Walking away from hard problems

by Julia Powles on May 4, 2017

Written under the working title Utopia, Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway is billed as a fable of hope in the automated wastelands of the late 21st century. The protagonists are a likeable team of off-grid hackers and makers who have turned their backs on ‘default’, the loveless, jobless plutocratic society run by the ‘zottarich’. As a novel, Walkaway is loose and scrappy, frequently indulging in long, jargon-heavy, mechanical descriptions and smart-ass monologues from characters who all seem to speak the same way. What is perhaps most interesting about the book is in fact what it doesn’t discuss—the unstoppable juggernaut of power, capital and technology that drives today’s digital culture. This matters, because with endorsements from heavy-hitters like Edward Snowden, William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, this book is being boldly pitched as a blueprint for the builders of tomorrow.

Despite its self-consciously progressive framing, Walkaway undermines the laudable diversity of its characters with a weirdly conservative heteronormativity. Tam, a trans woman, is rarely mentioned without anatomical commentary. There is an entirely gratuitous lesbian sex scene between a former victim and captor, jarring in the process the most credible love-story in the book—a relationship between an older and younger woman which, though compelling, fails to resist elaboration through the prism of a dysfunctional maternal relationship.

Walkaway sees Doctorow demonstrating his special hate of overreaching intellectual property and counter-terrorism laws, but to the point of parody, given the vacuum of other regulatory context. In the 2070s setting of the novel, Starbucks, Siemens, secret services and evil copyright laws all still exist—but utterly omitted from the narrative are the likes of Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple. Yet it is these firms that have surely ushered in the ubiquitous surveillance economy that the ‘walkaways’ shun, as well as the brand of atomized individualism that they so despise. Conveniently forgetting the last two decades, the evil ‘zottas’ are all selfish bankers and consultants, not tech moguls. There is a conspicuous oversight in talking about the mega-rich aspirants to disembodied immortality without mentioning their breeding ground: Silicon Valley. Jacob Redwater, the only named zotta, would have been much more interesting if reimagined as a Peter Thiel or Mark Zuckerberg, earnestly trying to remake the world in their own thin conception of community and connection.

The most charming and innovative part of Walkaway concerns ‘upload’, the process of scanning and simulating minds beyond the body. The ironic, aware, distributed multiplicity of a pioneering neuroscientist who met an untimely death and was reconceived as software, Dis (from Disjointed), carries the narrative, managing to hold the characters together as they face endless attacks of uncertain motivation, with self-generating resources of uncertain origin (or “the realm of pure information”). To a select audience, Walkaway will appeal as a tech-savvy, post-scarcity epic. For the rest of us, it neatly embodies a familiar and all-too-contemporary kind of tech-utopianism that, in ignoring the provenance and trajectory of big, hard questions of power, privilege and rights, walks away from solving them.



Ted Lemon 05.04.17 at 3:55 pm

You may have missed the point, which Doctorow makes only very briefly, that the reason for the omission of tech moguls is that ultimately in the zottarich society, everything turns into finance in the end. Apple is not fundamentally a tech company. It is fundamentally a money company. Google is not fundamentally a tech company. It is fundamentally a money company.

The way in which these things manifest in the present is in the form of tech products, but if you look at Apple’s actual behavior, it’s basically just figured out a very effective way of using bits of tech to extract money, and the whole game is really about extracting money.

You could say that Elon Musk is a tech guy, but Doctorow also addressed this when he talked about the idea that the people with big money get to decide what to do next, as opposed to people generally. Musk made his money by turning crypto into a commodity—he was in the right place at the right time. His money comes from a very fortunate accident of timing combined with some genuine good effort.

He is held up as a paragon amongst today’s zottas because he’s actually doing some fairly cool things with his money. But in a walkaway world, he’d also be doing fine—indeed, he’d be doing the same cool stuff, but he’d be leaving a lot less wreckage in his wake.

