Saturday, October 01, 2011

Book Review: Makers, by Cory Doctorow

Makers, by Cory Doctorow

e-book available as free download

With Makers, Cory Doctorow has done something I wish had: he has clearly linked the capitalistic need for economic growth with the waste it generates, the overload on the environment, symbolized by overflowing landfills, and the obesity epidemic in the corrupt, capitalistic West. At the same time, he jabs, lightning-fast, at big capitalism, sleazy journalists, earnest and good journalists who are nevertheless short-sighted business people, the police and the International House of Pancakes.

Doctorow deserves the success he has had as a writer and novelist. His style is clear, simple and fast-paced, and his characters are so believable, I fell like I’ve met them all.

Makers is set an unclear, but small number of years in the future, just after a huge economic collapse that leaves behind empty strip malls and abandoned homes on crumbling highways across America. On the other hand, maybe it’s history.

The story starts with Suzanne, a reporter with a San Jose paper who is covering the announcement of a merger of Duracell and Kodak. Since no one buys batteries or film anymore, “Kodacell” ditches those products completely. The new CEO, the brash young money genius XX, announces a radical new business model: Kodacell is going to back small-scale entrepreneurs who invent innovative new products. This sparks a “new work” revolution. People around the world start making new inventions and innovations geared at everyday needs. It works until it falls apart in a typical boom-and-bust cycle.

The focus of the novel is on the first cell, started by two self-employed engineers named Perry and Lester. They harvest discarded technology from landfills and set up a laboratory-shop in an abandoned strip mall in Florida. They explain to reporter Suzanne that so-called obsolete technology, like last year’s iPod, still contains powerful technology that can be repurposed. The demonstrate with a bunch of “Boogie-Woogie Elmo” dolls: toys that are actually robots that can walk and dance and talk. Lester and Perry reprogram them to drive a car.

With Kodacell money behind them, Lester and Perry begin developing all sorts of new technologies, which eventually coalesce into “the Ride.” This is an amusement-park type ride which shows past technologies and toys in American homes through the decades. It’s heart-wrenchingly nostalgic, as well as energizing: Perry and Lester open-source the Ride and copies, or actually different versions, pop up all across America, and then the world. (Strangely, there is little mention of Canada in the whole book—and Doctorow is a Canadian writer!)

From both geek and social consciousness points of view, one of the most interesting parts of the story is how the sharing of the Ride’s content adapts the content itself, as well as the society it reflects. There could be a whole doctoral thesis on this idea, but this novel is far more interesting.
One of the most delicious aspects of the book is the villain: the Disney corporation, or more specifically, a rising executive in Disney. Doctorow is a skilful enough writer that he can evoke revulsion at the culture-constraining aspect of Disney, while admiring how well it does what it does.

The story is not perfect (but what is?) I can’t believe the utopia of the squatter society. Surely, any conglomeration of people that size would have some bad people, and without any kind of policing, there should have been a lot of crime. At the very least, criminal gangs would have moved into the squatter town, unopposed by anything.

Maybe Doctorow is trying to make a point here, that problems are caused by the power structure that represses people with little wealth, but I cannot believe that. And it’s a shame, because everything else is absolutely credible—even the Elmo dolls that can drive a car.

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