This article originally appeared in Vector #288.
By Kirsten Bussière
Since the 2008 global financial crisis, social movements which once pursued scattered causes are increasingly united against a common enemy: capitalism. In his recent article “The New Combinations: Revolt of the Global Value-Subjects,” Nick Dyer-Witherford recounts how the “landscapes of globalized capital” are riven by scenes of political unrest. We have witnessed a decade crossed with an “ascending arc of struggles”: demonstrations across different cities “mark the convergence of a range of campaigns and activisms,” while coalitions of political groups “often exceed single issues and specific identities,” and find means to converge on shared anti-capitalist perspectives – pushing back against a society built on purposeful scarcity, a society that predicates the wealth of the few on the poverty of the many (Dyer-Witherford 156-158).
Capitalism, in spreading wealth at an unequal rate, “can set all its subjects in competition with each other.” This separation of the population ensures that the masses will not rise up against their oppressors. That’s why the mobilization of different political activism groups as one anti-capitalist multitude is particularly dangerous to the existing hierarchy. So what has changed? There are many factors, but one which stands out. Modern day demonstrations and protests take place not only in the streets, but also in the realm of cyberspace. Information technology allows resistance groups to communicate and co-ordinate as never before, and what starts as a hashtag can quickly sprout into a powerful movement for change. Plenty of cyberactivism isn’t even that overtly political, but nevertheless strikes a blow against capitalism by de-commodifying capitalist products through “piracy; open source and free software initiatives; peer-to-peer production; and gift economy practices” (Dyer-Witherford 175-180).
Building on the longstanding tradition of social science fiction, the 2017 novel Walkaway by Cory Doctorow explores the extension of the digital community beyond the realms of cyberspace and into the physical world. It imagines a symbiotic post-digital relationship between humans and machines. The communal nature of producing digitally rendered objects in the non-digital world provides a technotopian solution to the anti-utopian capitalist regime – unyielding in its commitment that there is no better world possible.
However, at least to start with, the members of Doctorow’s new society don’t confront capitalism head-on. Instead, they reach a critical mass and are able to simply walk away from capitalism. Functioning as teams, these walkaways can focus on “collective action” in which individuals get together “with a lot of other people” and make a difference (Doctorow 78). Using technology to work together, the walkaways move beyond artificial scarcity, and start to produce abundance. In an essay about Walkaway, Doctorow describes abundance as “a function of what we have, divided by what we want, multiplied by how well-distributed things are” (Doctorow 2017, n.p.). In Walkaway, it is the communal enterprise of fabrication itself, as well as the transformation of scarcity into abundance, that creates utopia.
As a utopian experiment, Walkaway is not rooted in the tradition of “an imagined alternative reality” so much as it is “firmly anchored in a modern and ‘realistic’ context,” through its focus on technological advancement – making it a potential future reality (Unwin 335). In other words, Doctorow’s novel is self-consciously aware that our lives are already “thoroughly intertwined with technological devices” (Winner 995). As a result, the seemingly totalizing integration of digital technology into everyday human lives has effectively redefined commonly understood notions of community, and created a space where “humans and software [coexist] in a state that could be called dancing” (Doctorow 49).
The walkaways refer to the world they have walked away from as “default.” Though they may agree on the importance of technology in overcoming default, not all the walkaways agree on what system should succeed it. Outside of the default capitalist system, they generally adopt one of two possibilities: the reputation economy, or the gift economy. Doctorow explored the idea of a digital reputation economy in his debut novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Now in Walkaway, Doctorow decisively stages the superiority of the gift economy over the reputation economy. In her article “The Reputation Economy” Kathleen Fitzpatrick suggests that the term “peer” has been reconfigured in online communities to mean “everyman,” as opposed to its original definition of being a “professional of equal rank.” As a result, there is a rise of “peer to peer networks” involved in online modes of productivity that take account of the wisdom of crowds to let “new models of authority to” develop – allowing for the emergence of peer created and reviewed projects that benefit from community feedback in a structured and hierarchical way (Fitzpatrick 1). Under this system, those who do the best work are thus provided a higher degree of “reputation and authority” (Fitzpatrick 8).
