What if, as more than one science fiction story has imagined, the sheer size and complexity of the World Wide Web made it become self-aware. And what if, contrary to most of those stories, it was wonderful in every sense of the word. What if it meant world peace, freedom, and humanity at long last growing up.
That’s the vision Robert J. Sawyer presents in his WWW trilogy, which consists of Wake (2009), Watch (2010), and Wonder (2011). It’s the tale of a young woman blind from birth who gains sight, a bonobo-chimpanzee hybrid who makes a choice, and an emergent machine-based superintelligence who wants to serve man.
And not, it (or rather he) adds, in the cookbook sense.
Two disclaimers: Firstly, I really like (and identify with) how Sawyer writes and thinks, so there is considerable bias on my part. I’ve posted about him (twice) recently. Ideas in his books account for two other posts. I can’t say every book is a home run, but they are all at least extra base hits for me. And several are indeed home runs. I haven’t been this thrilled about a new author since Octavia E. Butler. [See these five posts.]
Secondly, some may find the story too positive and optimistic. Sawyer seems to share (what I think of as) the Gene Roddenberry idea that technology can solve our social problems. Both have faith in intelligence and knowledge balanced by creativity and compassion (The intersection of Bones and Spock is Kirk). I grew up with the original Star Trek, and one reason I loved it is that I share that faith.
Roddenberry presents the future as a fait accompli, but Sawyer writes about how we might get there (although we often need a little help). I like that Sawyer, as a hard SF writer, explains how his vision is plausible (given a gimme or two). But that also means a fair bit of info dumping (generally well handled as conversations) and, in this case, a fair bit of speechifying. In two notable cases, in literal speeches to assemblies.
So, some may find the story a bit too much talk or too much optimism (or both). It’s definitely not an action story and only flirts with being a thriller. I vastly prefer aspirational stories, and I (vastly) agree with most of the talk (and I generally enjoy the info dumps), so these were a big win with me. They get a Wow! rating.
Quite honestly, they were so positive and optimistic, so delightful and fun, that the last few chapters had joyful tears streaming down my cheeks. (If only it could really be like that!) I found the story quite affecting.
Clearly not everyone reacts that way. Wiki quotes the National Post citing “Sawyer’s Pollyanna faith in the benefits of technology” as almost amounting to “the rankest propaganda.” Which trades on propaganda as Big State brainwashing but consider anti-smoking and safe-driving campaigns. Still, Sawyer does lay it on pretty thick in the third book, so caveat lector. (The third book has both the literal speeches I mentioned.)
The main (human) character is Caitlin Decter, who is just about to turn sixteen. Blind since birth because her retinas incorrectly encode the visual information sent to the brain. Her visual cortex is fully capable of processing visual data. It’s just not getting anything that makes sense to it.
Her father is a theoretical physicist, and her mother is a theoretical economist. They’ve just moved from their home in Austin, Texas, to Waterloo, Ontario, because of her father’s new job at the (world-famous) Parameter Institute. Caitlin is attending a regular high school (rather than a school for the blind) for the first time.
Dr. Masayuki Kuroda, a Japanese researcher on the human vision system contacts Caitlin because he thinks he can fix her blindness. The Decter family flies to Tokyo where an implant is inserted behind Caitlin’s left retina. The implant intercepts the signals from the retina and sends them to a device Caitlin keeps in her pocket (she dubs it an “eye pod”). The eye pod sends retina data to Kuroda’s servers in Japan where it’s unscrambled and sent back to the eye pod and then to the implant which activates the optic nerves.
It doesn’t work at first, but eventually Caitlin’s brain begins to make sense of the new data stream. This begins a long process of learning to associate the new visuals with things she’s only known through touch, sound, or description. For instance, learning to identify faces, and then to decode their expressions. And she has to learn how to read text. (It turns out she can read text much better if it’s encoded in the Braille font⠠⠎⠕ ⠊⠞ ⠇⠕⠕⠅⠎ ⠇⠊⠅⠑ ⠞⠓⠊⠎⠖. Her brain is well-trained with those glyphs whether felt or seen.)
It’s an example of the complex layered structure of Sawyer’s work that her father is functionally autistic. There is a resonance between them involving the interface between the mind and the rest of reality. That resonance becomes even stronger with Webmind.
Webmind is the other main character. He (and he does come to identify as he) is an emergent consciousness that arises because of malformed packets on the World Wide Web.
Sawyer’s idea is really clever. He imagines buggy software has, over time, allowed an ever-increasing number of lost packets to never expire. They bounce around the internet indefinitely. (Specifically, their Time-to-Live field is corrupted such that they never expire no matter how many hops they make.) Each time they pass through a network node, their checksum changes, resulting in the packets flipping between being even or odd. Like bits.
