d printers, less would be more (conspicuous consumption would morph into conspicuous non-consumption). Or, perhaps, human beings would continue with our ethos of more being more. I remember reading a study about how the advent of home printers meant the amount of paper people used dramatically increased. 3d printers may produce a similar result, with the amount of stuff everyone possesses surging. I was also reminded of Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave, a social history of technology that shows “labor saving” household devices have been anything but, as standards of cleanliness and expectations for home-cooked cuisine ratcheted upward and domestic labor evolved but was not eliminated. If we had personal 3d printers, would there the expectation emerge that every item a household possessed be newly printed and perfect? Would we feel beholden to our blueprints and printers the way we feel chained to our messaging apps and smartphones?

All of this also raises ecological concerns. In Doctorow’s novel, walkaways scavenge a landscape devastated by climate change, looking for materials for their printers to recycle. This technology – the one that breaks refuse down into its component parts for reuse, without producing any toxic runoff – struck me as the most fantastical and remarkable invention in the novel, though it is never highlighted or named. Right now, mountains of e-waste sit leeching poisons because it’s more expensive to break our outdated gadgets down than to warehouse them. If we get 3d printing without this corresponding, unnamed technological breakthrough that is able to break things down into their elemental bits, the future 3d printing will help usher be one in which the island of plastic in the Pacific Ocean becomes a noxious continent, not a future in which the island becomes a valuable resource to be repurposed.

+ “If the current burst of innovation points in any direction at all, it is towards decreasing employment opportunities for labour and the increasing significance of rents extracted from intellectual property rights for capital. But if everyone tries to live off rents and nobody invests in making anything, then plainly capitalism is headed towards a crisis of an entirely different sort.” So says David Harvey in Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism.

In the “default” realm, the jobless future many theorists and pundits have been warning about has become a harsh reality. Harvey’s crisis has appeared, but with a 3d printer twist. In Doctorow’s telling, abundance in the realm of production has led to a scarcity of paid work. When machines can make anything, what use are humans? At the same time, the state has withered away – and not in the Marxist sense. Ultrarich zottas have no compassionate desire or financial incentive to invest in citizens who have lost their value as laborers – better to hire just enough to serve as private mercenaries to police fortified mansions (sadly, that last bit seemed like one of the more believable and likely aspects of the novel).

The rise of machines, however, doesn’t necessarily have to mean joblessness—since a job can be whatever we as a society decide it should be. The end of factory labor, or even crappy low wage service jobs, could, theoretically, coincide with the investment of a range of socially productive work in fields like teaching and healthcare. (This is the alternative the “Make America Great Again” crowd fails to acknowledge, caught up in a nostalgic desire to bring back coal mining and re-open auto plants instead of imagining new possibilities.) In Doctorow’s libertarian, decentralized utopia, however, these sorts of services are provided on an improvisatory, ad hoc basis. Already highly educated people (almost everyone of significance in the novel is a brilliant coder, scientist, or engineer) band together to do cutting edge (Doctorow’s heroes and heroines are all genius techies – it is not at all clear how people with other capacities and interests fare in the walkaway world). Medicines can be printed on demand, so who needs universal healthcare.

I was raised in a countercultural “deschooling” milieu, where it was taken as common sense that people are good and inherently curious and institutions vaguely corrupting, and while I appreciate the humanism at the heart of this romantic view (a view that gets quite an airing in the novel), I am also keenly aware of the importance of public goods and institutions, not to mention government regulations that ensure basic rights and protections. In a sense, despite its profound idealism, Walkaway feels a bit symptomatic of what I see as the limits of the contemporary political imagination. Ultimately, it’s easier for most of us to imagine a Mad Max style society in which people pick through the wreckage of modern like – an image that appeals to American do-it-yourself leftwing radicals and rightwing survivalists alike – than it is to picture a future in which everyone is collectively, equally, and sustainably provided for in a way that respects individuality and enhances freedom.

Karl Marx, who famously tried to envision such a future, said that communism would mean doing one thing today and another tomorrow: “to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” Walkaway honors this vision in one key respect: everyone is a social critic, with a treatise at the ready.

+ While surveillance and cryptography are omnipresent themes in Walkaway, the media is not. And yet I couldn’t help but wonder: How is it that the vastly outnumbered zottas maintain their grip on a population they no longer have use for, but which, also, doesn’t need them in return (since they can, conceivable, walkaway and print everything they need and more)? Doctorow paints the portrait of a society in transition, one that hasn’t yet shed the intertwined ideologies of competition, meritocracy, and the protestant-work-ethic. But in his telling, our penchant for celebrity and spectacle appears to have been miraculously abandoned.

