This is not the review I would have written in 2019. This is not the review I meant to write in March, April, or even May 2020. The present keeps catching up to the near-future that Tim Maughan presents with insight, empathy, and skill in Infinite Detail, and yet that near-future remains just out of reach up ahead even as it seems closer than ever before. In some ways that’s a relief, and in others it’s a strange kind of melancholy, two emotions that gripped me throughout this engrossing novel.
The novels unfolds in two different times at once: Before, in 2026, when “the legendary smart city hacker” (Chap. 2) Rush00 is flying to New York City to visit his boyfriend, and After, ten years later, when the crash has completely wiped out the Internet, taking the global economy, capitalism, and all of our current contemporary society with it. Rush is one of the co-founders of the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft, an autonomous zone in the city of Bristol; so is Anika Bernhardt, an artist turned resistance fighter. She returns to Bristol in the After to see if any old technology survived that could be helpful in her and her Bloc comrades’ struggle against the Land Army in Wales. There she meets Mary, a girl who can somehow access visions of the people who were present in Stokes Croft right around the time that Before became After; Mary is assisted by Tyrone, a young musician struggling to figure out how to make music within the scrappy, analog confines of After society, after decades of music that existed almost entirely in digital form has been lost. Both Annika and Rush, at each end of the timescale, were close to whatever happened in different ways, and part of the novel’s interest comes in the slow, unnerving dread as Before inevitably ticks down to the moment when everything ends. Another thread emerges in Anika’s wrestling with whether to kill a Land Army higher-up she crosses paths with in Bristol, who wants something from Mary that she isn’t always able to provide: closure.
Infinite Detail has earned a lot of comparisons to the novels of William Gibson, and those comparisons are certainly accurate; Maughan shares an interest with Gibson in how technology shapes people’s lives, among many other salient traits. But ultimately, Gibson’s most recent novels have been about our current relentless present, while Maughan is looking a little ways down the road. It has to be said that the premise—a world with no Internet, no capitalism, no surveillance—has an undeniably seductive quality that would have been difficult, if not impossible, to embrace even four years ago. Before 2016 and everything we learned about all the ways that Facebook, social media in general, and the algorithms of the same are shredding democracy and civil society from the inside out, the statement that the hacker collective Dronegod$ makes on Pastebin before turning everything off would not have made so much intuitive sense:
We hate the Internet.
Did we not mention that before?
Well, we do. We hate the Internet now. We used to love it. […]
Yes, that’s right. We’re so young we don’t remember a time when there was no Internet, but we’re still old enough to remember being excited that we could use it to start a revolution.
But we were so wrong about that, our friends. So very wrong.
There was no revolution to be had on the Internet. None at all. The idea that there ever was is false. A big fat lie. [.…]
We used to think we could own it, that we were fighting to build communities for ourselves. That it was ours for the taking. To stake a claim for a place we could control and belong, a fight to make “safe spaces” for ourselves. It was a noble thing to think that we were fighting for our own spaces, but we were kidding ourselves. We never owned these spaces, we never could. They were never ours to own, never ours to control. Instead we watched our battles turn into spectator sports, our revolutions turn to infighting. We watched our new communities dissolve into civil wars. We watched our political activities and community leaders become celebrity brands, our tech-utopian visionaries bow to capital and shareholders. (Chap. 11)
Five years ago it certainly wouldn’t have given me so much pause throughout the entire book, constantly wondering whether Dronegod$ isn't right about this world being preferable, knowing that they make some very good points. Infinite Detail could be described as a post-apocalyptic novel; the world of Bristol in the After certainly has many characteristics of post-apocalyptic worlds. But Maughan’s close attention to detail and deep knowledge of things like the global supply chain and how it operates prevent the society he presents from ever seeming unrealistic. It’s not a world without costs, and the book acknowledges that; Anika’s van driver is old at forty-five (meaning he was born in 1991). This world has problems with things like medicine, food, and how to fabricate parts when 3D printers are a relic of a society so thoroughly vanished it seems mythical. But this world also has bicycles, trains, sporadic solar power, and people still know how to grow weed and put together a great DJ set. There are hints that a new, more humane form of the Internet might be on the cusp of being brought back to life, without capitalism, as a collective venture.
There are also distinct advantages to an analog existence. When we meet Anika, rendezvousing with her ride to Bristol in an analog van at a semi-abandoned motorway service area, she recites the mantra of her resistance group, the Bloc, as she gets the drop on a Land Army henchman in a stall in the men’s toilet:
With zero bandwidth there is no calling for backup.
With zero bandwidth the advantage is ours.
With zero bandwidth there is no many.
With zero bandwidth there is no legion.
With zero bandwidth we are singular.
With zero bandwidth there is no time to hesitate.
With zero bandwidth there is only opportunity.
With zero bandwidth opportunity is our only weapon. (Chap. 3)
Juxtaposed against a scene later in the novel, in which Rush and his boyfriend Scott stumble into a Black Lives Matter protest in New York City, where the surveillance of protesters by NYPD drones is interrupted by an unusual connectivity and power outage, it’s obvious that Annika’s world is in a strange way more human in scale, and more livable. Infinite Detail itself is an incredibly humane and movingly human novel; Maughan’s interest in how technology impacts people always trumps any interest in technology for its own sake. A single digit in a software version number holds enormous emotional stakes because of everything it implies. We meet Rush in U.S. Customs and Border Patrol detention at JFK Airport, because he is a hacker on a watchlist as well as a brown man with dual British-Pakistani citizenship; Rush crosses paths with a “canner” on the subway whose marginal existence returning recyclables for money is destroyed when the cans are equipped with RFID tags, and with an obnoxious VICE writer at a terrible party in gentrified Brooklyn, who needles Rush about his bravery crossing the Atlantic “when the U.K. government is canceling British passports for joint-national activists left, right, and center” (Chap. 2). The RFID tags on cans aren’t real yet, but too much of what Rush finds in New York City already is.
