Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

February 26, 2013

The future might be dramatically different from the present while still recognizably the same.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Cory Doctorow’s debut novel, is an amusing tale of life after the singularity. Technology has made it so that all of the needs (and most of the wants) of humans are satisfied without cost, so what is left to do? A lot of folks, it turns out, go to Disney World.

The protagonist, Jules, is a “cast member” at Disney World working as part of an adhocracy. Neither corporations nor governments appear to exist in this world; instead, social structure is provided by adhocracies, self-organizing groups of individuals working together to accomplish common goals. Jules’s “adhoc” runs several of the attractions in the park, their only goal being the maximal enjoyment of the park’s visitors. In a world in which the struggle for food, shelter, and survival is a thing of the past, Doctorow may be justified in his optimism that people would use their endless lifetimes to make each other happy. However, complicating this is the fact that a new form of currency, one based on reputation, has emerged in this world: it’s called whuffie.

The narrator explains:

Whuffie recaptured the true essence of money: in the old days, if you were broke but respected, you wouldn’t starve; contrariwise, if you were rich and hated, no sum could buy you security and peace. By measuring the thing that money really represented–your personal capital with your friends and neighbors–you more accurately gauged your success.

In the book’s future, personal brain-interface computers can overlay the world with data, and a common data point is a person’s whuffie, the numerical representation of their reputation. It isn’t clear how whuffie is attributed, but presumably when someone does you a kindness, the computer connected to your brain detects these warm feelings and their whuffie score goes up. Rudely push your way to the front of a crowd, on the other hand, and everyone behind you can dock your whuffie substantially. You don’t use whuffie to buy anything, but it does regulate access to the few remaining scarcities like admittance to exclusive nightclubs.

The story begins with the protagonist’s murder, though in the post-singularity world, dying is more of an annoyance than a tragedy. People regularly backup the contents of their brains into computers, and Jules is soon restored from a backup into a new, pleasantly younger body. Even granting the possibility of total-brain backups, I find this notion ridiculous because a copy is fundamentally a different thing than the original. (Also, what if you restore a backup without the person having died? Can you really say that one and the same person is inhabiting two bodies?) Nevertheless, these brain backups do have a number of interesting consequences, among them:

Overall, Down and Out was a clever, enjoyable read, though I missed some the social and political nuance of later Doctorow. In the book’s opening we learn about Dan, an ex-missionary for the Bitchun Society (the dominant global civilization) once charged with converting peoples who didn’t want the immortality and plenitude he was offering. I would have liked to know more about them, why they’d opted out, and what kinds of persuasion or coercion it required to bring them into the fold.

If you’re interested, Doctorow has made this book available for free under a Creative Commons license on his website: