Welcome to John Brunner's information age. In Brunner's novel the world has been hooked up to a somewhat more pumped up version of the internet than we have today. In this world, Sandy, a renegade computer genius is forced to flee when he realizes that the government has discovered how he uses their computer system to jump from identity to identity. After being captured by the government and escaping once again, he helps a small group in a Utopia commune to overthrow the corrupt governments of the world and replace it with direct democracy through the internet.
You have to hand it to John Brunner, he certainly has some insights to the future of technology. In this novel he shows that he truly understood computers and the affect that they, when networked, were going to have on civilization. He even writes about worms, aka computer viruses, and the havoc that they can cause. However, as he does in practically all of his novels, Brunner plays up the pessimistic view of technology far too much.
In Brunner's world "information overload" is a common psychiatric illness. People are so overwhelmed by information, and the changes they make in life, that it is not uncommon for people to go into shock. I find this entire idea pretty silly. Though there are real psychiatric illnesses that can be caused by drastic changes in environment (i.e. shell shock) Brunner's illness seems relatively silly because it depends on people making large changes in their lives that are for the most part volountary (some of the examples he sights are redecorating homes, or changing jobs). It would seem to me that long before someone drove themselves or their loved ones crazy through "information overload" they would stop making drastic changes in their lives. Another almost psychiatric illness he sights is a kind of information paranoia. This fear comes from people worrying that others are profiting off of information they do not have. How exactly a small group of individuals could find information, important information, that others cannot is not explained by the author. He does say that large corporations are able to hire computer experts to participate in industrial espionage, but this would not account for the general distrustfulness people might have for their neighbors.
Also, Brunner writes of the crippling affects to science caused by the information age. According to Brunner scientists are so deluged by new information they cannot even begin to sift through it, and so instead stick to old theories that could be discredited by new data. This is really dumb. The only thing scientists want to do is sift through data, the more the merrier. The only reason a person ever becomes a scientist is if he wants to discover new aspects of the natural world. Men do not become scientists to spend their lives proving everything they read in a text book, and trying to ignore information that can yield a new perspective (no matter how much of it there is). Even the example Brunner uses shows how ridiculous this supposed consequence of the information age is. Kate, one of the main characters in the novel, had a father whose discoveries were never accepted by the scientific community because they could not be reproduced by anyone else. According to Brunner, the non-acceptance of these findings was a perfect example of the rigidity of the scientific community. Brunner does not seem to understand that data in an experimet, and all subsequent results, can only be accepted by the scientific community as fact if other scientists, following the instructions provided by the original experimenter, can replicate the experiment. Anything else is just magic.
It is ironic then that Brunner in the end uses the internet as a means of providing a new, seemingly utopic order to the world. At the conclusion of the novel it seems that all the world has to do is vote positively for two philisophical reforms
1. "That this is a rich planet. Therefore poverty and hunger are unworthy of it, and since we can abolish them, we must."
2. "That we are a civilized species. Therefore none shall henceforth gain illicit advantage by reason of the fact that we together know more than one of us can know."
followed immediately with the final line of the novel
The Outcome of the Plebiscite......Well-how did you vote?
It is surprising that Brunner did not add a third principle to vote on, like ...... "should we all buy the world a coke" ...... or maybe something a little more simple minded like ......."can't we all just get along". Everyone wants world peace and universal happiness. I am sure I could walk around town with a petition demanding world peace, or an end to world hunger, and get tons of signatures. The real problem comes in the implementation. In this area, Brunner provides very little. Other than a vague tax reform that would stagger taxes based on an individual's income, Brunner seems to leave the rest up in the air. Good intentions mean nothing without a plan to reach those ideals.
I am now going to go off subject, and state another reason that I disliked an ending to what had been a pretty good science fiction novel. Brunner spends most of his novel writing about all the dangers of the information age, and how it has taken away the pleasant community feel that comes from living in the same place with the same group of people. This theme climaxes with his glowing descriptions of "Disasterville U.S.A.". Having his characters in the last thirty pages of the novel decide to overthrow the governments of the world and institute humanitarian reforms is sudden and unexpected, and seems more of an attack on greedy capitalists (who, unlike in many other Brunner books have not played an important role so far) than the detrimental effects of the information age that have occupied most of the book. Brunner just could not seem to hold his strong liberal leanings from penetrating his novel, and so really hurts the ending.
A good deal of the time Science Fiction only gets part of the future right. John Brunner, at least in terms of the setting of the future, is very correct. His book foresaw the internet when most science fiction writers were still imagining big supercomputers acting as separate entities, programmed by tons of punch cards. However the pessimistic view he takes of the effect of this new future I find unbelievable. But then again, what do I know, this essay might have well caused someone to experience information overload :-)