The non-fiction book we’re yapping about, The Whuffie Factor, takes its key word, “whuffie,” from a science fiction novel by Cory Doctorow. That book was Doctorow’s first published novel, and it feels very much like a first novel, especially a first sci-fi novel. The book is titled Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, and it’s jam-packed with seriously cool ideas, follows a fairly simple plot with relatively off-the-rack characters, and comes to a close that’s all too quick and none too satisfying.
So, in the end, the primary purpose of Down and Out seems to be not the plot, not the characters, but those ideas–many of which are tossed off with a bubbly, rapid-fire, the-future-is-now headiness fitting to the book’s setting. (At least those ideas are what it does best, and what Doctorow seems to have invested himself in most. That said, fans of his most recent, and I’d say best, novel, Little Brother, will find in Down and Out some nice precursors to what made Little Brother so good, especially the protagonist’s penchant for acting without fully thinking things through.)
Anyhow, that setting is called the Bitchun Society, a newly revised world–in the near-ish future–in which social capital (what everyone calls “whuffie”) has, as far as I can tell, entirely replaced any other form of compensation, and in which the virtual world has so come to be the real world that humans regularly “back up” their brains (as we do our hard drives, or at least are supposed to) and drop them into new clones, thus extending life for, well, as long as they want.
As in any science fiction, that’s a leap of faith that Doctorow requires the reader to take, but to his credit, he takes it himself, with a degree of seriousness that is something of a (purposeful) downer. What he says in the book is that those folk who had trouble adopting to the Bitchun Society mode (to the economy of social capital, to the technological gift of near-eternal life) didn’t really have much say in the matter, because by definition…they all died off.
They headed to the woods, literally or figuratively, stuck to their philosophical guns, and died the natural death that their ancestors had died. Meanwhile, the (apparent) vast majority of inhabitants of the world adopted the Bitchun mode, and that is the norm when the book opens.
The (largely online) social capital that Tara Hunt discusses in Whuffie Factor requires a much smaller leap of faith, with little of the dire seriousness that circulates around it in Doctorow’s book (for example, one of the secondary characters in Down and Out spends much of the novel not so much contemplating suicide as working toward suicide).
Or does it? I wonder if artists and organizations today risk self-exile from the broader world of culture if they do not embrace the facts of online culture.
I’ll focus, for the moment, just on retail. Once upon a time, almost all records were sold in record stores. A good record store, like a great specialty shop or the deceased Tower at its best (full disclosure: I was an editor on Tower’s Pulse! and Classical Pulse! magazines and its web-based publications for many years) was where music was sold, jazz or pop, classical or Latin. Customers found out about music in their lives and inside the stores, talking with clerks, and purchased those records in stores.
Today, both those lives (at least as defined as the interactions between individuals) and sales are taking place increasingly online. I do personally believe that as in Down and Out, there’s no turning back. The world we inhabit today is not so drastically altered as the Bitchun Society, but it is altered, so much so that we can’t quite see it because we’ve experienced it in real time. Things move quickly. I re-read Down and Out (originally published in 2003) in advance of this discussion, and was humored to find the word “twittering” in there, since he was using the word in its original sense, in advance of the launch, in 2006, of what is now a near-ubiquitous form of interaction, a form of interaction that is emblematic of the kind of communication that Hunt is evangelizing.
I’m not sure what option there is other than embracing the new form of communication. What Hunt does best in her book is provide people and organizations practical examples of how to–and how not to–embrace it.