Dirtside Simulation


Cory Doctorow is Outreach Coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, www.eff.org , and maintains a publishing site . He is the co-editor of the popular weblog Boing Boing at www.boingboing.net, with more than 250,000 visitors a month. He won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer at the 2000 Hugo Awards . Born and raised in Toronto, he now lives in San Francisco.

Astrobiology Magazine (AM): The European Space Agency commissioned a recent study of science-fiction inventions that should become reality.

Their list ranges from biospheres to wearable computers. What would you add to their list, or pick some from your own work that should be included?

Cory Doctorow (CD): I’m particularily excited by the notion of ant-colony optimization, the use of insect-colony models to solve computationally-resistant problems, like the Travelling Salesman problem that Southwest Airlines faces when it tries to develop optimal mechanisms for routing its cargo-planes to all of the cities it serves. Eric Bonabeau , a researcher in this field, has provided SWA with an ant-colony optimization that uses less fuel and gets more cargo to more places in less time than any other solution ever tried (it’s no coincidence that SWA is virtually the only profitable airline in the field).

But the cool thing is that the SWA solution isn’t "human readable." You look at the routes that the individual planes are taking from moment to moment, and they just don’t make any sense. They’re doubling back, flying over cities they’re carrying cargo for, etc. The only way to know that the system works is to observe its outcomes: more cargo, less fuel, less time.

Imagine a world optimized this way, where our decisions and lives are directed by algorithms that we literally can’t understand — it would be like being animists, cargo-cultists for the machines we’ve built.

AB: In your book, you introduce the notion of a Whuffie, as kind of a metaphor for esteem or even karma. Would you describe this as a kind of future technology that acts like magic spectacles–seeing those things you have done or not done, like a pop-up comic balloon over your head?

CD: That’s the way it’s presented in the story: "heads-up displays" (HUDs) that report on the esteem you likely hold for every person you meet. But that’s not the "magic" part of the technology: HUDs exist today, as do primitive optic-nerve interfaces. It’s not such a stretch to imagine that some day, we’ll have virtual screens that simply float in our fields-of-vision.

The magic tech — the tech that would require fundamental technology breakthroughs — is the part that can programatically distinguish between all people, and poll your brain for your actual opinion of each person of whom you have some experience.

Knowing your own mind — your own opinion — is really hard. It’s the kind of thing people spend decades in therapy or in monestaries trying to get right. I wrote an essay that deals with this.

AB: Since each factor you add to your Whuffie, perhaps has a new rating coefficient, this kind of scorecard seems to get out of hand quickly. Wouldn’t you kind of end up with a big personality test blurred over the norm?

CD: That’s the magic in the technology. The ability to disambiguate every thing for which you have an opinion and the ability to accurately gauge how you feel about each of those things, without any explicit user-intervention.

AB: You have distributed your eBook novel "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom" in both electronic and paper formats. How many downloads have you logged?

CD: I’ve transmitted, as of today, about 110,000 copies of the book. Additionally, the book is mirrored in several places online, has been posted to high-volume mailing-lists, and is served up on various P2P networks, so God knows how many copies have been circulated electronically. 200,000?

"I’m a terrible, terrible person to visit theme-parks with", remarks a character in the science fiction novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, by Cory Doctorow.

At the 2000 Hugo Awards for Science-Fiction Achievement, Doctorow won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. His most recent work describes a future world where characters get led ‘down a subtle, carefully baited trail… allowing that while, yes, we might someday encounter alien species with wild and fabulous ways, that right now, there was a slightly depressing homogeneity to the world’.

Spaceship Earth, at the turn of the second millenia. Click image for larger view. Credit: montage Earth from orbit, Disney World, Orlando

Doctorow’s landscapes are anything but homogeneous. The future includes routine trips back and forth to space stations; the Earth itself has taken on the slang term, ‘dirtside’.

When one goes dirtside for a visit or to stay, one begins to feel the familiar juxtaposed against the startlingly unfamiliar future–where life is extended infinitely, where one’s memory resembles backing up a computer hard-drive, and where finally and fortunately for those unlucky enough to short their own circuits, one can merely reboot to a different lifestyle.

The science fiction characters don’t shape-shift, but they do lifestyle-shift.

Given this horizon of continuously refreshing to a new body, human memory becomes precious and the only means for continuity in a world where theme-parks and corpses are swappable.

Just like Walt Disney might have put his personal and corporate stamp on TomorrowLand, Doctorow draws on the popular memories of yesterday to get the reader to tomorrow. His characters wander through carefully landscaped walkways, while listening to those remarkably efficient techniques for crowd-control. Whatever corporations might have once ruled these theme-parks, tomorrow’s defining unit assembles a group of compatible souls, in what is aptly coined as, the ‘ad-hocracy’.

Co-workers are ad-hocs.

A good life, if extended for more than 10,000 years, has a few embellishments: to eat, sleep, travel, and of course access the net without hassle. This is where Doctorow, who is also the Outreach Coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, makes a good case for trading not on monetary currencies, but another currency highly personal and based on your reputation.

His characters are continuously rated for their deeds. Like a multiplicity of networks that resemble a karmic rating — akin to a hybrid of the Better Business Bureau and eBay–, reputation is not a tradeable item as much as dollars and cents. Doctorow has described a unique world of reputation economies.

In his modernization of wearing your karma on your sleeve, society is governed by reputation and actions. This is not so much an ideal world, as a practical one which keeps considerable adventure and moves in anything but boring ways. ‘The whole point ..was to be more reputable than the next ad-hoc, to succeed on merit, not trickery, despite assassinations and the like.’

Therein lies Doctorow’s thesis: an internet-saavy version of personal capital, particularly one’s success rating with friends and neighbors. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom coins this all-encompassing and frequently updated reputation rating, one’s Whuffie.

