Science fiction writer, EFF evangelist, BoingBoing blogger, and former dot-commie Cory Doctorow has just published his first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. It’s a real book that you can buy in bookstores, but he’s also making it available for free download in a variety of formats on his web site. Doctorow says that there’ve been more than 20,000 downloads since its Jan. 9 launch, which qualifies as a smash hit in the SF novel world for sure.
MICRO REVIEW added 1/20/03: Doctorow’s novel (topping 50,000 downloads now) is like a love letter to Napster, Google and Walt Disney World. It’s a rollicking, fast-paced story and is entertainingly inventive without bogging down in the impressive array of future technologies it imagines. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is set in a future where death has been eliminated, energy and raw materials are freely available in limitless quantities (much like MP3 files on KaZaA today) and people’s nervous systems are wired directly into the Internet. The protagonist, Julius, works at Disney World, and the novel chronicles his struggles to protect the theme park’s Haunted Mansion from being shut down by an ad hoc group of designers who have developed a technology for “flash baking” theme-park experiences directly into parkgoers’ brains.
The novel gets off to a cracking good start, it’s a fast, entertaining read, and it manages to be entertaining and thought-provoking at the same time. Doctorow is a whiz at description, plot, and inventiveness. I’m looking forward to his next book.
In an interview on the Creative Commons site, Doctorow lays out some interesting thoughts about dealing with tidal waves of information.
“There’s an old chestnut in online science fiction fandom that the Internet ‘makes us all into slushreaders,'” says Doctorow. “(‘Slush’ is the unsolicited prose that arrives at publishers’ offices — a ‘slushreader’ wades through thousands of these paste-gems looking for the genuine article). This has always struck me as a pretty reactionary position,” says Doctorow. I’ll admit, it’s a position I’ve often taken, partly in reaction — yes — to the crushing quantity of disorganized, unmanaged, incredible information available on the Internet.
But Doctorow adds a Google-like twist: “Nearly every piece of information online has a human progenitor — a person who thought it was useful or important or interesting enough to post. Those people have friends whom they trust, and those friends have trusted friends, and so on. Theoretically, if you use your social network to explore the Web, you can make educated guesses about the relative interestingness of every bit of info online to you.”
In the novel, which I’ve just started to read, D. concocts the notion of “Whuffie,” a kind of measure of social capital. People check out (“ping”) one another’s Whuffie when they meet, and that gives them some notion of how much respect and credibility the other has. Nifty idea. It’s a little scary to me — it seems akin to keeping your bank balance displayed on your forehead — but is a natural extension of the kinds of “reputation scores” that eBay seller, Amazon.com reviewers, and Epinions reviewers all have.
For that matter, it’s a natural extension of Google’s PageRank, which accords each Web page credibility in proportion to the number of other sites that link to it — adjusting each link in proportion to the linking site’s own credibility score, of course. If Doctorow’s right, it’s only a matter of time before these algorithms encompass actual people, and we can evaluate how much respect other people have in a given community.
Doctorow goes on to say in his interview that “It’s a quirk of our economy — and a failure of our collective imagination — that we view the de-scarce-ification of information as a disaster. Our technological history — literacy, the press, telegraphy, radio, TV, xerography, computers — is a steady march towards making information more liquid and less scarce. Towards richness. At each turn, the mounting plenty has made the information industries larger and larger, employing more people, feeding more artists, bringing more ideas to more people.”
That’s an interesting point, and one worth pondering. Information overload is, if not a disaster, certainly a challenge — and it’s one I struggle with every day. Just finding the time to peruse online news sites, weblogs, email, and more — let alone contributing my own thoughts to that flow of information — can be exhausting. The reason, I think, is that we don’t yet have tools (akin to “Whuffie” scores) sufficient to manage and organize the onslaught of information available to us. Blogs may be a step in the right direction, but they are just a start.