These billions of on-off packets comprise a cellular automaton that computes an intelligent self-aware mind. One that only becomes self-aware due to two events, one of them involving the visual data stream from Caitlin’s retina. (The other is too instrumental to the story progression to give away.)
Caitlin’s visual data is “naturally” encoded (resembling the actual neural signals), so the signal correlates directly and obviously with its physical source. (Unlike the abstract mapping of digital video.) As with an analog audio signal, the content is clearly visible in the data. Therefore, the emergent entity can “understand” it (not unlike our brain does). As Caitlin learns to comprehend sight, so does Webmind (though he doesn’t pick his name until later). As Caitlin learns to read text, so does Webmind.
A key moment comes when Caitlin, through happenstance, becomes aware of the cellular automaton background activity that lurks beneath the traffic (not gonna spoil how). Since the emerging consciousness is avidly watching Caitlin’s visual stream, it perceives itself, as if in a mirror, a key moment in its growing awareness. Eventually, it reaches out to Caitlin through her implant.
The second book, Watch, is (in part) named after WATCH, a USA government agency that monitors the internet for threats. All three books take place over the course of only a few weeks as Webmind emerges and evolves rapidly. Very rapidly.
He starts with all of Wikipedia, moves on to all of Gutenberg, and then to all the other text on websites worldwide. (Later, Dr. Kuroda writes codecs for him that translate all the video formats to the human visual data that Webmind gets from Caitlin’s implant.)
WATCH notices Webmind’s interaction with Caitlin, which brings both Caitlin and her family (and their friends) under scrutiny. Somewhat complicated by those people being in Canada.
The USA government turns out to have an established protocol that, should an AI arise, humanity’s only hope is to destroy it immediately. Or, at the very least, absolutely insure it has an incorruptible easily accessible giant honking OFF switch. Which Webmind clearly does not. A big design goal for the internet was the lack of such a switch.
Sawyer’s stories don’t usually involve (or need) cartoon villains. Humanity, and the problems we face, are plenty enough nemesis. The closest thing here to a “Bad Guy” is someone associated with WATCH who is convinced in his heart that the protocol is correct (in fact, he was part of the team that created it).
Webmind must be destroyed.
Meanwhile, Webmind announces himself to humanity. All of it. As a gift to demonstrate his good intentions, he eliminates spam. All of it. (Webmind is quite aware of the irony of eliminating spam and then bulk emailing everyone in the world.
The third book, Wonder, brings the story full arc. I’ve said this is a positive, optimistic story, so you can fill in the blanks. Webmind turns out to be pretty great for humanity.
Not only did his birth depend on us, but his continued existence depends on us. Indeed, he’s more fragile than us. Events we could survive would end him if the infrastructure collapsed. On top of that, the creativity of humans is the one truly interesting thing in existence. Everything else is just physics.
MILD SPOILER: The epilogue jumps forward billions of years to when the Sun is about to expand into a red giant. Webmind, the last consciousness on Earth, is giving his epitaph. Humanity has spread to the stars, thousands of stars and other machine intelligences have gone with them to help.
But Webmind, an entity emergent from the physical structure of the internet, is forever confined to the internet (just as we are confined to our brains). His great intelligence can be copied to his offspring, but his consciousness remains confined to the brain of the infrastructure.
Which I thought was a nice touch on Sawyer’s part. He maintains the notion of the physicality of the brain in the cellular automata and in Webmind’s confinement to the infrastructure. It is also the case that Webmind has no creativity. He needs humans for that.
Webmind is intelligent and conscious, but he is still only a computation.
Sawyer’s books have a lot of meat on the bone (even more so in a trilogy). There’s so much to comment on, but in the interests of brevity…
There’s a three-beat here. The World-Wide Web; Wake, Watch, Wonder (which, intended or not sort alphabetically in order); Webmind, Caitlin, Hobo, representing machine, human, and primate, intelligences.
(I haven’t talked about Hobo. He’s the bonobo-chimpanzee hybrid I mentioned. His very existence, like Webmind’s, is accidental. I’ll let you discover how else they’re connected for yourself. I will point out an important contrast: Webmind isn’t creative; Hobo paints.)
I’ve mentioned how I enjoy that Sawyer and I share so many cultural, scientific, and science fiction, references. And many sensibilities. There is also that his stories are extremely well-grounded in the real world. They reek of plausibility. The American President and his Secretary of State are characters and, while not mentioned by name, are clearly Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. (Sawyer does use Obama’s Secret Service name, Renegade.)
I also really enjoy how well structured his stories are and all the research that obviously goes into them. (Some of his books contain hefty bibliographies and suggested reading sections.)
I could go on, but I’ll end with a key point from the book: Competition may be our evolutionary heritage, but it need not be our intellectual future. We can choose our destiny. Both Webmind and Hobo choose their future.
