In the thirteen or so years since Cory Doctorow’s short first novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom came out, its conceit of Whuffie has proved pretty prescient. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom imagines a world profoundly shaped by the data people generate by rating things. The Whuffie system constantly gathers data about how you feel about everything you encounter. Your Whuffie score is determined by how people feel about you and the things you're associated with.
Down and Out portrays Whuffie as a digital ‘currency’ that is earned and expended in a similar way to social status. Do things that people approve of, you'll earn Whuffie. Act like a douche, you'll lose it. Whuffie is a “reputation currency” (Das and Anders 2015 n.p.) in a world where “[r]eputation is everything” (Lewis 2003 n.p.). The novel’s narrator, Julius, describes Whuffie as having recaptured the true essence of money: "in the old days, if you were broke but respected, you wouldn’t starve; contrariwise if you were rich and hated, no sum could buy you security and peace" (Doctorow 2003: 8).
People with low Whuffie scores become social outcasts. They also have reduced economic rights. The novel is set in the Bitchun Society, an ambiguous utopia, the kind of place where all material desires can be met eventually. However, there may be crowds, queues, and other minor inconveniences, and for these things “Whuffie has replaced money as society’s mediating function” (Lewis 2003: n.p.). To be Whuffie-rich is to have the best seats in the house, to be ushered to the front of the line, or to have the most coveted voluntary duties.
Nowadays this all seems very familiar. Shares and likes on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook. Your Airbnb score, your Uber score, or whatever. Tinder and Bumble. Klout I guess. Peeple and China's citizen score system(s). Down and Out is set in the distant future, whereas more recent science fiction dealing with similar themes is set five minutes into the future.
But, on the other hand ... no! The thing is, it is difficult not to blur semi-relevant science fiction into whatever actually happens next. Once you know about something like Peeple, it's difficult to read about Whuffie, and not just conflate the two things. The science fiction accrues meanings from the history that subsequently unfolds, and those meanings come to occlude or even replace the science fiction. That's why every now and then you hear William Gibson popping up and saying, I haven't actually been as prescient as everyone seems to think. Gibson's cyberpunk featured telephone booths, not smartphones.
You will never get a straight answer out of me about Whuffie. I have spent far too long thinking about the stuff and now am bonkers with respect to Whuffie. Also the novel is full of fascinating tensions which may or may not be inconsistencies.
But just for instance, to pick out a few ways in which Whuffie is different from what we're seeing around us: first of all, Whuffie is magic. It really is. It rates everything and it isn't perturbed by the fact that some things contain other things, or are intrinsically entangled in ways you can't really disentangle. Whuffie can figure out Aristotelian efficient causes. It can divvy up the gestalt flow of life into discrete rate-able atoms. It can know your latent "opinions" about things in some kind of transcendent, context-independent way. We don't have anything like that. Something to explore another time, perhaps: is it metaphysically contradictory?
Second, Whuffie is also automatic and continuous. We don't rate things like that. Rating is a discrete act. Sometimes a pop-up might force you to rate something to continue, but there's still a definite moment where you do it. On the other hand, for many of us these days, our lives are subject to greater monitoring of an automatic and continuous kind -- there are wearable devices, there's Quantified Self, there's the Internet of Things, big data analytics, the continued growth of traditional forms of state and market surveillance. But all that stuff is somewhat separate from the ratings stuff. That is, the explosion in personal data collection is somewhat separate from the explosive reconfiguration of markets by metric assemblages that are generated out of P2P interactions. Which raises interesting questions. Like where and how do those two things, ratings and surveillance, overlap? And where and how could they overlap?
But perhaps most interestingly of all -- and this bit is totally feasible, implementation-wise -- in Down and Out, everybody has more than one Whuffie score. Or to put it another way, your Whuffie score is a set, not a number. Blink and you'll miss it, but it's there in the novel: the number of one-to-one Whuffie relationships is actually the square of the size of the population. By default, the Whuffie score you see when you look at me reflects how positively people you feel positively about feel about me. Because everybody knows different people and feels differently about them, everyone lives in their own, unique universe of Whuffie scores. Also people in the Bitchun Society know about this. It's part of what Whuffie means to them. It's not something opaque, something that some black box algorithm does when it curates your social media feed. They know, for instance, when it might be a good idea to switch out of the default setting. And this is not really what we're seeing around us, although again, there are some overlaps, and some potential overlaps.
Down and Out does portray something pretty similar to what you get in, for instance, the recent 'NoseDive' episode of Black Mirror (by Charlie Brooker, Rashida Jones & Mike Schur). It's a kind of riches-to-rags story, in which a character's score starts to slip, so that they encounter first-hand all that just-below-the-surface cruelty, callousness and irrationality. (Cf. Lee Falk's 1975 short story 'Time is Money' perhaps). But -- and this is one of the interesting tensions in Cory's novel -- it didn't have to go down that way. Whuffie is streamlined into the story so that it's usually treated as a kind of leaderboard, a single hierarchical schedule of value.