So reputation offers a tantalizing alternative to the money economy. However, the value of a user’s contributions “can become subject to manipulation and attack,” making the reputation economy a fallible system (Fitzpatrick 10). Effectively, the implementation of such a system creates a meritocracy, and as Doctorow argues in a recent essay looking back at Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, “Meritocracy is a tautology […] There’s no objective measure of ‘merit’ so there’s no way to know whether your society is meritocratic or not” (Doctorow 2016 n.p.). Similar to capitalism, reputation economies function through the imposition of a form of “artificial scarcity” that applies value to reputation – meaning that a person’s worth in society is intertwined with their ability to perform specific tasks (Fitzpatrick 14). Reputation, like money, “only works if there [is not] enough to go around” (Doctorow 37). Due to the fact that not all aptitudes are considered to have equal value, people are not designated the same economic compensation for their labour. Low value subjects are exploited for cheap or free labour, while high value subjects have “forced up wages and working conditions” (Dyer-Witherford 173). In other words, meritocracy means some people deserve to be poor in the same way that some people deserve to be rich – making it easy for people to rationalize the fact that their comfort is predicated on the suffering of others. To make things even worse, a good or bad reputation may become a self-fulfilling prophecy: “once a lot of people hold you to be reputable […] other people bend over backwards to give you opportunities to do things that make you even more reputable […] If this sounds familiar, it’s because that’s how money works” (Doctorow 2016 n.p.).
Not all those who walk away are able to fully separate their thinking from the capitalist system they were once a part of. These individuals struggle to abandon the hierarchies that they were raised with. And while Doctorow points out that “every walkaway had been default, once,” he does so in a way that demonstrates their advantage against the default community (355). This points to a general problem with the first generation of people working to build a utopia, in that they have deep knowledge of another society that influences their thinking. That’s why even in walkaway communities there are small subsets that organize themselves around a twisted version of utopia, the reputation economy. Under this model “everyone gets out what they put in” through the implementation of a system of “reputation capital.” This sets up a “system that makes people compete for acknowledgement” because their livelihood becomes tied to the ranking of their work, which recommodifies skill. Based on her performance, the work of Limpopo is considered the most valuable to the walkaways. Limpopo “put more lines of code […] than anyone” into the Belts & Braces, the first Walkaway tavern, which means that she has introduced the most additions and adjustments to the foundation of the community at large – increasing and maintaining its functionality off the default grid. As a result, if the reputation economy were implemented at B&B, Limpopo would be provided the opportunity to “stay for years without lifting a finger.” And yet, this sort of system invites “game-playing and stats-fiddling, even unhealthy stuff like working stupid hours to beat everyone,” and this can only result in “a crew of unhappy people doing substandard work” (Doctorow 81-83).
By contrast, using the gift economy system, individuals are not obligated to give anything back to the community in order to live a sustainable life. Society is organized around a post-scarcity model in which “everything is freely given” and “nothing sought in return,” whether or not people contribute (Doctorow 15). In default society, the concepts of “useless” and “useful” are too often represented as “properties of people instead of things people do.” Within the gift economy, it is understood that “a person can perform usefulness, or anti-usefulness, depending on the circumstances” (208). But regardless of contributions, all people are provided with what they need. The point of the walkaway gift economy is to live in a state of “abundance,” which means that people do not need to “worry” if they are “putting in as much as” they take out, because there is always enough for everyone (49). This accommodates all members of society, ensuring that they are treated the same regardless of their varying abilities – all people are considered valuable.
The focus on equality does not erase what is distinctive about different people’s different skills. The walkaway projects allow everyone to participate, but certain people, because of their specific skill sets, can be considered indispensable in certain contexts. For instance, when the character Dis is being brought back as a simulation, she is indispensable because they cannot “bring her back without her.” By contrast, Iceweasel has done a good job “keeping her spirits up and distracting her,” but if Iceweasel had not been there “someone else would have done the job” (155). It is thus not the usefulness of an individual that has shifted but rather their relationships with each other. Automation has changed the connections between people to the point where all individuals can perform usefulness, regardless of innate skill level.
Not every gift economy requires abundance. But in Doctorow’s vision, gift-giving, technology, and abundance are deeply interwoven. This plays on one of two dominant conceptions of the digital world detailed by Mehta and Darier, in which the “neo-utopian vision” of technology can be understood through a “global village” metaphor (107). Thus, in developing a culture of making, walkaway communities are able to function with the goal of democratizing technology and technological innovation through their commitments to “democratic participation” (Ames et al. 1088). Digital technology is used and improved for the overall betterment of the society as a whole. Contemporary social practices push us to “take what exists now and restructure or replace it in a digital format” (Winner 993). As Jentry Sayers argues in his article, “Why Fabricate?”, digital fabrication “demonstrates how media are in constant iteration, undergoing shifts from objects in hand […] to objects on screen” (Sayers 7). In Doctorow’s Walkaway, the use of three-dimensional printers allows for three-dimensional objects to be rendered into a two-dimensional form on the computer screen and then reproduced as tactile objects (Sayers 2). The “smart adaptive” technologies used in walkaway communities make it nearly “impossible” to create “non-viable” items (Doctorow 59). B&B uses “more automation than default” which means that “the number of labor-hours needed” to keep the population “fat and happy for a day is a lot less” than in the inefficient capitalist system, which forces people “to scramble just to scrape by” (309). Technological advancement allows “human contribution” to be “quickly whittled away,” but because walkaways function outside the capitalist world of default that makes people work to live, this diminishing of human labour maintains a positive effect on society (Winner 990). Innovation, separate from the “gradual increases in incomes, profits, stock prices, and living standards,” can be focused on betterment for all members of a community, not just those with the largest income (Winner 991).
