At a college like Swarthmore, there is often a divide between STEM fields and the humanities. So, it was unusual when on Friday, September 28, a reading and discussion was advertised to both the computer science and English departments, two seemingly disparate areas of study. Science fiction author Cory Doctorow had arrived to discuss his most recent novel, “Walkaway,” a work that uses the pedagogical benefits of fiction to explore the consequences of present day technology and its political problems.
In his talk, Doctorow described his near-future, hard utopian novel as a “diagnostic” tool of the current state of technology in modern day society. While doing this, he explained difficult concepts of economics and algorithms with imaginative and understandable analogies, a theme echoed in his science fiction writing in general. As he read, he gesticulated, looked around furiously, acted out characters, and connected with his audience. Doctorow’s informal, progressive language and dynamic reading left both the computer science and literary sides of LPAC Cinema laughing and snapping in agreement. But underneath this effective performance, the words themselves were less persuasive. For a discussion hosted by the English department, little was said about the book as a literary piece, and this lack clearly showed in the quality of the writing of the section he read. Rather, the function of the novel is both political and experimental, which should be taken into account whether or not one chooses to read it.
As someone who is struggling with “for loops” in Intro to Computer Science, I found most of the conversation digestible and compelling. “Walkaway” is a novel that explores the results of technology we already have, and Doctorow presented philosophies on these outcomes. One engaging theory was that of guard labor and distribution equilibrium response — the idea that the cost of guarding wealth will eventually be more expensive than redistributing that wealth in the form of public goods in order to quell discontent. Technology, Doctorow contends, decreases the cost of guarding wealth. As data mining and surveillance become easier and cheaper, big companies have exponentially more information about those being surveilled. These dossiers of personal information enable authoritarian regimes to exert more power over individuals at a lower cost. One gruesome example he gave was that of an authoritarian regime hacking the Skype account of a dissident to locate his friends and murdering them, enabling a system of quelling discontent which, Doctorow argues, leads to less wealth redistributed in the form of public goods.
The presentation was surprisingly politically focused, with refreshing new ideas and takes on how to move forward. As an activist himself, Doctorow focused on reality more than science fiction. He cited the lowering standards of monopoly laws as a catalyst for tech powerhouses like Google and Facebook’s enormous power. He raged against Margaret Thatcher’s support for a deregulated, free market economy and her usage of the phrase, “There is no alternative.” This language, he claimed, was a “political trick” to make “people stop thinking.” Doctorow himself explored alternatives through science fiction. For example, he discussed the computation debate, an anti-capitalist idea of using programming and code to control the values of goods — the antithesis of the free markets of Thatcher. While this idea had long been dismissed as impossible, with no computer advanced enough to work for a whole nation, Doctorow claimed that modern day corporations, such as Walmart, use computers to allocate resources and positions on a much larger scale than even some countries. In a work of literature like “Walkaway,” Doctorow can explore concepts like a computational market.
Many science fiction works are presented as dystopias from the far future, wildly removed from our own world. Doctorow’s books, however, are what he calls “hard utopias.” He redefined this important vocabulary of science fiction; “utopia is not where nothing goes wrong. That would be bad engineering,” he said, winking at the engineering students in the audience, claiming that a true utopia has the ability to fix these problems. In this way, “Walkaway” is not a dystopian novel, but an “optimistic disaster.” Contrary to conventional ideas on crises, Doctorow cited a history of people coming together after disasters. He argued that the narrative of bad behavior in bad times has been constructed by those in power who are so worried that people will riot, that the masses are policed to the point of actually creating these riots. Doctorow argued that this cycle was “based on shitty fiction.” Instead of perpetuating this idea with another dystopia, he argued that the way to move forward is to elevate the stories of people coming together, so that works like “Walkaway” are mode of activism and progress as well as works of literature. He focused on the present, emphasizing that science fiction is “not prescriptive or predictive,” but “diagnostic.” He compared his novel to a petri dish, making a small model of the problems of the world. In addition to his activism for fair copyright and technology laws, his writing itself can be viewed as a political work, making commonplace and normative the stories about the good of people during disaster, and revealing troublesome truths about reality.
Despite the interesting subject matter of the discussion itself, I found Doctorow’s actual writing to be less engaging. Some images were interesting and intriguing. He often used the literary technique of defamiliarization, where mundane activities like drinking coffee were described through alien terms (such as “percolation” and “mouth membrane”), creating many fun plays on language. But this relies on cleverness, as did the rest of his writing. Sentences had an artificially intellectual feel, arranged in crafty ways or with witty word choices, delighting in its excessiveness like in this description of people’s relationships as “lingering interpersonal upfuckedness.” These, and other phrases like “some dipshit can’t follow instructions,” also displayed a self-indulgence in Doctorow’s text. To be fair, the passages of Doctorow’s reading were the only part of “Walkaway” I was familiar with. But in the pages he chose, I was disappointed by his nondescript characters and setting.
Ultimately, Doctorow’s newest novel and his discussion are less about the artistic qualities of fiction, but its philosophical function as an exploration of alternatives. Mostly plot based, the best parts are the premise and its message, while the characters and language suffer. Much more interesting is Doctorow’s insights into technology’s effects and its effects on class and political issues. Doctorow enlivened the audience, encouraging college students to use their skills in literature, computer science, or other specialties in what he called the four forces of change: coding, law, markets, and norms. I left the discussion more informed of my own relationship to technology, and more frighteningly, its relationship to me.