The thing about media, as Doctorow well knows, is that human attention is a limited resource. And it would continue to be, even if we could print everything we needed to stay alive. Indeed, the novel recognizes attention’s value when, in one of the final scenes, a group of walkaway resisters who have taken over a prison and transformed it into a non-coercive community are attacked by mercenaries. They protect themselves by livestreaming the standoff, garnering sympathy even from those inside “default” and causing stock shares of one of the companies they are battling to plummet. Attention serves as a shield, publicity as protection.

This equation of attention with awareness and social-change-making is too easy, and one of the less satisfying aspects of the book, only because Doctorow is well positioned to help us think more deeply on this front. For social movements, media attention (traditional and social) is hardly guaranteed – countless important issues and protests are ignored everyday while people obsess over the latest click bait controversy. And when activists do grab headlines or make it to the top of Facebook and Twitter feeds, virality is a double-edged sword. Efforts can cast a tremendous shadow, appearing more powerful than they actually are, which is not always a good thing.

Doctorow explicitly portrays politicized walkaways as operating in the tradition of 2011 global protest movements, from the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street to Idle No More, movements that he acknowledges fizzled out. The novel’s finale implies that the spirit galvanizing these protests would have a chance if the problem of material scarcity was solved (and if enough of North America was abandoned and uninhabited so that legions of anarchistically-inclined people could squat it). But one of the points of Occupy was that there is, already, enough to go around—the problem is how the system is organized and who benefits. What’s more, one of the weaknesses of Occupy was that its global media reach belied a lack of organizational capacity on the ground, to the movement’s detriment. That’s why, in my work since the heady days of Zuccotti Park, I have focused on building infrastructure so that people can use what leverage they have effectively in order to shift power relations over the long-term (in the case of the work I’m involved in, that leverage is debt, an issue Doctorow’s smartly addresses in passing in Walkaway). Publicity doesn’t amount to much if you don’t have a plan.

+This is a very feminist book, and that’s something worth cheering. It passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors. Many of the protagonists – the most brilliant, fearless, and principled ones, in fact – are women of various ages and backgrounds. Indeed the most utopian narrative twist happens when a virulently misogynist mansplainer (Doctorow’s word, and an homage to Rebecca Solnit, one of his inspirations) comes around to apologize to a woman who he trolled mercilessly and whose life he twice turned upside down. Huzzah.

The book doesn’t directly ask what the impact on gender relations in an age of magical, limitless 3d printing would be, but it’s a question I couldn’t help but ponder by the end. The novel culminates with its main characters being granted new and eternal life in freshly printed bodies, their consciousnesses (or “scans”) having been uploaded to digital limbo for a couple years while the technological kinks of brain-creation were worked out. In addition to granting immortality, this innovation would disrupt the current monopoly women-with-uteruses now hold on the vital process of 3d printing new human beings. What would such a disruption do to gender relations and power dynamics? The Marxist feminist Silvia Federici argues that the root of sexual domination has to do with the control of women’s bodies since women are, ultimately, producing the workers necessary for society to continue function and the capitalists to continue extracting wealth. Coming from another angle, Shulamith Firestone postulated that gender and sexual equality will remain elusive until women are freed from pregnancy and child-rearing through technological advancement. Doctorow’s book, then, ends with something more than the liberation of the means of production, which is his primary interest and focus, but the liberation of the means of reproduction. Fodder for a sequel, perhaps?



Alan Paxton 04.29.17 at 11:42 am

What energy source powers these 3-d printing machines, with their prodigious powers of recycling and manufacturing? Is it described in the book and, if so, is it plausible?


bianca steele 04.30.17 at 4:44 pm

I keep thinking about buying this book but the idea of reading it quickly enough to participate probably isn’t in the cards; I just don’t have the time.

I have to say though that I’m tired of a certain kind of “feminist” female character in a certain kind of male-written fiction. Gibson does this fairly well, I guess, but for me the origin is a woman in Microserfs who’s depicted, from all appearances unironically, as achieving liberation when she starts pumping iron. I guess Coupland succeeded in spoiling that kind of thing for me (maybe even intentionally). I’m not someone who objects to this in principle, it’s just that something about the depiction always rubs me he wrong way, and probably I should think about why this is, and whether it should matter. But I suppose that, having reached 50, I can play the role of the woman who says that now.

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