Which is not to say that the futurism in this novel is not insightful or compelling—it is, particularly the “spex” smart glasses that have become ubiquitous in the Before, and for which Rush writes a free software with a P2P distributed OS that enables the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft to stake out its digital autonomy. The tool that Dronegod$ uses to take down the Internet and the global capitalist society that depends on it is conceptually sound, and the ruthless logic with which it eats away at everything Internet-connected is compelling. The Dymaxion, the art project/research station container ship that Rush eventually boards in a quest to get back to New York, is completely believable—in some ways I wish it were real already; in some ways I can’t believe it isn’t. The details of the global supply chain that Maughan illuminates through the ship and throughout the book are completely accurate. And the novel’s repeated interludes illustrating how the algorithms of the Internet, from social media to the stock market, already control far more of our lives than we realize are spot-on, as when Rush meets a trader bro at a fancy Manhattan party:
“The whole thing is too complicated, man. I mean everything, y’know? It’s impossible for any one person—the banks, the investors, the traders, the Goldmans, the kids writing the code—it’s impossible for any of them to understand what’s happening anymore. The markets are too big and they move too fucking quick. People might know what’s going on in their little bit, but otherwise they’re just sitting there letting the algorithms get on with it. Market basically runs itself. Just nobody knows how anymore.” (Chap. 7)
As Dronegod$ points out, “What’s different is that the massive inhuman intelligence wasn’t enslaving us with nuclear bombs or turning us into batteries (how WOULD that work?) or crushing our feeble human skulls with its metal feet, but by finding the best ways to sell us stuff. SkyNet is real, and it wants to sell you shoes made by child slaves” (Chap 11).
The inhumanity of the Internet and the algorithms that powered it in the Before is juxtaposed with Rush’s feelings for Scott, with Anika’s concern for her people in Wales, with Tyrone’s careful expertise and joy in music and music-making in the After, as well as with local honcho Grids’s memories of his friend Melody. She came up through council housing alongside him and had a brief, meteoric music career in the Before, and may have been connected to Dronegod$ and its off switch:
He guesses it was something they hadn’t made, something they had found or stolen, something they didn’t fully understand. He guesses it wiped out decades of history in a few short days, destroying culture, money, opinions, society, the digital. People’s prized memories were lost: their photos, their music, connections with friends and lovers. He guesses governments panicked and made wrong decisions, threw dangerous switches. He guesses the global economy didn’t so much collapse as vanish. (Chap. 10)
Reading this novel in 2019, I found myself looking around my apartment, picking out all the things that I wouldn’t be able to replace if the global supply chain collapsed. I thought then that the novel didn’t pay enough attention to climate change and capitalism’s environmental impact, a fact which is cleverly lampshaded in the Dronegod$ statement, but then I remembered that one hundred companies are responsible for 71% of greenhouse gas emissions, and concluded that the world of the After was on a path towards warming on an adaptable timescale, rather than the catastrophic temperature rise in our own lifetimes that we’re currently barreling towards. I thought that shutting down the Internet can be an extremely effective tool of state repression, as in the Kashmir region and more locally throughout India. I thought that the People’s Republic seemed like the kind of utopianism that had died at some point in the recent past, stifled by late-stage capitalism and social media; I thought that the New York City soldiers of the Movement, who raid and secure a data center in New Jersey in the book’s final chapter, had it right:
“[…] All those Wall Street motherfuckers, after nine-eleven, they moved their shit out here, hidden away in the middle of nowhere. And those big-data motherfuckers, too. They got backups here of all their stuff. All that cloud bullshit. When the crash happened, a lot of these centers automatically shut themselves off to avoid getting infected. Looked like they’d been wiped but the data is still intact. That’s why you’re out here, soldier. To make sure they can’t be started up again. To make sure everything gets wiped. You get me?”
“Damn right, yes, sir. You doing the most important job there is for the Movement right now. We can’t go back. No turning back. That data in there, it’s slavery. It’s oppression. It’s greed. It’s me, not we. We can’t go back to that. Understand?”
“Yes, sir.” (Epilogue)
In 2020, after the establishment of the Capital Hill Autonomous Zone in Seattle (of course it was Seattle) and Occupy City Hall in New York, after the citizens of Bristol led the world by toppling the statue of slaver Edward Colston and rolling him into the river (“now e’s in the proper channel”), these parts of the book no longer strike me as so utopian. There are deep legacies of activism and alternative communities in many places, and they’ve risen to the surface again in these days of the uprising. These pandemic times have familiarized everyone who had the luxury of forgetting, or never knowing in the first place, with the details of the global supply chain and who puts themselves at risk to maintain our food supply and the logistics of the same. The pandemic has also hardened borders, clamped down on transportation and freedom of movement, and increased our dependence on certain forms of technology, including the Internet, at the same time that it’s created new openings for utopian urbanism and long-shot overhauls in sclerotic systems that very few people ever thought would change. The long shots don’t seem quite so long anymore. It’s still possible that Infinite Detail will remain fiction in more ways than one, but the book is right that the revolution will not be televised. It won’t be tweeted either, as the algorithms apparently adjusting to deprioritize protest videos have shown. The Internet is a real place, but it’s not the whole of the world. If we want to think through and make a future and an Internet where we can all live, this book is a vital piece of the way to do it.