But the conceit is actually set up so that, in principle, you could be bottoming out with one set of people, while getting more and more popular with another set. I'm interested in that. 'NoseDive' was absolutely great at what it did. There was some interestingly subtle stuff in there (like the moment where a character gets a downvote apparently just because she's got a low score; or perhaps, because she's got a low score and is being uppity in some way she hasn't quite recognized yet). But for the most part, it streamlined things till it almost felt more like allegory than extrapolation. That is, the scores felt like allegories of money. Whereas I'd like to see more near future science fiction exploring the more complex dynamics implied by a conceit like Whuffie.
The Pitching Society
Some notes on Whuffie and entrepreneurship. At first glance, the Bitchun Society seems far removed from “the perennial gale of creative destruction” (Schumpeter 2012 : 103) which characterizes entrepreneurial capitalism. There are no corporations, no property, no banks, and no money other than Whuffie. Both in and out of the “ad-hocs,” the population of the Bitchun Society are busy with projects, adventures, schemes and rivalries, but like Banks’s Culture, the Bitchun Society is a utopia that has “all but done away with any sort of dull, repetitious labor” (ibid. 79).
Nevertheless, the figure of the entrepreneur still lurks in this post-money world. In particular, there is Debra, the de facto leader of an innovative, aggressive ad-hoc, who rapidly gains territory, influence, and Whuffie during the novel. As Schumpeter might put it, Debra’s talent “consists in getting things done” (Schumpeter 2012 : 103). Julius’s best friend Dan characterizes Debra as a “well-prepared opportunist” (ibid. 38). Debra also has a distinctive iconoclastic vision “beyond the range of the familiar beacons” (Schumpeter 2012 : loc. 2880). “If she had her way, we’d tear down every marvelous Rube Goldberg in the Park and replace them with pristine white sim boxes on giant, articulated servoes” (Doctorow 2003: 23).
In a deeper sense, Debra exemplifies one sense in which all the characters of Down and Out are entrepreneurial. In the Bitchun Society, fresh Whuffie is generated constantly, spontaneously and involuntarily, by a technological infrastructure which detects how its members feel about each other, and adjusts their Whuffie scores accordingly. Doctorow remarks in an interview:
Lucky for me it’s science fiction and not science so I don’t have to explain the workings of this stuff. [...] I also don’t have to explain the working of the neural interface, which [...] is capable of figuring out how you feel about any given thing anywhere in the world that you have any opinion about – without asking you.
(Doctorow int. by Koman 2003: n.p.)
Let's take a step back. Where does money come from? What's a 'wealth-creator'? Do entrepreneurs make money? Do they make it just for themselves, or for all of us (even though they get to use it first)?
With few exceptions, modern governments support but do not limit money creation. Capitalist finance is characterized by the coexistence, mutual dependence, and continually disputed boundaries between two kinds of power: “private economic power from the control of property and opportunities for profit-making, and the coercive territorial power of states” (Ingham 2011: 175). Particularly since the deregulation of the 1970s, the global economy has seen a shift towards private economic power, and an associated “shift towards demand-driven credit creation” (Bjerg 2014: 233; cf. Ryan-Collin et al. 2011: 104). This means private demand, not government policy, determines how much credit-debt the banks create. I think this is becoming more well-known, not least because some MMT economists really get off on being grouchy in public, and because elements of the prosletyzing Left (it me) have discovered QE and its variants and seem to believe all our problems are solved. Also there are some catchy simplifications: money is "made out of thin air by banks!"
It is also, in a way, made out of banks by entrepreneurs. The entrepreneur is the figure who knows how to correctly perform the 'demand' of 'demand-driven credit,' in two entwined ways. In one sense, the entrepreneur’s 'demand' is rhetorical: it is a petition or exhortation, organized by conventions of propriety, rooted in logical arguments, vividly anticipating future events, and woven together with vows of constancy. Schumpeter writes that the only person the entrepreneur “has to convince or to impress is the banker” (Schumpeter 1983 : 154).
Any individual bank does stand to lose money if any individual borrower fails to keep their promises. So convincing or impressing the banker may not be easy. Attuning to this audience’s formal creditworthiness assessment tools (such as ‘the five Cs’: character, capacity, capital, collateral, conditions), and informal expectations, and expertly acting entitled to money, is what produces money from nothing (cf. Burton et al. 2015: 533). Some informal expectations, such as those concerning race, class, age, gender, ability, and sexuality, may be unfulfillable by some performers (cf. e.g. Dedman 1997 [1988-1989]).
