Augmented reality, electioneering, globalism, and sneakiness: into _Infomocracy_

Back to our online near future science fiction book club! How is our third book so far, Malka Older‘s Infomocracy?

Older, InformocracyI don’t know about you, but I’m having a blast.

This is a splendidly imaginative novel, building up a fascinating world, criss-crossed by subtle characters and a wry sense of humor.  It is the perfect sf novel to read for an America crazed by a wild election.  Compared to our other readings about the future, if Water Knife was about climate change and Ready Player One concerned emergent gaming and virtual worlds, Infomocracy is about where politics and big data could go together.

I’m 20% in, and can’t wait to read more.  I also appreciate Malka Older’s willingness to connect with us via Twitter and on her blog.

In this post I’ll share a quick summary so far, then explore its world-building, then offer some lit prof notes.

1: The Story So Far

The plot follows three characters as they seek to understand and influence a global election.  Ken is “an undercover political operative” (3) attached to a political party, tracking what seems to be a disturbing campaign.  Domaine is a subversive, seeking to overthrow the global election order.  Mishima is a workaholic who works for the Information corporation/utility, traveling the world to make sure things are operating smoothly.

2: It’s A World Crazed By Elections, And Yet It’s Not 2016

The world of Infomocracy is one of many micro-democracies (10), where today’s nations have been broken up into 2,207  centenals (first named on page 1, numbered on 33), which are “collection[s] of one hundred thousand neighbors… whether… spread over hundreds of miles in the tundra or crammed into a couple of overdeveloped blocks in Dhaka” (8).  Centenals tend to be fairly homogeneous, with “greater concentrations of like-minded – and, on occasion, racially or ethically alike – constituents” (28).  People sometimes move from one centenal to another if they don’t like how its politics have turned out.  You can also visit a centenal to take advantage of its policies (72); it’s a world of very free movement (28).  These centenals remind me of the bolo’bolo idea.

How did this happen?  One character claims it was a United Nations idea, supported by national governments (53).  The book’s publisher says Information played a role (see below).  Some regions aren’t part of the micro-democracy revolution, like “Saudi Arabia, in Switzerland, in holdouts of the former USA and PRC and USSR” (75).

Through these centenals people vote for political parties (also called “corporates”, 12, and “governments”, 4) ; a party which wins a Supermajority (9) can effectively lead the world.    This change happened “twenty years ago” (20).  The world’s third (71) planetary election is soon to happen .

The most prominent political parties are: Heritage, which begins the novel in a leading position, represented by William Pressman (13); Liberty, for free markets, but also seemingly for territorial expansion and war, and represented by Johnny Fabré (9, 43); Policy1st, aimed at simply translating people’s wishes directly into policies (8); PhilipMorris, the tobacco and more company (22); 888 (35); Starlight (75).   Thirty-three of them are big enough to get a spot on planetary debates (71). Other political parties include 1China (8), Asia’s Return (21), RosarioPrimero (22), Sony-Mitsubishi (24), “what’s left of the European Union” (4), UNICEF (47), “SavePlanet and Economix” (50), Free2B (72), plus “moderate Islamic governments… [or] YouGov or Oranje or SecureNation”(38)

It’s a very internationalized world, both in descriptions and what we see of characters.  So far we’ve seen various locales in Africa, east Asia, and Indonesia.

Information is omnipresent, a kind of Google-Facebook-Wikipedia-NSA company that finds, processes, and shares, well, information to everyone.  People seem to trust it pretty absolutely, either because of public scrutiny or Information’s own quality assurance (34, 40). Its information-gathering isn’t perfect yet (20).  Yet there is skepticism about people actually using this service well: “you know what they say: you can give a voter Information, but you can’t make him think.” (38)  Cable news is no more – whew! (41)  Saudi Arabia blocks Information (54).

Social media seems omnipresent as well, although not named as such.  If your social media presence is especially interesting, one hotel chain will give you a good discount, so long as you make yourself visible for meals (64ff).  There’s a fun idea about this hinted here: “social networks (a publicly traded commodity) (51).  Does that mean people can buy and sell shares in other people’s social media presence?

Technologies: feeds are everywhere, recording events and people, being consumed by everyone.  People can adjust them in various ways, such as blocking data that can make one nervous (18), meta-tracking the most popular feeds (23), or selecting random input (23).  You can look for feeds that recorded you (69).

Mobile devices are also everywhere, as people can wear real-time translators, apparently nestled in one’s hair, and controlled by a ring (5).  Portable devices advise users on food choices by analyzing meals, then comparing them to what they know of the user’s health (18, 65). Other instruments analyze people’s bodily signs of emotion, “those intimately measured connections trembling just below his skin” (52).  It’s all experienced through augmented reality, which users can either consume privately or show to other people (18).

