Friday, April 13, 2012

WWW: Wonder by Robert J. Sawyer

Wonder continues Sawyer's saga of Caitlin Decter, who once was blind, but now she sees, and Webmind, the spontaneously generated consciousness (and conscience, perhaps) of the Internet. The U.S. government's first attempt to destroy Webmind failed in the last novel, but Colonel Peyton Hume is still on the case. He's been told to stand down by the President, but he's still pursuing what seems to be a personal vendetta against Webmind, and is running around the DC area hiring black ops hackers to trap and destroy the rogue packets that are responsible for Webmind's existence.

Sawyer shows us a few possibilities inherent in the idea of a consciousness living in the worldwide web. Webmind is able to rapidly gather and synthesise data from multiple sources around the world, and comes up with some very promising cures for cancer, which he then bestows on the human race. Also, based on the success with substituting tech for the optic nerve in Caitlin's case, he devises a gadget to replace spinal cord function in paraplegics - which he presciently uses to gain an ally behind China's Great Firewall - it comes in handy later on in the story.

Both Caitlin's cure and the spinal cord fix, however, appear to be not much more than Sawyer's use of the shaggy dog gimmick. Caitlin's salvation, as you recall, was based on an iPod, and they called it an EyePod. The spinal cord device - the BackBerry. GROAN!

This is a very accessible novel for young adults, with sixteen year old Caitlin as its main human protagonist. Sawyer does his public service announcement best when Caitlin is making the decision whether to lose her virginity to her boyfriend, the geeky but lovable Matt. He has Caitlin's mom show her how to put a condom on, over a banana, and then Caitlin and Matt are very careful about using a condom when they do have sex.

There's some interesting philosophizing when Webmind addresses the UN General Assembly:

"Humanity's origin was in a zero-sum world, one in which if you had something, someone else therefore did not have it: be it food, land, energy or any other desired thing; if you possessed it, another person didn't.
But my crucible was a universe of endless bounty: the realm of data. If I have a document, you and a million others can simultaneously have it, too."

Therefore, it is only natural that Webmind is benign towards humans. In all probability, however, should an intelligence develop spontaneously on the internet, I'd give it even odds, malicious or benevolent, maybe even just lawful neutral.

The book is definitely filled with one-world, United Nations propaganda. Take it for what it's worth, it certainly didn't move the plot along any faster.

Sawyer also has Caitlin's mom propose that "morality improves as time goes by." The idea seems to be that the more experience we have as human beings with non-zero-sum game type of situations, the more we learn as a species to cooperate, tolerate, communicate...

I'm not convinced that's actually the case. Certainly, in some aspects Western Civilization in particular has made some improvements, societally, but a quick look around at the brutality and misery still rampant in our world and you begin to doubt the strength of her hypothesis. Can't help it, I'm a Calvinist at heart.

One thing Caitlin's math teach says late in the book stuck in my craw, as well.

"When I was your age, the first cheap pocket calculators apeared, and my teachers were all arguing about whether we should be allowed to use them in class...They just didn't see that the world had been irretrievably altered - that there'd never again be a time when memorizing multiplication tables would be important. The game had changed."

I grew up as that revolution was occuring. I can still perform calculations in my head faster than my children can type it into their calculators. I also saw, when I was in engineering school, fellow students trusting the results they saw on their programmable calculators, even when the results made no sense, because they'd entered incorrect data. There will always be a use for basic mathematical skills. Those who lack the types of skills that a high school graduate used to acquire are forever doomed to fail at some of life's basic tests.

An amusing read, and a better ending to the tale than its middle was.

No comments: