Sunday, November 26, 2017

It's not about advertising, you idiot. It's about power.

"Why should you care? he shouts. Why should you fucking care? We're talking about intelligence gathering on an unprecedented scale. Forget data mining. This is mind rape. The end of privacy as we know it. It's not about advertising, you idiot. It's about power. Control. Sure, the marketing men might be the first to come knocking, but sooner or later this information is going to end up in the hands of agencies whose only interest is the total suppression of your freedom. In the whole of history, no system of mass surveillance had ever existed that hasn't ended up being hijacked by malevolent forces."
In Broadcast, by Liam Brown, a star vlogger is given an opportunity to test-drive a new technology. A small chip is implanted in the base of David's skull, which essentially live-streams his thoughts over the internet 24-7.

While reality TV gives us the passively reassuring and relatable everyman, and books offer a more immersive experience of empathy, MindCast then is poised to be the ultimate entertainment.

Interesting things start to happen once the implanted program starts to learn the patterns behind David's thoughts. His thoughts start to take shapes other than splotches of colour. As a vlogger, David thrived on feedback; as a MindCaster, he confronts a different kind of feedback loop when watching his own channel, that feeds and strengthens thoughts he didn't know he had. And it turns out that chip can upload in both directions.

Broadcast has the difficult task of discussing very current social and technological phenomena without making it seem dated. It wants to issue warnings regarding our social media-infused, reality TV-obsessed culture, but it's tough to do without coming off as trite or irrelevant. Or simply too late.

Unfortunately, the novel reads a little like someone of my generation trying to document the ways of my daughter's generation for the benefit of people who have spent the last decade in a technology-free zone. Vlogging had come into its stride by 2005. Reality TV for the internet. Vlogging is so commonplace these days that the book puts me at a remove when it explains it to me rather than weaving it seamlessly into the world it's trying to build.

While the technology that's core to the book is of the imagined near future, this book may have been written years ago. Apart from vlogging culture, references to Uber, mood rings, and "the static between channels on an old television set" had me puzzling to fix this story in time. Given the age of the characters, the tone and the historical timeframe all felt a little off.
"You need to understand that you're going to be a character in a book. Every character needs context. The reader has to know where they've come from, what they've been through. I'm not saying you have to be likeable. But you do have to be believable. You need substance. Dreams and desires. Hopes and fears. Emotional heft. You have feel like a real person rather than some two-dimensional cypher — otherwise why would they possibly care what happens to you?"
So says Alice, who's tasked with writing David's biography. But it's also a problem for Broadcast. So how is it that the character of David is believable even while he lacks emotional heft? Paradoxically, maybe his two-dimensionality is what makes him seem real in this day and age.

Broadcast is short novel that is fairly predictable once the main premise is established. I think it could be a good introduction to speculative fiction for those people who are wary of the genre as well as those interested in getting a glimpse of one aspect of youth culture.

The tagline on the cover is "Black Mirror meets Inception in the YouTube Age." If you've ever seen an episode of Black Mirror, this book won't hold any surprises for you. It doesn't bring anything new to the conversation we should be having about the implications of technology, but Broadcast might yet invite a few people in.

While I may sound overly critical here, I found Broadcast to be an enjoyably entertaining, non-demanding palate cleanser of a book.


No comments: