Cory Doctorow’s Makers

One of the things that I liked about Cory Doctorow’s Makers is that he didn’t write for the screen. Sometimes perfectly fine novels include chase scenes, combat with vehicles, emotionally resonant moments with interesting landscapes, ensemble dramatic climaxes, and other gratuitous moments seemingly designed with a film advance in mind. Doctorow’s Makers avoids these cliches. The structure sprawls, and several climactic moments happen over un-filmable email and online chat.

The sprawl of Makers is mostly a strength. A classic story has a setup, dramatic middle, and resolution. The dramatic arc of Makers takes its characters – a team of technology entrepreneurs and the journalist who helps to publicize and create the market for their innovations – through a couple of boom and bust cycles, and back again to the creative impulse that got them started. The emotional arc of the story seems to come from the experience of having lived through the dotcom boom, and subsequent boom and bust cycles in the tech and overall economy. As a novel of ideas about the evolution and integration of promising technologies, the book rejects the beginning-middle-end structure that is misleading in the context of a longer trajectory. Technology changes, business cards change, business models change, but people’s motivations and tensions replay in each cycle.

Doctorow’s future scenario has emerging technologies paired with business process innovations. Makers imagines a boom in micro-fabrication, accompanied by quickly-assembled networks to produce and distribute the innovations. After a bust in the microfab market, there is a boomlet in theme parks built on the detritus of the first boom. The theme parks are built and re-assembled by microfab robots, collaboratively designed with open source, crowd-sourced processes. The fun of the book is the way the book pictures the crazy particulars of this future – a car being driven by a set of robots assembled from parts of Elmo dolls, a narrative story that starts to emerge from the flow of a collaboratively created amusement park ride.

In Makers, the social, economic and legal trends remain fundamentally the same while technology changes. The US remains on a downward path toward away from first world status, with growing gap between rich and poor. One of the big opportunities for the microfab market is cheap products for the growing market of people who live in shantytowns. Cheap space for startup businesses is found in abandoned malls and big box store buildings around the country left behind by the early-century real estate bust.

The social and legal stasis in the world of Makers is particularly interesting. Consumer brands retain great power to create images and to market products, even as the power to make things decentralizes. At the beginning of the story, the Disney Corporation, and the legal defense of old business models of IP protection remain in place. Large corporations retain power, are still slow-moving and bureaucratic, and absorb the innovative products and creative energies of entrepreneurs who sell to them.

Perhaps this telling represents pessimism about the slower change of social structures in the face of technical change. At the least, it is a dramatized argument against the techno-deterministic viewpoint that technical change will inevitably lead to social and political changes.

Makers focuses on several trends, and doesn’t develop other trends that could be powerful forces in the coming years. The book only barely touches on energy and material resource issues. The communications technology seems like a straight extrapolation of a couple of years ago. Characters remain dependent on email. Twitter is a continued presense, but social networks don’t play a major role in communications. It’s fine by me that Doctorow varies some factors in his future scenarios and leaves others constant – there is plenty of fodder remaining for future books!

While the book’s richly-imagined, evolving future scenarios belie simple techno-deterministic models, the episodic structure and sprawl also shows some signs of attention deficit. The microfab boom, like the dotcom boom, ends in a spectacular crash. The explanation is that the transformative technology couldn’t generate hoped-for economic returns. But the internet revolution also left behind slower but far-reaching change. Markets for travel, maps, books, news, music, voice and other information-rich services are fundamentally different and still changing fifteen years later. Makers does a less good job of imagining the ways that things get fundamentally different after the microfab revolution, and the ways the economy might be different if more economic activity could be performed by quickly-assembled small networks of workers.

One side plot is the emergence of “Fatkins”, a boom in biotech-fueled weight loss that creates a new class of formerly fat people who pursue hedonistic lives with their new slim bodies. But the book doesn’t follow through broader themes of body transformation that might have occurred given the same technology revolution. Another side plot is a subculture of “goths” who are the target market for a subdivision of Disney, and join the open source ride revolution when it happens. These are two intriguing examples, but the book doesn’t deeply follow through the concept of cross-geographical lifestyle tribes.

Basically, it’s easier to brainstorm and imagine a few entertaining outcomes of a promising idea than it is to fully develop the idea’s consequences. The book displays on a larger canvas the esthetic manifested in the Boing Boing blog that Doctorow has co-edited for years – it is an imaginative, relentlessly miscellaneous compendium of novelties. It illustrates trends but is inconsistent in exploring them.

The previous Cory Doctorow novel I read was Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. I enjoyed the book, but thought its treatment of ideas was somewhat shallow, and its plot and characterization were more shallow. I thought that book would have been a lot better if Doctorow had spent many times longer writing and editing it.

Makers has much more of an emotional core – I found some of the key moments really moving. The characterization isn’t Shakespeare but is much more interesting than the earlier book. And Makers does a good job of imaginatively envisioning potential consequences of current trends. It still seems to me that with his talent, activism, and globe-trotting life, Cory Doctorow can get away with publishing books that would be even better if he edited them more.

The book’s not perfect, but I liked it a lot, I recommend it, and I’m enjoying the author’s maturation as a writer.

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