Uncanny Valley Digest: Karl Schroeder’s Stealing Worlds

stealingworldsschroederA spunky burglar is on the run for her life after helping her now-murdered father rob a corrupt ecological securities firm. Schroeder’s virtual worlds detective caper, set in the near future, is a young adult primer on the implications of blockchain and AI in our corporate futures.

This didactic novel is strong on ideas, and makes up for that strength in character development and VR setting descriptions. One of our favorite ideas in Stealing Worlds is the advent of philosophies about AI design. Face it, our current economic systems are exploitive and increasingly destructive. As we automate our economic systems they become more aggressive, faster, less humane. Chris put it best when he said, “The money tree is the only tree that when you shake it, the fruits and nuts fall upwards.”

The Automated CEO
In Stealing Worlds, synthetic sentiences have not only taken over manufacturing and accounting jobs, but corporate boards. By automating and blockchaining the decision matrixes of a corporate board, theoretically you can filter out greedy and corrupt decision-making. It’s a simplistic view of morality, but Schroeder’s on the case.

blockchainAIThe main flaw, highlighted by Meg: “Okay, here’s this terrible state of affairs caused by the misuse of powerful technology. And the solution is…even more technology that’s even more powerful, and it can’t be hacked! I’m skeptical.” In this context, the solution is often worse than the problem.

Epistemology Acting Up Again?
Of course, the new technology does get hacked. Unwilling to fault the idealized blockchain, the problem is in its sensory apparatus. Even though the blockchains remain incorruptible, the sensors are hacked – the uncountable multitude of minuscule sensors that provide all the big data to the blockchain-girded AIs. Giving a blockchain AI phony data is a great way to control its decision making.

The book glosses over just how many millions of tiny sensors are needed to generate sufficient data to formulate these blockchain AIs. Every tree, every person, creature, piece of fruit, quantity of water, soil sample, etc. Any aspect of the material world that can be monitored by sensor generates data. Talk about microplastic litter, on a new massive global scale. (What is blockchain anyway? A type of software ledger that can verify and ensure an original digital phenomenon. With infinite identical digital reproduction, how can you tell which file is the original? For example, blockchain is used to generate bitcoins, which cannot be copied. They exist in a finite, global quantity, and that is why the work as money.)  It’s funny that the sensors are hacked, corrupting the data which the perfect blockchain AIs unwittingly absorb. It’s like the state of journalism, ha!

This is a classic replay of the flaw of technological romance, the insistence that the newest, most promising, most powerful technology is of course immune to human greed and corruption. It’ll fix everything this time, we’re sure of it!

chardevSetting and Characterization
Meg noted, despite Schroeder being a futurist with a degree in Foresight Studies, “he had a hard time describing virtual places.” Many agreed, there was an unconvincing and random quality to the VR interfaces. Everyone agreed that the Peruvian rainforest segment was beautifully described. Maybe that was not a mistake, since by the end of the book, the aim is to sort of re-diefy nature.

Also, the romance and sex in the book was so trite it was barely there. Nikita pointed out that Schroeder was raised in a Canadian Mennonite community. This was during the portion of our discussion about the book’s unidimensional characterizations. Regarding the protagonist, Sura, Meg said, “I never worried about her. Too much like a video game figure. But at least video game characters get to die.” Ha! Chris said, “She didn’t have an arc, a hero’s journey.” Dave added, “No – she has a payoff, namely the meaning of her parental loss.”

Schroeder doesn’t do women, doesn’t do sexy, but the ideas hold it together. Gill’s last word, “You never get a sense of what makes these characters tick. But it was worth the ride.”

Waving compass character cartoon styleThe Character of Compass
Compass is a friend of Sura’s who turns out to have a selective type of amnesia. Compass remembers who she is in the present, but she can not remember how she got here. She is unable to recollect her own past to conjure a continuous identity, so she lingers in different VR character frames to keep herself sane. In Chris’s words: “prosthetic personality disorder.”