Moreover, the influx of new technologies has long been involved in “changing the practices and patterns of everyday life” (Winner 992). On this point, Unwin argues that “technology can and should enhance our respect for the world we live in, and increase our ability to create constructive, generous societies” (334). Digital networks thus have the ability to create new multitudes – interconnected through a system of sharing. Moving into a post-scarcity system, the walkaway communities have the ability to generate a world where you cannot convince people to compete with one another. More broadly, they are creating a world that wants what people have to give, making it hard to encourage the population “to kill each other” (Doctorow 331). Functioning in partnership with all members of a community, society slowly loses the sense that you will either “take or get took” (Doctorow 375).
Throughout Walkaway, it is technology that allows a communal enterprise of fabrication to form, and scarcity to become abundance, thus creating utopia. Saying this, technology’s propensity to encourage utopian thought doesn’t mean that technology is inherently utopian. The digital world functions as a set of tools that can “can be used in different kinds of projects and for several different purposes, each with its own positive, or negative, value characteristics” (Sundström 42). The digital world can also have “a social impact extending far beyond the intentions and circumstances of the initiators of the process” (41). In that vein, Walkaway suggests that while technology’s role is subject to the ideological position of the user, certain technologies maintain higher potential to perform certain tasks and cannot be considered completely value neutral. Access to technology is access to power. So in its attitude toward technology, Walkaway invites us to think beyond simplistic instrumentalism (where a technology is good or bad depending on how it is used), and beyond simplistic determinism (where technologies can be built intrinsically good or bad). Technology is inherently linked to “the world of purposeful human action” and can thus never be considered value-neutral (41), but technologies have effects far beyond what they are designed for, and the social consequences of a new technology depend on political struggle and collaboration, as much as they do on the technology itself.
Technology has great significance for how the walkaways learn and share knowledge. People within the community are thus well situated to “answer administrative and public demands to make knowledge useful” (Raley 32). Spaces such as Walkaway U harken back to what Rita Raley terms an imagined “golden age of knowledge,” in which knowledge was procured for the benefit of society and “universities were disentangled from the capitalist knowledge regime” – progress is acquired just for the sake of moving forward (33). This can be seen throughout Walkaway through the attempts at “life extension” – a technological feat being worked on all over the world (Doctorow 52). In the capitalist conditions of default, there are people “worth more than most countries” who are so committed to staying alive that they are “just organs and gray matter in a vat” – “enduring unimaginable pain” because of their “superstitious belief” that they can buy immortality (52). Under a capitalist system, life is commodified so that only the rich have the potential to live forever, while the poor give their lives to another – slaving away to save somebody else from death.
By contrast, experiments at Walkaway U aim for immortality for anyone who wants it. “The 3D printing and consciousness uploading […] and so forth are all there to illustrate the astounding fucking magic of lowering the cost of coordinating our labor” (Doctorow 2017 n.p.). With an integration of human consciousness and technology, the potential emerges for virtual versions of real people to be manufactured and brought into the non-virtual world. Building out from “captured life-data,” the researchers at Walkaway U are “booting [simulations]” that effectively bring people back from the dead (Doctorow 102). Technological advancement has allowed life to continue on a spectrum between human and robot. Human reliance on the digital world has already caused us to be “kinked by our computing platform” (105). That is, a post-digital, symbiotic relationship between person and machine already exists, and simulated people merely act as an extension of this. The most recently uploaded version of the self thus functions as a backup to the original. Should an individual undergo human death and they have a backup in place, they can be rebooted as a simulation – potentially extending their life interminably.
This system allows an individual to “run multiple copies of themselves to back up different versions of themselves and recover those backups” – thus drawing a past-self back into existence (300). But these simulations are not mere copies. Rather, they maintain the ability “to think everything they used to be able to think […] and also to think things that they never could have thought” (300). This means that the simulation is not merely a copy but rather something stemming out of a previous self. For instance, when they were alive, “Limpopo and Etcetera had been soul mates,” but as simulations they had gotten to a point “where they hated each other and never wanted to speak again” (322). So perhaps the technology is not infallible. On the other hand, perhaps this isn’t a failure, but rather a sign that the simulations are in fact viable sentient beings capable of growth, change, and free will. Either way, the walkaways are still perfecting the process of life extension, and as a result, there are concerns that when people “ditch [their] bodies, upload” and create a simulated version of the self, the human race will be “unable to survive without whatever makes us terrified of losing our bodies.” The work being done could turn out to be the “engineering” of “the mass suicide” of an entire population (197). However, Tavera suggests that “if capitalism continues, humans will not” (30), which means capitalism can be understood a form of mass suicide too.
