Roy Tang

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Book Review: Walkaway by Cory Doctorow

Walkaway is a novel by blogger Cory Doctorow. It tells the story of a near-future world and a trend of people going "walkaway". This term means walking away from what they call "default society", characterized by late stage capitalism, massive inequality, ever-present surveillance, and a world controlled by what they call the zottarich, or simply zottas. Not too far from our own present reality of course. Later, the novel also delves into the near-future (?) concept of humans being to upload their consciousness into machines, effectively allowing them to cheat death by running as a "brain in a jar" on a cluster of computers.

Going walkaway means giving everything up and deciding to live communally and off the land, as it were. This near-future world makes this possible due to the abundance of materials and equipment that have been left behind or abandoned due to failed cities, institutions or companies. Resources that are presumably being wasted or going unused because of insane things like copyright controls, patents, and so on. Walkaways are shown building entire communities by sending out drones to seek out and gather nearby raw materials and constructing machines like fabricators that can spin out food and clothing, all powered by open source code that is freely shared and improved upon by walkaways worldwide via a highly distributed and decentralized walkaway network. "Default" society and media portray walkaways as anarchists and terrorists, living on the fringe.

The plot centers upon a small group of twenty-somethings (including one zotta heiress) who initially flirt with the idea of going walkaway, and then decide to jump right in. Under that thin veneer, the novel feels mostly like an opportunity to explore how such an idea could work, and how it could bridge the gap between our current society and an idealized future, post-scarcity and even post-human. That gap is not bridged easily of course. Discoveries in walkaway culture and science such as human mind uploads threaten to overturn the 'default' society and thus draws the ire of the zottas, who send in mercenaries and even armies to disrupt, arrest, and take down walkaways.

The author is a blogger I've known about for a while, and his interest in various kinds of technology and possible future applications to help supplant late-stage capitalism are made obvious through the novel. I initially thought it was being a bit too preachy and idealistic about walkaway culture being the right path for humanity. The story argues that there is plenty to go around, and that people shouldn't be coerced to work and should have an abundance mentality, freely helping and giving away to others, something that works in the novel because of the existence of fabricators and the apparent abundance of raw materials, but which I am unsure would be true in the real world. This is why we still have a lot of people arguing against things like UBI and so on. The novel anchors itself from a point where the scarcity issue is mostly addressed, what's left is to overcome the regressive "default" capitalist systems holding us back from a brighter future.

I kind of find myself aligned with the author in terms of ideology; I am very much hoping we as a society find a way past the perils of capitalism, but I'm not yet so optimisci that it could work. I wasn't sure whether the story should be classified as a dystopia - it certainly describes a very dystopian status quo, but that status quo is not too far from our current one. And ultimately, despite all the trials and tribulations our walkaway protagonists are subject to, the novel still exudes optimism about humanity's future. So, a hopeful dystopia, a dystopia that can be defeated? A dystopia that is merely a stepping stone towards what the walkaways call "the first days of a better nation"[1].

Footnotes:

  • [1] There's an inscription on a wall in Scotland's parliament: "Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation", popularised by Alasdair Gray
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Last modified at: Feb. 18, 2021, 7:53 a.m.. Source file

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