Review of “Burn-In” by P.W. Singer and August Cole

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

There’s a moment about halfway through Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution in which an ordinary guy is in a paddle boat out on the Potomac River in D.C. getting ready to propose to his girlfriend. Although he doesn’t know it, a major terrorist attack is about to ruin his plans.

In a good thriller, it is precisely the terrorist attacks, the intrepid federal agents, and the sleek technology that must be rendered well. These things drive the plot and quicken the book’s pulse. P.W. Singer and August Cole, the authors of Burn In, surely get these things right. Their novel of a near-future techno-dystopia is believable, engaging and satisfying. It’s a great potboiler whose every technological innovation–including a robotic FBI agent at the center of the plot–already exists in real life (and is duly footnoted, an unusual touch for a novel).

But it’s the sociological nuances Singer and Cole deliver that make Burn-In better than your average political thriller–how the tendrils of dystopia are creepily evident in everyday life circa 2020. That ordinary guy about to propose? He’d considered going conventional, dressing in a suit and kneeling by the cherry trees on the shore to pop the question. But he decided instead to dress down and take his girl out for a diversionary boat ride. An algorithm told him to do this: his girlfriend’s “profile showed greater joy from surprise.”

The paradox of fabricating spontaneity is not the only thing that makes this small moment oh-so-2020. Everything about it is shaped by the way we live now, in the ether. Here’s how the question gets popped:

This was it. This was the moment. He blinked twice rapidly to start the vizglasses recording that would go out live to all the friends and family he’d marked for notice. . . . Dana’s eyes widened and she blinked twice as well. She knew.

What Dana knew was that she too wanted her vizglasses to capture the moment and broadcast it to a select group of friends and family. She wasn’t blinking because of the rapturous, overwhelming joy of what was happening. She was, like her boyfriend, manufacturing the moment. The heart emojis would come fluttering in to her vizglasses before she had time to catch her breath.

In his 1754 essay “On the Origin of the Inequality of Mankind,” Jean Jacques Rousseau worried that the expansion of commerce and social mobility in Europe was opening up a field of mass culture in which all people could increasingly compare themselves to their peers and neighbors. He saw trouble brewing. Because succeeding in a commercial meritocracy was inextricably linked to showing one’s success, life threatened to become a never-ending strut-fest. Rousseau wrote:

I would show how much this universal desire for reputation, honors and advancement, which inflames us all, exercises and holds up to comparison our faculties and powers; how it excites and multiplies our passions, and, by creating universal competition and rivalry, or rather enmity, among men, occasions numberless failures, successes and disturbances of all kinds by making so many aspirants run the same course. I could show that it is to this ardor to be talked about, and this frenzy to distinguish ourselves, that we owe the best and the worst things we possess, . . . a great many bad things, and a very few good ones.

In the real world of December 2020, we humans are on the cusp of shaping a reality in which our lives are only felt to be real if they are not just lived but performed. The more we stage our lives and try to emulate our favorite influencers, the further we get inside the bizarro universe that the sociologist Jean Baudrillard saw coming in his 1981 book Simulacra and Simulation. It sounded strange when he said it, but our lived reality has become inextricable from our performative simulations of it. This twilight zone is undeniable. Baudrillard’s weird abstraction has been made concrete by the digital revolution and especially social media. Our lives are driven by the “ardor to be talked about,” as Rousseau put it. To an increasingly miserable degree, we are coextensive with our social media feed.

And it’s not just people who fade out of “real” existence if they lack a digital correlate. It’s basically everything. “Digital twinning” technology promises to take up most of the world’s physical entities into the internet of things. Maybe these will be the only entities that matter when whatever is offline just doesn’t work anymore. And then there’s the datafication of everything. It’s enough to make you shrug, take a drag on your Gauloise, and admit, “Il n’y a pas de hors-texte.”

Baudrillard called this strange new world “hyper-reality,” a world in which representations of events (or facts, or things, what have you) are ontologically privileged over the things to which they putatively refer.

Well, in the real world such as it is in 2020, you should go ahead and read Burn-In. While it’s still fiction.

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