Tech It to the Limit 

Whither the Web goes, local authors set up soapboxes.

No one is too interested in reading any more about the transformative powers of technology. Accounts of how the Net changes everything have been displaced by treatises on terror. The very words "Silicon Valley" feel like the punch line to a joke, a label redolent of another, seriously distant era, almost like "disco" or "the greatest generation." Which doesn't mean that the Net isn't changing everything, though these days it's usually by nibbling away at the corners of life rather than mounting a wholesale attack. Nor does it mean that Bay Area authors don't still feel they're at its forefront, or that they haven't got a lot to say about it.

Weblogs, for example, are a relatively subtle new development. A Web site under the control of one individual, who updates it regularly and links to other sites as necessary -- it sounds like a home page, something integral to the Web's original identity. As the Web grew, however, the number of people with both the skill and the interest to start a page shrank in comparison to the total number of pages out there. HTML programming isn't for everyone.

The difference now is software that means anyone can do it. Four years ago, when San Francisco's Rebecca Blood started her Weblog, there were between fifty to one hundred bloggers, and she felt ashamed of getting into the game so late. A year ago, estimates had risen to about half a million. By now there might be twice that many, although the field is so fluid, and the tracking mechanisms so weak, that any accurate count seems unlikely.

Bloggers tend to be boastful as well as numerous, given to endless discussions on the importance of blogging. They've given themselves credit for bringing down Trent Lott, for sharpening the prewar discourse, and improving the lot of humanity in general. A blog gives every crank a microphone; listen to some of these folks long enough and you want to take a vow of silence. Humility was once a virtue.

These are growing pains; less noisy sites are equally rewarding if harder to find. (A favorite: bookslut.com/blog.html, where Jessa Crispin expertly monitors the Web for news articles and essays of bookish interest.) As a longtime blogger, Blood does a reasonable job of giving the basic history and instructing newbies on exactly how to go about starting up their own sites.

Whether an entire book is needed to do this is another question; all but the most clueless could figure it out by just plunging in. Curiously, in The Weblog Handbook Blood also undersells blogs occasionally, writing for instance that "the most popular weblogger's readership does not approach that of a student columnist at a medium-sized university newspaper." True when she was writing the book, perhaps, but no longer. Within a short time, all those columnists will have blogs as well, rendering the difference moot.

The immediate influence of a new technology is hard to capture in something as old-fashioned as a book, which is outdated by the time it hits the store. Howard Rheingold gets around the problem in Smart Mobs by taking a conceptual, philosophic approach -- not so much what is happening as what should happen, if we're lucky. The Mill Valley author approvingly quotes MIT professor Henry Jenkins on the power of blogging to reframe issues: "Broadcasting will place issues on the national agenda and define core values; bloggers will reframe those issues for different publics and ensure that everyone has a chance to be heard."

Well, let's hope so. It could also mean that all issues drown in a cacophony of voices, but then Rheingold -- former editor of Hotwired and the Whole Earth Review and online host for the Well -- has always been an optimist, cognizant of the problems and pitfalls but a believer that the greater good shall triumph. Look no farther than Smart Mobs' subtitle: "The Next Social Revolution." Wireless devices, Rheingold argues, will change how we perceive and construct the world.

The showcase event for smart mobbing remains January 20, 2001, when the impeachment trial of Philippine President Joseph Estrada was ended by his cronies in the Senate. Within moments, the news went out via text messages on the cell phones of Filipinos everywhere. More than a million Manila residents showed up to demonstrate over four days, leading to Estrada's fall from power. Shots fired: none.

It's a charming, hopeful story. Instant-access technologies similarly aided the antiwar protesters in San Francisco at the end of March, enabling them to come closer to shutting down the Financial District than any Vietnam War demonstrator would have thought possible.

But the war, of course, unfurled on schedule. In the worst-case scenario, the always-on society seems destined mostly to make us all more pliable consumers and lamer citizens -- it's "the ultimate disinfotainment apparatus," as Rheingold calls it. The history of television, originally heralded as the instrument that would bring us into utopia, is the model here. More recent developments, such as e-mail, seem to be on a similar downward slope, as penis-enhancement spam drowns out real messages. "Many-to-many media cannot survive if too many free riders take advantage of universal access to other people's attention," he warns.

If you took the technology and attitudes that Rheingold and Blood are championing, added instant cloning as well as America's once and, apparently, forever favorite amusement park, and projected the whole thing about a century into the future, you'd have the world conjured by Cory Doctorow in his first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.

This San Francisco author coedits Boing Boing, one of the most prominent blogs, works as outreach coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, won an award a few years back as the year's most promising new sci-fi writer, and must have had a loved one held for ransom by the Disney folks, because there's no other way to explain his fascination for the place.

Imagine: Since a clone can be grown practically instantaneously and immediately equipped with all your memories, humankind is effectively immortal. The Net has gone virtual, and people's brains are directly hooked up to it. "Free Energy" has ended all scarcity and want. Space travel is possible, if difficult, so the universe awaits. So why does everyone in this novel want to work at Disney World?

Our hero, Jules -- whose memories go back nearly a century, but he looks forty and acts fifteen -- says he is looking forward to the next ten thousand years. Maybe he has too much time on his hands.

The plot: Jules and his girlfriend Lil are custodians of the Haunted Mansion, while Debra, a bad person, has been souping up the Hall of the Presidents, which she is doing so well that it might enable her to take over the whole park, which would be really bad. Sorry, but it's no more complicated or interesting than that.

Magic Kingdom might be undernourished in plot and characterization, but it has an appealing background. To hold society together, everyone accumulates "whuffie," which is kind of like the ratings system eBay uses. Do something good -- compose a symphony, pick up trash -- and you get whuffie. Otherwise, it leaks away and, ultimately, elevators refuse to open for you. It's an old science-fictional trope, Philip K. Dick via Jonathan Lethem, but the Net has given it a topical spin.

Doctorow created a bit of a buzz by offering his novel free for downloading, an option taken by tens of thousands. He's practicing what he advocates, undoubtedly earning gobs of whuffie. With a better novel, he'll earn even more.

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