While friends’ opinions may matter most in getting good Whuffie, a weighted score also makes room for those both likely– and unlikely– to be compatible. This version resembles a counterpoint system, and is called left-handed Whuffie: respect garnered from people who share very few of your own opinions. This is not a world of sycophants who seek mutual admiration. The future apparently holds true to both majority power, and also minority empowerment.

If one imagines that such upheavals in global monetary policy might require a revolution, the future holds a much shifted class of motivational carrots and sticks. Indeed the question of what incentives might pre-occupy humans–assuming one’s imminent demise was uncertain– becomes an evolutionary leap.

So if toolmaking defined early humans as anthopologically distinct, reputation-making defines the future of a new species in the Magic Kingdom. Doctorow describes: ‘the death of scarcity, the death of death, the struggle to rejig an economy that had grown up focused on nothing but scarcity and death.’

So what to do if modern biology got it right, including fostering its own obsolescence? Doctorow writes about, ‘the miracle that all but obsoleted the medical profession: why bother with surgery when you can grow a clone, take a backup, and refresh the new body? Some people swapped corpuses just to get rid of a cold.’

If an upheaval in biology led to such a remarkable, but bloodless, coup in macroeconomics, the future battlefields are the last place one might expect a banana republic to spring up: the serene, carefully manicured walkways of Orlando, Florida, and Disney World’s engineered microcosms. This is not to say the future is an amusement ride.

Even when stripped of the prospect of death or starvation, humans may retain drive and work ethics. Instead, the characters in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom struggle in the same way NASA engineers might try to build a utopian space colony–independent of whether they hold stock options, or merchandising deals. Big plans are always still on the drawing boards. The narrative details all the ins-and-outs of what such a utopia might really need –or not need–for the perfect dirtside simulation.

Take, for instance, an encounter with a future being fully adapted to its unique, rebootable life in space:

We met in orbit, where I’d gone to experience the famed low-gravity sybarites. Getting staggering drunk is not much fun at one gee, but at ten to the neg eight, it’s a blast. You don’t stagger, you ‘bounce’…I was bouncing around inside a clear sphere that was a mile in diameter, filled with smaller spheres in which one could procure bulbs of fruity, deadly concoctions. Musical instruments littered the sphere’s floor, and if you knew how to play, you’d snag one, tether it to you and start playing.

Zoya had been an early network engineer for the geosynch broadband constellations that went up at the cusp of the world’s ascent… She’d been exposed to a lot of hard rads and low gee and had generally become pretty transhuman as time went by, upgrading with a bewildering array of third-party enhancements: a vestigial tail, eyes that saw through most of the RF spectrum, her arms, her fur, dogleg reversible knee joints and a completely mechanical spine …I thought I lived for fun, but I didn’t have anything on Zed.

After going ‘dirtside’, then nuts, she announced ‘ "I’m going to go back to space, and revert to an older version." She had a shoulderbag packed, and she had traveling clothes on." ‘

"Great," I said, with forced cheerfulness, making a mental inventory of my responsibilities dirtside. "Give me a minute or two, I’ll pack up. I miss space, too."

The need for space is what Disney World had mastered. His management seemed to have all the right pixie dust for both knowing the crowd, and controlling their every movement like a grand musical conductor. Every Disney ride is a miniature: Fantasyland, the Haunted Mansion, the Hall of Presidents, and of course Spaceship Earth.

space station
IMAX movie poster, Space Station: "A select few have been aboard…Now it’s your turn." Credit: IMAX, in cooperation with NASA

Control of these miniatures was constructed quite consistently with a world that had substituted reputation gathering for the fear of any threat to long-term personal survival.

The ideal of reputation economics may be self-governance or even politically-correct conformity, but the goal of designing a wait-free world is still one utopia worth competing for. Like the internet itself, one can go virtually anywhere if one just has the patience and time and right address.

So how to rebuild planetary society, after humans have reached a technological superiority over themselves? When cellphones are implanted in the ear, with alarm-clock reminders? When the world smells of ozone cleanliness, or when the media broadcasts such a rich transmission signal, that its reception is comparable to cerebral ‘flashbaking’?

Thus Doctorow summarizes the history of the world, from past to future, all shot through a prism of the Magic Kingdom:

"When Epcot Center first opened, long, long ago, there’d been an ugly decade or so in ride design. Imagineering found a winning formula for Spaceship Earth, the flagship ride in the big golf ball, and, in their drive to establish thematic continuity, they’d turned the formula into a cookie-cutter, stamping out half a dozen clones for each of the "themed" areas in the Future Showcase. It went like this: first, we were cavemen, then there was ancient Greece, then Rome burned (cue sulfur-odor FX), then there was the Great Depression, and, finally, we reached the modern age. Who knows what the future holds? We do! We’ll all have videophones and be living on the ocean floor. Once was cute — compelling and inspirational, even — but six times was embarrassing. Like everyone, once Imagineering got themselves a good hammer, everything started to resemble a nail."

In the Magic Kingdom, dirtside could never be simulated so cleanly.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, EFF, is a member-supported nonprofit that works to uphold civil liberties interests in technology law, policy and standards. Some issues Doctorow’s working on today include: FCC spectrum regulation ("Can the FCC adopt regulatory regimes that serve the First Amendment better, allowing a greater number and diversity of speakers and speech?"), and copyright reform ("Napster and its ilk constitute the largest library of human creativity ever assembled").

Related Web Pages

Studying Evolution with Digital Organisms
Genesis Project
Terrafirma Now
Digital Life Laboratory
Earthly Endgames
A Perfect World
Book online: Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, by Cory Doctorow