A Smarter Sort of Techno-Thriller

William Gibson famously said that “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” If this is true, it makes the techno-thriller a genre of nearsighted science fiction, about future tech you can’t imagine but that already exists, or at least that the DoD is already paying for and that will be ready any decade now.

This, ironically, means that techno-thriller writers belong to the broad subcategory of media people who got totally disintermediated by the Internet. When Tom Clancy wrote his first novel, he was an insurance broker who nerded out about navy stuff on nights and weekends. After it became a bestseller, the Secretary of the Navy wanted to know who cleared it.

Today, it’s a whole lot less surprising that random civilians have expert-level knowledge about the military. Which means the barrier to entry for thrillers is a lot higher: you’re not going to blow anyone away with your detailed understanding of how medevacs work if the guys running medevacs in Afghanistan are posting about it on reddit and 4chan. In a way, it’s similar to what happened to old-school value investors from the 30s through the 70s. Early on, you could make money buying stocks with a low price to tangible book and a good free cash flow yield because that information wasn’t easy to find. Buffett, for example, read lots of insurance and bank regulators’ filings to evaluate companies that didn’t file with the SEC.

Symmetric information about the “what” means your edge has to be in the “so, what?” If everyone is talking about hypersonic missiles, merely knowing how they work is table stakes — knowing how Putin would use them, and how their availability would affect his response to a crisis, though, remains interesting.

Which brings me to Daemon. A few friends recommended this book to me, but every time I read the back cover I thought it sounded dumb. I finally gave in and read it over the winter holiday. Surprisingly fun!

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Here’s the premise: A video game developer dies. Before dying, though, he goes completely insane and creates a bunch of interactive malware (“The Daemon”) that a) kills people, b) hacks into corporate networks to hold them hostage, and c) co-opts people into obeying it. The malware subscribes to RSS feeds to track news, and has pre-planned reactions to news stories — posting press releases, emailing blackmail material, sending orders to entities infected with the malware, etc.

Anyone with actual experience playing video games with open-ended choices knows that this is implausible on its face. If your game gives you ten meaningful yes/no choices, that means it has to consider 2¹⁰ outcomes. 1,024 separate endings, most of which never get accessed by a given player. On the other hand, anyone familiar with open-ended MMORPGs like Eve Online might be thinking it’s more plausible than it looks. Eve is a game where the game designers set up the underlying laws of the universe, and players establish the narrative. Individual battles in that game have cost hundreds of thousands of actual real-world dollars, and they happened as a result of simple oversights and aggressive responses.

Still, it’s one thing to say that interesting behaviors can emerge in a purely virtual world, and another entirely to argue that The Daemon’s series of if/then statements can describe a strategy that brings major corporations to their knees. No matter how many times you ask “What if..?” you won’t guess every contingency.

The Core Loop

Kevin Kwok has a great piece on Superhuman’s acquisition loops. Superhuman grows fast because it’s a good product and a status symbol, and using the product is a way to showcase your status. So, every signup is 100% of a new customer but also 1–10% of a new full-time marketing and BD hire. That’s a good way to grow fast. Earlier in history, Hotmail used exactly the same strategy — their default email sig was an ad for Hotmail, which at the time was one of the only free email services around.

Superhuman and Hotmail can afford to be agnostic to exactly who uses their product and how; if Superhuman had gotten popular with TV producers or corporate lawyers or derivatives traders, it would have had about the same growth trajectory it had with VCs. Social media, search, and office software, and faxing work in a similar way; as they get popular, they alter behavior in a way that grows their competitive advantage — in a totally content-agnostic way. Faxes got big because companies need to send each other documents all the time, but Big Fax did not exactly intend for George Soros to bootstrap a fax network in Eastern Europe as part of a plan to spread anti-communist literature.

The core loop of The Daemon works like this: it contacts someone and tells them to either cooperate with it or die. Cooperating with it sometimes entails killing somebody else, or at least participating in a murder in a mild, plausibly-deniable way. The Daemon has a social network, where participants rate one another on both effectiveness and sociopathy.

At one level, this is a fantasy. At another level, though, it kind of works. Once the network is up-and-running — once it can plausibly threaten people with violence if they don’t cooperate — it’s the kernel of a government. And at that point, it has a competitive advantage: unlike a government, it literally can’t negotiate. The program is running and the creator is dead, so its yes/no questions don’t admit the existence of “but.”

Death-at-founding is not an uncommon pattern for institutions that grow surprisingly fast. The founding story of Rome has Remus jumping over the boundaries of the city and Romulus murdering him for it, kicking off an imperium driven by the belief that nobody messes with a) Rome, and b) the Paterfamilias. Christianity, of course, has a death at its foundation. And in the twentieth century, the Nazis were so desperate for a founding murder that they turned a song about a pimp-on-pimp shooting into Germany’s co-national anthem.

Clearly institutions work well when they combine 1) the brutal murder of a member of the movement, whom almost nobody involved knew personally, and 2) overwhelming force that refuses to negotiate.

Over the course of the book, we get a bit more nuance about the Daemon; it’s killing people, but it’s doing so to make the world a better place. Not the first time that has happened. What’s ironic, then, is that the Daemon’s solution to the flaws of democracy is a Hobbesian leviathan whose unalterable source code constitutes a sort of divine right.

Worth Reading, Or…

Daemon is an airport novel; it’s not apologizing for that. And the trouble with technology is that “technology” is also that which is very likely to be obsolete soon. Jane Austen has a lot to say about life on the Upper East Side today, but Jules Verne doesn’t give you many insights into modern submarine warfare.

The other trouble with techno-thrillers is that they get more boring if they were good. Daemon came out in 2009, and its sequel was written in 2011. The books talk about tracking credit card data to profile spending, using phones to track everyone’s location, and how companies that don’t patch their software risk an unwinnable ultimatum from malware.

So, it was worth reading at the time. In retrospect, I wish I’d spent more of 2009–2011 bored in airports. But it’s suffered from the most flattering fate a contemporary thriller can face: it faded into headlines.

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I write about technology (more logos than techne) and economics. Newsletter: https://diff.substack.com/

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