However, ‘demand’ is also a term of art within economics, meaning psychological resolution and sufficient money to purchase something (cf. Mankiw 2003: 53-56). For the mainstream economist, someone who is dying of thirst but cannot pay anything for water has zero demand for water. On this second understanding, bank loans are ‘demanded’ to the extent they are purchased, by paying back interest on top of principal (cf. Ryan-Collins et al. 2011: loc. 547). This presents an apparent puzzle. Money creation is ‘demand-driven,’ where the word ‘demand’ means ‘willingness and ability to purchase something.’ If new money is purchased into existence, where does the money to purchase it come from? But this ‘puzzle’ is really only an artifact caused by abstracting away the messy detail. Restoring some of that detail – inflation, international capital flows, economic growth, including demographic growth, asset appreciation, international balance of payments surpluses, as well as insolvencies, debt defaults and restructurings, and of course a perpetual cycle of refinancing as new credit repays old debts – makes it less surprising that money may be found to repay any particular loan, or that overall most loans are repaid.
The figure of the entrepreneur, however, offers an entirely different solution. It is a neater solution, but also a fantastical one. Like the worker and the sovereign, the entrepreneur intimates that they personally are the means by which “new money comes into being and is introduced into the economy” (Bjerg 2014: 1). In this, they become “the one who introduces the new, the innovator driven by the joy of creation – a figure with strong overtones of a Nietzchean individual hero, giving capital its constant forward movement” (Hardt and Negri 2009: loc. 3348).
Whuffie might be interpreted as an estrangement of the sphere of human activity that lies outside both markets and government. Concepts that try to characterize such a sphere – Tocqueville’s civil society, Tönnies’s community, Habermas’s lifeworld, Putnam’s social capital – all differ from Whuffie in resisting precise quantification. “Profits are measured in dollars [sic]. What is social capital measured in?” (Slaper and Hall 2011 n.p.). By contrast, Doctorow portrays Whuffie as a kind of ostentatious numeric embodiment of prestige. Whuffie does have a subjective aspect, since what score is displayed depends on who is looking. But Doctorow also implies this is only a default setting: any relationship in the Whuffie network is publicly accessible in principle. Whuffie’s front-end is quantitative, its outlines crisp and precise: “I pinged my Whuffie. I was up a couple percentiles [...]” (Doctorow 2003: 35).]
Whuffie resembles a network of credit-debts, rather than a simple popularity leaderboard. In this way, it reflects two aspects of reputation. First, especially in a large, complex society, an individual’s reputation may be many-sided and uneven. Second, although an individual can’t exactly transfer or exchange their reputation, they will tend to influence the reputations of people with whom they associate.
Drawing on the credit theory of money, we can picture every moment of feeling as the creation ex nihilo of a credit-debt. When Lil experiences positive affect about Julius, perfectly balanced assets and liabilities of Whuffie spring into existence. When Lil “[radiates] disapproval” (Doctorow 2003: 23) the two bookkeeping columns are reunited to some extent, cancelling some of the existing Whuffie. This is the sense that all Whuffie must be Whuffie ‘with’ someone – every asset implies a kind of liability somewhere else in the Whuffie system.
In their constant scheming, spats, rivalries, romances, their anxiousness to win and retain esteem, and their all-consuming preoccupation with Whuffie, the characters of Down and Out are permanent entrepreneurs. In the Bitchun Society, every public act – even before an intimate public audience of one – is a tacit demand to create new credit-debt. It is a pitch before an existing or potential investor. The populace of the Bitchun Society are perpetually characters in each other’s dramas, whilst perpetually locked in competitive struggle.
Construed as an allegory about forms of digital commerce, collaboration, and sociality, Down and Out is in equal parts enthusiastic and cautionary. The paradisiacal semblance of the post-money Bitchun Society is perturbed by its heartless fascination with quantification, as suggested by the brisk advice given to a suicidal character: “He’s got to get back on top. Cleaned up, dried out, into some productive work. Get that Whuffie up, too. Then he can kill himself with dignity” (Doctorow 2003: 18). There's a whiff of Le Guin's Omelas about Whuffie too.
But in a 2016 article, perhaps looking back on Down and Out through the rise of the brutally exploitative business models of platform capitalism (not to mention a lot of Instagram mocchas), Doctorow collapses the waveform of his ambiguous utopia. The Bitchun Society is a cautionary “dystopia.” Reputation “is a terrible currency,” and Whuffie “ends up pooling up around sociopathic jerks who know how to flatter, cajole, or terrorize their way to the top” (Doctorow 2016 n.p.).
