Book Review: “Walkaway” by Cory Doctorow

Walkaway by Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow has long been a doyens of Hackerkultur, avatar of the Great Age of Making, and patron saint of the new tribalism. All kinds of technical and political developments go into his head, mix around, and come out in utopian visions that are often breath taking. Whether we believe it or not, we want to believe it.

In this novel, Doctorow gives us a beautifully rendered vision of non-meritocracy, gift economy. Post scarcity, post inequality, post everything you know. It’s a novel of ideas, with a lot of serious attention to how it is possible to actually realize such a future.

This is a novel of ideas and the big problem with novels about ideas is that they tend to run on, and get preachy. Walkaway is no exception. At places, there is a lot of talk, arguing, philosophizing, etc. A. Lot. Of. Talk. I couldn’t wait for them to get on with it.

This book made me think, but it makes me want to argue. I assume that is his intention, but it does detract from just enjoying the story.

The Big Idea

The short version is that this is a radical riff on the questions, “What’s the solution to Pikettey-ian inequality?” “How can we bail out the 99%?”

Doctorow’s answer is: “Walk Away”.

If everything you need is available on the net, and can be fabbed for free, then what is there to work for, or to fight about? When the game is rigged by the ultra rich, playing by the rules means debt, starvation and slavery. What can we do?

Walk Away.

Doctorow works through the technology, psychology, and sociology of this ‘open source hardware’ world. Walkaways chuck it all and head off into the abandoned lands. The economy is based on open source everything, downloaded and fabbed. Knowledge is shared over the highly robust mesh net, and everyone is connected. Everything is hackable and continuously hacked. There is plenty for everyone, at least for certain values of “plenty”.

Doctorow is the apostle of the Great Age of Making.

It’s the People, Stupid

The hard part isn’t the tech, it’s the people and the politics. ‘Twas always so.

What sort of cultures will people create from this technology? That is the 64 Terabit question, no?

Doctorow’s story is all about one of the main cultural strains, which is patterned after decentralized, open source, ‘wiki-ist’ society. Lot’s of transparency, no hierarchies, no private property. The most valuable thing is human contact and doing well by each other.

Doctorow gives us plenty of serious psychological pondering of how people could lie this way. The fundamental motive is that everybody helps each other because that is the kind of world we want to live in.

Obviously, humans create all kinds of cultures with a given technology, and Doctorow nods to other imaginable permutations. His detailed and highly enjoyable dissection of ‘leader board’ meritocracies, which are quite popular in some digital circle, is worth the price of admission by itself. Ouch!

He also hints at darker possibilities; crazies, mafias, paranoid sects, corporate enclaves, or murderous caliphates. But he mostly shows us that tolerant altruism is the overwhelming and dominant culture.

Much of the story is about how the powers-that-be, run by the super rich ‘yottas’, reacts. The ‘defaults’ are deeply threatened, of course. If the peasants can just walk away, then what is the value of our supremacy?

Along the way, Doctorow has a lot to say about these yottas and the ‘default’ system they have rigged. He does a savagely accurate analysis of the psychology of the rich who are ruthless yet insecure, and convinced that their wealth reflects their merit. This well earned psycho-political thrashing is entertaining, though scarcely new or original.

Finally, Doctorow throws in one version of The Singularity—more or less successful ‘uploads’ of human ‘brain scans’. Assuming you buy the concept is possible, it means immortality or at least life after death. Part of the plot hinges on the additional unlikely event that Walkaways achieve this technology out in the wilderness before the yottas, along with the idea that ‘the secret’ would be immediately released open source.

Doctorow doesn’t really delve into the rather murky technical questions too deeply, but does present some of the more obvious ‘paradoxes’. How can an embodied brain operate without a body? If you can have one scan, you can have many, all at the same time, “talking to versions of yourself”. If you had such a scan, could it be hacked to reveal secrets, change loyalties, and so on? What sort of torture could be derived from having a detailed brain scan?  It’s fun to think about, but all based on preposterous theories about how brains work

More Critiques

As I said, this novel full of ideas made me argue with him. Here are yet more points where I really had to disagree.

Technology

His technology was a maddening mishmash of the believable, the boring, and the silly.

Honestly, I don’t think his ‘brain scanning’ technology is theoretically possible. We still have little notion of the physical processes of the brain (which would be what is recorded), and not the faintest clue how they produce conscious experience (which is what we want to reproduce). The ‘brain in a bottle’ would need to faithfully simulate whatever the mapping is from quantum states to the whole brain. Faithfully to the hundredth or millionth decimal place.

Wouldn’t id be easier to just clone a biological brain in a bottle, rather than trying to simulate a brain? That’s what I would do. Of course, that would require reloading the scan into a clone, which is yet another bridge too far technically, as far as I’m concerned.

I’m just not buying it.

Ironically, this brain scan stuff is pretty much the only really advanced technology in the story. The rest of the technology is only slightly better than what we have today. My own view is that Doctorow is rather too cautious about a lot of stuff.

Fiddling around with solar panels and wind beaters? That’s twentieth century stuff. We already have much, much better power generation. Rammed Earth buildings? C’mon. We can do better than that today, “printing” buildings. Snap together furniture?  Nah, we’ll soon have 4D pop up origami furniture. Quad copter drones? Please. We’ll have gnats and dust soon, and already have snakes, bats, fish. His vision of DIY bio is less advanced than what is possible today.

And so on. He might as well have included coal fired steam engines and horse drawn buggies, as far as his “advanced technology” is concerned.

Social Psychology

Doctorow paints a fairly detailed picture of the psychology of this vast, decentralized communitarian anarchist culture. “Assume people are good” is wonderful. We all want that to be true, but we all know that it seldom holds up. We have to look no farther than the very model for the culture: the Internet.

“Decentralized organizations’ deal with conflict by forking the source and walking away. This is called “consensus”, but is actually separatism.  Free discussion is overwhelmed by trollism and fake news, which is dealt with by filtering and separation. Fragmentation, tribalism, and apartheid are the rule, not the exception

Following this as a model, we would see Walkaway separate into multiple cultures, with dramatically conflicting consensus about “truth”. Multiple religious tribes, almost certainly at war with each other. Xenophobia. Religious exclusion. Every kind of “ism” you can imagine. And that’s just the Walkaways themselves, not counting the ‘dark net’ of unregulated commerce and power games.

On a different front, we see that most of the Walkaways are young and childless. Essentially college kids living out a bohemian lifestyle. Like today’s digital nomads.  But that is scarcely the whole of humanity. What about the sick, the old, mothers with infants?

Indeed, at the end of the story, we see that once they have families and old people, the “walkaways” settle down into village life. For that matter, some of liberated prisoners choose to defend their liberated prison, rather than walk away from it. They have ‘paid for it’ with their lives, and won’t cede it to the man.

This kind of life is very, very human, and great if you can get it. But having a home town logically eliminates the “just walk away” strategy.

This is a threat to the entire psychology of ‘walk away’. Can walkaway culture actually work for sedentary village folk? Or will they become conservative and defensive, as most villagers do? When you have a nice place to live and raise your kids, you don’t want to give that up.  And once you have something to lose, you are vulnerable to force, and on the path of ‘defaultism’.

Political Economics

It seems to me that the “walking away” strategy works only if there is enough ‘room’ to keep walking. Given infinite space, I supposed the strategy of turning the other cheek and starting over might sort of work. But will there ever be really enough ‘abandoned’ space? Even if it develops that vast areas are abandoned in this way, they aren’t likely to be empty. They are likely to be filled by dark economies, which are likely to be violent feudal gang territories (maybe independent, maybe corporate owned, maybe off-the-books government operations) This is not ‘empty, and would be no more tolerant of walkaways than ‘default’.

(And let’s not forget the great precedent for such a ‘walk away’ society, pioneering the American West. It was considered “empty” by the European settlers, who then exterminated the people who, inconveniently, already lived there. If you think “Walkaway” wouldn’t lead to territorial clashes, then you aren’t thinking about the same species of hominids that I am.)

Doctorow places a lot of credence to the alleged power of digital networks. He calls up all the digital weapons of our decade, crowdsourcing, doxxing, naming and shaming. These shenanigans are portrayed as rapidly defeating the sophisticated forces of corporate and state power.  Mostly by force of moral suasion.

Unfortunately, evidence to date is that digital connectivity is no match for bullets. See, for example, the Arab Spring, which has degenerated into violent feudal war zones. Or the various revolutions in Eastern Europe, which are steadily sinking into fascism. Or the embarrassing joke that is politics in the USA. Place not your faith in networks.


This is a book about ideas. One suspects that this will be an influential book, at least among some digital nomads.

If everyone is as nice as the people in this novel, things will be great.

Personally, I’m not very optimistic.  Perhaps I’ve lived through too many revolutions.

But let’s keep trying to bend things toward a humane and peaceful life for everyone.


  1. Cory Doctorow, Walkaway, New York, Tor, 2017.

 

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