Effectively, what we have in the U.S. right now is a managed economy. Instead of being managed by apparatchiks, it’s being managed by people who happen to have made large fortunes. What Doctorow is describing is certainly a more degenerate case of that—he’s extrapolated based on current trends. But he’s not wrong, and I don’t think he left out Apple and Google; he just didn’t mention them by name. Probably because it would have cut into his profits. :)


JimV 05.04.17 at 5:01 pm

“Apple is not fundamentally a tech company. It is fundamentally a money company.”

The one who founded that business model was Jack Welch. Prior to his`’leadership’, GE’s strategy was to funnel profits back into research and development. His big idea was to use profits to buy-back GE stock to raise the stock price; and to get rid of high-tech businesses (computers and the Internet) and smoke-stack factories, to turn GE into a Financial Services company.


Mario 05.04.17 at 6:14 pm

As a novel, Walkaway is loose and scrappy, frequently indulging in long, jargon-heavy, mechanical descriptions and smart-ass monologues from characters who all seem to speak the same way.

That’s not quite on the level of Taibbi-on-Friedman, but not that far away. Good to know you liked the book anyway…


Anarcissie 05.05.17 at 12:14 am

‘For the rest of us, it neatly embodies a familiar and all-too-contemporary kind of tech-utopianism that, in ignoring the provenance and trajectory of big, hard questions of power, privilege and rights, walks away from solving them.’

It appears that walking away might be the only way of solving them available, given the failure of direct attacks over the last few centuries.


Peter T 05.05.17 at 2:19 am

An assumption the book seems to make (a very common assumption) is that money is an independent source of power. The historical record suggests this is not so – money is a derivative of other forms of power. The rich think that their wealth will insulate them from the consequences of social collapse when, in fact, social collapse would either destroy monetary wealth or render it irrelevant except as prey to other forms of power.

I do not expect the rich to grasp this point.


mclaren 05.07.17 at 1:51 am

One small amplification of JimV’s point in #2:
Jack Welch’s other big contribution to GE was to make a set of payday/title loan storefronts that engaged in predatory lending the center of GE Capital, a formerly small division within GE itself. Within a few years, GE Capital accounted for 70% of GE’s corporate profit. Not hard to do if GE Capital charges 700% interest on payday loans.

As far as Doctorow’s novel Walkaway goes, it reads oddly like a less-comprehensive version of Daniel Suarez’s Daemon and Freedom. In fact, Doctorow’s novel almost looks like a rewrite of the Suarez books, but with some newer tech due to the distance in time (Suarez’s books were written in the early 2000s and published in 2006, Doctorow’s book was written about 10 years later circa 2015).

Doctorow does a better job of showing how the asset-stripping & looting raubwirtschaft gig economy works, while Suarez peculiarly does better with the neuroimaging tech. There’s a great scene in Freedom where a captured merc expects to be tortured but instead gets placed in an EEG hooked to a computer and Event-Related Potentials are used to determine if he’s seen something before (C247 lights up if the subject recognizes an object or face). So they just show the merc various faces until the ERP goes off, and so on. The CIA is apparently using this tech now, so it’s a little surprising that Doctorow didn’t include it.

Both Suarez & Doctorow seem to assume that very soon we’ll be able to design and print state-of-the-art computer chips. This seems unlikely. Right now, factories costing several billion bucks are needed to produce current multicore CPUs. The idea that these could be designed by average people, or printed out by clunky 3D printers people can shlep around with themselves, suggests Docotorow knows a lot more about software than hardware.

The mind-uploading stuff comes off as the weakest part of the book both technologically (I don’t buy it) and in terms of narrative (Doctorow never does much with the tech).

The two-factor theory of emotion along with neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s somatic marker hypothesis both converge to suggest that emotions are bodily states & human cognition is fundamentally founded on emotion. Damasio’s book Descartes’ Error offers an intriguing case history of an insurance executive who suffered a stroke-related infarct that damaged his ability to perceive emotions. While testing high on standard IQ tests, the executive proved unable to do his job and had to be replaced, since emotion remains essential to the problem-solving process his job required. This is probably true of all types of human problems and thus IQ measurements.

