Book Review: Eastern Standard TribeBy Cory Doctorow
Over the millennia of our existence humanity has evolved in hundreds, if not thousands of different ways. Some of those evolutions have come about through the natural course of events, while others because of circumstances and conditions. On a social level one of the more interesting changes has been our ways and means of identifying our personal communities. It used to be that our family unit was our first and primary social group. Who we were born to could pretty much determine the course our lives would take. Even when things like family name and its position in society began to lessen in importance blood ties were considered to be ties that would never break.
It has only been in the last half century that any real radical redefining of community has taken place with family surrendering its position of prominence in our social structure. For although it's true that for some family is of primary importance, its no longer necessarily the community that defines us. Instead of us being defined by our communities, we now search out the communities which best fit our definition of ourselves. People may still try to impose physical or genealogical boundaries on a community, but most of require more than that from those we surround ourselves with.
In a family of businessmen and women just how well will the person who has to write, paint, or create music fit in? Who will they have to talk to that will truly understand what motivates them, that can at least understand their experience? Up until ten years ago most people in that situation would have had to leave home and go to some physical destination to find others of the same mindset, but with the rise of the Internet as a means of communication that's all changed. On line communities of like minded people can be formed between people who aren't even on the same continent and may in fact never even meet.
In his novel Eastern Standard Tribe, available as a free download like all his books, as well as for sale, Cory Doctorow has created a combination of physical and virtual communities based on people's feelings of affinity for behaviour in a particular time zone. These "tribes" exist on line through sophisticated versions of what we would call chat rooms, and no matter where you are in the world you can hook up with your tribe simply by logging on. Of course the time differentials do come into play, for if your job happens to have taken you to Europe and you want to keep in touch with your tribe on the East coast of North America you start to run into problems with sleep deprivation.
Art works as a user-experience consultant, which translates as coming up with ideas and figuring out how to implement them for public consumption or private sales and make loads of money for a corporation. He's also a plant for the Eastern Standard Tribe (EST) working undercover in Greenwich Mean Tribe (GMT) territory in his version of industrial sabotage. Currently he's trying to undermine Deutche/Virgin, a huge entertainment conglomerate, by creating ideas that on the surface look and sound feasible, but somehow upon implementation, they don't work out. Or better yet, they never get past the research and develop stage but still end up costing Deutche/Virgin a bundle.
Art is hooked up with a firm in New Jersey, and he and his buddy Fede, who got him the job in the first place, have been working as a team for a few years now. Fede deals with the organizational nuts and bolts and Art is the idea man. So when Art comes up with an idea that will not only do an end run around Deutche/Virgin, put money in Fede's and Art's pockets, and make their EST employer lots of cash too, its only natural that they'll work on it together. Fede's only reluctance is that he wants to sell the highest bidder and to hell with tribal loyalty, but he lets Art convince him that they owe the folk in New Jersey.
Everything is going great for Art, not only has he come up with a sure fire way to make money and help EST, he's also met a wonderful girl, Linda. Even though she's from Pacific Standard Time (PST) and a little bit crazy, they're hitting it off great. So why does he end up in a sanatorium involuntarily committed by his girlfriend and his best buddy Fede? It turns out that Art attacked Fede and accused him and Linda of stealing his idea and selling it off to another tribe. So he's now locked away and being kept doped up for suffering from severe paranoia. Yet, are you still paranoid if they are really out to get you?
At the beginning of the book we meet Art sitting on the roof of the sanatorium as he's managed to escape the confines of his "room" momentarily. While he's debating with himself on whether it's better to be smart or happy, he recounts the events that led him to this point. All his life he's paid the price for being too inquisitive and demanding answers where others would just merely acquiesce and accept things as they are. It's that type of mind that allows you to see patterns developing which others can't detect, that lets you see, where others wouldn't, that your best friend and girl friend have sold you out.
Cory Doctorow has an amazing affinity and enthusiasm for the potentials in technology and is able to create worlds where many of those possibilities are fulfilled without ever stretching our credibility. All the technology he uses in his books, if not possible yet, seems like it could be possible in the near future. Everything he talks about in his books is, if not yet possible, the next logical step in its evolution. Unlike other writers however, he never forgets that technology without humanity is hollow, a shell without substance. Art loves the fact that he can be with his tribe wherever he is on the planet, but he loves the technology that makes this possible for what it can do, not because its technology.
Art is a creative and intelligent individual who uses technology to help him realize fantastic ideas. Not because it will make him loads of money, but because of the pleasure he gets from their creation, figuring out how to implement them, and the best way others can make use of them. However, that's not the way the world works, including the world occupied by his friends, and he keeps running afoul of it. He's happiest when he's either in full creative mode, or happily chatting away with other members of his tribe about life, the universe, and everything. Sure he's obsessive, but show me one creative person who isn't; show me one artist who doesn't get lost in their work to the extent that they can start a project and completely lose track of time.
In Eastern Standard Tribe Doctorow has not only created a world that is the next logical evolutionary step in on line communities from our current social networks, but a great example of the difficulties faced by anyone who thinks outside the box. Art's creativity and intelligence are his chief assets, but they are also his downfall. While he loves his tribe and the feelings of belonging that it brings him, the reality is that like all other artists he is his own community, because there really isn't anybody who is like minded. That doesn't make him any better or any worse than anybody else, just different, and being different makes you a social misfit no matter how hard you try.
Cory Doctorow has a wonderful knack for bringing people and ideas to life on the page, and Eastern Standard Tribe is no exception. Like anything else I've read by this remarkable writer its entertaining and intelligent, which makes Cory more than little bit different himself.