A Special Announcement
During our end-of-discussion chat, Meg shared some delightful news: she’s had a story accepted for publication by Analogue Science Fiction Magazine!!! It’s a 10,000 word novella (of which they only print 2 per issue) called “Flashmob.” Watch for it. WAY TO GO, MEG! Too cool! 😀

Screen Shot 2020-06-17 at 8.46.36 PM

Join us next week for our discussion of Stanislaw Lem’s “Let Us Save The Universe.”


Thank you for reading! Reading rules!

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P.S. The notes!

p.88 – is it the end of drudgery, or a new running wheel for capitalism’s rats?

p.89 – good rant on the new economy. Shoveling garbage IRL becomes an in-game resource. People are getting paid in virtu for proxy tasks in situ. It’s like spending real world money on Warcraft gold. Virtual worlds are only instantiated if they have an economy. That’s a threadbare “world.”

p.82 – the Cahokian Elder and the orchard forests of the past.

p.89 – the thundering roar of forest sounds in the days before humans, and lumber.

p.89 – another rant that puts me in the mind of  “Everybody Knows” by Don Henly (also, covered by Concrete Blonde in the 90s!). The “black people standing around” line gave me pause. In the Henly song, the lyric is: “old black Joe’s still picking cotton. Everybody knows.”

p.91 – geography bows under the weight of the gaze

p.106 – luck talk/monopoly. The illusion of the self-made man.

p.113 Proudly Eagle Owned! carshare service. A blockchain AI corporation with no human members. requires lots of sensors.

p.120-1 – All that ‘splainin’ and I still don’t get it. How is this different than using USD to buy Warcraft tokens.

p.122 – oracles? I am not gripped. Who understands this?

p.130 – my eyes are glazing over

p.167 – parallel Americas: poverty-stricken and wealthy, clean and surveilled or filthy and private?

p.169-70 – How the wealthy cope with privacy loss. “Whitelisting” your face in the recognition databases.

p.169 “Who really runs the show?”
This question, this premise, the axiomatic belief itself that a “who” clandestinely wields world-controlling power. There is the kernal of God and conspiracy theorist in that simplistic framing of the question.
CONSIDER THIS: The show runs us. Even if humans “built” it.
So many forces at play, so many instances of greed and stupidity, as well as genius and generosity, so many people out for themselves and their ilk that no one runs the show, because everyone’s is. Think of Caesar’s assassination. Everybody was in on it, and almost none of them agreed with each other on any other points but the knives’.

p.177-8 – nice touch. the case for total surveillance. Pf. So, how to preserve privacy in this total immersion surveillance?

p.178 – Andrew Yang outlines some of this in real life terms in The War On Normal People

p.179 – an idea similar to Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock

p.183 – the most important thing about AI is not what it thinks, but what it thinks it is.

p.190 – totally, the “solution” is as bad as the problem.

p.199 – the virtues of blockchain avocado tracing.

p.212 – the human heart, at it again.

p.260 – actants and deodands: AIs acting on behalf of externalities and non-human life. We’ve tagged every plant, animal, and square foot of soil in this stand of forest. Nevermind the litter. Now, using an interface we’ve written, the big data from those sensors can manifest as an interactive AI.

p.264 – so it’s basically like a mushroom trip in nature, but instead of mushrooms to talk to the forest spirits, you use sensors that represent every living thing in the forest and talk to the AI that is amalgamated from that sensor data. How’s the bear doing? How are the moles doing? How’s the fungal soil layer doing? It’s all somewhere in there.

p.264 – “There are more organizational principles at work in just this one forest than humanity has invented in ten thousand years”

p.265 – the mycelial mind

p.271 – Phil Dick homage line: “They are that which is still there, even when you stop believing in them.”

p.272 – An AI with a unique worldview, not borrowing a human worldview.

p.287 – The interface is the mask.

About Suhail Rafidi

Suhail Rafidi is a novelist and educator whose works explore the destiny of human values in a technological landscape. You can find him on Twitter, too, @shelldive.
This entry was posted in Authors and Writing, Book Reviews, Books, Science Fiction, Technology and Culture, uncanny valley and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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