For example, if you give an AI the command “eliminate crime in this city” the AI can easily do so by killing everyone in the city. This is morally & emotionally unacceptable, so if you tell the AI “eliminate crime in this city without killing everyone,” a disembodied AI lacking emotions would likely offer an alternate solution like “sedate everyone,” and so on. Sans emotions, AI is useless for solving real-world problems. And without a body, AIs by definition won’t have emotions — unless someone can explain how to mathematize emotions. That would be fun. By all means, explain to us the value of the equation “the square root of love divided by the cotangent of regret” and provide a mathematical proof for your results. I’ll wait.

Kevin Kelly’s recent “The Myth of Superhuman AI” covers similar ground criticizing the fantasies of the mind-uploading extropians. Bottom line? Doctorow’s strong on software, but weak of neuroscience and computer hardware. This gives the novel a peculiar late-80s kind of feel, before really powerful computer hardware or nanotech seemed practical.

In particular, Doctorow avoids certain types of tech altogether, perhaps for reasons of narrative. He wants to tell a particular kind of story — the familiar “giant evil corporate IP monopolies using copyright crimes and fake charges of terrorism to control the world.” Introducing other types of likely near-future tech would upset that applecart and push the narrative of the book in much stranger philosophical directions, akin to Philip K. Dick’s Ubik.

Doctorow doesn’t seem to allow nanotech in his future world, certainly nothing like Drexlerian assemblers. That would immediately push us in the direction of radical post-scarcity along with humans modifying themselves and/or melding with machines, which would make giant corporations largely irrelevant to the narrative (if you can fabricate anything from diamonds to gold to 500-foot yachts to mansions to add-on processing/memory capacity for the human brain using nanotech, it’s unclear why wealth would matter, or how the zottas would be able to out-think or outmaneuver anyone).

Doctorow also seems to assume that biotech doesn’t reach a level of genetic engineering allowing people to enhance themselves emotionally or physically or mentally. Bruce Sterling dealt with this future worldspace much more thoroughly in his Shaper/Mechanist series of stories. Of course, once you introduce this kind of self-modification biotech, humans rapidly vanish from the story and it gets hard to determine what kind of creatures we’re dealing with. Posthuman colony creatures? Blendings of various species at the genetic level? Superhuman self-enhanced posthumans editing their own DNA? Once again, giant monopolistic corporations would get treated as damage and society would rout around them if everyone could edit their own DNA to makes themselves, say, 1,000 times as smart as homo sapiens. You’d also see the human species blow up in a Cambrian explosion of different types of creatures, most of ’em probably emigrating off earth.

Doctorow shows some odd blinders about the obvious implications of the neuroscience tech he does allow in his story. The mind uploading seems as though it would also allow for recording of memories/skills/emotions since a scanned mind must by definition be stored in some way. So almost immediately you’d expect people to start editing the scanned minds pre-encryption & blending personalities and mixing-and-matching knowledge and skills courtesy of the same tech used to scan minds and upload ’em. This would quickly lead to people changing personalities or minds the same way we change clothes today. Probably the best extrapolation of that kind of neurotech comes from the end of the 2nd season of Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse TV series. Once again, society as we know it wouldn’t exist, and giant monopolistic corporations would be irrelevant, which is probably why Doctorow refuses to include those kinds of
obvious neuroscience applications in his futurescape. How much meaning would intelligence or power or money have in that kind of world, where if you want to solve some tough problem, you just upload some supergenius skillset to do it? There’s also the issue that if you edit your own mind upload, you could change yourself to be perfectly happy in some future corporate tyranny so the zottas would probably want mind scanning tech for that reason. Iain Banks did a better job of dealing with the implications of that kind of neurotech with his neural lace.

Doctorow stays far away the notion of people or machines combining to form blended collective superorganisms. Once again, probably because this would render most current social structures, like wealth or governments, irrelevant. Also, the collective creatures thus produced would probably prove indescribable using our current English language.

