Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom


A silly name for a foreboding concept.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is a book with a few concepts ahead of its time. It takes place in a time when resources are effectively unlimited1, where it takes no effort to fulfill the basic human needs of shelter and food, and where humans no longer even have to worry about death as they can be restored from memory backups. In such an abundant world, people struggle not for survival, but for meaning and relevance.

For a novel written and published back in 2003, its fictional peer-approval social system certainly was a decade ahead of its time. In the story, everybody has a virtual identity – similar to say, an online handle of any of our major social networks – and they give out social approval points called Whiffies – a futuristic Like or +1 or Retweet. The society ends up using this system as a form of currency, as it is scarce and there are luxuries beyond the basics that are worth the added effort.

Unrealistically though, this world isn’t teeming with Whiffie bots and agenda-setting Whiffie cartels.

It’s strange to see that a world so seemingly far fletched, written only a decade ago, contains many concepts that in 2014 seem on the verge of possibility. Immortality aside2, we are living in a time that is starting to poke at various aspects of the depicted future society:

  • An economy with guaranteed basic income, such that a shrinking job market can still support its citizens,
  • Virtual reality, all the stronger now at Facebook scale,
  • Augmented reality, starting with Google Glass,
  • An economy forming around online social presence, although currently we simply convert it back to money, and at pretty low exchange rates to boot.

Whether this world we’re trying to emulate is truly better for its inhabitants remains to be seen.

  1. The official name is “post-scarcity”, and it’s been tangentially explored in sci-fi.

  2. Even if people keep thinking they’re working on technologies that will save their mortal lives just in time, it’s quite a stretch of the imagination. If such a feat were possible, much of our current societal norms would change in ways that are utterly unpredictable.

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