The simulations of Doctorow’s text can be understood as cyborg figures. In the 1980s, the philosopher Donna Haraway influentially theorized cyborgs as “creatures simultaneously animal and machine, who populate worlds ambiguously natural and crafted” (Haraway 49). For Haraway, the point of the cyborg wasn’t just that some parts are ‘natural’ and some parts are ‘artificial’: the more you think about the cyborg, the more these rigid distinctions break down. Haraway invited us to think about how many simplistic dualities – human and animal, the organic and the machinic, man and woman, self and other, material and immaterial – are generated and sustained, and whose interests they serve. Furthermore, she didn’t just treat the cyborg as a way of improving our understanding of ourselves and the world: the cyborg also represented a kind of practical political strategy, a strategy of blurring boundaries and resisting top-down imposition of identity. The cyborg figure in Walkaway, in a slightly different way, also represents a political strategy. In the contemporary epoch of the Anthropocene, in which humans are the dominant influence on the planet, and yet humanity have been made hostages of our own capitalist system, the cyborg offers a potential solution. Understanding the cyborg as a fusion between “human and nonhuman” (Tavera 21) allows us to see them as one extension of the utopian possibility embedded in technological advancement. The creation of a new sentient being comes with the potential of “generating a race that, in subsequent development, could possibly move beyond human control” (Slusser 47). Slusser asks: “What sort of future might a race of such creatures bring?” (47) Combining the powers of the human with the abilities of the machine could have disastrous consequences – though perhaps this may be used to dismantle the overarching capitalist system, if only because they do not require the same products that allow a capitalist post-scarcity system to run.
One role for science fiction is that it functions as a “thought experiment” meant to “depict future things” (Slusser 46). Applying this to Doctorow’s Walkaway, the text can be considered both a science-fictional allegory that criticizes the problems of the present as well as a realistic near-future speculation. Walkaway never arrives at a world that has fully achieved utopia, but rather the utopian vision is fully recognized, and presents us with a means to push back against the capitalist system to produce a world that can sustain everyone. In other words, Doctorow exposes the ways in which current social problems may bleed into the future, while still providing a framework for making a better world than we have now – transitioning into a critical-utopian future that refuses exact blueprints or easy answers. More simply, the future is up to us.
Individually, people’s actions, however noble, appear to have little impact on changing the societal makeup for the better. People have long used mass scenes of political unrest to influence those in power – organizing so that their presence is noticed. Information technologies, enabled by the digital world, allow for new means of communicating with those who share an ideological viewpoint, or a material interest. Many people, from all walks of life, share a material interest in dismantling capitalism and transitioning to a more just and ecological system, even if we don’t necessarily share ideological viewpoints. Information technology can be a way of changing ideology, inventing ideology, or maybe even co-ordinating action despite differences in ideology.
The world is more connected than ever before, allowing those who have access to the internet to find new means of connecting and creating communities that go beyond geographic proximity. That is not to say that digital networks alone will create new technologies or multitudes, but rather it increases the possibility that these communities will form. Doctorow’s post-digital world redefines the spaces in which a genuinely utopian collective might yet emerge.
In conclusion, walkaway culture aims to move beyond the overly simplistic opposition between individualism and collectivism, through a form of anarcho-syndicalist politics that, ideally, provide a means to remain an individual within a collective. Thus, Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway advances the argument that the communal nature of technological advancement holds the potential to create a utopia – one in which we are equal but remain different. The biggest threat to a utopian future is not the implementation of a dystopian regime, because these two worlds are mere reflections of each other, but rather we are threatened by the belief in anti-utopian sentiment that insists on what it claims is ‘realistic,’ and pushes forward the idea that the world cannot get better than it already is. These pressures from the elite, urging the impoverished workers to be satisfied in their suffering, ensures societal indifference to inequality. These pressures from the elite, urging the impoverished workers to be satisfied in their suffering, ensures societal indifference to inequality. One question which Doctorow’s novel does not satisfactorily answer is how this critical mass can be built deep within our default society, rather than at its edges. Often ‘walking away’ is not really an option. Walking away from a society that predicates comfort on other people’s suffering only causes those who have left to be complacent in the continued injustices committed against the poor. Rather, working together, revolutionaries committed to improving our world can use technology to build a utopia. Doctorow’s Walkaway merely provides a starting point for the imagining of a better future.
I hope to see you there.
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