Book Review – Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom

DaOiTMK Social capital is everything. At least, that is the conclusion of Cory Doctorow’s Down And Out in The Magic Kingdom. In this future society, disease and death have been eliminated. People can get rejuvenated and live several lifetimes, go live in space or check out for a few centuries or millenia. Those resistant to such technologies have, of course, disappeared.

So, in this age of generalized affluence, money becomes meaningless. Instead, the real currency is one’s repute and social capital, as measured by one’s whuffies balance.

Most of the book takes place in Disney World where Jules, the main character and narrator, has moved in order to join the cast that runs the place and fine-tune his favorite attraction, the Haunted Mansion. There, he finds himself in competition with promoters of virtual entertainment that threaten to take over the entire park. Then, Jules is murdered (when something like that happens, a clone is "defrozen" and "revived") and that gets him really mad. And it’s downhill from there.

In his obsession and downfall, Jules loses pretty much everything, his girlfriend, best friend, and all his whuffies, only to have to leave his beloved park in disrepute and shame and move back in space to start over.

This future society is also both a surveillance and transparent society at the same time. People live networked 24/7 and have access to instant information about everyone and everything in a constant feed of information directly to their brains. Hence, when Jules finds himself offline (a dreadful and destabilizing prospect), he has to resort to old fashioned technologies: actual terminals and printouts. Being offline is not a choice, it’s a punishment, the result of an attack, a default, a failure. One is cast out of the multiple layers of social life.

In an era where information and communication and other technologies have taken over many human jobs, a general deskilling has occurred (doctors are mere technicians and care workers) and actual talent is highly rewarded, whuffie-wise because of its scarcity. Like I said, recognition and social capital is everything.

This is not a trivial point. Indeed, as Sean Safford over at OrgTheory noted a while back, social capital IS capital. And I think his dual definition of social capital as capital applies to Doctorow’s book:

Indeed, Jules loses both types of social capital as his obsession with defeating his adversaries gets him to get kicked out of his own community (the ad-hocs who run the park) and his own individual status as his great ideas to improve the Haunted Mansion without going virtual and flash-baking go down in flames.

Moreover, as mentioned above, the book also validates the idea, now pretty much established, that the Internet, along with ICTs does not isolate but connects. In the book, if anything, there is too much transparency and surveillance at the same time. Isolation is being offline and it is disabling. It makes one almost unable to function at the same pace as everyone else (online being therefore the norm for social relations and interactions). Indeed, in light of the following research finding, Doctorow’s world is not so far out, after all:

(Via Thriving Too) This indeed indicates that connectivity, networking and social capital are already major factors of social stratification since they are, like any forms of capital, unequally distributed (hence Jules’s tumble to the bottom of the social ladder as his whuffies count plummets with every defeat at the hands of more network-savvy opponents).

And while we are on the subject of stratification, Dan Hirshman offers a counterview: it might be a mark of social privilege to choose to be disconnected and let others pursue you:

Although this does not really sound like anti-social capital. It has more to do with the direction / trajectory of connections. Once celebrities show up on Facebook, then crowds of users click the "add as friend" button. The celebrity only has to accept or ignore. It is being sought that is a form of "wealth". These people do not disconnect, they just do not initiate the connections.

The issue might be more that of control over information about oneself: can one control it or does it get disclosed in spite of oneself? As David Gibson over at the Complexity and Social Networks blog states,

Complexity and Social Networks Blog: Facebook and the (possible) future of anti-social capital via kwout

It seems then that power will lie in being an end point rather than originator in connection trajectory, as well as in control over disclosure of one’s information (especially potentially damaging information). As Doctorow’s book clearly illustrates, the sanctions for failing in the network / surveillance / transparent society, that is, for failing at information control and disclosure involve further casting out (being literally down AND out ) in a very public fashion (interestingly enough).

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