Some even have “antennae” on their persons, in case of, well:

microfilaments that run from his earpiece, hooking voer his ear and following his fair to the nape of his neck.  Their wake-up twitch is designed to raise the hairs on the back of his neck to mimic, physiologically, the feeling of being watched, in case the wearer is too drunk to remember the significance of the twitch. (39)

AR is how people connect with each other remotely, as when Mishima “has a few meetings to project into” (25).  People can also project data into the air around them, or onto surfaces (37, 53).  Users can experience multiple AR layers at the same time (56).  AR signs indicate the borders between centenals (47).

Data is huge in this world.  In fact, I’m tempted to call Infomocracy the first great novel about big data.  For example, political operatives and voters alike perceive politics in part through spreadsheets tracking policy positions and parties (25):

Citizens can even see a personalized grid with specific outcomes of each government for them: how much they would pay in taxes, for example, of changes in the funding projected to go to their kids’ schools, or the probability that their local bar will be shut down. (26)

Some people can travel in what’s mysteriously called a “crow” (25).  I can’t tell if that’s an airship or something else. There are some big tech projects, like one to carve a tunnel through the Earth’s mantle, apparently (23).

There are also fun inventions, like the “crowdcutter”:

Mishima activates her crowdcutter and it springs from its microcrimped home in the clasps on her dress, a transparent vinyl shell shaped like a shark fin that lets her scythe through the mass of people” (12; thanks to Steven Kaye for pointing that out).

3: A Lit Prof Tears It Apart

Older has a lot of fun with what Eric Rabkin refers to as “transformed language”, the way science fiction tweaks or creates new language to reflect a different world.  So we get “domino centenals” (1), “vidlets” (3), “narrative disorder” (6), “fire-writing” and”crowdcutter” (12), “crow” (25), “mandygerrying” (28), “glintelligentsia’ (65), “gronkytonk” music (72).  Domaine describes changing his worldview not as seeing the light, but as “he saw the dark” (52).

So far the book seems to enjoy the centenal structure, although there are hints it could collapse or mutate.  At least one character appreciates their localism:

“Where people want to live isn’t an ideology,” Shamus says.  “How they want to lvie.  Whom they want to live with.  It’s only an ideology when they try to tell other governments to do the same thing.” (30)

The book’s first paragraph is an ambitious performance, cramming a lot of stuff in a few sentences.  It echoes cyberpunk, with a hint of Neuromancer‘s famous opening line and a sense of rapid change and decay (“two tiny towns, one of which no longer exists”, “what used to be Japan”).  It nails us right in the future, “proclaim[ing] 21ST CENTURY”, “more than sixty years” in with the first sentences.  And it wryly undoes itself with questions and mockery (“Who does that?”).   We’re dropped in Asia (pachinko, “what used to be Japan”, kanji characters).  Observation is a key theme.  We also see Ken as a busy observer, not an actor.

“centenal” sounds like “sentinel”.  What are these organizations guarding?

Domaine: first named in the act of refusing and questioning.  I’m intrigued by the homonym of “domain”, but not sure what to make of it.

Mishima: her name is that of the classic 20th century writer and cult figure Yukio Mishima.   Should we expect her to launch a doomed coup?  She’s also first named as an object of desire, which fits Yukio’s status as sex symbol.  “Mishima!  [Domaine] wonders if it’s her first or last name” (27).

William Pressman is just a great name for a politician. Johnny Fabré is the head of the devious Liberty party.  Is his name a call-out to this French insect specialist?  It seems a stretch, but a fun one, and appropriate, if so.

Nice shout-out to one of my favorite scenes in Watchmen (23).

I’m not sure about the numbers.  If a centenal holds 100,000 people, and there are 2,207 of them, that yields 220,700,000 members worldwide, which is a small portion of the likely global population.  Was there a major die-off?  Is my math wrong?  Or is the microdemocracy movement just a global minority, since refuseniks come from some pretty populous places (“Saudi Arabia, in Switzerland, in holdouts of the former USA and PRC and USSR”, 75).

Later on Ken named centenals with identifying numbers, like 3539082 (62).  If those a strictly numerical, then the highest name would yield a global population of 353,908,000,000.  That’s far too high.

What next?

I’m continuing to read this, and will post at least twice more as I progress.  Each post is tagged Infomocracy.

What do you make of it so far, oh fellow readers of the speculative future?

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15 Responses to Augmented reality, electioneering, globalism, and sneakiness: into _Infomocracy_

  1. tonzijlstra says:

    I’ve been an info junky since primary school always fascinated by how everything is connected to everything else. When I got on the internet in 1989 I felt vindicated, yes everything is indeed connected. Reading Infomocracy brings me back to that feeling of surfing this see of signals, teasing out the patterns from reality. Loved it.

    I gathered from reading there are 100k centenals (but will look if I can see where I found that), and maybe those 2207 you mention is merely the subset of those still seeing themselves historically connected to a nation. When I read that I calculated 100k centenals gives you 10 billion people, which made sense to me as it is the current prediction where global population will level out (provided the poorest nations become wealthy enough to see their birth rate drop to the 2.1 average.)

    What I missed is the absence of AI. I loved that some of the info gathering is still done by hand though.

