Infinite Detail: A powerful warning about the way we use the internet

Infinite Detail by Tim Maughan science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsInfinite Detail by Tim Maughan science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsInfinite Detail by Tim Maughan

“It’s time for a reboot…. see you on the other side.”

Inspired by whistleblowers, leakers, hacktivists, computer viruses, Big Data, fake news, and civil movements such as Black Lives Matter, journalist Tim Maughan paints a frightening vision of the future in his first novel, Infinite Detail.

The plot is set in two timelines labelled simply “Before” and “After.” In “Before” we meet Rushdi (“Rush”) Mannan, a software engineer who lives in the Croft, a two-mile section of Bristol, England that has decided to go off the grid. The Croft is cut off from the Big Data surveillance that the rest of the world has so eagerly submitted to for the sake of convenience. Citizens of the Croft are not luddites, they even create their own brilliant apps and software, they just don’t want big companies controlling the data they generate.

When Rush travels to New York City to meet Scott, a man he’s been dating online for a few months, Rush is dismayed by the lack of internet privacy. The “smart city” apps and location tracking make it nearly effortless to shop, track your exercise, and get deposits back when you recycle, but it comes at a huge price. Rush knows that everyone in the city is giving away their personal data to companies like Google and Amazon who then decide what everyone should read, watch, buy, and think. They also influence our laws and civil discourse because even politicians are forced to serve the algorithms.

The “Before” ended when the internet was attacked and dismantled across the entire world by hacktivists. Chaos broke out as governments lost control. Communications were lost and supply chains broke. (If you think this sounds like an impossible event, read/listen to the interview with the author at the end of the book and you may be persuaded that the internet is a lot more fragile than it seems.)

In the “After” timeline we see Rush, back home in Bristol and cut off from the internet data he loathes, (ironically, he realizes) trying to reconnect with Scott. Several years later we see that Bristol, like the rest of the world, has been devastated. Electrical power is unreliable, the trees have been cut down for firewood, food is scarce and strictly rationed. The few people who still have resources need bodyguards.

Tim Maughan

Tim Maughan

Here we meet a girl named Mary who insists that she can see what happened to people who disappeared in the chaos in the Croft on the day the internet went down. People hire her to tell them what happened to their loved ones. Her friends are Grids, a man who feels like it’s his job to look after the citizens of the Croft, and Tyrone, who has a record shop and mourns the loss of all the music that was stored digitally. Tyrone tries to salvage snippets of music through CDs and cassettes. He wants to express himself with music but lacks the tools and resources. My favorite part of Infinite Detail was watching Tryone work through this challenge as he discovered that good art has limits and constraints.

(There are a couple of other main characters, such as Anika, the brutal slayer of law enforcement officials, and Melody, a Gibsonesque pop star who, in my opinion, should have been left out of the story.)

The plot shifts between different character viewpoints and is not told in chronological order, making it confusing at times, a stylistic choice that fits this story well. Maughan’s decision to arrange the plot this way forced me to consider, as I was reading, how Rush’s concerns about Big Data might lead to such drastic outcomes. This left my mind open, making me engage Rush’s suggestions in a way that I might not have if I’d simply been told the events in a linear fashion.

As interesting and timely backdrops to the story are the topics of white privilege and police brutality. While Rush is in New York he cringes at the networking partygoers he meets:

It baffles him, what brings these people to live in New York — a city filled with every culture, with every nation, a massive machine built from people and architecture, that gives birth to new cultures, new conflicts on every corner, a city that everyday fights with the future — what brings them here to just bed down in Brooklyn and create enclaves where they fetishize someone else’s past? To lock themselves away and surround themselves with their own kind? What brings them to cities at all, only to seemingly reject the exhilaration and machine chaos of urban life completely, obsessing instead over the faux authenticities of the organic and the artisanal?

Rush is relieved to leave one of those parties to attend a Black Lives Matter event. They are protesting the killing of an innocent elderly black woman and here Rush witnesses true, meaningful passion, and learns how the police have, in a well-intentioned effort to predict and prevent crimes, actually programmed racial bias into the data they use, leading to the same types of crimes they’re trying to prevent.

Some readers may consider Infinite Detail to be anti-internet, anti-police, anti-capitalism, and pro-anarchy, but it’s not. Tim Maughan balances the equation, showing us both the positives and negatives. He shows us the advantages and disadvantages of Big Data, but he asks us to realize that when we use these tools, we are providing data to greedy companies that have a huge influence in our lives and in our political system and that we’re also giving data to our enemies in the world who may use it against us (and, indeed, we’ve seen this happen). He also shows us the dangers of radicalization and anarchy (and the power vacuum that results) and suggests that this may be the result if we can’t use the internet and Big Data responsibly.

Infinite Detail is not a fun book to read. It’s powerful, but it’s bleak and depressing. I’m really glad I read it, and it’s given me a lot to think about, but I don’t want to read it again.

The audio version produced by Macmillan Audio is mostly very good. It’s narrated by Joe Sims and Marisa Calin. Sims is an actor from Bristol and he does a fabulous job with the voices of the characters in Bristol, but his voices for the American characters (Scott and partygoers) are terrible. Fortunately, these are the minor characters.

Published in 2019. A LOCUS AWARD FINALIST FOR BEST FIRST NOVEL! The Guardian‘s Pick for Best Science Fiction Book of the Year! A timely and uncanny portrait of a world in the wake of fake news, diminished privacy, and a total shutdown of the Internet. BEFORE: In Bristol’s center lies the Croft, a digital no-man’s-land cut off from the surveillance, Big Data dependence, and corporate-sponsored, globally hegemonic aspirations that have overrun the rest of the world. Ten years in, it’s become a center of creative counterculture. But it’s fraying at the edges, radicalizing from inside. How will it fare when its chief architect, Rushdi Mannan, takes off to meet his boyfriend in New York City—now the apotheosis of the new techno-utopian global metropolis? AFTER: An act of anonymous cyberterrorism has permanently switched off the Internet. Global trade, travel, and communication have collapsed. The luxuries that characterized modern life are scarce. In the Croft, Mary—who has visions of people presumed dead—is sought out by grieving families seeking connections to lost ones. But does Mary have a gift or is she just hustling to stay alive? Like Grids, who runs the Croft’s black market like personal turf. Or like Tyrone, who hoards music (culled from cassettes, the only medium to survive the crash) and tattered sneakers like treasure. The world of Infinite Detail is a small step shy of our own: utterly dependent on technology, constantly brokering autonomy and privacy for comfort and convenience. With Infinite Detail, Tim Maughan makes the hitherto-unimaginable come true: the End of the Internet, the End of the World as We Know It.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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