June 06, 2014

Daemon and Freedom(tm): superintelligence is more interesting than utopia

Annulation correction validationI just finished Daemon and Freedom(tm) by Daniel Suarez. Daemon was brilliant, Freedom(tm) too earnest and closed to work.

Daemon starts out as a technological murder mystery and soon evolves into a fun technothriller. What I enjoyed was the realistic descriptions of hacks: most are plausible given current technology, at least well into the later stages. The core conceit is one of those ideas that could work in the real world to some extent, but not to the extent it does... at least not without superintelligence.

That was actually what really sold the story to me. In my work I often deal with issues of artificial intelligence risk, and two of the more common stupid objections to it is the assumption that (1) software isn't dangerous, and (2) just being smart is not dangerous. Showing how software can manipulate the "real" world to achieve non-trivial and dangerous ends is useful: Daemon does a good job of showing how current systems of work-orders, outsourcing and net-connected devices could be used. Similarly, the overall plot is to a large extent predicated on a very smart player behind the scenes. As written, it is somewhat unrealistic (but the one acceptable break from reality of the story). But if one instead plugs in the forms of superintelligence we study and allows for more adaptivity than the Daemon is claimed to have, then novel works as a great intuition pump for just how dangerous a very smart software system could be - even in the physical world.

I read science fiction mainly for ideas, so the above motivation is enough for me to like the novel. That the characters are fairly flat comes with the thriller territory and that the climax involves some implausible weapons (the razorbacks, really?) is OK.

Freedom(tm) however suffers from a double affliction of utopianism. The first problem with utopianism is that when you describe a society you really like it becomes hard to allow for any flaws or weaknesses in it. The society becomes a Mary Sue: anybody who disagrees is either misguided or evil, obvious flaws are ignored, and there is no interest in even looking for complications or problems. The darknet society described in the novel is eco-friendly, tolerant, creative... if there is a positive adjective it got it. The fact that the people involved are drawn from the same stock as the normal sheeple often depicted as passive victims/collaborators in the novel is glossed over. Despite the fact that plausibly there would be some rather deep ideological and emotional rifts going on everybody except one member behave themselves.

The second kind of utopianism is the techno-utopian assumption that technology works. I am fine with novels where advanced technology does amazing things: the problem is when it always works. We know from real life that technologies have flaws and sometimes fail because of unpredictable or outside influences. For most novels it does not matter greatly if phone calls occasionally are interrupted and the radar occasionally shows spectral blips:it can be used to give the story verisimilitude or be ignored like characters needing to go to the bathroom. However, when essentially all parts of the plot hinge on technology to function flawlessly and it does, then the suspension of disbelief starts to fray. Especially when the technology is supposedly widely distributed and under constant change and attack.

Note that I am willing to cut the Daemon itself slack: just like hard science fiction stories are allowed one acceptable break from physics (typically a FTL drive) without loosing too much, I think a technological story can allow itself one flawless technology. The problem is when it is everywhere.

Together, the two kinds of utopianism makes Freedom(tm) didactic, preachy and far less interesting than the open-ended Daemon. The novel, despite its multiple subplots, is essentially a linear game leading up to a somewhat anticlimactic boss fight. It has some neat ideas, but while Daemon threw in ideas and allowed them to blossom into disturbing possibilities Freedom(tm) forces them to all aim at a happy ending, no matter what.

When reading both novels I was strongly reminded of some of my own old work: the roleplaying setting InfoWar. Me and Robert wrote it back in 1998, based on some scenario planning exercises we did in 1997. Let's ignore the fact that we were indeed almost as preachy as Freedom(tm) (and far less skilled writers). It is somewhat worrying to realize that many elements from the more dystopian models we used came plausibly true - remember, we wrote this three years before the War on Terror and 15 years before Snowden. In our setting there is also a darknet fighting the Powers That Be, although in this case held together mostly by ideology and crypto-currencies (in these bitcoin-saturated days it actually feels odd that digital currencies does not play a larger role in Suarez novels - until you realize that Daemon was written in 2006, and bitcoin showed up in 2008). I can totally imagine awesome crossovers between the settings.

Another work that come to mind was Charles Stross' excellent Halting State. While InfoWar had similar ideas about distributed high-tech subversion and rebellion as Suarez novels, Halting State is the great MMORPG novel. He covers some of the same ground as Suarez in analysing just how pervasive the digital world has become in the "real" world, but also in playing with just how powerful online games can be as recruitment, coordination, funding and communication. What makes Halting State work so well is that it doesn't up the ante to global conflict (although Suarez seems to make "global = US") or have the stakes be too high - yes, they are very high for the protagonists, but it really is just a local issue. I think this is the more European approach: things can matter even if they just involve the Republic of Scotland.

In the end, good science fiction (and thrillers) deal in the currency of ideas. The best ideas are the fertile ones, the ones that trigger new questions and ideas. Daemon is full of them and allow them free rein; Freedom(tm) ironically doesn't give them enough freedom.

Posted by Anders3 at June 6, 2014 12:56 AM