    Like

  2. Nick says:

    Also struck by how in the description of Information, the emphasis is on humans processing stories and data, rather than algorithms. Last week Facebook sacked thier humans (in Trending) and a sort of chaos ensued. The nightmare may have been one of unchecked algorithms controlling us. What is presented here is simpler, and in some ways more insidious. I wont say more for the present, as we are at 20%!

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  3. I have to admire your enthusiasm. I wanted to love this book, really I did. I was down with the cyberpunkish elements, the cool neologisms, even the three characters seemed somewhat well written. Woman author–yay.
    But this all proves that the theme of a book has to resonate with the interests of the reader, and I am just so not interested in election politics. I’m voting for Hillary; Trump is an idiot; end of my interest (to my wonkish husband’s disbelief and dismay). I thought I might rev something up on the wings of a lively plot, but no. Nada. Zip.
    What’s up next?
    😇😎❤️

    Like

  4. olderm says:

    Thanks for the invitation to respond. I’m thrilled to read such a thorough exploration of Infomocracy. As a former literature major myself (now in sociology by way of international relations and economics, but once a deconstructer, always a deconstructer) I love seeing my first paragraph dissected. While writing I was very aware of the cyberpunk echoes, but that setting – the anachronistic pachinko parlor – comes from a real place that I saw over and over again while working on the tsunami response in Japan and commuting between two cities, one of which, at the time, no longer existed. It was a time and place that felt very precarious; yes, that city is now in the process of being rebuilt, but on a foundation of concern that it may be destroyed again, or that the population may drift away irrevocably before it is complete. I hoped that the sense of disaster-adjacency and my emotional connection to that experience would overlay and nuance the cyberpunk motifs.
    On a more technical note: there are 2207 *governments*, not centenals. Since the largest governments may hold hundreds or thousands of centenals (though the vast majority hold few or one), the number of centenals is much higher.
    And at the risk of diluting authorial mystique, the term “gronkytonk” was coined during a period of frantic editing and after seeing a clip of the Patriots Super Bowl XLIX celebration parade.

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    • Ms. Older (soon to be Dr. Older!), I am delighted you found your way to comment. Many thanks.

      Thanks for that insight into your real-world life experiences as they shaped certain scenes and words. Your description of those Japanese cities reminds me of the American Rust Belt.

      Thanks, too, for clarifying my fumbling understanding of the governments number. That makes so much sense. Would a map of the world by governments holding centenals look something like the old Holy Roman Empire, a patchwork of competing rulers?

      Like

  5. tonzijlstra says:

    Looked up your mention of 2207. The sentence says there are 2207 registered governments. That isn’t the number of centenals, just entities that govern centenals, as the sentence reads “Of the 2207 registered governments nearly 150 hold at least one in the northwest tip of Java”. At least one… I will see if I can also find the reference back where it says there are 100k centenals (currently controlled by 2207 govs). So the 2207 are about a tenfold increase over our number of nation states, and each can govern a range of centenals.

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  6. tonzijlstra says:

    Found on page 24 / location 374 “With nearly a hundred thousand centenals, it can be hard to pick favorites, but part of Mishima’s job is looking for trendsetters and possible domino’s…” which leads to about 10 billion for global population.

    Like

  7. Steven Kaye says:

    My usual impressionistic notes – I’m about 75% in, so will hold off on specific plot developments.

    – I’m impressed by the genre fluidity (and fluidity within genre) – it’s neither fully utopia nor fully dystopia. There are elements of the spy thriller, but surprisingly little physical confrontation. Mishima is a sexy omnicompetent protagonist – but I was amused/pleased at the references to bad sex or one partner being too tired. Just like in the real world!

    – Marketing has eaten the world even more than in our time.

    – I’m still not sure I buy the idea that people would sort themselves even further physically into specific demographic segments, but I’m biased by all the recent developments and rhetoric about immigration and refugees in the present. I want to re-read the beginning, it might be that middle-class and above people can fly to Doha on a whim while working-class people move less far.

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  8. Pingback: As the election starts to go off the rails: reading _Infomocracy_ | Bryan Alexander

  9. Ellsbeth says:

    I was able to get my copy an I’m enjoying the read so far. It has me thinking a lot about Neil Stephenson’s Diamond Age. This is another book where political systems are restructured into physically smaller and more numerous communities with similar interests and legal preferences. While Infomacracy has the added element of the Supermajority, I think it is interesting to consider how we move ourselves around geographically to find comfort in similar or “familiar” surroundings. While it happens a lot more in the book, I think this plays out in our own reality in geographic regions (midwest vs. southwest), blue states vs. red states, urban vs. rural, sections or quarters within larger cities, areas of religious majority, and more. It is easier to live around people who think and believe as you do, but it also perpetuates the echo chamber. (I think this is one reason Hilary supports can’t understand why anyone would ever consider voting for Trump and Trump supports can’t understand why anyone would want to vote for Hilary. The echo chamber can be strong.) I think Older hints at this idea a little bit in the story so far. I’m interested to see how this plays out. I like Steven’s comment about how social class could impact mobility.

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  10. Pingback: The future election takes off: finishing _Infomocracy_ | Bryan Alexander

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