Cory Doctorow: Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Cory Doctorow. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (2002).

There are a lot of nifty augmentations to human lifespan and general capabilities in the post-scarcity “Bitchun Society” of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Since most humans are cyborgs with Web access and other forms of wireless communication, information processing software and cybernetic memory patched into their biological wetware, it’s possible to make frequent “backups” of one’s memories and personality, and simply download the most recent backup to a clone of yourself when your existing iteration dies of natural or unnatural causes (of course your new iteration loses all your memories since the last backup). Uploading one’s consciousness to a machine is also an option. And “dead-heading,” or suspended animation, allows those terminally bored with the present to sit things out for a few decades or centuries in hopes of more exciting times when they’re revived.

But my concern here is with the separation of consumption from work in the Bitchun Society. We get some idea of the time-frame of the Bitchun Society from the fact that it was already long in place “sometime late-XXI,” the point at which the protagonist, Jules, first met his friend Dan, and that he was “eighty-some years” old at the time. Jules mentions later that he was a young man, in college the first time around, when the main transition to the Bitchun Society took place. So we can set the transition to post-scarcity as happening sometime between, say, 2020 and 2040.

Whuffie is a reputational metric, a measure of accumulated “respect.” Dan’s missionary trips to atavistic human enclaves that had rejected the Bitchun Society, and Jules’ symphonies and theses, are the first examples mentioned of how one amasses it.

What work human beings do is generally chosen as an avocation, rather than for the material essentials of human existence, and usually organized through the same sort of peer-production infrastructure as a Linux developer group. It earns Whuffie — apparently via a glorified version of the same up- or down-voting used at Slashdot, Reddit and Facebook — if anyone else thinks it’s worthwhile and well done.

Although it’s possible to “eat, sleep, travel and access the net” for free, Whuffie is the reputational currency that enables one to “repeatedly access the piffling few scarce things left on earth over and over.” These scarce things include, in particular, anything that requires individual time, effort and attention–like, for example, getting service in a bar or restaurant.

Scarce goods also include locations. Jules mentions living, at a time when his Whuffie was low, ten floors underground in overflow residence (“endless institutional corridors”) for the University of Toronto, and using a “low-Whuffie hall” to perform his symphony.

Apparently people frequently take extended periods for personal exploration or going back to school; Jules mentions working on his fourth doctorate when he first met Dan.

At the time of the story, Jules works on the peer group (or “ad-hocracy”) — one of about 300 at Disney World — that maintains the Haunted Mansion, Liberty Square and the Hall of the Presidents. The amount of the legacy conceptual design and technology to retain in a given ride, and how much to revamp, is a decision of the ad-hocracy currently running it. But rival ad-hocracies constantly jockey to supplant each other’s control of especially prestigious rides, based on the Whuffie they’re voted by focus groups of visitors.

In the early years of transition to the Bitchun Society, there was a large wave of hostile takeovers of hierarchical institutions — previously owned by capital or by the state — by ad-hocs. Apparently capitalists tried for some time, in the initial period, to maintain occupancy even though it was unclear how to monetize their occupancy or what was left to spend money on.

At Disney World, the park remained under the physical control of a group of wealthy former shareholders. Then the first wave of ad-hocs came in on a “hot July day,” first by the hundreds and then by the thousands; they “used a cutting torch on the turnstiles and poured in,” and “infiltrated the control centers, the rides.” The remaining employees, who were working largely for the privilege of being there, threw in with the ad hocs and handed over their security codes.

Jules was an undergrad–the first time around–in the Sociology Department at the University of Toronto in the early years of the Bitchun Society. The department initially remained under the uneasy control of an ad-hoc made up of full-time faculty members from the old system, fighting for enough Whuffie from the students to retain control. This came to an end when a coalition of radical grad students, with an agenda centered on replacing the classics of sociology with a curriculum relevant to post-scarcity concerns, staged a hostile takeover.

A grad student marched into a class in session, took the mic from the professor teaching it, and announced the takeover. But this was only the beginning. The rivalry between the old faculty and the grad students–centered on the competition for student Whuffie–continued.

The profs struck back the next morning. I got a heads-up from the newscast as I brushed my teeth: the Dean of the Department of Sociology told a reporter that the ad-hocs’ courses would not be credited, that they were a gang of thugs who were totally unqualified to teach. A counterpoint interview from a spokesperson for the ad-hocs established that all of the new lecturers had been writing course-plans and lecture notes for the profs they replaced for years, and that they’d also written most of their journal articles.

The profs brought University security out to help them regain their lecterns, only to be repelled by ad-hoc security guards in homemade uniforms. University security got the message—anyone could be replaced—and stayed away.

The profs picketed. They held classes out front attended by grade-conscious brown-nosers who worried that the ad-hocs’ classes wouldn’t count towards their degrees. Fools like me alternated between the outdoor and indoor classes, not learning much of anything.

No one did. The profs spent their course-times whoring for Whuffie, leading the seminars like encounter groups instead of lectures. The ad-hocs spent their time badmouthing the profs and tearing apart their coursework.

At the end of the semester, everyone got a credit and the University Senate disbanded the Sociology program in favor of a distance-ed offering from Concordia in Montreal. Forty years later, the fight was settled forever. Once you took backup-and-restore, the rest of the Bitchunry just followed, a value-system settling over you.

Those who didn’t take backup-and-restore may have objected, but, hey, they all died.

For the most part, the competition for Whuffie–a reputation-based currency good for obtaining access to the few remaining scarce resources–encourages pro-social, cooperative behavior.

But like any metric, it can be gamed in ways that are sometimes suboptimal.

The rival ad-hocs running Disney World, engaged in cutthroat competition for Whuffie from the visitors and the rest of the public, do things to game their Whuffie scores much like what the boys in the C-suited in our present system do to massage the quarterly earnings reports and thereby to maximize their own compensation. For example, shaving time off a ride to maximize visitor throughput–and hence Whuffie–is arguably not conducive to optimal longer-term values.

Under the prevailing Bitchun ideology, the ad-hocs are engaged in friendly rivalry that ultimately promotes the best interests of the Park’s visitors. But let’s not forget that the actual plot of the novel itself hinges on a murder committed by a member of one ad-hoc trying to muscle in on another ad-hoc’s turf.

My friend Gary Chartier once suggested doing a detective story in the spirit of Gorkiy Park, set in a future mutualist or polyarchic society, in which the reader experienced the milieu of the fictional society in the course of an investigation into a murder. Because–as even William Morris admitted in News From Nowhere–there will after all never be a society so utopian as to be entirely free from murders and crimes of passion.

Every conceivable socio-economic system has tradeoffs, with potential worst-case scenarios that are unique to it, and whose level of overall happiness and satisfaction must be sufficient to justify the negativity of the outlying cases. The murder in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom–the murder of our protagonist Jules which, thanks to the medical advances of the Bitchun Society, is investigated by Jules himself–is a worst-case scenario for Doctorow’s post-scarcity society. Does this fictional society still come out, on the whole, looking favorable compared to ours? I think so.

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3 thoughts on “Cory Doctorow: Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

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  2. Pingback: Review of Peter Frase’s Four Futures | Tea, Earl Grey, Hot

  3. Pingback: Book of the Day: Four Futures by Peter Frase | P2P Foundation

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