Thursday, September 16, 2010
Watch - Book Review
by Robert J Sawyer
Viking (Penguin) Books 2010
This is the second book in the WWW trilogy. I reviewed the first book last year.
This book continues the story of the new conciousness that has arisen on the world wide web,
Caitlyn Decter is no longer blind. Well she still is blind in her right eye, but her left eye has a retinal implant and she can now see in 2 different ways. In realtime - in which she sees the world like you and me. And in cyberspace - where she sees the web as points of lights with the links as lines.
This cyber consiousness makes contact with Caitlyn. The conciousness is given a name - Webmind. And it begins to learn. It reads everything on Wikipedia and in Project Gutenberg. It craves more knowledge.
To speak to Caitlyn, Webmind starts off by sending its answers to her questions online though the Instant Messaging system. It becomes "bored" with Caitlyns slow responses so while Webmind is trying to chat to Caitlyn, it also decides to learn more by linking to other websites. So far it has only been able to link to one website at atime, even if this does happen in the space of microseconds. Webmind tries over and over again and eventually is able to make two links simultaneously - so he continues to do so. Eventually this causes Webmind to "hang up" or freeze. Caitlyn has to work hard to unjam Webmind. This is the event that brings Webmind to the attention of the government.
On the 20th floor of an office tower in Alexandria, Virginia, there is a new US government agency - an offshoot of the NSA. It is called WATCH, which means Web Activity Threat Containment Headquarters.
When Webmind gets jammed, WATCH becomes very curious about this person online with no IP address and who freezes up online. So they begin by watching and reading everything between Webmind and Caitlyn. They give this unknown online threat a name - Exponential.
At Webmind's insistence, the Japanese scientist - Kuroda - adds more software to Caitlyn's retinal implant and eventually Webmind can see anything that Caitlyn can see. That software includes watching and understanding movies and visual moving pictures (eg anything on TV, youtube or webcams).
Caitlyn is now having to relearn the names of things that she has only ever touched up until now. She must also relearn the colours by linking the names to the actual colours. Caitlyn also learns to read the latin alphabet but she prefers to read braille with her eye (rather than her fingers) as she knows that alphabet best. Caitlyn can talk to Webmind out loud. Webmind can now contact and respond to Caitlyn by sending braille to Caitlyn's retinal inplant.
Halfway through this story a girl in Australia sits in front of a webcam and slashes her wrist. She does so at the urging of others who tell her she is a coward if she does not do it. A few lone voices tell her not to but she refuses to listen. Webmind watches this without understanding. This suicide does make the news.
Webmind tells Caitlyn that he (Webmind calls himself a he, so as to not be called it) watched this and did nothing because he did not know he should have done anything. Caitlyn explains that he should have attempted to communicate with the girl and encourage her to not kill herself. If this happens again, he is do whatever he can to not allow that person to kill themself.
Caitlyn says he shoud do things to make people happy, but only if more than one person is made happy by that event. Do not so whatever you are asked if only that person asking will benefit. That is called being selfish.
Eventually WATCH decides that this Exponential is becoming too much of a threat. in reality - it is an unknown and unknowns must be neutralised. The decision is made at the highest levels to neutralise this threat. So WATCH has agents from the Canadian SIS service sent to Waterloo (in Ontario) to speak to both Caitlyn and Malcolm Decter (Caitlyn's father). They wish to know more about this Webmind and they specifically want to know its source. On which server does it reside?
These agents threaten to void (cancel) Malcolms Decters work permit if they do not tell the agents where Webmind lives and on which servers it resides. Since Webmind lives in cyberspace, he has no hardware and resides on no server.
The Decter family understand that the actions of the agents means that the government wishes to shut Webmind down. The best way to prevent something from being permanently hidden is to make it public. So Webmind needs to become public. What would be the best way to do that?
The answer is SPAM
Webmind removes all the spam emails sent out to some 2 billion email addresses daily. So everyone wakes up one day to just their own daily mail addressed to them that is NOT a spam email. Webmind sends a letter to each of these 2 billion email addresses explaining who he is, what he has done and why.
People respond by asking Webmind to do other things. Webmind deals with all requests and only does whatever is asked of more than just the asker will be made happy. The most common way for this to occurr is when people ask to find missing friends and relatives. Where adopted children and adults ask Webmind to find their mothers and children. Webmind does so but he contacts the mothers and the children first and asks for their permission.
70% of responses are agreeable to being reunited with their friends, relatives and family members who were adopted out
WATCH decides to delete mutant packages at one switching node. Soon 27% of packages are being deleted and this is seriously eroding Webmind's ability to function. Webmind sends a message to Caitlyn. Help I am under attack.
Caitlyn and Webmind together respond by sending all the SPAM that Webmind cleaned up - more than 20 billion SPAM messages - to that one specific switching node - a denial of service attack. It works, as AT and T threatens to take that node offline which will shut down a good portion of the internet. WATCH is forced to abort its attempt to neutralise Webmind.
Caitlyn then asks the question. The government was deleting packages. How did the government know that Webmind was made up of packages?
It turns out that Caitlyn's new boyfriend - a classmate named Matthew who is also a maths geek - had done a google search on various terms after he was told about Webmind and asked to keep it a secret. He searched terms like cellular automata, Conway's Game of Life, cellular automata conciouness, packets, time to live, hop counters.
Since everyone connected with Caitlyn is being watched, (including her class mates at school) his searches were picked up by WATCH and analysed.
In cyberspace, internet activity is routinely sent around the network (the world wide web) in packets. These packets for the most part arrives at the destination safely but some do go missing. This just means that some information never gets to where it is supposed to be and the lack of information shows up as blanks on the receivers screen.
Webmind is made up of these missing and mutant packages.
This was an excellent book and while I did not stay up until 2 am reading it, like I did for the first book, (I am still reading online fan fiction as well), I still enjoyed this book very much. I cannot wait for the third part of this trilogy (called WONDER) to be released next year.