Sunday, March 06, 2011

For the Win, Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow's For the Win is very much of the moment, covering an Internet-driven global uprising. In Doctorow's case, though it's a union organizing outbreak among Internet workers (gold farmers, mechanical turks, etc.). Not surprisingly, real-world union busting tactics are used to fight back. Doctorow, as usual, has a firm grasp on the zeitgeist, and has written another story just a few months into his own future. Published last year, it must have been written even earlier. The introduction on his webbed version of the story (linked above) talks up the relevance to the recent financial crisis.

There are a couple of fascinating ideas on display in the book: the parallels to current events in the Middle East of course, the discussions of on-line role-playing games and their various denizens, and the story itself and the characters and events that drive it.

The action centers around the Far East: mostly China and Viet Nam, though Cambodia, Indonesia, and India show up, too. Several groups of gold farmers are the focal characters. They're each controlled and abused by a relatively wealthy investor, who underwrites their access to the net, and resells the gold and treasures they earn on-line. In exchange, they're paid enough to keep them alive, and they get to play games all day. Rather than mindlessly wandering the games or doing the obvious quests, their modus operandi is to play the games and look for exploitable weaknesses—monsters that are easy to kill relative to the treasure they give, places that are unusually likely to spawn a good treasure, or actual bugs in the implementation that let players turn straw into gold with less than the usual effort. Since what they do is fun and exciting, and a lot like playing games, there are always plenty more players available, so individuals don't have a lot of leverage with their employers. In this kind of circumstance, it's not surprising that the situation occasionally turns more explicitly abusive, and that's the context that leads some of the characters to approach union organizers. Once they're gotten in contact, the support goes both ways: the on-line workers provide communication and publicity to traditional union workers, and the organizers provide manpower and experience in dealing with violent tactics.

The book was nominated for the Prometheus Award, but it's hard to identify explicitly libertarian aspects of the story. Most of the conflict is between (abusive) owners and workers, with governments not getting very involved. I found the context intriguing, and Doctorow tells a great story, but the closest I can get to a libertarian angle is to try to describe it as a struggle against authority—but it's only a struggle against power, which isn't quite the same thing.

For the Win is a fun read. Doctorow excels at depicting action crossing back and forth between virtual worlds and the real world, and at giving a feel for a future that's only a little advanced over our own. There's a fair amount of violence in this story, even though Doctorow presents it as a young adult novel. In the anti-union violence there's a fair amount of head-bashing, though eventually it's countered with ghandian non-violence. Definitely worth the read.

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