The likelihood of using neuroscience+pharmacology+organic/wetware brain enhancements to generate things like new emotions or new sensoria tacked onto posthumans would also make the events almost impossible to describe using current language. As well as rendering most of the issues of the book moot. If you’re a collective machine/posthuman hybrid with 5,000 new emotions and the ability to imagine & create new tech so far beyond current physics or materials science that humans can’t understand or imagine it, the narrative is going in the direction of the Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic rather than Doctorow’s familiar giant-evil-corporations-are-trying-to-rule-the-world direction.

One issue Doctorow raises but then dodges: his argument that encryption can’t work on digital content because any media designed to be played must at some point be decrypted. Therefore all media are inherently jailbroken. But one of Doctorow’s characters points out that this must necessarily also prove true for mind uploads, since any mind upload that gets encrypted must also get decrypted at some point and regardless how you parse it, any passphrase or private crypto key is hackable. Charles Stross confronts this issue head on in Glasshouse but Doctorow slides out of it with hand-waving at the end of Walkaway.

In particular, verifying the integrity of a mind upload seems especially parlous. Once a mind upload gets stored, it must at some point get dercypted prior to uploading, and that raises the possibility of modifying the stored mind. So obvious plot points like someone getting scanned & uploading his mind but then the upload altered by nefarious forces so that the person gets brainwashed come into play. The original Star Trek TV series did a particularly good take on this issue in the first-season episode “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” Of course, at this point we’re deep into ontological issues and pushing into Philip K. Dick territory rather than Doctorow’s preferred hacktivism backyard. What defines identity? If someone edits your mind upload on the sly, how is that different from you changing between age 10 and age 30? And so on. None of these questions have obvious or simple answers, which may explain why Doctorow avoided ’em.

The Ship of Theseus paradox gets some brief lip-service toward the end of Doctorow’s book, but it raises lots of big issues and potentially important plot points. Why fight the zottas instead of just editing their mind uploads to make ’em nice guys? Doc Savage did this to the villains in those 1930s pulp novels, and Alfred Bester does a great job of showing the beneficent side of this kind of personality alteration in the end of The Demolished Man.

As with all posthuman extropian novels, Walkaway hits a hard wall at the point where mind-enhancing neurotech gets introduced. The creatures that would result would probably fall so far outside our ability to imagine or describe that the narrative crashes into a semantic wall. Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker and Last and First Men offers a dim glimpse of that kind of posthuman world, but as John W. Campbell pointed out to prospective authors “Nobody can write this kind of story.” You’d have to have the mind of posthuman or superhuman to imagine such creatures, and if you could imagine ’em, you couldn’t write something contemporary humans could understand and empathize with — which has always seemed to be the fundamental Achilles’ Heel of extropian science fiction.

The other big problem with extropian sci fi is that the supersmart AI always dead-ends the narrative in a Deus Ex Machina, since if it’s superhumanly smart it can solve all the protagonists’ dilemmas in a jiffy. In Doctorow’s Walkaway the Deus Ex Machine cheat plops into the narrative in the form of Dis, who magically solves the mind uploading problem. And once minds can be uploaded, who cares if any of the novel’s characters get killed? (Several do die and later get reincarnated as uploads.) If the eight most deadly words any writer can hear are “I don’t care what happens to these people,” extropian science fiction is a self-extinguishing narrative form…since as soon as you get mind uploading, no sensible reader should care whether any of the characters live or die, suffer or experience joy, succeed or fail. If they die, they can come back as uploads; if they suffer they can edit it out of the upload before reincarnating, and if they fail, they can edit their uploads to have happy delighted lives because of that failure.


Tom Slee 05.08.17 at 12:10 pm

I have not actually read Walkaway, but the OP does a great and entertaining job of critiquing the kind of book I imagine Cory Doctorow would write, full of the mistakes I imagine Cory Doctorow would make, and that’s good enough for me.


Tom Slee 05.08.17 at 12:10 pm

I have not actually read Walkaway, but the OP does a great and entertaining job of critiquing the kind of book I imagine Cory Doctorow would write, full of the mistakes I imagine Cory Doctorow would make, and that’s good enough for me.

Comments on this entry are closed.