From Scarcity to Abundance

by Eric on May 9, 2017

I suppose I should begin by saying few things have ever made me feel as old as this book does; Doctorow’s idea of utopia seems to be something that maybe some kids would like—but I wouldn’t. I’ve no interest in uploading myself and living indefinitely as a meta-stabilized simulation, even if it means downloading myself someday into some new, buff, handsome body. I find it impossible to believe that either the sim or the physique too sexy for its shirts would ever be, in any meaningful sense, me. I don’t just happen to inhabit my body, which is aging and will someday die; I am it—and that is not just okay; that is me.

That aside, let me say that what I take to be the basis for the book is one I find intriguing indeed: how do we navigate the shift from a society premised on scarcity to one premised on abundance? The recent burst of writing on the roboticization of labor has brought home the imminence of an era in which most of us will be economically surplus. Keynes had an idea that the abundant society would be one of leisure and widespread artistic endeavor, one toward which we should aim and for which we should plan; his was a fetching optimism, which appears to have no purchase on the zero-sum, inequality-hugging societies of our time. But abundance, and the values that recognize it, is where Doctorow wants to go—a future in which acquisitiveness might still exist, but is not only no longer laudable, but has become shameful.

Doctorow’s novel envisions a utopia that takes the blogosphere and wikis and other online communities (probably not metafilter though) as the basic model for how an abundant society might organize itself. Physical spaces are as cheaply furnished in his book as virtual ones now are, online. You could live in a world as sleek and spare and instant as a Squarespace site, only less lonely. The key move in establishing such communities is, in Doctorow’s imagined future, turning passive-aggression into a virtue—if someone has screwed up, someone else will just fix it; don’t bother trying to hold the erring party responsible. Doctorow sketches for us these functioning societies formed by walkaways—self-deportees from a reality not unlike our own. These are real-world spaces, as easily pioneered as a new WordPress blog. They would be just as easily infested by trolls, too—but Doctorow seems to think that community norms could quite readily expel such infestations. My own experience of trying to moderate comments sections makes me less optimistic than I take him to be.

Does this sound as though I’m reviewing a philosophical essay, rather than a novel? I hope I’m not being unfair if I say that Doctorow pretty clearly intends this to be a novel of ideas, in which plot and character are secondary to intellectual development. How much you like it will depend on how much you want to turn the ideas over in your head. Doctorow writes of one of his characters, after she is walked through an intellectual thicket, “This discussion killed her horniness.” As the kids say these days, “it me.”