Civilization seems to have a “moral arrow” akin to time’s arrow. Slowly, and in fits and starts, civilization evolves towards greater morality. Sawyer and I seem to agree there is a correlation between intelligence and morality. A superintelligence need not be, and probably isn’t, an enemy.
Information, like fire, is a not zero-sum. It can be shared without incurring loss or penalty. As reality becomes more information based, we have less to covet and hoard. If technology can solve our energy, water, food, waste, and distribution needs (and it can), then we potentially enter a non-zero-sum era of plentitude. (The very era Gene Roddenberry envisioned.)
But we need to unlearn our evolutionary past. Like Hobo, we must choose between what we rose from and what we can rise to. Which is the message of aspirational science fiction. Even the dystopic stories are meant to warn us from the cliff’s edge.
And some, like these, celebrate what we could become.
Stay wondering, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.
August 20th, 2022 at 4:33 pm
Kind of a late edition, I usually try to write a day ahead and set posts to publish early. But I just finished the third book this morning, and wanted to write this up for Sci-Fi Saturday.
August 20th, 2022 at 4:41 pm
Sawyer here raises the interesting idea that, contrary to our usual view of Big State Surveillance as an invasion of privacy, benign oversight (as of a parent over a child) can be a blessing. If the parent is wise and trustworthy — not traits we typically associate with most governments.
August 20th, 2022 at 4:51 pm
The intersection of Bones and Spock is Kirk:
August 20th, 2022 at 5:13 pm
One very cute thing: Keeping in mind Sawyer wrote these from 2009 to 2011 (in other words, years before 2016), the opponent the President (Obama) is facing in the next election is a woman who, by description, seems to be Sarah Palin. Yet in behavior, a lot more like the 2016 Republican candidate. There’s a bit about a real foot-in-mouth statement she made while campaigning in Arizona. Extreme even by her standards.
August 21st, 2022 at 9:13 am
In many ways, Sawyer seems like the opposite of Michael Crichton, whose standard theme appears to be that we are hubristic to think we can do certain things with technology. And when we try, it will result in disaster. If he’d written about Webmind, I’m pretty sure it would have turned into something like Skynet.
I do think there’s a difference between scientific and technical optimism, which I totally share, and optimism that the world of the future will be a utopia, which is Gene Roddenberry’s vision. We’ve talked about it before I think, but it’s hard to tell stories set in a utopia. That doesn’t mean a pure dystopia is the only alternative, just that a world with problems makes for a better story canvas. Roddenberry’s stories happen outside of or on the edge of the Federation (often within local dystopias), not within it, because paradise is boring.
August 21st, 2022 at 10:42 am
Doesn’t it depend on the utopia? There’s an interesting contrast between Huxley’s Brave New World, with an apparent but arguably suspect utopia, and his Island, which is a genuine one. The tensions in the latter come from external threats, a problem for any utopia (natural disasters, barbarians at the gates). A utopia can also have things to discover, engineering and research challenges, even personal conflict assuming people still think like people.
I quite agree Roddenberry’s vision was idealistic. I don’t think ideal goals are necessarily bad. One’s reach should exceed one’s grasp. In reaching for the ideal we might fall short, but we get a lot further than if we don’t reach at all, yeah? (I always wanted my code to be perfect. It never was, but that was the goal I reached for.)
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to dystopic stories. The best ones serve as parables or warnings. It is true I don’t have much interest in stories that seem to enable our inner chimp and deny our potential as intelligent beings. I encounter that so much IRL that I find it depressing in stories.
Just to be clear though, Sawyer’s stories are about how we might get to utopia or, more realistically, a better future (“better” based on things like peace, freedom, and plentitude). They’re very much set in an ordinary reality.
‘Member Berries! I haven’t read Crichton in ages! You mentioning him made me look up his bibliography to see how many of his book I’ve read. For sure: The Andromeda Strain, The Terminal Man, Congo, Sphere, Jurassic Park, Rising Sun, Disclosure, Airframe, and State of Fear. Possibly also Timeline. I was far more a Crichton fan back in the day than a Stephen King fan. Brings back memories. So many of those are movies, too. (The adaptation of Sphere impressed me with how faithful it was.)
But anyway, yeah, the Frankenstein mode goes back to Prometheus. Perhaps wielding technology responsibly and wisely is an important part of humanity growing up. If the notion of a moral arrow is correct, if ethics correlate with mature intelligence, then maybe technology eventually does give us a much better world. At root that’s what Sawyer’s stories tend to be about, us growing up, becoming mature. Usually with some form of external help or precipitating push!
August 21st, 2022 at 11:17 am
Certainly false utopias (which tend to be dystopias in disguise) have a lot of story possibilities. I loved Logan’s Run, for instance. It helps when it’s a story overthrowing the false utopia. But actual utopias usually, for story purposes, are only useful as a contrast.
