Rule 34 by Charles Stross
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Stross imaginatively takes present day technology and brings it to its natural manifestation in the near-future world of the book. Behavioral targeting, maker-culture, big data analysis, ubiquitous wifi and its effects on privacy, mechanical turk crowd-sourced police work. All of it’s totally plausible, and all of it feels insidiously close. Circumstances that make for exciting crime narrative end up giving present-day readers pause; Stross is dealing in socio-technical implications of these technologies.
Stross also manages to draw out these implications by inflicting these technologies on the common man. His police detective isn’t an early-adopter, tech-savvy gadget freak; she’s using the tools that have made their way into her chosen line of work. Watching the effects of technology on the common man gives weight to his extrapolations.
He also successfully plays with the failure of over-hyped technologies - AI, the persistence of spam, video conferencing, etc.: “Working teleconferencing is right around the corner, just like food pills, the flying car, and energy too cheap to meter.”
At first I struggled with the second person narrative voice. It felt gimmicky, and weirdly hovered between feeling privvy to first person internal monologue and omniscient narrator hopping between characters’ consciouses across chapters. But Stross’s experimental voice reveals its purpose with hints of agency and ownership in passages like this:
(If you’re one of the piece-workers in a mechanical turk—or one of the rewrite rules inside Searle’s Chinese room—the overall pattern of the job may be indiscernible, lost in an opaque blur of seemingly random subtasks. And if you’re one of the detectives on a murder case, your immediate job—determining who last repaired a defective vacuum cleaner—may seem equally inexplicable. But there’s method in my motion, as you’ll learn for yourself.)
The effect was strangely satisfying, once it’s purpose is revealed (but I won’t go so far is to give that away).
I walked away from this book with a sense of reinforcement that I’m asking the right questions of technology and data and their impacts on society. Stross makes vivid some of the worst-case scenario uses of contemporary tech, and while somewhat alarmist, it’s helpful to work through these near-future extrapolations to get on the right side of things today.