Wetwork in the Network
Whuffie may be seen as an estrangement of what anthropologists have often called primitive currencies, but what I will follow David Graeber in calling “social currencies” (Graeber 2011: 130). Graeber describes how “the objects used as social currencies are so often things otherwise used to clothe or decorate the human body, that help make one who one is in the eyes of others” (Graeber 2011: 159). Whuffie also shares this quality of sartorial self-fashioning, although with a futuristic twist. Its users are all cyborgs, inhabiting an augmented reality, with Whuffie scores woven into their visual fields. Turning on Whuffie monitors is “normally an instantaneous reaction to meeting someone” (Doctorow 2003: 46). Whuffie is an integral part of how Doctorow’s characters look to one another.
Just like Whuffie – “your personal capital with your friends and neighbors” reminiscent of “the old days” (Doctorow 2003: 8) – social currencies form mathematically precise status networks. For Graeber, the paradigmatic social currency is used “to create, maintain, or sever relations between people rather than to purchase things” (Graeber 2011: 158; cf. ibid. 133). A social currency may be devoted, for instance, to arranging marriages or settling blood feuds. Although Down and Out keeps the details of resource allocation vague, the overall pattern is that the Whuffie rich enjoy priority access to “the piffling few scarce things left on earth” (Doctorow 2003: 71), without having to deplete their Whuffie to get them.
By turning the rhetorical demand for credit into the inexorable ground state of all social relations, Whuffie turns everybody into entrepreneurial figures. Yet in another sense, by so thoroughly merging money with the human, Whuffie threatens the figure of the entrepreneur with obsolescence. The entrepreneur claims to go beyond the values quantified by mundane market mechanisms in order to acquire truly new value. But Whuffie’s fine-grained omniscience might leave no value unquantified.
Traditional social currencies may likewise be ill-suited to entrepreneurship. They are usually not loaned and borrowed, nor “transferred to a third party in payment for commodities or services” (Bjerg 2014: 267). The value of a social currency is bound up in the way it tells a society’s story, a story that becomes less legible as the possible causes of exchanges multiply. Bridewealth or blood-money brought from “beyond the familiar beacons” (Schumpeter q.v.) would certainly be of dubious worth. However, in exceptional circumstances, social currencies may be used in anomalous exchanges. Bloch and Parry, summarizing the fieldwork of Bohannan among the Tiv of northern Nigeria – who had three distinct spheres of exchange prior to contact with Western money – hint at the rich frictions involved in conversions from sphere to sphere:
The vast majority of exchanges were [...] ‘conveyances’ within the sphere, and these were morally neutral. But under certain circumstances ‘conversions’ between spheres were possible, and these were the focus of strong moral evaluations [...]
(Bloch and Parry 1996 : 12)
Intriguingly, Down and Out also offers one morally fraught anomaly. An assassin, hired by Debra, confesses to a contract killing: “Debra would give me Whuffie – piles of it, and her team would follow suit” (Doctorow 2003: 191). However, Debra’s team are ignorant of the arrangement. Even Debra, by means of a mind-wiping technology, arranges to forget. The adjustment in Whuffie thus cannot be based, as it usually is, in affective states. The implication is that for once Whuffie must be alienable, a credit-debt which can be transferred from one party to another.
By engaging in exchange, Debra partway extricates herself from her idiosyncratic Whuffie nexus, and loops the loosened ends haphazardly around her hired gun. Qualitative human bonds are converted into “generic value capable of being added and subtracted and used as a means to measure debt” (Graeber 2011: 159). When the murder victim is “recovered [...] from backup [..] into a force-grown clone,” (Doctorow 2003: 29), he quickly glosses over the question of whether he is really still the same person (ibid. 36). Yet that is just the question which is raised by, not only the assassination, but also the anomalous Whuffie exchange which led to it: “How does it become possible to treat people as if they are identical?” (Graeber 2011: 159).
Whuffie’s topsy-turvy logic allows a mere “conveyance” (Bloch and Parry q.v.) to involve the rewiring of social connections normally characteristic of a “conversion” (ibid.). This is because Whuffie presents value as particularized according to its context. The upshot is that any transfer of value (‘conveyance’) is potentially a conversion from one kind of value to another, and may be “the focus of strong moral evaluations” (Bloch and Parry ibid.).
When the assassin makes Whuffie in this exceptional way, by an act of exchange, it also suggests the second aspect of entrepreneurial demand. That is, it suggests the entrepreneur’s marvelous gift for beating the market is not obsolete after all. The extra value may appear to come out of thin air, but there is a hidden history of violence at its root. The entrepreneurial figure themselves may be curiously oblivious to its source. Following the mind-wipe there is “no memory of the event, just the Whuffie” (Doctorow 2003: 192).
Down and Out hints that the entrepreneurial figure may be the addict of “expedience” (Doctorow 2003: 88), someone who must beat the market, perhaps claiming moral justification, but finally driven only by “pure brain-reward, a jolt of happy-juice” (ibid.). Debra’s anomalous use of Whuffie implies a drive to beat the market, even when the market is utopia.