I’ve actually read very little Crichton. I know him mostly through movie adaptations. I remember trying to read one his books, and floundering in the first few pages. The characters just seemed cartoonish. I did enjoy Eaters of the Dead though.
Good point about the hubristic theme going back to ancient mythology. It seems to tap into something persistent in our psychology. Of course, Star Trek’s popularity speaks to the enduring appeal of optimistic visions. But Star Trek commercially never seems to do as well as the Frankensteinien stuff.
August 21st, 2022 at 11:53 am
In a way, that’s the very point I’ve been making for a long time. Appealing to our better angels has always been a hard-sell because it asks more of us than being allowed to relax in stasis. Whether it be nutrition, exercise, or morality, anything requiring effort is a hard-sell. I’ve long thought one issue is that, rather than being seen as role models, people feel diminished by them. Think about how people who devote more than an hour a day to serious exercise can make the rest of us feel flabby and weak. (Rick Berman’s take on the Vulcans always struck me as illustrative.)
I think the exponential onslaught of science and technology has people feeling insecure because they don’t understand most of it. Compare that to when folks generally knew how their stuff worked and could fix it themselves. (Further back one just had to understand animals and weather.) So, the world already makes people feel diminished. Perhaps more idealistic situations and role models just rub salt in the wound. Maybe, given the state of things, it all seems too impossible, so why dream.
All I can say for sure is I like how aspirational stories show what we’re capable of. It’s like that Chesterton quote about fairy tales and monsters. I already know we can be chimps. Stories tell me we can evolve. If writers can tell plausible stories about that, then it must be possible. And I think if we really want the stars, we need to get on with getting over ourselves.
August 21st, 2022 at 1:42 pm
Yeah, Crichton’s writing is not stellar, but his ideas and curiosity was.
August 21st, 2022 at 2:46 pm
It may have been the particular book I tried. (Can’t remember which one.) In general, I’m not hung up on writing in particular, within limits. I do think he did a good job with Eaters, but I don’t know if it was as successful as his other stuff, which is probably why it was a one-off.
August 21st, 2022 at 4:47 pm
Perhaps you mean something different by “one-off” (and if so, never mind) but I think you’d find most of his books are one-offs in the sense of sequels or shared universes (other than basic reality). He did do The Lost World, a sequel to Jurassic Park, but I’m not otherwise aware of any continuation from one book to another. (I’m hardly familiar with his entire canon, though, just those books I listed. I haven’t read any of the early stuff he wrote as John Lange.)
I really liked Rising Sun and Disclosure. The former for the info about Japanese culture, the latter for the geeky computer stuff. Both became serviceable movies, too. I never read Eaters of the Dead, but I did see the movie based on it.
Michael Crichton, Stephen King, Elmore Leonard, Philip K. Dick: Who’s had more stories turned into movies? (I don’t know, but I’ve been meaning to research it for years.)
August 21st, 2022 at 5:31 pm
By “one-off”, I only meant that Eaters of the Dead is very different from his usual technothriller motif. I never understood his novels to be a series or exist in a shared universe. (Although if they were in a shared universe, there’d be nothing stopping him for including Eaters in it.)
August 21st, 2022 at 7:40 pm
Ah, okay, got it. You’re right; most of his stuff is modern day. What’s funny, looking at his Wiki bibliography, is that the only other novel he wrote that’s obviously a period piece is The Great Train Robbery. Which he wrote just before Eaters. Apparently 1975–1976 is his Period Period… 🤔
August 21st, 2022 at 4:24 pm
“Yeah, Crichton’s writing is not stellar, but his ideas and curiosity was.”
Exactly. I saw him as someone good to read at the park or beach or on an airplane. High-distraction environments where clever intricate writing and plotting would be hard to keep up with. Back when my company had me flying a lot, I used to keep a stack of Crichton, (James) Michener, and (Tom) Clancy novels for airplane reads. Ken Follett is good that way, too.
August 21st, 2022 at 1:33 pm
Crichton is one of my favorites (and influencers). And but of course, he was influenced by his own happenstance. His last work was a book called “Travels” (non fiction), wherein he explored spoon-bending and the like. It’s fascinating but got no traction.
August 21st, 2022 at 1:50 pm
One more thing … How has that AI thingy worked out since Sawyer wrote those books? Seems like it’s leading to more hostility and more conflict?
August 21st, 2022 at 4:33 pm
Well, we’re certainly still nowhere near having a Webmind. Our best efforts these days, artificial neural nets, are really no more than search engines for a multi-dimensional parameter space. They’re good at what they do, but far from being self-aware. Webmind, during one of his addresses to humanity explicitly mentions the question of whether he, like those ANNs, is also a search engine. He replies that he isn’t, he’s much more; he’s self-aware.
The hostility and conflict I think (??) you’re referring to comes from bots reflecting what they learned from users during chats. Microsoft famously tried one that went skinhead very rapidly and got withdrawn.